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The Companion

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Levi’s heart rate seems to double the moment he steps out of the elevator and into a dimly lit hallway. Every instinct screams at him that he should not be here. But the elevator doors close behind him with an air of finality, as if telling Levi that it’s too late to turn back. And so he sighs and begins walking forward, resolved to do what he came here to do.

It’s is a lavish building, with subtle signs of luxury everywhere Levi looks. The hallway he now finds himself in has red walls accented with gilded crown molding and a lush white carpet. The lighting is soft, and a faint smell of something like incense permeates the air. Levi passes artwork depicting beautiful women or dashing men, each one suggestive in its own way –an elegant woman lifting a sheer white curtain to reveal the bedroom beyond it, or a man holding a riding crop and looking squarely at the viewer. This hallway is clearly decorated with the intent of being as sensuous as possible. It’s enough to make Levi’s skin crawl.

A place like this, normally, would be the last place where Levi could be found. To most, spending a night with a Companion is considered the greatest luxury, something reserved only for the members of the highest social classes. But to Levi, the very idea of a Companion is repulsive. It’s not because they sell their bodies – he couldn’t care less if someone wants to sell sex, especially in a legal and regulated industry like Companionship. No, Levi hates Companions for the other thing they’re known to sell: romance.

Or shows of romance, anyway. Companions don’t just lie on their backs for their clients; they entertain them, seduce them, and try to create the most perfect romantic evening they could dream of. For a little extra money, a Companion can take someone on a date before bringing them to bed, and it’s considered a status symbol for young nobles to have a Companion accompany them to parties or balls. For anyone who’s rich enough, Companions will play pretend at being their ideal suitor.

But that’s all it is – pretend. And it’s that level of fakeness that disgusts Levi. It’s the epitome of everything he hates about the upper classes: insincerity, frivolity, and an emphasis on show rather than substance.

And for that reason, Levi would normally rather die than find himself walking down this vaguely sexual hallway in a Companion house. But he’s here anyway, and it’s all because of Hanji. Hanji, who always butts into his life and forces him into the most ridiculous situations. Hanji, his only friend, who had somehow gotten it into their head that what Levi needed most was to get laid. Levi had protested, threatened, even gotten close to begging, but nevertheless Hanji had submitted an application in his name to a handful of Companions.

When he was accepted for an appointment, Levi had adamantly refused to go. But Hanji, eventually, wore him down with their insistent persuasion. Because it was true that Levi hadn’t been with anyone for a very long time. Just one night with someone who knew what they were doing wouldn’t be the worst fate. And when Hanji showed him the picture of the Companion he would be seeing, Levi had to concede that he was fairly attractive.

(And fit pretty closely with Levi’s mental construction of the perfect man—which he would never, ever tell Hanji. Because if Hanji knew he was into blonds, Levi would never hear the end of it.)

So now here he was, in an upper floor of a Companion house, looking for the room where his appointment would be held.

Considering the opulence of the building, the sign outside the Companion’s room is surprisingly understated. On a polished black plaque, the room number printed. Underneath that, in neat gold letters, is the name “E. Smith.”

Levi sighs and considers the consequences of turning back. He had already paid for this night, but he could always try and ask for his money back. Right now, as he stands before the polished wood door that separates him from a waiting Companion, that definitely seems like the best course of action. But he’s not sure the Companion house would give him a refund at such short notice. And besides, Levi had already come all this way. Might as well just get it over with.

He knocks lightly on the door. A few seconds later it opens, giving him his first look at the Companion.

He’s tall, even taller than he looked in his picture. Levi, much to his frustration, has to crane his head backwards to see him properly. He takes in neat gold hair that matches the trim on the walls, thick brows, and blue eyes that blink out in a startling contrast to the red decor. The Companion has a broad, handsome face that could easily have been staring out from a movie poster – square jaw, high cheekbones, unnaturally flawless skin. Levi hates him on sight.

“Good evening,” the Companion says. His voice is low and smooth, with a perfectly clipped accent heard only among the highest nobility. “You must be Levi. Please, come in.”

The Companion steps aside, allowing Levi to enter his room. The red and gold color scheme continues in here, as does the dim lighting. If anything, the incense-like scent that was in the hallway is stronger. It’s not unpleasant, necessarily, but it’s heavy and overly sweet, and it somehow has the effect of giving everything a dream-like quality.

The room is large, and contains more than just the bed that Levi was expecting. Facing Levi as soon as he walks in is a long couch with plush red upholstery and a low mahogany table laid out with a delicate tea set. Behind the couch, a few other pieces of furniture are dotted throughout the room – side tables covered in flowers, an armchair against the wall, a chest of draws in the opposite corner – but everything follows the same color scheme. The wood is dark mahogany, the upholstery is red, and all accents are either in gold or ivory.

The pattern continues in the red silk bed sheets and the stately mahogany bedframe. Levi finds his eye drawn to the bed, a tall four-poster with velvet curtains tied up over the frame (red, of course). Its position in the back corner makes it appear as though whoever decorated this room futilely wanted it to be discreet. But the canopy sets it apart, making it appear almost like a stage. And Levi knows that the night’s main act is performed there.

“I’m so pleased you could come,” the Companion says as Levi takes it all in. “I’m Erwin. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Levi turns back to face the Companion, and his stomach jolts with disgust when he looks at him. He wants to say that he knows Erwin’s name, and that he knows Erwin’s pleased to meet Levi, since he’s getting Levi’s money. But while he’s here, Levi should at least try to have a good time, so he decides to keep his usually free tongue restrained.

Instead, Levi says nothing. It’s awkward and rude, but the Companion seems unfazed. He waits for a beat, and then, when it’s clear Levi won’t respond, says, “Please, won’t you have a seat?” as though everything is perfectly normal.

Levi stiffly sits down on the low couch. The cushions are surprisingly thick, and Levi sinks into the fabric. Erwin sits next to him, close but not touching, and Levi notices at this distance how fine and fitted Erwin’s clothes are. He had half expected Erwin to be wearing some sort of gaudy costume. But instead Erwin wears a simple, understated black suit, the kind any businessman would wear. It was clearly tailored for him, the fit just tight enough to suggest the contour of his body without being overtly sexual. Levi swallows and stares down at the ivory and gold tea set before him.

“Would you like some tea?” Erwin asks.

Levi almost laughs at the offer. He’s here for sex, not tea and chitchat. What does this man expect from him?

“Can we just get on with it?” he asks. It’s the first thing he’s said to Erwin all night.

He’s not looking at Erwin when he responds, but there’s a hint of amusement in the smooth voice. “Get on with what?” he asks.

Now Levi does looks at him, setting his face in his trademark hard glare. “The sex,” he says bluntly. “What I’m paying you for.”

Erwin’s lips curve into a barely noticeable smile. “That’s not all you’re paying me for, though,” he says. “You can go to any prostitute for that. A Companion provides a much richer experience.”

“Yeah, richer because you guys cost a fortune.” He expects Erwin to be offended at that, but instead he merely chuckles. It infuriates Levi. “Look, I’m just here to get laid. I didn’t even want to come here, my friend sent in my application. So I’m not into the fancy fake romance bullshit, okay?”

“And yet you’re here,” Erwin says. “If you initially did not want to come, why did you change your mind?”

“To get my friend off my back,” Levi says.

Erwin pours a cup of tea first for Levi, then for himself. A part of Levi wants to petulantly refuse the tea, but there’s little he loves more than fine tea, and it smells amazing. He hesitantly takes a sip and has to concede that this bullshit Companion knows how to choose his tea.

“Do you know why I accepted your application?” Erwin asks.

“Because you had a free spot and I can pay the fee.”

“Actually, my schedule is quite tight, and there were many people I had to turn down in order to accept you.” Erwin takes a sip of his own tea and leans back, regarding Levi with a look that, for a reason Levi can’t quite place, seems to suggest the epitome of class and poise. Levi wonders how much of that is intentional, part of the Companion’s act, and how much is something inherent to Erwin.

“Part of the reason,” Erwin continues, “Is because you’re lovely. And part of it is because I have not heard your name in high society before.”

“The hell does that matter?” Levi asks.

“I spend a lot of time among Sina’s high society, of course. My position requires me to have familiarity with all the wealthy residents of Stohess. And yet Ackerman is a name I’ve never heard. I suppose I’m attracted to the mystery.”

The way Erwin says it makes Levi’s throat feel tight. He looks straight ahead and tries to appear nonchalant. “That’s fucking weird,” he says.

“We can do whatever you’d like,” Erwin says. His voice has just barely gotten quieter. “But I prefer to not rush a first meeting.”

Levi takes another drink of his tea, focusing on the hot liquid to keep himself from thinking of the suggestive tone in Erwin’s voice. “Well,” he says, “At least the tea is good.”

“You appear to know your tea,” Erwin says.

“Yeah, I guess.” It’s actually a borderline obsession for him, with his cabinets always stocked with at least two dozen different varieties to choose from. But he isn’t going to get into that with this Companion. Instead, he takes another sip and says, “But why tea?”

“Simply a courtesy to my guests while we get to know each other.”

That sounds like bullshit to Levi. He drinks again, letting the liquid linger on his tongue as long as he can without burning himself. “I haven’t had this exact kind before,” he says when he swallows. “But if I’m guessing the ingredients right, this tea relaxes the drinker. Doesn’t make them sleepy, just relaxes them enough that maybe it would calm them down if they were nervous.”

Erwin raises his eyebrows in mild surprise. “You certainly do know your tea.”

“So, you give your guests a relaxing tea while pretending to be interested in getting to know them,” Levi says. “Make them comfortable, and make them lower their guard. The first bullshit step in a Companion’s pretend romance act.”

So much for Levi’s decision to restrain his tongue.   

The words are delivered in Levi’s usual flat tone, but he knows they’re enough to piss the Companion off anyway. He waits, continuing to drink his tea, for Erwin’s inevitable defensive response.

But it doesn’t come. Instead, the smooth voice asks in a tone close to a whisper, “And what is a Companion to do with someone who sees through the act?”

The response is far from what Levi expected, and it gives him a strange jolt of surprise. This Companion is much more unpredictable than Levi bargained for. He has to take a long sip of his tea to give himself time to collect himself and respond.

“In that case, a Companion should just drop the act and get to the sex,” Levi says eventually.

He risks a quick glance to see how Erwin takes the comment, but Erwin’s face is difficult to read. His lips curve into something between a gentle smile and a smirk, but his eyes bore into Levi as though he’s a puzzle to be figured out.

“I can’t say I’m averse to that suggestion,” Erwin says. “What would you like of me tonight?”

Levi looks away again, takes another long drink of his tea to calm himself. “I don’t know. The usual.” He’s determined to not show any sign of nervousness, to not give this Companion the satisfaction of guessing just how much he’s shaken Levi.

“I don’t have a usual,” Erwin says softly.   

Levi finishes off his tea and tries not to think about what that means.

“May I ask some questions about your preferences?”

“Sure,” Levi says, still refusing to look at Erwin.

“Would you prefer to give or receive?”

The air in that room grows ten times hotter, and Levi feels his face begin to flush. “Receive,” he tries to deadpan.

“On bottom?”

“. . . yes.”

“Facing or not?”

Levi’s face grows even warmer. He generally prefers to face whoever’s fucking him, but then again, Levi does not want to see Erwin and remember who he’s with. “Not,” he chokes out.

“Very well. Levi.” Erwin places two fingers under Levi’s chin and gently pushes it up. The force is weak, and Levi could easily shove him away. But the touch of Erwin’s fingers startles him, and Levi finds he’s too distracted for that thought to even cross his mind.

Erwin moves Levi’s head until they’re facing each other. He’s closer to Levi now, his face filling Levi’s vision to the point where Levi can’t look away. “There’s no shame in your requests,” Erwin says. “There’s no shame in any of this. You are here only to enjoy yourself, and there is no need to be ashamed of what gives you pleasure.”

Levi doesn’t respond. It’s not that he’s speechless, exactly. It’s that he barely registers Erwin’s words to begin with. Erwin’s lips move, and he notices every tiny movement. He also notices the shades of gold in Erwin’s hair and the way the light filters through his fair eyelashes. Levi is too busy noticing Erwin to take any notice of what he says.

There is a small part of Levi that resists, a voice in his head clamoring that he can’t allow himself to fall under the Companion’s spell. But then Erwin kisses him, and that voice is drowned out entirely.

He kisses with the lips Levi had been watching so carefully, and they’re just as strong and warm and soft as they had looked. They press lightly against Levi’s mouth at first, and Levi’s eyelids flutter closed, mouth parting to welcome a second, stronger kiss. He feels himself drop the empty teacup onto the carpet; feels himself relax with each new touch of Erwin’s. The Companion seems to anticipate every one of Levi’s reactions, seems to know exactly how to move with his movements. And he may be a stranger, but the care and intimacy with which he kisses Levi makes him feel as if they’ve known each other for years

Unconsciously, Levi reaches to draw himself nearer to Erwin, taking hold of the fine fabric of Erwin’s suit. Erwin responds by pressing forward to deepen the kiss, hot breath rushing into Levi’s mouth. The fingers that had been under Levi’s chin have found their way to the back of his neck, and Erwin’s other hand cups Levi’s cheek. Levi’s face is completely encircled by, held captive by, Erwin. And damn, he should be mad, he should be annoyed that this Companion got to him, but he can’t think clearly enough for anger.

Erwin’s hands travel over the collar of Levi’s shirt to begin undoing the buttons. Levi realizes with a start what is happening, but Erwin’s mouth hasn’t moved, and he can do nothing but gasp in response. Erwin doesn’t falter, their lips barely parting as he works at the buttons, fingers brushing against Levi’s chest along the way. It’s only when Levi’s shirt hangs open that Erwin finally pulls away from the kiss. He keeps his gaze on Levi’s eyes as he pushes the shirt off his shoulders, fingers lingering on Levi’s skin and tracing paths down his arms.

Levi still wears a sleeveless undershirt. Erwin lifts the bottom of this shirt, kisses Levi again as soon as it’s passed over Levi’s head. Then he pulls away once more, gazing at Levi’s bare chest. Levi watches, dazed and frozen in place, while Erwin’s hands travel down his torso, fingertips brushing across his nipples before continuing down a path to his hipbones. The hands are hot and strong, their touch somewhere between possessive and tender. They rest lightly on either side of his waist when Erwin finishes his exploration. “Lovely,” he murmurs before kissing Levi again, letting his hands shift to the small of Levi’s back.

Levi leans back, sinking into Erwin’s hold. But Erwin ends this kiss much more quickly than the last. Levi looks up questioningly as Erwin separates himself and stands.

He holds out a hand for Levi to take and asks, “Shall we?” and Levi understands. He takes Erwin’s hand and, together, they move toward the bed.

The softness of the silk comforter welcomes Levi as he sits on the bed’s edge. Before joining him, Erwin slips off his shoes and socks, and Levi follows suit. Then, while Levi watches, Erwin undoes his tie and pulls it off his neck, carefully placing it over the back of a nearby armchair. The suit jacket comes off next, joining the tie on the chair. Erwin’s not looking directly at Levi, but the movements are too deliberate to be casual, as though he’s undressing solely for Levi’s gaze. He leaves Levi wanting more, though—Erwin ends by merely rolling up his sleeves and unbuttoning the very top of his shirt.

Still, the hollow of Erwin’s throat and the toned muscles in his forearms are hot enough, and Levi’s growing very cold sitting shirtless and alone, so he doesn’t complain when that smug bastard perches on the bed beside him and pulls him, once more, up to his lips. Levi maybe even sighs a bit—but he tries to stifle it. He’s already given the Companion too much, and he doesn’t want him to know he’s turning Levi on with nothing but his forearms.

Erwin transitions to kissing Levi’s neck, lips tickling the sensitive skin near his collarbone while hands resume exploring Levi’s bare torso. Fingertips trail up and down Levi’s sides, dance over Levi’s shoulder blades, leave a trail of warmth wherever they go. Then one hand presses into Levi’s upper back, holding him motionless while Erwin’s lips caress his neck. Levi, for his part, stays still, trying as hard as he can to not show how much he’s enjoying this. The touch of Erwin’s hand is just as erotic as the brush of his lips, and when Erwin’s fingers trace gentle circles around a sensitive nipple, Levi feels himself start to grow hard.

“Are you . . .” Levi struggles to form a coherent sentence while Erwin continues to kiss and tease him. “Are you ever going to get undressed?”

Erwin chuckles and raises his head just a little so his lips rest against Levi’s ear. “Would you like me to?” he asks, his breath tingling against Levi’s skin.

Levi unwillingly gasps, then tries to steady himself. “Well, I think it would make things easier,” he says.

Erwin kisses his ear before saying, “I think you’re right.”

He pulls away, and Levi’s regretful until Erwin begins unbuttoning his shirt. Levi watches intently. He’s aware that he’s staring, and that it’s embarrassing, but the awareness feels distant, and Erwin is present, and so he keeps staring until the shirt is shucked off.

Erwin’s undershirt hugs his body, shows the contours of his chest and the movement of each muscle. Levi’s eyes travel over every curve.

Then Erwin stands up. Levi opens his mouth to protest, but Erwin gives him a reassuring smile that stops any need to speak. Instead Levi watches, curious and turned on, as Erwin turns from him to drape his shirt over the armchair. Then, his back still to Levi, he pulls the undershirt up over his head.

Levi’s jaw actually drops a little. Erwin’s back muscles ripple under his skin, perfectly toned and gorgeous, just enough to suggest athleticism without being too bulky. Broad shoulders taper down evenly to narrow hipbones and the pants that hang low on them. Levi’s filled with the need to touch him, but Erwin remains several feet away.

It never once occurs to Levi that, as the client, he can tell Erwin to do anything he wants. He could ask Erwin to return to him, but he doesn’t think to do so. Instead he watches, mesmerized, as Erwin keeps his back to Levi and unbuckles his belt.

The pants, underwear and all, drop to the floor. Levi’s gaze falls to Erwin’s ass, firm and perfectly round, something carved out of marble rather than something that could ever belong to a regular person.

Erwin looks over his shoulder, makes eye contact with Levi and smiles knowingly, as if he’s fully aware of the kind of effect he’s having. And Erwin is so good that just giving Levi lookfeels as erotic as dropping his pants. Levi realizes he’s been caught staring, and he can do nothing about it but continue to stare.

Erwin turns around slowly. His chest is broad and muscular, and his legs are tall and strong, and his cock . . . Levi’s eyes are pulled to his cock, large and already hard.

While Levi watches, Erwin approaches again, wraps his arms around Levi and gently guides him down so he’s lying flat on the bed. “Is this better?” he asks, voice low and quiet and infuriatingly smug. When Levi doesn’t answer, he bends down over Levi and whispers in his ear, “Well?”

“Yeah,” Levi pants. “Yeah, that’s . . . fine.”

“Just fine? I must need to work out more.”

“Fuck, just - ” But he’s cut off by Erwin’s lips against his. Erwin’s body stretches over Levi’s, bare chest against bare chest, hard cock pushing into hard cock. Then he moves away to pepper kisses across Levi’s chest and collarbone, slowly traveling down over his stomach. Levi can feel Erwin’s hot breath caressing his skin, feel a slight smile in each kiss.

Erwin’s breath is still against him when Levi feels his belt buckle undone, his pants unzipped and pulled down. He’s left in his underwear, and then that too is carefully removed.

Levi watches closely to see Erwin’s reaction. He knows he can’t compare to Erwin physically, and yet an irrational part of him very much wants to impress Erwin. But Erwin makes no sign of approval or disapproval. He simply plants a kiss on the tip of Levi’s cock—and the touch makes Levi squirm on the sheets a little—and then he sits up.

Erwin slides one arm under Levi’s back and gently turns him over. Levi had forgotten that he had requested not facing, but now that Erwin is fulfilling that request, his gut tightens. He knows what’s coming next.

Levi glances over his shoulder and, out of the corner of his eye, sees Erwin take a bottle of lube and a condom out of a small wooden drawer set into the wall. When Erwin looks back at him, Levi screws his eyes shut. He doesn’t need Erwin to know just how intently he’s anticipating this. Instead, he listens as Erwin uncaps the bottle, squeezes something out of it, and recaps it. Levi clenches the sheets between his fingers and waits.

He can feel the bed sink as Erwin straddles him, one knee on either side of Levi’s thighs. One of Erwin’s hands travels down the length of Levi’s back, sweeps over the curve of his ass before stopping right where it meets his thigh and giving it a gentle squeeze. “Lovely,” he breathes, and a finger of his other hand—now covered in lube—traces circles around Levi’s entrance.

Levi stifles a little whine and presses up into the touch. When Erwin moves his finger away, he pushes down onto the bed sheets to give his cock some friction.

“Shhh, stay still,” Erwin murmurs. The hand on his thigh presses down slightly, as if to hold Levi in place. “Be patient, Levi. I’ll give you what you need.”  

Levi hates the way he says his name, hates the feeling of the strong hand holding him, hates how much he doesn’t really hate this. Erwin must have him under some kind of spell, because at Erwin’s words he holds himself completely still. His cock’s throbbing against the bed and he needs to touch himself, but his hands stay balled up in the sheets. One of Erwin’s fingers dips into Levi’s hole and brushes against the sides before exiting again. Levi gasps, and it takes all of his willpower to not squirm.

After what seems like an infuriatingly long time, the touch returns. Erwin gently coats the sides of Levi’s entrance with lube before dipping his finger in deeper. He pushes against Levi’s walls, each press of his fingertip causing deep waves of pleasure. It’s the most heavenly massage he’s ever felt, the gentlest touch, at once deeply satisfying and leaving him needing more. Levi closes his eyes and allows himself to relax while Erwin loosens him up, all his attention focused on the feeling Erwin is giving him. When Erwin pulls his finger out, Levi actually whimpers a little. It’s mortifying, but it happens before Levi can stop it. Erwin’s touch felt so good, and without it he feels empty.

But it isn’t long until it’s replaced by two fingers stretching out his hole even more. They start by making slow, satisfying circles inside Levi. Then Erwin begins scissoring his fingers in opposite directions, slowly at first, then gradually picking up speed. Each time he does, Levi feels a new wave of heat course through his body. Warmth gathers low in his stomach, and Levi begins moving again despite Erwin’s request. He rocks his hips back and forth to get more friction from Erwin’s touch, and to get what little relief the silk sheets will offer his cock.

Then the scissoring stops, and Erwin pushes his fingers down a little further. Without any warning, he crooks them in just the right spot, making Levi cry out.

“Does that feel good?” Erwin asks. Levi can hear the satisfaction in his voice, and he would have slapped Erwin if he wasn’t so completely powerless. Erwin makes the same motion, and it’s all Levi can do to hold in his screams.

Erwin continues massaging Levi’s prostrate, pressing into it with slow but gentle strokes, each one causing a jolt of pleasure that seems to wrack Levi’s entire body. It’s not until several minutes later, when he’s satisfied he’s tortured Levi enough, that Erwin stops and pulls his fingers out.

As soon as he feels Erwin’s hand leave him, Levi braces himself for what he’s sure will come next. But instead of Erwin’s cock, he gets three fingers up his ass.

“If you don’t fucking get on with it, I’m going to come early,” Levi says, the breathlessness in his voice taking some of the bite away from his words. “Just do it already.”

The fingers disappear, and he feels himself whimper again at the emptiness.

“I asked you to be patient, Levi.” Erwin’s voice is soft. The hand on Levi’s ass moves its thumb in small, gentle circles.

Levi sighs in frustration, screwing his eyes shut to keep himself from looking at Erwin. “Come on, please . . .” And then he stops, horrified, when he realizes what he’s just said.

He doesn’t open his eyes, so the gentle kiss on his cheek comes as a shock. “Very well,” Erwin whispers into his ear. “Since you asked so nicely.”

Levi thinks about how he’s going to punch him when this is over. Then he feels Erwin’s cock push against his entrance, and he stops thinking at all.

Erwin’s large enough that even after all that fingering, Levi still feels stretched when he’s entered. But he’s stretched in the most beautiful way. Erwin slides himself in slowly, filling Levi up little by little and dragging out every incredible sensation, until Levi’s moaning into the covers.

Erwin settles his hips on Levi and rests his hands on Levi’s back, letting out a low, satisfied moan of his own when he finishes entering. “Oh,” he says, the word half a sigh. “Oh, Levi.”

Levi feels Erwin pull out again, slow friction almost as beautiful as his entrance. He pushes his hips up to follow Erwin as far as he can, but still Erwin lifts himself away until Levi’s left nearly empty. Then, after a few unbearably still seconds, Erwin pushes back in. He connects with Levi’s prostrate, and the intensity of that feeling forces Levi to let out a scream.

“What is it?” Erwin asks.

“Again,” Levi manages to pant. “Right there.”

And Erwin obliges. He pushes in again at the exact right angle. Every nerve in Levi’s body is on fire now, every bit of thought focused on how Erwin feels inside him. He feels full, stretched out, wrapped up in Erwin’s touch and utterly satisfied. Utterly taken care of.

Levi has had sex before, but he has never felt like this.

Erwin begins to rock back and forth, and Levi moves his hips to match his rhythm. He’s moaning with abandon now, unable to think clearly enough to be embarrassed by the deep, low sounds of satisfaction coming from him. And Erwin responds in kind, letting out delighted sighs and pleasured gasps. Their voices mingle in an erotic chorus over the sound of their skin coming together.

Erwin drapes himself over Levi, his chest pressing against Levi’s back and rippling with each gyration of his hips. Sloppy, passionate kisses scatter across Levi’s neck and jaw and shoulders. In between kisses, Erwin whispers in Levi’s ear, quiet words punctuated by gasps. He tells Levi how lovely he feels, how sweet and tight he is, how precious he looks. Levi doesn’t reply, but each word makes him moan a little bit loader.

Erwin’s hand finds one of Levi’s, still balled up into a tight fist in the bedspread. He drapes his palm over that fist, and Levi lets his hand relax. Lets their fingers intertwine. The hold brings their bodies even closer together, their arms brushing against each other, shoulders in line. Levi feels surrounded, and, oddly, he feels comfortable. As though he fits within Erwin’s hold. And still their hips rise up and down in unison; still Erwin stretches him, moving at the perfect angle to bring Levi closer and closer to the edge.

The orgasm builds slowly inside Levi, a pit of warmth that seems to spread through his torso until he can’t tell the difference between it and the warmth of Erwin’s body. When it comes, it rushes upon him like a wave, breaking over his body and drowning him in bliss. He cries out, then stills, paralyzed as the wave takes control, as it draws him under and fills every thought with nothing but pleasure. He can still feel Erwin moving him, his pace slowing but not ceasing until every bit of Levi’s pleasure has been completely spent.          

The moment he’s done, Levi feels himself relax, sinking into the bed. Distantly, he notices Erwin pull out, feels Erwin’s skin leave his body as he sits up.

Levi remains motionless for the length of a breath, and then he sits as well. He watches as Erwin finishes himself off with his hand, eyes closed and mouth is open, and when he comes into his condom he lets off the most shameless, erotic moan Levi has ever heard.

Erwin looks so amazing that Levi decides they’ll be facing next time—not that there’ll be a next time.

There’s a sigh after Erwin comes, and then he opens his eyes. His gaze finds Levi’s, and he smiles gently, leaning forward for a kiss. When they’re done, Erwin stands up to throw the condom away, and finally, the spell is broken.

The room comes back into focus slowly for Levi, and he stares around him as though waking up from a dream. He takes in the rich red décor, as though he had forgotten it, and every detail reminds Levi of exactly where he is, exactly what he’s done and who he’s done it with. His eyes fall on the stain he’s made on the bedspread, white standing out starkly against the red, and a deep, unshakable sense of shame settles low in his stomach.

Erwin returns to him, holding a wet towel that he took from inside the chest of drawers in the corner of the room. He sits down next to Levi, sliding one arm around Levi’s waist and wiping him off with the other. Levi immediately snatches the towel out of Erwin’s hand, snapping, “I can clean up myself.”

“Of course. My apologies.” Erwin relents, but his arm doesn’t leave Levi’s waist (and Levi’s not sure if he wants it to.) Levi forces himself to focus on the mess he’s made on himself, methodically wiping away every last trace of semen as if he can wipe away what he’s done that night.   

“Was that enjoyable for you?” Erwin asks him.

The question is so ludicrous that it’s almost enough to distract Levi from his cleaning. He glares up at Erwin and spits, “I came screaming. What do you think?”

Erwin only smiles gently and says, “I’m glad.”

While Levi continues to clean, Erwin says, “I have a shower that you’re welcome to use. As soon as you’re ready, a cab will be called for you at the lobby.”

“I’ll shower at home,” Levi says, even though every bit of him yearns for a shower as soon as possible. He doesn’t want to spend a minute longer than necessary with this Companion.

“Very well.”

Once Levi’s satisfied that he’s completely clean, he slips off the bed (and out of Erwin’s hold) to begin picking up his clothes. Pants, underwear, shoes and socks are scattered carelessly across the floor near the bed. Shirt and undershirt lie draped over the arm of the couch. Levi doesn’t look at Erwin while he gathers his things. He’s done enough of that for one night.

Levi dresses hurriedly. When he finishes, he glances up to see that Erwin has put on a black silk bathrobe. He approaches Levi before he’s able to step out door, standing in front of the doorknob and effectively blocking Levi’s way. “Tonight was an absolute pleasure,” Erwin says to him.

“Yeah,” Levi mutters. He avoids looking at Erwin’s eyes or at the part of his chest visible through the bathrobe, and he desperately hopes Erwin doesn’t want to have some kind of conversation.

But Erwin doesn’t try to speak with Levi. Instead, he takes Levi’s hand and brushes his lips across the knuckles. Actually kisses Levi’s hand, like Levi’s some fair medieval maiden. And even more ridiculous than that, Levi somehow manages to flush as he does so.

Erwin looks up, hand still holding Levi’s, and says in a low voice, “Have a pleasant night, Levi.”

“Sure. Thanks,” Levi grumbles. The moment Erwin steps back far enough, Levi practically runs out the door.

That, he thinks to himself, is never, ever happening again.

Chapter Text

A cab waits for Levi behind the Companion house. Just one of the many little luxuries covered in his massive bill. Levi slips inside the black electric car without a word of greeting to the driver, glad the darkness of night hides his face. After the humiliating evening he’s had, he’s happy to avoid making eye contact with anyone.  

The cab hums as it pulls onto the main road, eerily quiet at this time of night. It carries Levi down broad, empty streets lined with closed shops and restaurants, neon signs and holographic advertisements casting a half-light on deserted sidewalks. Every few minutes, it passes a bar or turns down a street lined with clubs, where voices and the rhythm of electronic music break the silence and surround him with the hollow noise of celebration. But then the cab takes another turn, and all is quiet again.

This is an upscale neighborhood of Stohess, nicknamed “the Playground” for its entertainment venues – dance clubs, Companion houses, live theaters, and the like. Levi doesn’t come into this neighborhood often. The kind of entertainment it offers isn’t the kind he’s interested in. (At least, that’s what he thought before he visited the Companion).

The lights and attractions of the Playground quickly give way to quiet streets of nondescript neighborhoods and empty office blocks. With nothing outside the cab window holding his attention, Levi’s thoughts wander back to his time with Erwin. His memories of the night feel hazy, and Levi still can’t quite bring himself to believe that it was real. Every detail – from the look of the room to smooth tones of Erwin’s voice – has a quality of dreamlike improbability to it.

Levi wonders how much of Erwin’s behavior that night was an act. He knows that Companions are, as a rule, insincere. They even attend specialized academies to learn how to seduce clients, and they can read body language to discern exactly what a client wants. Well, Levi feels pretty confident that his body language didn’t scream “be a pretentious asshole.” That had to just be how Erwin was. But as for the rest . . . As for how much Erwin seemed to be enjoying it . . .

Levi wrenches his thoughts away from the Companion. It happened, and now it’s over. No need to dwell on his one night with a man he’ll never see again.

The cab turns onto a broad thoroughfare now, empty at this time of night. They’re on Unification Boulevard, passing by tall, metallic buildings that house all the intricacies and corruptions of government bureaucracy. The government offices, normally bustling with workers, are now quieter than Levi has ever seen them.

Surrounded by all of these modern, metal buildings is one made instead of marble, a stately and old-fashioned structure that contrasts with the utilitarian ones on either side. Spotlights shine on its white marble surface, making it stand out starkly against the darkness. While it’s not especially ornate, the sheer size and rigid architecture of the building communicate its importance. This is the Capitol, seat of government not just for the planet Sina, but for the whole populated universe.

Sina was the first planet to be terraformed and settled when Earth became uninhabitable, and the seat of Sina’s government had been built in that spot. It only made sense that when humanity expanded even further – settling on Rose, and then Maria, and then the small outer planets – the government established on Sina oversaw that expansion. Eventually, this oversight evolved into an interplanetary government, officially formed forty years ago by the signing of the Unification Accord. Since then, every planet had been governed by the (supposedly) democratic congress housed in this building.  

During the day, there’s always a traffic jam in front of the Capitol as people from all over the universe come and go, trying to push their policies. Now, the cab passes by quickly, leaving the government district behind and instead entering a quiet neighborhood lined with meticulously landscaped trees and gardens. This neighborhood houses the nobility, the wealthiest people on Sina and, in some cases, the wealthiest in the universe. In the daylight it’s beautiful, but at night all Levi can make out are the twisted forms of tree branches and the hard lines of gates and walls. The streets are silent here, too. If anyone’s still awake, they’re hidden behind tall fences, thick hedges, and driveways half a mile long.

The neighborhood feels alien to Levi, and he still can’t quite believe that he actually lives in this place. Years ago, Levi couldn’t see himself living anywhere but the Underground, the poorest slum of Stohess. And to this day, Levi sometimes thinks that the decrepit slum is the only place he truly belongs. But Levi hasn’t lived there since a nobleman named Lord Falkanrath came into the Underground and plucked Levi out of it ten years ago.

Lord Falkanrath is, technically, Levi’s father. And, technically, he had been looking for Levi since Levi’s birth. Levi’s mother had been a maid in the Falkanrath manor until she got pregnant and, in her shame, ran away. Levi had then lived in the Underground for twelve years of his life, until his biological father miraculously found him.

(The story always sounded suspicious to Levi, but this guy gave him a way out of the poverty of the Underground. He kept his mouth shut.)

And so for the past ten years, Levi has called this wealthy neighborhood home. When the cab pulls through one of the ornate gates and onto a long driveway, the night around him seems to grow even thicker. Trees line the drive, giving the impression that the cab is in the woods instead of the heart of the city. They press in on either side, watchful guards that seem somehow disdainful in the darkness.

“Go around back,” Levi says. His words sound hollow and out of place in the silence. The driver doesn’t respond, but he obeys Levi’s request, driving around to the far side of the marble monstrosity that is the Falkanrath manor.

Levi gets out and tips the driver an amount that would have fed him for a week ten years ago. Now, he won’t even notice its loss. The driver accepts it with a nod and a muttered thanks before driving away, leaving Levi alone in his vast back yard.

Levi lets himself in through the kitchens. He could have just as easily let himself in through the front entrance or any of the side doors, but he prefers this back way. It’s abandoned at this late hour, ensuring that he’ll slip into the manor unnoticed.

An electronic hum and blinking lights greet him as he passes through a room he knows well enough to navigate in the dark. There are two doors leading out of the kitchen, one facing the main dining room, and one facing the servants quarters. Levi chooses the servant’s quarters.

He could have easily entered into the dining room and passed through the main part of the manor, but Levi prefers this back way. It’s plainer, and the plainness makes Levi feel at home. While the house proper is almost as ornate as the Companion’s room, this hall’s decoration is nothing but white walls and cold linoleum. At the end of it is a service elevator, a bare metal box intended for carrying deliveries or cleaning supplies to different parts of the house. Levi now steps into it and lets it carry him up five flights to his rooms.  

Almost the entirety of the manor’s attic has been converted into Levi’s living space. To this day, he can’t figure out if Lord Falkanrath was trying to be nice by giving him such a large space to live in, or if he was trying to shut Levi away from the house proper. Either way, the apartment is private and it’s spacious, and Levi likes it.

He opens the door to his place, and lights turn on automatically. It’s a starkly decorated apartment, much too big for Levi to fill, with white walls that only increase the sense of emptiness and openness. Levi thinks back to the Companion’s room, with its dark and rich color scheme that seemed to encourage closeness and intimacy. Levi’s rooms give the complete opposite impression.

Levi passes through his apartment until he arrives at his bathroom and the much-needed shower. He steps in. The heat of the water reminds him of the heat or Erwin’s body against his.

He rushes through the shower and steps out as soon as possible. Doesn’t need any more of those memories.

*****

Levi wakes late the next morning, the Companion a distant memory that feels more like a dream than a reality. He takes another quick shower, not because he needs one, but because he always showers first thing in the morning, and it’s better to be too clean than not clean enough.

A pounding noise greets him when he finishes. Levi ignores it. He knows what it is and who’s causing it, and they can wait at least long enough for him to brush his teeth.

After a minute the pounding stops, replaced by a faint cry. If Levi listens carefully, he can just barely make out a voice whining, “Leeeeviiiiiiii.”

“Hold the fuck on,” Levi shouts back. He finishes brushing his teeth and, with no hurry at all, moves on to combing his hair.

Levi almost makes them wait until he’s dressed, but the pounding has resumed, and it’s starting to get annoying. He wraps a towel around his waist and crosses his apartment to let them in.

Hanji bursts through the front door and shoves a cinnamon roll so far forward that it nearly smears glaze all over Levi’s freshly-cleaned nose.

“The cook owed me a favor,” they say by way of explanation.

Levi takes it. Now, with his view no longer obscured by a cinnamon roll, he sees his friend clearly—grease-smeared overalls, messy ponytail, thick glasses that can double as eye protection if needed. Hanji works as the manor’s head of maintenance, their natural talent with mechanics having landed them the job at a young age. When Levi first met Hanji, they were no more than an unruly servant’s child. Back then, Hanji was the only person in the manor who took a genuine interest in the sulky, ill-mannered kid from the Underground, and through their persistence a friendship had been formed. For better or for worse, they had been a constant presence in Levi’s life since.

Unfortunately, that level of familiarity means Hanji basically thinks of Levi’s apartment as their own. They push past Levi without invitation, striding into his living room and plopping down on the gray leather couch. “So, now we have a snack as we talk,” they say, setting a loaded cinnamon bun tray on Levi’s glass coffee table.

“You better not make a mess with that,” Levi says. He closes his front door and starts walking back toward his bedroom.

“Wait, where are you going?”

Levi stares at them, then looks pointedly down at the towel around his waist.  

“Come on, I don’t want to wait. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen you naked.”

Levi walks away, not deigning to give that a response.

He returns a few minutes later, wearing a loose t-shirt and black pants. Hanji is in the same spot he left them in. They have a half-eaten cinnamon roll in both hands and are alternating between taking bites of each.

“Careful not to drop crumbs on my couch,” Levi says. He grabs a cinnamon roll for himself and sits down.

“So,” Hanji says. They sit up straighter and draw their knees under them, leaning eagerly toward Levi. The steady cinnamon bun eating barely slows.

“So,” Levi responds.

“Sooooo?”

“Fuck off.”

“I got it for you, I deserve to know if it was good or not.”

Levi rolls his eyes. “What you got me was a very uncomfortable appointment I never asked for, and what you deserve is a kick in the ass.”

“Ok, but just answer one important question.” A crumb falls out of Hanji’s mouth. Disgusting. “Did you enjoy it?”

Levi takes a bite of his roll and swallows it before reluctantly saying, “It was alright.”

“Wooohoooo!” They do a dramatic air punch (cinnamon bun in hand) to celebrate. “Levi got laid!”

“I’m going. To fucking. Kill you.”

“Ok, so actually I deserve a reward for getting you something you enjoyed. So. Tell me more.”

“No.”

“What was he like?”

“He’s a fake. He puts on a persona for his clients. I have no idea what he’s like.”

“Well, yeah. But what sort of persona did he put on?”

Levi pauses to think. What was Erwin? He’s a little difficult to classify, not obviously based on any one stereotype. He’s just . . . “Smooth.”

“Smooth?”

“Yeah. Like.” Levi shrugs. “Gentleman-like. Suave.” He thinks of some other details from the night. “Confident.”

“Ooooooh nice. That’s perfect for you.”

Levi narrows his eyes. “What do you mean?”

“You bottomed, I’m sure.”

Levi stands up. “Okay, get out.”

“What? There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“Hanji. I’m going to nail you to the wall with your own damn power tools if you don’t leave right now.”

Hanji stays put and takes another cinnamon roll. So Levi takes the tray.

“Hey!”

He calmly strides out of the room, tray in hand. It’s the only thing he can do that will have any sort of impact on Hanji. Threats stopped working years ago.

“Come back!” Hanji yells. Levi enters his kitchen and locks the door behind him. He can hear Hanji crash into the door and moan “noooooooo” upon finding it locked. “Levi, why are you so cruel?”

Levi sits down and eats a cinnamon roll.

“Okay, okay, I apologize. And I promise I will not make any more comments about your perfectly okay sex positions.”

Levi accedes and gets up to open the door.

“I just have one more question, though.” Levi closes the door again so it’s only open a crack, threatening.

“Are you going to go back?” Hanji asks.

The question catches Levi off guard. He hadn’t thought about going back. Or at least, he hadn’t thought about it seriously. In his mind, it had always been a one-time thing. And as good as the sex was . . .

“No,” Levi says. “I don’t have any plans to go back.”

*****

For the rest of that day (once he finally gets Hanji out of his apartment), Levi tries to keep his thoughts away from the Companion as much as possible. It had felt like a dream when he woke up, and that’s how Levi wants it to stay. Something that isn’t real and that doesn’t impact his daily life.

So as soon as Hanji leaves, Levi gets his things together for a morning in the manor’s gym. Levi has always excelled at the physical, and he learned soon after arriving at the manor that the best way to get his mind off something was to get moving. Perhaps it’s something leftover from an Underground childhood, where survival often depended on how fast Levi could run or how well he could hold out in a fight. But Levi always feels best, always feels most like himself, when he’s using his speed or strength or flexibility. Levi doesn’t play a sport – that would require playing well with others – but he’ll spend hours in the gym, clearing his mind with the sweet simplicity of exercise.

At least, that’s how it usually happens. Levi does spend a couple hours alone in the gym, and for the first hour or so he’s fine. But eventually, in between laps on a virtual race track, Erwin comes to Levi’s mind. Levi doesn’t know why, and he doesn’t know how. But he leaves the gym shortly after that, disgusted with himself, his heavy breathing reminding him of how Erwin left him panting the night before.

So Levi returns to his rooms (and takes yet another shower). He tries to focus on schoolwork for the afternoon. Levi is attending Sina University, more because that’s what’s expected of a noble his age than for any real intellectual aspirations. But Levi’s enrolled in a slew of classes he has no interest in this semester, and the words of his history text blur together until they become words Erwin had whispered in his ear.

Levi jams the power button on his reading tablet a little harder than necessary, slamming it down on his desk in frustration.

The next day is even worse. Erwin appears in Levi’s thoughts while he eats breakfast, while he vacuums his apartment, even while he has his weekly meeting with his father. Levi wonders what Erwin’s really like. If he actually enjoyed sleeping with Levi, or if he’s so used to sex with strangers that it meant nothing. Wonders if Erwin had other clients that weekend. If Erwin is even his real name (it must be, Erwin’s not exactly a sexy name). How Erwin got to be a Companion.

Levi wonders more about Erwin than he’s ever wondered about anyone else.

*****

Three days after his visit, Levi’s on his computer, reading Erwin’s profile.

He’s curled up on his couch, the small computer tablet resting on his knees as he flips through the cortex – the digital interplanetary network of information – until he finds himself almost unconsciously searching for Erwin’s information.

Each Companion house keeps detailed profiles of everyone in its employ on the cortex. The profiles are sorted into categories, first by gender (there are about twice as many female Companions as male), then by appearance, build, and specialty. Some are exclusively bottoms, some are exclusively tops, and then there are people like Erwin.

Levi pulls up Erwin’s page and stares at the photograph. Erwin’s wearing a suit again and smiling pleasantly. He looks like an asshole.

Then Levi reads through the description. He had read it before his appointment, but for some reason he feels compelled to re-read every word.

“Erwin Smith. Twenty-seven years old” (Only six years older than him, Levi thinks. Not as sketchy as it could be). “Blond hair. Blue Eyes. Light skin. 6’2” tall with a muscular build.” Below the list of basic statistics, a brief paragraph introduces Erwin.

“Erwin Smith has been a Companion for nine years. Having grown up in the city where he works, he is familiar with the culture and lifestyle of Stohess’s finest. Few hold as refined tastes in culture, art or cuisine, and a night out with him is always exquisite. Mr. Smith is every bit the gentleman, always showing the utmost courtesy to each of his guests. Whoever has the pleasure of his company for a night will leave feeling like royalty. A natural socialite and conversationalist, Mr. Smith is well known among the city’s high society. He can be seen at all the best parties and events, charming every guest. As a prominent societal figure, Erwin Smith is an honor to have on one’s arm.”

Socialite. Gentleman. Refined tastes. That paragraph perfectly describes the kind of person Levi hates most. He doesn’t know if he’s more disgusted with Erwin or with himself.

A final paragraph at the bottom of the page describes the sexual services Erwin offers. Levi doesn’t want to read this. He’s already read it, and nothing can be gained from reading it again. But his eyes skim the top of the paragraph, and before he knows it Levi’s reading the whole thing.

“Mr. Smith services both women and men. While his stature makes him a natural top, he is able and willing to perform any position, traditional or non-traditional. Mr. Smith is also equipped to perform a variety of other sexual activities, including manual and oral. Light role-playing performed upon request. Mr. Smith is BDSM certified and will cater to all common kinks. Uncommon kinks must be agreed upon by his manager prior to the visit. Threesomes available upon request.”

When Levi had first visited this page, he barely glanced over that paragraph. The final sentences had merely made him roll his eyes at the business-like discussion of what Levi had eloquently described to Hanji as weird-ass shit. But now, after having met Erwin, Levi can’t help but imagine him doing some of the “weird-ass shit” mentioned. And the thought makes him feel . . . strange.  

Levi closes out of the page quickly.

The next day, he returns to the cortex and schedules another night with Erwin.

*****

“Levi, it’s such a pleasure to see you again.” The polished wood door swings open to reveal the man who hasn’t left Levi’s thoughts since his last appointment three weeks ago. “Please, come in.”

Levi pushes past Erwin and takes a seat on the couch. He tries to pour the tea with hands that are definitely not trembling.

Erwin doesn’t comment on his rude entrance. He simply sits next to Levi and waits for him to finish with the teapot. “How are you tonight?” he asks politely.

“Fine.” Levi slams the teapot back on the tray. Erwin gently lifts it to pour a cup for himself.

“I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised to find you had requested another night with me.”

“Why?” Levi strives to sound as disinterested as possible.  

“Aspects of our last night together seemed to make you somewhat uncomfortable,” Erwin says calmly.

Levi glances at Erwin over the top of his teacup. Erwin holds his tea in one hand, his other arm resting on the back of the couch. His legs are crossed, and he regards Levi with interest. The immaculately tailored suit presses just slightly against his broad chest and wide shoulders.

“I’m not uncomfortable,” Levi says bluntly. “I just don’t like Companions.”

“Does that extend to disliking me?”

“Yes.” Levi takes a long sip of tea before continuing. “But you’re good in bed.”

The only response Levi gets from Erwin is a slight eyebrow raise. This guy apparently never gets insulted or surprised. It’s infuriating.

“I’m glad I was able to give you a good experience despite your feelings,” Erwin says. Levi rolls his eyes.

“Let’s just get to it,” he says. “I’m not in the mood for pleasant conversation.”

“Would you like finish your tea first?”

Levi looks at his teacup and finds that it’s more than half full of the betraying liquid. “Fine,” Levi says, and he takes the biggest drink he can without burning his tongue.

“What would you like from me tonight, Levi?” Erwin asks.

Levi looks straight ahead and tries not to hear the sultry undertones that seem to exist in everything Erwin says. “Whatever.”

“Would you like to receive again?”

 “Yeah.”

“On bottom?”

“Sure.”

“You always look away when I ask your preferences.” Levi doesn’t turn back, but he feels his cheeks getting warmer. What does the asshole care which way he faced? Levi takes another long drink of his tea to calm himself.

“There’s no shame in what you desire, Levi,” Erwin says. “It’s natural, and a part of you.”

“Will you shut up?” Levi finally turns to glare at Erwin, but it isn’t long before he’s looking back at his tea. “You sound like a fucking shrink.”

“I apologize. I would never want to push you into a discussion you don’t want to have. You are entitled to do whatever you wish to do in this room. I merely wanted to see if I could help you be more comfortable here.”

“I don’t want to be more comfortable here.” Being more comfortable here might mean coming back a third time.

Levi drains his tea cup and slams it on the table. “Alright, let’s go.” He looks expectantly at Erwin, who has not yet moved. “Want me to go to the bed? Should I start stripping? Let’s do what I’m paying you for.”

Erwin calmly puts his teacup down, leans back and, with one finger, motions for Levi to come closer.

Hesitantly, Levi slides across the couch until his thigh touches Erwin’s. From there, Erwin moves slowly to envelope Levi. He wraps his left arm around Levi’s back and pulls in at his waist, his right hand tracing a path down Levi’s cheek and jaw. “Levi, you really are lovely,” he says, just before kissing him. Erwin’s lips are gentle, touching Levi’s in a way that would be innocent if it wasn’t for how they linger a little too long, or for how his left hand sinks a little lower. “So lovely,” he says again when they break apart.

“I don’t care,” Levi says. He doesn’t need Erwin’s nice words. What he needs is Erwin’s cock inside him, right now.

He grabs Erwin by the lapels of that damn fancy suit and pulls him forward, crashes their lips together in a kiss that’s anything but innocent. It’s wet and hard and full of teeth and tongue. Levi gives Erwin’s bottom lip a little bite before breaking away.

He rushes to unbutton his shirt and throw it, and his undershirt, off. Erwin merely watches with an expression of amusement, as Levi strips and moves to straddle Erwin’s lap. His blue eyes rake down Levi’s torso, taking in every detail.

With a soft hum of satisfaction, Erwin places his hands on Levi’s chest and trails his fingers along each plane and dip. The warmth of his touch spreads through Levi and pools in his gut. He already feels himself falling under the trance Erwin had put him under last time, when nothing felt solid and all he could do was let Erwin take control.

But he’s not going to stay passive tonight. Levi pulls himself forward by Erwin’s shoulders and presses their lips together again. They stay locked while Erwin’s hands roam around his sides and up his back, across his hips and down under the waist of his pants. Levi twists his fingers in Erwin’s hair and pulls, drawing his lips further into his mouth. Maybe if he kisses hard enough, he’ll forget where he is, forget who he’s kissing.

After a bit of a struggle, Erwin manages to pull away and gasp the word, “Bed.” Levi nods, jumps off his lap and hurries to sit on the bed. Erwin follows close behind. He sits next to Levi and gives him a kiss before gently guiding him onto his back. Erwin even takes a moment to brush a stray lock of hair from Levi’s forehead.

“No need to be so gentle, I’m not made of glass.” Levi grabs Erwin’s tie and yanks him down into another kiss. Erwin starts – Levi can feel his gasp as their lips meet, and he notices Erwin’s palms planting haphazardly on either side of Levi’s head, catching himself from falling. One knee pushes awkwardly into Levi’s thigh, while the other dangles off the bed. Levi twists the tie around both hands. He’s not letting Erwin get away and put on his charm again. His forehead still tingles uncomfortably from where Erwin brushed the lock of hair away.

Accepting that he’s stuck, Erwin relaxes into the kiss. Levi feels him reposition his legs into a slightly more comfortable position, a knee shifting to rest in between Levi’s things, and a hand cups Levi’s cheek and jawline. Levi lifts his outside leg over Erwin’s waist, feels the curve of Erwin’s body under his calf.

Then Levi pulls at the knot in Erwin’s tie. He needs those clothes off now. He needs Erwin inside him, preferably fast and rough and devoid of all affection.

Levi throws the tie off, and Erwin takes advantage of his brief freedom from Levi’s hold to sit up and better adjust his position. He shucks off his suit jacket and then begins unbuttoning his shirt. Levi sits to help, their fingers bumping into each other. It’s quickly off, dropping to the floor next to Erwin’s jacket, and as Levi pushes off the undershirt Erwin steals a couple haphazard kisses.

Levi keeps going, working at Erwin’s belt. The faster they’re both naked, the better. He turns his face away from Erwin’s insistent kisses so all Erwin gets is a mouthful of hair. Even so, just Erwin’s presence feels tender. He’s hovering over Levi, only inches away from enveloping him, and even when Levi isn’t looking he can feel Erwin’s gaze.  

Levi pushes down pants and underwear all at once, exposing trim hips and a half-hard cock. Half-hard isn’t good enough. He wraps one hand around Erwin’s length and begins pumping.

“Levi, Levi,” Erwin says, quiet but insistent. He pulls away, and Levi’s left grasping at air. He’s about to protest, but then he realizes that Erwin simply needs to finish stripping. His pants had been left tangled around his ankles, and he has yet to remove his shoes and socks.

While Erwin takes off the last of his clothes, Levi does the same. By the time Erwin’s finished, Levi is completely naked and already sliding one of the silk pillows under his lower back. (He’s facing Erwin tonight. He doesn’t need the humiliation of last time.)

“Levi.” Erwin moves so that he’s kneeling before Levi, his knees in between Levi’s spread thighs. Levi continues adjusting the pillow, ignoring him, so Erwin places his hand on Levi’s to force him to pause. “Levi, why are you in such a rush tonight?”

Erwin’s hand feels warm, and it sends a flush up through Levi’s arm and across his chest. He’s distinctly aware of how close their bare forms are, how Erwin’s angle means their cocks are almost touching. From this position, Erwin could easily take control again. But he doesn’t. He waits for Levi’s answer, patient and attentive, pale skin and bright hair standing out starkly against the red backdrop. Levi’s eyes study Erwin’s still form, and it takes a moment for him to remember the question.

“Because I want to fuck,” he says when he does. “What’s so hard to understand about that?”

“We have all night,” Erwin says. “We don’t need to rush.”

“Well, I want to,” Levi says. “You’ve got to do what the client wants, right?”

Erwin looks at him for a moment, his eyes seeming to study Levi. The gaze is so intense that Levi feels a tingle at the base of his spine, and he’s unable to look away.  Then Erwin lifts his hand off of Levi’s and trails his fingers down Levi’s cheek, leaving warmth that feels like fire in their wake.

“I suppose I do,” Erwin says. And he gives Levi a kiss – a kiss that shocks him with its intensity. Tongue forces its way into his mouth as teeth clack together. Erwin’s chest presses into Levi’s, their cocks rut up against each other. Broad hands clasp either side of Levi’s head, holding Levi at his mercy, and all Levi can do is lean back to welcome him.

Then, as quickly as it started, the kiss ends. Erwin sits up, and Levi watches him in a daze. The unexpected force behind that kiss has left him breathless, unable to process what’s happened. But he understands what it means when Erwin takes a bottle of lube and a condom out of the drawer in the wall.

“Don’t draw that shit out this time,” Levi says. “I’m not some virgin.”

“As you wish,” Erwin says. He coats one finger with lube and repositions himself between Levi’s knees. With his left hand, he grasps one of Levi’s cheeks to better angle him up, and with the other he sets to work stretching Levi out.

There’s none of the gentleness of the previous appointment. Erwin slides his whole finger in at once, pressing into Levi’s walls so suddenly that Levi’s left gasping. The sensation comes in a rush, rough and powerful and making Levi flush even deeper. Erwin quickly circles his finger inside as Levi screws his eyes shut, struggling to keep his gasps under control. When he slits his eyes open, Erwin’s smiling.

Erwin adds a second finger and begins scissoring them. Levi closes his eyes again, fists tangling in the sheets, and begins to rock his hips slowly in time to Erwin’s touch. He lets himself relax, gives himself over to the pure pleasure. Like this, he tells himself, there’s nothing personal about what’s happening to him. There’s nothing but the amazing feeling inside him. He can almost pretend he’s with someone other than Erwin, with someone who’s not a Companion. The fingers inside him begin massaging Levi’s prostrate, and Levi pushes forward to heighten the friction.

He feels the hand that had been holding his ass disappear, and Levi’s oddly disappointed at first. But no, this is better. Now there’s no touch at all other than the incredible rhythm of press and release against his prostrate, a rhythm that pulses throughout his entire body. Without any other kind of touch, this feeling could be coming from anybody. Hell, it could even be a toy. It’s no one, nothing at all but impersonal pleasure.

The feeling changes suddenly, fingers pressing down but refusing to release, at once incredible and infuriating. Levi can feel the blood throbbing against Erwin’s fingers, can feel himself squirm in an attempt to get a release.

“How does that feel?” Erwin asks in his obnoxious, self-satisfied tone.

“Fuck you. I was actually starting to enjoy myself,” Levi spits.

Erwin dutifully returns to massaging, though his strokes are slower and harder than before. “Were you not enjoying yourself before? I was under a different impression.”

“Shut up.”  

Erwin continues the slow, circular motion of his fingers. As he does, he pulls himself forward for a rough kiss. Lips scrape against Levi’s, then pull at Levi’s bottom lip. Levi lets his mouth open for Erwin, lets Erwin swipe his tongue inside. So much for impersonality. It was nice while it lasted.

Erwin lifts away suddenly, and Levi instinctively reaches up for him. His hands wrap around Erwin’s neck and pull down. Erwin’s fingers exit him, but Levi has no time to complain as their lips connect once again. Their mouths move fervidly, exploring every curve and crevice. Erwin glides his tongue across Levi’s top lip, intertwines it with Levi’s tongue. Their cocks press against each other again, sending waves of bliss up Levi’s spine as his pre-come smears across Erwin’s cock and stomach.

Erwin kisses Levi’s jaw and nips at Levi’s neck. The sudden prick of pain startles Levi, makes him cry out. Then Erwin sits back, leaving Levi feeling cold.  

“If we continue like this, you may come before I can get inside you,” Erwin says. Then he adds, “Unless that’s what you want,” while dragging his fingers across Levi’s tip.

Levi shudders at the feeling, but he knows what he came here for. He spreads his knees apart, saying, “No, fuck me.”

And again, with an even smoother tone than before, Erwin says, “As you wish.”

Erwin already wears a condom, slick with lube and Levi’s own pre-come. Levi has no idea when Erwin put it on. Probably when he was too distracted by Erwin’s fingers inside him to notice anything else. Erwin positions himself over Levi and briefly nips his neck again. “Facing this time. Why is that?”

“I can’t change something without being interrogated?”

“No, of course you can.” Erwin lines himself up with Levi’s entrance, and Levi spreads his legs further apart, rolling his hips up on the pillow. “You can do anything you wish.” And he pushes inside Levi.

Levi feels himself being filled, a feeling that seeps through every inch of him. He had forgotten just how beautifully Erwin fit inside him, how every movement of Erwin’s set his nerves on fire. Levi glances up at Erwin and sees his eyes close and his mouth drop open in a silent moan. He rocks his hips forward, spurred on by the knowledge that Erwin seems to be enjoying this as much as he is.

Erwin rolls his hips to meet Levi’s, and they settle into an even, blissful rhythm. He bends further over Levi to mouth at his neck and jaw, alternating between passionate kisses and the rough scrape of teeth. Each touch makes Levi gasp, and he scrabbles at Erwin’s back and shoulders to try to pull him closer. Scratches at the bare skin and tangles his fingers in the thick blond hair. Levi probably pulls it, but he’s too far gone to really be aware of it, and Erwin’s not complaining.

This was what he wanted – fast, rough, animalistic fucking. No need to talk, no need to pay attention to who he’s with. Levi wants to get to the point where he doesn’t even remember who he’s fucking in the first place. “Faster,” he gasps.

“As you wish.”

The rhythm grows quicker, and Levi rocks his hips to keep pace with it. He wraps his legs around Erwin’s waist, heels hitting Erwin’s ass with each thrust. Erwin’s lips settle on the bottom of his throat now, working along his Adam’s apple and dipping down to trace the hollow of his collarbone. Every thrust seems to go a little deeper.

“Faster,” he pants into Erwin’s ear, holding tighter to Erwin’s hair. “Come on, faster.”

Erwin complies, and now Levi’s whole body is rocking in time to Erwin’s. Levi moans, and Erwin catches the moan with his lips. It turns into a messy kiss, gasps of breath bursting into each other’s mouths. And Erwin continues rolling into him at a rapid speed until the sensation is all but overwhelming. Until Levi’s entire world is nothing but the rapid pulse of Erwin inside him and the heat of Erwin’s breath against his skin.

When the orgasm comes, it crashes over Levi, as sudden and powerful as each of Erwin’s kisses. It takes over his entire body. A noise escapes from Levi’s lips, and he’s barely aware of it. The surge of pleasure overpowers his senses until he can hardly notice anything else.

Erwin slows down his thrusts to a crawl, and before Levi’s climax is finished, Erwin comes inside him. His moan joins with Levi’s until they sound like one voice, and when Levi opens his eyes, he sees Erwin sighing with satisfaction.

Erwin pulls out slowly when he’s done, giving Levi an almost chaste kiss. “Well, that was fun,” he says, a playful smile on his reddened lips.

Levi sits up quickly, backing away to get some space between himself and Erwin. Now the sex is over, and Levi wants nothing more to do with him. “I want to use your shower,” he says. He has no intention of being wiped down like he was last time.

“Of course.” Erwin points to a set of two nondescript mahogany doors set into the far wall. “It’s the door on your left. You should find everything you need. I can bring your clothes for you, if you’d like.”

“Sure.” Levi gets up and crosses to the bathroom. He’s distinctly aware of his nakedness as he does so, of the semen drying on his cock and stomach, and of how Erwin has a clear view of his ass as he goes.

The bathroom is just as luxurious as the outer room. White marble tile covers the floor and walls, while the fixtures (even the toilet) are cut from contrasting black marble. The sink and toilet take up the left wall, and a large shower stands opposite of them. Against the back of the bathroom, with black marble steps leading up to it, is a bathtub plenty big enough for two. He stares at it for a second before stepping into the shower.

Levi turns the polished gold handles, letting hot water stream over him. He watches it spray the semen off of him as though it can wash away the events of the night. 

A shelf inside the shower stall holds body wash, shampoo, conditioner and a few other bottles that Levi can’t quite name. He pours the body wash onto a cloth and begins wiping himself down, paying careful attention to everywhere Erwin touched him. The soap smells faintly, something pure and clear, sweet but still masculine.

The door opens, and Levi starts. But it’s only Erwin, bringing a bundle of his clothes as promised. The shower is encased by frosted glass, so Erwin cannot clearly see Levi. But through the glass Levi can make out a shadowy figure, and he’s sure Erwin has the same view of him.

Erwin takes a couple steps into the bathroom and places the neat bundle on the counter. As Levi watches, he pauses and almost seems to turn his head, as if to look at Levi. Then he retreats, and Levi’s left alone again.

Chapter Text

Levi takes his time in Erwin’s shower. Dries off carefully once he’s done, and makes sure his clothes are neat and his hair is combed. Even takes a piss in the fancy-ass toilet. Levi does everything he can to stall having to re-enter the main room, where Erwin sits waiting for him.

But eventually, he can’t put it off any longer. When Levi steps out of the bathroom, he sees Erwin reading a book on the armchair, dressed in the same silk bathrobe as before. He puts the book down too quickly for Levi to see what it is.

“Did you have a pleasant shower?” he asks, standing to greet Levi.

Levi almost asks Erwin why, when he entered the bathroom to deliver Levi’s clothes, he paused for a moment. Whether he really was looking at Levi, or if he was doing something else. But Levi swallows the question, tells himself that Erwin probably wasn’t looking at him, and it doesn’t matter either way. Instead he just says, “Yeah,” and makes a beeline for the door.

Erwin meets him there, casually placing a hand on the doorknob. Levi would think he was preventing him from leaving, but Erwin’s posture is completely non-confrontational, and his expression friendly. “Did you enjoy your evening?” he asks.

“Sure.”

“Sure?” Erwin’s lips curve into a teasing smile, an expression that’s become much too familiar to Levi. “What a mild response. Could I have done something to displease you?”

“Of course not,” Levi snaps. The he quickly presses his lips closed, as if he could swallow back the words. Such a vehement assertion that Erwin pleased him was not what Levi intended to give. But the words are out, and they’re not necessarily false.

“I’m glad,” Erwin says. “All teasing aside, you seemed uncomfortable at times tonight, and if I am in any way the cause of that discomfort, I deeply apologize. If there’s anything I can do to help you relax, please let me know.”

Levi shakes his head. Erwin is the cause of the discomfort, of course, but he can’t exactly change that. It’s not anything the Companion does that makes Levi uncomfortable. It’s everything the Companion is. So Levi just says, “No, it’s nothing.”

“Very well.” Erwin takes Levi’s hand and bends down, and Levi can’t believe this is happening again. He had hoped the hand kiss had been just a one-time thing, maybe something to make new clients feel special. But apparently it’s a regular occurrence. Erwin’s lips brush across Levi’s knuckles, sweet and feather-light, and Levi feels kind of dizzy.

“Have a good night, Levi,” Erwin murmurs.  

Levi skirts out the door as soon as Erwin lets go of him, the back of his hand still tingling.

*****

Of the many possible negative consequences of visiting a Companion, the loss of sleep is not one Levi had really thought about. But the following morning, as Levi forces himself awake early enough to make his eight o’clock class at Sina University, it’s one he thinks about very prominently.  

It doesn’t help that the subject of his class is history, a dry topic taught by an even drier professor. The text issued by the Unified Government is little more than a log of facts and dates, and the teacher doesn’t do much to flesh out the bits of data the students are expected to swallow.

Now, she paces the front of the large lecture hall without looking at her students, a young woman with a tight bun and the most rigid posture Levi has ever seen. A holographic projector behind her cycles through images that go with her lecture, but it’s become out of time with what she’s saying, displaying pictures without any context. Levi quickly gives up trying to understand what each picture is, and they fade into the background as a meaningless blur of faces and landscapes.

Instead, Levi tries to focus on the lecture itself and at least get some bits of knowledge out of this torturous class. The professor is talking about Unification today, a subject that the curriculum, in Levi’s opinion, spends much more time on than it deserves.

“In 2243, Unified forces put down the final rebellion in the battle of Firefly Valley,” she’s saying. “After that battle, the rebels’ supply chains were cut off, their numbers were reduced by 30%, and many of their leaders were either killed or imprisoned. This paved the way for peace talks, which, of course, culminated in the Unification Accord being signed here in Stohess in early 2244.” She speaks as though giving a recitation, and the even tilt of her voice pushes Levi dangerously close to edge of sleep. 

Levi struggles to keep himself from dozing off, stares around the lecture hall to find something interesting enough to keep himself awake. Unfortunately, none of his classmates are doing anything especially worth noting. Levi sits in the back today (his preferred spot), row upon row of metal tables and white plastic chairs stretching out below him in a horseshoe shape. From this vantage point, he can see the screens of every student’s computer as they alternate between brief pages of notes and clandestine cortex games. Their fingers tap away at holographic keyboards projected onto their desks, pretending to type even when they’re not taking anything down. They have to keep up appearances of being a good student, after all. 

There are only a few students who deviate from this norm. Levi’s tired eyes land on Marlo Freudenberg a few rows in front of him, who is furiously writing notes in an actual physical notebook like some nerd from Ancient Earth. It’s been years since Levi saw a physical notebook, and he watches with mild interest, wondering why Marlo would choose to use that over a much simpler computer.

Annie Leonhardt sits a row in front of him, and Levi notices that she’s one of the only students not typing (or pretending to type) anything. Though she does have her computer propped up before her, Annie sits with her arms crossed, not touching it. Not even moving, in fact. She’s perfectly still, and Levi can read a trace of anger in the tense set of her shoulders.  

“Cold-hearted Leonhardt” – that’s her name when her back is turned. Though Annie is a noble, and one with very high standing at that, her anti-social nature causes her fellow nobles to shun her. Levi kind of likes the sullen girl, though. He appreciates a noblewoman who doesn’t fake a smile, who doesn’t gossip with the other noble girls or play at popularity like its politics. He doesn’t know the first thing about Annie and can’t say why she’s so angry all the time, but it’s nice to know that, somewhere in this hall, there’s a noble as bitter as he is. 

Hitch Dreyse is the only other student not taking notes, an energetic contrast to Annie’s stillness. She also has her computer propped up in front of her, and she is also blatantly ignoring it. Instead, she has a comm out – a pocket-sized computer used for communication – and is typing out message after message. Most students would have been scolded for blatantly not paying attention, but the Dreyse family is one of the most politically powerful families in the universe. A grand total of four of its members currently serve in the president’s inner circle, having more influence on policy than any family besides that of the president himself. So the professor pretends to not see her. By virtue of her last name, Hitch can do anything she likes.

And “anything she likes” is exactly what Hitch is notorious for doing. She skips classes and exams and yet ends each semester with high grades. She insults everyone with impunity and yet maintains a broad circle of friends. It’d normally be considered scandalous for someone so young (Hitch is only eighteen) to publically contract with a Companion, but she’s known for bringing Companions with her everywhere she goes. Nothing’s scandalous when a Dreyse is involved.

Levi really hates Hitch.

(He wonders if she ever spent a night with Erwin.)

(Doesn’t matter. Stop thinking about Erwin.)

Levi distantly notices that the professor’s voice has taken on a questioning tone, and he forces his attention back to her, just in case. She’s drilling the students on important points from her lecture, which is unfortunate, since Levi barely remembers any part of it.

Luckily, when the professor does call on Levi, she presents him with easy question: “Mr. Ackerman, why are there still rebels trying to break away from the UG?”

It’s so easy, in fact, that Levi hesitates at first, surprised that it’s even a question. There will always be rebels, because people will always want to govern themselves. It’s so simple, yet Levi has noticed that whenever a noble discusses rebellion, they seem to do so with amazement, as if wanting independence is something unnatural.

“Because people want to govern themselves,” he says. As he speaks, he can sense the eyes in the room turning disdainful glances his way. His classmates, as is the case with most nobles, hate Levi. In their eyes, he’s an intruder in their world that should have never been taken out of the Underground. Their disdain has been on him since he first stepped into high society, and by this point Levi barely notices.

“Incorrect,” the professor says, much to Levi’s surprise. “You have essentially restated the question. We know they want to govern themselves. The question is why. Freudenberg?”

Marlo looks up from his old-world notebook and answers as though reciting something from memory. “Because they’re either too proud or too ignorant to recognize the benefits of the Unified Government,” he says.

“Correct. Now, most rebels can be found where? Miss Leonhardt?’

The disdainful looks that had been focused on Levi shift instead to Annie. She doesn’t react to them; in fact, for a moment it seems like she won’t react at all. Seconds stretch out in awkward silence while Annie sits, quiet and motionless. And when she eventually does respond, she simply says, “I decline to answer the question.” Her tone is the same as it usually is, hard and flat and matter-of-fact.

“Decline? Why?” the professor asks, confused. This is a deviation from the norm, and Levi can tell that this professor doesn’t do well with anything even slightly out of order.

“You won’t accept the correct answer.” 

“I have no idea what you mean by that, and I demand that you answer my question.”

“I mean,” Annie says, “That the answers you accept are not always factually correct. And you can’t demand anything from me. I outrank you.”

The hall falls into a tense silence as the students watch for their professor’s reaction. While almost every student there has a higher social rank than her, there’s an unspoken agreement that they’ll respect her during the course of the class. Rank is only pulled in the case of fierce disagreement.

Levi can tell that the professor’s furious. Her jaw tightens and her shoulders tense but, ultimately, she can’t do anything. Teacher or not, she has to defer to social rank when told to. After a few tense seconds, the professor purses her lips and turns sharply to face away from Annie. “Can anyone give me a proper answer?” she snaps. “Wagner?”

Wagner names the outer planets where the most rebellions have occurred, and the class slowly regains a sense of normalcy. Annie Leonhardt resumes angrily staring into space, seemingly unaffected by the encounter. All around her, everyone settles back into their normal routine, pretending (as nobles are very good at doing) that nothing was ever amiss at all.

*****

When class gets out, Hanji’s waiting for Levi a block away from the lecture hall. They can’t actually set foot on campus due to laws that prohibit who can walk on or near the university. But they’ve gotten into the habit of waiting for Levi a safe block away whenever their work can spare them. He’s learned to expect them, and together they make the long trek back to the manor. (Levi could order one of his father’s many cars to drive him, but he prefers the walk.)

“Heya. How was class?” Hanji falls into step next to Levi, tracing the familiar route down the white stone sidewalks of Upper Stohess. The fancy restaurants and fashionable stores that make up the commercial neighborhood near the university quickly fade away, replaced by the manicured gardens and high wall that surround the nobility’s homes.

“Boring,” Levi replies.

“That’s your answer every day,” Hanji says. “Hey, I came by your place last night – because I had been on the roof to watch the stars, because there was actually an eclipse between one of our moons and Rose. It was super cool. Rose was all glowy red with this tiny moon dot in the middle and . . . what was I saying? Right. So since I was passing through the attic anyway, I stopped by your rooms and you weren’t there. Where were you?”

Shit. Levi hadn’t told Hanji he was going to see the Companion a second time. He had hoped to keep it a secret. “When did you come?”

“Around ten.”

“I was probably asleep.”

“Asleep at ten? You’re usually up later than that.”

“I was tired last night.”

“How come?”

“I just was.”

“You know, you look kinda tired today. Bags under your eyes and all.” Hanji bends down to get a closer look at Levi’s face. “Are you getting sick?”

“No.”

“Then how come you’re so tired all of a sudden?”

“I don’t know.”

Hanji tries to peer inquisitively at Levi’s face and walk in a straight line at the same time. It results in them bent at an awkward angle and failing at both objectives. “Are you hiding something from me?”

“No.”

“Friends don’t keep secrets.”

“I’m not keeping a secret.”

“I don’t know, you’re definitely hiding something.”

“What the hell would I be hiding?”

Hanji straightens up, apparently accepting that they can’t walk and investigate at the same time. “Well, if I knew that, it wouldn’t be hidden, would it?”

“I’m not hiding anything, Hanji.”

“Okay . . .” But when Levi glances up at them, they’re giving him a sidelong glance, still trying to solve the mystery. And once Hanji gets into a mystery, they don’t let it go. If Levi doesn’t do something, this is going to bother them – and, by extension, him – for the rest of the day.

So he coughs twice, just obviously enough for Hanji to notice but subtly enough to seem real.

“You are sick!” Hanji declares.

“A cough doesn’t mean I’m sick,” Levi protests, because it might be suspicious if he just agreed with Hanji. He never agrees with Hanji.

“Well between that and the tiredness, it’s clear that you’re at least getting sick. And Dr. Hanji is prescribing lots of rest and enough vitamin tablets to drown in.”

“I’m fine, Hanji.”

“Not if you don’t go swimming in vitamin tablets.”

Levi affects a sigh. He keeps up the protests because he knows that protesting will only make Hanji more confident that they’re right. And that’s what Levi needs. Now, Hanji will try to mother him incessantly until they’re certain the illness has gone away and probably annoy the hell out of him in the process. Even more annoying, Levi will have to fake sick for the next few days.

But the alternative is Hanji finding out about Erwin. It’s worth it.

*****

Levi clutches the teacup in both hands, stares down at the dark liquid and studies how it contrasts with the ivory china. Three times. With this visit, he’s been to see the Companion three times. He can’t believe it.

Levi’s never had a problem with self-control before. Never given into any kind of temptation, ever. This is completely unlike him, and Levi doesn’t understand why the Companion has such a draw on him, doesn’t understand why he keeps coming back even though he doesn’t want to. Doesn’t understand what’s wrong with him.

“You seem tense.” The Companion’s voice murmurs next to him, smooth tones that slip into his ear and travel down his spine, where it tingles with a strange, not unwelcome warmth. Levi wants to feel that warmth around him. He’s craving something slow and sweet tonight, something drawn out like his first visit. Not the frantic, hurried mess of the second, when Levi’s shame drove him to complete the act as quickly as possible. He wants the Companion to touch him, to look at him, and to mean every bit of it.         

Levi grips his teacup a little more tightly. He would scour these desires from his mind, if he could.

“I’m fine,” Levi says. He takes another sip of tea and sets it down on the table, still not looking at the Companion.

Erwin’s hand reaches toward him, warm fingers brushing through his hair, a comforting touch. Levi pushes the hand away, firmly shoving it down onto the couch.

“Look.” He turns to face the Companion. “We’re both only using each other. Stop pretending to care about me.”

The Companion considers him, blue eyes betraying only mild concern. Levi realizes that his hand is still on top of Erwin’s, wrapped around it in some mockery of hand holding. He feels the warmth of Erwin’s knuckles, lingers for just a second before pulling away. The Companion waits, as if to see if Levi will say or do anything further, before replying.

“It is, of course, true that our nights together are for mutual benefit,” he says. “And I would never want to be so bold as to assume to be a close friend or confidant. But, as far as our relationship allows, I do care about you. I care about you because it is my job to make sure you are happy and comfortable while you’re here, and I take that role very seriously.”

No matter what he says, the Companion’s voice always has an irresistibly soothing quality to it. Now, assailed by the earnest words and Erwin’s intent gaze, Levi fights to hold on to his frustration and discomfort. He reminds himself that it’s not time to succumb to this man’s charm yet.

“I won’t demand that you tell me why you’re tense, or even that you stop feeling that way,” Erwin says. “I only wish to help you relax in whatever way I can.”

“Then stop the little touches and the kind words. They’re . . .” Levi struggles to phrase exactly what they are. “I know you’re only doing it as part of the fake romance. I’d rather be blunt about what this is than pretend at what it isn’t.”

Erwin only pauses a moment before he nods in agreement. “Understood,” he says. “I’ll refrain from saying or doing anything that implies excessive affection.”

“Good.”

“I’m glad you told me.”

Levi rolls his eyes as he takes another sip of his tea.  

“Shall we discuss what you’re truly here for, then?” Erwin asks. “What would you like from me tonight?”

Levi glances up at him. Puts his tea down. He wants a lot from the Companion. More than he can even admit to himself, let alone vocalize to Erwin. But Levi has always been a man of action, not words. So he doesn’t answer.

Instead, Levi moves closer to Erwin, and Erwin seems to immediately understand what he wants. He pulls Levi close and kisses him gently, surrounding Levi with his warmth.

*****

They don’t make it to the bed, this time. As Erwin peppers Levi’s face and neck with kisses, Levi finds himself lying back on the couch, and he sees no reason to move. No reason to stop Erwin as his fingers peel away each layer of clothing and his lips explore each inch of bared skin.

Levi runs his fingertips across Erwin’s bare shoulders and spine, wraps his thighs around Erwin’s waist. Pulls their bodies as close together as possible. Erwin moves slowly when he enters Levi, drawing out every second. He looks into Levi’s eyes, and it makes Levi feel more vulnerable than he has ever felt before. Yet, for some reason, he can’t bring himself to mind.

There’s no talking this time; there doesn’t need to be. Even Levi’s satisfied moans, made almost unconsciously, are softer than usual. The quiet seems to emphasize their breath, their movements, and the soft smack of lips every time Erwin leans down for a kiss. This is different from the other visits, different from anything Levi’s ever done before. It’s simple and tender and personal, as comfortable and welcoming as a soft bed after a long day, and though Levi doesn’t quite understand how Erwin has made such basic sex so beautiful, he can’t help but feel that he could do this forever.  

When it does end, it ends in a wave of delight, and they cling to each other as it sweeps over them. Cling still long after it sets them down into a state of peace. Erwin gives Levi’s neck little kiss, and Levi can see the shine of sweat on Erwin’s shoulder. Can see the light glint off his golden hair. Can feel each tiny movement from the body pressed close to his.

Erwin lifts himself away from Levi, and the cold air hits his skin like a slap. And as quickly as that, the spell is broken.

Levi comes harshly back to reality. He looks at Erwin, who had felt so intimately familiar just seconds ago, and he reminds himself that the Companion is only a stranger. One he’s paying for, at that. The familiar sense of shame settles deep in his stomach.

“That was wonderful, Levi,” Erwin says. He makes his voice sound a little breathless, as if to suggest that it really was something amazing. As if it wasn’t the same thing he did with other clients every night of his life.

Levi sits up, moving to his side of the couch. He doesn’t know what to say. He could respond – say that it was wonderful for him, too – but he doesn’t want to give Erwin that satisfaction. Doesn’t want to admit just how special it was, to Erwin or to himself. So he stays silent.

After a beat Erwin asks, “Would you like to use the shower?”

“Yeah.” Erwin gestures toward the bathroom door, inviting him to do so. When Levi stands, he feels unsteady. He makes his way to the bathroom, the memory of Erwin staring into his eyes stuck in his mind.

Halfway across the room, Levi glances over his shoulder. Erwin has thrown out his condom and is wiping himself off with a wet towel. His movements are casual, routine. A reminder that for Erwin, this is nothing more than a job.

Erwin looks up, and he meets Levi’s gaze. “Is something wrong?” he asks.

“No,” Levi says, quickly turning away.  

The shower is warm and inviting, but it feels insufficient after Erwin. After a few minutes, Erwin enters the bathroom and leaves Levi’s clothes in a neat pile on the counter, just as he did during Levi’s last visit. And, just as he did during the last visit, Levi looks at Erwin’s blurry form in the frosted glass and imagines that Erwin’s looking at him, too.

He has half a mind to invite Erwin in with him.

When Levi finishes with the shower, Erwin’s reading a book as before. He stands to bid Levi goodbye, and by now Levi expects the kiss that lands on the back of his hand.

“Was everything satisfactory tonight?”

“Of course.” The words come as a bite. Erwin knows everything was “satisfactory”. It was more than satisfactory. He shouldn’t have to keep asking.

But Erwin simply smiles, as though Levi has given a significant compliment. “I’m very glad,” he says. “I had a lovely time.”

He presses his lips once again to the back of Levi’s hand before releasing him into the night.

*****

Levi clutches a teacup in both hands. This cup is silver, with pale green flowers circling the base and winding up the handle. Light reflects off the rim of the cup and gets swallowed up in the dark liquid.

Lord Falkanrath watches Levi from the opposite end of a long table covered in a white cloth. They’re in the family dining room, a little-used room of the house. A broad window lets in sunlight that seems to get filtered into weak rays by the pale green walls and silver accents. Lord Falkanrath sits with his back to the window. The bright light behind him makes his face appear shadowy and his brown hair almost black. His eyes are indistinguishable under heavy brows, and Levi can only barely make out the close trimmed goatee he wears.

The two of them meet in this room once a week, giving Lord Falkanrath a chance to make sure his son is behaving as he desires. Both hate these meetings, and they usually end quickly. But this one, for some reason, has dragged on beyond the usual fifteen minute time slot. That’s generally not a good sign, and with each passing moment Levi grows more anxious.

At least there’s tea. Levi takes a small sip of his, careful not to empty the shallow teacup. He wants to make it last as long as possible. It’s the only positive part of this meeting.

“Have you given any thought to what course you’ll take once your general education at the university is complete?” His father speaks in a direct manor, almost antagonistic, and it comes out as more of a challenge than a question. Challenging Levi to dare give an answer that differs from what his father wants to hear.

“I was thinking of joining the military,” Levi replies.

“Good,” his father says. “I think that will be best.”

It’s not a surprise. Young nobles on Sina have three options. Most become “gentlemen” (another word for a self-important ass who doesn’t work), and the rest become either scientists or generals in the military. Levi doesn’t have the intellect to be a scientist, and he would die before becoming a gentleman. That leaves the military. Now that all the planets are unified, the military doesn’t do much beyond enforce laws and put down a rebellion every now and then. If he’s lucky, Levi can live out his days peacekeeping on some quiet outer moon and never have to see another noble again.

“I’ll begin making arrangements to have you sent to Stohess Military Academy at the beginning of the next school year,” his father says.

Levi just nods. He takes another sip of his tea. It’s getting cold. With resignation, Levi finishes it off.

“There is another matter.”

Here it is. Levi puts down his teacup and waits nervously for his father’s words.

“You’re twenty-one years old,” he says in the same antagonistic tone. “It’s time to think about your future, and the future of your family.”

For a second, Levi’s confused. He thinks of his real family, or what’s left of it, down in the Underground, and he can’t imagine what his father intends to do with them.

But then he realizes. Not his family in the Underground. This family. His father’s family.

“You need to start courting.”

Pure astonishment quickly puts an end to Levi’s anxiety. Of all the topics his father could have brought up, this is by far the stupidest. Levi usually keeps a straight face with ease, but now, thrown off by the ridiculousness of the statement, Levi just barely manages to choke back a laugh. He tries to imagine it. Him, Levi Ackerman, courting. Courting a girl, at that. Levi doesn’t know what that would look like, but he doubts it would be pretty. 

“I don’t think I’d be very good at courting,” Levi says.

“That’s all the more reason find venues where you can practice. You need to start going to more social events.” Levi chokes back another laugh, and this time his father notices. “I’m serious,” he snaps.

Levi knows by the glare he receives just how serious his father is. He swallows down the retort he wants to give and says, “Sorry.”

“You’ll need to get married soon, and pass on the family title,” his father continues. “You’ll never find someone suitable if you sit by in your rooms while all the eligible young women get taken. And you certainly won’t find anyone suitable if you don’t hone the meager social skills you have.”

The insult makes Levi bristle a little. He’s entirely aware that he doesn’t have any social skills, and he normally doesn’t mind – better to be socially inept than be two-faced like most nobles. But the disdain in his father’s voice turn a fact that he accepts about himself into an accusation he wants to deny. To anyone else, Levi would have come back with something sarcastic or biting. And to anyone else, Levi would have flat-out said no to such a stupid request.  

To his father, Levi says nothing.

“Do you understand?” his father asks.

“Yeah.”

“‘Yeah’? You’re a noble. Speak like it.”

“Yes.” Levi puts a little emphasis on the “s”, turning it into a hiss.

“Good.” There’s a pause, and Levi thinks – hopes – that he’ll be dismissed. But instead his father says, “I’ve always found it rather odd that you, as a young man, have never found a woman worth your interest.”  

Levi swallows hard. Any amusement still present from the idea of courting quickly dissipates. Homosexuality is all well and good when it’s a secret – clandestine affairs or experimental nights with a Companion, nothing more than rumors to be gossiped about. But once it becomes public, it’s an offense bad enough for nobles to become disinherited, and for common people to go to jail. Levi’s careful to maintain his usual bored expression and monotonous tone of voice as he says, “I’ve just never been interested in dating.”

“I see. I’m sure you understand that those with abnormal inclinations have no place in polite society.”

For some reason, Levi immediately thinks of Erwin. He quickly banishes that thought from his mind. Carefully keeps his discomfort hidden as he says, “I understand. I just haven’t been interested.”

“Well, interested or not, you’re a noble’s son, and carrying on the family line is your duty. Understand?”

“Yes.”

“Many who have not wanted it, for one reason or another, have understood the importance of getting married despite their desires. I trust you’ll do the same.”

Levi glares. But there’s nothing he can say and nothing he can do. While no one is forcing his hand in any overt way, Levi understands the seriousness behind his father’s demand. If he doesn’t follow his father’s every will, he risks losing his position as an adopted bastard and, with it, his livelihood. Noble or not, Levi is completely trapped.

“In three weeks’ time, Lord Carolina is having a social event for his daughter. I believe she’s around your age. I’ll arrange for you to attend.”

Levi forces himself to nod. Stays quiet, because his true thoughts are clamoring to be said, and Levi knows that if he opens his mouth, he’ll say something he regrets.

“That is all. You’re dismissed.”

Chapter Text

Levi lies on his side, feeling himself sink lower into the Companion’s soft bed. His gaze travels over the ornate room before him, with its gold accents and deep red walls. There’s the back of the couch he sat on not too long ago, the armchair with articles of clothing carelessly draped over its upholstery, the soft carpet Levi had been walking across before he was swept off his feet. Levi stares at the scene before him and tries to study every little detail, forcing his attention on it rather than on the person beside him.

But the bed moves, and that motion sharply reminds Levi of what he’s just done. There’s a man in bed with him and cum drying on his stomach. There are memories, not entirely unpleasant, that won’t leave his mind.

The Companion places a soft kiss on Levi’s bare shoulder. His body edges a little closer to Levi’s, cupping it without touching it, and it takes all of Levi’s willpower to not relax into it. He may sleep with this man, but spooning would be going too far.

This is Levi’s fourth visit. He went back to facing away from the Companion this time. Erwin, somehow knowing exactly what Levi needed, was tender and gentle with him, not speaking much, but making up for it with a slew of communicative kisses.

Now, Erwin’s hand rests on Levi’s body. Levi lets it stay, pays close attention as it travels down Levi’s side and stops at his hip. “You have the most exquisite body,” Erwin murmurs.

Levi sits up, moving to the edge of the bed and letting Erwin’s hand fall behind him. “I said no kind words, remember?”

“None at all?” Levi can hear the smile in Erwin’s tone. “Not even when they’re true?”

“Nothing’s true with you.”

Levi stands. He wants to get in the shower as soon as possible. The cum is already drying, and for some reason it disgusts him even more than usual. Levi strides to the bureau where Erwin keeps his wet towels, suddenly too impatient to wait. He needs to be clean, now.

Levi opens the doors to the top compartment, finding a bowl of heated water and, above it, a row of damp towels soaking in its steam. Levi yanks one down and quickly cleans himself off.

“Levi.” Erwin’s voice travels across the room to him. When Levi looks up, he’s still lying on his side, watching Levi intently. “Why are you here?”

“What?”

“Why do you come here, if you don’t feel comfortable?”

Levi scoffs. “For sex,” he says, as if it’s obvious. (Because it is obvious.)

“That can’t be all. You could get a common prostitute if you merely wanted sex.”

“They’re dirty.” Just like he is right now. Levi looks down and scrubs a little harder.  

“So am I merely a clean prostitute?” Levi can hear Erwin stand up off the bed, and he feels him approach from behind. Erwin’s arm reaches around Levi to take a towel for himself. He stands close, his front facing Levi’s back, almost as they were a few minutes earlier.

Levi swallows, forces his mind away from Erwin’s presence. “Well, yeah.”

Erwin chuckles. “I appreciate the honestly.”

Anyone else would have been at least a little offended. Levi had basically just called a respected Companion nothing more than a clean whore. But once again, Erwin seems impervious to any kind of insult.

“Not many raised in the nobility can speak with such a level of bluntness as you do,” Erwin says.

Levi throws his towel back over the rack. Time to end this conversation and get to the solitude of his shower. “Yeah, guess I’m special that way.”

“Or you weren’t raised in the nobility.”

Levi stares up at Erwin, but his expression is even. “My name give it away?” he asks.

“No. I wasn’t quite following societal news when you were adopted, so I had never heard your name before. It was primarily your mannerisms that helped me to figure out who you are,” Erwin replies. “Not to say that they’re rude.”

Levi snorts. “They’re rude. You can say it.”

Erwin smiles at him. “Very well, then. They’re rude. But not cruel. And after being around the forced politeness of high society, they’re rather refreshing.”

“You can really make anything positive, can’t you? They teach you that in Companion school?”

In response, Erwin presses Levi’s chin up with the tips of his fingers and gives him a kiss. In spite of himself, Levi’s eyes droop closed.

They part, and Erwin asks, “Would you like to take your shower?”

Levi pushes past him without another word.

*****

It’s the third time: Erwin brings Levi’s clothes into the bathroom and then stops, just long enough for Levi to feel uncomfortable, but no tlong enough to feel certain that Erwin is looking at him.

He emerges after a lengthy shower and heads straight to the door. Erwin meets him there.

“You can sign up for your next session at the desk in the front hall if you’d like,” Erwin says.

“Who said I was coming for another session?”

“Are you not?” Levi doesn’t respond. “If that’s the case, it’s a shame. I greatly enjoyed our nights together.”

“I haven’t decided yet,” Levi grumbles.

“I see. Well, I do hope to see you again. But if not,” Erwin kisses the back of his hand. “Thank you for four beautiful nights.”

*****

Why are you here?

What a strange question for Erwin to ask him. But Erwin is right, as much as Levi doesn’t want to admit it. He comes for more than just sex. But what something more is, Levi can’t quite say.

The fifth time is done sitting up. Erwin holds Levi close in his lap, letting Levi ride him. Levi doesn’t admit how much he likes this new position.

He manages to avoid talking to Erwin when they finish. Without waiting and without another word, Levi scrambles out of Erwin’s lap and goes to the shower.

Levi watches for Erwin this time. He looks through the frosted glass of the shower as the blurry form of the Companion enters the room. Erwin follows the same pattern as before. The clothes are set down on the counter, and then he pauses.

Levi opens the door to the shower stall and meets Erwin’s surprised gaze. They stare at each other, both bare, the water pounding against the shower floor behind Levi.

“What are you looking at?” Levi demands.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

Levi looks at Erwin, tries to read his expression. There’s a slight hint of amusement, but is that only because Levi’s put himself in such a stupid position? Or is that the amusement of someone who’s been caught doing something mischievous?

“Whatever,” Levi spits, and he steps back into the water stream, turning away from Erwin. “If you want to get in, just get in.”

He listens for Erwin’s response, doesn’t want to be watching if Erwin refuses. For a moment, the sound of the water drowns out everything else. But then he hears Erwin’s footsteps on the shower floor and sees Erwin’s shadow fall across the marble wall.

Levi lets himself turn around. The water hits Erwin across the chest and shoulders, running through the crevices between muscles. “Is this going to cost anything extra?”

Erwin closes the door, boxing them both into the shower stall, and though Levi knows the entire suite is empty, he can’t help but feel that the closed door makes this much more private.

“Not at all,” Erwin says. And he steps closer to give Levi a kiss.

The water slips between their lips, steam mingling with breath. It’s an odd sensation, lips slipping against each other soft and pliable in the heat. He feels Erwin’s hand slip down his wet body, resting at the small of his back. The heat in the shower makes Levi dizzy, makes him flushed, and nothing feels entirely real.

Erwin pulls away, gives Levi a smile, and grants another peck on the lips before standing up properly. He picks up the washcloth Levi had discarded on the shower’s shelf and asks, “May I?”

It takes Levi a second to realize what Erwin’s asking. He’s looking at Erwin’s wet body,  about to say yes without thinking, when he figures it out.

“Wash me?”

“Yes.”

Levi snatches the washcloth away. “I can wash myself.”

“Of course.”

But now Erwin’s left with nothing to do but watch him, and Levi can feel Erwin’s eyes boring into him as he soaps himself up. Levi scrubs at his navel, half turned away from Erwin, and tries to ignore that stare.

When he glances back up at Erwin, he’s met with intent blue eyes and a hungry expression.

“Go ahead, if you’re just going to stand there like a creep otherwise.” Levi throws the washcloth at Erwin and turns away.

He feels Erwin come up behind him, and one arm presses Levi’s back to Erwin’s front. He can feel the firmness of Erwin’s chest and stomach, the bones of his hips. Little rivulets of hot water sneak their way into what little space remains between their bodies.

Then with great care, Erwin wipes down Levi’s chest and torso. Every touch is gentle, as though Levi is porcelain, breakable. Erwin picks up each arm to wash it before carefully setting it back down.

The strokes are soothing, almost like a massage, and combined with the heat of the shower they relax Levi more than he thought he could ever relax. More than he had been for as long as he could remember.

Erwin steps away just enough to wash Levi’s back. His left hand rests on Levi’s hip, keeping him steady, as the washcloth takes long, sensuous strokes across his neck and shoulder blades.  

The cloth then dips lower, to the small of Levi’s back, his hips, his ass. Erwin gives him special attention here, careful to wash near Levi’s entrance before lovingly bathing each cheek.

Erwin kneels now to better reach the rest of Levi’s body. He leaves a trail of soap across Levi’s thighs and down the back of each leg. A kiss lands at the top of Levi’s thigh, right under his left cheek.

Then he maneuvers himself in front of Levi, still on his knees. He looks up, blue eyes bright through the steam and hair plastered and dripping against his forehead. Erwin’s mouth is only inches from Levi’s penis, and at that realization Levi feels himself begin to grow hard.

“How are you feeling?” Erwin asks.

“Huh? Fine,” Levi says through the fog in his mind.

“Just fine?” Erwin glances down at Levi’s cock, just long enough for the glance to be significant, and then looks back up. “It seems to me that you’re doing more than fine.”

That comment breaks Levi out of his daze a little bit, just enough to be angry. “You think you’re so fucking clever,” Levi mutters.

Erwin’s washing the front of Levi’s legs now, his hand reaching dangerously close to Levi’s pelvis before travelling back down. “What was that? I didn’t hear you.”

“I said, you think you’re so fucking clever.”

Finished with Levi’s legs, Erwin puts the washcloth down. He reaches above him to pick the soap up off the shelf and, as Levi watches, forms a lather on his fingertips. Before Levi can ask what he’s doing, Erwin presses his soapy fingers into Levi’s skin, just behind the balls, and begins washing it.

“Fuck,” Levi hisses. He throws his head back, the sensation startling him, and suppresses a moan. Erwin quickly moves on to Levi’s balls, cleaning every inch with his delicate fingers.

“Am I not clever?” Erwin asks.  As he speaks, he moves his fingers in slow, even strokes that force a moan out of Levi. It’s loud and desperate, echoing in the small chamber.

Levi’s almost completely hard now, and Erwin’s sure to take care of the rest. He kisses the base of his cock, and then the tip, hot breath mingling with steam that floats across his length in the most exquisite way. Erwin’s tongue licks his underside, dragging from the base to the top in one long stroke that forces out another moan, even louder than the first.

And then he’s gone. Erwin stands up and walks behind Levi. Without Erwin shielding it, the water droplets seem like an assault to Levi’s sensitive cock.

“Wait, what are you- ?”

Erwin presses himself into Levi’s back, just as before. “Don’t worry,” he whispers. His hands pulls Levi’s hips closer to his. “I’ll take care of you.”

While Erwin’s left hand pulls tighter around Levi’s middle, his right dips down to Levi’s length. With delicacy, he brushes his fingertips down the shaft and circles his thumb very slowly around the tip.

“Is this okay?” Erwin asks. “Or would you like me on my knees again?”

“What?” Levi watches Erwin’s fingers, mesmerized. He doesn’t know what he prefers. Erwin down before him, teasing him with his lips and tongue, was amazing. But just as amazing is the feeling of Erwin’s body pressed solidly against Levi’s back, holding him close as his lips whisper in Levi’s ear. “This . . . this is okay.”

Erwin kisses Levi’s temple and, with his left hand, tugs Levi’s waist just a little bit closer. He gives Levi two more gentle strokes before wrapping his fist around Levi’s base. Levi’s cock all but disappears inside Erwin’s large hand.

Erwin begins slowly, moving his fist back and forth in even, deliberate strokes. Each touch sends a ripple of pleasure through Levi, so great he can barely keep himself steady in the slippery shower. His head falls back onto Erwin’s shoulder and his hands rest on Erwin’s left forearm, the Companion’s hold the only thing supporting Levi.

Steam blurs Levi’s vision, and he can’t tell where the heat of the shower stops and the heat of Erwin’s body begins. A flush seems to have spread through every inch of him. Below him, Erwin’s fingers works magic, pushing and pulling on the sensitive skin in just the right way. Now moving quickly, and now slowing down. Teasing him, pleasuring him, bringing Levi to the brink before letting him come back down again.  

Erwin’s fist reaches the end of Levi’s shaft and his thumb plays with the tip, traveling over it lightly until, without warning, the touch disappears entirely.

Levi gasps at the absence, and at the sudden ferocity of the spraying water. Each drop leaves a teasing sting of sensation that makes him ache for Erwin to take hold of him again.

But instead, Erwin’s fingers tap the underside of Levi’s cock, mimicking the pattern of the water that comes from above. Except it’s even worse than the water, prodding him in the exact right places, touches so brief they do nothing but make Levi yearn for more.

“You’re so beautiful like this,” Erwin says into Levi’s ear. “Forgive the kind words.” He reforms the first around the base of Levi’s cock, twists back and forth in a slow, infuriating rhythm. Levi can’t think clearly enough to tell him not to say that.

Now Erwin’s left hand joins in, sliding to rest on the inside of his thigh so that, with one finger, he can prod Levi’s perineum. The added sensation is too much; Levi lets out a strangled cry that echoes in the shower.

Erwin kisses Levi’s temple again. “And you sound beautiful when you do that, too,” he says. “Don’t keep it in.”

Levi bites his lip in defiance of Erwin’s request. But he doesn’t seem to have much choice. The next stroke of Erwin’s fingers, ended by a brief twist at Levi’s tip, sets Levi whimpering.

“Just like that. Thank you.” Erwin’s fist moves faster, the pressure from his grip growing a little harder. His left hand continues accenting the rhythm of his right with playful touches to Levi’s perineum and balls.  

Levi’s breathing hard now, his chest rising and falling rapidly. Erwin’s right hand works hard to elicit every possible sensation, pulling and massaging in quick strokes that Levi can barely keep track of. By contrast, the touch of his left is light and soothing, almost teasing. The combination of the two drives Levi insane until, unable to think, he cries out and allows himself to topple over the edge. Levi’s body collapses into Erwin’s, his mouth hanging open as hot water mingles with his labored breath.            

Erwin continues to touch Levi through the climax, heightening the sensation until Levi knows nothing else, wants nothing else. Would be content to spend the rest of his life feeling like this.

Coming down from the orgasm feels like waking up from a dream. He’s still held by Erwin, right arm around his waist and left pulled across his chest. Levi’s hands grasp Erwin’s forearm, and he knows it’s only Erwin that keeps him standing. As Levi watches, the water sprays away the white liquid that drips from Levi’s cock and Erwin’s hand.

They move slowly. Erwin takes the washcloth and gives Levi a final wipe across his navel. Only when he’s finished does he step away from Levi, leaving him with just the inadequate warmth of the shower.

Erwin turns the water off. He exits the shower stall, and he’s waiting with a towel when Levi finally moves to follow. Without protest, he allows Erwin to wrap it around him.

Erwin then takes a towel for himself and begins drying off. Levi follows suit in a daze, watching the way Erwin’s body turns and stretches as he rubs away the water.

“How was that for you?” Erwin asks gently.

He always has to ask. “You know how to read people, you tell me.”

Erwin smiles. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“That really doesn’t cost extra?”

Erwin cups Levi’s face and gives him a final kiss. “Your enjoyment is payment enough.”

*****

Despite the Companion’s sentimental words, the real reason Erwin didn’t charge extra was because Companions charge by the hour, not by the orgasm. The upfront cost of an evening covers the hours of nine to one in the morning. The only way Levi would be charged extra would be if he stayed later into the night.

Levi discovers this on the FAQ page of the Companion house cortex site. He had thought it didn’t make any sense for Erwin to do extra work without extra pay. Turns out that Levi, who had been leaving around midnight most nights, had technically been paying for more than he got. Figures.

That being said, if Erwin wasn’t getting paid any extra, why would he bother with the added experience in the shower? It can’t be fun to play with a stranger’s dick, especially if he doesn’t get his own orgasm out of it. So why do it? To make Levi feel like he’s getting a bargain?

What a disgusting business, if that was the case. He can just imagine the ads. Two orgasms for the price of one! More bang for your buck (literally!) If only Companions aired television commercials.

Levi closes out of the Companion site with a sigh. He can’t waste too much time thinking about the Companion, anyway. Sina University’s finals period starts in two days.

Levi should at least make a show of studying and earn somewhat average grades. But he can’t quite bring himself to care. His education’s all for show, anyway – a show being staged by his father. The heartwarming story of an Underground child who obtained his dream of a real education, all thanks to Lord Falkanrath’s generosity.

Levi leans back in his desk chair. He’s in his study, a room that every nobleman has but few actually use. In that sense, Levi actually has something in common with the average noble. His study contains nothing but a large desk and a few empty bookshelves (which are totally useless, since everyone uses e-books. Studies only have bookshelves so nobles can purchase expensive physical books and other curiosities that show off their wealth). The only time Levi goes in his study is when he needs to force himself to concentrate on some meaningless piece of schoolwork.

The emptiness of the room is a little unsettling, though, so Levi turns on the television to give himself some background noise. A two by four foot patch of the wall before him momentarily goes clear, and then sparkles to life with a TV commercial. Levi flips to a news station and lowers the volume to a murmur.

On his desk, his computer has been plugged in to a wide monitor, where notes from all his classes sit in folders waiting to be opened. History, music history, literature, astronomy and calculus. All a load of bullshit, with the exception of astronomy, which, given how dependent on space travel society has become, is something that’s actually worth knowing. He’ll save that one for last, when his motivation is lowest. Deciding to work from worst to best subject, Levi pulls up his notes from music history.

The crisp, electronic voice of the news report speaks to Levi as he skims over a few pages of lecture notes. “Riots occurred once again in the Underground last night as an illegal concert grew unruly,” it announces. “Rioters destroyed property and, according to law enforcement officials, succumbed to violence. Twenty-seven have been arrested on bail.” Levi glances up at the television to see if he recognizes any faces in the crowds of Underground rioters. But the image is gone too quick, replaced by a waving video of the president.

“President Rod Reiss has embarked on his tour of the outer planets,” the television says. Levi turns back to reading about government-sponsored orchestral music from the past two hundred years. “He will visit twelve planets in all, including Rhea, Phoebe and Coeus, the three planets where separatist rebellions have continued until as recently as two years ago, and that are now under martial law. This is the first time President Reiss will visit these planets, and he hopes the visits will serve to aid relations among all planets in the Unified Government.”

Whatever the newscaster says next is drowned out by the sound of his doorbell chiming. Levi sighs. No one comes to his rooms except Hanji and his father, and he’s not really in the mood to see either.

There’s an intercom in this room, allowing him to speak to whoever is at the door. Now, Levi gets up and crosses his study to a little gray square set into the wall. He presses down on the square and asks, “Who is it?”

The voice that speaks through the intercom belongs to neither Hanji nor his father. “It’s the tailor, sir.”

The upper classes in Stohess have gone back in time in a few respects, and the origin of their clothing is one of them. In a day and age when high-quality clothing can be bought ready-made from factories, everyone in the nobility commissions tailors to custom-sew their clothes. Because why be efficient when you can be fancy?

Levi tries to avoid that. All his clothes are factory-made, unless his father has something to do with it. Which he clearly does in this case, because Levi didn’t even want new clothes in the first place. “I didn’t commission a tailor,” Levi says.

“Lord Falkanrath sent me.”

“Well, sorry for the trouble of coming out here, but your services aren’t needed.”

A pause from the other end. Then, “I’ve already made the clothes, sir.”

Levi rolls his eyes. Of course he did.

He goes to his front room and lets the tailor in. He’s a nervous-looking guy, balding and short (though not as short as Levi, of course). The clothes are carried in a garment bag, and once the tailor steps in, he holds the bag out in front of him and looks around, not sure where to put it but too nervous to ask. 

“Just . . . hang it over there,” Levi says, gesturing to a row of coat hooks near his front door. The tailor obeys, then hastily unzips the bag to display what he’s made.

What’s he’s made is not one, not two, but three high-fashion, formal suits. One black, one navy blue, and one white. He takes two out to hold them up and leaves the third hanging in the bag. They even come with complementary ties.

Levi has no idea where he’s going to wear one fancy-ass suit, let alone three, and the displeasure probably shows on his face. Or maybe it’s his normal, default look of disdain that makes the tailor nervously ask, “Do they suit your taste, sir?”

“Yeah, they’re fine.” Levi says. “Really nice, you did a great job. Now get out.”

The tailor nods, throws the two hangers he’s holding onto the coat rack, and scrambles out of the room. It occurs to Levi that the compliment he meant to be genuine probably didn’t come across that way. Demanding that the tailor “get out” most liked cancelled any positivity in his words. Well, there were those “rude” manners Erwin had noticed.

Once the tailor’s gone, Levi steps back to look at the clothes. They really are very nice, made from soft fabrics and in the angular cuts of the latest fashions. He just doesn’t want them, and he doesn’t like what their arrival implies.

But there’s no giving them back, so Levi stuffs them back into the bag and zips it up. He’s about to put it away in his closet when the doorbell rings yet again.

“Who is it this time?”

“It’s meeeeeeeee.”

Levi opens the door and lets Hanji in.

“Hey! How’s your day going? Is the cold totally gone? It ended up being pretty minor, didn’t it? All because you took the vitamin C pills like I told you to. Ohhh, what’s in the bag?”

“Just some clothes.”

“Can I see?”

“I literally just put them away.”

Hanji unzips the bag and starts puling the suits back out. “Oh these are niiiice. I like these. I didn’t know you were getting new clothes made.”   

“Neither did I.”

Hanji glances up at Levi. “Oh? Father’s doing?” Levi nods. “That guy’s just not going to rest until you act like a real noble. Good luck to him.”

“Please. Don’t with him good luck.”

“Are you going to wear one of these tomorrow?”

“What’s tomorrow?”

Hanji rolls their eyes. “The Carolina’s social. You told me about it yesterday. Don’t tell me you forgot already.”

Levi sinks down onto his couch. “I’m still trying to think of a way to get out of that.”

After hanging his suits back on the coat rack, Hanji joins him. They plop down with significantly less grace than Levi and relax into the couch, their legs spread apart and their hands on their stomach. “Just go, I’m sure it’ll be fine,” they say. “Just be yourself and no one will like you.”

“Then my dad’s going to be up my ass for failing his family and not showing gratitude for saving me from poverty and all that shit.”

“Yeah, but he’s going to be up your ass anyway for something else. He has no chill and no one is ever good enough for him.”

“True.”

“Besides, in a few months you’re heading off to military school and it won’t even matter.”

“That’ll probably feel like a fucking vacation to my father.”

“Are you kidding me? He loves yelling at you. He loves yelling, period. Without you around, he’ll have to find someone else to yell at. Before you know it he’ll be yelling at the potted plants.”

Levi snorts. “That I would like to see.”

“You there, fern! You’re not standing straight enough!” Hanji says in a mock deep voice. “Mr. Rosebush, we need to talk about your family duties.”

“Oh god, it’s too easy to picture.”

“Right? I’ll try to record it if I ever see it happening so I can send it up to you at military school.”

“Great. Thanks.”

“That’s what friends are for. Hey, speaking of friends being for something, I came over to help you study. If you want.”

Over the past few semesters, Hanji had gotten into the habit of helping Levi study for finals, making up questions based on what they read in his notes. They don’t actually know much about any of the subjects, but for some reason they seem to enjoy it, and having another person around helps the time go by for Levi. “I guess, but I have a lot boring subjects this semester.”

“Then you need me to keep you entertained. Come on.” They push themselves off the couch and stride toward Levi’s study. Levi follows a little less enthusiastically a moment later.

The television still proclaims the news to the empty room. Levi can hear it dimly when Hanji opens the door ahead of him. When Levi enters the study, Hanji’s standing in front of the TV, arms crossed and eyes glued to the screen.

“Hey, Levi,” they say. Their voice is quiet and uncharacteristically hesitant.

“What?”

“You don’t have any relations to an Ackerman who slits throats, right?”

Hanji turns around to face him, their eyes pleading for a no. They step out of the way just enough to give Levi a clear view of the TV, and where a wanted poster of the man who raised him fills the screen.

Chapter Text

“You don’t know him, you have no relation to him!” Levi’s father paces the room frantically. His hands are clasped tightly behind his back as though the strength of that grip is all that keeps him from falling apart. “Ackerman is a common enough name, and he looks nothing like you. So if anyone asks, if anyone says anything at all, you have never seen the man in your life. Understand?”

“Really? I was planning on calling up everyone in Stohess to tell them that we’re related.”

“Now is not the time for your sarcasm!”

It hadn’t taken long for last night’s news to reach Lord Falkanrath’s ears. Levi had gotten a summons first thing in the morning to go to his father’s sitting room and start his day with this little explosion.

Levi hadn’t heard a word from Kenny Ackerman since he was ten years old, when Kenny left the apartment they shared and never came back. Since then, Levi had no way of knowing where Kenny was or even if he was still alive. He had seemingly dropped out of the universe, leaving Levi to fend for himself. Last night’s news had been a rather harsh confirmation that he was, in fact, still around.

It didn’t make sense for Kenny, though. Kenny had always been extremely careful when taking jobs, and he never let himself be seen. He never took hits on high-profile targets, either, knowing full well that law enforcement is always more serious about protecting the rich and powerful. Yet according to the news, he had been seen killing two congressmen. Between the wanted poster and the social outrage around the deaths, it would only be a matter of time before Kenny was caught and executed.

The thought makes Levi’s uneasy, but of course he can’t say so to his father. As far as Lord Falkanrath is concerned, the sooner Kenny Ackerman dies, the better. After all, what’s one criminal’s life when the Falkanrath family reputation is at stake?

“I’m going to visit the chief of police. We’ll make sure that, when he does get caught, nothing gets back to you,” his father says.  

“Fine.”

“But until then, be careful. And for goodness sake, I think it’s time you took my name. There’s no use in keeping your mother’s. What do you have on that side of your family to be proud of?”

Levi thinks of his mother, who scraped together every cent she could get to care for Levi, sacrificing her own health to keep Levi fed. Levi thinks of her and forces himself to say nothing.  

“It’s an ugly name, besides. And now that it’s tied to a murderer, there’s no reason to keep it.”

Levi glares, clenching his teeth together to force himself to remain silent.

The silence sends his message. Eventually, his father sighs. “Just . . . go get ready for the social,” he says, even though it’s hours away. “Wear the navy blue suit.”

“Sure.”

Hanji’s waiting in the hall when Levi exits the sitting room, their messy hair and grease-stained clothes contrasting with the finery of the manor. They usually don’t come to this part of the house, but sometimes when they know Levi’s getting reamed out, they’ll make an exception. The two of them fall into step together, waiting until they’re far away from his father before speaking.

“What a shitty situation,” Hanji says eventually.

“Yup.”

“Were you really raised by him?”

“For four years.”

“Man. What was that like?”

“Well, I learned a lot about knives.” Levi shrugs. “Not terrible, honestly. He kept me fed, he gave me a roof, and he didn’t beat me. That’s more than a lot of Underground kids can say of their childhoods.”

“And yet he’s a murderer. Funny. You’d expect worse.”

“Yeah, well. That was just a job to him. He worked as a hit man. Used the money to feed me. Back then, I couldn’t afford to care where the money came from.”

They pass through the main halls of the manor, then take a nondescript door into the servants’ quarters. It’s much simpler in here, with blank walls and basic tiled floors instead of the gilded ornamentation of the manor proper. Levi always feels like he can breathe easier in here.

“So . . . you guys got along, then?” Hanji asks.

Levi shrugs. “I don’t know if ‘got along’ is the right word. He took care of me, but he also abandoned me. So I don’t . . .” Levi trails off and then shrugs. “I don’t like the guy, if that’s what you’re asking. But I hope he manages to stay hidden. He may be a shitty person, but he doesn’t deserve to die.”

*****

The navy blue suit makes Levi feel like a loser.

The jacket’s cut straight rather than tapered, with thin, angular lapels after the latest style. It’s also made to make Levi look a little larger than he really is. He found shoulder pads while putting it on, and it took all his self-control to not rip them out.

The ensemble’s completed by a bronze-colored tie and brown shoes. Hanji assures him that he looks great, but he can’t help but think he looks like an imposter. Like a little kid wearing his dad’s clothes.

The Carolina manor can almost be described as cute. It’s slightly smaller than his (which isn’t saying much) and much prettier. Large flower beds fan out around a red brick building, and a fountain bubbles cheerfully before the main door.

Levi’s driven around to the back of the manor, where a group of young adults mingle on the lawn. There’s another, smaller fountain here, and tiny lights strung up in a web above their heads, held by wire so thin it can’t be seen in the dusk. Tables laden with desserts border the area on two sides, while waiters weave among the finely-dressed crowd to offer drinks.

Levi recognizes almost everyone there. Most of them are his classmates at school, and the rest he’s seen at the occasional social event his father holds. He recognizes them, but he’s only formally met a handful, and he knows almost nothing about any them.

His car door is opened, and Levi has no choice but to step out and get this over with. As soon as he does, he’s greeted by the creeping sensation of being watched. But everywhere Levi looks, the guests are engrossed in their own conversations and paying him no attention. Only a couple times does he see quickly turning heads as evidence that someone had been looking at him.

The hostess somehow learns of his arrival immediately. She emerges from the crowd to meet him, wearing a broad smile and a floral dress that matches the colors in her flower garden with uncanny accuracy. A group of girls follows her, fanning out on either side to make sure they all get a good look at Levi.

“Mr. Ackerman, I’m so glad you could attend!” she says, her tone suspiciously bright. “It’s so rare to see you at social gatherings. This is such a pleasant surprise.”

“Thanks.” There’s a pause. Levi gets the awkward feeling that he’s supposed to say something else. “This is all . . . nice.”

“Oh, it’s just a small thing,” Miss Carolina says. “Just something I threw together. But what brought you out tonight, when it’s been so difficult to get you out in the past?”

Mina speaks as though she’s personally tried to get Levi to come out on multiple occasions. In reality, Levi has spoken with her a grand total of twice, and he can’t recall ever receiving a personal invitation. “Uh . . . I guess I just decided to come out,” he says lamely.  

“Well I’m thrilled that you chose to attend my little party.”

Another awkward pause. Is it his turn to say something again? There’s nothing else to say. Levi glances over to one of the dessert tables and wonders if it’d be too rude for him to leave this knot of people and head over there.

A bold voice pipes up from the edge of the group. “Have you heard the dreadful news about the congressmen?” a girl asks. Levi’s seen her before, but he doesn’t remember her name. “It must be very upsetting to share a surname with a murderer.”

“Uh, sure. Yeah, it is.”

“I heard that he was based out of the Underground. Had you ever heard of him before, Mr. Ackerman?”

So that’s what they’re so interested in. Fuel for their gossip. Levi just barely suppresses a sigh. “No. Ackerman’s a pretty common name. I’ve never heard of him before.”

“But of course,” Mina says forcefully. “We would have never wanted to imply that you had any connections with anyone so distasteful.”

“Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that you kept his company,” the girl says, defensive. “Merely that when one shares a neighborhood with someone, news of them may travel.”

“The Underground’s a pretty big place,” Levi says. “With enough murderers that one doesn’t stand out much.”

Based on the girls’ shocked expressions, this was maybe not the most charming thing to say.

“Does this make you think about finally taking your father’s name?” another girl chimes in, eagerly changing the subject. Levi would have rather kept talking about murderers.

 “Well, no. Even if it is shared with a killer, it’s also my mother’s name. I want to keep it to keep her memory alive.”

This is a much bigger hit than Levi could have planned for. As if following a cue, all the girls say “Awww” at the exact same time. Their high-pitched voices grate against Levi’s ears.

“That’s so sweet!” one of the girls exclaims. “You must have loved her very much.”

“Well, I think most people love their moms, yeah.”

There’s a round of laughter, much louder and longer than necessary, and then, thankfully, a couple young men join the conversation and their attention is distracted. Levi waits until all the girls are facing away from him, and then finally makes it over to the food table.

There are very few good things about social events, but the food definitely tops the list. Levi loads up a small china plate with chocolates and pastries and then steps away from the crowd, backing up against a topiary to eat in solitude.

He’s barely tasted his food when a voice asks, “What do you want?” It’s much clearer and much closer than any voice should be in this isolated spot

“Fuck,” Levi hisses, startled. He turns around, but there’s no one there, and for a crazy second Levi thinks it came from the topiary itself. It’s only when he cranes his head to peer around the bush that he sees the speaker. She’s standing to the left of the topiary, directly in its shadow. The fairy lights don’t reach back here, and with the manor blocking the setting sun, she’s almost totally in darkness. But Levi can just make out a familiar blonde bun.  

“You nearly made me shit myself,” Levi hisses. “What are you doing back there?”

Little by little, the familiar form of Lady Leohardt separates itself from the shadow. She wears a black dress that hands off one shoulder, making her appear to blend in with the darkness behind her. “The same thing you’re doing. Trying to find some peace.” She glances across the crowd of young people as a round of false laughter rings out. “If you want to be alone, go somewhere else.”

“Shit, okay. Sorry to disturb your creepy lurking in the bushes.”

Levi steps away, but then an idea occurs to him. A weird, awkward idea that he’d much rather ignore. He stops. 

“Hey, why are you here, anyway?” Levi asks Annie. “You clearly don’t want to be.” Unbidden, his words remind him of when Erwin had posed a similar question to Levi. Why are you here? Levi pushes the thought out of his mind. Now is not the time to be thinking about Erwin.

“The same reason anyone’s here,” Annie says, sarcastic bite just barely audible in her flat tone. “To find someone to court.”

“And you’re clearly doing a great job of that.” Annie glares at him. “Look, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but . . . you need to court someone, I need to court someone, neither of us actually want to. Maybe courting each other is the least painful option.”

Annie’s glare turns into an inspection, blue eyes looking Levi up and down as if scanning for any hint of a flaw. They’re a much paler color than Erwin’s, ice-like instead of his warm, bright blue. (Why can’t he stop thinking about Erwin?)

“Sure,” she says eventually. And then she turns away from Levi, sipping on a drink and staring ahead of her as if she’d agreed to nothing more serious than a stroll through the garden.

“Okay,” Levi says, and he can feel something like a weight being lifted. There’s no way his father could complain about courting Annie – she’s already a Lady in her own right and co-owner of a huge fortune. And this way, Levi won’t have to pretend to win over any of the vapid noble girls he had just been forced to talk to. Everyone’s happy.

“Well,” Levi says, “Thanks, then. I guess I’ll leave to your peace.”

“Wait. We need to pretend to talk to each other if anyone’s going to believe we’re courting.”

Levi glances at Annie and wonders how on earth they’ll come up with anything to talk about. “Okay. That makes sense,” he says. “How long?”

“Shouldn’t be too long. The group just to our right has already noticed us.”

Levi looks over to the knot of people Annie mentioned. None of them look their way. “How can you tell?”

“They’re talking more quietly and moving closer to each other. That means they’re gossiping. And when you look out of the corner of your eye, you can see them looking at us. The minute you look at them directly, they turn away.”

Levi watches the group while she speaks, looking for the subtle hints that Annie points out. The group definitely speaks more quietly, with much less fake smiles or exaggerated laughter than before. He turns away from them and, out of the corner of his eye, sees one girl look up and stare.

“How’d you last this long in the nobility without learning to read the room?” Annie asks.

“I don’t socialize much.” She nods, and there’s a brief silence until Levi asks, “So if you know how they work, why not join in with them?”

Annie doesn’t answer at first, the silence stretching on until Levi’s certain she’s not going to.

“It’s all a game,” she says eventually. “Everyone’s born into a role, and they play the part they’re given. Every person in every walk of life is a fake.”

Something about what she says jars with Levi. “Not the people in the Underground,” he says. “They’re not nearly as fake as the people here.”  

“They lost the game before they were born.” She takes a sip of her drink, ice-like eyes looking out over the crowd, and continues. “There’s no winning, in this game. From the poorest to the richest, everyone’s miserable. Some are just better at hiding it.”

Levi follows Annie’s gaze out over the guests. From a distance, everyone looks satisfied. They’re all attractive, all rich, all in the most beautiful clothes money can buy. As far as Levi can see, they’re all happy. But their smiles are a little too big, their words a little too measured, their laughter a little too loud. A careful performance of happiness.

“There’s no winning,” Annie repeats. “So I’m not playing.”

*****

Levi closes his eyes and stretches out on Erwin’s bed, letting himself sink deeper into bliss. He sighs as the warm press of Erwin’s tongue travels up his cock. It lingers around his tip, teasing, before disappearing briefly to start again from the bottom.

Since his last visit, Levi had been thinking about their time together in the shower. And as wonderful as it was, he couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like if Erwin had stayed on his knees. So this time, after a great deal of awkward, embarrassed hinting, Levi had managed to ask Erwin to show him what he had missed out on.

Erwin had been surprisingly enthusiastic once he figured out what Levi wanted, giving Levi’s cock such tender attention that he almost seemed to be enjoying it. It was more than enough to ease Levi’s embarrassment, and now as he opens his eyes to peek down at Erwin, he finds himself almost smiling. Erwin meets his gaze and smiles back. He keeps his eyes on Levi as he circles his lips around the edge of Levi’s cock, sucking gently.

Levi lets his eyelids droop closed again. He doesn’t need to look at Erwin. He only needs to feel him, the careful ministrations of Erwin’s lips and tongue and the warm touch of his hands on Levi’s hips. Only needs to know those sensations that are distinctly and beautifully Erwin.

Levi squirms a little on the sheets, his knees hugging Erwin’s torso. He’s undressed from the waist down, and Erwin from the waist up. Skin brushes skin as Levi lifts one leg, stretching it out languidly against Erwin’s side.

He settles that leg over Erwin’s back, gasps when Erwin begins moving his lips up and down. They pull and suck at Levi’s skin with the most amazing friction, warm and slow, every little touch calculated to make Levi feel as beautiful as possible. Levi feels his face and chest flush, feels himself sink deeper and deeper under Erwin’s spell. When Erwin takes him in just a little more, Levi hears himself let out a moan that cuts through the room.

The suddenness of the noise almost startles Levi. Normally, Erwin speaks to him while they have sex, whispers in his ear just how beautiful Levi looks or how good he feels. And if he’s not speaking, Levi can at least hear his breathing, his gasps, the sound of their skin coming together. Without all that it’s oddly quiet, nothing but the tiniest sounds of Erwin’s lips accompanying Levi’s labored breath. He feels almost more exposed this way, his pleasure more obviously on display for Erwin. And yet, oddly, it’s not a bad feeling.

Erwin lifts away from him, lips coming off Levi’s tip with a soft pop. He blows warm breath against the underside of Levi’s shaft, short bursts of heat that prickle against the wetness there. Then, Levi feels Erwin’s lips connect with his balls, covering them with gentle kisses and licks before taking them into his mouth and sucking.

“Ohhh . . . Oh my god,” Levi pants. It is, he thinks, the first time he’s spoken any coherent words while with Erwin. If Erwin notices, he makes no sign of it. There’s no pause in the movements of his tongue or lips.

Levi lets his eyes open, stares at the red canopy that hangs over the bed. It swims in his vision, red like the heat that courses through his entire body, red like the swollen lips that caress him. Levi twists the sheets between his fists and pushes himself closer to Erwin, desperate to get as much of those lips as possible.

Eventually, Erwin lifts his head and again takes Levi into his mouth. He moves more quickly now, taking in more at a time. Levi feels himself thrusting up, aching to have his whole cock surrounded. Erwin’s hands, gentle but firm, keep him in place. He fights against those hands, but deep down he doesn’t want Erwin’s hold to ever let up. Levi loves the strength behind the touch, the slightest hint of control. Levi doesn’t know what he’d do if Erwin ever let go.

Erwin’s mouth sinks down even further until his lips encircle Levi’s base, Levi’s tip hitting the back of his throat. He breathes out, and Levi can feel the hot air surrounding him, sending little shivers through his cock.

Shit,” Levi gasps as Erwin begins sucking, tongue and mouth squeezing tight around him. “Shit, I’m gonna . . . I think I’m gonna . . .”

Erwin moves ever so slightly, rubbing his tongue against Levi’s base until it becomes too much to bear and, with a shout and a rush of pleasure, Levi comes. He spills into his condom, and Erwin’s lips don’t leave him until he’s done.

When Levi finishes, he opens his eyes to see Erwin smiling over his now limp cock. Erwin plants a kiss on the inside of Levi’s thigh, lingers there before sitting up.

“You seemed to enjoy that,” Erwin says. His hands leave Levi’s hips, but one hand travels lovingly up Levi’s thigh and rests there, warming it. “I liked hearing you.”

 “Mm. Never saying anything during sex again,” Levi mutters.

“Why? I liked it. Do you dislike me so much that you’d deny me what I enjoy?”

“You just like getting your ego – hey!” Erwin’s reaching for Levi’s condom. Levi sits up and pushes his hands away before he can touch it. “You’re taking off my used condom? That’s nasty.”

“It’s not a problem at all. I’ll be very careful with it. Besides, I wouldn’t want you to have to touch my spit.”

“I’ll take care of it. I’ll wash my hands after.”

“As you wish.”

“Do you always do that kind of shit with your clients?” Levi asks as he slips the condom off. “So far you’ve tried to clean me off, wash me in the shower and take my used condom. Do most people enjoy that?”

“People enjoy being served,” Erwin answers. “And I enjoy serving.”

“That’s a load of shit.” Levi gets off the bed to throw the condom out, and then goes to the bathroom to thoroughly wash his hands. He sees his hair sticking up at odd angles in the bathroom mirror and tries to pat it down to regain some semblance of dignity. When he comes out, Erwin’s sitting back against the headboard.

“What would you like for the rest of the night?” Erwin asks. “It’s early yet.”

“Why? You won’t get paid any extra.”

“I want to be sure you’re satisfied.”

“I am satisfied.” Levi perches on the edge of the bed. Suddenly self-aware of his naked lower half, he instinctively tries to cross his legs and hide his cock from Erwin. He stops when he recognizes the stupidity of hiding his cock from someone who just had it halfway down his throat. “It can’t be fun to play with a stranger’s dick all night,” Levi says. “I’m letting you off the hook.”

“Are we strangers?”

The question catches Levi off guard. He meets Erwin’s gaze, and he’s struck by how familiar it is. Levi’s seen that face from every angle now, explored every inch of Erwin’s body, let himself be more vulnerable before Erwin than he had ever been for anyone else. Yet Levi doesn’t know anything about the man outside of his profession.

“You don’t know the first thing about me besides what I like in bed,” Levi says.

“That’s not entirely true.” Erwin moves closer, so that he’s sitting right behind Levi. Levi twists around to face him, finds his face only inches away from Erwin’s chest. “I know that you’re reserved, that you don’t feel comfortable with displays of emotion, especially vulnerable emotions. I know that you’re blunt, and not afraid to say what you think. I know that you were raised in the Underground and that that you’re not entirely at ease in your current social position.” Erwin smiles. “And I know that you really like tea.”

“All that from how I am in bed?” Erwin only chuckles softly in response. “Okay, fine. But what the fuck do I know about you? Besides that you’re smug and overconfident and good at sex?”

“Do you really think I’m overconfident?”

“And for all I know, that might just be part of the Companion act,” Levi continues. “I mean, it fits with the whole . . .” Levi gestures to Erwin’s broad pecs. “Big, hulking, tender action-hero-meets-sugar-daddy thing you have going on.”

Erwin blinks, and his gentle smile breaks into a much wider, much more amused one. “I have to say, no one has ever described me in terms quite like that.”

“What are you really like?”

“What do you mean?”

“When you’re not being a Companion, what do you do? What do you like? Are you really this polished all the time, or do you shit like a normal person?”

Erwin’s eyes widen in surprise, and an amazed laugh escapes his lips. “Your bluntness really is refreshing.”

“That’s Companion-talk for I’ve offended you.”

“No, it’s not. I promise.”

“Yeah, sure.” Levi stands, tries not to think of the view Erwin’s getting of his ass while he bends down to pick his pants up off the floor. “I’ll give you the rest of the night off.”

“Please, you don’t have to. I want you to stay. I enjoy your company.”

“You sucked my dick and didn’t have the chance to get off yourself. Don’t tell me you enjoyed that.”

“But I did. I enjoy making you happy.” Levi rolls his eyes. “Why don’t you believe me?”

“This is your job. No one enjoys their jobs. Especially when it involves someone else’s dick.” He pulls his pants up and zips them, turns around when he’s fully dressed to find Erwin standing right behind him.

“I’ve seen enough dicks in my life that they really don’t faze me anymore.”

The statement is delivered in the same polished, easy tone that Erwin uses for everything, and Levi finds himself unable to stop a laugh. Erwin laughs too, the smooth muscles of his torso rippling with each chuckle.

“You’re really something else,” Levi says.

“And I use the bathroom just as often as anyone else.”

“So even Companions shit, huh?”

“Even Companions shit.”

“I don’t believe it. Bet it’s fancy shit. Gilded at the edges.”

“Well, of course.” Erwin speaks with his usual even tone, and only an amused half-smile reveals his sarcasm. “Everything a Companion does must be charming, including bodily functions.”

“Of course.”

“Companions have introduced gold leaf into their diet for that very purpose.”

“Yeah? How does that taste?”

Erwin pauses before answering, half-smile growing. “Like shit.”

Levi rolls his eyes and groans. He can hear Erwin laughing at his reaction, and when Levi looks back at him, Erwin has the brightest smile Levi has ever seen on him.

“You know, in all my years as a Companion, I have never had a conversation with a client that involved bathroom humor.”

“I tend to bring down the level of class wherever I go.”  

Erwin gently takes ahold of Levi’s hand and raises it. Levi finds himself stepping forward to close what little distance there is between them. If he just straightens his fingers, he could touch Erwin’s skin. He’s tempted to do so as Erwin bends down to gives his hand a parting kiss.

His lips are warm and light against Levi’s skin, and it might just be Levi’s imagination, but he swears Erwin lingers a little longer than usual.

Then Erwin raises his head, level with Levi’s eyes, and says, “I don’t think that’s true at all.”

Their faces are close, noses a breath away from touching, and Levi finds his gaze dropping to Erwin’s lips. Soft and welcoming, lips that kissed him when he arrived and that enticed every possible bit of pleasure from him as he lay on the bed. Every instinct tells Levi to lean forward, just a few inches closer . . .

“You truly are one of a kind, Levi,” those lips say.   

The words stir up a warm feeling that Levi can’t quite name, one that he’s never had before. A tight, warm ache deep in his chest, beautiful and unbearable all at once

Chapter Text

It’s still fairly early when Levi arrives back at his manor that night, and he can see lights from the servants’ quarters illuminating the upper floors. He hopes none of the servants are gazing out their windows as he’s driven around to the back of the house. Servants love to gossip, and there are only so many explanations for him returning home late at night in a strange cab.

He takes his preferred back entrance through the kitchens. But instead of taking the service elevator, Levi begins climbing the stairs. His apartment is five stories up, but tonight he’s in the mood for the exercise. There’s a lot going on in his mind, more than he generally likes there to be. The long climb will help him clear his head until he no longer has this strong, strangw feeling that Erwin left him with.

You truly are one of a kind.

Levi shakes his head. He doesn’t understand why those words left such an impression on him. Though it wasn’t necessarily the words, but more the way they were said . . .

Levi’s so deep in his thoughts when steps onto the fourth floor landing that he doesn’t see someone darting into the stairwell. When they collide, though, Levi knows exactly who it is. Only one person on the household staff moves with so much excessive energy. 

“Shit, Hanji.”

“Levi! What are you doing out here?”

“Um . . .” Levi steps away from them and struggles to come up with some kind of excuse. “I couldn’t sleep, so I’m taking a nighttime walk.”

They cross their arms and tilt their head at Levi. “You know, that’s not entirely safe,” they say. “You never know when there’s gonna be a robber out.”

“What are you doing up?” he asks.

“Oh, I . . . was just going to . . . look at the stars.”

“So walking at night is unsafe, but just standing around isn’t?”

Instead of answering, Hanji sucks in their lips, considering something. Then they open their mouth with a loud pop and say, “You know what, I’m gonna tell you.”  

“Tell me what?”

“Wanna see my secret?”

“. . . Okay?”

“It’s nothing weird, promise.” They take Levi’s hand, and before he can protest he’s being dragged up the final flights stairs. They pass the fifth floor, continuing up to the roof access door.

“Hanji, this goes to a dead end,” Levi says. “The access door has been sealed off at this part of the house.”

“Please. You think I couldn’t unseal a little door?”

They stop under a hatch in the ceiling, and Hanji climbs up ladder rungs set into the wall to get closer to it. The door handle is gone, and the hatch looks like it’s been welded shut. But Hanji takes a key out of their pocket, inserts it into what looks like nothing more than a screw, and turns it. The door swings up easily, and Hanji clambers out onto the manor’s roof.

“It’s a clear night,” they say. “Come on up.”

Levi follows, lifting himself into the cool night air. A breeze blows across his face in refreshing contrast to the stillness within the manor. It feels nice, almost freeing. Levi looks out over the edge of the manor and sees the lights of Stohess twinkling for miles. From this view, the whole city looks peaceful.  

“Isn’t it pretty up here?” Hanji asks. “Sometimes I just come up here to hear myself think, you know?”

Levi glances up at the sky. In the city proper, the light pollution is much too strong to see the stars. But in North Stohess, where the nobles’ manors are spread and the lights aren’t as strong, a few specks in the sky can be seen.

Levi was eleven when he first saw the stars, shining above his father’s manor the night he had arrived. They had seemed just as foreign, just as otherworldly, as the large manor itself. But the view he had when he was eleven is nothing compared to what he sees now on the roof, above the few lights that illuminate the manor’s grounds. There are hundreds more stars than Levi could have ever imagined, a sparkling array that makes the sprawling city dull in comparison.  

Hanji follows Levi’s gaze upwards. “The stars are clearer out than they are anywhere else in the city,” they say.

“But why did you unseal that door? You could always go up another way.”

“So no one finds my little baby.”

“Huh?” When Levi turns away from the stars, Hanji’s hurrying to a large vent a few yards away. It’s something built to help filter the air in the manor, but Levi can tell by its silence that it’s no longer in use. As he watches, Hanji takes the screen off the vent and lean in until their upper body disappears. When they reemerge, there’s a large, misshapen bundle in their arms.

Hanji then kneels on the ground and begins putting something together. Levi hears the scraping of metal against metal, sees Hanji twist some screws here and slide two pieces together there. It’s difficult, in the dark, to tell exactly what Hanji’s doing. But eventually the shape of a tripod appears, and then, after a few more minutes of Hanji fiddling with something, a long cylinder is attached to it. Levi steps closer, and in the shadows he can barely make out the form of a telescope.

“Where did you get that?” he asks.

“I made it.”

“Made it?” Hanji’s always been good at building, but a telescope is much more complex than what anyone can build themselves, or so Levi had thought. “Where’d you get the parts?”

“Maintenance requisitions,” they say. “When you’re ordering stuff to keep a giant manor up and running, no one blinks twice at a few extra screws or metal plates. The magnifying disks were a little harder to get ahold of. I had to order them through the black market on the cortex.”

“You can get on the cortex?” Anyone who wants access to the cortex has to purchase special permissions, and those permissions are expensive. Working class people can rarely afford them.

Hanji peers through the eyepiece in their homemade telescope, carefully turning knobs on the side to adjust it. “Yeah, that’s because of maintenance requests, too. I asked the head of household if I could access the cortex for research on the latest building technologies. I mean, when I initially asked for the permissions, that’s all I wanted.” They turn to Levi, and though Levi can’t clearly see their face, he can hear the excitement in their voice. “But there’s so much information there, Levi,” they say. “Everything, on any topic you could ever want. I was reading about new metals found on Oceanus and how they could improve construction, and then I just got curious and started reading about the planet. How the planet had first formed, what its natural atmosphere and geology were like, how it was terraformed. Do you realize how crazy terraforming is? It has to be so precise, just the right gases in the atmosphere and the right amount of water, they have to use natural craters to make lakes and rivers and oceans . . . God, it’s so fascinating. You really should read about it sometime.”

Hanji usually speaks with energy; this is something different. They’re more focused, more intense. Their words tumble out at a furious pace, struggling to keep up with their excitement.

“Anyway,” Hanji continues. “I got addicted. The permissions the household bought for me only last for an hour a week, so once a week I log on and read as much as I can. First about terraforming the core planets and all their moons, then all the rim planets. Advances in space travel. The technology of light-speed transport. Then I went beyond the developed universe. Stars. Novas. Supernovas. Black holes. It just blows the mind, what’s in space. Stuff so big or hot or cold or beautiful that we can’t even imagine it, can barely even see or measure it.”

Levi knows this. He took astronomy this past semester, and he took a final exam on it only two days ago. But when Hanji speaks, he feels like he’s discovering space for the first time in his life. “I had no idea you liked astronomy so much.”

“Yeah . . .” Their voice trails away, and when they speak again it’s quieter. “Well, you know. Being a working class person, it’s kind of weird for me to like science. Or people would say it’s weird, anyway. Working class people aren’t “supposed” to like anything other than plumbing and factories. And it’s all bullshit, of course, but I’m already a gender freak . . so I kind of wanted to hide anything that would give people even more reasons to think I’m a freak.”

“You’re not a gender freak,” Levi says.

“Well I know that, and you know that, but 90% of the population of Stohess doesn’t know that.” They sigh. “Anyway. They say the genetic make-up of people in the working class is different from people in professional class, which is different from people in the nobility, and so on. But I combed the cortex for the reason why that is, you know, for the research that proves it. There’s lots of research articles stored there, you know. Every science experiment ever conducted has to have a report about it on the cortex. Some are classified, sadly. But I looked through all the articles I could find on genetics and class divisions, and not one gave convincing evidence for the theory of genetic intelligences. It makes me wonder if the only reason people from the working class don’t grow up to be scientists is because it’s too fucking expensive to go to university.”   

They lean down to peer through the telescope again. With careful, practiced movements, they adjust the lenses to give them the best sight possible.

“Hanji, how long have you had access to the cortex?” Levi asks.    

“Two years,” they say without looking up.  

“Two years. One hour a week. And in that time, you’ve built a functional telescope from scratch, read all the scientific reports available on genetics, and learned everything there is to know about astronomy?”

“I trained myself to read fast.”

“Hanji, why didn’t you tell me you were a fucking genius?”

“Genius?” Hanji starts up a little, considering the word. They shake their head. “No, no, I’m not a genius . . . I mean I guess I’m smart . . .”

“You’re more than smart. Hanji, if you could learn this much in one hour a week, imagine what you could do if you studied full time.”

“Yeah, well.” The bend back down over the telescope. “Come over here, I want to show you something.   

“I’ll pay,” Levi says.

“Pay for what?”

“University. For you.”

They don’t move. For a moment, Hanji is more still and quiet than Levi has ever seen them. Then, without looking up, they say very slowly. “You’d . . . pay . . . for me?”

“Sure. What else am I doing with my money?”

“I . . . I can’t ask you to do that for me.”

“Trust me, it’d be my pleasure.”

Hanji straightens up very slowly. Instead of looking at Levi, they tilt their head back, looking up at the stars. “Wow . . .” And for a moment, Levi’s certain that they’ll accept his offer. But then they say, “It wouldn’t work, of course.”  

“Why the fuck not?”

“That would be, like, all of your money and all of mine. Besides,” they shrug. “They’d hate me, at the university. Sure, they’d have to accept me if someone’s paying, but I’m a working person, and working people build their houses and drive their cars. No noble’s going to be okay with that changing.”

“So? You think they don’t hate me? It doesn’t matter.”

“And I’d have to pose as female, probably,” they say. “Present as female and act female. Maybe I could disguise myself as male, men get more respect in the sciences. But either way I’d have to pretend to be something I’m not.” They sigh and look away from the sky. “I don’t think I could pretend to be something I’m not for the rest of my life.”

Their voice is uncharacteristically soft and flat. Levi wants to say something comforting, but he knows there’s nothing he can say. There’s no way he can change Hanji’s situation.  

“But enough about me, if you’re up here you might as well look through my little baby.” The enthusiasm in Hanji’s voice seems forced, but Levi lets them pull him over to the telescope. “Look,” they instruct.

Levi peers through the eyepiece. Hanji has it trained on a bright yellow star in the distance. He can just barely make out the dark spec of a sunspot.

“That’s The Sun, the original sun, the one that Ancient Earth is still circling around. Three hundred ninety-two light-years away.”

“How do you know that’s it?”

“It’s a matter of remembering what stars appear in the night sky during each season. In the summer, the northern hemisphere of Sina can see The Sun cutting across the center of the sky. And turn the telescope just a little to the right, until you see a faint blue dot.”

Levi obeys. “Okay, I think I see it,” he asks. “What is it?”  

“Ancient Earth.”

He expected that answer, and yet hearing it confirmed gives Levi something of a chill. From this distance, hundreds of light years away, it’s nothing but an insignificant smudge in the blackness of space. But Levi’s seen pictures of the surface of the abandoned planet. Of the vast brown wastelands stripped clean of their vegetation, pockmarked by craters formed when resources were pulled out of the ground. Or of empty coastal cities that had been reclaimed by the sea, with waves streaming between hollowed out skyscrapers. The planet that had given birth to humanity, stripped of life by its ungrateful children.  

“It’s crazy to think we destroyed an entire planet,” Hanji breathes.

“And yet,” Levi says, “Not really surprising.” He stands, stepping away from the telescope.

“I guess,” Hanji says. “But did you know that there are still some species of plants and animals alive on Earth? Mostly bugs and weeds, and stuff like that, stuff that’s hard to kill. But there may have been small populations of other animals, and with humans having been gone for five hundred years, it’s totally possible that a lot of species have made a comeback. Life may be going on there even better than it was when humans lived on it.”

Levi crosses his arms and looks up at the sky. Without the telescope, he can barely make out Ancient Earth. “A living planet without any people,” he says. “Sounds kind of nice.”

“Why’s that?”

“No one to fuck things up,” he says. “So, do you know the names of all these other stars?”

“Do I? Please.” They raise their hand to point, and they’re off. “See that big reddish one? That’s the planet Mnemosyne. Then those three have the first names of the scientists who discovered them, Joe and Neill and Nick. And just to the left of them is Ilse. Move up and to your right, and you have Orion’s belt – that could be seen from Ancient Earth, too – with the stars Aniltak, Anilam and Mentaka. Then there’s Meissa, and Betelgeuse . . .” 

The names mean nothing to Levi, and they all blur together as Hanji continues talking. But the stars are beautiful, and Levi is content to stare at them and listen to the excitement in Hanji’s voice. It’s relaxing, in a way, to turn his attention away from all that happens on the planet below him, and instead focus on the promise of space.   

*****

“How did the social go? Did any young woman catch your eye?”

Sundays are, without a doubt, the worst day of the week. Levi circles his finger around the rim of his teacup. The tea Lord Falkanrath serves is strong and bitter, a deep black that burns on its way down. He thinks of the sweet tint in the tea Erwin serves and wishes he were drinking that instead.

“Did you hear me?” his father presses.

“Yes, actually. I had a really good conversation with Lady Leonhardt.”

His father stares at him, as if waiting for Levi to add something else. And when he doesn’t, Lord Falkanrath barks out a laugh. “Oh, goodness, no.”

“Why not?”

“You are not courting that girl. Just imagine how people would talk about you.”

“It wouldn’t be any worse than how people already talk about either of us,” Levi says. “And she’s rich. I thought that’s all you cared about.”

“You are not courting such a sullen and unpleasant girl.”

“I’m a sullen, unpleasant boy. Don’t see why it wouldn’t work.”

“You say that as though you don’t have a choice in the matter. Any time you’d like, you could start acting with some common decency. People might actually like you then.”

“They wouldn’t, and you know it,” Levi says. “They’ll never accept someone who wasn’t born into this life.”

“That’s all the more reason to prove to them that you do belong, and that you won’t always be an Underground brat.”

Levi clenches his hand around the teacup and takes a drink. He’s gone as far as he safely can in provoking his father. Time to stop responding, before the whole house hears them yelling. But there’s a lot he’d like to say to his father – about how not everyone born in the Underground is a “brat,” about how many of the people in the Underground were better people than any noble Levi had met.

“You’re not courting the Leonhardt girl,” his father says calmly. “I’ll find someone else for you.”

“Good luck with that.”

His father sighs. It’s his turn to take a sip of his tea, closing his eyes and clearly working to keep his anger under control. It works. When Lord Falkanrath puts the teacup down, he’s as calm and composed as though nothing had ever bothered him in the first place. It’s a talent Levi has observed in many nobles and one that he refuses to cultivate in himself.

“I know you’ve been visiting a Companion,” he says, as calmly as though he were remarking on the weather. “The word has traveled through the household staff.”  

Levi freezes. His grip around the teacup tightens as he braces himself for a scolding.

But his father merely says, “There’s no reason to hide it. It was something of a relief when I found out. That’s perhaps the most normal thing I’ve known you to do. And if it’s a female Companion, I highly recommend you invite her out with you. It will put you in good social standing. Perhaps you can bring her to the next social event that you go to and let her facilitate conversation. That way, you might even be able to speak with respectable people. I trust that it is, of course, a female Companion.”

Levi swallows. After an uncomfortably long moment, Levi simply says, “I’ll think about inviting her out.”

“Excellent. That will be all for today.”

*****

Levi sits with one foot on Erwin’s coffee table, enjoying the sweet tea he serves. It’s been a little over two weeks since he last saw Erwin, the shortest break Erwin’s busy schedule allows. When Erwin had opened the door to him, Levi had braced himself for all the uncomfortable feelings seeing Erwin usually brought. But they hadn’t come. The truth was, for the first time, stepping into Erwin’s room felt somewhat comfortable. Familiar, even.

It’s amazing what can be gotten used to.

There’s only one thing in this room that still unsettles Levi – Erwin himself. Erwin now sits next to him, legs cross and casually leaning back into the couch, and Levi watches him out of the corner of his eye and tries to get a read on how Erwin’s going to approach him today.

“Will you be beginning a new semester of university this week?” Erwin asks him.

“Already begun. New classes started on – wait. When did I tell you I was a student?”

“I simply guessed by your age.”

Levi glares at him. “That’s kind of creepy.”

“Simply observant,” Erwin replies.

Now that’s one more thing Erwin knows about his life outside this room. And Levi still doesn’t know anything about Erwin. It irks him. He’s given very few people the privilege of getting to know him; it doesn’t feel right that Erwin gets that privilege without returning the favor.

“Are you looking forward to this semester?” Erwin asks.

“No. I’m not really a fan of that school.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“Yeah? Did you observe that, too?”

Erwin smiles at him. “Sina University isn’t a kind place to those who enjoy speaking their mind.”

“You’re fucking right about that. The place is so full of bullshit I wouldn’t be surprised if half the facts they teach us are made up.”

“I understand it’s a difficult place to learn in, despite its prestige.”

Levi wonders if Erwin could have learned there. He’s adept enough at bullshit. Of course, Erwin studied at a school that was most likely filled with even more lies. “Probably can’t be as bad as the Companion Academy.”

“Why do you say that?”

“A bunch of Companions all going to school together? The bullshit level would be incredible.”

Erwin chuckles. “I actually had a very pleasant time at the Companion Academy.”

“Yeah? What do they even teach you there besides how to lie and how to fuck?”

“Well, besides seduction and sexual arts,” Erwin says, “We studied history, literature, mathematics, physics, astronomy, philosophy, music, art, and dance. Companions have to be well-rounded. We specialize in more than mere pleasure.”

“Yeah? What’s the point of all that well-roundedness? Do you recite philosophy in bed?”

“I have,” Erwin replies with a playful smile, and Levi’s not sure if he’s joking. “But it’s for conversation. Companions must be able to engage anyone in conversation, no matter their subject of interest. A Companion who knows a little bit on every subject is a much more interesting person to spend time with.”

“Huh.” Levi can’t help but feel slightly chided. He never would have thought the Companion Academy would have been so comprehensive. “Still, can’t see why you’d have to know stuff like math to be a Companion. Can’t imagine you’d have many conversations about math.”

“Sometimes, knowledge is an end unto its own.”

“You’re full of shit.” As he takes a drink of his tea, Levi realizes that this is the first thing he’s learned about Erwin – the real Erwin, as opposed to whoever he pretends to be. It’s small, and it’s insignificant, but it’s a start. Levi wonders how far he can get.

“Any classes you just couldn’t get?” he asks Erwin.

“Not necessarily. I worked hard in all my classes, and performed well.”

“For all I know, you could be lying.”

“I could be, but I promise I’m not,” Erwin says with a smile. “Of course some classes came less easily than others, but I ultimately succeeded in all of them.”

“What came less easily?” Levi’s suddenly hungry for some record of failure, some chink in the armor of perfection that Erwin seems to wear. Something to make him human.

Erwin hesitates for moment, as if considering whether or not to answer. “Music,” he says eventually. “I’m afraid I’m rather tone-deaf.”

Levi snorts. He tries to imagine a young Erwin singing off-key and grins at the image. “So you aren’t perfect,” he says.

“Alas, my one flaw.”

“Must be difficult, to have one whole flaw.”

“I will never be able to sing you any loves songs.”

“Thank fucking god for that.”

Erwin chuckles, and Levi lets himself laugh a little, too. “You wouldn’t like to be serenaded?”

“I think I’d kill someone before they tried that.”

Erwin wraps his arm around Levi waist, pulling him in closer. Levi puts down his teacup and then willingly moves into the embrace. His foot drops from the table as he scoots closer to Erwin, nestling himself up against Erwin’s chest.

“In that case, perhaps I am perfect,” Erwin murmurs in his ear. “For you, at least.”

He kisses Levi before he can respond, long and sweet. When they break apart, Levi says, “You’re full of shit. You’re not perfect.” His lips are so close to Erwin’s that they brush against his as he speaks. Levi can taste the hot breath coming from Erwin’s mouth, and when Erwin leans forward for another kiss, he’s ready.

“In what way do I need to improve?” Erwin asks. The question comes out in short spurts, a few words between each kiss, panted among the movements of their lips.  

Levi meets each press of Erwin’s mouth, and it’s difficult for him to remember what Erwin asked him. His mind fights against itself to think of something other than Erwin’s touch. “You’re uh . . . you’re arrogant, for one thing,” Levi manages to gasp.

“Am I?” Erwin moves on to kissing Levi’s jaw, right under his ear. Levi braces his hand on Erwin’s shoulder, tipping his head back, and sighs. Erwin lips tickle him, exploring his neck with a feather-light touch.

“Yeah, you’re . . . uh . . .” Levi’s words dissolve as he completely forgets what they had been talking about.

“What would you like of me tonight, Levi?”

“What . . . whatever . . .” Levi says. “You always figure it out, anyway.”

“But I like hearing from you.” Erwin’s fingers dip under the hem of Levi’s shirt and then push it up over his head. Levi’s taken to wearing a basic t-shirt to Erwin’s instead of the more formal button-down, confident now that he doesn’t need to impress Erwin. It’s quicker to get off, anyway.

“I just want . . .” the words trail away as Erwin’s hands press against his bare back. Levi loves this moment, when the skin is first bare and Erwin always, in some way, explores his body. Now his fingertips trail down Levi’s spine, feeling each tiny bump and settling at the bottom.

“What do you want?” Erwin whispers.

Levi works at the knot in Erwin’s tie, eager to see the broad muscles that still amaze him, even after all these weeks. He considers if he wants to ask for anything specific, as he did during his last visit when he asked for oral. But no, he doesn’t want to do something like that again, where Erwin did all the work without having the chance to get off himself.

The thought gives Levi an idea, and he leans back just enough to look Erwin in the eye. “What do you want?” he asks.

“What do you mean?”

Levi shrugs. “What do you want to do tonight?”

Levi hoped the question would catch Erwin off-guard. But no, Erwin seems prepared for this. He smiles and puts a hand on Levi’s cheek, gently stroking with his thumb. When he speaks, his words are as seductive as ever.

“I want,” he says, “To hear those sweet moans you make when you’re satisfied and see the blush that spreads to your chest when you’re aroused.” His hand drops back down Levi’s back, slides under the waistband of his pants. “I want to look in your eyes and watch you squirm with pleasure every time I touch you.” Erwin squeezes at Levi’s ass while his other arm snakes around Levi’s back, holding him tight. “I want to watch as you grow more and more aroused, to bring you to the edge and then let you linger there, building it up until you have the most powerful orgasm of your life. And, if I can,” Erwin leans forward to whisper in Levi’s ear, “I’d like to make you say my name.”

He places a kiss on the tip of Levi’s earlobe and then pulls him close. Levi’s gone slack in Erwin’s grip, Erwin’s words painting obscene pictures in his mind that have taken over every thought. He rests his head on Erwin’s chest as Erwin asks him, “How does that sound?”

“That sounds . . . okay . . .”

Erwin has begun unzipping Levi’s pants. Levi looks down as the broad hands push them down off his hips, and as Erwin’s fingers stroke along the front of his underwear. He feels himself steadily becoming hard.

“Just okay?” Erwin asks.

“Fuck you, you know what I mean.”

“I do.” Erwin pushes his pants down further, and Levi wriggles on the couch to get them completely off. Then he straddles Erwin’s lap, settling his bare legs on either side of Erwin’s thighs. “But I’d like to hear you say it.”

They kiss; Erwin catches his lips and returns one hand to the front of Levi’s underwear, growing his arousal. Levi sighs, gives himself over to the command of Erwin’s lips.

“If you know what I’m going to say, I shouldn’t have to say it,” Levi mumbles when they part.  

“But I want you to,” Erwin says. Levi gains enough presence of mind to keep undressing Erwin, and Erwin allows it, watching the delicate fingers work as they push off his suit coat and work on the buttons on his shirt. “You did ask me what I want.”

“And I’m already regretting it.”

Levi bends forward to kiss the skin that he’s exposed at the top of Erwin’s chest, suckling at the hollow of Erwin’s throat and the base of his neck. He hears Erwin give a satisfied hum and feels it, too, the vibrations in his throat tickling Levi’s lips. Erwin cards one hand through Levi’s hair repeatedly, a steady, rhythmic sensation that relaxes him.

“Mm . . . You’re going to leave a mark,” Erwin murmurs.

Levi stops, lifts his head up. “Are your other customers going to get jealous?”

“Why, not at all.”

“Hm. Bullshit.” Levi considers leaving the mark anyway out of spite. But spite for who, exactly? Erwin, for doing his job? Or his other customers, who are probably just as helpless to Erwin’s charm as he is?

Levi pulls his thoughts away from any other customers Erwin may have. They’re not in the room right now, and they don’t matter. Instead, Levi continues undressing Erwin. He finishes taking off the shirt and undershirt, baring Erwin’s broad chest. Then Levi sits back and looks at it, runs his fingers over the planes of Erwin’s stomach.

“You’re either a freak of nature or you waste every day in the gym,” Levi says.

“I like to be in shape.” Erwin’s hands are on Levi’s thighs. “You never gave me a real answer.”

“Answer to what?” Then, when Levi remembers, “Fuck, you’re still caught on that?”

“I am. I want hear exactly what you thought of what I said I want.”

“Or what?”

“Or . . .” Erwin considers. When he smiles, Levi knows he’s fucked. “Or I’m not going to let you come.”

“Fuck that. I’m paying good money for an orgasm.”

“And you’ll get one. Once you tell me precisely how you feel about my suggestions for the night.”

“They were all vague, anyway.”

“Is that you’re opinion on them? Merely vague?” Erwin cups his hand around Levi’s erection and squeezes gently, making Levi cry out. When Erwin lets go, Levi involuntarily rocks his hips forward, searching for more of that touch. Erwin pulls him in closer, gyrates a little against him. It’s something; it’s not nearly enough.

Their lips catch each other again, almost unwitting, drawn together as if magnetic. Levi presses his body against the solidness underneath him, pushing his lips deeper between Erwin’s. Breathing in the hot, sweet breath that tastes slightly like tea and slightly like mint and entirely like Erwin.

Erwin. He smells like cleanliness, like expensive soap and tasteful cologne, like freshness coated over something pure and masculine. His touch feels strong, feels reassuring, feels dangerous, feels sweet. Feels like so many contradictory things that it can’t be real. It can’t be one man filling his senses with everything Levi has ever fantasized about. He knows Erwin’s been trained, but the smoothness and spontaneity in his every touch can’t just be a learned technique. It has to be, somehow, real.

Levi knows it’s dangerous to even consider that there might be something real between them. But in the security of Erwin’s hold, how can he believe otherwise?

They somehow make it to the bed, though Levi would have been content to stay on the couch. He has to separate from Erwin to walk, and though it’s only a few seconds, it leaves him cold and grasping for Erwin’s body again. Erwin lays him down on the bed, kissing his mouth, his forehead, his cheek, his jaw. Planting his lips on the base of Levi’s neck while he strokes a nipple with his thumb and wraps the other hand firmly around Levi’s hip. The kiss tickles and teases, forcing Levi to arch his back and squirm on the silk sheets. “Now you’re gonna leave a mark,” he pants.

Erwin lifts his lips away with a soft pop. “Would you like that?”

Levi’s instinct is to say no, but he hesitates. Imagines what that would be like, to wear a mark that Erwin had given him. To look in the mirror and see it stand out against his pale skin. To carry that reminder of Erwin with him for days.

But Erwin sees the hesitation, and he takes it as a refusal. He kisses Levi’s lips, pushing the awkward moment aside with the force of them, and the opportunity is past.

They finish undressing each other. Erwin bares Levi first, peeling off his underwear as though unwrapping a gift, his hands careful and his eyes glued to what’s being revealed. It seems to always go like this, Levi somehow ending up fully naked long before Erwin does. Erwin easily peels away Levi’s layers and leaves him vulnerable, exposed, in more ways than one. Reaching the same level of vulnerability with Erwin, though, is nearly impossible, and it pisses Levi off. Unfortunately, Erwin buries his face between Levi’s thighs just as Levi has this thought, and Levi’s unable to remain angry.

His lips tickle Levi’s balls, stroke the base of his cock, explore his thighs. Levi loses track of exactly what Erwin’s doing, only that he feels a new spike of pleasure with every new touch. Only that Erwin’s hair is ticking his most sensitive skin and his breath is coating Levi with heat. Only that his cock starts dripping, and Erwin lifts his head just in time to lick up the first few drops.

He stretches his body across Levi’s to give him another kiss in the mouth, giving Levi a taste of himself on Erwin’s breath. Erwin’s chest slowly settles over his, his warmth spreading through every corner of Levi’s body as he pulls his lips away and bends down to whisper in Levi’s ear.

“You still haven’t given me your answer.”

“What the fuck?” Levi knees Erwin in the side, but Erwin only laughs in response. “What the actual fuck. You’re really still hung up on that?”

Erwin’s half-sitting up, still laughing in his dark, even chuckle. His lips are turned up in the fullest, most genuine smile Levi has seen on him. He looks younger, in a way, when he laughs.

“Aren’t Companions supposed to be sexy all the time? That was the least sexy thing you could have said at that moment. Fuck.”

“I’m sorry. I apologize,” Erwin says between a few remnant chuckles. He gives Levi a kiss on the cheek and says again, “I apologize.” He leaves a string of apologetic kisses down Levi’s throat and across his chest. But when he reaches Levi’s stomach, he looks up and says, “But I mean it when I say I won’t let you come until you do.”

“Then I’ll jerk myself off.”

“Now, that’s cheating.”

“What are you going to do? Tie my hands together?”

Levi doesn’t mean anything by it; as soon as the words leave his mouth, he realizes what he’s just said. He feels himself flush even deeper than he already is as the mental image, unbidden, comes to his mind.

Erwin doesn’t say anything. He meets Levi’s gaze, watching from halfway down Levi’s body with an undefinable expression. Levi imagines what he would do if Erwin tried to take up his suggestion. Would he protest? Would he go along with it?

Would he enjoy it?

 But Levi doesn’t find out. As though nothing out of the ordinary was ever said, Erwin bends his face down to continue kissing Levi, trailing down to his belly button and hip bone. “No,” Erwin says. “I know you’ll play fair.”

He sits up to reach for the lube and the condom, Levi’s cue to get ready. He puts a silk pillow under his waist, lifting himself up for Erwin, welcoming. When Erwin turns back to Levi, he looks down appreciatively at the sight.

Erwin’s pants come off quickly. Levi watches hungrily as he slides out of them, as each beautiful inch is revealed – tight hip bones and strong thighs and the trail of gold hair that leads down to his cock. Levi spreads his legs a little further apart.

He’s not as tight as he was the first time he visited Erwin, but Erwin takes almost as long to open him up. He slides in one finger at a time, moving in lazy circles and hitting his prostrate only occasionally. With his other hand, Erwin alternates between holding down Levi’s hip and massaging his balls, light teasing strokes almost as infuriating as the patient, drawn-out preparation.

“Get on with it,” Levi says, begging masked as a demand. “Why are you taking so fucking long tonight? I’m stretched out plenty.”

“There’s no rush,” Erwin says. “After all, you’re not coming any time soon.”

“Fucking hell, come on.”

In response, Erwin lifts his hand away from Levi’s balls and slows the fingers inside Levi to a near stop. Levi’s forced to rock his hips against Erwin’s touch to get any kind of relief.

“I’m already getting so much of what I asked for,” Erwin says.

Levi forces himself to stop moving and glares at Erwin, trying hard to remain serious with Erwin’s fingers knuckle-deep up his ass. “Was this what you learned in Companion school? How to be a dick?”

Erwin only smiles at that and, slowly, begins to move his fingers again.

When Erwin finally enters Levi, Levi feels stretched enough that he expects it to be easy, barely felt. But it’s not. Every inch of Erwin is felt vividly, every press of pleasure. Erwin again drapes his body over Levi’s, pressing his lips to Levi’s earlobe and jaw as he pushes in again and again. With all the times that Levi’s done this, he would have expected himself to be used to it. But every time, the sensation feels brand new. Every time it’s as unique and incredible as the very first night.

One hand drapes over Erwin’s shoulder and the other tangles in his soft golden hair. With each thrust Erwin’s body ripples, chest pressing closer to Levi’s, lips kissing deeper, skin hitting skin, breath panting. Levi closes his eyes and pulls Erwin to him, loses himself in the endless, soothing rhythm of his touch. 

Erwin may be a fake, but this is the most real thing Levi has ever felt.

Levi loses all track of time, of where he is or even what he’s thinking. He doesn’t begin to come back to himself until Erwin slows his rhythm. Levi’s close to the edge, just seconds away from coming, and the slow pace is torturous to him. He jerks up and down, trying to spur Erwin to go faster, but Erwin can’t be persuaded. He slows to a crawl, and then less, nearly stopping inside Levi. When he pulls out altogether, Levi whines and clamps his legs around Erwin’s hips, trying to pull him back in.

“Would you like to come?” Erwin asks, his voice low and mischievous. He runs his thumb in circles around the tip of Levi’s cock, just enough to make him ache for more.

Fuck you,” Levi gasps. Against his will, he pushes himself up into Erwin’s touch. “Fuck. You’re an ass, you know that? It was good, ok? Everything you suggested was sexy as fuck and I loved all it. Ok? Happy now?”

Erwin kisses Levi, and even in Levi’s state, he has time to ignore his need for release and kiss Erwin back.

“Yes, I am happy,” Erwin says when they part, with a smile and earnestness in his eyes that suggest that he really is happy, happy in a way that doesn’t quite fit his earlier, teasing tone.

Erwin enters Levi again. He moves slowly at first, then faster, picking up his rhythm and pushing Levi closer to the brink. “Do you remember the last thing I wanted?”

“What?” Levi struggles to speak, to think around the sensations that fill his mind. Yes, he remembers Erwin’s last suggestion. He remembers it too well. “Yeah.”

“And even that one, you thought was good?”

Even distracted as he is, Levi can see where this is going. But in this state, fully baring himself to Erwin, he can’t bring himself to lie. “Y-yeah.”

“Then let me hear you.”

Erwin pushes in deeper and takes Levi’s cock in his hand, rubbing it and teasing it until the touch, combined with the steady press of Erwin inside him, sends Levi hurtling over the edge. He’s hit by the rush, and Erwin’s request is somehow easy. Natural. In a way, instinctive. Levi’s head tips back and the word pours out, a cry of pure satisfaction, pure comfort. Pure bliss.

Erwin.

Chapter Text

In all his time as a noble, Levi’s been to only one ball. It was his “debut” ball, back when he had just been adopted. Everyone in Sina society came to his home, stared at him, asked him uncomfortable questions, and laughed when Levi refused to answer. Needless to say, Levi’s not a fan of balls.  

So when his father told him one late summer day that he was going to a ball whether he liked it or not, Levi seriously considered skipping the planet.

The Dreyse’s Summer Ball is the social event of the season, and everyone who’s anyone attends. Levi, who much prefers to be no one, had always managed to stay away from it. But this year, with Lord Falkanrath’s newfound determination to turn Levi into a socialite, that just isn’t an option.

It’s the white suit this time, with a gold tie. This one, according this his father, was designed to be more formal. The cut is more flattering, lapels wide, gold-colored buttons shining. The altogether effect, in Levi’s opinion, makes him look like a tool.

“You look classy,” Hanji tries to assure him. “Promise.”

Levi stares at his reflection in his bedroom mirror. A stranger stares back. A stranger with abnormally wide shoulders, thanks to the extra shoulder padding his father had put in this one.

“If my dad is so intent on having me look bigger, why not give me platforms in my shoes?” Levi says, shrugging and watching the pads rise and fall. “Maybe put me in a mask while he’s at it. Hell, why not build a robot that just looks like a son?”     

Hanji gives him a hug, which Levi endures with mild annoyance. “Just get really drunk and talk to as few people as possible, and it’ll be over before you know it.”

*****

If Levi’s manor is big, it’s nothing compared to the Dreyse’s.

To approach it, Levi’s driven up a winding drive lined with decorative trees and white statues. This drive is built into a hill and designed in such a way that the manor remains hidden until they come around the final bend. Then it comes into view at the hill’s crest, dramatically and suddenly, in all its grandeur.

This place is massive, built to resemble some famous Ancient Earth castle, with white turrets, tall windows and a soaring blue-tiled roof. Levi’s own manor could probably fit inside it twice. Tonight, the mansion gleams with strings of decorative lights, every window ablaze, and sweet strains of music float on the air. It looks like something from a dream, and even Levi can’t help but be impressed.

“Try not to speak too much, but don’t stay completely silent,” his father says as their car pulls up in front of the mansion. He’s been rattling off a steady stream of instructions for the entirety of the drive, and Levi’s only half listening. He highly doubts he could follow his father’s instructions perfectly even if he tried. “Speak politely and briefly, and don’t drink too much. And for god’s sake, please try to smile.”

A servant in uniform holds open their car door. Ahead of them, a tall white staircase ascends up to the great double doors of the manor’s main entrance. Doormen in smart, pressed suits line the stairs on either side, apparently there for no purpose other than to look cool. They step out of their car and join a line of people advancing up the massive staircase in a stately procession. Levi walks beside his father, eyes set straight ahead on the grand doors that look ready to swallow him up.

These doors bring them into a large foyer at least four stories high with walls made entirely of marble. Portraits and life-size photographs of past Dreyses stare down at them with disapproval. Over the gleaming white floor, a lush red carpet has been laid out to lead the way to yet another set of imposing double doors. The line of arriving guests has stopped on this carpet, waiting for their turn to enter the ballroom.

Levi stands in line next to his father and casts an anxious eye over the people in front of him. He doesn’t recognize a single soul, but they all look very important. Men wear trim white suits like his or stark black ones like his father’s, all in the most fashionable cuts. And a little ahead of him, Levi sees an old man in the gray uniform of the military, his chest covered in so many medals that he jingles when he walks.

In contrast to the simplicity of the men, the women are arrayed like peacocks in bright colors and blazing jewels. Their dresses are some of the most elaborate things Levi has ever seen, with skirts and ruffles that frankly seem to defy gravity. And if their dresses don’t defy gravity, their hair definitely does. Most women wear complex buns or massive curls that look more like oddly-shaped hats than natural hair. None of these women look pretty, necessarily. Just showy. Each outfit is designed to grab attention, to proclaim just how much wealth and time its wearer can devote to her appearance. Levi leans to one side to get a better look at the display.

“Don’t fidget so much,” his father says next to him. Levi sighs and stands utterly still. “And please try not to look so still and lifeless.”

Levi stares at him, wondering what the hell he actually wants. His father completely misses the unspoken question in the stare, though. He steps forward for their turn to enter the ballroom, and Levi can do nothing but shrug his artificially wide shoulders and follow.

They’re at the top of a wide stone staircase, the ballroom arrayed before them. Gold pillars edge the massive room, where hundreds upon hundreds of guests swarm a polished white and gold floor. To Levi’s left, a live orchestra plays classical music in one corner while couples spin in time to it, the women’s skirts flaring out in their wake. The buffet tables are on the right-hand end of the room, long tables coated with every kind of food imaginable. And between the two is a sea of socialites, where people weave in and out of each other, sending up a steady hum of voices that underscores the music. Hundreds of feet above the guests, a chandelier seems to float without any apparent supports. Crystals and lights shift among each other in a steady rhythm, as if by magic.

Another servant in a pressed suit stands at the top of the stairs and holds a reading tablet. Lord Falkanrath hands him an invitation, and he scrolls down on the tablet until he reaches their names. Then he says into a microphone, in perfectly accented speech, “Lord Falkanrath and his heir, Levi Ackerman.”

Levi’s name works like a spell over the ballroom. Conversation slows, then stops. The shifting mass of mingling guests halts as people pause what they’re doing. As if of one mind, hundreds of guests look up and stare at Levi. Even the dancers try to catch a look, and Levi notices one couple tumbling into another as a result.

Levi begins to think that maybe the social event of the season was not the best place for him to show up.

But there’s nothing to do about it now, and so Levi’s careful to keep his head up as he descends the stairs, as though trying to stare down everyone in that ballroom. Gradually, the conversation resumes, but it has a different quality to it. Instead of a steady murmur, it’s a rustling, gasping whisper as hundreds of people begin to gossip in hushed tones. Ladies speak behind gloved hands and gentlemen murmur in each other’s ears, all with furtive glances toward Levi.

By the time they step off the staircase, the ball has somewhat returned to normal. But wherever they step, heads turn as if drawn by a magnet. And as soon as they pass, they hear whispers in their wake.

“You can’t spend your entire time here with me,” Levi father mutters to him.

“I wasn’t planning on it.”

“Try to find classmates or other people your age. Talk to them. Pretend you’re having a good time.”

“Sure.”

“I’ll find you later in the night.”

Levi splits away from his father. When he glances over his shoulder, he sees his father being swallowed up in a knot of middle-aged nobles. The tension in his face softens, and he puts on a broad smile. Levi hears him laugh along with the other men of his station and knows his father’s in his element.  

Levi has no intention of finding classmates. Finding the buffet table, however, is a pressing goal for him.

Without his father, Levi can more easily avoid notice. His small stature enables him to slip through the crowds almost too quickly to be seen, though a few people do catch sight of him and stare until he disappears again. Thankfully, no one tries to talk to him.

The crowd thins out a little among the buffet tables, and Levi can move more freely. By this point, he’s accepted the stares as part of the scenery. The spread in front of him is more important, anyway.

There are six buffet tables in all, each one devoted to a different kind of food, including two covered entirely in desserts. For drink, servants pass through the crowds holding trays filled with different kinds of alcohol. When a waiter bends down to offer a glass of red wine to a young woman, Levi snatches a glass of his own from behind.

He stands back, almost in the corner of the huge ballroom, and considers the food while he downs his drink. Every type of delicacy imaginable has been made available. And much of it isn’t even being touched. Nobles take small portions, little forkfuls to try, enough to taste but not enough to satisfy themselves. It’s unfashionable to eat too much, especially for the ladies. Levi thinks of the friends he left in the Underground and imagines their reactions to all this food going to waste.

It’s frustrating, really. Coming from a world where food was precious to a world where food was easily wasted had given Levi a sense of whiplash ten years ago, and he still isn’t quite over it. The fact that these two worlds exist in the same city, mere miles apart, makes it stranger still. If the Dreyses could easily get this much food, why couldn’t some of it be sent to those who were starving?

Levi sips his wine and begins to think that he’s not really that hungry, after all.

“I’m surprised to see you here.”

Levi turns at the sound of the quiet voice, only half-surprised to see Annie. She wears red tonight, a slim-fitting dress accented by silver jewelry, much simpler than what the other ladies wear.

“Yeah, apparently I’m a social butterfly now,” Levi says. Annie doesn’t laugh, leaving Levi to make an awkward recovery from his failed joke. “I was forced here.”

“I assumed as much.”

Annie has a drink as well, a slim glass with a pale liquid that Levi can’t begin to guess at. She sips it and watches Levi, making no effort to continue the conversation on her own.

“So are we still pretending to court?”

“I think that would be best. My father was very supportive of the union.”

“Really? Mine hated it.” It occurs to Levi too late that, in the interest of delicacy, he maybe shouldn’t have said that. But he can’t take his words back, so he settles for hoping Annie isn’t easily offended.

“Maybe I can ask mine to convince him,” is all she says. Another awkward silence descends between them. If this really is the person Levi’s going to marry, he’s going to have to get used to the quiet.

Two men walk up behind Annie. Levi doesn’t even notice them at first. He assumes that they’re servants due to the simplicity of their suits, and he doesn’t begin to pay attention to them until they’re standing directly behind Annie.

“Who’s this?” one of the men asks. A burly blond who puffs up his chest to take up as much space as possible – which, incidentally, is quite a bit of space. Levi’s reminded of some thugs he contended with in the Underground, big guys who used their size to intimidate. He immediately distrusts him.

The other man, by contrast, seems to want to take up as little space as possible. Unfortunately for him, he’s a giant, well over six feet. He glances down at Levi with a nervous expression and then looks hesitantly over at his more confident companion.

“This is a friend,” Annie replies calmly. “Levi, this is Reiner and Bertoldt.”

“Pleasure.” The blond breaks into a wide smile and extends his hand to Levi. His face looks friendly, but the handshake is a little too firm to be described that way.

“Thanks. How do you . . . uh, how do you guys know each other?” Levi asks, looking for some explanation as to who the hell these guys are.

“They’re friends as well,” Annie says, giving him nothing at all.  

“Annie, can we pry you away?” the blond man asks her.

“Of course,” she says. Then adds to Levi, “I’ll see you around.”

Annie and her “friends” turn away without waiting for another word from Levi. He watches them go. Next to her two massive companions, Annie looks almost laughably miniscule. She seems unperturbed by the size difference, though. She walks next to them with a level of confidence that’s noticeably different from her usual bored, listless demeanor.

“Levi.” Annie stops and looks back over her shoulder. “Meet me back here at half past ten. I have something I want to show you.”

Before Levi can ask for any clarification, she disappears into the crowd.

Levi sighs, rolls his eyes, and drains his glass. He had thought he had some sort of understanding with Annie, but that encounter was impossible to understand.

With no one else in the crowded room that Levi wants to talk to, he turns his attention back to the buffet table. Once he has a plate loaded with miniature cakes and finger sandwiches, he finds an empty spot beside a dessert table and enjoys the food while watching the crowd. He can’t see the dancers from this end of the ballroom, but the throngs of socializers in front of him seem to be doing a dance of their own. They flit from group to group, first smiling broadly at their companions, and then turning away to frown or roll their eyes when no one is looking, and then catching someone else’s gaze and smiling again. A shifting mass of laughing, gossiping, finely polished girls and charming young men, with bright silks and fine jewels and smooth gold hair –

Wait. There’s a blond head in that mass, with a hairstyle he recognizes. Broad shoulders and an easy, confident way of holding himself. No, it can’t be him.

The man Levi noticed has his back to him, and as Levi watches, he moves further into the mass of people, quickly getting swallowed up by the crowd. Levi can’t conclusively say whether it’s Erwin or not, but he convinces himself that it isn’t. There are dozens of blonds at this party, and Erwin can’t be the only one of them who does his hair like that.

Still, this is exactly the kind of event that people bring Companions to. When everyone who’s anyone is in attendance, people want to broadcast the fact that they have enough money to afford a Companion and enough charm to be accepted by one. Companions are also highly valued for their conversational ability, and they’re often brought to parties or balls to improve the entertainment. Chances are Erwin Smith is in the room tonight.

The realization makes Levi wonder if he can sneak out without being noticed.

“Levi!”

Apparently not.

Lord Falkanrath storms over to Levi and tightly grabs his arm. “Why aren’t you talking to anyone? You look stupid standing here by yourself. Come on, I have someone I want you to meet.” And before Levi can protest, he’s yanked away from his spot.

Lord Falkanrath seems to remember himself and lets go of Levi’s arm before long, but Levi knows when he’s been trapped. He reluctantly strides next to his father through the swarm of people, trying to quickly finish his food before he has to make introductions.

Levi takes his last bite and leaves the plate on a table just before his father says, “Levi, this is Dr. Ral. Dr. Ral is a renowned physicist.”

Levi’s shaking hands with the scientist before he’s fully aware of what’s going on. He stares up at the man – an older guy with deep wrinkles, brown hair and a friendly face – and wonders why on earth his father thought he’d be interested in meeting a physicist.

“It’s an absolute pleasure,” the doctor is saying. “I’ve heard so much about you. I’m delighted to finally meet you.” No one has shown this much interest in meeting Levi since nobles lined up to gawk at him at his debut ball. The doctor’s words strike Levi as suspicious.

“Allow me to introduce my daughter, Petra,” Dr. Ral says, and Levi notices that there’s a young woman standing next to him. She looks up at Levi with big green eyes and smiles sweetly, and Levi realizes that this is the poor girl his father plans to set him up with.

“It’s a pleasure,” Petra says, extending her hand. Levi takes it. Her fingers feel too delicate in his.

“Uh, thanks. Same here,” he says awkwardly.

When neither of them can think of something else to say, Levi’s father helpfully supplies, “Petra is studying chemistry at the university, a year ahead of you.”

That surprises Levi. With her slight stature and her big eyes, Petra hardly looks old enough to be in university, let alone ahead of Levi.

“And two years ahead of anyone else her age. She’s inherited her dad’s brilliant mind, if I say so myself,” Dr. Ral says with a level of pride that Levi senses is genuine. “Though why she hasn’t chosen the most superior of the sciences, I don’t know. Anyway, we’ll leave you two kids alone. I’m sure you don’t want us old fogeys hanging around.”

Levi, personally, would have been happy to have them hanging around, as long as it meant they did all the talking. But the two fathers walk away, and Levi’s left alone with a girl who, he’s almost certain, deserves much better company than him.

“I’m very sorry about him,” Petra says shyly. “He’s not very polished.”

It takes Levi a beat to realize she’s talking about her father. Levi’s so unpolished, apparently, that he has no idea what was wrong with Dr. Ral’s behavior. “Oh, no, uh, I don’t mind. I’m not exactly the most polished, either.”

“Still, I’m sorry if his talkative nature threw you off.”

“No, not at all.”

An uncomfortable silence falls, and Levi struggles to think of something to say. Petra seems to be doing the same. She blushes a little and looks off to the side, the fingers of her left hand tapping uncomfortably against her dress. She wears green, the exact shade of her eyes, in a dress with a wide tulle skirt. Petra really is very pretty, with delicate features and strawberry-blonde hair, and Levi wishes he could tell her to talk to someone who’s actually interested.

“Are you at the university as well?” she asks suddenly, trying to make conversation. Well, Levi owes it to her to at least play along for a little while.

“Yeah. I mean, yes, I’m taking my general courses there. But at the end of this semester I’m going to the military academy.”

“Oh.” Levi thinks he sees her expression fall, but it’s very subtle, and Levi’s not very good at reading people. When he looks again, her expression is the same as before. “That’s a very noble course. Why did you choose it?”

Levi thinks about telling her the truth, but saying that he wasn’t good at anything else probably wouldn’t sound very impressive. “It, uh . . . it seemed like the best thing to do,” he says, managing to speak without saying anything at all.

Petra just nods as though she understands. “I considered joining the military, too,” she says.

“What?” Levi asks, too surprised to remember not to be blunt. Petra looks so small and delicate that Levi can barely imagine her holding a gun. But then again, Levi’s small too. He knew how deceiving looks can be.

“I considered joining the military,” she repeats. “I’ve done riflery as a sport since a young age, so I thought I’d be good at it. But my father fostered such a love for science in me that I couldn’t give it up.”

“So why chemistry?”

“Well, as you can imagine, my father tried to get me to follow in his footsteps with physics. But chemistry always struck me as much more interesting. It gives you insight into the make-up the entire universe, and once you understand what something is made of, you can do anything with it.” She shrugs. “Sorry, that sounds a little too dramatic, doesn’t it?”

“No, it doesn’t,” Levi says. Levi had taken a chemistry class at university and had hated it. But Petra speaks with such enthusiasm that he starts to think he missed something. In a subtle way, it reminds him of how Hanji sounded when they showed him the stars.       

“Of course I’m only at the beginning of my chemistry studies, and I have years to go before I even get my research fellowship. But I’m really enjoying it so far.”

“That’s great,” he says, awkwardly trying to put some enthusiasm in his normally monotonous tone.

Another uncomfortable silence falls. Levi wonders if it’s time to bow out of this conversation.

“Do you dance?” Petra asks.

“No.”

“Oh.”

“. . . Sorry.”

“I could teach you a dance, if you’d like.”

Levi glances over at the spinning couples out on the dance floor. He tries to picture himself as one of them and nearly laughs at the thought.

“No, thank you.”

The silent pause that follows is suddenly broken by a shrill voice saying, “Petra Ral! What a thrill to see you here.”

Hitch Dreyse totters over on heels so high and thin that they seem to defy the principles of physics. She wears a floor-length navy blue dress with diamonds sewn all over it, more showy than pretty, and her hair is done up in tight curls. The make-up is clearly intended to mirror the diamond theme, her lips and eyelids sparkling unnaturally. As she saunters over, Levi notices Petra tense up.

“Hitch. I’m pleased to see you as well,” Petra says without any trace of pleasure in her tone. “I was sure we would miss each other in this large crowd.”

“And I was sure I wouldn’t see you here at all,” Hitch replies. “Are you someone’s guest?”

“No, I was invited.”

“Oh, really? What a surprise. I didn’t invite you.”

“Then it’s a stroke of luck that your oversight was corrected.”

“Indeed.” Both girls speak with such coldness in their voices that Levi starts to feel a chill.

“And I’m so delighted by your choice of companion,” Hitch says. “Levi Falkanrath, I’m sure I’ve never come across you at any social event. It’s such a pleasure to see you finally come out.” “Ackerman.”

“What was that?”

“My last name is Ackerman.”

“Oh, my. I beg your pardon.” But there’s a barely suppressed smile on her lips that takes away any credence her apology may have carried. “Anyway, I’m glad you two have found each other. It must be nice to speak to someone of your station.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean by that,” Petra says. Levi takes a glance at her and regrets ever doubting if she could have survived in the army. The girl’s expression is nothing short of fierce.

“Why, you know, someone else who has . . . risen up in the world, shall we say.”

“I would hardly say our experiences compare,” Petra replies. “But it is always nice to talk to someone who wasn’t born to life in the nobility. Such people often have a level of authenticity and humility that’s difficult to find in this hall.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Hitch says.

“No,” Petra says coolly. “I’m sure you don’t.”

Hitch’s eyes narrow, and for the first time her bland smile begins to falter. Petra, by contrast, looks perfectly composed. Levi’s tempted to applaud.

Instead of taking another stab at Petra, Hitch turns to Levi, presumably in search of an easier target. “And how are you enjoying your evening, Mr. Ackerman?” There’s a subtle emphasis on Levi’s last name.

“It’s fine,” Levi says.

“Just fine?” Hitch titters. “What a mild response. I’m going to think I’m a poor host.”

“Look,” Levi says. “I’m not as nice as Petra or as smart. I’m not going to stand around trading veiled insults with you. If you have something to say, say it. If not, go annoy someone else.”

Now Hitch’s eyes widen, and her mouth practically falls open. She’s probably never heard anyone to her speak so directly. Levi glances at Petra expecting approval, but even she looks a little alarmed at Levi’s bluntness.

“Oh, my,” Hitch says. “It appears that what they say is right.”

Levi doesn’t want to fall for the bait. But he can’t stop himself from asking, “And what do they say?”

“In his heart, a man never truly leaves his home.”

Levi feels himself grow warmer as a surge of anger flares up. He narrows his eyes and struggles to keep himself under control. Anything he could say, he knows, would only appear to prove Hitch right. But damn, there is so much he wants to say.

In front of him, Hitch schools her expression back into serene happiness. Levi thinks for a moment that she’s trying to piss him off even further, but then he notices her eyes move to someone behind him. Someone that, apparently, she’s trying to please. A man comes from behind Levi and offers Hitch a glass of champagne.

 “Thank you, my dear,” she says, layering her voice with sweetness.  

“Of course.” The man stands next to her and lets her take his arm. And Levi’s breath stops.

He recognizes the man before he turns around. Recognizes him by the width of his shoulders and the way he carries himself and the neatly parted gold hair.

Erwin Smith gazes at Levi with a polite smile, not a trace of recognition in his eyes as he says, “Hitch, I don’t believe I’ve been introduced to your acquaintances.”

This can’t be right. Erwin had to be more discerning than to accept Hitch as a client. Didn’t Companions have the option to reject clients? Why wouldn’t Erwin reject someone like Hitch? Levi searches his face for any hint that something’s wrong, that there’s been a mistake. But all he sees is a brief wink, so imperceptible that Levi wonders if he imagined it.

Levi’s eyes drop to the hand that possessively wraps around Erwin’s forearm. Erwin doesn’t pull away. If anything, he moves a little closer.

Levi feels sick.

He barely notices when Hitch says, “They’re not worth being introduced to,” and pulls Erwin away. Erwin follows without protest, not even bothering to look back.

Levi stares after them as they go. He wants to look away, but his eyes are glued to those broad shoulders. Even in this new setting, Erwin seems familiar. Levi knows the shape of that body, knows Erwin’s gait. The way Erwin leans down to speak to Hitch reminds Levi of how Erwin’s often leaned down to speak to him, sitting close together in that private room.

But they’re not in private now, and among these crowds, every bit of familiarity is tainted by the environment. In the context of the ballroom, Levi realizes just how well Erwin fits. How every trait of Erwin’s was designed for such a setting. He’s perfectly polished, perfectly suave, utterly charming to everyone around him. Erwin joins a crowd of chattering nobles and captures their attention with a quiet word. Makes them laugh with another. This is Erwin’s element. This is where he belongs.

And Hitch . . . Hitch belongs here too. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Erwin chose her as a client, after all.

The last time Levi had slept with Erwin, he had thought there was something real between them. Not anything like love, of course, but . . . it had felt right, in a way. It had felt safe, secure, comfortable.

Pathetic. He had been taken in by a Companion’s pretense, and the proof is staring him in the face.

Chapter Text

“Are you alright?”

Levi hears Petra’s question, but not as distinctly as he hears Erwin’s laughter within the murmur of the crowd. Only Erwin’s profile is visible from where Levi stands, but he can see the edges of a smile, handsome and charming. With a great force of will, he tears his gaze away.

Petra watches him, green eyes wide with confusion and a little concern. “Sorry, yeah,” Levi says. “I just . . . really hate her.” And him.

“Who doesn’t?” Petra says with a smile, accepting Levi’s excuse. “Even her flocks of followers only put up with her to get close to her money. Still, it was . . . really bold of you to insult her like that.”

Levi shrugs. “I don’t see how direct insults are any bolder than veiled ones. You both know what’s really being said.”

Petra bites her bottom lip lightly while she considers Levi’s words. “Well, at least I can talk my way out of it later if she ever tries to retaliate.”

Levi assumes Petra means some form of social retaliation. Well, he doesn’t have to worry about that. He’s already so far outside the realm of social acceptability that he has nothing to lose. After all, he’s apparently not even worth being introduced to.

“By the way,” Petra says, “In case you were wondering what she meant when she was talking about my station, well, um, I wasn’t born a noble. My father was lorded as a reward for some scientific discoveries. And my mother earned a lot of money by founding a successful business.”

It takes a moment for Levi to realize what Petra’s talking about; he’s finding it difficult to focus on her. Though he’s making a point to not look at Erwin, Erwin’s face is still in his mind, smiling at Hitch, letting her take his arm, letting . . .

Levi turns his attention back to Petra and pieces together the phrases that he did hear to figure out what she was talking about. When he does, it takes all of Levi’s willpower to not roll his eyes. Right now, Petra’s social status is the last thing Levi’s concerned with. “I don’t care,” he says. Then, realizing that the statement was a little too honest, he tries to soften it. “I mean, uh, I don’t care if you weren’t born a noble. The class you were born into doesn’t define who you are.”

Petra smiles at him. “Thank you for saying that,” she says. “That’s what I think, too, but so few people seem to agree. They go on about theories of genetic intelligence and such, insisting that I must have some noble blood in me somewhere down the line.” She rolls her eyes. “It’s all a load of nonsense.”

“Yeah, it is.”

Levi, only half paying attention to what Petra is saying, is distracted by someone moving through the ballroom, a bright red dress that stands out against its owner’s pale skin. Annie. She pushes through the crowd just a few feet away from Levi, and when she catches Levi’s gaze, she holds it for a moment before making her way toward the buffet tables.

Right, he’s supposed to meet Annie soon. Levi awkwardly starts to fumble his way out of the conversation. “Hey, uh, sorry, but I have to talk to someone at 10:30.” And then, out of a sense of obligation, he adds, “Uh, maybe I’ll find you later?”

“Oh, no, it’s okay,” Petra says politely. “It was a pleasure to meet you.”

“Uh, yeah, pleasure to meet you too.”

He thinks as Petra turns away that there’s a flash of disappointment on her face. He was probably not at all what Petra had been hoping for. But, well, better that she find that out now and not waste her time on him.

Levi steps away from Petra, lets the crowd swallow him up. There are less stares now; people have apparently gotten used the idea of having an Underground brat in their midst. The guests have more pressing matters to attend to, anyway. They have smiles to bestow on enemies, endearing stories to share with potential suitors, jokes to laugh at and important people to rub elbows with. As Levi walks toward the buffet tables, the crowd pushes him this way and that, guests moving in an endless dance that Levi can’t begin to guess the steps to. He stops walking. He’s suddenly very, very tired.

Levi recognizes, logically, that speaking with the one forthright and honest person in the room would probably be a good thing, a relief. But Levi’s had enough of socializing for one night. Just a few short conversations and he’s done. The crowd begins to feel suffocating, and he can’t shake the need to get out, now.

Levi turns around. He walks, not in any particular direction, but toward where the crowd appears to be thinnest. Annie, he decides, will understand.

Even now, Levi’s plagued with unwanted thoughts of Erwin. The way he looked blankly at Levi, as though looking at a stranger. The way he smiled at Hitch as though she were an old friend. The faces of the guests remind Levi of Erwin and Hitch and the crowd of nobles they entertained, perfectly happy, perfectly elegant, perfectly out of Levi’s reach.

Levi snatches a glass of champagne off a waiter’s tray. He’s not much of a drinker, but tonight seems like as good a night as any to start.

It’s a job, he reminds himself. Erwin has a job to do. It makes sense that he would contract with one of the richest women in the universe, and Levi can’t begrudge him that. However he may feel about Hitch, hating Erwin for entertaining her is childish and spiteful.

Following the thinning crowd takes Levi to the edge of the dance floor, and sure enough they’re there, materializing before him as though taking shape from his mind. The couple looks radiant together, every step perfectly in sync, the very picture of elegance and refinement. While Levi watches, Erwin leans down to whisper something in Hitch’s ear. Hitch laughs, and they steal a brief kiss between steps.

Levi walks away.

A few minutes later, Levi finds himself at the base of the steps that lead out of the ballroom. The announcer is gone now, and couples move up and down the staircase freely, entering the party late or sneaking away to do who knows what. Levi passes up the stairs with no more attention than he usually receives.

The marble foyer seems less imposing now without the line of nobles awaiting entry into the ball. It’s open, and only a couple dozen people cross it, stepping out onto the lawn for some air or chatting in a corner. After the crowds and noise of the main ballroom, it feels almost relaxing.

Through a door to Levi’s right, he can see a stream of people lining up for the restrooms. Levi steps through that door, passes the lines that trail outside the men’s and women’s rooms, dropping his now empty-champagne glass on a small table and then continuing down the hallway. He keeps walking, leaving the ball behind.

It’s a white-walled hallway with a plush green rug and gold accents, and it’s deserted. After the constant buzz of the ball, the silence feels almost unsettling. Levi’s feet dip into the thick rug without a sound. The orchestral music just barely reaches down these halls in faint, ghostly strains. Levi walks until he reaches the end of the hall and then turns a corner. Out of sight of the rest of the party, Levi begins to breathe easily for the first time all night.

He travels aimlessly through the manor for a while, turning left and right until he has no idea where he is. Levi can’t bring himself to care. He imagines that he’s putting distance between himself and Hitch, himself and Erwin. Between himself and the gawking stares, the fake smiles and ostentatious dresses. That thought alone is enough to keep him walking.

He isn’t completely isolated in these halls, though. Every now and then a maid or servant will hurry past, and he almost trips over a vaguely familiar nobleman passed out drunk in an alcove. At one unfortunate point, Levi turns a corner and comes face-to-face with a couple having a really great time together. He covers his eyes and retreats as quickly as possible, but the image, once seen, is difficult to forget.

In his rush to escape the enthusiastic lovers, Levi takes another turn and comes to a staircase, small and tucked into a corner. The size and discreet position make the staircase seem almost humble – except that it’s made out of solid marble and edged with gold. But Levi supposes that’s what humility is in the Dreyse household. Thinking that no one will follow him this far away from the party, he climbs it.

There’s a large window at the top of the stairs that looks out over the front lawn. Levi steps up to it and lets his gaze pass over the lighted drive, the trimmed row of trees, the carefully manicured yard. There’s a handful of people scattered across it. Some are alone, others are sharing a few genuine words with a friend in the privacy of the outdoors. Levi sees three pairs of men and women strolling through the grass, arm in arm. He wonders if they really like each other, or if they’re courting for money or status or show. His eyes fall on a glimpse of movement under the shadow of a tree, and he peers at it, gradually making out the forms of two men. They’re standing close to each other, deep in conversation. No, not in conversation – Levi sees them move close enough that their bodies touch, one man’s hand cradling the other man’s head.

Something catches in Levi’s chest. He turns away, leans back against the wall next to the window. There are images that come to Levi’s mind unbidden, the kind that he’s ashamed to even entertain – him standing under a tree, hidden by shadows, a man’s body close to his, a hand on his cheek. He needs to pull himself together. He has never, ever fantasized like this, and tonight is not the night to start.

Levi pulls himself away from the wall and keeps walking.

He delves deeper into the labyrinthine Dreyse manor. Now, he really is isolated. There’s no one to bother him and, unfortunately, no one to distract him from the idiotic jealousy that starts to seep into his mind. Levi doesn’t get jealous often, but this is unmistakable, a roiling, almost sickening feeling deep in his gut. He’s not jealous of Hitch – he doesn’t want the empty, bought love she has. No, he’s jealous of the two men under the trees. What they’re doing is risky, of course – homosexuality is something that’s done in hidden places, something that’s kept suppressed outside of Companion houses. To kiss outside, even hidden by the shadow of the tree line, could be disastrous. But if they’re willing to take that risk, that means they’ve found something stronger than anything Levi’s ever known.  

He needs to find a distraction before his thoughts get any more pathetic.

Levi pulls his comm out of the breast pocket of his fancy suit. There’s only one person he can call up without warning but, thankfully, they’re free tonight. Hanji’s contact info is on the screen, his thumb hovering over the call button, when he hears a noise from around the corner.  

Levi hesitates. It’s probably no one. Maybe just some more people having sex. But if he’s going to call Hanji and talk, even in the vaguest terms, about how his night’s gone, he wants to make sure he’s in total privacy. He walks forward to investigate.

When he rounds the corner, he sees a door ajar partway down the hall. Levi peaks through the open door and into a small study lined with books (the physical kind that no one reads anymore). Someone stands over a large desk in the middle of the room – someone in a white suite with blond hair and familiar broad shoulders.

The last fucking person Levi wants to see, and he just happens to be in the same remote corner of a massive manor. Of course.

As Levi watches, Erwin lifts a pile of papers out of a drawer and begins flipping through them. He pauses on one, examines it, and then slips it into his breast pocket. The pile goes back in the drawer, and the drawer slides closed with the same scraping noise that initially drew Levi’s attention.

Levi realizes too late that Erwin’s done with his business in the study. He starts to back away, but he doesn’t move fast enough. Erwin turns around, and their eyes meet.

There’s a flash of shock on Erwin’s face, though, of course, he collects himself quickly, replacing it with a charming but bland smile. “Levi. What a surprise to see you here.”

“The fuck are you doing here?” Levi says, rather more harshly than necessary.

“I’m simply retrieving something Miss Dreyse asked for.” He exits the study and closes the door carefully behind him.

“Looks pretty shady to be rifling through someone else’s stuff.”

“I apologize if I gave you the wrong impression.”

“Hmph.” The truth is, Levi isn’t concerned with what Erwin’s doing. He could be stealing the entire Dreyse fortune for all he cares. Levi’s just concerned about getting away and out of this awkward conversation. He looks from side to side, as though searching for an escape route.

“And what brings you to this remote corner of the manor?”

“I wanted to get away from people. Looks like I didn’t succeed.”

“I see. Nothing in particular you were searching for?”

“What? No.” Levi glances back up to meet Erwin’s eyes and finds them watching him closely. It reminds Levi of how Erwin sometimes studies him before sex, or after a kiss, gauging Levi’s reaction and, somehow, figuring out exactly what needs to be done next. It creeps Levi out, and he quickly turns away. “Contrary to what most people think, the fact that I’m from the Underground doesn’t mean I’m going to rob the place.”

“That’s not what I meant at all.”

“Sure it isn’t. Anyway, I won’t keep you. I’m sure your client wants you.” Levi turns his back on Erwin, heading the way he came.

“Levi.”

Levi stops walking and considers whether or not it’d be worth it to turn around.

“I usually discuss this matter with clients, but I didn’t expect to be seeing you at social events. Forgive me. It’s Companion policy, when meeting clients outside of an appointment, to pretend to not recognize them. We understand that not all clients want a relationship with a Companion to be common knowledge, especially same-sex clients. I hope I didn’t upset you with my rudeness.”

Levi almost laughs. He feels himself shaking his head, in disbelief or annoyance or something between the two. “Upset me?” He turns over his shoulder to meet Erwin’s eyes. “You flatter yourself. I couldn’t give two shits about whether or not you acknowledge me.” He watches Erwin for a reaction, but of course he’s as composed as ever. It pisses Levi off. “What, do you think we’re friends or something, that I just can’t wait for you to say hi? We’re not friends, Erwin. No matter how often you fuck me, I’ll never think of you as more than an expensive dick.”

Erwin opens his mouth to respond, but whatever he might have said is interrupted by a sharp voice cutting him off. “Erwin, aren’t you done yet? I’ve been waiting forever.”

“Yes, I’ll be only a moment,” Erwin calls back.

Hitch, apparently, isn’t willing to wait a moment. She rounds the corner, her eyes narrowing when she sees Levi. “Why are you talking to him?”

“Mr. Ackerman was simply lost and asked for direction back to the ballroom.”

“So you were done, but you kept me waiting for his sake?”

“We only spoke a minute.”

“Well I paid for all of your minutes tonight. Come on.” And she punctuates the command with a snap, as if summoning a dog to her side. It’s so brazen, so outright disrespectful, that Levi can’t imagine anyone standing for it. Particularly someone as self-assured as Erwin.

But Erwin is unfazed. The bland smile remains on his face, unshakable as armor. Levi looks at Erwin’s eyes and sees that they’ve gone empty. There’s nothing there but the mask; whatever Erwin the man may feel about Hitch, Erwin the Companion can’t let those feelings show.

“Of course,” he says pleasantly, and he goes to stand by her side.  

Hitch takes Erwin’s arm. Her fingers curl tightly around his forearm, possessive. “Don’t ever spend your time talking to someone so beneath you,” she says, as though giving him advice, as though she actually cares about him. She leads Erwin around the corner and out of sight.

Levi can hear Erwin responding to her in a low voice. He can’t make out the words, only the familiar tone of his speech, soft and soothing. Skillfully putting his client at ease.

Levi glares straight ahead, listening to them until their voices fade, Erwin’s voice a low murmur and Hitch’s no more than a quiet giggle. But they sound happy. Levi looks down and sees that his right hand has curled into a tight fist.

He turns and throws the study door open, slams it closed behind him. If he goes back the way he came, he’ll pass the window and the couple in the downstairs hallway. But if he goes forward, there’s a chance he might run into Erwin and Hitch again. Here, at least, in this useless study filled with paper books, he’ll be left alone.

He leans against the door and notices that, for some reason, his breathing is slightly heavy. There’s an agitation stirring in his chest, an urge to be anywhere else. Whether he’s angry at Hitch or at Erwin, Levi’s not quite sure. Both, most likely. And, more than that, at himself for giving a shit.

Levi takes a breath. Hitch may be a bitch, and Erwin is a fake, but neither are his problem. He steps away from the door and examines the room he’s found himself in.

It’s a dark room, intentionally so, made to look like an idealized vision of an Ancient Earth library. Dusty, unready books line the walls, each one worth a small fortune. The few feet of wall space that isn’t lined with bookshelves is covered in wood paneling, with paintings of stern-looking Ancient Earth dwellers staring down at him. Heavy velvet curtains cover the windows, giving the room a closed-off feel.

There are computer monitors on the wood desk, but no computer plugged into them. Levi sits down in the desk chair, sinking into its thick leather upholstery. He pulls the comm out of his pocket and plays with the idea of calling Hanji. Or maybe he’ll actually read one of those fancy-looking paper books instead. Levi’s not much of a reader, but there’s bound to be at least one volume that’ll hold his interest. Just as long as it’s not a love story.

Of course, he’s never read a paper book before. He wonders if it would be heavy or annoying to hold. Maybe he would put it on the desk. Levi glances down at the wood surface, judging how comfortable that would be. As he does, he notices the top right desk drawer jutting out a little, not entire closed. This, Levi realizes, must have been the drawer Erwin had been looking through.

He opens it, curious. But the drawer is empty.

Erwin dug through a different one, then. Levi closes to top drawer – it slides in easily, without a sound – and pulls at the drawer below it. Whatever Erwin had been looking at, it was definitely on this side of the desk. Erwin had stood to the right. But the second drawer doesn’t budge. It doesn’t even catch on a lock. Levi examines it and realizes that it’s not a drawer at all. It’s merely a block of wood carved to look like a drawer, glued on for show. The same is true for the drawers below it.

Levi opens the first drawer again and stares at it. He could have sworn he saw Erwin put a stack of papers in this very spot. He must be losing his mind.

Levi closes the drawer again. It settles against the desk with a soft clunk that resounds in the otherwise silent study. Even the persistent strains of orchestral music don’t make their way into this room. Beyond Levi’s own movements – his quiet breathing, the shifting leather under him – there’s no sound at all.

That is, until he hears a piercing scream.

Levi starts up, suddenly tense. He hurries to the door and looks out, but the hallway is empty. The scream had come from around the corner.

Levi wonders if he should ignore it, return to the peaceful sanctuary of the study. Noble women could scream for any number of reasons. Perhaps she saw a mouse. Perhaps she broke a nail. Whatever the reason, it’s likely not Levi’s problem.

But Levi’s instinct tells him that’s not the case.

He walks toward the sound, rounding the corner where Hitch and Erwin had gone. This hall, too, is empty. But as Levi reaches the end of it, he begins to hear a woman sobbing. That noise guides him to the scene.  

First, Levi sees Hitch and Erwin standing in the middle of the corridor. Hitch has her face pressed up against Erwin’s shoulder, her hands clenching the fabric of his suit jacket, her body wracked with hysteric sobs. Even Erwin’s cool façade has dropped a little. His eyes are a fearful, color drained from his face. One hand holds Hitch, calming her, while the other enters something into a comm.

Then, Levi sees the body.

It’s lying face-up across the width of the hall, red blood staining the green rug and turning it a dark, dirty brown. Its head is turned to the side, eyes staring at its visitors – staring directly at Levi, it seems – and mouth twisted open in a semblance of a scream. A jagged, dark red line pierces its throat, stark against its pale skin and against the bright white of its suit.

“Hello, I need a police dispatch and a medical team at the Dreyse manor immediately.” Erwin speaks into his comm, a remarkable calm in his voice that seems jarringly out of place. “A body has been found in the manor, second floor in the east wing.”

Levi’s seen bodies before, many times. Once, when he was seven, he had rounded the corner in his Underground neighborhood and found a body exactly like this, throat slit open and mouth wide. He had thought he had left bodies like that behind.

“Levi.”

At Erwin’s voice, Levi rips his eyes away from the corpse. He turns his focus to Erwin, whose expression has, against all odds, lost the traces of fear that had been there only a moment before. Erwin looks at Levi with a gentle expression, his eyes calm. It’s a dramatic contrast to the horror frozen on the dead man’s face, and Levi finds himself clinging to it.

“Levi, are you alright?”

He just gapes at Erwin for a moment. The tone in his voice, the concern in his eyes – it’s reminiscent of being in the bedroom, and Erwin asking him if he’s comfortable or enjoying himself. It’s surreal, absurd. Erwin doesn’t belong in this scene, with a gruesome corpse only feet away. Erwin belongs in a world that’s pristine, orderly. He’s speaking as though they’re still in that world, when reality couldn’t be further from it.

“Yeah, fine,” Levi says, an automatic lie.  

Then there’s running footsteps, and Dreyse security forces round the corner, a dozen men dressed in black combat gear, each holding an automatic weapon. Two of them peel Hitch off Erwin and guide her away from the scene. The rest fan out around the body, forming a perimeter and beginning an investigation. Erwin and Levi are merely pushed aside, irrelevant. Half of the men step over the body to examine the other end of the hall, wading through blood as easily as stepping through a puddle of water.

One of them speaks to someone coming down the opposite end of the hall, someone Levi can’t see through the wall of guards. “Miss, we can’t allow you in here.”

“Why not? What’s happened?” someone asks. A familiar voice. A familiar voice that gradually grows unfamiliar as it becomes twisted, distorted with emotion. “No, no, no . . .”

“Lady Leonhardt, you cannot come through here.”

“That’s my father,” she says. “That’s my father. Let me through, that’s my father!”

Levi peers around the guards at the dead man’s face. Notices the familiarity of his curved nose and of his icy blue eyes. 

Annie pushes past the guards who try to hold her away. The red hem of her dress dips in the blood, growing darker with the stain. Behind her two men, the ones Annie introduced him to earlier in the evening, come running down the corridor to stand on either side of her. Each holds her at the shoulder, trying to coax her away. But Annie seems not to notice them. And all the while her litany continues of “No, no, no . . .”

“Levi, you should go.” Erwin’s voice cuts through the horrific scene, still, somehow, managing to be calm. “Get away from here. Go back to the ballroom.”

Levi takes a couple steps back. Stares up at Erwin. He wonders if he should go to Annie, but that would mean having to walk through the blood, step over the corpse . . .

“You should go, too,” Levi says to him.

“I will. I need to be with my client.” His client. Even now, Erwin’s job comes first.

Levi hesitates. It feels wrong to step away from something so horrific, to return to the false peace and safety of the ballroom. But there’s nothing to be gained by staying, so he nods once, takes another shaky step back, and returns the way he came.

*****

The ballroom is still packed with people, the sound of chatter and laughter wafting out of its large open doors. Levi stands at the top of the stairs and looks down, wondering what will happen when the guests find out the fate of the night. Wondering which of them did it. Wondering how an event so fine can be the site of something so foul.

Levi begins descending slowly, not sure where he’s headed, just sure that there’s nothing else to do. The orchestra music seems more ethereal than ever, the running lines and bright chords false and grating.

Shouts cut through the music, and then the sound of booted feet, noises incongruous with the sounds of the ballroom. Someone yells, “Ackerman, freeze!” and the next thing Levi knows, his arms are yanked behind his back.

Cold, binding steel wraps around wrists as someone says into his ear, “Levi Ackerman, you are under arrest for the murder of Lord Leonhardt.”

Chapter Text

The world doesn’t feel entirely real.

Specific sensations stand out to Levi – the cold metal around his wrists, for example, or the way his jacket bunches under his armpits when his hands are pulled behind him. But everything else feels hazy, like the sensations experienced in a dream. Levi knows there’s a hand gripping his right arm, but the spaces it touches seems to have gone numb, unfeeling. And he’s aware of the shocked gasps running through the ballroom, but they sound as distant as the wind from indoors. Levi understands that he should be concerned, alarmed. But all he can think, in a moment of pure, emotionless clarity, is that this night has been really fucked up.

Another guard grips Levi’s left arm, and together the two men pull him up the stairs. His toes scrape the stone, unbalanced by the guards’ quick pace, and he struggles to stay upright. They near the wide double doors that open into the foyer, and Levi can see clearly through the brightly lit room and, beyond it, the doors that open out into the dark night.

Somehow, this sight is what pulls Levi out of his hazy, emotionless state. As Levi’s pulled closer and closer to the outer doors, reality comes to him like a slap. Numbness is quickly replaced by urgent, paralyzing fear.

“Wait.” Levi stops walking, tries to dig his feet into the marble to slow his trek. But the marble is unyielding, and the men have no trouble pulling him forward. “Wait! I didn’t do it. I didn’t kill him.”  

“Course you didn’t,” the right-hand guard says dryly.

“I’m a noble, you can’t arrest me without evidence,” Levi says, trying to remember the special rights he has as a noble. Nobles are always guaranteed a fair trial, nobles are guaranteed a lawyer, nobles need evidence before an arrest. Something like that.

The guard on his left chuckles. “And we don’t have any of that,” he says, his tone sarcastic.

The right-hand guard starts making a list. “You’re found in a part of the manor you had no right to be in. You have the same family name as a known murderer. You have an Underground background. And you’re rumored to be courting the victim’s daughter, who happens to be the sole heir to his massive fortune.”

“I’d say the evidence is pretty strongly stacked against you,” left guard says.

“Better hope you get a good lawyer.”

“Not that that’ll help much.”

 Levi’s taken out the front door. At the foot of the front steps, a red and white police car sits, its back door open and waiting for him. Levi saw a lot of people thrown into cars like that when he lived in the Underground. They usually didn’t come back.  

“I have an alibi,” Levi says. “I was talking to someone when the murder would have been happening, he can clear my name.” He subconsciously slows his step, postponing the moment when he has to get into that car.

“Stop!” A voice breaks through the night, frantic and strangled, almost unrecognizable in its emotion. “What are you doing with him? Unhand him this moment.” Lord Falkanrath runs down the stairs and pulls at the arm of the right-hand guard, vainly trying to free Levi. “That’s my son. How dare you? That’s my son!” He puts the emphasis on the word “my”, as though the concept of losing something that’s his is completely unfathomable.  

“We’re sorry, my lord,” the guard says, unfazed by Lord Falkanrath’s grip on his arm. “Your son has been named a suspect in a murder. We’re obligated to take him in.”

“That’s ludicrous! My son would never kill anyone. Let him go. I demand that you let him go! I’ll pay, however much you want. Enough to make you able to retire.”

“I’m sorry, my lord. We can’t.”

A second set of footsteps comes running down the stairs. Levi tries to turn and see who it is, but the guards on either side block his view.

“Gentlemen.” The voice is breathless, less self-assured than normal. But Levi would know that voice anywhere. “I can assure you that Mr. Ackerman is innocent. I was speaking with him when the murder would have been committed.”

“Take that up with your client,” the guard on his right says. “She’s the one who accused him.”

Levi’s heartbeat seems to stop when he hears that. If a Dreyse wants him in jail, there’s little that evidence or a fair trial can do to get him out.

They reach the car now, and Levi can postpone it no longer. He’s shoved into the back, and the door slams after him, trapping him behind bulletproof windows. He can see both his father and Erwin on the front steps. Their expressions unsettle Levi; instead of his father’s cold stoicism or Erwin’s perfect composure, both watch the police car with unmasked fear.

It’s the last glimpse Levi has of either as he’s taken away.

*****

The cell, in a way, reminds Levi of the Underground. It’s damp, moldy, and cramped, without so much as a toilet seat in the way of luxury. Just like home sweet home.

Levi doesn’t sleep. He’d love to sleep, but that would mean getting in the rickety bed that smells of mildew. And he can’t do that. It’s too dirty. Too damn much like a bed from the Underground, like the bed his mother died in.

Levi discovers that his cell is exactly six paces across and three and a half paces wide. There are thirteen cement bricks between the floor and the ceiling. Whenever Levi starts to wonder if he’ll be stuck here for the rest of his life, he pushes away those thoughts by counting the bricks again.

The sun rises. Nothing changes. The shorter cell walls have five blocks from left to right, the longer eight and a half.

Levi can’t say how long it’s been when his cell door finally opens. All he knows is that the sun rose a very long time ago. Prison guards enter, and his hands are again bound behind his back. He’s led through linoleum hallways lit by harsh fluorescent bulbs until they reach another room. This one’s a little bigger than his cell, a little cleaner, and no less sparse. There’s a metal table with a small, metal chair on one side and a plush, faux leather one on the other. Levi’s shoved into the metal one, his hands secured behind the chair back. Then, once again, he’s alone. Levi locates a row of concrete blocks and starts counting.   

The thin fabric of his white prison jumpsuit does nothing to keep out the chill of the metal he sits on. The chair was designed for someone bigger than him, and its sharp edges dig painfully into the back of his knees. He focuses on the discomfort; it helps keep his mind off other things.

The door opens and closes. An older man with white hair and a trim goatee enters. He settles down in the comfortable chair and begins skimming through a reading tablet. Levi waits, expecting the interrogation to begin at any moment. But the goateed man simply continues to read in silence, occasionally smirking at Levi over the top of the tablet.

The wait feels like a form of torture. After a night of agonizing over what would happen to him, someone who could answer that question sits only a few feet away. Yet no answers come.  Levi’s tempted to snap at this guy, tell him to get on with it. But he knows enough to keep his mouth shut around someone who holds the power to set him free.

After an unbearable stretch of time, Goatee Man eventually grows tired of this game. He puts the tablet down and looks at Levi, making eye contact. Levi forces himself to make eye contact back. Hell if he’s going to look weak in front of this asshole. Levi holds Goatee Man’s gaze long enough to realize that there’s something empty in it. It’s not so much that the man seems to be suppressing emotion. It’s that he doesn’t seem to have any emotion at all.

“I remember when you were first adopted.” Goatee Man breaks the silence in a casual, lazy tone, as though chatting over coffee and not across an interrogation room. “It was all over the news. The headlines proclaimed the heartwarming story of Falkanrath finding his long lost son and the exciting tale of a poor boy with a new shot at life. And, in some of the more progressive papers, people said it was proof an Underground brat can be turned into a noble if given the right sort of nurturing. I never believed a word of that. Looks like I was right.”

Levi doesn’t know where this is going, and that unsettles him. He picks his words carefully, sticking to a neutral script that, he hopes, doesn’t make him sound guilty. “Since I have a right to a lawyer, I would like to meet with one before I answer any questions.”

“And I would like you to shut up when you’re being spoken to.” Goatee Man leans forward now, crossing his arms on the table and examining Levi with chilling intensity. “I could probably make a case for denying you a lawyer. See, I don’t think it matters that you’ve got noble blood in you. You’ve got just as much Underground blood, and that negates everything else. Taints the noble blood. You think you’re better than friends down in the slums, but you’re all the same.” He smiles. “But that’s okay. I’m very good at teaching criminals their place.”

“Zackley.” The door slams open and another man pushes through it, a coffee cup in hand and a scowl on his face. He’s tall and thin, with dark hair and a scraggly, unattractive beard. “I thought I was handling this case.”

“You are,” Goatee replies. “I just like seeing the interesting ones.” He stands and gives Levi one last smirk. “Let me know if he starts giving you trouble.”

“I assure you that won’t be a problem.”

This man waits until Zackley’s out of the room before closing the door and sighing. He sits where Zackley had been and picks up the tablet he left behind. “Police Commissioner Dawk,” he says without looking up from it. “Cooperate and I’ll make sure your sentence is as easy as it can get.”

“I want to meet with a lawyer,” Levi says.

“Soon.” He puts the tablet down. “Here’s how things are. Miss Dreyse says you’re guilty. An investigation is ongoing, but unless we come up with rock-hard evidence to the contrary, her accusation stands. Hell, even if we do come up with rock-hard evidence to the contrary, her accusation will probably stand. Zackley’s in the Dreyses’ pocket.”

“Who is he?” Levi asks.

“A twisted sociopath who dispenses arbitrary justice around here. Listen.” Dawk rests his elbows on the table, leaning forward. “Truth is, whether you’re actually guilty or not isn’t going to make much difference in your sentence. But if you help me out, I’ll help you out. Make sure you don’t get the death penalty, maybe get you a nice cushy sentence in minimum security. Sound good?”

It sounds like a trap. “Help you out how?”

“Who is Kenny Ackerman?”

Of course. Levi should have seen that coming. He considers how to answer. On the one hand, selling out the man who abandoned him as a child seems a small price to pay for his life. On the other, Kenny Ackerman is probably the reason Levi lived through his childhood. And there’s a very good likelihood he had been framed for the murder of the congressmen. “I don’t know,” Levi says.

“Bullshit.”

“There are a lot of Ackermans in the Underground.”

“That’s what we thought, too. But we did an extensive search. Looked at all the recorded births in the Underground over the past thirty years and spent some time going door to door. What do you think we found?”

It sounds like a hypothetical question, but Dawk actually pauses, waiting for Levi to answer. With his tone carefully neutral, Levi says, “A fuckton of poor people.”

“We didn’t find a single Ackerman down there except you, your mom, and this Kenny guy. So I’m going to ask you again. Who is Kenny Ackerman?”  

Levi hesitates, caught in the lie. If he does go on trial, lying during interrogation isn’t going to make him look very good.

“You’re one lie away from the death penalty, kid,” Dawk says.

Levi reasons to himself that, most likely, the little he knows isn’t enough to get Kenny caught. If he’s careful, he can save himself without condemning the man who raised him. “He’s my uncle.”

“Better answer.” Dawk props the tablet upright and taps the screen to project a holographic keyboard onto the table. His fingers begin moving across it. “And where does your uncle like to hide himself?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re gonna throw yourself to the firing squad just like that?”

“It’s not a lie. I really don’t know,” Levi says. “He took me in when I was six, after my mother died. Raised me for four years. Then disappeared without a trace. I haven’t seen or heard from him since.”

“Interesting.” Dawk types something out. “Your uncle’s a hitman, right?”

“Yeah.” 

“So in your familial opinion, what were these congressmen? Hits or personal enemies?”

“Hits,” Levi says. There’s no way Kenny could have gotten to know any nobles well enough to make personal enemies among them.

“Who were his usual clients?”

Levi instinctively shrugs, though his binds keep him from moving much more than a twitch. “Gang members. Drug traffickers. Anyone who could pay. I was a kid at the time, so if there were any interesting ones, I probably didn’t notice.”

“No other high profile targets like this?”

“Never.” Levi hesitates before continuing. “He told me – he assumed I would become a hitman, too – he told me to never take a high-profile mark. Said they cause more trouble than they’re worth.”

Dawk pauses in his typing to look up. “Got careless in his old age?”

“I doubt it.”

“So he was offered one hell of a paycheck,” Dawk concludes.

“It’s the only reason he’d take such a risky job.” Dawk types something out while Levi considers how to ask his next question. “If you manage to figure out who paid him, would they get jailed, too?”

“It wouldn’t save your uncle.”

“I know.” But, Levi thinks, at least there’d be some kind of justice.

“Well, I’d love to,” Dawk says, pausing in his typing. “I’d really love to. But from what you’re saying, it sounds like this client is rich as hell. And it’s really fucking hard to jail rich people.”

A sudden pounding on the door interrupts them. Dawk starts and shouts, “What do you want?”

“Someone here to see you, commissioner,” a voice calls.

“I’m a little busy at the moment.”

“It’s Miss Dreyse.”

Dawk scowls. A Dreyse can’t be kept waiting, no matter how busy he is. He glares at Levi, as though Levi’s personally responsible for this interruption, before stepping out of the room.

Levi’s alone yet again, distracted by nothing but the edges of the chair digging into his skin. His shoulders and neck start to ache from the uncomfortable position his arms are bound in, and, as if he wasn’t already uncomfortable enough, he can feel pressure in his bladder starting to build.

The knowledge that Hitch holds Levi’s fate in her hands presses on his mind until it becomes a dull headache. He used to think that the worst Hitch could do to him was ruin his already poor reputation. How fucking naïve. Just last night Levi had felt so powerful while insulting her. It was probably that very insult that landed him here.

The metal door opens, pulling Levi out of his thoughts. Dawk enters, trailed by a prison guard. This guard strides behind Levi until Levi can’t see him, can only sense the presence of someone much larger standing close behind. He tenses, waiting for the guard to act.

“Congratulations, kid,” Dawk says. “Miss Dreyse changed her mind,”

The guard unlocks Levi’s handcuffs.

“What?”

“Miss Dreyse gave you an alibi. Autopsy said Lord Leonhardt was killed around 10:10 PM. Dreyse says you were insulting her at that very minute, so you couldn’t have been killing him. You’re free to go.”

Levi stands slowly, disbelieving. His instincts say that this is all a trick. But no one stops him as he takes a step forward, as he rolls his aching shoulders and inspects his chafed wrists.

“Some of us have things to do today, let’s go,” Dawk says.

Levi walks past him, exits the interrogation room and steps into the long linoleum hallway. From there, the guard ushers him into a waiting room. The room makes the stark prison feel like a bad dream; there are plush chairs and paintings on the walls and even a few potted plants. Only the bars on the windows give away that they’re in a prison.

“You can wait here for a ride to come,” the guard says. “We’ll get your clothes for you.” The door slams shut before Levi has a chance to respond.

There’s only one other person in the waiting room. Levi can see her sandy hair above the back of a large armchair.

Hitch stands suddenly. Levi sees her slip a comm into a handbag as she hurries toward the door. She glances up at Levi but doesn’t give any acknowledgement.

As Hitch passes, Levi forces out a “Thank you.” Because this girl just saved his life, and he should probably get off her bad side before she changes her mind again.

Hitch glares at him over her shoulder. “I didn’t do it for you,” she says. “You could have rotted in jail for all I care.” The words come out harsh and quick as a slap, intended to hurt.

Levi knows he shouldn’t prod her, but he has to ask. “Then why did you do it?”

“For him,” she says. And then, seeing Levi’s blank look, adds, “Erwin.” 

She’s out the door before Levi can respond.

*****

Hanji’s the first person Levi sees when he’s driven home, pacing the front porch of the Falkanrath manor. The moment Levi steps out of the cab, they fly down the front steps and envelop him in a hug. Levi lets them hold him, even rests his head against their shoulder. He normally would never allow such a tight, lengthy hug. But now Hanji seems to almost ground him, their embrace tangible proof that he’s home, that the fear of the jail is firmly behind him.

“I was so worried,” Hanji murmurs. “So fucking worried.”

“It’s okay. I’m okay.”

“Did they hurt you? Were you fed okay?”

No one fed Levi the whole time he was locked up. He doesn’t mention that. “No one hurt me. I was gone for less than a day. I’m ok.”

Hanji holds his shoulders and steps back, looking him over as if to verify his claims that he’s unhurt. “Fuck. I was so worried.”

“You know, I don’t think I’ll be going to another ball any time soon,” Levi says mildly.

Hanji shakes their head, but a small, relieved laugh sneaks out. They give Levi another long hug before walking into the manor by his side.

Levi steps into the manor’s foyer, an entranceway that has never looked more welcome in his life. Someone says his name, and before Levi knows it he’s wrapped up in yet another hug.

Levi’s father has never embraced him, not once in his life. It startles him, leaves him too rigid to return the embrace before, mere seconds later, it’s over. “Are you ok?” his father asks.

“Yeah.”

“Did they hurt you? Mistreat you in any way?”

“No.”

“I was on the phone with law enforcement all night. I had the best lawyer I know lined up, we were going to get you a fair trial . . . But, of course, none of that matters now. Thank god.”

Levi only nods, unsure of how to respond to his father’s new exuberance.

“I was . . .” here Lord Falkanrath seems to hesitate. He stands a little straighter, as if to regain the dignity he lost by hugging his son. “I was quite distraught. I . . . I care about you, very much, Levi. I . . . am glad to see you came to no harm.”

Each word comes out stilted, awkward in his father’s mouth. It’s almost uncomfortable to watch, this baring of emotion from a man who’s never shown an ounce of emotion in his life. Levi’s first instinct is to look away, grant him some privacy. “Thanks,” he says, no less awkward than his father.

“I’m sure you’ll want a shower, of course,” Lord Falkanrath says. “Get in fresh clothes. I’ll have the chefs cook something special for you. We’ll have a dinner to celebrate your return. No guests, of course, just the two of us.”

“I . . . kind of want to be alone,” Levi says.

Levi sees his father’s jaw tighten, usually a sure sign that he’s going to get angry. But no anger comes. Instead, his father simply says, “Of course. I understand. You’ve been through a lot, it’s natural you’ll want to rest. I’ll have something prepared for you and sent up to your rooms.”

“Thanks.”

“I . . . am very glad to see you home.”

“Thanks.”

Levi retreats to the staircase, where Hanji waits for him. He realizes, distantly, that perhaps he should have been kinder to his father. That his father was trying, for once, and maybe Levi should have rewarded that. But Levi can’t help but think of his father as the cold, forceful man that he usually is, and that’s the last person Levi wants to be with right now. Right now, he only wants the company of the one person he feels comfortable around.  

Hanji gives Levi a squeeze on the shoulder, and together they mount the stairs to Levi’s rooms.

*****

“I’d like to talk to one of your Companions. In private, but not for a . . . not for an evening with him. Just to talk.”

The customer service representative at Erwin’s Companion house speaks over the comm in a crisp, polished voice. From the way she ticks through his options, Levi gets the impression that she’s answered the same question dozens of times. “You can send a Companion of your choice an e-message, which will be read by the Companion’s manager and then passed on to him. Or if you’d like, you can make an appointment to take the Companion out to dinner or to attend another form of evening entertainment. A night together will give you plenty of opportunity to converse.”

“I can’t just visit and ask him something?” Levi asks.

“I’m sorry, sir, but all our Companions have very tight schedules and cannot meet with clients outside of pre-approved appointments.”

Levi sighs. “Fine. Then I’ll do the dinner, but can I have it in a private room?” The thought of sitting through an entire meal with Erwin sounds like a nightmare, but he’d probably be able to leave early.

“I’m very sorry, sir, but all engagements with a Companion not occurring within the Companion house must take place in public settings.”

Eating with a male Companion in public probably isn’t a great idea, even if Levi doesn’t have much of a reputation to protect. “Ok. Ok, I’ll write him a message,” Levi says. He’s not entirely comfortable with the idea of his message being looked at by some unknown manager, but it’ll have to do.

“I’m sure he’ll enjoy reading your message, sir,” the woman says. “While you’re on the phone, would you like to schedule your next appointment with a Companion of your choice?”

“Um . . . no,” Levi says. “Not right now.” Seeing Erwin for sex after everything that had happened would be . . . weird, to say the least. He has some things he needs to say to Erwin before he can even think about going back to the way things were.

“Very well. Is there anything else I can help you with today, sir?”

“No.”

“Then I hope you have a wonderful day. It was a pleasure speaking with you,” she says, just as fake as the Companions she represents, though not quite as good at it. Levi hangs up and sighs.

It’s been two days since he got out of jail and three days since the ball. He’s dreamt about jail once, about the corpse twice, and about Erwin twice. The freakiest dream included all three.

But whatever shit his sleeping brain gives him, Levi’s not letting one bad night affect him. He goes back to his normal routine almost immediately, returning to classes, doing even the most useless homework assignments, entertaining himself by working out and following Hanji to the roof. The one thing that won’t seem to go back to normal is his thoughts about Erwin – which he has more of than he would ever want.

He needs to talk to Erwin. Because if Hitch is to be believed, Erwin saved his life. And that goes pretty far beyond the typical client-Companion relationship. At the very least, Levi should probably say thank you. But beyond that, Levi wants to know why. Why would Erwin risk angering and alienating his richest client for Levi, who Erwin could probably replace pretty easily? Did he just have a really strong sense of justice? Or was there something else going on?   

Levi would also love to know the how of what Erwin did. Hitch had said that she freed Levi “for him.” For Erwin. Hitch Dreyse never does anything for anyone else. If he convinced her to veer away from her usual selfish habits, Erwin had to have been pretty damn persuasive, and Levi wants to know exactly what he said.

Levi navigates on his comm until he has a message page up, Erwin’s name spread across the top. He tucks his legs under him, curled up in the corner of his couch, and thinks about exactly what he wants to say.

“Erwin,” he types onto the screen. “I want to thank you for persuading Hitch to clear my name.” And then he gets stuck, unsure of how to phrase the rest.

Levi reads that sentence over. Something about it doesn’t sit right. It reads too fancy, doesn’t sound like him. And besides, what would Erwin’s manager’s reaction be to that? Would this mysterious manager have any idea what Erwin had done for Levi? Probably not. And if not, Levi doesn’t want him to find out. He deletes the message and begins again.  

“Dear Erwin. What you did for me the night of the ball was really nice and I’m really grateful.” Now that just sounds awkward.  

“Dear Erwin. Thank you for talking some sense into your bitch of a client.” The manager probably wouldn’t like that, either.

Levi sighs and deletes his message yet again. This was a bad idea to begin with. Levi doesn’t have a way with words, whether out loud or written in a message. And his pressing questions probably shouldn’t be written out in something that a third party’s going to see. Eventually, Levi resorts with his usual tactic of using the simplest phrasing possible.

“Dear Erwin. Thank you.”

*****

Classes fall silent when Levi walks in.

He doesn’t know what the rumors are and he doesn’t really care. Half the nobles in Stohess probably think he really did commit the murder, and there’s no point in trying to convince them otherwise. Levi’s guilt would fit too nicely with their schema of class differences, serving as proof that there really is something inherently evil about people from the Underground. Well, Levi’s not going to mess with their nice, pretty worldview. Whatever his classmates think, it doesn’t impact him.

At one point, an unfamiliar group of students approaches Levi on his way out of a classroom. One, their apparent ringleader, stands in the middle of the door, blocking Levi’s way. “I’m terribly sorry about your ordeal,” she says.

“Thanks,” Levi replies, mildly confused at the unprovoked show of kindness.

“It must have been terrifying. What was it like?”

Levi looks at the faces of the people behind her. They all stare at him with roughly the same expression as someone watching a tragic news story: superficial concern barely masking morbid fascination. Not kindness, then. Just a desire to use him as gossip fodder.

“I was strung up by my ankles and beaten every hour.”

“Really?”

“No, I just sat in a fucking cell.”

That was the last time anyone tried to talk to Levi about his ordeal.

As for Hitch, she avoided looking at him, sat in the opposite corner of classrooms, darted to the other side of the hall when she saw him coming. And that was fine with Levi.

He didn’t see Annie around the university, nor did he really expect to. She had every reason to take some time off from normal life. He did, however, run into Petra.

Levi hadn’t really expected to see or hear from Petra again, but he’s walking between class buildings five days after the ball when he hears a voice call, “Levi!”

He turns around in time to see Petra hurrying towards him, still dressed in a lab coat from whatever chemistry class she had been attending. “I’m so glad I saw you. I was going to send you message tonight.”

“Why?” Not the classiest thing to say, but definitely what Levi’s thinking.

“I’m sorry the ball ended the way it did for you.”

“Thanks.”

“Anyway, I was wondering if you had an engagement for tea this Saturday?”

Tea. When nobles spend their late afternoon sitting around eating pastries and drinking tea. Apparently an Ancient Earth custom that nobles consider quaint. The notion of Levi having any sort of engagement is absurd, let alone a tea engagement. “No.”

“Well, would you like to take tea with me, at my house?”

Levi stares at her. “What?”

“Would you like to take tea with me on Saturday?”

“Uh . . . sure.”

Petra smiles. “Wonderful. I thought our conversation was cut short the other day, and I’m eager to get to know you a little better.”

“Thanks. Uh, you too. I mean, I want to get to know you . . . too.”

To Petra’s credit, she just continues smiling as though that. “Well, I need to get to class.”

“Uh, me too.”

“I’ll see you in a couple days.”

“Yeah, see you.”

Levi watches her go. It’s not until she’s out of sight that the only plausible explanation dawns on him: She’s after his father’s money.

Well, now Levi’s committed to spending a couple hours with her. He sighs and shakes his head. At least there’ll be tea.

*****

After his painfully awkward days at university, Levi usually looks forward to the opportunity to retreat to his rooms and spend the rest of the evening alone. So when he sees a stranger at the door of his apartment, he’s instantly irritated.

“Are you lost?” he demands.

“Ah, no,” the man says. Levi stops a few yards away from him, not because he doesn’t want to approach the stranger, but because this guy is so damn tall that Levi would have strained his neck looking up if he got any closer. He’s taller even than Erwin, and gangly, blond hair falling into his eyes. The scraps of a wispy goatee dust his chin and upper lip.

“Then what do you want?”

“I was told that this was the door of Mr. Ackerman.”

Levi glares up at him and tries to figure out what this guy could be here for. His appearance is unassuming enough, and he wears a bland gray suit that would fit any middle-class businessman. From the way he looks, Levi can’t find any clues as to who he is. That just makes Levi more irritated “What business do you have with him?”

“I have a note to deliver to him.” The man pulls a small, square envelope out of his breast pocket. Levi sees his name written on it in neat cursive.

“From who?” No one ever sent handwritten notes, let alone hand-delivered handwritten notes.

“An acquaintance of Mr. Ackerman’s.”

“I am Mr. Ackerman, give it to me,” Levi demands.

The man clearly hesitates, not sure whether to believe Levi. Levi pushes past him and opens his door, hoping that will somewhat prove his identity. “What, do you need an ID? Is this highly sensitive government information?”

“It’s not government, but it is rather sensitive.” The man hands the envelope over. “Send your response to me, not to him. Here.” He once again reaches into his breast pocket, this time pulling out a business card and handing it to Levi.

“Mike Zacharius,” it reads. “Entertainment Personnel Management.” Beneath the name and title, a comm number is printed. The top right corner of the card is decorated with the flying dove that represents Erwin’s companion house.

“Have a pleasant evening,” Mike Zacharius says, disappearing down the hall before Levi can demand any further explanation.

Levi stares at the envelope. The handwriting is the neatest calligraphy Levi has ever seen, with decorative loops on the capital letters. No one writes like that. If the business card didn’t give away who the note is from, the handwriting alone does. Levi peels open the envelope and slides out a folded piece of ivory-colored stationary.

            “Dear Mr. Ackerman,

“I was terribly sorry to hear of your plight at the end of the Dreyse’s ball. Though all was cleared up and you were released in a timely manner, it must have been a dreadful experience. I received your message the other day, and I appreciate the sentiment behind it. However, I feel some things must be discussed between us before we can resume our normal professional relationship.

“If convenient for you, I’d like to invite you to share a dinner with me at the Twin Roses Restaurant this upcoming Saturday at 6pm. I have booked a private room for the occasion. Please confirm your attendance with my manager, Mr. Zacharius.

“Whether or not you’re able to accept this invitation, I must request discretion regarding it. There are rules in place that limit where and how a Companion may contact a client – rules that are in place for my comfort, but rules that I feel must be disregarded on certain occasions. I trust you will understand and maintain the utmost secrecy.

                                                                                                Sincerely,

                                                                                                Erwin Smith”

Chapter Text

Petra’s townhouse is nice. Really nice. Her family doesn’t yet have the ostentatious manor that most noble families have, but the townhouse is spacious and stylish, with airy halls and a large courtyard garden. It’s unassumingly classy and elegant – just like Petra.

That doesn’t mean Levi wants to spend two hours there sipping iced tea and making small talk.

He and Petra run out of things to talk about less than twenty minutes after Levi arrives, and the conversation degrades into comments on the weather (hot), the garden (pretty), and how their studies are going (fine). Levi has no idea how to navigate this so-called polite conversation. The only person he talks to on a regular basis is Hanji, and conversation with them can’t necessarily be described as polite.

At the thought of Hanji, Levi’s reminded of Petra’s enthusiasm for science, and he gets the idea to ask Petra about her chemistry research. This takes up about another twenty minutes. But once that topic is exhausted, they’re back to staring at their drinks and giving each other forced smiles.

Levi takes another sip of his iced tea. He’s halfway through his third glass by now. He’s been drinking during every awkward pause as an excuse to not talk. “Well . . . I guess I should be going,” he says.

“Oh, so soon?” Petra looks up from where she’s been absently picking at a miniature cake.

Levi doesn’t think it’s soon. He’s been there for almost an hour. How long could people actually spend drinking tea and talking about nothing? Besides, he has another engagement that night that he has to make time for. “Oh, uh . . . is it soon?”

“I . . . suppose not,” Petra says. She sighs and gives him a smile. “I’m sorry I’ve been so dull.” 

Levi almost laughs at that. He can’t imagine why she’s apologizing when it’s him who can’t socialize. “You’re not the one who’s been dull.”

“I feel like I’ve only been speaking of myself.”

“Yeah, because you have things to say that aren’t dull.”

“You’re too kind.”

Levi snorts. “No I’m not.”

Petra seems a little confused at that statement – self-deprecation isn’t too common among high society. Levi can tell she doesn’t quite know what to make of it. But after a moment a giggle escapes her lips. “I have to confess, I’m not very good at conversation,” she says.

“You’re talking to me.”

There’s another giggle, a little more confident than before. It’s kind of a nice laugh, Levi thinks. Genuine, not like the overly loud laughter that nobles usually force out.

“You’re fine at conversation, trust me,” Levi says.

“Well, I don’t think you give yourself enough credit,” Petra replies.

“I give myself exactly as much credit as I deserve.”

And again, another giggle. Now Levi’s tempted to laugh himself, though he’s not quite sure what’s funny. “You always say exactly what you think, don’t you?” Petra asks.

“Yeah.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”  

“With all the years you’ve spent among the nobility, someone must have tried to persuade you to speak more formally like the rest of them do,” Petra says. “So why don’t you?”

Levi opens his mouth to respond but finds that a response doesn’t come quickly. He’s never given it much thought beyond the simple fact that he doesn’t want to. A few months ago, he had posed a similar question to Annie, and now he remembers how she responded. It’s all a game, she had said, and so she’s not playing. But no, Levi can’t give that answer to Petra. As profound as it is, it’s not his. There was never any philosophical basis for Levi’s decision to withdraw from high society.

“I guess . . .” Levi shrugs. “There’s no point, really. If I were going to be like them, I’d have to change everything about me. And what would I get for all that effort? Fake acceptance from people who will always see me as an outsider no matter what I do.”

“I think I know what you mean,” Petra says. “I’m starting to realize that I’ll always be seen as something of an outsider no matter how well I learn to play by their rules. I can’t imagine how much harder it must be for you.”

Levi nods. “So there’s no point for me. Besides, I wouldn’t want to be a fake. People in the Underground were assholes, but at least they were assholes to your face. I’d take someone trying to knife me over someone who talks shit behind my back any day.”

Petra’s expression suddenly changes to one of alarm. “Oh. But no one . . . I mean, were you ever . . . actually . . . knifed?”

Levi hadn’t meant anything by his comment, and he definitely hadn’t expected it to affect Petra so much. The truth is that Levi was attacked or threatened at knifepoint on a fairly regular basis during his childhood – sometimes because he had just robbed someone, sometimes because he was being robbed, and sometimes just because one of Kenny’s buddies wanted to fuck with him. And with any other noble, Levi would have loved to tell them all the unpleasant details just to see that horrified expression grow. But to Petra Levi just says, “Uh, no. I wasn’t.”  

“Oh, that’s good.” And she gives him a smile that at once relieves and unsettles Levi. It occurs to him that, in lying to Petra, he had just acted as the thing he claimed to hate – a fake. But being honest with Petra would have meant rocking her innocent worldview while getting into a conversation about his childhood that he’s really not in the mood to have. He simply can’t be completely authentic around Petra.

Levi forces a smile in return. It disjointed and awkward on his face. He really hopes it doesn’t look as off as it feels. “Well, I’m sorry to cut things short, but, uh, I have somewhere else I have to be tonight.”

“Oh.” The smile falters. “Alright. We’ll do this again sometime.” 

Levi restrains himself from wincing. He likes Petra fine, but he really doesn’t want to do this again. “Sure.”

“Have a nice evening.”

“Yeah, you too.”

Levi shows himself out of the courtyard. He takes one glance over his shoulder as he leaves and instantly wishes he hadn’t. Petra looks off in the distance, absently running her finger along the rim of her glass. A dejected look sits plain on her face. Levi thinks that if he had any possibility of having an interest – any inkling of attraction to women – Petra would be a good choice. She’s nice enough, and smart, and more authentic than the rest of the noblewomen. She’d be a good person to settle for if he has to marry someone.

But, Levi thinks as he steps out of the courtyard, Petra deserves much better than to be settled for.    

*****

The Twin Roses Restaurant is located in the Playground district, and on Saturday evening it’s packed with the well-to-do enjoying an evening meal before indulging themselves in whatever other entertainments the Playground has in store for them. The décor is classy – gold accents on the plates, fresh flowers on the tables, original artwork on the walls – though the noise and bustle of the crowd makes it feel slightly more common. The result is a restaurant that’s a step or two below the extravagant places frequented by the nobility, but a step or two above what the average Stohess resident can afford.

Erwin’s manager waits for Levi just inside the doors. He doesn’t say anything when he sees Levi, but simply nods at him before leading the way into the restaurant proper. They walk along the edge of the room, skirting around tables and following the crisp white walls. Then Erwin’s manager holds open a door in the back corner, saying, “He’ll be with you shortly.”

Levi steps inside and takes in the room before him. It’s small, but more than spacious enough for two. The décor in here contrasts starkly with the light, elegant colors of the main room. The walls are paneled with dark wood, making the room feel rather smaller than it is, and heavy red curtains block any outside light. Opposite the window hangs a faded painting that depicts an Ancient Earth sailing ship on a choppy sea. A round table dominates the center of the room, already set for two.

Levi steps across the thick red carpet and inspects the dinner table. The food isn’t yet out, but a decanter of red wine already waits for them. The table’s set according to the strictest etiquette guidelines (as far as Levi can tell) except for one small variation. Rather than being on opposite sides of the table, the two place settings are right next to each other. Close enough to touch.

Levi’s deciding between the two seats when Erwin enters, impeccably dressed as always and treating Levi to a handsome smile. Levi fights down a sudden flight of nerves when he sees Erwin’s form framed by the doorway.

“I hope I didn’t keep you waiting,” Erwin says. “Thank you for agreeing to meet me.”

The words barely register. Levi silently sits down, suddenly anxious to get this over with. Erwin takes the other seat, and Levi was right – he really is close enough to touch.

“I trust you’re well?” Erwin asks.

Levi just shrugs in reply. He just spent over an hour in awkward small talk. The last thing he wants is more of it. Better to get right to business. “So, I appreciate the thought and all, but isn’t this,” Levi gestures to the room before him, “A little much?”

“What do you mean?”

“Private room, dinner. Seems like a lot of effort just to talk,” Levi says. “Who’s paying for this dinner, anyway?”
“Don’t worry about that.”

“There’s no way in hell you’re picking up the tab.”

“Levi.” Erwin picks up the wine decanter. “Try to relax and enjoy yourself.”

“I’m not drinking,” Levi says in protest to the wine Erwin offers him.

“Very well.” Erwin fills his own glass with the dark liquid.

A moment later, two waiters enter. They come not through the main doorway, but from a hidden back door disguised to blend in with the paneled walls. Levi catches a glimpse of the kitchen beyond it. One waiter leaves a basket of rolls on the table and pours water while the other sets two bowls of soup before Erwin and Levi. They move quickly and silently, almost unnervingly so, though Erwin – as usual – seems completely at ease.

Then they leave as suddenly as they came, and Erwin, with a grace that makes even eating soup look sophisticated, begins his meal. Levi takes that as a cue that he should, too.

The taste of the first spoonful surprises him – it’s as good as, if not better than, the food his father’s private chef prepares. He tries not to think about how Erwin chose to take Levi to an evidently great restaurant.  

Still, Levi didn’t come here to appreciate the food. “So. What did you want to say to me?”

Erwin doesn’t answer right away. He takes a slow, thoughtful sip of his wine and carefully sets the glass down before speaking. “I got the message that you sent me. I appreciate that you went out of your way to thank me.”

“I wouldn’t say typing two words on a comm was out of my way.” For effectively saving his life, Erwin probably deserved a lot more than a simple thank you.

Erwin gives him a smile. “I know you’re not one for flowery language,” he says. “But the message was direct and clear, and I appreciate your intent.”

“Well, I didn’t want to say any details in case you wanted to keep it secret,” Levi says. “But apparently your manager’s in on all of your weird secrets.”

“Mike is very trustworthy,” Erwin says mildly.

“You still haven’t told me what you wanted to say to me.”

Erwin smiles again, as if amused by Levi. It pisses Levi off. “I was wondering if you could tell me what gave you the impression that I had a hand in your fate,” he says.

“Didn’t you?” If he didn’t, Levi’s going to feel really stupid.

“In an indirect way, I suppose. But I want to know how you found out.”

“Hitch,” Levi says. “I saw her when she came to the jail. I thanked her, and she told me she didn’t do it for me. She did it for you.”

Erwin pauses in his eating, spoon hovering midway through the air as he thinks. It lasts for less than a moment, just long enough to make Levi ache to ask what he’s thinking about. “Interesting,” Erwin murmurs.

“What did you do?” Levi asks.

“It would violate Companion-client confidentiality if I were to tell you in detail,” Erwin says. “But I stayed with her after she found the body. She was very shaken up about it, especially since the murder had occurred in her own home. I sat with Miss Dreyse until she calmed down. During the course of the evening, I discussed her accusation of you and asked her what evidence she had. When it came to light that she didn’t have any definitive evidence, I begged her to reveal as much to the law for the sake of justice. Tell me, did it seem that she knew we were acquainted?”

Levi thinks back to the words Hitch used. For him, she had said at first, and only when Levi didn’t understand did she add, Erwin. She had spoken as though Levi should have known exactly who she was talking about. Then again, Hitch lived in a world that revolved around her, and she might have just not realized that Levi wouldn’t automatically think of her Companion. “It’s hard to tell,” Levi says.

“I see. I assure you, I was very careful to avoid revealing our relationship. That is a very important part of Companion-client confidentiality that I am dedicated to upholding.”

“Then she probably didn’t,” Levi says. Then he adds dryly, “But if you somehow hinted that you knew me in the process of saving my life, then I think I’ll let it slide.”  

Erwin chuckles. “Well then, I appreciate that.”

“Was it hard to convince her?”

“That would be a detail, and I can’t reveal the details of our conversation.”

“Fine. I already I know the answer.”

Erwin gives him his amused smile. A smile that somehow manages to be both infuriatingly attractive and just plain infuriating. Levi looks at his soup. “That does bring me to the main issue I wanted to discuss with you,” Erwin says. “It’s very important to me that you know that I persuaded my client to acquit you without an expectation of anything in return. I do not expect or desire any special treatment or favors from you. I do not want any change in our current professional relationship. Please understand that you are not in my debt.”

Levi stares at Erwin, expecting him to continue speaking. Because there has to be more than that. That can’t be the extent of what Erwin wanted to discuss with him. But Erwin doesn’t say any more. In disbelief, Levi says, “You organized a complex secret dinner and broke Companion rules just to tell me not to give you anything?”

“Essentially, yes.”

Levi puts his spoon down and looks closely at Erwin, searching for any sign of a lie. But, of course, Erwin wouldn’t give any sign even if it was a lie. “I didn’t think you did it for favors.”

“I understand, but I also recognize that being on the receiving end of such an act of service can create a feeling of indebtedness. I want to ensure that such feelings won’t complicate how we interact with each other.”

“Why couldn’t you just say this in a message?” Levi asks. It’s a fairly straightforward request. Reading it on a comm would have been just as useful as hearing it in person.

“All messages exchanged between Companions and clients are kept on record, and I did not want to run the risk of an administrator at my Companion house reading it. My involvement in this case should be kept hidden for legal reasons. Companions aren’t supposed to try to sway clients’ opinions in any major way.”

“Oh.” And for a second, the well-thought-out answer makes perfect sense.

The waiters interrupt them again, clearing away empty soup bowls and replacing them with a decadent main course of lamb draped with some creamy red sauce that Levi can’t identify. At the sight of the elaborate meal, Levi again begins to question why Erwin made such an effort. They could have had this conversation over drinks in a bar – granted, he can’t imagine Erwin in a bar. But they could in theory. Or they could have had tea or lunch or just met in a damn alleyway somewhere, and the end result would have been the same.

The interruption of the waiters gives Levi time to think without Erwin’s influence. When he’s meeting Erwin’s eyes and hearing his confident voice, everything Erwin says sounds correct. But when Erwin’s not using his charms, his logic starts to break down. If Erwin couldn’t send an electronic message, why not a handwritten one like the one he had used to invite Levi here?

“Why was it so important that you say this to me?” Levi asks once the waiters are gone.

“Because I don’t want any change in our professional relationship. I value that relationship, Levi. It took time for us to build a positive rapport each other, and I don’t want that to be jeopardized by anything.”

Their professional relationship. The last time Levi had spoken to Erwin they had been standing over a dead body. And a few minutes before that, Levi had unequivocally told Erwin that he was no more than an “expensive dick.” Levi’s not sure what kind of relationship they have, but “positive rapport” is not the term he’d use to describe it.  

Their attention turns to their meal for a moment, only the scrape of silverware breaking the silence. He tries to watch Erwin out of the corner of his eye and, at one point, catches Erwin doing the same to him.

Eventually, Erwin breaks the silence by saying, “I also wanted to see how you were faring after last Saturday evening. Between the grisly sight of the body and your subsequent ordeal in jail, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for you.”

“What, are you a shrink now in addition to being a Companion?”

“Think of it more as a concerned acquaintance,” Erwin says.

“I thought you wanted to maintain our ‘professional relationship’. This doesn’t seem too professional to me.”

“There is nothing in the Companion code of conduct that dictates that I can’t be concerned,” Erwin replies. “Of course, if you don’t want to talk about it, I understand.”     

“It’s not that,” Levi says. “I’m fine, honestly. It wasn’t the worst place I’ve spent the night or the first bloody body I’ve stumbled across.”

Levi doesn’t think much about that comment, but once it’s said he remembers mentioning how Petra reacted when he referred to his less-than-pleasant childhood. He glances at Erwin now, worried that he’ll find a similar form of surprise (or what counts as surprise on Erwin’s perpetually composed face). But all Levi sees is a hint of concern in Erwin’s eyes. “I’m sorry to hear that. Your childhood in the Underground must have been very difficult,” he says.            

Levi shrugs. “It’s in the past,” he says as a way of hinting that he’s really not in the mood to talk about it.  

“There are rumors going around that someone from the Underground committed the crime. In your opinion, do you think that’s true?”

“Am I the expert on everyone in the Underground now?”

“Of course not. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that.”

“There’s another reason you’re asking me,” Levi says. “You can say it.”

“Despite having the same last name, I don’t assume that Kenny Ackerman has any relation to you.”

“And yet you asked anyway. Just out of curiosity, huh?”

“It was an inappropriate thing for me to ask. I apologize.”

Levi rolls his eyes. “For all your politeness, even you have a bit of morbid curiosity,” he says. Then, when it’s clear Erwin’s going to apologize again, Levi says, “Don’t. It’s fine. It just shows that you’re human.” 

“It wasn’t necessarily morbid curiosity, though I understand now that I must have come across that way. I’m more . . . concerned. About what the implications would be if a relative of yours was the culprit, for both you and for any other potential victims.”

“For any other potential victims? Are you saying that if he is related to me, I should tell the police what I know?”

“Well, yes. Though it’s far from my place to tell you what to do.”

“Don’t worry. I already had a nice chat with the police while I was locked up.”

“Ah. Of course.” 

“And if I were to tell you if I was related to him, what would you do with the information?”

“Nothing. Confidentiality still applies.”

Levi thinks for a moment, chewing his lamb slowly as he decides whether or not to keep dancing around the truth. “Well, I’m sure you’ve already figured out whether or not I am,” he eventually says.

Erwin just nods. “It must be very strange to have such a notorious relative.”

“That’s one way of putting it.”

“Do you believe he’s actually guilty?”

“Oh, yeah.” Levi takes another bite of his dinner to give himself time to think about if he’s going to say any more. But he’s already admitted the secret, and Erwin’s sworn to confidentiality. So why the hell not. “I mean, he’s a hit man, so it’s not his fault that anyone’s been killed. But I’m sure he’s the one who killed them. Well, except Leonhardt. He probably wouldn’t have gone near a crowded ball with such a high price on his head.”

“I see.”

“I thought you wanted to hold this secret meeting to talk about not owing you anything, not to discuss my fucked up uncle,” Levi says.

Erwin smiles. “I did. But I know you’re in the midst of a very complex situation, and I wanted to make sure you were alright.”

“I’m fine.” The thought of Erwin being so concerned about him is odd. It’s at once confusing and gratifying, and something Levi feels he probably shouldn’t dwell on. “Have you said everything you needed to say? If I’ve put all your concerns to rest then maybe we can end this early.”

“Do you want to end it early?”

Levi shrugs. “Well, I don’t want to waste any more of your time.”

“I’m rather enjoying myself.”

Levi glances down at his half-eaten dinner and considers. He could just say he wants to leave now. But that would waste a good meal. “Well, the food is good,” he says as a grudging concession.

“And so is the company.”

“And there’s that bullshit Companion charm.”

“You say it’s bullshit, and yet you always return for more of it,” Erwin replies.  

Levi feels his face grow warm. “I return for the sex,” he says.

“Sex alone isn’t enough to return for.”

“How would you know?”

“There are dozens of excellent male Companions throughout the city for you to choose from, all just as good at sex as I am.”

“I don’t stick with you because I particularly like you. It’s just what I’m used to. It’s like how you always buy the same brand of toothpaste even though every other brand does the same thing.”

“I see. Well then, I’m glad I provide you with a satisfying brand,” Erwin says. He takes a moment to refill his wine glass and then turns back to Levi. “Most of my clients prefer not to recognize the business-like aspects of what I do and instead aim to make it more personal. You seem to do the opposite. Why is that?”  

“Because I like to know what’s real and what’s pretend, not blur the line between the two. Why does it matter?”

“I sometimes wonder if your focus on the professional aspect of our relationship limits your enjoyment of our sessions.”

“I think I enjoy them fine.”

“You do seem to enjoy yourself,” Erwin says.

Levi rolls his eyes. “Stop that.”

He only gets a frustrating smile in return. “In a way, perhaps it’s a good thing. Many customers feel shocked or even offended the first time they see me on another client’s arm. But I’m sure you understand that it’s not personal.”

“Of course,” Levi says, growing slightly embarrassed at the memory of how shocked and offended he had been when he first saw Erwin with Hitch. “Though Hitch Dreyse is a poor choice of client if you ask me.”

“There’s more to Miss Dreyse than meets the eye,” Erwin replies simply.

Levi snorts. “So there’s an even deeper level of vapidness under her surface vapidness?”

“Not exactly.”

“No, I get it,” Levi says. “You have to make money, and she has a fuckton of it.”

“That isn’t untrue.”

“I don’t blame you for that. It ended up working in my favor, anyway.” Levi remembers, though, how Hitch ordered Erwin to her side with a snap. The thought alone is enough to anger him even a week later. And if he’s angry, he can’t imagine how Erwin can bear it. “Since I’m stuck with you until I finish eating, I have a question for you.”

“Yes?”

Levi wants to ask how Erwin can stand to be with Hitch, or people like Hitch, or even how he can put up with someone as unpleasant as Levi. But before he says anything, he realizes that Erwin would just answer with a charming lie. So Levi changes his angle and asks another question that he’s always wanted to know. “Why did you choose to become a Companion?”

Erwin’s movements slow for a moment, his expression thoughtful. “I was recruited, actually,” he says. “Representatives from Stohess’s Companion academy came to the orphanage where I lived.”

The word “orphanage” causes a jolt of surprise that passes through Levi like an electric shock. That was the last word he ever expected to hear from Erwin. “You were an orphan?”

“Yes.”

Levi has never thought about Erwin as a child. It seems somewhat unfathomable that Erwin, with his intelligence and urbanity, could have ever been a vulnerable child. Levi tries to picture it – a scared little boy with blond hair and blue eyes residing in one of the overcrowded orphanages scattered throughout Stohess’s southern neighborhoods. He can conjure up an image easily enough, but he can’t reconcile it with the man before him.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

Erwin gives him a reassuring smile. “Nothing to be sorry about. It was a very long time ago, and I’ve processed my grief.”  

Levi had spent much of his childhood believing that he was an orphan. It’s a terrifying way to live, to be so young and to know that those you care about are gone from this world. It’s not a grief you process; it’s just a grief you learn to live with.

“So, what, these recruiters came in and offered you a way out of the orphanage?”

“In a manner of speaking. They told me I would do well as a Companion, and that I would make myself a comfortable living. It was an easy choice.” He must have noticed some skepticism in Levi’s expression, because he adds, “I don’t regret my decision in the least.”

Levi’s sure he doesn’t. Most orphans, especially those without any inheritance, wind up as new residents of the Underground or, at best, working low-paying jobs in farms or factories. Given that, it was no surprise that a young Erwin would have jumped at the opportunity to become a Companion. Still, it strikes Levi as somewhat underhanded. A choice between a life of poverty or a life as a Companion isn’t really a choice at all.

“How old were you?” Levi’s not sure he wants to know the answer.

“I was twelve when I was recruited.”

 “That’s fucked up,” he says before he can stop himself. His notices that his fist has clenched around his knife, an instinctive reaction. As though ready to defend Erwin from something that happened long ago.

“I didn’t start to study seduction until I was much older.”

“It’s still fucked up.” Levi swallows. He imagines the lost little boy again and pictures him being approached by strangers. Probably targeted because of his pretty face. There’s a heavy, burning feeling in the pit of Levi’s stomach “You were a fucking kid.”

Erwin’s stopped eating. He’s watching Levi carefully, expression completely unreadable. “No one forced my hand. I was free to leave the academy at any time.”

“And go where?”

“And I’m free to stop working at any time,” Erwin continues as though Levi hadn’t said anything. “And there are numerous legal protections that safeguard me, including the right to turn away any client I wish. So you see, I’m far from trapped. Your concern is appreciated, but I assure you I’m quite satisfied with my lot.”

“But it’s not what you would have wanted,” Levi says. “If you could choose for yourself.”

“And are you doing what you would have wanted?”

“What?”

“You’re studying at Sina University, and after graduation you’ll choose one of the vocations common among noble sons – military, I’m guessing? Is that what you would want to do if you could choose?”

Levi hesitates. The answer, if he’s being honest, is no. He doesn’t really care about defending the UG or ensuring unity among the planets. And the idea of adhering to strict military discipline for the rest of his life doesn’t sit well with him. But it’s the best option he has. “It’s either do what my father wants me to do or go back to living in the Underground,” Levi explains.  

“And I, too, had a choice between a less than ideal profession and living in poverty,” Erwin replies. “We all do what we must.”

Levi glares, though the anger isn’t directed at Erwin. It isn’t directed at anyone, really. He’s just frustrated – frustrated at those recruiters that took advantage of an orphan kid, at the society that allows that to happen. At himself for benefitting from it for so long. But Erwin, in his clever and decisive way, has left Levi without an effective argument no matter how much the idea displeases him. Still not pacified, he hears himself say, “It’s different. You’re selling your body.”

“And you’re purchasing it.”

Now his glare is a little more directed at Erwin. “I . . . I didn’t know . . .”

“That I was a child when I first began my study? Did it not occur to you? All Companions begin their work at the age of eighteen. When did you think we learned our skills?”

Levi had assumed that they started at the academy when they were older, that they were at least teenagers when they made their decision. But no, that’s just an excuse; the truth is that Levi hadn’t thought too deeply about it. He had never bothered to consider Erwin’s past and connect it to Erwin’s present.

“Levi.” Erwin gives him a gentle smile that’s kind enough to put Levi at ease even as he makes the boldest statement Levi has ever heard from him. “Only a few minutes ago you were implying that I was a commodity on the level of toothpaste. Now it appears you’re indignant about that very thing that I sell. Either I am a commodity, or I am a person. And if I am a person, then I need you to respect my ability to make choices for myself.”

The words take Levi’s anger away, leaving him speechless. Trust Erwin to shut down an argument with indisputable logic, and do it with a smile on his face. But that’s not all that has left Levi gaping. Because Erwin’s right – either he’s a person, or he’s “an expensive dick.” For the past few months Levi had been trying to think of him as both at the same time, trying to peel back the layers of Erwin’s façade without having to deal with the consequences of doing so. Thinking of him as a person when in bed with him, but purposefully restructuring him into only the service he provides once the night is over. But Levi has to choose one. And it would be so much easier if he could choose the latter.

“I . . . didn’t mean it. The toothpaste comment. I didn’t mean it like that,” Levi says. Because he wants to say You’re a person, or I’m sorry, or I’ll respect you, or maybe something else that he hasn’t even admitted to himself. But all of that is too open, too emotional, and besides, he knows with complete surety that Erwin will understand what he means.

“I know you didn’t,” Erwin says.

“I’m sorry.”

“And I’m sorry, as well,” Erwin says. “For not diffusing the tension sooner and allowing this disagreement to come between us.”

“No, don’t be. You defended yourself. Nothing wrong with that.”

Erwin smiles. “Very few clients have asked me how I became a Companion. And I’ve told the truth to none of them until now. I don’t know what came over me.” 

Something jumps in Levi’s chest. “I’m glad you did,” he says. “I’ll keep your secret.”

“Thank you.”

Erwin continues to eat, and Levi turns back to his dinner as well, the food now almost cold. There are only a few bites left. The evening will be over soon. It didn’t at all go the way Levi expected, and he gets the sense that despite Erwin’s near constant control of every situation, he could say the same. Levi takes a few final bites before asking, “If you had the option of being anything . . . what would you be?”            

Erwin finishes his dinner and carefully sets down his knife and fork. Then he turns to face Levi, a distant look on his face that makes him seem younger, somehow. “Well, when I was very young, I wanted to be president.”

Levi can’t help but laugh. “President?”

“President Smith. When I was young, I thought it had a nice ring to it.”

“I could see it.”

“Could you?”

“Wearing a fancy suit, delivering speeches that don’t actually mean anything. Posing with the poor for photo ops. You’d be good at it.”

“Thank you,” Erwin says with a small laugh. “Though when I was young, I planned to be the president that got rid of poverty.”

“Yeah? Just get rid of it altogether?”

“The ideals of the young.”

Levi never had those kinds of ideals when he was young. In the Underground, ideals were a luxury few had had time for. He wonders what Erwin’s childhood was like before he was orphaned. If he had parents that encouraged his dreams, or a school that taught him that he could become anything if he set his mind to it. Before all those ideals and promises were pulled out from under him.

“I’d vote for you,” Levi says. The statement comes out quieter than he expected. He has to speak around a lump in his throat.

“Thank you,” Erwin says, just as quietly. “And you, what would you do?”

“I don’t know.” Levi pushes around the final crumbs of his dinner. “I never really thought like that. You had to live one day at a time in the Underground.” He shrugs. “I’d just want to . . . I don’t know. I don’t need to do anything crazy. Just as long as I could choose what I did for myself.”

Erwin nods. “Well, perhaps one day we’ll live in a universe where people can choose their own fates.”

Levi doesn’t say anything to that. He doesn’t think it’s likely.

Erwin drains his glass and then says, “Well, it appears we’ve reached the end of our dinner.”

“Yeah, I guess.” A few minutes ago, Levi wanted to end it early. Now, he wouldn’t care if it lasted all night.”

“I’m sorry our conversation grew rather more serious than I intended.”

“It was about a lot more than our professional relationship.”

Erwin chuckles. “It was.”

“I don’t mind.”

Levi meets Erwin’s eyes. Erwin looks the same as he always does, same impeccable hair, same charming smile, same alert blue eyes. But to Levi, he looks different. Every feature seems to stand out in more detail. In a small way, Erwin has become more vivid, more alive, now that Levi knows a little bit about who he truly is. Erwin returns Levi’s gaze with fondness; then all thought stops.

Afterwards, Levi won’t be able to recall how the kiss began or exactly who kissed who. He simply knows that at one moment they’re apart, and the next their lips are locked together.

Erwin’s touch is also more vivid than usual, more enlivening. Levi presses against him, fingers tangling in his hair, almost possessive. He’s half out of his seat, straining to get as close to Erwin as possible, legs touching, feet tangled, surging into Erwin’s kiss.

Erwin’s grip settles firmly on either side of Levi’s waist, hot breath caressing Levi’s lips. Several times, Levi feels the pace or pressure of the kiss slackening, notices Erwin starting to move away. But each time, Levi tugs him closer, locks their lips together more firmly than before. And each time, Erwin allows it.

The kiss is sloppier than usual. Levi can feel Erwin pant, gasp. It’s wet, uneven, unplanned, desperate. Levi strains blindly for more of Erwin, more of his touch and his hold and for something abstract, something only Erwin can give. And Erwin strains in kind. A deep, soft noise of satisfaction, almost a moan, escapes from Erwin’s throat and reverberates against Levi’s lips. Levi drinks it in, savoring the taste and sound of Erwin’s happiness – the first time Erwin has ever made a noise of pleasure so pure and unplanned.

Then, as suddenly as the kiss started, it stops.

Erwin pulls away. Looks away. He stands, straightens his suit jacket, and gives Levi a bland smile.

“Unfortunately I have a client tonight, so I have to cut our time together short,” he says, voice smooth and pleasant as though nothing had ever happened. “Thank you very much for dining with me. I had a wonderful time.”

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the words. And yet they’re completely wrong. They’re formal and impersonal, as though all the confessions of that evening never happened, and as the passionate kiss something Levi only imagined. Levi feels the shock of it like a slap, unable to do anything but stare.

“We should leave separately, so as to not attract attention,” Erwin says. “I’ll use the back entrance, through the kitchen.”

“Uh . . . sure.”

“Have a pleasant evening, Levi.”

Levi can’t even get out a response. He watches Erwin turn his back to him. Watches him cross the room, open the disguised wooden door. Something, he thinks, has to happen. Erwin will look back at him, or hesitate, or at least give him a smile on his way out. But Erwin does none of those things. He only strides purposefully to the door and, without an ounce of hesitation, leaves Levi behind.

Chapter Text

Levi forgoes the elevator and takes the stairs up to his rooms after he arrives home from dinner with Erwin. The physical movement, the repetitive action of mounting one stair after another, calms him. And he’s not exactly feeling calm at the moment.

Something happened that night, but Levi can’t figure out what.

He keeps his eyes down on the endless pattern of stairs, trying to prevent himself from analyzing the evening. No point in analyzing a Companion. A Companion can change his personality any time he wants, and no amount of seemingly honest conversation can keep a Companion from turning into a different person on a whim. From, say, growing unexpectedly cold and impartial after a heated kiss . . .

He’s a Companion, Levi tells to himself. It’s his job to kiss clients.

He can still remember the press of Erwin’s lips on his, the ghosts of his touch so strong that Levi once reaches his fingers up to his bottom lip, half expecting that something had been left behind. Erwin’s breath, panted in hot bursts into his mouth, seems to still hang on his tongue. Erwin had never panted like that during any previous kiss. He had always kept his breaths quiet, careful to not to overwhelm Levi with them. It’s something Levi hadn’t noticed before. Probably part of the cautious, practiced ministrations of a Companion, the removal of anything potentially unpleasant from the act of love.

It’s Erwin’s job to kiss his clients. But the way he had kissed Levi that night was something different.

Of course, there had also been an element of surprise in the kiss that may have prevented Erwin from being as composed as usual. Erwin hadn’t been expecting it. But then, neither had Levi. Levi hadn’t been the one to initiate the kiss . . . had he? He can’t remember. He can’t recall any decision, any pause for thought before their lips met. They were simply looking at each other one moment and kissing the next, and no matter how often Levi replays the scene, he can’t find any evidence that suggested one of them was more active than the other.

Five flights aren’t enough for Levi to parse through his confusion. He’s thinking through the moment again, second by second, when he enters the hall that leads to his apartment. His fingers, absent-mindedly, have wandered back to his lips.

“There you are.”

Levi stops short; his hand drops away. A shadow in front of his door grows until it takes human shape. Lights in the hall flicker on, causing Levi to blink in the sudden brightness – he had climbed the stairs in the dark.

“What level of stupidity does it take for a wanted man to disappear for hours and not check his comm?” Hanji asks.

Levi slips his comm out of his pocket and takes a look. The screen is littered with call and message notifications from Hanji. He hadn’t told Hanji where he was going. He hadn’t imagined that he would be missed.

“I’m not wanted,” Levi says. “Dreyse let me go.”

“Where were you?” Hanji insists.

“I was with that girl I told you about. Petra.”

“It’s nine o’clock. You were having tea with a girl for six hours?” Hanji raises an eyebrow. “If that was the case, I’d be congratulating you. But since girls aren’t your thing, I know that that’s a load of bullshit.”

“Her family wanted me to stay for dinner.” Levi shrugs. “They want the Falkanrath money.”

“Why the hell are you lying to me?”

The words hit Levi like a slap. But worse than the words themselves is the icy calm that Hanji speaks them with. Hanji is never this calm. Their eyes bore into Levi, magnified behind their glasses so that he feels like he’s being observed through a microscope. ‘Why would you think I’m lying?” he asks.

“Because despite being socially inept, you and I both know that the very early stages of courtship don’t include family dinners. And despite your father strong-arming you more than usual recently, you would never consent to both tea and dinner. That’s way too much small talk for you. You’d be getting out of there as fast as possible. And, mostly, because you’ve been mixed up in some shady stuff recently.”

“Shady stuff?”

“Yes, shady stuff!” Hanji exclaims, as though Levi should know exactly what they’re talking about. “You’re at the wrong place at the wrong time when someone’s murdered. You get arrested but are suddenly and inexplicably let go.”

Their voice speeds up slightly as they speak, some of the suppressed energy starting to break through the cracks. But instead of the wild, exuberant energy that usually colors their speech, this is more focused. More anxious.

“Every couple weeks, you disappear at night and don’t come back until late, and you never talk about where you’ve been or what you’ve been doing. You’re all over the news, did you know that? Have you been watching the talk shows? Levi Ackerman, they say, had no good reason to be at the scene of a murder. He’s antisocial, he’s reclusive, he grew up in a criminal neighborhood – basically, they think that all the clues point towards you being guilty. Things don’t look good for you, Levi. Dreyse may have changed her mind, but most of Sina hasn’t, and by sneaking off to mysterious places at night, you really aren’t helping yourself.”

“It’s . . .” Levi has no idea what to say to Hanji’s panicked diatribe. Every point they raise is a new realization to him. But when they lay it out so neatly, Levi wonders that he’s never thought of it before. “It’s not like that.”

“I know you didn’t kill anyone,” Hanji says. “I know you didn’t kill Leonhardt.”

“No, of course not.”

“Then what have you been doing?”

“I . . . it’s nothing to do with Leonhardt’s murder.”

“Where were you tonight?” Hanji presses. “How did you really get out of jail? Where do you sneak off to at night?”

Erwin, Levi thinks to himself. The answer to each of those questions, is Erwin. “I . . .” Levi sighs. “Fuck, Hanji. Can we talk about this inside my apartment?”

Hanji leans back on Levi’s front door and crosses their arms. “I’m fine here.”

“It’s a much more boring answer than you think.”

“Then telling me shouldn’t be a problem.”

Levi wants nothing more than to lie, but he can’t come up with anything Hanji would actually believe. “I . . .” He sighs. “Fuck. Remember the Companion you got me a few months ago? That’s where I’ve been.”

There’s a beat of silence. Then, “With a Companion” in a disturbingly uncharacteristic deadpan.

“Yes.”

Hanji closes the distance between them and stares at Levi, seemingly frozen in shock. Then, without warning, they grab Levi by the shoulders and start shaking him, shouting, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Fuck, Hanji, you’re going to give me whiplash.”

“I was fucking freaking out!”

“I saw.”

“Oh my god!” They throw up their hands and, thankfully, take a step back from Levi. “Let’s go in your apartment. Open the door.”

Once Levi unlocks his front door, Hanji bounds in and pulls him onto the couch with them. “Why. Didn’t. You tell me?”

Levi shrugs. “I didn’t think it mattered.”

“Oh my god, don’t scare me like that again.” They pick up a couch pillow and smack Levi with it. Levi weathers the abuse with a grimace. “Wait. So where were you tonight?”

“Having dinner with him.” Levi decides to not go into specifics.

“Wow. You must really like him.”

Levi thinks of the kiss. “Sure.”

“Ok. So that answers the question of sneaking out at night. But why did you wander off during the Dreyse ball?”

“I just wanted to get away. The ball was awful. I wanted some time away from all the fakes.” He doesn’t need to mention that he was mostly getting away from having to look at Erwin.

“And how’d you get out of jail once you were accused?”

“That . . . has to do with the Companion, too.”

Hanji tilts their head, indicating that they’re listening.

“Hitch is one of his clients. He persuaded her to clear my name.”

“Wow . . . then it’s a damn good thing you’ve been seeing him.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

They shake their head. “Levi, why did you hide this from me?”

Levi shrugs. “Just something I wanted to keep private.”

“I’m not going to think less of you for enjoying some sex. Hell, I got you that appointment in the first place.”

“I know, it’s just . . .” He almost says complicated, but stops himself. It isn’t complicated. He sleeps with Erwin, has a good time, and goes home. There shouldn’t be anything more to it than that.

But the conversations of that night – the confessions and the honesty shared between them – don’t fit into that paradigm. There is something more to it than that. Levi’s not sure what, but there’s no denying it – as of tonight, things are complicated.

“Ok, and what about the guy who came for you this morning?” Hanji asks. It takes Levi a moment to tear his thoughts away from Erwin and back to Hanji’s interrogation.  

“This morning?” Levi hadn’t spoken to anyone that morning.

“Yeah. The guy in the gray suit.”

“You mean a couple days ago?”

“No, I mean this morning. Came to the front door, said he had a message to deliver to you, asked the butler to point him toward your apartment.”

“Was he blond?”

“No, he had gray hair. Kind of a ragged old guy – he had a scar on his cheek, and he looked a little sickly.”

“I didn’t talk to anyone like that.”

Hanji stands slowly, clearly thinking as they move. “I saw him take the elevator to the fifth floor.”

They walk to Levi’s front door. Levi follows at a distance.

“You were home this morning, right?” they ask.

“I didn’t leave my rooms until the afternoon.”

Hanji steps out of the apartment and stands back, looking at the door frame. “I knew I got a weird feeling about the guy.”

Levi steps his door and stands in the hall. He follows Hanji’s gaze, tries to figure out what they’re looking for.

He’s about to ask what, exactly, Hanji hopes to find when they say, “There.” They kneel down on the floor a few feet to the right of Levi’s door, their fingernails scraping at the point where the wall meets the tile. After a moment of struggling, they pull out a thin scrap of paper. Levi watches their face fall as they read it.

“Looks like you’re getting mixed up in shady stuff, after all,” they say. They hand the paper to Levi.

The message is simple: “Time to think about your family.” Underneath, a messy hand has scrawled a date, time, and address – an address Levi recognizes from the Underground.

*****

Levi’s just about had it with secret meetings.

Hanji goes to the Underground with him. They didn’t ask permission or even leave it open for debate. They just came. Levi supposes it is a good idea to have backup, but their presence makes him nervous. They don’t know their way around the Underground, don’t know how to handle a fight if one were to come their way. And the way they look around makes them immediately recognizable as an outsider.

In the earliest days of Stohess’s construction, some demented city planner had a brilliant idea: build neighborhoods one on top of the other, fitting twice the amount of people in the same space. Somehow, no one had thought of the little problem of sunlight until the vertical neighborhood project was already completed. There was the “Air” – the site of working class and middle class homes, of shopping plazas and dingy restaurants and small office buildings – and then there was the Underground.

It’s accessed by a series of broad glass elevators in the four corners of the roughly square-shaped neighborhood. Levi and Hanji step into one, surrounded by workers done with their shifts as maids or construction workers in the Air, some of the few lucky Undergound residents who get to leave it every day. The elevator descends with the loud hum of aged machinery. And little by little, Levi’s old neighborhood comes into view.

Levi hasn’t been back since his adoption. He’s sent money back – half his allowance every month, gone to food banks or schools or sometimes to specific friends, his penance for getting out when no one else could. But his father hadn’t allowed him to go back. And though Levi had protested at first, he had been secretly relieved.

Now the doors of the elevator rattle open, and Levi’s hit with the stench of home. Garbage that rots in the streets due to poor trash collection; the human waste deposited by the homeless; and a damp, moldy smell, the result of a lack of sunlight to dry the neighborhood on wet days.

The Air’s streets are mostly made of metal grills, an attempt to make up for the Underground’s lack of sunlight. Dim light falls in a pattern of squares, making it appear as though everyone and everything in the neighborhood is behind bars. Shadows pass over the Underground streets as Air people trek down sidewalks and drive their cars down grated roads. The result is a shifting quality of light, full illumination always just out of grasp.

“It’s so dark down here,” Hanji says.

“Keep your mouth shut,” Levi mutters. “And your head down. Give one hint that you don’t belong and you’ll be a target of a mugging for sure.”

Levi begins the trek down the old, familiar streets. He considered not coming. Maybe shouldn’t have come. But the pull of curiosity won out. After all these years, he needs to know what the hell his uncle is up to.

There are few cars in the Underground. No one can afford one. So the wide streets are clogged with pedestrians. Unkempt people crisscross the asphalt, eyes empty. Some walk purposefully, their gazes carefully focused straight ahead, while others shuffle along, pushing carts that contain all their worldly possessions. Makeshift shelters of sheets, plastic, or cardboard have sprung up in the middle of main roads. Meanwhile, the buildings on either side stand empty with the windows boarded up. People can’t afford to pay rent, so homes remain uninhabited while they sleep on the streets.

“Can’t we help some of these people?” Hanji asks in a whisper.

“Give away money and we tell the muggers we have money they can take,” Levi says. Levi knows this from experience – as a child, he used carefully to watch the streets for someone rich enough to be generous when looking for his next target. “Wait until we’re on our way out, just before we get back in the elevator. They’re less likely to attack us there.”

“Would anyone attack us in the middle of a main street like this?”

“Yes.”

Muddy water drips from the grates in some areas, the refuse from a long-past storm. The grates aren’t quite large enough to let in the light, but they’re plenty big enough to let in the rain. The result is a constant dampness that permeates the neighborhood. Levi’s feet unthinkingly carry him around a deep puddle that perpetually spreads across the street. Ten years later, and all his instincts are still intact. He knows exactly where to step and what to avoid.

And he knows exactly where the address he was given will lead him. Levi takes Hanji down a side street and then another, scatters a group of urchins squatting together in one narrow road and barely misses stepping on a woman sleeping under a heap of trash in another. The streets shrink until the dull gray apartment blocks seem to loom over them, crowding them out, light all but gone.

Though all of this, Levi walks quickly, never slowing, never looking around. Except when they pass one murky, nondescript road.

“What is it?” Hanji asks.

Levi feels himself unconsciously slow to a stop, entranced by this empty street. He looks down it, and he’s six years old again. He’s coming home after a day of pickpocketing, or begging, or, during more prosperous times, playing. His mother had spent the day working as a maid in the Air, but she’ll be back by now, and there’ll be stew on the stove, and she’ll have stories for him that she made up while scrubbing floors.   

Levi’s apartment is on the third floor, second building on the left. When his mother died, he had been afraid to leave. He didn’t know what to do with a dead body, didn’t know what happened to one after its spirit left. He had sat in the bedroom, staring at his mother’s lifeless form and, every few hours, shaking it in the desperate hope that his mother was just sleeping, after all.

His uncle arrived after two days had passed like that. He had picked Levi up in his arms and carried him out. That was the last Levi had seen of his mother, or of the apartment. A part of him can’t shake the belief that she’s still inside, lying on her bed, waiting for Levi to wake her up.

“Levi?” Hanji’s voice cuts through the past, reminding him where he is.

Levi lowers his eyes with some effort until, eventually, he’s firmly back in the present. “Nothing. Let’s go.”

*****

It’s a bar called The Knife, a dark, dingy affair coated with dust and populated by shadows. Shadows hide deep in the booths that ring the dark edges of the bar room; shadows sit on barstools and drink until they’re numb. Levi’s only been in places like this a couple of times, usually trailing his uncle. He’s always hated it. Years later, it doesn’t make his skin crawl any less.

Of course, he can’t show any of that discomfort. Levi’s face, as he strides across the bar, is hard, cold, and confident. The bar comes up to his chest. He doesn’t let it faze him as he leans on the counter and calls for the bartender.

“Hey, over here.” There’s a slight accent that residents of the Underground speak with, an added gruffness, shortened syllables. After ten years, it comes back to Levi without a thought.

The bartender turns around and gives Levi and Hanji a disdainful once-over. “What do you want?”

“We’re meeting someone.”

“Don’t know anything about it.”

“Who does?”

“Come back without the girl and we’ll see.” Hanji bristles behind him at the misgendering. But, unfortunately, Levi doesn’t think that now is the time to teach this man the finer points of gender identity.

“My friend doesn’t go anywhere.”

“Then you’re not meeting anyone.”

“Fine with me.” Levi turns around to leave. Hanji, after a second’s hesitation, hurries to follow.

“We’re leaving, just like that?” they whisper.

“No.”

Sure enough, they’re only halfway to the door when the bartender calls, “Stubborn little shit, aren’t you? Leave her at the bar and I’ll get your man.”

Levi guessed that would happen. Kenny would have promised a good pay-off, and he never paid in advance. Levi glances up at Hanji and gives them a nod.

The two of them retrace their steps, and Hanji slips onto a bar stool far away from the other patrons. “Don’t drink anything and don’t talk to anyone,” Levi whispers to them. Meanwhile, the bartender has gone into a back room. He comes out a minute later and beckons impatiently for Levi to follow.

Levi’s led through a door labeled with a “Keep Out” sign, then down a dark hallway lit by a single bulb. The hallway opens into a storage closet filled with broken tables and old, pungent beer barrels. There’s another door against the far wall that the bartender inserts a key into. “Knock three times when you’re done and someone will let you out,” he says. Levi nods his understanding.

He’s careful not to let any emotion show as the door swings open, and he comes face to face with a ghost from his past.

“Well, kiddo. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

Kenny hasn’t aged well.

That’s the first thought Levi has as he enters the small room. There are wrinkles on his face that Levi doesn’t remember from his childhood, and the skin is more sallow than ever. His face, which had always been thin, is now lean and almost skeletal.

The door clicks closed behind them, and Levi hears the movement of a lock, shutting him into the tiny room. It’s barely more than a closet, nothing in it except an open trunk (completely empty) and a faded, dingy armchair that may have once been blue.

His uncle’s eyes flick up and down, examining Levi much as Levi examines him. “You look good,” Kenny says. “Fancy life agrees with you.”

“You look like shit.”

Kenny laughs at that and shakes his head a little. “Old age’s a bitch.”

“What do you want?”

“Nice to see you, too.” Kenny removes his hat and places it on the chair back. He always wore a hat, Levi remembers. Made it a little harder to be spotted in a crowd. “You may have noticed I’ve gotten in a little trouble with the law.”

“Should have thought of that before slitting people’s throats.”

“A man’s gotta eat.” Levi doesn’t give him anything more than a glare. “I gotta skip the planet,” Kenny says.

“I don’t see how that’s my problem.”

Kenny spreads his hands in a pleading gesture. “You know what I’m asking for, kid, and you know it pains me to do this. I need money.”

“Eleven years after disappearing without a trace, and you finally contact me when you need money,” Levi says. “I wish I was surprised.”

“You knew what I needed when you got my message. Did you really come all the way back home just to say no to the man who raised you?”

“Raised me? Is that what you’re calling it?”

“Things worked out, didn’t they? You had four good years under my roof,” Kenny protests. “But let’s not dwell on the past. Like it or not, either you help your old uncle out, or I hang.”

“You probably deserve it.”

“Probably,” Kenny agrees. “But you never were the type to dole out that kind of judgment.”

“Maybe I’ve changed. It’s been a while.”

“That’d be a damn shame,” Kenny says. “You were always a good kid. Better than I’d ever been. That’s part of the reason I left, you know.”

Levi snorts. “You saying you tried to save me from yourself? How fucking noble.”

“Hey, I’m not saying I’m a saint. The point is that you’re a better person than me. Take the compliment.”

“Flattering me so you’ll get your money?”

“If I thought it’d work I would,” Kenny says. “But I’m just telling it like it is. I know you’re too good to leave an innocent guy to die.”  

“Innocent?”

“Well, relatively. Leonhardt wasn’t me. You know that. I would have never tried to kill someone at a crowded party. Too many potential witnesses.”

“What about the others?”

“Sure, I slit the congressmen’s throats.” Kenny shrugs. “I’m not proud of it, but it was a job. It was a stupid job to take, but the payment was unbelievable. I coulda gotten me a nice, comfortable place in a respectable neighborhood with that kind of payment. Never thought the guy who hired me would turn on me.”

“Turn on you?”

“Gave the cops my name and picture the moment the deed was done. Do you really think the law would have caught up to me otherwise? I’m better than that. Never saw a cent of that money, either.”

“Who hired you?”

Kenny shakes his head. “And that’s where this little interview has to end. Better for you to not know, now that you run in those circles. It’s the kinda knowledge that can put you in a lot of danger if you’re caught with it.”

“Then I won’t get caught.”

“From what I hear, you were in custody just last week. So sorry if I’m not full of confidence at your ability to evade the law.”

“Tell me and I’ll give you the money.”

Kenny crosses his arms. “I wish I could. That’d be a fair deal. But I can’t. Just trust me on this. You know this information, you end up dead. This kind of shit is beyond you.”

Levi rolls his eyes. “Well, your concern for my life is touching. Better late than never, I guess.”

“I’ve always been concerned for you,” Kenny says. “In a way.”

“Sure.”

“Are you going to help me or not?”

Levi sighs. He doesn’t want to. A part of him wants nothing more than to abandon Kenny like Kenny abandoned him. But the truth is, Kenny did save Levi’s life when he found him in the apartment, watching over his dead mother. And Kenny kept watch over Levi until he knew Levi was old enough to fend for himself. As much as Levi hates him, there’s a part of him that still loves him, too.

Levi wants to say no, but instead he says, “How much?

“Five hundred.”

“Do you have a transport lined up?”

“It leaves in two days. Smuggling ship, captained by a guy who fought against the UG in the border moon rebellions. A disreputable crew with a good reputation for getting the job done.”

“Where are you going to collect?”

“A member of the crew is going to be waiting for you in the shipyard tomorrow at midnight.”

Levi nods. “Know where you’re going to go?”

“As far away as they can take me.” Kenny grins. “I hear Oceanus is lovely this time of year.”

Oceanus. The first experiment with terraforming, which, true to its name, ended up with a lot more oceans than originally intended. A planet with little civilization, no cities, and rainy weather, the general consensus on Sina was that it was never lovely at any time of year. But as the most remote planet in the UG, it’s perfect for going on the run.

“Pack a raincoat,” Levi says dryly.    

“You always were a good kid, Levi. Thank you.”

Levi crosses the small room in two quick strides, grabs Kenny by his shirt and, with all the strength he can muster, punches Kenny square in the jaw.

“I’ve been waiting eleven years to do that,” Levi says. They’re the last words he ever speaks to his uncle.

Chapter Text

Seasons change subtly in Stohess. The interplanetary capital was built in a mild region of Sina, where summers are cool and winters are warm. It’s only by paying close attention that its residents can pick up on the small signals of Autumn – the slight chill in the night air, the slight increase in wind. How leaves on only certain kinds of trees turn brown or yellow and gradually drop away.

Levi pays attention. He always has since leaving the Underground. Being able to notice the weather is a reminder that he’s out of there. But there’s another reason why, this year, the change of seasons holds special significance for Levi. Once winter hits, he’ll be finished with his general university courses and off to Sina Military Academy. Autumn settles over Stohess like a ticking clock, reminding Levi of how little time he has before he must, once again, enter into a new life.

He tells himself that the imminence of his departure is part of the reason why Levi books his next session with Erwin so quickly after their dinner together – though at this point, Levi’s mind churns up excuses more out of habit than out of actual belief in any of them. He knows, deep down, why he’s really so eager to go back to Erwin.

Still, it is true that his time with Erwin is limited. Once he joins the military, Companions will be an off-limits luxury until his graduation. And since Erwin can only fit Levi into his schedule every three weeks or so, Levi has maybe two or three more sessions left.

Levi wants to believe that he won’t miss it when he can no longer visit Erwin, that the military academy will bring so many changes that Erwin will be the last thing on his mind. But as he knocks on Erwin’s door, he can’t help but dwell with a twinge of regret on how close they are to the end of their “professional relationship.”  

The mahogany door swings open mere seconds after Levi’s knock, revealing the Companion behind it. It’s a sight that Levi’s seen so many times by now, but it never fails to provoke a stir of nervous anticipation. Erwin gives Levi a broad smile and greets him with, “Ah, Levi. Such a pleasure to see you again.”

His words are typical and generic, but the way Erwin smiles at him catches Levi slightly off guard. Something about Erwin is . . . different, somehow. So different that Levi has to take a closer look to make sure nothing about Erwin’s appearance has changed. But no, everything that Levi can see is the same, from the neatly parted hair to the freshly shined shoes. Erwin just seems more . . . Levi strains to think of a word and only comes up with soft. That isn’t quite right, but the severity is gone from Erwin’s expression, and there’s something slightly different about his eyes. And when Erwin says that it’s a pleasure to see Levi, Levi gets the feeling that they’re not just empty Companion words.

Levi can’t place exactly what’s different, but whatever it is sets every nerve on edge with something between excitement and fear. He steps inside, and for a moment they’re both motionless, watching each other as though waiting for something to happen. For once, Erwin hesitates to get the conversation going. He’s looking at Levi, and Levi finds himself looking back.

Eventually Erwin says, “I trust you’ve been well since we last met.”

“Yeah.” Levi only half thinks about what Erwin’s saying. Instead, he’s thinking about the kiss they shared at the restaurant, messy and urgent and passionate. The moments before that kiss felt similar to this moment – as though the air between them is humming with energy that needs a release.

“Shall we have a seat?” Erwin gestures to the red couch like he’s a butler. It comes out stiffly, his smooth politeness appearing unnatural for the first time. A failed attempt to restore a sense of normalcy.

Levi settles on the plush couch, sitting on the left side. It occurs to him that he always sits on the left side, and Erwin on the right. A habit. A few months ago, the thought of having formed a habit with Erwin would have bothered him. But it’s kind of nice. Comfortable.

Erwin sits on the right and pours two cups of tea. Levi almost asks him to stop. The tea’s great, of course, but Levi wants to skip that part tonight. Get right to the kiss. They don’t have to go through the whole ceremony. They’re past that point. But Erwin seems to want it, so Levi picks up his teacup and takes a sip.

“If you’ll indulge my curiosity, why are you holding your teacup in that way?” Erwin asks.

Levi glances down; he’s wrapped his fingertips around the top of his cup, gripping it from above instead of by the handle. That’s how he’s held a teacup since he was young, and how he’ll still hold one when he’s alone. But his father has been careful to train him out of that habit, and he’s always sure to hold his teacup properly when around other people. Or so he had thought. Levi hastily changes his grip.

“I don’t mind. Please, hold it whatever way you’re comfortable with,” Erwin says. “I just thought it was curious. I’ve noticed you holding it that way on other occasions before seeming to catch yourself.”

If Levi had been falling into old habits without realizing it, he must have been really preoccupied. He’s tries not to think about what that means. “I, uh.” Levi takes another sip. “It’s just a weird thing I do, I guess.”          

“No reason for it?”

There is a reason, but Levi’s never told it to anyone. He sips again to give himself time to think about how he’s going to explain this. He could lie, just give the easy answer and say yes. But when Levi opens his mouth, he finds himself talking.

“When I was really young, my mom had a tea set. Took it from her time working as a maid in a manor. She sold most of the set to get some extra money, but she kept two cups, and on special occasions she’d save up and get us some tea. I didn’t even like tea then, I was a fucking toddler. But it meant a lot to my mom, so.” Levi shrugs. “Anyway, that set got kind of beat up over the years. One day I’m drinking a cup of tea with my mom, and the handle just snaps off. Cup fucking shatters, expensive tea goes everywhere. I was probably five or something, but I was old enough to know how much that shit cost, even if my mom tried to pretend everything was fine. Didn’t hold a teacup by its handle for years after that.”

Said out loud, the story sounds stupid. A dumb kid who took a simple accident way too seriously. Levi feels his face grow warm, and he wishes he could take the whole story back. Not only does it make him sound silly, but the level of poverty he’s just admitted to must seem outrageous to someone from the world of elegance and finery.

But when Levi sneaks a glance at Erwin, he’s not laughing. He’s just watching Levi and nodding a little, almost as if trying to understand. “That must have been very upsetting at the time,” Erwin says.

“Sure. And I guess some stupid part of me thinks that I will . . .” Levi hesitates. He doesn’t know how he was going to finish that sentence. Upset his mom? Loose something valuable? Either way it’s ridiculous, and it would reveal more weakness than Levi wants Erwin to see. So instead he says, “I bet you can’t imagine not being able to afford tea.”

“No.” The word’s said gently, without condescension. A simple acknowledgement of the differences between them.

“But now I’m having it every damn night, so. I guess there’s a happy ending.” He says it without much happiness. Just a desire to get away from depressing topics before Erwin makes him admit even more personal details.

“I’m glad you got out of that life.”

“Yeah.” Levi stares into his teacup. Memories of the Underground are now in his head, memories of his mom.

“Are you not?”

“What? No, I . . .” Levi hesitates. Erwin must have heard the bit of sadness in his voice and mistaken its source. “I am. I would kill to not have to go back to that life.”

Erwin just watches Levi after he speaks, waiting, an unspoken question of “but?” hanging between them.

But I miss my mom. Like hell Levi’s going to say that. “I just . . . I don’t . . . I mean I’m obviously not meant for this life, either. I don’t exactly . . . fit. But if it’s a choice between starving and not fitting somewhere, I think I’ll take not fitting.”

Erwin smiles. “I can’t argue with that choice,” he says. He takes a sip of his tea, seeming to think while he does so. Then he sets the teacup down and, uncharacteristically, hesitates a moment before speaking. “I don’t believe that failing to fit within high society is entirely a bad thing, though. There’s something I’ve been meaning to say to you.”

The way he phrases it suggests that it’s something that’s been on his mind – meaning that Levi’s on Erwin’s mind after their sessions are over. The thought sets his heart beating a little too fast, and Levi swallows. “Okay?” he says. He tries to sound bored, but the question is a little too eager.

“I am accustomed to the associating with the kind of person who does fit in this life. The kind of person who is polished, polite, and who never says quite what they mean.”

Like you, Levi almost says. But, for once, Levi keeps his rude comment to himself.

“So when you first walked through my door and said exactly what you were thinking, it was like a breath of fresh air. Though I admit it did catch me rather off guard.” Erwin smiles at the memory. It’s a different kind of smile than what Levi’s used to – a smile caused by something that genuinely makes Erwin happy, rather than one put on for show. Levi tries to memorize how it softens his face. “Still, I knew right away that you were different from the rest of them. That you were . . . stronger than the rest of them, in a sense.”

Erwin had said all this while looking straight ahead, staring at the opposite wall while he chose his words carefully. Now, he turns to look at Levi. Once that gaze is focused on him, Levi is helpless to look away.

“There must have been countless pressures for you to change who you are. The fact that you have remained true to yourself makes you a very rare, very admirable person.”

Levi swallows. He tears his face away from Erwin, busying himself in emptying his teacup. Erwin’s complimented Levi before, but this was something else. It was unrehearsed, warm, emphatic – and, possibly, even authentic.

“You call all your clients admirable?” Levi mumbles, trying to keep himself from getting too swept up in . . . whatever’s going on right now.

“Only the ones I truly admire,” Erwin says softly. It’s the usual soothing tone with something else layered on top of it. Something like fondness. 

“And how many of your clients do you admire?”

“Not many.”

Levi stares at the emptied bottom of his teacup. He’s afraid to look up. There’s a weird, warm, constricted feeling in his chest that’s not wholly unpleasant but that’s wholly new, and he knows it’ll get stronger when he looks up.

“I’m sorry if that was too . . . forward,” Erwin says.

“No.” Levi shakes his head and turns back to look at Erwin, trying to bring some normalcy back to his demeanor. He’s overreacting to what should be a simple – if unnecessary – compliment. “No, it wasn’t. You’re just . . .” Levi gives a quiet laugh. “You’re probably the first person in the universe who thinks my lack of manners is a good thing.”

“Then it’s a shame that others don’t appreciate you.”

Appreciate him. With the exception of Hanji, Levi’s lucky if people tolerate him. He stopped looking for appreciation a long time ago. Now that he’s received it unasked, Levi can’t muster up a response  

“Have I offered too many kind words?”

It takes Levi a moment to remember what Erwin’s referring. Months ago, when Levi still didn’t trust a word Erwin said, he had asked for no kind words. The compliments Erwin had been giving at the time were rote, generic and, therefore, frustrating. But these compliments are anything but.

But Levi can’t say that to Erwin. If he does, some last, irreparable wall inside of him will crumble, and he doesn’t know what will happen then. Instead, Levi only says, “Just kiss me already.”

So Erwin lays his lips over Levi’s and drinks him in.

His hands cradle Levi’s face tightly, holding him as though he’ll disappear if Erwin lets go. But Levi has no desire to disappear. He parts his mouth and welcomes Erwin’s gentle touches, his tongue and lips and just the faintest hint of teeth. Erwin kisses slowly tonight, and his lips move delicately, as though mapping unfamiliar territory. Never mind that Levi is anything but unfamiliar by now. Erwin kisses Levi as carefully as though he’d never kissed him before, but as passionately as though he’ll never kiss him again.

Levi’s slowly guided onto his back, his lips never leaving Erwin’s. Erwin’s body settles half over him, solid without being stifling. His arm drapes over Levi’s torso and pulls him close. Levi tastes Erwin’s breath hot against his tongue and gasps it in, eager for more.

Then Erwin’s lips rise away, and Levi’s finds himself the object of an intent gaze. Erwin brushes Levi’s hair off his forehead, trails his fingertips down Levi’s cheek. And again, Levi’s struck with the sense that something about Erwin is different. It’s in his eyes, Levi’s sure of it. But when Levi searches Erwin’s gaze, he finds every fleck of blue exactly as it always is.

“I said kiss me, not look at me,” Levi says after seconds pass without Erwin moving. He’s been searching Levi’s face for quite a long time, and Levi’s afraid of what he might find.

“I apologize,” Erwin says. Then he breathes, “You’re just so beautiful.”

Erwin’s called him that before. God, Erwin’s called him that too many times. Levi can’t count the number of times Erwin has thrown around words like “beautiful” or “lovely.” So why does this time sound like a unique and momentous declaration? And why does the word bring color to Levi’s cheeks when it never did before?

Erwin sees that blossom of color, and he kisses it. He kisses it again when it grows even warmer, and he kisses Levi’s jaw when Levi tries to turn his face away. He kisses the corner of Levi’s mouth when it curls into a smile, and he kisses Levi’s eyelids when they flutter to a close. He kisses Levi’s forehead, the bridge of his nose, the tip of his ear. He kisses Levi until not an inch of Levi’s face has been left untouched. It’s stupid and sappy and a waste of time, and Levi smiles through every second of it.   

He’s still smiling as they cross the room to the bed, his hand in Erwin’s. And he’s smiling as nestles among the silk pillows and allows Erwin to resume exploring his skin. Now Erwin’s hands roam up and down Levi’s sides. As his touch sinks lower, Levi’s stirred out of his languid, passive enjoyment. Heat courses through his body, and Levi reaches up to pull Erwin closer.

It’s not quite lust that moves him to tug at Erwin’s clothes; it’s something similar but stronger. It’s a burning, desperate ache to see Erwin out of the neatly pressed outfit of a Companion. An urgent need to have him bare before Levi, to remove the boundaries between them and press skin against skin. To have Erwin surrounding him so completely that the outside world ceases to matter.

Clothing falls from the bed in quick succession – tie, suit coat, shirt. Levi pauses when Erwin’s chest is bare. He sits up and runs his fingertips down Erwin’s torso. Ever since their first night together, Levi has been in awe of Erwin’s body. Tonight is no different. But as Levi studies Erwin’s chest and covers it with kisses, it’s not the toned muscle or the smooth skin that awes him. He’s simply in awe because it’s Erwin, and they’re together, and that’s enough. Levi presses his lips to Erwin’s chest and feels Erwin’s heart beating rapidly beneath them.

Erwin holds Levi during this, rubbing circles on Levi’s back and stroking his fingers through his hair. Soft as a breath, Erwin murmurs, “Levi.”

Levi waits for more, because Erwin never says a word unless he has a full idea to express. But tonight, there is no more. It’s not the precursor to a larger idea. It’s simply a sigh of pleasure taking form as a name.

That realization stirs up an emotion almost like fear. A little thrill that both excites him and alarms him. He sits up and looks at Erwin, at his open expression and the fond smile that spreads across his face. And again, Levi gets the sense that something is profoundly different about Erwin tonight.

It’s just another persona, he tells himself. Erwin’s trying out another persona. Maybe after the dinner Erwin thinks that they’re friends now, and he’s pulling out something a little more affectionate. That’s all.

“What is it?” Erwin asks him. The concern in his voice isn’t enough to mask the breathless quality of it. That’s something else new. Erwin’s never allowed himself to sound breathless before. He’s always calm and in control. Levi kind of likes hearing Erwin speak like this.

Levi slides himself closer, his chest against Erwin’s. Different or not, he wants this Erwin, wants him desperately. He tries to remind himself of who Erwin is, what his job is. But that thought doesn’t calm the desire. If anything it strengthens it, turns it to an ache that can only be soothed by closer proximity. “Nothing,” Levi mutters, lips pressing up against Erwin’s throat, just under his ear. “Nothing at all.”

Erwin lifts Levi’s shirt off, and now skin brushes against bare skin. Levi presses their bodies together until Erwin’s heartbeat is indistinguishable from his own, until the line between his body and Erwin’s blurs. When he kisses Erwin again, there’s a quick gasp, a puff of Erwin’s breath intermingling with his, just as it had at the restaurant. Levi grips Erwin’s shoulders and sinks the kiss deeper, eager to taste more of it.

Levi’s not entirely sure how it happens – he certainly didn’t plan for it – but suddenly Erwin’s leaning back under Levi’s weight, allowing Levi to guide him down to the bed. Suddenly Levi’s hovering over Erwin, knees on either side of his torso, looking down as Erwin looks passively up at him.

He freezes for a moment, thrown off by the newness of it. It’s odd, how such a simple change feels so significant. They’ve done this exact thing so many times before, except now their positions are reversed. Now Erwin’s the one looking up in awe and admiration, and Levi’s the one in control.

A few months ago, Levi would have balked at being in this situation. He couldn’t even handle it when Erwin complimented him – there’s no way he would have been able to handle the look that’s in Erwin’s eyes, or the way he trusts Levi enough to stay still and wait for Levi to act. It feels too intimate, too affectionate.

But now Levi only pauses a moment before dipping back down for another kiss. Erwin’s body moves underneath him with breathless gasps and pleasured sighs, and Levi puts his hands to the rippling muscles. Strings fingers through that golden hair and allows it to get tousled against the bed. Sinks lower on Erwin’s body to finish stripping him and – in a show of devotion that Levi would have been disgusted by a few months earlier – gives Erwin’s cock a few lingering kisses before sitting up to admire him.

Erwin lies stretched out before him, completely naked. Levi vaguely realizes that this is the first time Erwin, not Levi, is the first one to lose all his clothes. That feels significant, though Levi’s too wrapped up in the moment to consider why. Erwin – with his mussed hair and a dumb smile on his face – is the most beautiful thing Levi has ever seen, and he’s too overwhelmed by him to think much of anything else.

And Erwin looks back, panting slightly, lips reddened and swollen from. If he really is trying out a new persona, he’s definitely selling it. Erwin seems more undone than he usually allows himself to get. His eyes are wide, pupils dilated, a flush marring his perfect complexion. Strands of hair fall over his forehead, shaken from their neat hairstyle when Levi wound his fingers through it. And always, there’s the small, fond smile that plays around his lips.

Levi decides that he really likes this new persona.

“You seem like you’re enjoying this more than usual,” Levi says. His voice comes out as a breathless whisper, though he doesn’t intend it to.

“Really?” Erwin trails his fingers along Levi’s hipbone, right about the line of his pants. “What do you mean by that?”

“You just seem like you’re . . .” It’s hard to describe, and all the descriptions Levi thinks of – he’s less polished, he won’t stop smiling, he let his hair get messy – they would all sound stupid said aloud. So Levi just says, “You just seem happier.”

Erwin’s fingers repeat their trail, back and forth over Levi’s hip as though he’s trying to memorize the feeling of Levi’s skin. “I am happy,” he says.

“And what makes tonight so special?”

“Being with you.”

It’s a smooth answer, a Companion’s answer. Levi doesn’t buy it. There has to be something more, just under the surface, some clever motivation for Erwin’s new persona. He almost asks Erwin to stop the bullshit, to tell him the real reason. Would have any other night. But Erwin’s still smiling that stupid smile, and he doesn’t want to chase the smile away. So Levi settles for an exaggerated role of his eyes.

Erwin chuckles at his annoyance, his smile only growing wider. He rises up now, apparently tired of just looking, and bundles Levi into his arms. Levi’s position straddling Erwin’s thighs turns into a position on his lap. Erwin kisses Levi’s cheek, then kisses it again, continues to kiss him until Levi’s absolutely smothered, and now it’s Levi’s turn to wear a stupid smile. Erwin kisses the edge of that smile, and Levi almost laughs with happiness.

“I mean it,” Erwin mutters between kisses.

“Yeah, sure. Fucking sap.” Levi almost asks if he says that to all his clients, but he stops himself. He doesn’t want to think about other clients. Doesn’t want to think about what Erwin does for a living. It’s a dangerous thing to forget – the last time he forgot his true relationship with Erwin, he had gotten a rude reminder at the ball. But he can’t bring himself to care right now. Realities can be faced in the morning. Right now, it’s just him and Erwin, and Erwin is being incredibly affectionate, and Levi can almost pretend . . .

With Erwin’s help, Levi sheds the rest of his clothes. Erwin gathers him up again as soon as they’re gone, nuzzling Levi’s neck while he takes hold of Levi’s cock. With light, lingering strokes, Erwin teases Levi until the world around him becomes hazy, his mind slowing to take in nothing but the warmth of Erwin’s touch. He can feel the smile behind the light kisses that brush his neck.  

Levi clings to Erwin, moving up into his hand. This is everything; and yet it’s not enough. Erwin surrounds him, but he remembers, in the back of his mind, that that will not always be the case. As soon as their appointment is over, Erwin will no longer be his. And Levi doesn’t want to remember that.

“Erwin . . .”

Erwin’s touch slows, but doesn’t cease. He kisses Levi’s jaw, murmuring, “What is it?”

“I . . . want you in me,” Levi says. It’s the most vulnerable thing he’s ever said to Erwin, though he doesn’t want to care about that right now. He does – the words come out awkwardly, stuttering at first and then tripping over each other. But he wishes he didn’t, and he makes himself keep going. “Right now. I need you in me.”

Levi doesn’t look up from where his head rests on Erwin’s shoulder, but he hears a slow intake of breath from Erwin. It’s let out in a soft, astonished “Oh.” And he takes Levi’s face between his hands to kiss him, deeply and fervently, their lips locked together so tightly it seems as though Erwin will never let go.

He guides Levi to his back. Spreads Levi’s legs apart gently, reverently. Kisses land across his hips and thighs before Erwin begins opening him up. Levi closes his eyes and arches his back. It feels beautiful when Erwin touches him like this, but it’s not what he wants. Not what he needs.

“Don’t spend too much time on this part,” he says.

 “I don’t want to rush through anything,” Erwin replies as he carefully stretches Levi out.

“I’m not as tight as I was, I shouldn’t need too much.”

“That’s not why I don’t want to rush through it.”

Erwin’s gaze is soft and his intended meaning abundantly clear. Levi meets his gaze for as long as he can until it becomes too overwhelming, until he feels as though there’s something expanding in his chest, and if he’s not careful it will burst out of him. Then he turns his head away and closes his eyes, feeling Erwin’s fingers spread apart inside him.

“If you’re going to do that, at least fucking kiss me.”

He feels the heat of Erwin’s body returning, laying across his belly, pressing down on his cock. One finger remains inside him, but the awkward angle doesn’t stop Erwin from spreading kisses across Levi’s belly, his ribs, his chest. From breathing in slowly, as though to take in Levi’s scent. From mouthing at certain patches of skin until he threatens to leave a mark – always pulling away just before he does.  

Then Erwin’s drawing his finger out and drawing his body up until his face hovers inches above Levi’s. Levi tilts his hips up, locks his legs around Erwin’s waist. He can feel Erwin lining himself up outside Levi, though Erwin’s eyes never leave Levi’s face. Even when he enters, his gaze never strays.

Levi keeps his eyes open for as long as he can as Erwin pushes inside him, watching Erwin’s expression as, little by little, he goes deeper. His eyelids flutter closed, and his mouth opens in a little “o”. With that face and his messy hair and his reddened lips, he’s . . . cute.

Erwin’s usually something else – he’s usually sexy or handsome or debonair or charming. But tonight he’s different. Tonight he’s just . . . cute. Cute in a way that makes Levi want to gather Erwin to himself and never let go.

That’s the last coherent thought Levi has before Erwin moves in him, and then all thought ceases.

There’s no need for thought; touch fills its place. Levi feels every inch of Erwin against him, from how he moves inside Levi, to how his hands explore Levi’s skin, to the hot breath that pushes against Levi’s neck. Levi rakes his fingers through Erwin’s hair or presses his palms across his back, always pulling Erwin closer, closer. He closes his eyes to better feel Erwin surrounding him within and without; he opens his eyes to look at this beautiful man who, for some reason, seems more beautiful now than ever before. And their bodies move against each other in steady waves that break with each new burst of pleasure.

“Beautiful.” Erwin speaks the word at the same time Levi’s thinking it, and for a moment Levi’s not entirely sure who spoke. Erwin messily kisses his neck and says again, “Beautiful. Levi, you’re so beautiful.” His words blur together, gasped rather than said, Erwin’s usual careful pronunciation gone. Erwin often speaks during sex, but rarely so earnestly. He lifts up his head a little to get a better look at Levi, and his movements slow.

“Don’t stop,” Levi gasps out.

“I won’t.” Erwin picks up his pace again, a steady rhythm that’s just fast enough to elicit shivers of pleasure from Levi, but just slow enough to draw out each one. “I won’t. If I could . . .” A kiss that brushes Levi’s jaw, and then a whisper so soft Levi’s not sure he hears it correctly. “I would do this forever.”  

Me too, Levi wants to say, but he’s unsure of what he heard, and Erwin’s lips on his neck trace away all thought. They leave him incapable of saying all words except one.

Erwin.”

“Levi,” Erwin says in response. “Oh, Levi.”

Levi never wants this to end.

But each stroke of Erwin’s is dizzying in its pleasure, and Levi can’t stop himself from building up to the edge. Can’t do anything to prevent the orgasm that crashes through him, blinding in its intensity. It surges throughout his entire body, every nerve alight with pleasure. Erwin comes with him, as though timed, as though his bliss is one with Levi’s.

Then it recedes slowly. They’re painting against each other, still holding onto each other. Trading a few final kisses, unwilling to accept that the moment is over.

After he pulls out, Erwin lies on his side next to Levi, an arm draped across Levi’s chest. Levi feels Erwin’s body against him, the cum drying on his stomach, the racing heartbeat that matches his own. And this, in its own way, is another source of perfect pleasure. Levi turns his head so that his nose presses against Erwin’s collarbone and closes his eyes.

“Thank you for that,” Erwin murmurs.

“Mm. You did all the work.”

“You made it some of the most enjoyable work I’ve ever done.”

Levi rolls his eyes. And then he kisses Erwin. He’s dimly aware of the mess on him, but for once the need to get clean isn’t urgent. It came from him, and from Erwin. He knows it can’t hurt him. And besides, Erwin’s hold is tight and his body is warm and his lips are soft, and Levi could do this forever.

They kiss slowly, stretched out beside each other. When they part, neither moves except to trail their fingers across the other’s skin. Erwin’s smiling. His eyes are brighter than Levi’s ever seen them. His hair is a tangled mess that Levi gladly tangles further.

“You’re welcome to stay the night, if you’d like,” Erwin says. “It’s growing late. I have clothes and toiletries set aside for guests who wish to sleep over.”

Stay the night. Sleep beside Erwin, wake up with him there. The thought sends a little shiver down Levi’s spine, and he’s seconds away from saying yes.

But instead he says, “I have an early class tomorrow.” When he sees Erwin’s smile drop, Levi feels compelled to add, “But maybe next time.”

It’s several minutes before Levi’s able to tear his attention away from Erwin long enough to decide to shower. And when he does, he brings Erwin with him. Erwin bathes Levi, and Levi doesn’t complain. He recognizes that Erwin (or this new persona of Erwin’s) enjoys this, and he’d be lying if he said he didn’t. So he allows Erwin to bathe him with a sweet-smelling soap, holding him all the while. Erwin kneels down to wash Levi’s lower half, running the soap up and down his legs in careful strokes. He kisses Levi while he’s kneeling there, demonstrating his affection on Levi’s back, his hips. The curve of Levi’s ass and the crease where it meets the top of his leg. Erwin kneels at Levi’s body like a worshipper kneeling before a saint, every kiss a tender act of devotion. Levi turns his face into the water and closes his eyes, so that nothing exists but Erwin’s lips and his hands and the water’s heat, and Levi allows himself to imagine.

Levi’s never expected romance to be a part of his life. It had never seemed like the kind of thing that happened to people like him. Levi always assumed that he would end up alone, and he had always felt okay about that. But if he could have this . . . god, if he could have this . . .

The shower ends much too quickly. Erwin helps Levi towel himself off, and then Levi returns the favor, wiping away drops of moisture from the planes of Erwin’s muscles and the jut of his hipbone. Then Levi returns to the main room to dress, and Erwin dons his silk bathrobe, and at the moment when the last of Levi’s clothing is on, the evening is over.

The two of them stand before Erwin’s door. Erwin’s expression returns to the bland smile Levi has seen all too often. The passion of the evening is fading, and Levi finds himself looking back on it and wondering how he could have let fake romance feel so real.

“You had a different persona than usual tonight,” Levi says.

“Oh? That’s an interesting way to put it,” Erwin replies.

Levi shrugs. “I liked it. Keep . . . I mean, don’t go back to how you acted before. This one’s good.”

The bland smile flickers. For a moment, Levi sees something in Erwin that he’s never seen before. But before he can name it, it’s gone. “I’m glad you enjoyed yourself.”

“I guess I’ll uh . . . see you in a few weeks.”

“Have a pleasant evening, Levi.”

“Yeah, you too.”

Erwin takes Levi’s hand and raises his knuckles up to his lips. The kiss lingers a little longer than usual, and then he looks up to meet Levi’s eyes. There’s something wrong about them, something that makes Levi’s heart twist.

But the sight is soon forgotten when Erwin takes Levi’s face in both hands and kisses him, slowly, deeply, as if trying to memorize exactly what Levi feels like.

Levi leaves the Companion house with the taste of Erwin lingering on his lips and the memory of that evening lingering on his heart.

*****

Levi wakes up the next morning and, before even getting out of bed, grabs his comm and requests another session with Erwin. It’s pathetic, and Levi knows it’s pathetic, and he can’t even bring himself to care. Going to a Companion in the first place is pathetic. Might as well fucking embrace it.

Moments from the previous night come back to him as he prepares for the day. He brushes his teeth and remembers each tender kiss Erwin gave him, picks out clothes and remembers Erwin taking his clothes off. Spends his entire morning shower wishing Erwin was in the shower with him.

When he finishes in the bathroom, he returns to his bedroom to find his comm flashing with a notification from the Companion house. A thrill of excitement stirs in him – it usually takes a couple days for the Companion house to schedule an appointment. Eagerly, Levi opens the message to learn when he’ll get to see Erwin next.

But the message simply reads, “Request denied.”

Chapter Text

“Request denied.”

Levi reads the words, then reads them again. He reads them over and over, because they don’t make sense. There has to be something he’s not understanding, something that will become clear if he only reads them often enough.

“Request denied.”

A message returned so quickly, and given without any further explanation. It feels like a cold shoulder, a slap in the face. It feels so different from what Levi experienced last night.

Last night, Levi had thought . . . it was so stupid, but Levi had really felt like . . .

Forget about what he had felt like. Now he feels like something is clawing a hole in his chest. Now moments from the previous night feel tainted, the memories wrong. Rendered from his naïve happiness of just a few minutes ago, each small memory seems to be a harbinger of a betrayal Levi should have seen coming. His bliss shatters as easily as a teacup dropped to the ground.

Levi clenches the comm within his hand, as though he can will himself to crush the machine that carries those two words. But he can’t, so he throws it away from himself instead. It hits the mattress hard enough to bounce back into the air before tumbling to the carpet with a thud.     

Request fucking denied.

Every time. Every damn time. It’s like it’s some game to Erwin. Always, right after a particularly tender session together, Erwin finds a way to throw the truth of who – of what – he is back in Levi’s face. Erwin made Levi feel comfortable enough to say his name in bed, and then he showed up at a ball with Hitch. Erwin revealed his fucking life story at a private dinner, and then he walked away from Levi like nothing had happened. And now this . . .

Levi takes a breath. Another. Erwin Smith is an asshole. And now that that much has been confirmed, he needs to pull himself the fuck together.

He crosses to the other side of the bed and picks up his comm. Deletes the message and puts it in his pocket. Leaves his bedroom and enters the kitchen to pull together some breakfast for himself.

He has other, more important things to think about. An exam that afternoon. The potential fallout from a disagreement he had with his father the other day. How to turn down another tea engagement with Petra. While he cooks himself breakfast, he’ll think of those things. With forced calm, Levi cracks a few eggs into a pan and takes out a slice of bread to toast.

Apparently Levi’s own mind is out to betray him, because one moment he’s looking at cooking eggs, and the next all he can see is Erwin –not just Erwin, but Erwin specifically as he was last night, with his hair mussed and pupils wide and lips -

No. That’s not what Levi’s thinking about right now. He never wants to think about that again. Levi focuses on cooking his breakfast and mentally goes through every class he has that day and every assignment that’s due for them. He recites the list in his head until it becomes like a mantra, repeated over and over in a steady rhythm.     

If I could, I would do this forever.

Erwin’s voice slides invasively into the middle of the mantra, making Levi drop his finished toast in the cooking eggs. He burns the tips of his fingers as he tries to fish it out.

“Fuck,” Levi hisses, throwing it onto a waiting plate. Bits of raw eggs fly across his pristine counter. “Fuck.”

As Levi cools his fingers under the faucet, he imagines punching Erwin in his perfect face.

It’s an overreaction. He’s overreacting. He needs to get the fuck over this. Erwin’s a Companion, and he’s just doing what Companions do – creating a highly intimate and seemingly real romance for no more than the allotted time.

Really, it’s himself that Levi should be angry at – for getting too damn caught up in a Companion session and taking it so fucking personally. He never thought of himself as a romantic, and he always prided himself on being able to keep his expectations realistic. Now a professional that Levi contracts with for a service is unable to give him that service – probably for reasons that aren’t at all personal – and he’s acting like some broken-hearted teenager. Pathetic.

Levi turns back to his breakfast. Using his comm, he activates the small TV set into the wall to his right. The news flickers to life, just loud enough to talk over some of the thoughts of Erwin.

“ – watching Sina New Network, Sponsored and Produced by the Unified Government. All content approved by the UG Media Control Board. Good morning. Today we bring you breaking news from Arcadia, capital city of Oceanus.”

Levi’s not particularly interested in what’s happening in Arcadia right now, but he forces himself to listen closely as he finishes cooking. He needs to pay attention to something real instead of fixating on the bullshit of the previous night.   

“Simultaneous bombs have gone off in the Planetary Congressional Hall and the governor’s palace at 3PM local time, approximately two hours ago. Since that time, violent mobs have taken to the streets, looting businesses and attacking law enforcement officials. Many people in these mobs are armed. All of Oceanus has been placed in a state of emergency.”

The words are alarming, and the images flashing across the screen – the governor’s palace burning, crowds rushing through city streets – are even more so. But the events being reported on are hundreds of lightyears away, and Levi processes them just as distantly. He’s been hearing about rebellions on the outer planets for as long as he can remember. They’re always rising up about something or other. If it wasn’t Oceanus, it’d be another one. It doesn’t change anything, anyway. They’re always put down within a matter of weeks.

Still, Levi leans against his counter and eats with his eyes glued on the screen because it’s the only source of distraction he has. He watches the ragged mob fighting in the streets and reminds himself that there are bigger things in this world than his wounded pride.

The image switches to columns of marching soldiers. To one side, they’re hemmed in by one of the vast oceans that gives the planet its name. “The Planetary Guard of Oceanus has been deployed to bring order back to Arcadia. Aircraft from the UG Air Force is poised to help with air strikes if needed, and reserve forces are en route to the planet should further reinforcements be necessary to restore peace.”

With that news story covered, the image changes once again. The streets on display now aren’t lightyears away, but rather only a couple miles off. Images of the Underground, just a few blocks from where Levi grew up, flash across the screen. He starts at the sight of familiar neighborhoods – and then again at the dozens of handcuffed people that crowd them. For the first time all morning, Erwin’s not the first thing on Levi’s mind. Instead, Levi’s occupied with scanning the faces of the arrested, hoping he won’t see anyone he knows.

“Meanwhile back on Sina, residents of the Underground have once again engaged in illegal protests and riots. The violence disturbed the district’s poorest residents and put children and the disabled at risk. Sina’s Planetary Guard quickly arrived to bring order and peace back to the neighborhood. Approximately fifty people have been arrested -” 

Levi turns it off.

Well, he wanted to be distracted, and he definitely got his wish.

He slides scrambled eggs around his plate, taking bites without tasting much. Resentment toward Erwin still throbs in the back of his mind, but now it’s unpleasantly overshadowed by the image of those arrested Underground residents. Levi saw some illegal protests when he lived down there, and a couple of them had been followed by a mass arrest similar to this one. Hardly any of the arrested had ever returned.

He’s not sure how long he’s been standing like that when Hanji’s voice breaks him out of his reverie, calling through the apartment with jarring cheer. “Leviiii!”

“In here.”

Hanji bounds eagerly into the kitchen doorway. But the second they see Levi, they calm down. Their manic grin fades, and they stand still instead of rushing into the room. To most, Levi’s expression always looks the same. Hanji’s the only person who can read what he’s feeling, and who knows when he’s upset.

(Well, there was one other person who could read what Levi was feeling. But he doesn’t matter anymore.)

“What is it?” Hanji asks.

“Nothing,” Levi says. But Hanji isn’t going to buy that, so Levi opts to share the least pathetic of the two things bothering him. “There was a protest in the Underground, and I guess the cops are really cracking down.”

“Anyone you know?” they ask.

Levi shrugs. “Not that I could see.”

Hanji enters the kitchen, sitting down at Levi’s small kitchen table and watching as he puts his dishes in the sink and cleans off his counter. “Do you know what they were protesting?”

“It’s usually not anything specific, really,” Levi says. “They’re just fucking miserable, and they get to a point where the snap. Sometimes it’s about, I don’t know, taxes, or clean water, or wanting more sunlight. But really, it’s everything. Their lives are miserable, and rioting is the only thing they can do about it.” And then, to prevent this conversation from getting personal, he adds, “Oceanus had an uprising, too. Apparently that one was a little more successful.”

“Interesting.”

“But they’re sending in troops, so I guess it’ll be put down soon.”

“Alright then,” Hanji says noncommittally. Levi makes a noise that’s even more noncommittal. He can’t give two shits about Oceanus. He just hopes Kenny’s keeping his head down over there.

He leans back against his counter, facing Hanji. “So. Is there a reason you’re here?”

“Welllll.” They shrug. “The real reason is, you weren’t in your room last night, and in the past that’s meant that you were . . .”

“No.”

“You weren’t with the Companion?”

“We’re not talking about it.”

Levi expects protests but, fortunately, Hanji’s able to read Levi’s face well enough to know not to give any. Unfortunately, they continue to examine Levi’s face long after they make the decision to shut up, trying to piece together exactly what’s bothering him.  

So Levi turns his back to them, keeping Hanji from continuing their examination by pretending that his dishes aren’t quite clean enough. He’s not sure what Hanji would be able to figure out, but he’s not taking any chances.

*****

With Erwin now apparently out of the picture, Levi tries to keep himself occupied with his normal routine. But the truth is, his normal routine isn’t anywhere near interesting enough to occupy him. Even with exams coming up and preparations for the military academy on the horizon, Levi’s life is too dull to be anything of a distraction. He hadn’t realized this before, but Companion sessions had become bright points of interest in his otherwise dull life.

So after four days of pathetic inability to keep his damn mind off Erwin, Levi sends him another request. He tells himself that it’s just an experiment – if he gets another denial, it’ll be confirmation of what he suspected. If he doesn’t, he’ll have just been overreacting this whole time, and everything can go back to normal.

He sends the request in the morning, and his comm beeps later that afternoon as he’s walking between classes. Levi eagerly pulls it out of his jacket pocket, certain he knows who this message is from.

So it’s with quite some shock that Levi finds the symbol of Sina Law Enforcement where he expected to see the symbol of a Companion house.  

Levi steps to the side of the path, out of the way of the stream of students, to open it. The TV images of the handcuffed Underground residents mix with his own memories of his night in jail as he steels himself to read it.

The message simply says, “You are required by law to come to the 57th precinct by 5PM today to confirm the identity of a Mr. Kenny Ackerman.”

*****

His next class is the one with the exam, and Levi couldn’t care less. He skips it and takes a city monorail to the police station, not bothering to waste time calling for one of his father’s cars. Kenny was supposed to have left weeks ago on a transport to Oceanus. What the fuck had happened? How could he have let himself get caught? 

Levi pushes his way through the crowds in the precinct’s lobby until he reaches the reception desk. He thinks he might have cut a few people who were waiting but really doesn’t care. The moment one of the two receptionists finishes a conversation, Levi shoves his comm in the man’s face and says, “Hey. I got this message today. I need to identify someone.”

The receptionist looks at Levi with unmasked annoyance, reads the message, and then looks back at him with something closer to unmasked interested. “Yeah, I know who sent that,” the receptionist says. Without any further explanation, he presses a button behind the desk and waits until a low, grumpy voice answers his call. “Commissioner, I got your witness out here.”

Two seconds later, Commissioner Dawk is striding across the lobby towards Levi. “Ackerman. You came faster than I expected. I thought you weren’t close with your uncle,” he says with a thinly detectable trace of sarcasm. He holds a coffee cup identical to the one he had last time Levi saw him, and the stubble is in even worse shape than before. “Let’s get this over with. Your uncle is this way.”

Levi follows the commissioner into a dimly lit hallway. The linoleum floors and florescent lights look all too familiar.

“How was he caught?” Levi asks the commissioner as he’s led deeper into the jail.

“Took part in the riots last night. We rounded him up in the mass arrest that followed.”

The answer doesn’t make any sense to Levi. If Kenny had somehow missed his transport, he’d be lying low right now, not getting involved in political protests. And even if he had been there, Kenny knew how to get lost in a crowd once things started to go south. He would have slipped away before the arrests could get to him.

They pass the familiar door of the interrogation room and then walk through the next one. It leads to a relatively comfortable room furnished with faded armchairs and a coffee machine. One wall is totally transparent, giving a clear view into the interrogation room. That wall had looked like solid metal from inside the interrogation room, but Levi’s not entirely surprised to find that the police have a way to spy on their suspects.

“Well, there’s your uncle,” Dawk says. He nods toward the transparent wall, inviting Levi to take a look for himself. Levi steps up to it, bracing himself for the sight of his uncle, trussed to the chair and possibly injured.

But instead Levi’s faced with a man he’s never seen in his life.

He lets a breath out in a rush of relief. “That’s not my uncle,” he says.

“You sure?”

The man certainly looks similar to Kenny. Same tall, lanky frame, same brown hair and beard. But his face is a little doughier, and his eyes aren’t the right color. He’s similar, but he’s far from the same.

“I’m positive.”

Dawk flips a switch near the door, and Levi hears a faint whir. He finds the source of the noise on the wall to his left; a tiny camera has come to life and is pointed right at him. “Say it for posterity, now,” Dawk says.

He feels pretty awkward doing it, but Levi assumes it’s some sort of protocol, so he turns to speak directly at the camera, “That man is not Kenny Ackerman.”

“Excellent.” Dawk takes a comm from his belt and speaks into it. “All charges dropped on the Ackerman suspect. I repeat, all charges dropped on the Ackerman suspect. The man is confirmed to not be Kenny Ackerman. He is free to go. I need personnel in the interrogation room to release him.” Positioning the comm back on his belt, he says, “That’s all I needed. Time for you to get out of here.”

Levi watches Dawk suspiciously as he turns the camera off and tops off his coffee cup. Something feels a little too easy about the whole process.

Just as Levi’s thinking that, the door opens and the process gets a bit harder.

Zackley storms into the room, shouting at Dawk. “What the hell was that?” And then, upon seeing Levi, “What the hell is he doing here?”

“I was soliciting a witness to confirm the identity of our suspect,” Dawk says with forced calm.

“Why the fuck would you ask him? He’s related to the suspect.”

“We have it on record that Mr. Ackerman is not close to his uncle. Besides, I think you’d agree that he wouldn’t risk perjury, right? He came too close to a brush with the law as it is.”

“That’s the weakest bullshit I’ve ever heard. This will never hold up in a court of law.”

Dawk sets his coffee down on the table and steps closer, using his considerable height to tower over Zackley. “Ackerman, I need you to do us the favor of getting the hell out of here.”

So Levi complies. He’s probably not allowed to wander the jail by himself, but if Dawk is telling him to, he’s not going to question it. He steps out the door and closes it behind him. Further down the hall, the poor, confused suspect is being shepherded out of the interrogation room. Levi hangs back and watches while the guards walk him to freedom.

Perhaps Levi hangs back a bit too long, because while he’s watching the suspect being led away, the argument in the room behind him resumes. “If you want to talk about a court of law, I got plenty of damning evidence.”

That’s Dawk speaking, and Zackley’s response makes it clear exactly who he has evidence against. “None that you’ll be able to use. I cover my tracks, commissioner.”

This is a conversation Levi should not be hearing. That much is immediately obvious to him. But from the moment they begin speaking, Levi’s feet are glued to the ground. However serious or sensitive this matter clearly is, it’s a matter that Levi’s been pulled into the middle of. He wants to know why.

“Your tracks are too bloody to ever totally cover,” Dawk says. His voice lowers, and Levi has to lean closer to the door to catch it.

“Are you threatening me?” Zackley demands.

“Just saying that if you want to use court against me, I can play the same game. I have the truth on my side.”

“No one cares two shits for your truth. You may have the truth, but I have the law. How many friends do you think you’ll have when people learn that I caught Kenny Ackerman, and you let him go free?”

“You didn’t catch Kenny Ackerman. You were going to scapegoat an innocent man. Everyone here knew it, even if I was the only one with the guts to try to prove it.”

“The public wants a hanging. Hell, I want a hanging. It’s good for morale.”

“You don’t hang innocent people for morale.”

“Lots of innocent people get hung. The universe goes on. Let me give you an example of such a case. Imagine that, say, a police commissioner wasn’t doing his job right. Maybe he was really just trying to be a good guy, but he went against his superiors’ wishes. Suddenly, he gets caught up in a treasonous plot. He insists that he’s been framed, but the evidence is stacked against him, and he gets convicted and hung. The people would still be happy. They’d have no idea he was innocent. Everyone would sleep better at night because they’d think that a deadly traitor had been taken care of. Well, everyone but that commissioner’s widow and kids, that is.”

There’s a beat of silence as the weight of the threat settles. Levi can feel the tension through the door – or maybe that’s just his own fear that he feels, low and tight in his stomach.

Eventually, Dawk speaks again. “You can talk big all you want, but I won this round,” he says. He does a passably good job of keeping his fear out of his voice.

Levi doesn’t hear Dawk’s footsteps approaching, but suddenly the door is open, and the commissioner framed in the doorway. Levi instinctively takes a step back. But running from this would be pointless, so he simply meets Dawk’s furious glare, waiting for him to say something.

He doesn’t, though. After a second of angry surprise, Dawk only shifts his weight a little, blocking the doorway more completely so that Levi’s better hidden from Zackley’s view. He gives one final word to Zackley, a distraction, and Levi gratefully uses it to get the hell out of there.

*****

Levi has to search high and low for Hanji – literally. He starts at the roof and eventually finds them in the manor basement, lying on their back on some scaffolding and using a wrench to perform some unfathomable maintenance on a ceiling pipe with an unfathomable purpose. When Levi announces his presence, he’s greeted with a pair of eyes peeking over the side of the scaffolding. Bits of hair fall into their goggles, and there’s a smudge of grease diagonally across their forehead.

“Thought you might join me today. I brought brownies.” They point to a spot next to them on the scaffolding where the brownies presumably reside. “Cook owed me a favor.”

Levi climbs up the scaffolding to perch on the platform with Hanji. It’s too close to the ceiling for an average person to sit up straight, but for Levi, the height’s just right. He crosses his legs and watches Hanji work in silence for a moment, munching on a brownie.

Hanji’s always there for him – in every sense of the word. They’re always supportive and compassionate, and Levi doesn’t know where he’d be without them. But they’re also literally always there, to the point where their incessant smile and energy grates on Levi’s nerves. Occasionally, Levi wishes he had a least one other friend. But Hanji’s the only person who really knows him, and the only person he’s ever truly been himself in front of.

(Well, there was one other person that Levi had been himself in front of. But he doesn’t matter anymore.)

Levi slips his comm out of his pocket and absently spins it around between his thumb and forefinger. “Something really fucking weird happened today,” he says.

“I love fucking weird things,” Hanji says. “What breed of fucking weird was this?”

And Levi tells them, from the moment he got the police message to the end of the cryptic argument. He recants it word for word as well as he can remember it, because this is too big for Levi to hold by himself, and Hanji’s his only option for sharing it. They’re silent for a second when he finishes, firmly twisting a wrench with a frown on their face.

“So our police force is corrupt,” they say after a bit. Their words are strained behind the force they exert on the wrench, but the sarcasm is still clear. “Who would have thought.”

“What a fucking surprise,” Levi agrees. “But there’s a difference between knowing that and hearing someone casually talking about enjoying hangings.”

“There certainly is.” Hanji sighs and puts down their wrench, apparently done with their work. They turn onto their side to get a better look at Levi. “Well. In light of your news, there are two contradictory things I want to tell you to do.”

“Which are?”

“I mean, I’d love to say that you should do the right thing and tell everyone what you know and get this guy exposed and arrested.”

“But you think it wouldn’t work.”

“I think you’d get yourself killed.”

Levi sighs. He continues to spin the comm between his fingers. “That guy’s just going to find another innocent to kill.”

“It sounds like there are people within the force fighting him,” Hanji says. “And those people are probably in the best position to keep the innocents alive. I hate to say it, but this is beyond you.”

Beyond him. Hanji’s right, of course, and it drives Levi insane. He’s a noble; he’s supposed to have special power or privileges or whatever. But when it matters, he’s just as powerless as he would have been if he stayed in the Underground. “That’s what Kenny said when I asked who killed those congressmen.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I said I’d give him the money if he told me who hired him. But he said no. Said it would get me hurt, and it was beyond me.”

He glances down at Hanji when they don’t respond right away and sees that they’re not looking back at him. Instead, their eyes are on a point to the right of Levi’s head, mouth tugging into a tiny frown as they think through something. Levi waits for Hanji to speak, though he doesn’t have a good feeling about whatever revelation they’re arriving at.  

After a minute or so passes, they say, “The people paying Kenny had to be really rich to get him to take high-profile hits, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“And law enforcement seems really intent on blaming him, don’t they?”

“Well, they think he did it, so yeah.”

“The media’s been harping on it, too. They’ve been trying really hard to pin the blame for Leonhardt on him, and on you.” Hanji sits up and leans on their elbow. Their words come out a little faster now as they grow more confident in whatever their conclusion is. “Leonhardt was killed in a well-guarded manor. A hit person probably wouldn’t have gotten in easily, not unless they had an invitation to the ball. And when you were named as a suspect, the media was really eager to convict you. Every news show was talking the next day about how it was definitely your doing, and you were probably collaborating with Kenny.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Levi asks.

“So here’s what we know. Three dead, and the culprits are probably nobles. People in law enforcement and in the media are really intent on finding a scapegoat. Kenny says that this is beyond you, and that you’ll get hurt if you know who’s really behind these murders. Levi. I think someone in our government is killing people.”

Levi had been working to follow Hanji’s train of thought; now he feels his thoughts grinding to a halt. He expected Hanji’s revelation to be something serious. He didn’t expect something crazy. “Someone rich, sure, but pinning it on the government is a stretch.”

“It’s either the government or individuals really high up in the government,” they say. “Who does this Zackley guy work for? The Department of Law Enforcement. Which is a branch of the government.”

“We don’t know if he’s getting orders from anyone. He might just be one corrupt guy, or one of a handful of corrupt guys.”

“That would be logical if it wasn’t for the fact of the media. News shows were working hard at getting the public behind the idea of a scapegoat, first with Kenny and then with you. Who controls the media?”

Levi hears the answer to that question every time he turns on the news. Sponsored and produced by the Unified Government. “The government.”

“And in a twisted way, the victims make sense. If you’re a person in power, and someone poor is pissing you off, you can probably find some sort of leverage against them or at least kill them in a less obvious way. But two congressmen and a rich, influential noble? People like that are harder to buy and harder to get rid of quietly.”

It should – does – sound insane. But when Hanji lays everything out, it makes too much sense. And perhaps most frightening of all is how Levi can’t bring himself to feel surprised. Still, he won’t accept such an absurd theory without a fight, and so he says, “Do you hear yourself?”

“With people like that, maybe it’s better to get rid of them loudly and then distract the public so they’ll never suspect the real culprit.”

“You sound like a crackpot conspiracy theorist.”

“What you heard today is a conspiracy.”

“But not like that. I heard proof of one corrupt guy. You’re suggesting that the entire government is fucked.”

“Would you be surprised?” Hanji asks. And before Levi can deliver another protest, they say, “Look at this planet. Hell, let’s start with this city. The poorest people have to live literally underground, where there isn’t enough food or sunlight. If you’re born into that neighborhood you’re stuck there, because getting a real education costs too damn much. Law enforcement’s a joke – you can’t even be guaranteed a trial unless you’re a noble. Does any of that sound like something an upright, moral government would do?”

“None of that shit’s right, but that doesn’t mean there’s some conspiracy. It’s just the way it is.”

“And who decides the way things are?” they insist. “I mean, it seems like the outer planets are always protesting being in the UG. But we’re never told exactly why they’re protesting. Why do you think that is?”

Levi doesn’t have an answer to that. But Hanji’s words bring to mind TV images of the rioting mob on Oceanus. And then of the scores of handcuffed Underground residents. Of the newscaster’s voice reassuring viewers that military force was coming to restore peace and order.

He’s not sure he wants to know the answer. 

*****

For the next few weeks, Levi anxiously checks the news for reports that “Kenny Ackerman” has been caught. But none come. It looks like Dawk is keeping Zackley in check, for now.

What he gets instead are increasingly frequent updates on the situation on Oceanus, always with the same conclusion – people are rioting, but the Planetary Guard and UG forces will soon put them down. It gradually starts to look less like a riot and more like a revolt.

Levi watches news clips of the UG troops marching through Oceanus with the knowledge that, in a very short time, he’ll be training to be among them. Only one month remains before he leaves for the military academy. Levi hopes that this mess on Oceanus will be sorted out by the time he graduates. If he has to take part in it, he’s not totally sure which side he’d choose.

Hanji’s theory of a corrupt, possibly murderous government definitely makes the concept of military service more unattractive than ever. If the UG is killing its own people, why the hell would Levi serve it? He almost insists that his father withdraws Levi’s enrollment. But Levi knows exactly how that conversation would play out, and it’s not worth it to enter into a losing argument. Besides, it’s not like he has any other life plans.

So Levi floats through his last days as a university student, trying to savor his final month of freedom. Once he begins at the military academy, he’ll be cut off from anything not directly related to his studies. For his first few semesters, he won’t be able to go home, to see Hanji, to even talk to anyone outside the academy’s walls. So he tries to enjoy what little pleasures he has before his life is overcome by the demands of the service.

And he sends more requests to Erwin, though he hates himself for doing so. A Companion will definitely be off limits once Levi begins at the academy. So he might as well try to get one last round in before he goes. It’s not personal, though the sting Levi feels every time he sees a “request denied” message is a little stronger than he’d like. He sends Erwin six requests in total; each is denied without explanation.

Long before the sixth denial, Levi assumes that he’ll never see Erwin again. Instead, he sees him in the last place he’d expect.

Levi’s crossing Sina University’s campus after his last class of the day when he sees Annie Leonhardt leaving the administration building. Levi hadn’t seen her since her father’s death; she hadn’t come back to school, and Levi hadn’t presumed to contact her. It’s been so long that seeing her on campus feels like seeing the dead returned to life.

However much of a surprise Annie is, though, the person who approaches her is ten times more so.

Erwin wears sunglasses even though the sky is cloudy and the weather cool. He steps in front of Annie to block her path, turning his back to Levi in the process. For a moment Levi’s frozen in his spot across the quad, unable to believe what he’s seeing. There’s no reason for Erwin to talk to Annie. There’s no reason for Erwin to be here at all. He appears to be explaining something to Annie, and Levi watches, dumbstruck, as the most unlikely meeting he could imagine unfolds.

The confrontation lasts only a minute or two, and from the way Annie starts at Erwin’s approach, Levi senses that Erwin’s a stranger to her. She’s silent while he speaks, but the way she looks at him is anything but friendly.

When he’s apparently finished, Erwin pulls a note – handwritten, most likely – out of his jacket pocket. He hands this to Annie, says a word in parting, and leaves the way he came.

Annie’s still for a moment, seemingly frozen in place. Then, slowly, she unfolds the note. A brief flare of fury crosses her face before she tears it up and tosses it into a trash can.

Annie then begins walking in the opposite direction of where Erwin went. Levi watches her go, knowing he should follow. He wants to know what Erwin said, and he certainly won’t get a straight answer from Erwin himself. Besides, that asshole is the last person Levi wants to talk to. Ever. He starts following Annie, but he stops again after only a few steps.

He can contact Annie any time he wants. Erwin, however, will be permanently out of his life in a matter of a few days.

Levi turns around.

Erwin already has a large head start, and several times Levi loses sight of him behind buildings and around corners. There’s nothing he’d rather do than shout at Erwin to stop, but that would attract a lot of attention from the still busy campus. So he settles for a speed walk and, when Erwin disappears into an alley between two campus buildings, breaks into a run to avoid losing him.

Among the nobility, even alleys are fancy. This one is paved with flagstones and canopied by decorative archways. In the fading light of late afternoon, the arches only serve to make it feel more private, hiding the two of them in shadow. No one comes in or out of this alley, and the noise of the campus seems to have faded.

“Hey.” Levi’s voice sounds amplified by the stone walls on either side. He sees Erwin freeze, sees his back stiffen.

“Levi,” Erwin says without turning to look.

“What the hell were you talking to her about?”

“I’m afraid that matter is private.”

Erwin turns around now, taking time to remove his sunglasses as he does. His expression is carefully blank, hollow. He doesn’t even spare his usual bland smile. Seeing his face causes a surge of emotions Levi hadn’t been expecting. There’s a heat in his chest, and an undeniable desire to strangle the asshole.

“She’s my friend,” Levi says. “And she looked fucking pissed. What did you say to her?”

“The subject was delicate.”

Delicate. Private. Just as evasive as ever, and just as full of shit. Levi feels his anger boiling over. “What. Did you. Say to her?”

“I’m sorry, but I need to maintain privacy. For her sake as much as for mine.”

“For her sake? I know she doesn’t contract with you. She’s never seen you before in her life.”

“Regardless, I know of a very sensitive matter that concerns her.”

Levi glares at him. As expected, getting anything out of Erwin is like trying to squeeze a brick wall. He grits his teeth in frustration. “You better not be fucking with her.”

“I promise you, I am not.”

“Yeah. Sure.”

“I’m sorry for the confusion, Levi. I wish I could tell you more.” He gives Levi a polite nod. “Good day.”

Erwin’s back turns, and he begins to retreat. Levi watches him go, and something twists in his gut.

“Hey,” he says again. Again, Erwin freezes and stiffens. “When the hell am I getting my next appointment?”

Erwin turns to give him a smile that’s even more fake than most. “I’m sorry for the wait. I’ll take a look at my schedule and see what I can do.”

“I’ve requested you six times. You’ve had plenty of chances to look at your schedule.”

“I’ve been exceptionally busy recently.”

“Yeah. Sure you have.” Levi crosses his arms and leans against a stone wall, peering through the shadows at Erwin. “So, let me try to figure this out. Do you just get bored of clients after a while? Charm them and then drop them? Or does one of the most dashing Companions in Stohess have to get rid of his least favorite clients whenever newer, richer ones come along?”

“It’s nothing like that.”

“What’s it like, then?”

“It’s just been . . .” Uncharacteristically, Erwin hesitates. “Scheduling has been difficult.”

“How come?” Levi pushes himself off the wall and approaches Erwin. He’s suddenly determined that he’s not leaving here without getting his fucking explanation. It’s stupid, and pointless, and Levi can’t drop it no matter how much he wants to.

“Answering that would be a breach of confidentiality,” Erwin says.

“Bullshit. You don’t have to tell me who you’re sleeping with. Just why they’re better than me.”

“I’m sorry, Levi. I can’t give you the answers you want.”

“Is that why you deny me without an explanation?” He’s coming closer to Erwin with every second. He has no idea what he’s going to do when he reaches him.

“Companions are not required to explain denials.”

“Right. So you arrange a secret diner to make sure our professional relationship stays the same, but as soon as you decide you’re done with that professional relationship, it doesn’t warrant any notice at all.”

Erwin doesn’t have a smooth response to that.

“You’re fucked up, Erwin. The way you treat people is really fucked up.”

“I apologize. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“And I can think that, hey, maybe I was reading too much into things. Maybe I’m just making up how, I don’t know . . .” Levi pauses to search for a word that isn’t too embarrassing. “Affectionate you were. But you were the one adding in all the bullshit gentle touches and sharing conversations. That was your work. I wanted a quick fuck. You made it something more.” He’s less than a foot in front of Erwin now, and he jabs a finger hard into Erwin’s chest. “I wasn’t reading into things. You were creating the illusion of bullshit that wasn’t there. And given your training, I think you know exactly what you were doing. You were fucking with me. And when you got bored of fucking with me, you dropped me to go fuck with the next person. You’re sick.”

“I didn’t mean to play with you.”

“Sure.” Levi gets tired of craning his head to look up at the tall asshole, so he grabs Erwin’s shirt and pulls him down to a more convenient height. “I wonder, do you fuck with all of your clients, or is it just me? Is it because I’m so different from the rest of them, you wanted to tear me apart and see what makes me tick? Maybe you couldn’t bear that thought of someone who wasn’t in total awe of you, so you played me until I was.”

“No, it was nothing like that.”

Levi gives him another tug down. Their faces are inches apart, noses almost touching. “I want to know exactly why you started denying my requests.”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Fucking tell me.”

“I can’t.”

“Bullshit.”

“I really can’t. I’m sorry. I never wanted to hurt you. That’s the last thing I wanted to do.”

“If that’s the case, you can tell me the truth.”

“I can’t.”

“In two weeks, I’m leaving for the military academy. We’re never going to see each other again. So just tell me. There won’t be any consequences.”

“Please. I can’t.”

“You sick son of a bitch. You don’t have a reason, do you?”

“I do.”

“Then tell me!”

Erwin kisses him.

It comes on suddenly, a rush of breath, a fierce press of lips. Erwin’s strong hands framing his face. He kisses deeply, prying Levi’s lips apart with his tongue. Levi’s so startled that he freezes, fist still clenching Erwin’s shirt. He allows Erwin to touch him however he wants, anger forgotten for a moment and replaced with – this. With this feeling that he’s felt for months, this intense longing, this need to be surrounded by Erwin. A feeling that he fears to name. Levi opens his mouth in spite of himself and lets Erwin in.

The kiss ends as suddenly as it began. Erwin steps back, rapidly turning away from Levi. He presses one arm on a wall for balance, his shoulders heaving slightly with his breath. “I’m so sorry,” he says. “I should not have done that.”

Dumbly, Levi touches the tips of his fingers to his lips. “What the fuck?”

Erwin doesn’t turn around. “Please understand,” he says. “None of . . . none of how I acted recently was fake. I thought a clean break would be best for the both of us, given our circumstances. I’m sorry I hurt you.”

He retreats out of the alley, shoulders hunched, a weakened version of himself. Levi’s left abandoned between the two buildings, fingers still dumbly tracing his lips.  

Chapter Text

None of it was fake.

Levi drops against the wall, fingertips still hovering over his lips, unable to make sense of anything. He needs to find some logical explanation, some light to cast on Erwin’s behavior that would make it possible for Levi to brush it off. Erwin has been rejecting Levi’s requests because . . . they’ve become too close? Because Erwin got a little too affectionate? Because Erwin l-

“No,” Levi whispers to himself. His hand drops from his lips. Clenches into a fist by his side. He can feel his heart speeding up without reason as he recalls how Erwin kissed him. So uncontrolled. Erwin’s never uncontrolled.

But that’s not true. Recently, the past few times Levi’s seen him – his last session, their dinner together – Erwin’s been very uncontrolled.

Levi slams the fist backwards against the wall. It pricks him with distracting bursts of pain, and Levi does it again, willing the pain to be enough to take his thoughts away from Erwin. Levi’s always prided himself on the clarity of his mind, on his ability to avoid getting distracted by emotions. He lives in the real world, taking each moment as it comes and dealing with problems logically. But right now that clarity is unreachable.

Levi never wanted love. Never sought it, never even daydreamed about it. Had always viewed it as an inconvenience that wasn’t worth the effort. Levi was not a person destined for romance. Whenever he had envisioned his future, he envisioned it alone.

But now . . .

Levi squeezes his eyes shut, forcing back a sob that comes out of nowhere and threatens to overpower him. His hands are curled so tightly in on themselves that his nails bite his palms.

Now he has to finally admit it to himself. Levi is in love with Erwin Smith.

And there’s a possibility that Erwin Smith feels the same way about him.

He leaves the alley. And he runs. He races across fields and darts between buildings until he reaches the place where the university campus meets the main road. He can still see Erwin, standing on the sidewalk. A black car with tinted windows pulls up in front of him, and Erwin starts to get in.

Levi runs. But he’s too far away, and Erwin’s car disappears long before Levi can reach him.

*****

“You haven’t been yourself this past week. You’ve been really . . .”

Levi looks up from his seat by the living room window. Hanji’s on the couch, all the way across the room. They had let themselves in and found Levi in a chair in the corner, staring out the window without seeing much. He hadn’t gotten up when they arrived.

“Sullen,” Hanji finishes.

“I’m always sullen.”

“More than usual, I mean.”

Levi shrugs and turns back to the window. So what if he’s sullen? He’ll be as fucking sullen as he wants. They don’t care what your emotions are at the military academy. They just want you to be a mindless drone. Which, really, is what Levi’s been feeling like lately. So actually, this sullenness is a great thing that will take him far in life.

“You’re leaving in three days,” Hanji says.

“Yup.”

“I’d kind of like to, you know, say goodbye to my friend.”

“I’m right here.”

“You know what I mean.”

Levi lets his head loll in the opposite direction until he’s facing Hanji again. “In three days I’m leaving everything I know to go fight for a government that’s probably shit, so you’ll forgive me if I’m not my normal cheery self.” He leaves Erwin out of it. Hanji doesn’t know about the latest developments with Erwin, and it’s going to stay that way. Besides, Levi’s kind of in denial about just how much those latest developments are fucking him up. It makes him feel much saner to pretend that the moodiness is one hundred percent attributable to the impending torture of military school.

Hanji rolls their eyes. “Well self-pity definitely isn’t going to help.”

“This isn’t self-pity.” Hanji scoffs in the most infuriating manner possible. Levi’s voice raises just a little to more effectively speak over any other unhelpful noises they might make. “This is reasonable anger at a shitty situation. If you’re not enjoying yourself, you know where the door is. No one asked you to be here, and I’m sure as hell not asking you to stay.”

The gaze they level on him is perfectly calm and even, devoid of their usual exuberance. Levi has effectively pissed them off enough to take away their trademark energy. The unorthodox calm that’s left behind is chilling.

“You know,” they say after a pause. “You can be a real bitch sometimes.”

“Glad you’re finally realizing that.”

“Call me when you’re reasonable again.” They show themselves out.

It’s a sickening sort of satisfaction that Levi’s left with, the knowledge that he’s angered someone. Maybe Hanji will be as miserable as he is for a couple minutes. Good. He’s not the only one who deserves to be miserable. Fuck them and their assumption that they always know what’s best. Levi doesn’t need them.

The sickening satisfaction doesn’t last long. In a matter of moments, he just feels sick.

He turns on the news to get some noise in the apartment that’s louder than the noise in his head. After all, he hasn’t checked for news of “Kenny” yet today. Not that it’ll matter even if something does get reported. By then, it’ll be too late. He stares at the newscaster’s face and barely manages to take in what she’s saying. Something about her smile reminds Levi of Hitch. Fake and disgusting.

There are images from the day’s top stories. Rebels on Oceanus driving UG forces out of Arcadia (temporarily, the newscaster’s careful to say). President Reiss smiling and waving on his way to pretend to do some good deed or another. Lord Dreyse getting sworn in as the UG’s chief economic minister, because more power is just what the Dreyse family needs.  

There’s a knock on the door, and for a second Levi worries that Hanji’s come back to have a heart to heart about their disagreement. But Hanji hardly ever knocks. Which means it can only be one other person. “Yes?”  

“It’s me.” His father’s voice. The door opens, and Lord Falkenrath lets himself in.

He takes two steps into the room before stopping. He doesn’t come up here often, and it shows in the way he stands frozen in place, several yards away from Levi, glancing at each item of furniture as though wondering what to do with it. Two fingers of his right hand tap against a small wrapped box that he holds. “I . . . trust packing is going well,” he says. Each word is picked carefully, as though he’s giving a formal speech instead of talking to his son. Ever since Levi’s arrest, he’s been trying so hard to be a father. It’s almost entertaining, watching him squirm under the pretense of showing emotion.  

“There isn’t much to pack,” Levi replies. He knows it’ll only take a few hours and hadn’t even started yet. Almost everything, from clothes to bedsheets, will be issued to him. Military school doesn’t exactly allow for personal trinkets.

“Ah. Of course.” Lord Falkanrath looks around him some more and then, finally, settles on sitting on the couch. He perches on the very front of the cushions. The box perches on the very front of his lap. “Levi, I’m sure you’ll make me proud at the academy,” he says. His tone indicates that the sentence only a beginning, and a whole damn speech is coming.  

“I’m not going,” Levi blurts out.

The decision comes quickly, made a second before it’s said. But once it’s said, Levi can’t imagine any other option. He never wanted to go into the military. And if the UG is really killing people like Hanji thinks, why fight for it? His father won’t be happy, but that doesn’t matter. His father’s never happy.

Levi makes himself meet Lord Falkenrath’s gaze, though what he sees there is unsettling. All attempts at friendliness have left in an instant, and all that’s left is hardness and suppressed fury. The voice of the newscaster rambles on, but Levi barely hears it. The apartment has taken on the same feeling as a tense silence – no sound fully registers, and the air feels tight.

The wrapped package gets slipped onto the coffee table. When his father finally speaks, all that comes out is, “I see.”

“I don’t care about the military,” Levi tries to explain. “I have no interest in it, and I don’t feel strongly about any of the causes it supports. I’ll go into science instead, if you want. I can start on the courses I need right away.”

“Why this sudden reluctance so close to the date?” His father speaks very slowly, forced calm weighing down his words.

“Because I’ve thought more about it, and I’ve decided that it’s not what I want.”

“Could it be that, now that Oceanus is in open rebellion, you’re afraid you may have to actually see combat? You are many things, Levi, but I never knew a coward was one of them.”

Levi squeezes his jaw shut until the sudden, fierce rush of anger has passed. “It has nothing to do with whether I’d see combat. I just don’t think I’d do well in the military.”

“I’d always thought you’d do very well.” When Levi begins to speak again, his father stops him by holding up a hand. “You say you’ll go into science instead, but you must understand why that’s not possible. With your Underground history and your current uncertain reputation, you would be shunned by the science community and would become a laughingstock. The same is true if you were to live as a gentleman, and it’s certainly true if you were to try to go into congress.”

“I’ll find another option.”

“Another option? And what, pray, would that option be?

“I’ll figure it out.”

“No. You won’t.” Lord Falkanrath’s voice has gone lower now, a dangerous calm that signifies a storm just seconds away. He still perches on the edge of the couch, but he sits taller than before, immovable and fierce. Levi, by contrast, hasn’t altered his lazy posture or his bored expression. He braces himself for the coming outrage by shoring up his apathetic defenses. “You’ll only end up wasting your days away with your freak of a friend, retreating farther and farther from respectable society until there’s no hope of a return. In all the years you’ve been under this roof, I’ve never seen an ounce of initiative in you. If left to your own devices, you’ll become a waste, a joke. A disgrace to the family name.”

The family name. Levi couldn’t give two shits about the precious little family name. “I’ll get a job.” He pronounces each word slowly, both for emphasis and to hold himself back from the harsh retort he’d love to give.

“A job,” his father scoffs. “Like a common person. Filled with menial tasks under a boss telling you what to do and when to work. How embarrassing. I will not have any son of mine taking a common job. You will take an occupation that’s proper for a noble heir.”  

“If the nobility is the most privileged class in the universe, why do we only have four options?”

His father’s jaw clenches. “You’re not in much of a position to question our way of life.”

“Why not?”

“Levi, when I took you in, I expected some level of gratitude.” His voice begins growing louder now. The forced calm is wearing off. Now is the time Levi should start backing off if he doesn’t want things to escalate.  

But Levi’s long past the point of wanting to keep the peace. “Gratitude doesn’t mean following your every whim.”

“And yet I’ve had ten years of disrespect and disobedience,” his father says, continuing his statement as though Levi had never spoken.

“Making my own choices isn’t disrespect.”

“I did not have to take you in, and if you don’t act like the son of a noble, then you certainly don’t have to be one.” His voice cuts off sharply at the end of the word, and the room echoes with the harshness of it. It takes a moment for that statement to settle and for the underlying threat to make itself clear to Levi. His father has always been unreasonable, but if he’s implying what Levi thinks he’s implying, this is a new level of absurdity.

In the sudden silence, the voice of the newscaster seems inappropriately loud and cheerful as she proclaims, “Sponsored and produced by the Unified Government . . .”

“You’d disinherit me,” Levi says.

“If that’s what it takes.”

“Your own son.”

“You don’t want to be my son,” his father says. “You never wanted to be my son. I wanted to be your father, but wouldn’t let me.”

Levi snorts. “Because you’re so damn nurturing.”

“You have a choice, Levi.”

“No, I had a choice, and I had made it. You just took that choice away from me.”

“Being a noble comes with certain rules. You can play by those rules, or you can cease to be a noble.”

Play by the rules. Because it’s all a game, as Annie had said once. Levi thought he had been refusing to play, but it seems that he’s in the game whether he wants to be or not. Now Levi’s caught in the middle of a play, and the rules allow him just two options: join a corrupt army, or return to the Underground and starve.

When put in those terms, it’s not hard to see what his next move has to be.

“Fine,” Levi spits. He hates himself for it, but he says the only thing he can say in this situation. “I’ll join the damn military.”

His father breathes a visible sigh of relief. Suddenly his face softens, as though they’ve been having a pleasant conversation all along. “Good. I really think you’ll do well there, Levi. I’m . . . I’m excited to see how you’ll . . .” he trails off, uncertain. “I look forward to seeing your growth.”

He stands to go. Levi doesn’t respond. He has nothing he wants to say to this man.

When Lord Falkanrath reaches the door he pauses, remembering something. “The gift is a watch that belonged to my great-grandfather. A family heirloom . . . if you even want it.”

The door closes. Levi’s left in an apartment that suddenly feels too much like a trap. The upbeat cadence of the newscaster sounds disturbingly fake to Levi’s ears. He switches the TV off, but then his apartment is too silent, and the walls feel too much like they’re closing in on him. Levi turns the TV back on.

He crosses the living room to open the watch, tearing the gold wrapping paper into shreds and letting it fall in an irreverent heap on the coffee table. It is a very nice watch, and clearly old. It was built to look sleek and modern, a stark difference from current fashions that often harken back to the more elaborate stylistic periods of Ancient Earth. This one is understated and elegant, a platinum band with gold edging around the face.

He doesn’t want it. He drops it back on the coffee table, amid the shredded gold wrappings, and walks away.

*****

Over the course of the next few days, Levi packs what few possessions he’ll need to bring with him. Petra visits him to say goodbye, and he visits Annie to say goodbye to her. (He tries to ask Annie what Erwin wanted to talk to her about, but Annie only rolls her eyes and gives a vague explanation about Erwin mistaking her for someone else.)

His last day before leaving is reserved for Hanji. He apologizes; they shrug it off. There’s no time for petty arguments with the date of their separation so near. The two of them spend all day on the rooftop, reminiscing over the last ten years together.

When evening falls, Levi tells Hanji he wants to spend his last night alone. He’ll be surrounded by roommates in military school, and he claims to want a final night of peace and quiet. Hanji obligingly leaves him be. Once they’re gone, Levi leaves the manor.

There’s one more person he needs to say goodbye to.

It’s a Wednesday night, and Levi has noticed that in all his months of visiting Erwin, he’s never been seen on a Wednesday. Levi’s almost certain that Erwin has Wednesdays off. If not, well, then he’ll turn around and go home. But at least he’ll have tried.

It’s late at night when Levi gets off the city bus a block away from the Companion house. He came on an impulse and without a plan, and the spontaneity of it gives him a jittery feeling. He knows that Erwin will be in this building somewhere. Companions live in the same buildings they entertain in. Levi’s just not entirely sure where – if Erwin will have a separate apartment somewhere, or if he sleeps in the same bedroom he sees Levi in. Levi will figure that out – along with how he’ll get past the bouncers in the main entrance – as he goes.

And in the unlikely event that this plot will succeed, if Levi actually does find and get to talk to Erwin . . . well, he has no idea what he’s going to say. Or, really, why he’s even doing this. There’s nothing to be gained by seeing him, and a part of Levi doesn’t truly want to have the difficult conversation it would lead to. He just knows that if he doesn’t do something now, he’ll spend the next three years regretting it.

So here he is, standing in front of the Companion house and contemplating how the hell he’ll get in. The first floor is brightly lit, but above it the majority of windows are dark. Companion rooms don’t have windows, the better to keep their relations secret. So the few pinpricks of light up there must belong to Companions who are taking the night off in some private room. Somewhere, behind one of those windows, is Erwin. Levi just has to get to him.

There’s one unlocked entrance into the building. That entrance leads to the lobby, where receptionists check in guests and bouncers guard the elevator. There’s no way Levi can get past them without causing some kind of scene. He needs to find another door.

A car passes through the alleyway to his left and turns onto the street. It’s one of the free cabs provided by the Companion house, picking up some satisfied customer from the back of the building and delivering them to their home. There’s a back door that customers emerge from at the end of the night and, if Levi remembers correctly, that one is much less well-guarded.  

He follows the alley to the back door and finds a single bouncer in front of it, one that Levi actually recognizes. That’s good. He’ll know that Levi’s a client here. Now Levi just needs a plausible excuse to be let into the building. He approaches the bouncer and tries to plaster on a smile.   

“Hey, uh, I need a really big favor,” Levi says. He does his best to make his voice sound light and airy, but the fake tone sticks in his throat. Playacting was never Levi’s strength. Hopefully this bouncer sees so many dumb people every night that Levi will just appear to be another weirdo. “I was here last night, and I came out this way. Anyway, I’m out at a bar around the corner tonight and I go to pay for drinks, and my card isn’t there.” Levi tries to laugh. Judging by how the bouncer stares at him, he doesn’t think it worked. “Anyway, could I just peek in the back elevator and see if it’s there?”

“The elevator gets cleaned every day,” the bouncer says.

Shit. “Oh. Well did anyone find a card?”

“I’ll check.” And for a brief second, Levi thinks the bouncer will enter the building and Levi will get to follow. But, of course, the bouncer just pulls a comm off his belt and types out a message.

The reply comes with a chime, and the bouncer says, “Looks like they did find a card. Are you a Mr. Cockworth?”

Of all the fucking names. “That’s me.”

“I’ll go grab it for you.”

“Can I, uh . . . can I wait inside?” Levi says in a final desperate attempt to get in the building. “It’s, you know, unsafe out here. At night.”

The bouncer gives him a long, judging look and eventually appears to decide that Randy Cockworth is too stupid to start trouble. He nods and holds the door open.

Levi’s let into a small foyer – with gaudy gold-colored walls and elaborate ruby accents, of course – that faces the back elevator. To Levi’s left is a locked mahogany door that leads to the main entrance lobby. To Levi’s right, an emergency staircase.

“Wait right here,” the bouncer says, unlocking the left-hand door.

“Of course,” Levi replies.

As soon as the bouncer is out of sight, Levi bolts.

The elevator would be too slow, and the noises it makes as it announces its arrival wouldn’t be good for sneaking around, anyway. So Levi takes the stairs. Erwin’s room is five floors up – too much for most nobles to bother with, but an easy run for Levi.

The run feels exhilarating. This is farther than he reasonably expected himself to get, and the satisfaction of success gives him an extra burst of speed. He races up the stairs, taking them two at a time, stretching his legs as far as they can go. For a moment, the run allows Levi to forget just how ill-advised and how unobtainable the evening’s goal is.

The minute he steps out of the stairwell, though, exhilaration gets replaced by trepidation. His heartrate seems to double the moment he steps into the dimly lit hallway – and it’s not just from the exercise. Now that he’s so close to his goal, the multitude of ways this endeavor could go wrong seem all too real. Erwin could be with a client. He could not even be there. He could slam the door in Levi’s face – hadn’t Erwin said he wanted a clean break? But the stairwell door slams shut behind him with an air of finality, as if telling Levi that it’s too late to turn back. So he walks forward, resolved to do what he came here to do.

He goes down the hall, tracing the path he’s taken so many times before. Levi remembers the first time he walked down this hall, when the opulent decorations and sensuous paintings seemed so distasteful and repulsive. Now, simply looking at the décor of the hallway excites Levi. As much as he disapproves of the ostentation, it’s associated with Erwin. And despite what he tried to tell himself at the time, his nights with Erwin were some of the happiest nights he could remember.

He reaches Erwin’s door, with the polished black plaque reading “E. Smith” next to it. With his heart in his throat, Levi knocks lightly.

There’s no answer.

Oddly, Levi finds himself surprised when the door doesn’t instantly swing open, revealing the Companion and his smile. His previous visits had always followed such a predictable pattern. While Levi doesn’t expect that pattern tonight, there’s a part of him that feels deeply unsettled to see it disrupted.

But the door doesn’t open, which means Erwin’s not in here. And Levi has no idea where to go next. Would the Companions’ apartments be on the top floors? The bottom ones? He gives one more, half-hearted knock before turning away to head back to the stairwell.

But a voice beyond the door, faint but unmistakably familiar, calls, “Mike? Is that you?”

Levi freezes. He looks around him and considers running. It’s not too late to leave this half-baked plan behind.

He hears Erwin’s voice again, much clearer now, saying, “Just a second.” There are footsteps against a carpet approaching him, and the noise roots Levi to the spot. A second passes, and then the door opens, revealing the Companion.

But it’s the Companion as Levi has never seen him – because it’s not a Companion at all. Tonight, on his night off, he is simply Erwin. His suit has been replaced by sweatpants and a tank top; his neatly styled hair now falls unevenly across his forehead, not styled at all. Instead of a charming smile, Erwin’s mouth is open in shock.

“Levi.”

Levi swallows. Opens his mouth to speak, but no sound comes out. Erwin’s arms are bare, and his clothing slightly rumbled, and locks of hair fall into his eyes. He’s . . . fuck. He’s beautiful.

“What are you doing here?”

Levi forces words out past the lump in his throat. “It’s, uh . . . I’m . . . leaving tomorrow. For the military. I’m . . . well, I can’t see you again . . . and I just . . .”

Erwin leans out of his door and looks from side to side, making sure there aren’t any onlookers. “Come in,” he says. “Quickly.”

Levi enters Erwin’s room. But the room, too, is dressed down for a night off, almost unrecognizable. The bed has been stripped of bedsheets, and pillows on the couch are devoid of their pillow cases, presumably all taken to be washed. There’s no tea set on the table, and a white cleaning powder sprinkles the couch and armchair to absorb any residual dirt and odor. Levi can see the stripes of recent vacuuming in the rug. In this state the room has completely lost its sensuous allure. It’s only a room, all pretenses stripped away.

“Levi, you can’t be here,” Erwin says.

Levi looks over Erwin, trying to memorize every detail of what he looks like when he’s not putting on a show, from his sock feet to his disheveled hair. It takes a few seconds for Levi to remember that Erwin said something he needs to respond to.

“I know,” Levi says. “But I’m leaving tomorrow, and . . . you really think you can say what you did a week ago, and I’ll just accept it and move on? Really?”

Erwin smiles a little. “I suppose that would be a rather unfair expectation.”

“I just want to talk.”

Erwin looks away, turning to the door to consider what he should do. He’d be fully within his rights to ask Levi to go. When Levi came tonight, he knew full well that Erwin could – probably would – choose to not speak with him. Levi steels himself for the final rejection.

But instead Erwin says, “Come with me,” and crosses the room.

There’s a second door next to the bathroom door, one that Levi had failed to even notice after his first couple sessions. But today it stands open, and it’s through this door that Erwin leads him.

The difference between this room and the entertaining room is night and day. While the other room is showy and elaborate, this one is simple. Straightforward. Calming in a way that Levi can’t quite explain. The walls are a pure white, and all accents are in shades of blue. A blue carpet covers the floor, and a light blue couch and armchair decorate what is clearly a living room. The other furniture – a coffee table, an end table, and a bookcase – is made of simple, white-painted wood, without any ornamentation. The only details of note are a painting of an ocean scene that hangs on one wall and rows upon rows of print books filling the bookcase.

Levi stops in the middle of the room and looks around him. Once, when Levi was a kid in his very first year at a noble school, his teacher had put on a virtual reality show of some Ancient Earth church. The place was huge, with vaulted ceilings and massive colored windows, and even though Levi’s never believed in any religion in his life, he remembers knowing, with complete certainty, that he was someplace sacred.

That’s how Levi feels now, in this small and plain living room. This place, he knows instinctively, is sacred space, almost too holy to enter. “Is this where you live?”

“Yes,” Erwin replies. “These are my private rooms.”

Erwin’s private rooms. Levi studies every detail, wanting to learn the secrets of Erwin’s real life. His eyes fall on the bookcase – books with leather bindings, paperback books with ripped covers, hardcovers with thin cracks along the spines. Large books and thin, some with titles printed boldly along their spines and some apparently without titles at all. Levi skims over the titles that he can see. “The Social Contract.” “The Communist Manifesto.” “A History of the French Revolution.” “The Norton Anthology of English Literature.” “The Federalist Papers.” All titles that mean nothing to Levi.

“If you’re discovered in here, the consequences could be very serious for me,” Erwin says. “I would like to hear what you have to say, but quickly.”

Levi nods. He never expected to get much time with Erwin – hell, talking to him at all is more than he bargained for. “Okay.”

“Would you like some tea?” Then, seeing Levi’s expression, Erwin clarifies. “Not the usual tea. I have a few other varieties you can choose from.”

Levi nods, and Erwin holds open a door that leads to a small kitchen.

It’s a narrow space, and the two of them barely fit in there comfortably. The kitchen counter is mere feet away from the table. Levi stands back as Erwin fills an electric kettle and then begins pulling a few tea options from his cabinet. Halfway through, he glances at Levi, and something about the sight seems to make Erwin pause. There’s a quick intake of breath, and Erwin quickly turns away again.

“Something wrong?”

“No, not at all.” Three other boxes of tea get placed on the counter. “I’m afraid I only have rather pedestrian options, and they’re all bags. It’s probably nothing close to what you’re used to-”

“It’s fine,” Levi says, and he means it. Erwin could hand him plain hot water and Levi would be grateful for it, if only it meant that he could spend a little more time with him.

He steps closer to get a better look at the teas laid out on the counter. As he does so, Erwin stiffens, an almost imperceptible movement. Levi feels rather than sees it; the tension in the room suddenly goes up, and the space between them feels electric. His right arm is less than two inches from Erwin’s left. And Levi wants to touch it – god, he wants to touch Erwin. But without the expectations of a normal session, Levi doesn’t think he can.

“I’ll have this one,” Levi says, straining to keep his tone neutral as he indicates a black tea with peppermint flavoring.

Erwin removes two bags from the box and puts the teas away. Levi’s eyes drift up to the contents of his cabinet, cataloguing the food on the top two shelves – that must mean that Erwin cooks for himself, a simple fact that feels somehow seems revelatory to Levi – and the rows of spices on the bottom one, alongside a bottle of vitamins and a small white pill bottle.

The label on the final pill bottle is turned partially away from Levi so that he can only see half of the words. Whatever the first word is ends in “le”; the last two are “Performance Enhancement.” Levi squints at it, trying to understand. When it clicks, Levi’s shocked into saying, “Is that . . .”

Erwin follows Levi’s gaze and quickly closes the cabinet. For a moment he’s stiffer than ever, his expression frozen into a composed but blank neutral. But then he surprises Levi by giving him a broad smile and saying, “Well, if you’re never going to be a client again, I suppose you can know our secret.”

“Is that what I thought it was?”

“It is,” Erwin says calmly. He opens a second cabinet and pulls out two light blue mugs. “It’s impossible to be attracted to every client we accept, and it’s also very difficult for a Companion get aroused when concentrating on making the session perfect for the client. Besides, after a few years in the business, what would arouse a normal person is another day at work for us.” The electric kettle finishes with a ping, and Erwin pours the steaming water into the mugs. “You can imagine how disappointing it would be for a client to arrive and find an utterly uninterested Companion. So we get some help.”

“You take a pill every day to fake your erection.”

“Yes.”

Erwin hands Levi his mug. Levi accepts it without a word. This revelation, now that Levi has heard it, makes logical sense. And yet it’s something Levi would have never have thought to suspect. “And all this time I thought it was because of me.”

“Pill or not, it was never very difficult to become interested in you,” Erwin says. Then he clears his throat and says, in a much more businesslike fashion, “Would you like to talk in the living room? I think it’d be rather more comfortable there.”

Levi puts his mug on the counter and tries to block the way out of the kitchen. In this small space, it’s not very hard to do. “No. You always do that.”

“Do what?”

“Say or do something super . . .” Levi waves his hand. “Affectionate. And then just act like it never happened. You’re not doing that tonight. I did not make the effort to sneak in here just to get more Companion bullshit.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not . . . accustomed to frankness.” Erwin waves his hand forward, gesturing toward the living room. “I will try not to give you as much, as you say, Companion bullshit. But I really do think the living room will be more comfortable.”

Levi gives him one last hard glare, and then takes his tea mug and retreats to the living room.

They perch on either end of Erwin’s couch, looking at each other. The books are behind Erwin, in Levi’s line of sight. There’s a gap between the two of them that Levi aches to close.

“I apologize for my appearance, by the way,” Erwin says. “I can change into something more presentable, if you-”

“No,” Levi says quickly, cutting Erwin off. “I like . . . I don’t mind how you’re dressed.”

Erwin smiles. It’s gentler than his usual Companion smile. “I hope you don’t think I’m a slob.”

“I don’t.”

“So, what is it that you wanted to say?”

Levi stares down at his mug, tapping his fingers against the side as he thinks of what, exactly, he came here to say. Drinking tea while sitting on a couch with Erwin. Just like always. And yet in every way that matters, it’s completely different. “I . . . after tonight, we’re never going to see each other again, so I guess I just want . . . honesty. I want to have an authentic conversation with you.”

Erwin nods. “I will give you what you want to the extent that I am able.”

Levi nods in reply. He looks back down at his mug. Takes a sip while he thinks. Then finally settles on saying, “When you said that none of it was fake . . .”

Erwin nods. “I have . . . feelings for you.”

“And why did you want a clean break?”

“A Companion cannot date any client – or anyone at all, really. It’s highly unprofessional and could cause unhealthy relationships, destroy a Companion’s business, or ruin their reputation. If a Companion catches themselves falling for a client, they are obligated to end the relationship before it can get too far. Failure to do so means the loss of your job and possible revocation of your license.”

“So you tried to end the relationship.”

“Yes.”

“And you didn’t tell me all this in case I . . . well, did something like what I’m doing now.”

Erwin smiles. “Yes.”

“That dinner . . .”

“Was intended for exactly the purposes I stated,” Erwin says. “It quickly got out of hand, and I apologize for that.”

“But I still don’t get it. Why did you have to arrange a secret meeting instead of just talking to me the next time I came here?”

“Ah. Well, that is . . . another Companion secret.”

“Tell me.”

“The entertaining room is bugged.”

What?” Levi slams his mug down on a side table loud enough to echo in the small room. “The fuck did you just say?”

Erwin smiles. In fact, it looks strangely like he’s close to laughter. “I’m sorry, I seem to have given you the wrong idea. No one is spying on us during our sessions. All video footage is deleted after three days and is never watched.”

“Are you saying there was video footage of our sessions?” Levi demands.

“In a highly secured data cloud that no one accesses unless absolutely necessary.”

“There is a porn data cloud that has footage of our sessions?”

“Had footage,” Erwin unhelpfully corrects.

“What the fuck, Erwin? I’ve done some embarrassing shit with you.”

“And no one’s going to know about it. No one cares about what you do in here, Levi. It’s completely confidential, and it disappears after a few days. I honestly could have said whatever I wanted in my room and it almost certainly would have stayed secret. I was just concerned that I might be subpoenaed by the investigation into Leonhardt’s murder if they knew you had been seeing me. I didn’t want to put you at risk of having your privacy betrayed.”

“Why the hell is your room bugged?”

“For safety. It’s a legal protection so that, if a client assaults a Companion, the Companion has evidence that will hold up in court.”

Well. That’s a good reason. Levi’s still not happy about it. “Fucking hell. How many Companion secrets are there? What else am I going to discover tonight? Are there people watching us through holes in the wall while we get it on? Are you secretly just a well-designed android? Do you have an identical twin you sometimes switch places with?”

“Nothing that drastic. Though a couple colleagues of mine have carried out that identical twin scenario.”

“I’m starting to doubt that Erwin Smith is even your real name.”

“It is.”

“Yeah, well, figures. Erwin Smith isn’t exactly a sexy name.”

“Many Companions do go by false names,” he says. “But that’s something I wasn’t quite willing to give up.”

Levi nods. He thinks he understands, though he not going to presume to say so. He, too, is unwilling to give up his real name. “So you had the dinner and it got out of hand. Is that when . . . I mean, you still took me back for one more session after that.”

“Yes. That session was something of a goodbye.”

“A goodbye?” Erwin nods. “You were . . . different, that night.”

“Yes.”

“That was . . . real, wasn’t it? I mean, instead of the persona you put on to be a Companion.”

Erwin hesitates. His eyes flicker away from Levi while he thinks, and Levi can see Erwin swallow as he struggles with what to say.

For once it’s Levi, not Erwin, who has the smooth response. “That was the best night of my life.”

Erwin closes his eyes. A smile breaks across his face, and yet it’s not a smile, really. His mouth curves and Erwin lets out a breath, but the happiness doesn’t seem to reach his eyes. Levi thinks at first that Erwin’s expression is one of relief, then sees the weight in his brow and thinks it might be grief instead. He can’t name it, but he understands it enough to feel an ache in his own chest. Erwin seems so strained by whatever he’s feeling. The sight overwhelms Levi with a sudden desire different from anything he’s desired before. He desires to see Erwin smile, to hear his laugh, to hold him. It has nothing to do with romance, or attraction, or anything like that. Levi just has a deep, rather confusing need to see Erwin Smith happy.

He reaches one hand across the empty space between them. Lightly touches Erwin’s hand where it rests on the couch. At the touch, their fingers intertwine. Erwin opens his eyes and gazes at the spot where their hands join.

“I can’t say I was being completely authentic,” Erwin says as he looks up, “because . . . Please understand, when you live as I do, when you do my job, the constant awareness of how you appear, how you come across, how you can drive and control the situation, it never fully gets turned off. But as much as I could, I allowed myself to be authentic that night.”

“It felt real,” Levi says.

“It was selfish of me,” Erwin replies. “To even have that extra session instead of cutting things off immediately. It was unfair to you to give a promise I couldn’t keep.”

“It’s ok,” Levi says, and to his surprise, he means it. 

“I wish I had the strength to push you away.” Their hands remain clasped together. Without thinking, Levi brushes a thumb across Erwin’s knuckles. “This has happened before, many years ago. Her name was Marie. I shut her out the moment I realized my feelings for her, and that was that. It only took me a few months to move on from her. It seems I’ve grown too selfish to do that with you.”

“I’m glad you have,” Levi says.

“It’ll only make the separation more painful.”

“Fine,” Levi says. “That’s fine. I’d rather have something real and painful than get another lie from you. I never want to hear another lie from you again, ok?”

“Ok,” Erwin says. He agrees because he knows he’ll never see Levi again. Levi understands this. He understands that, in any other circumstance, it’d be a promise Erwin could never hope to keep.

Levi brings their clasped hands to his lips and kisses Erwin’s knuckles, an impulse action. A sigh escapes Erwin, and his eyelids droop. It’s such an innocent act compared to what they’d done together in the past, and yet it seems to overwhelm Erwin. Then again, perhaps that’s why it overwhelms Erwin. Levi wonders if, in all his years of bestowing gentle touches on others, Erwin’s ever received a gentle touch of his own.

With his other hand, Erwin cups Levi’s cheek and kisses his forehead. The sweetness of the touch draws Levi forward, and he finds himself a little bit closer to Erwin when it’s over. He’s moved a little bit deeper into sacred space. He wants to close the distance more, but doing so would feel like imposing, claiming too many liberties. By rights he shouldn’t even be here, receiving this much attention from Erwin. Levi draws Erwin’s hand into his lap and counts himself blessed for having that much. He surveys Erwin’s casual clothes and his tousled hair, and he knows he’s in the presence of a miracle.

“This is a good look for you,” Levi says. It sounds dumb when said out loud, but there’s no way Levi can fully express the magnitude of what he’s feeling and what he wants Erwin to know. A dumb statement will have to do.

Erwin chuckles, and it’s more melodious than a hymn. “I wasn’t aware it was even a look,” Erwin replies.

“I like it. It’s real. I never want to see you in a suit again.”

“Ok, Levi.” Erwin kisses the top of his head. “You’ll never see me in a suit again.”

“Good.” Levi lets his head drop back on the couch, right next to Erwin’s shoulder. This close, Levi expects to smell Erwin’s cologne. But he isn’t wearing any tonight. The only scent Levi can detect is Erwin’s own. He takes a deep breath in before speaking again.

“I have one more question,” he says.

“What is it?”

“Why me?” Levi tilts his head up to watch Erwin’s reaction. “You literally seduce all of Sina’s richest, most elegant residents. You could pick from the most desirable socialites on the planet. Why the fuck would you choose me?”

“But why would I choose any of them when I could have you?”

“Don’t get poetic. I want a real answer.”

Erwin gives him a smile – a gentle, genuine smile – and Levi thinks he feels Erwin’s hand lightly squeezing his. “I’m not sure I can give the specific answer you seek. I didn’t choose you, per se. I developed feelings for you entirely by accident. And because it wasn’t a choice, I can’t be entirely sure why it happened. Only that . . . you’re right, I do see the most desirable socialites on the planet. And each one of those socialites has been raised to act more or less the same. They’re all polite but indirect, elegant but insincere. When I first met you and you stated so bluntly what you wanted and what you thought of me . . . I was immediately intrigued. I knew that you were different from anyone I had ever met.

“I’ll admit that for the first few sessions, before I started to develop feelings for you, I was actually toying with you, in a way. You were so different from anything I had ever encountered before, and I wanted to figure you out. You came to a Companion and yet claimed to not want romance, and I knew there was something there that didn’t line up. A hidden desire for something you would never admit to wanting. And because you kept your desires so close to the chest, I wanted to see how far I could push you before you let them show. I can usually read people as easily as a book and manipulate them as easily as a puppet. You took some effort, and I was intrigued by the challenge.”

Levi thinks back to some of his earlier sessions. Certain things Erwin did, when looked at in that light, begin to make sense. He remembers Erwin pausing by the shower door every night, tempting Levi until Levi invited him in. Erwin refusing to let him come until Levi said his name. And a dozen little comments that felt, at the time, like Erwin was just playing with him. Because apparently, that’s exactly what was happening. “You fucking asshole.”

“I apologize.”   

“So all that time, you were intentionally fucking with me?”

“I was trying to determine what you actually wanted while withdrawing you from your comfort zone enough for you to ask for it,” Erwin replies. And then he adds, “And immensely enjoying myself while doing so.”

With the hand that’s not being held, Levi delivers a punch to Erwin’s shoulder. “Asshole.”

Erwin chuckles. “I’m sorry,” he says as Levi settles back against the couch. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have tempted you so much. I realized rather too late that in doing so, I tempted myself as well.”

“That’s what you get,” Levi mutters.

“But I think, ultimately . . .” Erwin sighs. “None of my clients have ever taken any interest in who I really am. There have been a few with a cursory interest, of course, pure curiosity or hope for gossip material. But you are the only client who has really wanted to know what lies behind the mask. The rest of my clients want the mask. They’re paying for the mask. The person behind it is too great of an inconvenience for them.” He kisses the top of Levi’s head again. The next words come out a little more quietly. “Before you came along, I had almost forgotten that there was a person behind the mask.”

And again, Levi feels an ache, an insatiable desire to provide for Erwin’s happiness. He sits up and pulls his hand way from Erwin’s, raises it instead to Erwin’s neck. When Erwin doesn’t pull away, Levi moves fully into that sacred space.

The kiss is different than usual. They’ve had so many kisses, and yet Levi can’t seem to find an end to ones that are different than usual. Levi’s takes the lead this time, and Erwin, instead of controlling every touch, sits back and lets him. His kisses aren’t as practiced as Erwin’s, but Levi kisses him in every way he knows how. Gently, and then fiercely, and then protectively, and then lovingly. And when he finally finishes, Levi says against Erwin’s lips, “Of course there’s more to you.”

Their foreheads rest against each other. Levi can feel the breath pass Erwin’s lips as he speaks. “Thank you, Levi.”

There’s another kiss, and then another, aftershocks of the first. It feels as natural as breathing; it feels like this was what Levi was born to do. Erwin’s arms are around Levi’s body, Levi’s thigh almost in Erwin’s lap. There’s no feeling of a barrier anymore, no more sacred space. Just sacred actions, sacred touches. Just him and Erwin, and no artifice between them.

After the third kiss, and an untraceable amount of time, Erwin pulls back and says, a little breathless, “Now I want to hear your answer.”

“What?” It takes Levi a moment to regain his breath, to comprehend words again.

“Why me?”

When Levi understands what Erwin’s asking, he almost laughs. But Erwin’s expression is earnest. He’s really wondering why Levi fell for him. “I don’t know if you have any mirrors in this place . . .” Levi says.

“I know that there’s more to it than that,” Erwin says.

“Fuck, Erwin. How can you even ask that question? You’re like, the perfect man.”

“I see.”

“You . . .” He struggles to string together the words that describe why he fell for Erwin. Levi can barely describe it to himself. It just happened – Erwin was the first man to try to understand what lay beneath Levi’s harsh exterior and to treat Levi as someone who was desirable. Erwin got past Levi’s carefully constructed defenses, and Levi loves him for that.

But he doesn’t know how to say that. It’s not that he’s trying to hide, not anymore. It’s just that every word sticks in his throat, his ability to be tender stunted by lack of practice. “You’re . . . fuck. You’re just perfect. You’re the only guy who’d put up with me and my offensive personality.”

 “You’re not offensive at all. And I consider you to be perfect.” And then he adds, more quietly, “For me, at least.”

The words cause an echo in Levi’s memory, bringing back a conversation they had months ago. Perhaps I am perfect. For you, at least. He wonders if Erwin did that on purpose, if that night stuck in Erwin’s memory just as much as it had stuck in Levi’s. Or perhaps Levi’s only seeing coincidences that aren’t there.

“Was that . . . did I answer all of the questions you had?” Erwin asks after a beat of silence.

Levi knows the underlying question there. Erwin promised him that he could stay and talk. If Levi’s done talking, it’s time to go. Levi moves closer to Erwin and lets a hand settle on his thigh, a subtle protest against leaving. “You’ll never answer all the questions I have.”

“Ask away, then.”

“Are you going to make me leave?”

Erwin hesitates. “I should.”

“Will you?”

“No.”

Levi sighs in relief. “Good.”

“Are you going to leave?”

“I guess I should.”

“Will you?”

“Definitely not.”

Erwin wraps an arm around Levi. “Good.”

Levi moves closer to Erwin’s body, his head now on Erwin’s shoulder. It feels like so much more than he deserves, but Erwin shifts slightly under Levi’s weight to make him more comfortable, and Levi knows he’s welcome.

His gaze drifts over to the stuffed bookshelf against the far wall. He’s only seen similar collections in noble homes, but those books are always attractive. These are battered, old, and mismatched, and Levi’s never seen anything like it. “Why so many paper books?” he asks. “Don’t you have a reading tablet?”

“I do, and I make frequent use of it,” Erwin replies. “All the books on my shelf can’t be found on a reading tablet.”

“I thought every book was digital.”

“Not at all. There are some books that are too old to be digitized, or that ceased to be sold long ago due to lack of popularity. There are some major works of Ancient Earth thought – politics and philosophy and poetry – that would be totally lost today if it weren’t for the preservation of their paper format.”

“And what do you do with them?”

“I read them,” Erwin says. “I learn from them. And . . . well, there’s a bit of the joy of collecting, too.”

“You collect paper books that no one reads anymore.”

“Yes.”

“What a nerd.”

“Would you like to see them?”

“I’m seeing them right now.” But Levi glances up at Erwin’s face and sees a gleam in his eye that makes him quickly change his answer. “Yes.”

They stand up together, and Erwin takes Levi’s hand during the short trip to the bookcase. He walks quickly, an unfamiliar energy about him that takes Levi a minute to identify. It’s something Levi hasn’t seen on Erwin, another layer that makes him more real, more human than before. Enthusiasm. Stoic Erwin Smith is unabashedly enthusiastic about his books.

“Nerd,” Levi says. He’s surprised by the affection in the word.

“The oldest ones here are almost five hundred years old, printed in the early 1800s,” Erwin says. “Those are the darker-colored ones, with the titles stamped in leather, see.” He points to a row of books near the top shelf. “All hand-bound and printed with a printing press, a machine where they had to place each letter by hand. It’s amazing the level of work that used to go into producing books.” Very carefully, he pulls one off the shelf. “This is probably the most valuable possession I own. It has color illustrations, see. That was very rare for that time. Someone would have had to color in each of the outlines by hand.” Erwin opens to one page in the middle so Levi can see. Then, very gently, he puts it back on the shelf.

“A lot of work for one book,” Levi says.

“Knowledge is valuable.”

“So which of these is your favorite?”

“I couldn’t possibly say.”

“Have you read all of them?”

“Yes.”

“Nerd.”

“Yes.”

Levi smiles. He retakes Erwin’s hand. “So you have to have a favorite.”

“I could never choose,” he says. “There are dozens that I love, but for different reasons. My favorite poetry books I love for different reasons than my favorite history books, which are loved for different reasons than my favorite philosophy books.”

Levi leans against Erwin’s side. “I never liked to read,” he says. “And poetry, history and philosophy are all subjects I hated.”

“You always struck me as a more practical person. Less intellectual. Which is not at all to say less intelligent.”

Levi nods. He knows it’s not an insult. It’s just true. “If we had more time . . . I mean . . .”

“Yes?”

“I’d want to know what you love about that stuff.”

Erwin holds Levi against him. Closing his eyes, he begins to recite.

 

The course of true love never did run smooth.

But either it was different in blood,

Or else it stood upon the choice of friends.

Or, if there were a sympathy in choice,

War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it,

Making it momentary as a sound,

Swift as a shadow, short as any dream.

 

Erwin pauses with a quiet sigh, and then finishes, “So quick bright things come to confusion.

The final syllables hang in the air like the aftermath of a breeze that had briefly upended everything in its path. “What was that?”

“Lines from a play written almost seven hundred years ago.”

“Well, I have no fucking idea what it meant,” Levi says, though he thinks he does know, to some extent. “But I liked it.”

Once again, Erwin kisses the top of Levi’s head. It causes such a flood of affection in Levi that he thinks he’ll lose his footing from it.

This, Levi realizes, is what he wanted all along. From the very beginning, Levi has wanted to know who Erwin really was underneath the show of being a Companion. And this is it – he’s a nerd who collects books, he’s an intellectual who memorizes old plays for no reason. An inquisitive man who messed with Levi just to see what made him tick, but a gentle man who truly loves Levi for who he is. This is the real Erwin, his Erwin.

And Levi’s going to be leaving him in the morning.

That knowledge is too much, and what Levi has tonight is not nearly enough. But this night, at least, is real, and he pulls Erwin to his lips so he can taste every second of it.

*****

They don’t sleep together that night. But they do sleep beside each other.

The night grows late, but Levi can’t bear to leave and Erwin can’t bear to let him go. And so, as the latest poor decision in a night of beautifully poor decisions, Erwin invites Levi to stay over.

He offers Levi his couch first, but that’s not what either of them wants. There’s a few thinly-veiled attempts to find problems with that scenario (Erwin’s extra set of sheets might not be clean enough, or warm enough, and maybe there was a draft in the living room – yes, there was definitely a draft in the living room) before Erwin extends the invitation that Levi was waiting for, and Levi follows him to his bedroom.

Erwin offers Levi clothes to sleep in, which only makes Levi laugh. Anything Erwin owns would be a tent on Levi. He chooses to sleep in his underwear instead. It’s not like it’s anything Erwin hasn’t seen before.

There’s an unspoken agreement between them to not have sex that night. Sex is what Erwin does for his job. It’s something Erwin does with the people he doesn’t love, with people who don’t truly know him and don’t want to. With Levi, Erwin wants something more. And Levi is only too happy to give it to him.

He lies beside Erwin in the dark room, enveloped by pillows and bedsheets that carry Erwin’s scent. His fingertips brush up and down Erwin’s bare arm while Erwin slowly massages Levi’s back, and they talk. Their words twine together in the darkness, a beautiful duet that rises and falls, sometimes crescendoing with laughter and sometimes softening with sadness, but never ceasing. In the comfort of Erwin’s hold and the shield of the darkness, Levi tells Erwin more than he’s ever told anyone.

He tells of the Underground and what it was like to grow up there. Of his mother and how he found her body. He describes what it was like to live with Kenny and the horrors of his one year on the street. And he tells stories of his first years in the nobility, how lost he felt and how, in some ways, that feeling has never gone away.

Erwin repays him with secrets in kind. Levi learns that his parents owned a theatre in the Playground district. They put on government-sanctioned plays in the evening and subversive plays later at night. It was Erwin’s parents who taught him to read at an early age, who fostered a love for history and novels, and who gifted Erwin with his very first paper book (a children’s story called The Little Prince).

They died in a car crash, a freak accident. The inheritance had gone to paying off debts his parents owed and legal fees for a lawsuit over one of the subversive plays they had shown, and Erwin had been left with nothing.

Erwin doesn’t speak as much about his adolescence, but little by little, details come out. Details about his years at the orphanage and how he felt his life wasting away, even at that young age. When the Companion recruiters had come he had jumped at the chance to move above his station, even if it could only be at the service of others.

And he speaks of his academy years, of making friends and becoming valedictorian (“Nerd,” Levi says again), of the difficulties and uncertainties of learning to mask his true self.

Piece by piece, each reveals their history to the other, laying out the steps that brought them to this night, this moment. The situations that allowed them to meet, and the situations that would soon pull them apart once again.

“Do you think . . .” Levi begins, late at night after hours of talking. He trails his fingers down Erwin’s ribs underneath his tank top. “Do you think that if we met in another way, in a different life . . .”

“Yes,” Erwin says. “Yes.”

Levi’s arm drapes around Erwin’s torso, clinging possessively. As though holding onto Erwin tightly enough could, somehow, keep them together. “It’s not fucking right,” he mutters into Erwin’s chest.

“What was that?”

“It’s not fucking right. That we . . . that this can’t . . .” Levi falters, because the magnitude of what he’s protesting goes beyond what he can easy say. It’s not fucking right, that Erwin has to deny his true self and his own desires to make a living. Or that Levi has to join an army he doesn’t agree with to maintain his. It’s not right that they’re stuck in their roles, unable to move. Unable to choose what to do, who to be. Underground resident or noble, Levi can’t decide his own life path. And Erwin is even more trapped by his place in society. It’s all a game, alright – a shitty game where the score is rigged, but no one can ever stop playing. If only there was a way to just leave this stupid game behind.

Then again, maybe there is.

“Let’s run away,” Levi says, sitting up suddenly.

“Run away?” Levi can hear the incredulity in Erwin’s voice.

“Let’s go to Oceanus, where no one can find us,” he says. “I have some money, enough to get us off the planet and keep us for a few weeks once we get there. We could leave tonight. Get away from the UG, get away from your disgusting clients. Start a new life where you can just read old books all day. Or if it’s too violent on Oceanus, I don’t know, we can hold up on Coeus or Rhea until it all dies down.”

Erwin gives a soft, breathless chuckle. “That’s something I never considered. Run away, leave it all behind.”

“I’m serious,” Levi insists, though it’s something he would have never considered, either. It’s a ridiculous, impulsive plan, the kind of romanticism he’d normally scoff at. But it’s a choice he can make, a way to pave his own destiny. “Do you really want to spend the rest of your life entertaining spoiled shits who don’t see you as anything more than someone to use?”

Erwin falls silent. Levi can hear the steady rise and fall of his breath, and he can just barely make out the way his eyes drift to one side as he thinks. “A new life . . .”

“Please,” Levi begs.

“That would be nice. Not having to worry about clients, not having to lie every day . . . I would never have to sleep with anyone but you.”

“You wouldn’t even have to do that. Only if you wanted to,” Levi says. “Sex would be what it’s supposed to be, and we’d be . . . real.”

Erwin sits up, but he doesn’t look at Levi. Instead his eyes travel to his window as he repeats, “That would be nice . . .” But he makes no move to go.

“You’re not going to do it, are you?”

Erwin gives him a sad smile. “I can’t.”

“You could. What do you have tying you here?”

He shakes his head. “I can’t, Levi.”

Levi’s heart drops. He closes his eyes, trying not to show his disappointment. He wants to fight Erwin, demand that he change his mind. But they only have one night together. It’s not going to be spent fighting.

Erwin folds Levi into his arms, cradling him against his chest. “I’m sorry, Levi. I’m so sorry.”

He holds Levi, resting his chin on Levi’s head as Levi buries his face in Erwin’s shirt. He should have known. He should have known that their lives couldn’t be solved in such romantic ways. Storybook lovers ran away; real lovers remained right where they were.

When they eventually lie back down, Erwin whispers in Levi’s ear, “I have the option to retire when I’m thirty-two.”

“Thirty-two,” Levi repeats.

“Five years.”

“A lot can change in five years.”

“A lot can stay the same, too.”

Levi can’t imagine Erwin would still be interested in him in five years. But it’s a nice thought to fall asleep to. He clings to Erwin and imagines that it’s five years in the future, and they don’t have to part in the morning.

*****

The sun comes up. They stand before the door that leads out of Erwin’s entertaining room, as they have so many times before. But never in the morning. And never so reluctantly.

“You’ll miss your ride to the academy,” Erwin says. “People will wonder where you are.”

“Worse things could happen.”

Erwin takes both Levi’s hands in his. Levi squeezes Erwin’s fingers in response. They’re looking at each other, memorizing every little detail. Trying to forget that the outside world exists, and that it’ll soon rend them apart.

“As one who deals in love, I’m not sure I believe in it,” Erwin says. “But I believe . . . well, I suppose it doesn’t matter.”

“I think I love you, too.” The most vulnerable words Levi could ever say, and they come out easily. Erwin always knew how to make Levi vulnerable.

For as long as he lives, Levi will remember Erwin’s face on hearing those words. The shock and joy and grief all rolled into one expression. The widening eyes, the sharp intake of breath. The awed realization of a man receiving everything he could ever want, and the wrenching pain of seeing it immediately snatched away.

And when they kiss, they kiss vehemently, their mouths pushing deeper and deeper, as though trying to mold themselves together. To join themselves to one other so that they never have to part again.

But they do have to part.

Levi walks as though weighed down, as though his feet are tied to the floor as securely as his heart is tied to Erwin. The hardest walk Levi ever has to take, those three steps out of Erwin’s room.

He watches Erwin’s face as he closes the door, the hardest action Erwin ever has ever had to perform.

And when the door closes, Levi collapses against it. He hasn’t truly cried in eleven years, but the tears come now. They flow freely until Levi’s left feeling hollow, empty. The tears continue to flow as Levi makes his way out of the building and onto the street.

He manages to stem them by the time he’s driven to Sina Military Academy, and by the time he arrives, he feels nothing at all.

*****

Erwin is staring at his door. He doesn’t know how long he’s been staring at his door. But his hand is still on the doorknob, and if he just turned it to the right, the door would swing open. He could yell Levi’s name, and Levi would come back to him. If he just turns his hand to the right, everything would be as it should be.

Erwin’s greatest strength has always been his self-control. But for the past few weeks, he’s allowed his self-control to wane. He has been weak, self-serving. And look where that got him.

So Erwin begins to remind himself of the self-control skills he has honed over his years as a Companion. This is the strongest emotion he has yet had to suppress, but the principles are still the same. First, take a moment to consider the situation. Levi is gone. He’s never coming back. Erwin essentially rejected him – permanently – when he refused Levi’s offer to run away. Those are the facts. Now Erwin must act on the facts, not on what he feels.

He takes his hand off the doorknob.

The next step is to break everything down into physical movements. This is a strategy Erwin has used to get through countless situations that would have otherwise angered or disgusted him. Everything, even actions that are usually considered expressions of emotion – putting his hand on someone’s skin, twisting his face into a smile, shaping the syllables of compliments with his lips – can be isolated as purely physical actions until the adverse emotion stops. So Erwin applies that strategy now. He needs to leave Levi behind. And so he does so in a series of emotionless physical actions. He around turns. Takes a step. Another step. Another. Before he realizes it, he’s reached his private rooms.

Erwin looks at his couch, at his bookshelf. The emotion surges again, threatening to overtake him.

Take a step, he tells himself. Now another. And another.

Then the living room is behind him.

A door at the far end of the living room leads into a small office. Erwin enters this room. Closes the door. Takes a seat in front of a large computer monitor.   

His face is wet. He puts his fingers to his cheek and realizes that they’re tears. Erwin hasn’t truly cried in over ten years. And yet here he is. All because of Levi.

Levi.

Levi, who wanted to see Erwin as he truly was. Who thought – knew – that there was more to Erwin than his job. Levi, with his refreshing bluntness and piercing observations, who remained his own man in the face of overwhelming odds. Who hid no thoughts or opinions from the world but those that would make him appear vulnerable. Who, when he was with Erwin, didn’t even hide those. Levi. Who was everything Erwin has ever wanted.

Erwin never expected happiness. He had never thought that he would one day crave it.

He allows himself five minutes to break down. Five minutes to sob, chest heaving, tear-streaked face in his hands. Five minutes to remember exactly how Levi felt when Erwin held him, kissed him, fell asleep beside him. Five minutes to imagine taking Levi up on his offer, running away, building a life on a beach on Oceanus where they would be beholden to no one but each other.

Five minutes later, Erwin wipes his eyes and sits up.

He plugs his comm into the monitor to view the slew of client requests that await him. Those can wait. He has more pressing matters to attend to.

Erwin logs into a separate server, one protected behind three layers of passwords. There’s only one message waiting for him here. It’s from an anonymous sender, and the subject line reads, “The full files of Lh.”

Lh. The abbreviation Erwin’s contacts have been using for Leonhardt.

Erwin opens the message. He takes out a pad of paper and begins making notes in code.

He wants to run away with Levi – desires it more than anything he has ever desired before. But no matter how much he may want to, he can’t. There are bigger things in this universe than what he wants. Bigger things than his selfish need for love.

There are bigger things, and Erwin has work to do.

Chapter Text

Levi wipes the sweat off his forehead and prods gingerly at his left cheek. The flare of pain that greets him suggests a bruise is forming. There are already a few dark splotches blossoming across his bare chest. Levi stretches a little, twisting from side to side to make sure he still has his full range of motion despite his injuries.

“Ackerman, stay in the ring,” his drill sergeant barks out. “Church, you’re up.”

The command to remain in the sparring ring comes as no surprise. He’s been in there for – well, he’s lost track of time. It could have been one hour, or it could have been five. But he’s had twelve opponents. Cadets get sent in one after the other, and the victor of each match stays until someone manages to best him. And Levi just can’t seem to stop winning.

There’s uneasiness on Farlan’s face as he climbs into the ring. He’s clad the same way Levi is, bare-chested and in standard-issue olive green sweatpants, wrappings on his knuckles the only protection he’s allowed. The cadets had their protective padding taken away partway through their third year. If they’re going to be part of the UG’s strongest, they have to learn how to take a punch.

“Go easy on me?” Farlan asks.

Levi nods his agreement, and Farlan breathes a sigh of relief.

It’s not that Farlan’s bad at sparring. He’s actually pretty good compared to the rest of their class. But he knows better than most what Levi’s capable of. He’s been by Levi’s side since the beginning of their first year, so he’s heard about how Levi had to learn to fight in the Underground and he’s seen his endless hours of academy training. And through the years, he’s witnessed Levi winning match after match with a violent efficiency that their pampered classmates can barely stand up in the face of. What Farlan doesn’t know – what no one knows – is that the anger and violence that comes out in the ring is always a part of Levi. It has been for the past three years.  

A bell rings to signal the start of the fight, and Levi surges forward. Farlan tries to block him, but Levi easily feints to the left and throws a jab against Farlan’s unprotected side. Then he grabs Farlan by the wrist, and in the next second Farlan’s on his back.

“I thought you were going to go easy on me,” Farlan gasps from the floor.

“I did,” Levi says. “I ended it quickly.”

Farlan sighs, but he takes the hand that Levi offers and lifts himself from the ground.

The drill sergeant climbs into the ring with them and grumbles, “Ackerman won. What a fucking surprise.”

He uses the added height of the ring to loom over the cadets that stand in neat rows on the ground. Many bear bruises gained during their own rounds with Levi. Something about the sight spurs him into a tirade – about how it takes a special level of weakness to be repeatedly bested by someone from the Underground, and they should be ashamed of themselves, and how can they protect the UG if they can’t even beat a piece of Underground trash, etc.

Levi tunes it out. He’s heard it all before. Being referred to as Underground trash stopped pissing him off roughly three years ago, when it became clear that his classmates would never see him as anything but. That’s part of the reason Levi hits them so hard.

“Graduation is in two weeks, and I swear to god I will fail every last one of your sorry asses unless you can hold your own against this piece of shit,” the drill sergeant finishes with a finger pointing at Levi. Levi idly wonders what it’d be like to graduate as the only member of his corps. “Dismissed.”

Levi slides under the ropes and drops to the concrete floor, aware of Farlan doing the same beside him. They join the swarm of cadets crossing the gym, a bare concrete building empty but for a few scattered sparring rings and hanging punching bags. Weak light shines out of bare bulbs in the room’s high rafters, giving everything a pale, washed-out tinge. A flash of red hair settles on Levi’s right as they head to the locker rooms.

“Do you think he’s serious about failing us all unless we can beat you?” Isabel asks from Levi’s right shoulder.

“No. If he is, he won’t have anyone left to graduate.”

“You could still let your friends win every now and then,” Farlan gripes from his left. He’s only half serious. Letting just those two win would be too obvious and cause more trouble than it’d be worth.

“So what’d you think?” Isabel asks, already onto the next subject. “Did I look good up there today?”

Isabel had gone into the ring before Levi was called up. She had won her first round and lost her second. Levi hadn’t been watching closely. It bothered him to see Isabel fighting – not because she couldn’t handle herself, but because someone as sweet-tempered as her shouldn’t be in the military in the first place. Her parents had forced her to join. She had confessed to him and Farlan that she did too poorly in school to continue at a normal university, and her parents didn’t want anyone to know they had a stupid daughter.

Stupid. What a heartless way to describe Isabel. Isabel, who he had met early in his first year when she was trying to fight off a group of boys who had been beating up Farlan. Boys who each had at least half a foot and fifty pounds on her. Levi had to intervene to keep her from getting herself killed. And ever since, Farlan and Isabel had stuck by his side.

At the time, Levi had thought that taking on that fight was the epitome of stupid, and he hadn’t hesitated to tell her so. But she had just smiled through her bruises and said that someone had to do it, and she was the only one around. And that, in its own way, makes her smarter than most.

So Isabel will most likely be smart enough to know that Levi’s full of shit when he answers her question with a noncommittal, “You were fine.”

“Aww, you weren’t even watching,” she pouts.

“That’s because I knew you’d be fine,” he says, ignoring how her pout becomes more pronounced.

Isabel’s always gone after their combat training – and every other form of training – with energy and enthusiasm. So she’s never been able to understand why Levi doesn’t have the same enthusiasm for her, and Levi’s never been able to explain it to her. It’s not that she’s not suited for military training – she’s done fine at everything she’s attempted. It’s that Isabel’s personality destines her for something else, something outside of here, where her smile is rewarded instead of mocked and her self-sacrificing nature can be put to good use. She’s a painful case of a person forced into a role that doesn’t fit her, and it grates against Levi’s nerves.

Isabel doesn’t press the issue, though, and they part in silence when they reach the doors to the locker room. The boys – about three quarters of the class – go left to the male locker room, while Isabel follows the small cluster of girls to the right.

The locker room greets them with a damp, moldy smell that won’t go away no matter how often the communal showers are cleaned. Levi’s been told that the 98th cadet corps – the one comprised primarily of the sons of the higher nobility – uses a cleaner locker room with private showers. But he’s been relegated to the 97th, which is filled with middle class and lower noble students (Levi being the exception), and they don’t get any special treatment.

Levi undresses mechanically, Farlan by his side. When they’re ready, they find a spot on the edge of the large shower area, trying to stay away from their classmates. Unfortunately, some of their classmates come to them.

“Well. Look who’s top of the fucking class.”

Levi doesn’t look up at the taunt, but through his periphery he can see a gaggle of his least favorite fellow cadets. He shoots a glance at Farlan instead, who only rolls his eyes and goes back to washing. The insecurities of their classmates aren’t their concern – unless it leads to violence, which is only somewhat common.

“Hey, shithead. I’m talking to you.” Levi remains silent. During his first year at the academy, Levi would always come back with biting insults. But he’s since realized that it pissed people off more to not engage.

“You think you’re so much better than everyone else,” the boy continues. A group of his friends stand behind him, watching eagerly. “But I’m here to tell you that no one gives a fuck how many matches you win. You’re still a scrawny, Underground piece of shit, and you’re beneath every one of us.”

It’s not like Levi’s heard any of that before. Such creative insults. He exchanges a significant glance with Farlan and continues with his shower.

“Hey. You listening to me?” The boy reaches over and turns off the water that Levi and Farlan stand under, forcing them to pay attention to him. “I think it’s about time that you started throwing some matches. Consider this your warning.”

Levi sends Farlan a questioning glance, asking if he wants the water back on. Farlan only shrugs, indicating that he’s all set, and the two of them turn their backs on their antagonists with the intention of getting dressed.

That’s when the boy throws the first punch.

Levi should have been able to win any fight against his classmates. But when every other boy in his class sees what’s happening, they join in, and that doesn’t make for the greatest odds. Which is how Levi finds himself with two black eyes, a split lip, and more bruises on his abdomen than he can count.

Again.

Farlan checks Levi’s injuries later that night while sitting on the roof of their dormitory building. He’s sporting quite a florid black eye of his own, and mottled bruises creep up over the collar of his shirt. He’s not looking quite as bad as Levi, though. It wasn’t Farlan that the other cadets were after. They just had to go through him to get to Levi.

They’d both been to the infirmary, but that was mostly just to make sure nothing vital was broken. There wouldn’t be much medical care beyond that, and there would definitely be no reparation. Administrators at Sina Military Academy turn a blind eye toward bullying. It toughens up the weak.

Levi strips off his shirt, and Farlan looks helplessly down at the three ice packs he’s managed to beg from the infirmary. They won’t even put a dent in Levi’s bruises. He’d need a whole ice suit for that.

“How do you feel?” he asks.

“Is that a serious question?”

Farlan rolls his eyes. “Rate your pain on a scale from terrible to dying.”

“It hurts to fucking breath.” Levi surveys the ice packs and then turns his attention to his battered body, trying to pinpoint where it hurts the most. It’s pretty difficult – it’s hard to tell where one injury stops and another begins – but he knows he’ll be fucked the next time he gets in the ring if the swelling in his right hand doesn’t go down, so he takes one ice pack and lays it across the top of his right knuckles. The second goes over a bruise on his left thigh that’s been making it hell to walk, and the third gets pressed to his right side over the last two ribs.

“Maybe you should throw some matches, after all,” Farlan says.

“We’re graduating in two weeks. I can take two more weeks of the occasional bruise.”

“This is a lot more than the occasional bruise.” Levi only shrugs, which is a really bad idea as it sets his right shoulder – which has gotten dislocated during the fight – on fire. It takes all his willpower to avoid grimacing. “And what makes you think they’re going to stop hating you after we graduate? They’ll keep treating you the same way until they stop thinking you’re a threat to them.”

“They’ll always hate me,” Levi replies. “People like them will always hate people like me. I came from the gutter, and the fact that I’m not there anymore pisses them off. It doesn’t matter how many matches I throw. They’ll always find an excuse to try to put me back in my place.”

Farlan doesn’t have an answer for that. He leans back on his palms and lets his gaze drift across the campus of Sina Military Academy. The academy is asleep right now – they’re technically not allowed to be awake at this hour, let alone on the off-limits dormitory roof. But Levi and Farlan have gotten quite good at evading the rules over the past few years.

Levi glances at his profile and says, “Next time that happens, you get out of the way.”

Farlan replies with a neat, “Fuck you.”

“They don’t care about hurting you. They just want to hurt me. Doesn’t make sense for you to stick around and let twenty guys pummel you in the process.”

“I’m not going to abandon you when twenty guys are trying to beat the shit out of you.”

“It’s not like you can get them to stop. It doesn’t help anything for you to stick around.”

“It doesn’t help anything for you to act like a martyr.” Levi rolls his eyes and opens his mouth to retort, but Farlan cuts him off. “No. You’ve saved my ass enough times during our three years of hell. I owe you. And I swear if you argue I will punch every one of your bruises.”

“You’d get bored before you got halfway through,” Levi says grimly.

“You underestimate how much I’m frustrated with you.”

Levi sighs – and then stops halfway through because expanding his ribs hurts. He knows he shouldn’t expect anything different from Farlan, but it’s worth it to try. Their bond started when he and Isabel saved Farlan from a beating during their first year, though back then there was no affection between the two of them. Association with each other was more a necessity. Farlan wasn’t a noble – wasn’t even really from a well-off family. His parents were middle-class office workers who saw the military as a way for Farlan to move up in the world. In a cadet corps composed of nobles and the sons of rich families, it put Farlan at the bottom of the pecking order, fair game for boys trying to prove how tough they were. Sticking close to Levi was a way to make sure he didn’t get hurt.

Levi knew that, and knew that for those first few months, Farlan and Isabel were only looking for safety from him. He’d considered pushing them away at the time. It’s not his job to save every weakling that came to him. But he could never quite bring himself to do so.

It had to do with having someone around. Levi had come to military school intending to be a loner for three years, but it only took a few days for him to realize how miserable that would be. So he’d let Farlan and Isabel take advantage of him while he, in his own way, took advantage of them. He used them to distract himself from his loneliness and his desperation. From his fury over being forced to go to the academy and his heartbreak over having just lost Erwin. But halfway through his first year he had looked up at the two of them and been surprised to feel something like actual affection. Even more surprised when they started to act as though they felt the same way toward him. The three of them had nothing in common, but they’d been able to form a family of sorts to get them through the past three years.

“You ready to go to bed? I don’t know if there’s much more I can do,” Farlan says.

Levi nods. “Carry one of these,” he says, tossing an ice pack to Farlan. Standing up is a painful endeavor that Farlan, thankfully, stays quiet during.

“Two more weeks of hell,” Farlan says quietly as they head to the access stairs. It sounds like something between a prayer and a sigh of relief.

“And then we’ll be deployed and go to another hell,” Levi says.

“You’re a fucking ray of sunshine, Levi.”

*****

In celebration of their imminent graduation, the cadets are given something that they’ve been denied for almost three years straight: a school-sanctioned opportunity to have fun.

Fun, of course, is a dubious term when surrounded by dozens of military cadets Levi shares a mutual hatred with. But the military ball he’s forced to attend isn’t awful. Levi sits in a corner with Farlan and Isabel and eats the best meal he’s had in his three years there. Isabel convinces Farlan to dance a few songs with her (and Levi amuses himself watching Farlan trip over his own feet). They watch their classmates receive awards to thunderous applause, and Levi’s granted an award for his hand-to-hand combat skills, which is greeted with stony silence. Overall, it’s the best night Levi’s had since his last term break.

Once the ceremony’s over and the dancing has been wrapped up, the cadets are ushered into a final stop before the evening officially comes to a close. The women go into a smaller parlor to the right of the main dining room, while the men are shown into another room on the left. There are two long tables here laden with alcohol and desserts and surrounded by too many chairs. Levi and Farlan grab a couple near the back, and the seat to Levi’s right remains open.

Their drill sergeant stands before them, clapping his hands once to get the group’s attention. “Gentlemen,” he shouts, “As of tomorrow, you’ll be a bona fide member of the UG’s strongest. Now I know I haven’t given you an easy time, but you’ve all worked hard, and we have to honor that, don’t we? What’s about to happen isn’t strictly allowed.” He gives them an unsettling wink and a leer. “But I think it’s only fitting to give the strongest young men in the UG some suitable entertainment. Ladies, come on out.”

A doorway in the left wall opens, and Levi sees a blonde head lean out – then a black one, and a brunette, and a redhead. The women come in an incessant stream, every shape and size and coloring to satisfy every imaginable taste. Their gowns drape to the floor, low-cut and sheer and shimmering, their jewelry bright against too much skin, makeup too perfect. But the thing that really gives away what these women are is the unbreakable poise and refinement with which they carry themselves, and the bland smiles they target at everyone they pass.

Companions.

“Each woman is paid through the night,” the drill sargeant says. He has to shout to be heard over the boys’ delighted hollering and the catcalls that have already started. “There are fifteen of them, so fifteen of you lucky fucks are going to get some. And whatever else happens tonight, I don’t want to hear about it.” He gives them another wink before, to loud and approving cheers, he steps out of the room.

The room immediately devolves into chaos as boys try to get the Companions to sit next to them in a revolting displays of what they think passes for flirting. Farlan glances at Levi and must have seen an even deeper scowl than usual, because he asks, “What is it?”

“I hate Companions,” Levi mutters.

The women move with the same assurance he once did, similar enough to be familiar but different enough to be unsettling. Female Companions – the more common type of Companion – tend to be rather less suave than male ones. They smile easily and laugh brightly, standing out with flirtatious winks and shimmering jewels and a way of walking that makes every step seem sensuous. But there’s something about the sharp look in their eye and the practiced confidence in their bearing that Levi knows much too well.

It’s been three years, and any affection he may have once felt for Erwin Smith has long ago faded. But his hatred for the institution of Companionship is as strong as ever. Levi watches these girls charm his classmates – men they probably avoid if they weren’t being paid to entertain them – and feels like he’s going to be sick.

“May I join you?” A delicate hand with red-painted nails rests on the back of the chair next to him. Levi doesn’t bother to answer. He doesn’t trust a Companion to take no for an answer without persuasion, and even if he sends this one girl off, another could come to take her place. So Levi grabs a wine bottle from the table and pours a generous helping on the empty chair.

Now he raises his head to get a better look at this girl. She has long black hair hanging in loose, precise waves and wears deep red lipstick that stands out starkly against her skin. The look she greets him with is one of carefully constructed amusement, her dark eyes giving away nothing about the thoughts occurring behind them.

After a moment, she reaches across the chair to pluck a cloth napkin from the table. She folds it in half and, with a deliberateness clearly meant for show, lays it over the wet part of the seat.

“Now, I won’t be dissuaded that easily,” she says, sitting down gracefully.

Levi scowls as she pours herself a drink from the very same wine bottle Levi had tried to use to drive her away. When it’s clear his scowl isn’t going to ruffle her, he turns to face Farlan instead. The Companion may be next to him, but Levi doesn’t have to talk to her.

Thankfully, sitting next to Levi seems to be as far as the Companion’s willing to push him. She turns to the boys to her right, and Levi can hear snatches of their conversation blending with the chaotic noise around them. He gathers this all through his peripheral vision, refusing to look away from Farlan.

Farlan, however, had started looking away from Levi a while ago.

“Hey,” Levi says. He waves a hand in front of Farlan’s face until he blinks and turns away from the girl sitting across the table.

“Um. Uh, hey. This is pretty gross, huh? I don’t like Companions either. Want to go?”

“Uh-huh.” Levi watches as Farlan’s eyes drift over Levi’s left shoulder and settle on the Companion sitting beside him. “Just try not to come in your pants.”

“What?”

“Alright, I’m going.”

“What?” Farlan flicks his eyes back to Levi in time to see Levi standing up. He starts to stand as well, but Levi puts a hand on his shoulder and pushes him back down.

“You’re staying. You are not even close to subtle, and I’m not forcing you away.”

“No, I’m ok to go, really,” Farlan lies unconvincingly.

“You’re the only guy in here who’s not an asshole. Stay so I know nothing too disgusting’s going to happen.”

Appealing to his nobility usually works, and sure enough, Farlan stays put after that. Satisfied that he’s kept at least one decent guy in the room, Levi turns to the door.

Someone grabs his hand before he can make it two steps.

“Going so soon?” asks the Companion.

Levi glares at her. “Yes.”

“I think you should stay. There’s a lot I’d like to talk to you about.” She tilts her head and gives him an intense, unreadable look.

Levi yanks his hand away, but her grip is firmer than he expected, and she doesn’t relent. “I’m not interested.”

“Trust me. What I have to say is something you’d be very interested in.”

“Don’t count on it.”

Behind her, Levi’s aware of his classmates calling out jeers and trying to pry the Companion’s attention away. They warn her that he’s from the Underground and give some very colorful descriptions of just how bad Levi would be in bed. She ignores them in favor of leveling her bland smile on Levi.

“I’m leaving,” Levi says pointedly.

She stands. Levi would think that she couldn’t take a hint if her dark eyes weren’t so alert. This woman knows exactly what she’s doing, but she’s completely off her mark. “Then I’ll leave with you.”

“No, you’re n-” Levi’s protest is drowned out by an onslaught of outraged shouts that starts among the gaggle of boys who had been talking to this woman and quickly spreads around the room. They’re seeing a beautiful woman getting up to go with Levi, and that is simply untenable. Every boy in the room thinks himself entitled to a Companion, and if a boy from the Underground gets one instead, it will throw their entire worldview out of balance.

Levi surveys the outrage on each of their faces and, very deliberately, intertwines his fingers with the Companion’s. The rapid howling grows delightfully louder.

He’s speaking to the Companion, but his eyes are on his classmates when Levi says, “Alright then.” Hand in hand with the Companion, he walks out the door, accompanied by outraged cries from his classmates and a subtle thumbs-up from Farlan.

The Companion drags Levi by the hand until they’re outside on a wide lawn usually used for ceremonies and parade drills. Tonight, they’re dotted with small trailers, each one hung with strings of lights and painted in shades of red and pink. Once outside, Levi stops and tries to pull his hand out of the Companion’s grip. “I’m actually not interested.”

“I know. But I have something to show you.” Her hand chases Levi’s, resuming its hold around Levi’s wrist.

“Whatever it is, I don’t want to see it.” He tries tugging out of her grasp again, but she’s remarkably insistent as she pulls Levi across the lawn. “I just went with you to piss the other guys off. I don’t even like women.”

“I know.”

“What?” Levi comes to a full stop, digging in his heels to prevent her from moving him an inch further. “What do you mean, you know?”

She looks over her shoulder at him, but her expression is unreadable in the dark. “Come look at what I have to show you. This has nothing to do with my usual services, I promise.”

“I don’t trust promises from Companions.”

“Oh? But we would never break one. Imagine how bad that would be for business.”

Levi glares. “Let go of my wrist.” She obeys. “You know I could easily take you if needed.”

“I would assume so.”

Levi sighs. “Ok. Show me this special secret thing. One look and then I’m gone.”

The Companion leads the way to a red trailer and unlocks the door. Inside is a small but lavishly decorated bedroom with red silk wall hangings masking the metal of the trailer. A strong, familiar scent permeates the air, one that Levi never thought he’d smell again. The perfumed scent of a Companion’s chamber.

“Where’s your thing?” Levi asks, impatient to be out of there.

“Right here.” The woman draws back a curtain at the front of the trailer. Erwin Smith sits behind it.

Chapter Text

Levi’s stomach drops. For a moment, he thinks he must be confused. This man seems older, his face a little more drawn, his affect a little wearier. And a part of Levi thinks that this can’t really be Erwin. Erwin can’t really be here.

“Levi. It’s good to see you.”

Levi’s shocked into taking a step back. That voice. He heard that voice in his memory, in his dreams, for the past three years. It sounds exactly as he remembers it.

Erwin stands, taking a step closer to Levi. Levi’s dimly aware of the door closing as the female Companion gives them some privacy. He’s also dimly aware that Erwin had been sitting in what appears to be the driver’s cockpit. He’s very acutely aware that he’s alone with Erwin, and there’s a bed less than two feet behind him.

“I’m so sorry to contact you in such an unorthodox way, but I need your help with something.”

Levi blinks. Those are not the words that he expected to hear in this situation. “Help?”

“Yes. It’s a very important matter, and I know I can trust you with it.”

Levi’s heart had been beating at double time. Now it slows rapidly as Levi finds himself coming back to earth. His feelings for Erwin had faded over the past three years, of course – Levi looks at him now and mostly just feels shock at him being there. There’s little of that warm fondness the sight of Erwin used to bring. But still, Levi had imagined time and again what this reunion would be like. And this – Erwin asking him for help, his expression grave, with several feet of space between them – is not exactly what Levi had envisioned.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Tomorrow, you graduate. One week after that, you’ll be sent to the Mitras Army Base, right outside of Stohess,” Erwin says.

“No one’s been told where they’ll be deployed yet.”

“You will be,” Erwin insists. “And when you are, I need you to give this to the man in charge, General Pixis.” Erwin pulls something from his breast pocket and hands it to Levi. It’s a plain white envelope, unmarked and lightweight enough that it can’t have more than one sheet of paper inside.

Levi takes it. For a moment his fingers are inches away from Erwin’s, and Levi feels a pang when they separate again. He stares down at the envelope and asks, “What is it?”

“A message to an old friend,” Erwin replies. “If anyone sees a Companion contacting a renowned military general they’ll very much get the wrong idea, which is why I need you to deliver it.”

“How do you know this guy?”

“He was a friend of my father’s.”

Levi glances up at Erwin. It’s difficult to do; there are too many memories associated with that face, and Levi spent too many nights during his first year lying awake imagining it. “It must be a really important message.”

“It is.”

Levi wonders what kind of important message Erwin could be secretly sending to a friend of his father’s. Erwin lost his parents in a car crash, he remembers, and he lost all of their money as well. Perhaps this general could have some way of getting that money back. If that was the case, though, a secret letter is a pretty dramatic way to go about it. There must be something else, some other explanation just out of Levi’s reach.

“I know this is extremely abrupt and, frankly, very rude of me. Please know that I would never impose on you like this if I had any other option. This letter is very important, and your help will be greatly appreciated.”

Levi looks back down at the letter and taps the blank envelope against his palm. “Well. You always were unpredictable,” he says. He can picture the small smile that Erwin would give in response to that. He doesn’t look up to see it. “But how you can be so sure of where I’m going to be deployed? That information’s classified.”

“Well . . . this is a secret, of course, but I contract with someone who would be privy to that information.”

Levi glances up and raises an eyebrow. “Interesting.”

Erwin smiles in response. “I have clients among all quarters.”

“Must be boring to fuck a military man. They’re all so stiff.”

Erwin chuckles. “I’m good at loosening people up.”

Levi rolls his eyes and very pointedly does not laugh, though he can’t stop himself from hearing Erwin’s continued quiet chuckle. And for a moment things feel . . . familiar. A shadow of their old rapport.

But it doesn’t last long. Because at that point three years ago, Erwin would have taken advantage of Levi’s amusement to kiss him while he was weak and welcoming it. But that doesn’t happen now, and Levi feels the lack more strongly than he should.

“Well, as unusual as it is, I am glad I got to see you,” Erwin says.

“Uh, yeah,” Levi says, and doesn’t say he’s glad to see Erwin too, because that would feel like opening a door that should stay firmly closed.

“Will you be able to deliver the letter?”

“Yeah.” Levi shrugs. “Sure.”

“Thank you very much.” Levi only shrugs again. “Well, I should, . . . You’re looking well, by the way.”

Levi doesn’t have a response to that. He wonders what, exactly, Erwin means by that. He definitely looks more refined than usual in his dress uniform. Or it could be that Levi stands a little straighter than he used to, his muscles a little tighter, his physique a little more polished. Perhaps he even looks older.

“But what is . . .?” Erwin gestures to his left eye. Levi’s own left eye is still ringed by a deep bruise, red and purple in splotches. The old one hadn’t yet faded before someone managed to create a new one.

“It’s from combat training. I have to spar with people, and sometimes they get a punch in,” Levi says, a half lie.

“I see. Of course. Well. I should let you go, I suppose.”

“Erwin,” Levi says, and then bites back what he was going to say. Instead asks, “How have you been?”

Erwin smiles at him, this one a little softer. “Fine. The same.”

Levi nods. Hesitates. Half turns to the door, and then turns back and says, “Erwin.” Erwin waits for Levi’s question. His name is warm on Levi’s lips. “Do you . . . are we . . .”

“It was three years ago,” is Erwin’s response.

Levi nods. “Good. Yeah. I feel the same.”

Erwin nods once, his smile a little weaker than it had been. “Goodnight, Levi.”

There’s no hand kiss, and no tenderness in the way Levi brusquely says, “Goodnight.”

*****

Within the next twenty-four hours, Levi gains a diploma, a new military rank, and a week’s leave at home before being sent – as Erwin predicted – to Mitras Army Base.

It’s late at night by the time Levi makes it back to his home in the attic of the Falkanrath manor. He crosses his carpet in shiny military dress shoes, flicking on lights as he goes. There should be some emotion to returning home after so long – he hasn’t spent more than a week at a time here for three years – but he looks at the too-large rooms and the bare white walls and doesn’t feel much of anything.

There should be some emotion after graduating, too, even if it’s just relief at getting out of there. The graduation ceremony had been long, full of a lot of pomp and a lot of speeches about justice and dignity and integrity – all things notably absent from Levi’s experience with the military. He had been recognized again for having the best hand-to-hand combat skills in his class, and his father had been one of the only people to clap. That he got applause at all was a pleasant surprise.

And then he had returned home to Hanji’s hugs and his father’s elaborate congratulatory dinner. And through it all, Levi hadn’t felt a thing.

Though he hasn’t felt much of anything for the last three years, if he’s being honest with himself.

Levi stops in his bedroom, though that wasn’t necessarily his destination. He’s simply run out of room in his apartment to wander through. There’s his bed with its gray bedding, his black furniture, his white walls. Compared to the barracks he’s been living in, it’s downright homey. But it doesn’t feel much like home to Levi. He’s not sure if anything ever has.

His duffle bag is on the foot of his bed, carried up here by a servant. Levi walks over and unzips it. He might as well unpack. That’s the most practical thing to do right now. And he has no idea what else to do with himself.

Levi stares at the open bag, filled with uniforms and standard-issue civvies. His comm is at the top of the pile. He takes it out and sends messages to Farlan and Isabel, asking how they’re doing back at home.

That simple act seems to give him just enough energy to unpack. He methodically takes his belongings out of his bag and puts them where they go, every item perfectly folded and ordered to regulation. That was one aspect of military life that was never hard for Levi to adapt to – he had developed militaristic habits toward cleanliness long before he joined.

Erwin’s envelope flutters to the ground as Levi takes the last of his clothing out of his bag. He notices it almost distantly and doesn’t pause in his tasks. But when his duffle bag is completely empty, he picks it up and stares at it, moving it from side to side as though that will reveal some kind of hidden marking. The envelope’s sealed, but it’s a standard size. Something that Levi could easily replace.

He hesitates for a second – opening it would probably be an asshole thing to do. But seeking out an old flame just to hand him an errand is also an asshole thing to do. If Levi’s being inconvenienced like this, he deserves to know why. He opens the envelope.

Inside is a handwritten letter composed in the neat script that Levi remembers from Erwin. A quick glance reveals it to be the most inane thing he’s ever read.

 

Dear General Pixis,

 

            Do you remember when we first met, back when I was young? Your father

            brought you to my family’s theater as he discussed business with our parents, and you

            wanted to know about how the theater worked, badgering me with questions for hours.

            As I reminisce about old times, I am reminded of how much I value our friendship. I feel

            compelled to undertake a project of frequent letter writing to stay in touch with those I

            care most for. You and Miranda, therefore, can expect to hear more from me in the future.

 

                                                                                                With great affection,

                                                                                                E. Smith

 

Levi can barely believe what he reads. Erwin really did just contact Levi to have him deliver a pointless, senseless letter to an old family friend. Levi doesn’t know what he expected, but he’s starting to finally feel something – and the feeling isn’t pleasant. It takes all of Levi’s self-control to put the letter back in the ruined envelope instead of tearing it into pieces and throwing it in the trash. He flings it away, partly out of anger and partly to get it out of his hands before he changes his mind about destroying it. The corner of the letter smacks against the white wall before fluttering to the floor. Levi’s fists clench as he tries not to think about how different this encounter was from the last time he saw Erwin.

He doesn’t know what he expected, but being used as an errand boy by the only guy he’s ever loved was not it.

Well. Erwin said it himself – it’s been three years. And, apparently, a hell of a lot can change in three years.

*****

“It just doesn’t add – did you see that! There were two at the same time!” Hanji exclaims, pointing at the night sky. They’re sitting on the roof with their back up against Levi’s back, watching for meteors. “I bet that’s B12343 and B12367.”

“How the fuck do you know that?”

“Well, if their distance from each other appears to be the distance between Ilse and Betelgeuse, which is 1.5 thousand light years, and so I can use that to calculate relative distance and compare that to known trajectories, given that-”

“Never mind,” Levi cuts them off. “There’s no way in hell I’m going to be able to follow you.”

“It’s been really quiet without you,” Hanji says. “So I’ve been spending a lot of my time watching meteors.”

There’s a beat of silence as Levi waits to see if Hanji will remember what they were talking about. They don’t, so after a while Levi prompts them. “So. You were saying about the letter?”

“Hm? Oh! Just that it doesn’t add up.”

“I know. That’s why it’s annoying,” Levi gripes. They’ve been sitting on the roof for a couple hours now. That’s how long it took Levi to get around to describing his encounter with Erwin and the letter he gave him. And until he did, Levi had been trying to convince himself that he didn’t care, and it wasn’t worth mentioning. But, as had always been the case with Erwin, Levi thinks about him whether he wants to or not. So, eventually, the letter had come up.

“No, I mean, there’s a missing piece somewhere,” Hanji says. “Why not use a comm message? Those are private enough.”

“Exactly what I’m thinking. He’s being a fucking idiot.”

“Is he usually?”

“What?”

“Is he usually an idiot?”

“No, he’s . . .” He had read old books about politics and philosophy for fun, and he had been able to understand Levi better than almost anyone. No, the Erwin Levi used to know was far from an idiot. “That’s just part of what makes this so weird.”

“I want to see the letter.”

“Why?”

“I’ll let you know when I see it.”

“It’s in my room.”

“Great. Bring it up here. I don’t want to leave. I might miss meteors.”

Hanji eagerly snatches the letter out of Levi’s hands when he returns with it and pulls a miniature flashlight from of their overall pocket. Levi sits back down, returning to his back-to-back position with Hanji, and watches the sky for meteors while Hanji’s head is down.

They read for a lot longer than it should take to get through that letter. Levi waits, and then continues to wait, trying to fathom what Hanji finds so interesting. When several minutes have passed and Hanji’s still reading, he shifts his position so that he’s sitting next to Hanji and asks, “What?”

“Wait.” Hanji holds a hand out straight and nearly hits him in the face.

Levi scowls, but he waits. He can see Hanji’s lips moving in the darkness as they puzzle through something. Their finger moves across the rows over and over again.

“What are you looking for?”

“Hush!”

They start tapping the paper, counting words, and their lips working something out. Then, without warning, they’re on their feet, jumping up and down and exclaiming, “I got it!”

“Got what?”

“This Erwin guy thinks he’s so slick, but I figured him out! And it didn’t even take me that long.”

“Got what?”

“I was starting to think that it was a book cipher, which would make it pretty much impossible for us to crack, but it’s not! And I got it! A little different than what you usually see, but very easy to figure out if you know what you’re looking for.”

Levi gets to his feet and grabs Hanji by the shoulder to force them to look at him. “Hanji. Got what?”

“Do you know about Project Miranda?”

“No.”

“No, that’s what the letter says. ‘Do you know about Project Miranda?’”

“What do you mean, says? It doesn’t say that.”

“It’s a code.” Hanji shines their light on the letter and holds it up in front of Levi’s face. “First word of first line. Second word of second line. Third word of third line. And so on. Clever, but not clever enough for me!”

“Let me see that.” Levi snatches the letter, and then the light. He looks for the words Hanji mentioned, and they’re right – following that pattern, it spells out a sentence. An oddly suspicious sounding sentence.

“It could be just a coincidence,” Levi says.

“Well it could be, theoretically. But that’d be really weird. Look, when you described this letter I immediately thought it sounded really shady. A private message that has to be hand-delivered on paper? You know who uses paper these days?”

“No one,” Levi says.

“Not quite. Think back to your Underground days,” Hanji says.

Something clicks into place in Levi’s mind, so obvious he’s embarrassed he didn’t think of it earlier. “Criminals,” he says. Comm messages and other forms of electronic communication travel though UG-controlled networks and are archived on UG-controlled databases. If someone really wants to hide, they use paper and deliver it themselves.  

“So this Companion is using a criminal method of communication and secretly contacting you to deliver it, but the content looks like a simple letter to an old family friend? If that doesn’t scream secret code, I don’t know what does.”   

Levi stares at the letter, as though that will reveal the rest of its secrets. He can’t imagine what business a Companion would have that needed to be written in code. “Project Miranda. Mean anything to you?”

“Nothing,” Hanji says. “You? It sounds like some kind of military code name.”

“I have to go up a few ranks before I can know about anything with a code name.”

“I can search the cortex for it next time I get access,” Hanji says. “Though I doubt it’ll show up on any public sites. Now the real question is, how did a Companion find out about some secret project – if that’s what this is?”

“Well, he has clients among all quarters, he said.”

“Clients that would talk about secret government projects?”

“Maybe they think they can trust him. Maybe they think a simple Companion would never do anything with that information. He has a way of making people . . . open up.”

Hanji raises an eyebrow, opens their mouth, and then has the good sense to close it again.

“Whatever. This guy is the last thing I want to talk about.”

“Are you going to deliver the letter?”

Levi takes one last glance as the neat script, then folds it and slides it back in the envelope. “I guess,” he says. “There’s no reason not to.” And maybe if he does, he’ll find out why Project Miranda is so important that Erwin had to seek him out.

*****

Farlan and Isabel are also stationed on Mitras Army Base, which is quite a coincidence. The base is only a few miles outside Stohess, meaning that their occasional leave will be very convenient – another coincidence. The placement is such a stroke of luck that Levi finds it almost suspicious.

He wants to tell Farlan and Isabel about Erwin’s letter. Almost does, but then decides against it. It would lead to too many questions and too many uncomfortable conversations. And a message about a secret project written in code isn’t exactly something you discuss over dinner.

The man in charge of the base, General Pixis, is an elderly, decorated general with a look in his eye that suggests he has a screw or two loose. The generally accepted rumor is that his water flask rarely contains water. He gives an address to the new recruits on the day Levi arrives – a generic speech about honor and duty mixed with occasional awkward statements that may or may not have been jokes (no one laughs). Levi can’t decide if he likes the guy or not.

And he’s not sure what to expect when he knocks on the general’s office door three days later. He’s had to wait that long for a chance to step away from his duties at a time when he could be sure the general was in his office. The letter, in its brand new sealed envelope, sits in the breast pocket of his uniform jacket.

“Come in.”

Levi swallows, suddenly uncertain about his task, and opens the door. He makes sure it’s closed behind him before saluting. “I have a letter from a Mr. Smith, sir,” he says.

“Oh.” The general’s eyebrows rise higher on his bald head. “Excellent. Leave it here.” He taps a spot at the front of his desk. Levi steps forward and slips the envelope out of his breast pocket. He watches the general as he places it on the desk, but his eyes have already returned to his computer monitor. For a moment, he says nothing at all.

Eventually Levi asks, “Will that be all, sir?”

“Yes, yes, that will be all. Dismissed.”

It’s oddly anticlimactic. Levi gives a final salute that the general doesn’t acknowledge and turns to the door.

He hears the envelope rip open. All his instincts ache to watch the general’s face as he reads it, but appearing too curious about a coded letter could be dangerous.

“Private.” Levi’s stopped by the general when his hand is on the doorknob. “What’s your name?”

“Ackerman, sir,” he says.

“Private Ackerman, you’ll be on guard duty at the west gate on the Wednesday after next.”

It’s an oddly specific statement. And the type of minutia a general would never get involved in. “Sir?”

“Guard duty on Wednesday the eighteenth. The first night shift, starting at eight pm. I trust you know how to conduct yourself on guard duty.” He glances up from the letter and gives Levi a look that may be pointed, or may simply be slightly drunk. It’s difficult for Levi to tell.

“Yes, sir,” Levi says.

“Excellent. Dismissed.”

*****

Life on the base is incredibly boring. They do drills, clean the place, and prepare supplies to be sent to the forces still trying to put down the rebellion on Oceanus. One routine duty after another. The only break in the drudgery is the rare time when he, Farlan, and Isabel have free moments that align, usually late at night.

By the time Wednesday the eighteenth arrives, Levi’s almost forgotten that his guard duty assignment was handed down by the general himself. What’s primarily on his mind as he goes to his eight o’clock shift is that Farlan and Isabel have gotten the rare opportunity to watch TV in the rec room, and Levi wishes he was with them.

He’s on duty with a guy named Schultz, some new recruit he hasn’t met before. It doesn’t typically matter who he’s on guard duty with; guards aren’t allowed to talk with each other, or really do anything other than stare straight ahead and look threatening. So he usually doesn’t notice the person he’s put on duty with. But this guy seems kind of jittery, tapping his fingers against the butt of his rifle and occasionally letting out his breath in a rush. It’s a lot of nervous energy for a duty that’s usually a bore, and several times Levi almost asks the guy what’s wrong with him.

Instead of eventually calming down, his partner’s jittery behavior grows as the night goes on. But around eleven, he stops – in fact, he freezes up altogether, rigid as a board.

Now Levi does ask, slightly irritated, “What is going on with you?”

“They’re coming.”

Levi stares into the darkness, but all he can see is the road and a patch of woods beyond it. He’s about to demand to know who’s coming when he hears soft footsteps against the asphalt, and suddenly three shapes are forming in the darkness.

They wear black from head to toe, which explains why it took so long for Levi to notice them. They blend into the night perfectly. But as they come into the glaring lights of the base, Levi can make them out clearly – two men and one woman, all in ski masks. The woman glances at Levi and then quickly looks away; the men barely pay him any attention.

“What are you offering up?” Schultz asks them.

“Our hearts,” the woman responds nonsensically.

Schultz nods as though that made perfect sense. Levi stares, expecting some kind of explanation. Instead, he sees Schultz turn around and unlock the gate.

Before Levi’s can ask what he’s doing, Schultz looks at him and says, “You know the plan. Don’t come looking if I don’t come back.” Then he – followed by the three masked people – slip into the base and lock the gate behind them. 

Levi stares after them for a moment, shocked. He pulls the comm off his belt to raise the alarm. It figures that this shift, which he wouldn’t even be on if the general hadn’t randomly assigned it to him, is the one shift where something actually goes wrong.

But something feels off – beyond the obvious, that is – and he hesitates before dialing in an alarm. Schultz had talked to Levi as though he were supposed to be in on this plan. And it doesn’t make sense for Schultz to have thought that. Levi’s never talked to the guy before in his life.

Except that Pixis himself had put Levi on guard duty at this specific time. And Schultz clearly knew that these masked people would show up at this specific time – otherwise he wouldn’t have been so jittery. So perhaps Pixis put Levi on guard duty with the assumption that he knew more than he did about – well, about whatever’s going on here. Given that he’s receiving coded letters, Pixis might be mixed up with something shady. It’s not too much of a stretch to guess that he’s connected, somehow, to the appearance of these masked people.

And if the letter that Levi delivered led Pixis to think that Levi was in on this plot, then Erwin, too, is somehow in on this plot.   

Levi doesn’t raise the alarm.

It takes a half hour for Schultz and the masked people to come back. And when they do, one of the men is holding a data disk. The operation was remarkably quick, and remarkably quiet. Levi wonders how many other guards inside the complex are in on this thing.

Schultz resumes his guard post and, without a word of goodbye, the three masked people disappear across the road.

One reappears, though – the woman runs through the shadows and slips up to Levi’s side. “The boss said to give you this,” she says, holding out an unmarked envelope. She doesn’t look at Levi as she speaks to him. Her voice is familiar, though Levi can’t quite place it. “He says you’ll know who to give it to.”

Levi can guess. He takes the envelope and slips it inside his uniform, into his breast pocket. “Who is the boss?” he asks.

Now the woman glances at him in surprise before quickly looking away again. “You know who he is.”

“No, I don’t.”

“He seems to know who you are,” she says. “But he may have not told you his role, and if so, I won’t either.”  And she jogs across the street before Levi can say anything else, leaving him with a thousand unanswered questions.

Chapter Text

“Ah, excellent. Put it right there.” General Pixis taps the corner of his desk, the exact same spot where Levi had left the previous secret note. Levi drops the blank envelope onto it. He hadn’t been able to get a replacement envelope, so he couldn’t read it and then reseal it like he did with the last one. He tells himself that he doesn’t care, that whatever shady thing is going on here isn’t his problem.

 “It’s pretty late,” Pixis says, which is pretty unfair. It’s only been two days since Levi got the letter in the first place.

“Sorry, sir. It was difficult to find a time when I could come here discreetly.”

“Ah, discreetness. That’s something I like about you. You’re discreet, I can tell already.”

Levi – deciding to be discreet – says nothing.

Pixis picks up the envelope and turns it over in his hands. He examines it closely, as though searching the blank surface for any speck of dust. Then he holds it up to the fluorescent lights in the ceiling. After a moment he says, “You didn’t open this one.”

Levi’s heart jumps to his throat. “Sir?”

“What were you doing for two whole days if you didn’t even open it?” he looks at Levi and raises his eyebrows questioningly. “Oh, don’t look like that. I know you opened the last one because you were instructed to. Though I was initially quite alarmed when I saw that our envelope had been replaced by a blank one. Good thing I spoke with the commander before taking action, or you wouldn’t be standing here right now.” Pixis chuckles to himself in a manner that sounds a bit too genuinely amused for what he’s implying. “But I understand. You didn’t speak to me about it because you were being discreet with whatever the commander had planned for you. And due to that discreetness, I’m going to entrust you with a note of my own.”

Levi’s careful to keep his face expressionless, hiding his confusion as best he can as he tries to piece Pixis’s words together into something that makes sense. Pixis knew that Levi had read the first coded letter. He almost brought some kind of punishment against Levi, but the commander – presumably Erwin – had made up some story about how Levi was actually instructed to read the note. At least, that’s the best Levi can make out of what Pixis said. But how Pixis knew Levi had swapped the envelopes, and what Erwin said to him, and what would have happened to Levi if Erwin hadn’t stepped in – the amount that Levi doesn’t know is dizzying.

Pixis takes a letter out of a drawer – again in a (seemingly) unmarked envelope – and holds it across the desk. Levi has no choice but to take it, though he’s starting to think that maybe it’d be better for him if Erwin and Pixis delivered their own damn messages.

“Where would you like this delivered, sir?” Levi asks, tucking into the breast pocket of his uniform jacket.

“Why, to the commander, of course.”           

“To . . . to the boss, sir?”

“Precisely.”

“I don’t have access to him, sir. He approaches me.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll find a way,” Pixis says with a wink. “Sometime tonight, you know, you’ll find a way. Dismissed.”

*****

The letter seems to burn his skin where it sits against his chest. It means he’s still mixed up in this nonsense, and it means he’ll have to see Erwin again. Both things he would have preferred to avoid.

And Pixis’s comments have left him feeling unnerved. The general had said that if he hadn’t spoken to Erwin, Levi wouldn’t be standing there. What did that mean? How exactly did this shady movement take care of traitors, and how close had Levi come to being taken care of?

The idea of having been close to danger without even knowing it – of having his life in Erwin’s hands while he was blissfully unaware – is deeply disturbing. There’s so much that Levi doesn’t know, and as long as these strange things keep happening around him, ignorance feels dangerous.

Levi walks down the corridor until he passes a restroom. He steps into it, checking carefully to make sure none of the stalls are occupied. And even though the room is deserted, Levi barricades himself in a stall before taking the letter out.

He inspects it, but can’t detect a trace of any kind of markings. Mimicking what Pixis did earlier, Levi holds the envelope up to the light.

That’s when the alarms go off.

The blaring sirens are so loud that Levi jumps a little. They wail throughout the base, and lights flash red even inside the restroom. A mechanized voice begins repeatedly stating, “All battalions report for duty. All battalions report for duty.”

Levi shoves the letter back into his breast pocket and runs. It’s not a panicked run, but a run simply because Levi knows he’ll be late if he doesn’t. Alarms like this happened often enough at the academy. The sirens would go off without warning, at all hours of the day and night, and Levi had to respond within minutes to demonstrate his preparedness. He had been warned that such drills would continue throughout his military career, just to keep him sharp. So he runs to the armory to get his weapons because if he isn’t standing on the parade grounds with his gun on his shoulder in ten minutes’ time, he’ll have the worst cleaning duties assigned to him for weeks.

Farlan’s already there when Levi enters, loading up his rifle. “Think this is a drill?” he asks when Levi jogs in.

“No, I think aliens have finally attacked the UG,” Levi says sarcastically as he opens the locker where his own rifle and ammo are stored. There is, of course, a chance that these alarms aren’t just for practice. But even if they aren’t, he’s not overly concerned. They’re on Sina and a short drive away from the heart of the UG government. Even if something is going on, it’s unlikely to be a serious enough threat to make any headway against all the security measures the UG has in place. The planetary guard troops based in Stohess will probably have it taken care of before they even get there.

“It’s about time the aliens put us out of our misery,” Farlan says with a smile. Then, after a moment, he adds in a much quieter tone, “What if it’s something in the Underground?”

Levi’s careful to keep his movements calm and steady as he straps on his ammo pouch. “Then it’ll get put down fast and we probably won’t have to worry about it.”

“Levi . . .”

“Get sentimental on me later. Let’s go.”

The parade grounds are filled with soldiers forming up into neat rows and files, their movements so practiced that they appear to be parts of a whole rather than individuals. The sun sets behind them, obscuring their faces in shadow and further erasing their identities. Levi and Farlan join up with their assigned battalion. He can see Isabel falling into line behind them a few moments later.

“This is not a drill,” their commanding sargeant barks as the final soldiers arrive. “I repeat, this is not a drill. This is your first chance to see how just different your soft academy days are from real action.”

The atmosphere around Levi shifts imperceptibly at this news, the young soldiers growing tense. His division is filled the same type of people he attended the academy with – nobles’ sons or the children of rich merchants looking for a little glory. They’re not the kind of people who are meant to actually go into battle.

“Hostile forces have begun a coordinated attack on several government buildings,” the sergeant says. “We do not know the identity of these forces, but until we do you will assume that they are terrorists and enemies of the state. Your objective is to support the Planetary Guard in suppressing these attacks. You will be further briefed en route. Split into squads and move out.”

The battalion splinters off into six squads and jogs toward a row of Humvees waiting for them. Through the same unfathomable stroke of luck that landed them all at the same base, Levi, Farlan, and Isabel are all in squad four. They pile into one of the Humvees assigned to their squad, and the driver joins the stream of vehicles leaving the compound.

Over a radio inside the car, they get more details on the situation. Rioters have swarmed six separate government buildings in Stohess, managing to set off bombs in four of them. These buildings appear to have been chosen at random, with the only connecting factor being ownership by a government agency – there’s an armory, a data storage vault, a medical clinic, and so on. The rioters were armed for the most part, and dangerous to civilians. Army troops were being sent to aid the planetary guard in subduing, arresting, and – if necessary – eliminating the rioters.

Levi listens to all of this as they roll towards Stohess and tries not to think about what he’ll do if the rioters are from the Underground. Or even if they’re like the rebels on Oceanus, idealists who want a little more freedom. He doesn’t know what side he’d choose in those cases. Hopefully he won’t have to find out. 

Even before they reach the heart of the city where the attacks are occurring, it’s obvious that something’s wrong in Stohess. The streets are quiet and empty, and the affluent neighborhoods they drive through don’t have their lights on. Noble homes are on lockdown, the bright lights that normally illuminate their gardens or show off their floor-to-ceiling windows gone dark. It doesn’t take much to frighten nobles when it comes to the prospect of someone bursting their nice, safe bubble. Tonight must be terrifying for them.

Levi’s Humvee joins a string of others parked outside a government-run medical clinic, but by the look of things they’re already too late. The front of the clinic has been blown wide open, the façade reduced to rubble and revealing a debris-filled waiting room inside. Through holes in the interior walls, Levi can make out ruined examination rooms and medical equipment. But the place is abandoned, with neither rioters nor members of the planetary guard in sight.

There’s so much rubble in front of the building that it takes Levi a while to notice the bodies. They’re covered with gray dust like everything else left behind by the destruction, and so they blend in. There are three of them – not a particularly high death toll considering the amount of damage that’s been done to the area. Yet Levi can’t tear his eyes away from them, face-down and gray with debris. He can’t tell what side they’re on without being able to clearly see whether they wear a uniform, but all three lie next to discarded guns.

Levi’s seen his fair share of bodies, growing up in the Underground. It’s not the shock of the unexpected that disturbs him. It’s the shock of the familiar.

Soldiers stream out of the Humvees, Levi following in the crowd. His boots crunch against the rubble that extends out to the street. They form a line at the edge of the destruction, unsure of what to do with themselves without either rioters to fight or planetary guard soldiers to support.

He can hear the sargeant’s voice further down the road, speaking for all of them when he shouts, “Where the fuck is the guard? Did anyone get a comm from the planetary guard?” When it’s clear no one has, he swears and stalks off to radio someone. No one makes any move to deal with the bodies.

The sargeant’s a few yards away, but Levi can still make out most of what he says over the radio. “Battalion ninety-two reporting into planetary guard company thirty-seven. Where is your location? Repeat, where is your location?” Levi glances at Farlan and Isabel. Farlan returns his eye contact and makes a half shrugging motion. Isabel’s staring straight at the bodies. Her fingers tap anxiously against her ammunition pouch. In the distance, the sergeant continues griping into his comm.

He’s back after a few minutes. “The rioters have escaped into the Playground district. The guard has gone to hunt them down. We block the district, make sure no one gets in or out. Split into your squads. Squad one, barricade the district’s northern side. Squads two and three, barricade the eastern freeway. Squad four, southern edge. Squad five, the western edge. Squad six, stay here and search for survivors. Move!”

Then it’s back in the Humvees, all heading off in different directions. Levi sits sandwiched between the door and Isabel, with one hand resting on Isabel’s knee. It’s casual enough that anyone looking won’t realize it’s there for comfort. When he looks out the window, he can see smoke rising a few blocks away, and there’s a round of gunshots in the distance.

Voices vie for attention over the radio, sending in such a litany of reports that they fade to white noise. They drive past the university, and Levi can see one of the buildings where he used to have class in flames. They’re almost at their assigned position at the southern edge of the Playground district when someone on the radio says, “Squad four, have you arrived?”

The soldier in the passenger seat turns on their radio switch. “This is squad four. We are still en route.”

“Change course. You are needed to support the western edge. Repeat, your orders have changed. You are now ordered to go to the western border of the Playground district. Squad five is in need of backup.”

“Who gave these orders?” the soldier at the radio says even as the driver changes his route.

“These orders come directly from General Pixis.”

Levi can tell from the uncertainty on the faces of his fellow soldiers that they have questions, unsure of why they’d be told to leave the southern portion of the district’s perimeter completely unguarded. Besides that, generals don’t usually move around specific squads. They come up with broad battle plans and trust their subordinates to handle the rest. But no one can question a general’s orders without risking treason.

Levi wonders if the general knows which squad he’s in. He pats the front of his uniform jacket, making sure the letter Pixis gave him is still there.

The Playground looks eerie without its usual flurry of nighttime activity. It’s on lockdown, with sirens whirring in the distance and the doors to bars and restaurants shut tight. But no one has thought to turn off the pumping music playing outside of a nearby club, or the holographic advertisements of dancers and entertainments. A block away to his right, Levi can see the roof of Erwin’s Companion house.

Their squad leader briefly confers with the leader of squad five while soldiers hurry out of the Humvees. By the time each car is emptied, he has his orders for ready them. “We’re taking up covert positions, making sure no one can sneak up on squad five. I need three soldiers in that alley, two in the alley on the north side of the street. You and you.” He points to Levi and Isabel. “Climb to the top of that club and keep watch from there.” Levi and Isabel give him a quick salute, and together the two of them jog toward the club that’s blasting its music.

There’s a thin, rickety ladder that counts as an emergency fire escape hanging outside the club in question. Levi and Isabel scramble up it, guns strapped to their backs. The throbbing beat of the music seeming to reverberate through the entirety of Levi’s body, so loud he can barely think through it.

They take up position on the roof. Underneath him, Levi can see the rest of his squad spreading throughout the neighborhood in twos and threes. On the other side of the block, Levi can make out the drab uniforms of the planetary guard as a small team of them jog through the streets, looking for rioters.

Levi slings his gun off his shoulder and kneels down on one knee at the edge of the roof, crouching low so that it’d be difficult to spot him from the ground. Next to him, Isabel does the same. There’s no chance of conversation with that damn music in the background, so Levi settles for giving Isabel an encouraging nod before turning his attention back to the streets of the Playground below. He keeps his eyes away from the towering Companion house situated just a few blocks away.

The minutes crawl by. There’s such a sense of urgency in the movements of the soldiers below him that Levi can’t believe something isn’t happening. But nothing does, and it sets him on edge. Something doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t help that the music’s pounding incessantly, forcing his heartbeat to speed up to its pace. He keeps his eyes rigidly on the street below him, trying to ignore it.

He almost doesn’t notice when Isabel’s attacked.

A flash of movement at the corner of his vision alerts him, but not until a cloth has been pressed firmly over Isabel’s mouth, and she’s sinking out of consciousness even as she struggles against the masked man holding her. Levi jumps up, instinct taking over, and lunges at her assailant. The man is holding Isabel against his chest, and Levi doesn’t trust himself to shoot without hurting Isabel in the process. But he manages to slam the butt of his rifle into his head before throwing it aside.

The masked person stumbles backwards, releasing Isabel, and Levi jumps on him – her, he realizes distantly. The attacker is about his size and has the build of a woman. Not that it matters. He pins her down, his knees on her ribs, and wraps his hands around her throat. Her lips move through the opening in her ski mask, struggling for air and perhaps trying to form words. If she says anything, Levi misses it. It’s impossible to hear over the pounding of the music.

Her hands tug at Levi’s wrists, but the angle’s wrong and she’s too weak to pull him off. He’ll bring her to unconsciousness, then take her mask off to see who she is. From there she can be left to the UG’s justice. Or lack thereof.

One hand drops away, pulling at the edge of her mask as though that will help her breath. Levi takes no notice of it until she’s lifting her mask off her face, and then it’s too late to stop her.

And he finds himself face to face with Petra Ral.

Levi’s hands drop from her neck. He sits back, then staggers to his feet, stepping away from her. Petra takes deep, gasping breaths, propping herself up on an elbow as she coughs and sucks in air. He calls to her, asking her what the hell she’s doing here, but his words get lost in the never-ending beat of the club’s music.

After a minute of gasping, Petra has enough wind to stand. She gets to her feet and approaches Levi, coming close enough to speak into his ear. “We’re on the same side. I was told you had a message.”

“What the fuck are you doing?” Levi demands over the music. “What did you do to her? Why are you involved with – this?”

But Petra shakes her head and refuses to change the subject. “I’m here to take you to the commander. I can explain everything later. Come on.”

“No.” Levi steps out of her reach as she moves to grab his hand, then shouts to be heard. “No fucking way. You hurt my friend and then just tell me to leave my post with you?”

“I didn’t realize she was your friend.”

“That makes it better?”

“That uniform is usually worn by the enemy.” Petra steps closer and gives Levi a level gaze. “I’m sorry. She’ll be fine – she’ll wake up in forty minutes without a single side effect and barely any memory of what happened. But now I need you to come with me.”

Levi can’t believe what he’s seeing. It’s definitely Petra, with her big eyes and her red hair. But there’s a steely look to her that wasn’t there when Levi knew her before. She’s more serious, more intense.

“I’m not leaving her. You take it.” Levi reaches inside his jacket to grab the letter, but Petra puts her hand on his.

“The orders were to get the messenger, not to get the message. He might have a return message for you. Come on.” 

Levi shakes his head. “Just take it. I’m done being his messenger.”

Petra stares at him, her green eyes wide with surprise. Levi remembers those same eyes widening because Levi had implied that he had been knifed before. Now Petra’s carrying a gun and attacking people out on rooftops. “What do you mean, you’re done?” she asks.

“I’m not part of this thing. I just carried a few letters. I don’t even know what this thing is actually about,” Levi says.

Petra says something quietly, so much so that Levi can’t hear her over the music. She glances up at Levi and speaks a little more loudly. “I thought you had joined because you cared about this stuff.”

“What stuff?”

“Social equality. Standing up to the upper classes.”

“Oh, is that what this is about?” Levi says. “So glad someone finally told me. But I don’t think the upper classes are going to get the message, so until you come up with some other strategy, tell the boss to leave me alone.”

Petra grabs his wrist and tugs. “If you want someone to tell you what this is really all about, come with me.”

“You know what? I don’t think I care enough.”

Petra lets go of his wrist and backs away, her mouth set in a disappointed frown. “What happened to you?” she shouts over the music.

“What?”

“You' talk like you don’t care about anything.”

“And I didn’t before?”

“You used to care about things that mattered, at least. You cared about staying true to who you are and standing up to the nobility.”

Levi shakes his head. “Don’t make this into some moral thing.”

“It is a moral thing.”

“Yeah, well I don’t have time for moral things.”

“What are you doing with your time instead?”

The question is ludicrous. He’s in the army. It should be obvious what he’s doing with his time. But he’s not totally sure what to say as an answer. Without thinking, he glances at Isabel.

“She’ll be ok,” Petra says. “One of our people is in the building next door, watching to make sure no one goes on this roof.”

Levi shakes his head again, though he’s not sure what he’s disagreeing with. “Just take me to your damn boss, but make it quick.”

Petra nods. “This way.”

She leads Levi on a complex route across rooftops, over narrow alleys, and up and down fire escapes. It keeps them out of view of the planetary guard, who stupidly fail to look up as Levi and Petra pass by right over their heads. But when they finally drop down onto the ground, they’ve ended up right next to the Companion house Levi knows so well.

“He’s using this place for his secret meetings?” Levi asks. Petra shushes him and then, after checking the street for onlookers, slips into an alley. Not the alley that Levi’s used to, where cars exit on their way to take clients home, but the one on the opposite side of the building. This alley is narrower and darker, but Petra seems to be able to see where she’s going without a problem. She feels along the wall until she reaches what she’s apparently looking for, and then pushes. To Levi’s surprise, a door swings open – though at this point he’s not sure why any more crazy spy shit should surprise him.

He follows Petra through this door, and it swings shut behind them. They’re in a well-lit stairwell with a gray carpet, and though the place is plain, it’s not quite as stark as Levi would expect from a hidden passageway.

“The Companions need a way to get in and out of their rooms without passing by clients on days off,” Petra explains. “It’s a built-in secret passage, so yes, sometimes he uses it. But not often, and only with people who already know what he is.”

“How do you know what he is?” Levi asks. He can’t imagine Petra ever contracting with a Companion.

“He trusts me,” she says simply. And then, with a knowing look over her shoulder, she asks, “How do you?”

“. . . Never mind,” Levi mutters.

They climb in silence for a couple flights. There’s no elevator here, Levi realizes. Must help keep the Companions in shape. The repetitive motion soothes Levi a little, though he wishes they could already be there so he could just get it over with. About halfway up the climb, Levi says to Petra, “You said I would find out what this thing is all about.”

“How much do you know?” Petra asks.

“I keep getting letters to deliver, and once a bunch of masked people snuck into my base.”

“So you don’t even know the objective?”

“No.”

Petra lowers her voice so Levi has to strain to hear the next words. “To overthrow the UG.”

Levi stops climbing and gives her a flat look. But Petra’s face is dead serious. Levi’s not generally one for laughter, but now he nearly doubles over with the sheer absurdity of it all. He has to grip the railing to steady himself. He wonders whether he’s actually just going insane.

Petra scowls at him. “Well it’s not like we’re going to do it all at once,” she says defensively.

“Oh. Well ok then,” Levi says. “In that case it’s perfectly reasonable.”

“It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds.”

“Well that’s not hard, is it? It already sounds really fucking ridiculous.”

She gives him another scowl and then hurries up the stairs. Levi jogs to keep up.

“Humanity isn’t meant to be ruled by one group of people,” she says. “In every other period of history, each region has had its own government looking out for that specific region’s needs. They cooperated via treaties, but there’s never been so much absolute power held by one authority until the UG.”

“So, what, you’re going to topple this overreaching government, one blown up building at a time?”

“Not exactly.”

They reach the fifth floor. Two hallways jut out from the landing, and Petra turns down the one on the right. This hall zig-zags relentlessly, with occasional numbered doors along the wall. They stop at a familiar number, and Petra knocks in a complex rhythm.

“Come in,” a familiar voice says. Levi takes a steadying breath as Petra opens the door and motions for Levi to follow her inside.

And then they’re in Erwin’s private rooms. The sacred space. White wood and blue furniture, and the bookcase – the bookcase – is directly to Levi’s right. And there, standing at the window with his back to them, is him.

Levi wants to run. He can’t face this. It’s one thing for Erwin to show up unexpectedly, at a time and place he’s never been in before. But this is too close to memories that Levi’s worked hard to tuck away. And it’s far too different from those memories as well, and Levi’s not sure which is worse.

He’s wearing a suit. He’s standing rigidly, more rigidly than he did as a Companion. When he turns to face Levi, he doesn’t wear the usual bland smile. Instead, Levi sees no expression at all.

“Levi. Thank you for coming. My apologies for putting you out once again.”

He crosses the room. Levi holds out the letter, and Erwin takes it. He watches as familiar hands tear at the seal and pull out the slip of paper.

“Petra,” Erwin says. His voice is also devoid of any expression. It’s clipped and business-like. Official. Almost military. “Return to your squad and make sure they’re safe. I’m sure Private Ackerman can remember the way back.”

Petra looks at Levi, then looks more pointedly at Erwin. Whatever she’s trying to communicate, though, is either missed or ignored. Erwin’s gaze remains down on the paper before him. After a moment she turns on her heel and leaves. And Levi’s alone with Erwin in his rooms.

The last time he was alone with Erwin in his rooms . . . no, it’s fruitless to think about the last time. Erwin stands a few feet away now, keeping himself apart from Levi and not looking directly at him. Tonight is going to be drastically different from the last time Levi was alone with Erwin in his rooms.

“Erwin,” Levi says, and Erwin raises his head. He looks at Levi without saying anything. His blue eyes are glassy, and they don’t meet Levi’s. 

He seems like a completely different person, and it pains Levi. And though Levi has dozens of questions to ask Erwin, he can’t bring himself to speak any of them. Several sit on the edge of his tongue – what Erwin’s plot is, what’s happening tonight, why Erwin chose Levi to deliver his letters, what project Miranda is, (why Erwin isn’t meeting his eyes) – but each one feels as though it would open up too many issues. And perhaps it’s best tonight to leave things closed. To allow Levi enough distance to safely step away from all this.

The only question that ultimately comes out is, “Do you need me to take a return message?”

“No, I don’t have one written at the moment. Thank you,” Erwin says.  

Levi nods. He waits for Erwin to dismiss him. He wonders if he should just go even if he doesn’t.

Erwin slides the letter back into its envelope, then puts it in his breast pocket. His movements are slow and deliberate, giving Levi ample time to speak. It feels almost as though he’s being invited to ask his questions, though it’s the coldest invitation Levi has ever received. Erwin still hasn’t taken a close look at him.

“Did you really . . . organize all this?” He doesn’t say what “all this” is. Through Erwin’s living room window he can see flames and smoke, and the sound of gunshots is audible in the distance.

“I did,” Erwin says.

“Petra says you’re trying to overthrow the UG.”

“That’s an oversimplification, but yes. I suppose I am.”

It’s an answer that only raises more questions. Levi doesn’t even know where to begin.

But Erwin must have noticed the confusion in his face, because he says, “I would gladly tell you more, but I cannot. Unless you were to fully commit to the movement, I cannot make you privy to all of our secrets. If you do not have any more information for me, you may return to your post.” Erwin pauses for a moment after he says the word “information,” as though expecting Levi to have some. But when Levi doesn’t speak he continues in the same tone as before, and Levi wonders if he imagined it.

“Right,” Levi says.

“Thank you for understanding.” Erwin turns back to his window, a nonverbal dismissal. His hands clasp behind his back in a posture not unlike a military officer surveying his troops.

Erwin can be a lot of things, Levi knows. It’s part of his Companion training. But this is not the bearing of a Companion, nor is it behavior of the Erwin that Levi knew three years ago, the last time he was in these rooms. It’s a stranger, and it frightens him.

“Dammit Erwin, you’re a Companion,” he blurts out.

Erwin half turns to look at him. The ghost of a smile tugs at his lips. “Yes.”

“You can’t be a fucking criminal mastermind too.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re . . . it’s . . . they’re two totally different things. How do you have time to seduce people and plan a fucking rebellion? How do you know enough shit to pull it off?”

“I’ve put a lot of study into it.” Erwin’s turned back to the window, speaking without looking at Levi.

“How much?”

“Approximately five years of purposeful study, though I’ve been collecting books on politics and rebellions for some time.”

Five years. “You were plotting this when you knew me?”

“Yes.”

That can’t be right. Levi would have noticed. Wouldn’t he? How could Erwin have hidden something so big from him? Granted, they didn’t get much time to be together as their authentic selves, but . . . he had thought what they did have was real.

Levi crosses the room. Stands beside Erwin so he can see his profile, though he knows looking for some hint of an expression will be futile. “Who are you, really?” 

There’s a soft breath that might have been a laugh. “Who am I, really? You always did ask the difficult questions.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“Because I saw injustice in the universe.”

“Everyone sees injustice in the universe. Why does it have to be you trying to get rid of it?”

“Why not?”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Shouldn’t you be getting back to your post? They may be missing you.”

“Nice try.”

The faintest smile passes over Erwin’s lips. “My position as a Companion made me privy to some secrets. People trust Companions, and no one expects them to act independently. I learned some curious things. I investigated them and learned some terrible things. I investigated even further, and am beginning to learn how to stop those terrible things. I am the only person who has my unique position and my unique knowledge. How could I not act?”

“So you’re blowing up some government buildings? I hate to break this to you, but I don’t think that’ll be enough to take down the UG.”

“It’s not quite what it seems.”

“Then what is it?”

“I cannot tell you.”

“Ah. Right. Of course. You’ll always have your secrets. That, at least, hasn’t changed.”

Erwin doesn’t respond. Levi turns to go. He notices, with petty irritation, that Erwin doesn’t look up as he walks away.

He pauses with one hand on the doorknob. “People are dying tonight, you know.”

“I know.” And Erwin’s voice, still, is expressionless.

Levi spins around. “And you’re okay with that?”

“There was always risk calculated into the plan. I designed a strategy that would minimize the risk and maximize the benefits, but still, I knew some would die tonight on both sides. It is a sacrifice that must be made.”

“And who gave you the right to sacrifice other peoples’ lives?”

“No one.” So calm. Levi stalks back over to Erwin, suddenly livid at this emotionless man he was once stupid enough to love.

“But you decided to just take it upon yourself?”

“Yes. I had to.” Erwin’s eyes don’t leave the window, even as Levi comes up beside him.

“You had to? No one has to.”

“It’s an unfortunate reality of armed conflict.”

“How can you say it like . . . like it’s no more than an inconvenience?”

“Either a handful of people die tonight, or a large amount of people continue to die both directly and indirectly as a result of the UG’s power. This is a sacrifice that needs to be made for the long-term good of humanity.” He sighs and allows his gaze to slip over to Levi. “That does not mean I do not regret it.”  

Then his gaze is back out the window. Levi turns his head, trying to figure out what Erwin’s looking at. Fire, and smoke, and the ever-present noise of guns. Signs of violence. Erwin’s eyes take it all in, unflinching. Levi wonders if he’s trying to track the success of his plan, but there’s no way Erwin can gage how the conflict is going from here.

After a moment, Erwin says, “Leave me, Levi.”

And for the first time that night, Levi hears an emotion in Erwin’s voice – weariness.

Levi obeys. He returns to the door and steps out. Just before leaving, he takes one last glance over his shoulder. But Erwin remains at the window, keeping a watchful vigil as the city burns on his orders.

Chapter Text

Levi can hear the shouts of soldiers and the crack of gunfire as he makes his way across rooftops and through alleys. The sounds are closer than they had been before, giving the impression that he could happen upon a fight at any moment. He moves cautiously as he travels back to his post to avoid stumbling across any unexpected conflict.  

But he can’t avoid coming across a conflict as he approaches the rooftop where he had been stationed. There’s chaos in the surrounding streets that makes Levi slow his approach. Dozens of soldiers move frantically around the city block while a steady litany of orders are shouted at them. Levi crouches low as he finishes the last leg of his journey and ducks behind a tall vent in the roof of adjacent to his post to take everything in.

No fighting is occurring at the moment, but Levi sees the remains of a fight. There are wounded people – though none dead – from both sides lying on the ground, the UG soldiers attended by medics while the black-clad rebels lie in their blood. A handful of unharmed rebels sits in chains on a street corner. Levi can hear orders being given in a rapid, panicked pace as groups of soldiers are sent in all directions to hunt down rebels that got away. He sees Farlan disappearing into an alley as part of one of these groups.

On the next rooftop over, Isabel’s finally waking up. Three other soldiers surround her, questioning her. He doesn’t hear exactly what they’re saying, but he hears his own name mentioned more than once. Isabel looks around herself anxiously and starts to call out after Levi.

Levi sinks lower behind the vent, thinking. If there hadn’t been any attack while he was gone, his absence likely wouldn’t have been noticed. But there had been an attack, and Levi hadn’t been there to raise the alarm. That – and the fact that Isabel was found unconscious – probably looked pretty suspicious. His first thought is to run, but if he were to do that, it would practically confirm his guilt. Better to face his fellow soldiers and see if he can talk his way out of this.

Levi makes the last jump to the club roof. The loud music has finally been turned off, and the sound of Levi’s boots hitting the concrete seems loud as a gunshot. Everyone on the roof turns to stare at him, and Levi notices with dismay that two of the three soldiers are boys who used to beat him up at the academy.

“What happened?” Levi asks mustering as much false confusion as he can. But Levi’s never been good at pretending, and he can’t be sure how convincing he is. “It looks like there was a fight.”

“A fight you seemed to miss,” one of the soldiers says, one that Levi especially had a lot of conflicts with during his academy days. “That’s pretty convenient, Ackerman.”

“Anything but convenient,” Levi replies. “I was chasing a rebel for miles, and she still managed to give me the slip.”

“You left your post? Why didn’t you call down to someone on the ground to chase her?”

Levi glances at Isabel, who’s staring at him with wide, anxious eyes. She’s the one he lets down if he messes this up and gets himself arrested. He looks away and says, “She attacked Isabel. I wasn’t thinking straight.”

Another one of the soldiers, a short guy with a round face, laughs as though Levi’s told some kind of a joke. “Sure, because you’re such a caring person. We’ve never seen you show an emotion in your life, and you expect us to believe you’d stop thinking straight because your little friend was hurt?”

“No one’s going to swallow that for a second,” the first soldier says. He raises his rifle to aim it directly at Levi’s head, and the other two soldiers follow suit.

Isabel jumps to her feet. “No, don’t hurt him!” she says. “He’s telling the truth.”

“How do you know?” the third soldier demands. “You were unconscious.”

“Because I know him,” Isabel says. “Levi’s a good person.” A heartfelt statement, but not the kind of argument that’s going to sway people like this. The soldiers laugh even as Isabel continues to protest.

Levi slowly raises his arms in the air, showing them that they have no reason to shoot. “I know it sounds like an unlikely story,” he says.

“It sounds like a convenient story,” the first soldier, who seems to have taken on the role of the leader here, says. “Your partner gets knocked out, you run after the assailant, and while both of you are unable to sound the alarm, we get attacked from behind this very building.” He grins. “I always know a piece of Underground shit would betray us. I’m just glad I get to be the one to bring you in.”

“He’s not a traitor,” Isabel insists. “He’s the most loyal person I know.”

No one acknowledges her. “Yell down and have a couple people come up here with cuffs,” the lead soldier says to the one with the round face. Then he turns back to Levi and says, “Move a muscle and I splatter your brains across the roof.”  

“No!” Isabel shrieks. “He’s not a traitor. You’re making a mistake.” Isabel grabs at his arm to get his attention and receives an elbow in the gut in response.

Levi reacts on instinct, and that instinct is what seals his fate. He takes one small step forward; his stance drops slightly, ready fight for Isabel if necessary. In that moment two more soldiers – carrying handcuffs – arrive on the roof, and the lead soldier shouts to them, “He’s attacking! Hurry!”

And they do. Levi’s forced to his knees, his arms yanked behind his back. It’s five against one, and maybe Levi could have beaten those odds in better circumstances, but his eyes were on Isabel and his mind was racing. And even if he had tried to fight, a part of him understands that it would have been fruitless. There are reinforcements below, and squads of soldiers throughout the city. Even if he managed to avoid all of those, he’d be pegged as an army deserter, a crime almost as serious as the treason he’s now being accused of.

So Levi doesn’t argue as they shackle him, even as Isabel continues to shout at the soldiers with tears brimming in her eyes. The bite of the handcuffs reminds him of another arrest, three years earlier. Except that time Erwin had gotten him out of trouble. This time, Erwin was the one who got him into it. And Levi can’t imagine that anyone will come to his aid now.

“You’re finally getting what someone from your station deserves,” the lead soldier calls after Levi as he’s hauled to his feet and dragged away. “Someone from the Underground accused of treason? You’ll never see the light of day again.”

*****

He does see the light of day, actually. A rectangle of it that’s approximately eight inches by six inches. It shines right on his standard-issue military prison pillow in the morning, hitting him in the eyes and dashing any hope of sleeping past sunrise. Levi wonders if the person who designed this cell did that on purpose as a mode of torture.

It’s nicer than the cell he was in three years ago. Levi’s surprised by that – the UG military doesn’t generally have nice things. Then again, one would have to have pretty low standards to call a prison cell with a small patch of sunlight, a bed that doesn’t smell like mildew, and a sink “nice things”. Regardless, the place is clean enough for Levi to feel comfortable lying in the bedsheets, and for that, at least, he’s grateful. He had gone to bed as soon as he was deposited in the prison, and had managed to drop off for a few hours and escape from the absolute hellhole his life has become.

He wakes to a feeling of anger that comes even before he remembers where he is or what he’s angry about. When he sits up and sees his surroundings – the gray brick walls, the concrete floor, and the drab prison uniform he’s forced to wear – everything comes back to him in a rush. Every memory from the night before, from Isabel crying to the bodies outside the clinic. And, of course, his encounter with Erwin.

Everything fucking comes back to Erwin.

Erwin Smith is the reason he’s here. The reason he left his post lase night. The reason he was called away from his military base to settle the riots in the first place. Everything would be going fine if it wasn’t for Erwin Smith.

And wasn’t that always the case? Even from the beginning, when Erwin was nothing more than a Companion to Levi, his life would have been much calmer, much simpler, if it wasn’t for Erwin Smith. He would have never had his heart broken if it wasn’t for Erwin Smith. He would have never gotten wrapped up in this damn stupid rebellion if it wasn’t for Erwin Smith. 

Erwin has thoroughly ruined Levi’s life in every way imaginable. Levi can’t believe he was ever so stupid and naïve as to actually love the man. Now, when Levi thinks of Erwin, he feels nothing but hatred.

He paces the cell. His mind plays out different versions of what he’d like to say to Erwin, one biting insult after another. He’s shouting at Erwin in some scenarios, staying cold and aloof in others. And in all of them, Erwin’s penitent, begging for forgiveness. Levi doesn’t give it to him.

But this is a useless train of thought, and Levi tries to turn away from it. He casts about for other topics to think about, but there isn’t much to occupy his mind in this bare prison cell. So he finds himself wondering what will happen to him, a train of thought that’s equally useless but much harder to turn away from. Executions for treason are not unheard of, though a life sentence is the more common punishment. Regardless, he’s fucked. And with all the friends he’s failed to make during his years in the military, Levi doesn’t expect anyone to vouch for him.

His friends. Isabel. Farlan. Hanji.

Levi’s immediate thought is that Isabel and Farlan need someone to protect them – which of course isn’t true, not anymore. They’re soldiers, and they know how to defend themselves. They’ll be fine. But he can’t shake the thought, ingrained in his mind over the years, that he needs to look out for them.

And Hanji . . . despite their outgoing nature, Levi knows that they don’t have another real friend. If he’s shut away forever – or worse – they’ll have no one else to turn to. He has to get out for their sake.

Too bad Erwin fucking Smith made that impossible.

The metal door creaks open. Someone enters carrying a tray, his breakfast for the day. His first meal of what’ll be a lifetime of prison slop.

He’s so caught up in his thoughts that it takes him a moment to notice that the man carrying the tray of prison slop is General Pixis.

Levi snaps into a belated salute, which seems to make the general chuckle as he closes the door behind him and places Levi’s breakfast on the floor. The general’s expression looks serious but for a glint of something like amusement in his eye. What he’s amused at, Levi can’t imagine.

“At ease,” he says. “I hardly think this is the place to stand on ceremony. As such, why don’t you sit? We have a lot to discuss.”

Levi sinks onto one end of his cot while Pixis perches next to him with a level of comfort that suggests he does this all the time. “General,” Levi begins, “You know-”

Pixis puts a finger on Levi’s lips and shouts, “I know nothing, private!”

His outburst is so forceful that Levi’s momentarily struck silent with surprise. During that moment, Pixis takes a notepad and a short pencil out of his pocket and writes down, “The walls have ears.” He shows Levi this note, and Levi nods to indicate that he understands.         

“I’m sure you understand the gravity of what you’re accused of,” Pixis says out loud.

“Yes, sir,” Levi replies.

“I am very surprised at you. You’ve always been a good soldier, doing your duty diligently. You’ve always been, shall we say, discreet.”

Pixis winks as he says the word “discreet.” Levi understands what he’s referencing – the conversation he had with Pixis just last night, right before he had been called up for duty. Though how that conversation relates to his current situation, Levi can’t figure out.

“Now, I’m sure you know the consequences of this kind of treason, eh? Life imprisonment, possibly death.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Fortunately for you, I believe that your arrest was merely an unlucky error. And even more fortunately for you, I’ve been in need of a prisoner to use for a somewhat unpleasant but very important task, and here’s a prisoner right in front of me. It’s almost though I planned it.”

And Pixis winks again. Suddenly it all makes sense – Levi was taken away from his post by a rebel, rebels attacked from behind that very post, and Levi then returned under the most suspicious circumstances possible, leading to his arrest. If Pixis was secretly in command of the rebels in addition to the army, he could have maneuvered Levi into this very position.

Levi realizes all of this in a rush of shock and disgust, though he’s careful to not let it show. If what he suspects is true, Pixis is more manipulative than Levi could have ever imagined. He can see why he would choose to work with Erwin.

“There’s a government research laboratory in the heart of Sina,” Pixis says. “Few people are allowed in – top secret experiments and all that. Even fewer are allowed out. We send condemned military prisoners to work as guards there sometimes, giving them the opportunity to eke out a few more years of life serving the common good. Sometimes, if the prisoners are especially well behaved, we give them a lighter sentence. Do you understand?”

Levi only nods – partly because there’s nothing to say, and partly because he’s too busy reading what’s on Pixis’s notepad.

Pixis had been scribbling things down as he spoke. The top of the page simply says, “Spy.” Under it he’s written, “We’ll try not to let you get killed there.” Which is the least reassuring thing Levi’s ever read.

“I said, do you understand?” Pixis says. “I need you to speak up.” Levi gets his meaning. Keep talking, so this conversation doesn’t sound suspicious to anyone who might be listening. Pixis writes something else on the notepad while he speaks.

“Yes, sir,” Levi says.

Pixis quickly scribbles two more phrases. They read, “A contact will come every week for information,” and, “Look for Project Miranda.”

“Good. Then I’ll get you sent out there tomorrow,” Pixis says. “No time to waste. Unless you choose not to go – which is well within your right. But I’m sure I don’t have to remind you what will happen if you don’t go. The UG’s justice comes to us all.”

Levi gestures for the notepad, and Pixis hands it over. He considers writing that he’s not actually a part of this rebellion, but what good would that do? He’s not about to opt for life imprisonment and the possibility of death. Taking on this spying job is the best chance Levi has. Whether he wants to be or not, he’s in the rebellion now.

Instead, Levi writes, “What is Project Miranda?” He shows it to Pixis, and Pixis only shrugs. When Levi narrows his eyes, Pixis takes the notepad back to write a more detailed response.

“So, what’ll it be, Private?” he asks out loud, keeping the verbal conversation going as he jots down the answer to Levi’s question.

“I’ll take your offer. I’ll serve at this laboratory.”

“Good. I always knew you were the kind of soldier I could count on.” Pixis passes the notepad back.

“Codename for project mentioned frequently in stolen docs,” it reads. “High-level secret. Out of this lab. Dangerous chemicals used. People go missing.”

“And as always,” Pixis says out loud, “I trust that during your time at the compound, you’ll be as discreet as ever.”

Levi nods. “I will,” he says, because he doesn’t really have any other choice.  

*****

So really, I got off pretty easy, Levi writes. If I do my job well and have good behavior for a few years, I’ll be back serving with you guys before you know it. That’s a pretty good deal for being suspected for treason.

He glances over what he’s written. It sounds fake, the positivity too forced. And the words don’t seem at all like something he’d say. He’s never been good at writing stuff down. But he only has one sheet of paper, so it’ll have to do.

Levi adjusts his position so he can better reach across the paper. It’s difficult to write with shackles on, and the bumps the prison transport van makes as it travels over the road don’t help. Across from him, his guard holds a gun on his lap and glares at Levi as though his mere existence is a personal insult.

He had been hauled out of his cell earlier that morning to be taken to the government lab that would become his new home. A chance to say goodbye to Farlan and Isabel was out of the question, but Levi managed to persuade a guard in a good mood to given him a sheet of paper to write a letter on. Whether the letter will actually reach them, Levi doesn’t know. The guard that’s with him now doesn’t exactly seem like a willing messenger.

You guys will be fine without me. It’s not like years ago, when you were a target for assholes looking to prove themselves. Hell, you’re probably less of a target now that I’m gone and you’re not dealing with the all people that hate me. My absence will probably feel like a vacation. Just stick together and you’ll be fine.

One last thing. If you can, send a message to Hanji Zoe. They’re the head of maintenance at my father’s manor. Just let them know that I’m ok.

Levi had initially asked for two pieces of paper, but he had been lucky to even get one. He struggles to fold the letter with his bound hands and writes Farlan and Isabel’s names on the front along with the address of Mitras Military Base just as the van stops moving.

He holds the letter out to the guard. The man tries to glare at Levi until he changes his mind, but Levi can out-glare anyone, chained up or not. Eventually, he rolls his eyes and grabs the letter, stuffing it in his pocket just as the van’s back doors open.

Levi’s escorted out of the truck by two expressionless laboratory guards and steps into bright sunlight that shines on a dreary scene. Towering concrete walls loom over him, several feet thick. Just inside these walls is a gray, concrete courtyard, and beyond that courtyard is a metal building of yet another shade of gray. And the guards patrolling that building – Levi sees half a dozen just within his line of sight – all wear drab gray uniforms.

The two guards unlock the cuffs around his wrists and ankles. Then, without so much as a word to Levi, they walk to the main building. They’re confident that Levi will follow. He doesn’t have anywhere else to go.

It’s sterile inside, a perfect caricature of a science laboratory. Linoleum floors, florescent lighting, people in lab coats hurrying by. And, as a reminder that this is a military-owned facility, armed guards standing at intervals throughout each hall.

In fact, the number of guards seems strange, even for a military compound. Levi can’t turn a corner without seeing at least one pair standing before a doorway or patrolling the hall. Levi wants to ask what all the guards are for, but that wouldn’t exactly be discreet. He’s sure he’ll find out soon enough.

He’s given a brief tour of the facility by one of the guards that took him off the van. This woman doesn’t make any sort of facial expression the whole time, and she doesn’t look at Levi when she talks. Even to Levi, she seems a bit anti-social. It only adds to the sterile, impersonal feeling of the complex, and it creeps Levi out.

He doesn’t get much time to settle in to his new home. As soon as Levi’s had the opportunity to change into his new uniform, he’s assigned to guard duty with the woman who had showed him around. They stand outside a laboratory on the second floor for hours. No one goes in, no one goes out, and hardly anyone goes by. It doesn’t seem like there’s enough going on to warrant such heavy guarding.

Levi’s already feeling unsettled about this place when his duty ends and he follows the girl to dinner. But it doesn’t compare to how unsettled the canteen makes him. Because the whole time it takes for Levi to get his tray and eat his meal, not one of the other guards in the place says a word. The only stare at their food, eating silently and seeming to ignore everyone around them. Levi has taken his meals in canteens just like this one for years, and they’re never quiet places – they’re one of the only places where people under strict military discipline can let loose, and soldiers usually take advantage of that. But not here. Here, the canteen is as quiet as a grave, his fellow guards showing as much life as corpses.

Levi normally doesn’t feel much need to speak, but by the end of his first day the silence in the laboratory is already beginning to drive him insane. He has one last guard duty that night, even more uneventful than the first, and by the end of it he’s tempted to scream just to hear some noise.

And, he realizes during this second round of duty, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to be an effective spy if no one’s talking. Without any gossip to give him a starting point, it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll find out what’s going on in this lab any time soon.

The best course of action, he decides, is to try to make a friend. Get someone talking, and maybe find out why everyone’s so silent to begin with. Levi’s never initiated a friendship, but he figures he doesn’t have to do much to impress these other guards. As long as he speaks at all, he’ll be the most socially adept person there.

Right before curfew, Levi approaches the guard who sleeps in the bunk under his, hoping the proximity will make it easier for him to talk to this guy on a regular basis. “Hey,” he says. “I’m Levi. Nice to meet you.”

This guard seems to be young, around Levi’s age, with wide eyes that look like they’re always be staring. Now he turns that stare on Levi. There’s no change to his expression as he says, “Hello.”

“And you are?”

“A guard.”

“No, I mean your name.”

“John.”

“John. Nice to meet you.”

John turns away from Levi and goes back to the task of taking his standard-issue pajamas out of the trunk at the foot of their shared bunk bed, apparently considering the conversation to be over. Levi tries for something a little more interesting. “So. How’d you end up here?”

Again, that stare. There’s a pause where Levi thinks he’s not going to respond, but eventually he says, “I serve the UG.”

“Yeah, but how’d you end up serving here?”

The boy starts to smile a little, though the stare in his eyes doesn’t go away. “I’m happy to serve the UG.”

“Okay. Good for you. Where’d you serve before?”

“I’ve always served the UG.”

Levi glances around at the other men in the barracks. They’re the only two people talking in the whole room, so someone must have noticed them. He expects to see at least one person looking up at them, or laughing at how weird this guy is, or something. But everyone is preparing for sleep in silent, mechanical motions.

One weird guy Levi would have brushed off. But a whole room of them . . .

“Forget I asked,” Levi mutters, turning away.

That night, Levi lies awake in his bunk, unable to fall asleep. He never thought he’d feel this way, but he misses people – people with personalities, not these automatons he now finds himself working with. He misses Isabel’s smile and Farlan’s pragmatism and Hanji’s energy. Hell, he’d even settle for getting in a fist fight right now. It’s only been one day, and he’s already aching for the people he used to know. He doesn’t know if he’ll be able to take a couple years of this.

Levi’s so preoccupied with how much he misses people that it takes him longer than it should have to notice the main reason he’s having difficulty falling asleep. Levi’s slept in barracks for the past three years. He’s accustomed to the sounds of several people sleeping – the rustle of sheets, the snores and grunts, the occasional sleep talk. They’re inevitable in a barracks, and they’ve become so familiar that they now almost lull Levi to sleep.

But tonight, despite being surrounded by two dozen other men, Levi doesn’t hear a sound.

*****

By the end of his first week, Levi’s taken to talking to himself in the shower just to hear the sound of his own voice. Who would have guessed that anti-social Levi would someday miss socializing? His father would gloat if he knew.

When it’s time to meet the contact from Erwin’s rebel group, Levi’s almost excited. He’ll finally get to talk to someone with a personality.

Before Levi had left for the laboratory, Pixis had given him instructions on how to pass along information (folded into his prison bread, delivered by Schultz, memorized, and then flushed down the toilet). Every Tuesday morning around dawn, Levi would be on patrol duty. Pixis had a way to manipulate the schedule within the lab’s computer systems to ensure that. Patrols were usually pairs, but in the very early morning there were a handful of individual patrols, most likely to save manpower during the least active part of the day. While on individual patrol, Levi was to go into a basement in the complex’s east wing until he reached a dead end. Then he would find a grate in the ground, unlock the hidden latch that keeps it in place, jump down it, and continue along the tunnel until he came across the contact. Levi wonders why the rebels don’t just use that tunnel to sneak into the complex, but he guesses that wouldn’t be properly “discreet.”

The grate in the basement is easy enough to find, though the latch is well-hidden, and it takes Levi several minutes to figure out how to undo it. Once he finally manages to open it, he climbs down a narrow metal ladder and into darkness. There’s no light in this tunnel. His has no choice but to walk blindly  into the darkness and trust that someone’s waiting for him.

Levi keeps a hand on the wall, following the tunnel’s twists and turns with his fingers and doing all he can to not think about the damp filth they brush against. He knows that the dirt on the wall won’t kill him, just as he knows that he’ll come out of this darkness eventually, and that there’s no likelihood that the stone ceiling will cave in, trapping him deep, deep underground, where no one would hear him call for help. He was born Underground – and, really, was being literally under ground so different? This place is just like his old neighborhood: filthy, dark, and suffocating. He belongs here, and after several minutes of being trapped in darkness, Levi has trouble imagining that he’ll ever leave.

Then he rounds a corner, and suddenly there’s light. Someone holds a lantern up ahead. Levi lets out a breath of relief, his anxious thoughts vanishing into the shadows behind him. He may be under ground right now, but that’s a far cry from being in the Underground. He got out of there, and in a few minutes he’ll be out of here, too. Levi takes his fingers off the wall, wipes unseen dirt on his pants, and uses the light to guide him the rest of the way.

The black shape of a man comes more clearly into focus as Levi approaches. He holds the lantern at his side, so Levi can’t see much of his face. He only sees a tall form and blond hair – and that’s more than enough to know who it is.

“You have to be shitting me.”

Erwin raises the lantern a bit, and yup, those are Erwin’s mannerisms. It’s Erwin. Of course it’s Erwin. It’s always Erwin. Levi will never be fucking free from Erwin.

“Levi?” Erwin says, his voice carrying a note of surprise.

“Why is it every time I turn around, I’m fucking running into you?”

“I thought you were done helping the rebellion.”

“Yeah, well, me too. Your pal Pixis had other plans. Basically forced me here.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” Erwin picks up his lantern and holds it between them. The light illuminates parts of Erwin’s face and throws the rest of it in shadow, making it impossible to tell what his expression really is.

“Leading a rebellion and you don’t even know what your partners are doing? Some commander you are. Why are you even here? Don’t you have lackeys to do this kind of shit for you?” He’s rambling. Levi’s not sure if that’s due to his days of not talking or due to the barely contained rage he feels towards Erwin.

“I only knew that Pixis was going to place a person here. He did not tell me who, or how. And the man who was supposed to be your contact is . . . indisposed.”

“Indisposed?” Levi doesn’t like how Erwin hesitated before that word.

“Yes,” Erwin says, his voice mournful.

“Shit.”

Erwin doesn’t dwell on it. “I know you’ve only recently arrived, but have you been able to gather any information yet?”

So Erwin’s persona tonight is businesslike, apparently. No time to dwell on a comrade who’s dead, or injured, or whatever “indisposed” means. Just the ruthless Commander Erwin that Levi met last week. Fine. He can be businesslike too. A nice way to avoid his anger and whatever other emotion the sight of Erwin stirs up.

“Nothing,” Levi says. “Course it would help if I knew what I was looking for. But no, I haven’t learned anything because no one talks. It’s impossible to learn anything because no one says or does anything unusual. This is the most dead and lifeless place I’ve ever been in and it’s driving me fucking insane. So if you don’t mind, I’m going to leave the same way you do because I am not spending another day in this place.”

“What do you mean, no one talks?”

“Did you fucking hear me? I’m done.”

“I’m so sorry,” Erwin says. “But I have to implore you to stay. You’re currently our only hope of getting information on Project Miranda, and while we don’t yet know exactly what the project is, we know it’s very dangerous.”

“Dangerous how?”

“We’re not entirely sure. You see, this project came to our attention three years ago, after the murder of Lord Leonhardt. He was one of the noblemen funding the project, but he appears to have turned against it at some point, as he ended up stealing files on it to share with two sympathetic congressmen. As I’m sure you remember, those congressmen were also killed. It’s too much of a coincidence to conclude that the reason for their murder was anything other than knowledge of Miranda. But when I obtained Leonhardt’s files, all relevant data had been removed. 

“I’ve spent the past three years, among other things, trying to determine what, exactly, Miranda is. But everything we’ve learned is insubstantial. We know that the project orders large quantities of specific chemicals, and we know that some very powerful noblemen help to fund it. And, thanks to information stolen when we raided Mitras Military Base two weeks ago, we know that it’s based out of this laboratory.”

“Why put in so much effort?” Levi asks. “It’s a military science lab. They’re probably building a bigger bomb.”

“The chemicals they order are not found in bombs.”

“Ok, but still,” Levi says. “Why dedicate three years to figuring this thing out?”

“Because you don’t kill people over something inconsequential,” Erwin says. “The UG is doing something terrible here, more so than its usual crimes. It is imperative that I uncover what that is.”

“You uncover it, and then what? You single-handed take down the UG and kill everyone involved?”

The lantern light glistens off hard blue eyes. “If that’s what it takes.”

“You’re freaking me out.”

“I’m sorry.” Erwin suddenly drops the lantern a little, and those eyes become hidden in shadow. “Please, could you tell me what you meant when you said no one talks? Are they under an oath of secrecy?”

“Maybe. They just . . .” Levi shakes his head. “They seem like they’ve all had their personalities stripped away. There’s no facial expressions, no fidgeting, no words that aren’t totally necessary. I tried to talk to one, and it was the weirdest shit. I asked him how he got here, and he just said, ‘I serve the UG’ over and over.”

“Interesting,” Erwin says. “Do they seem like they’re holding themselves back? Or do they seem content to behave like this?”

“Content, I guess,” Levi says. “At least, they don’t seem to want to talk. They don’t seem to want anything.”

“And in your opinion, does their silence seem unnatural in any way?”

“What do you mean? Of course it seems unnatural. It’s creepy.”

“I see.”

The way Erwin says that makes a shiver go down Levi’s spine, and he wonders what, exactly, Erwin means by “unnatural.” “Why? What are you thinking?”

“I’m not sure yet. What have you been guarding?”

“Labs with metal doors that no one goes into or out of.”

“Are you sure they’re labs?”

Levi hesitates. “What else would they be?”

“I don’t know. But we can’t make assumptions.”

“Well they’re not labeled with anything other than room numbers,” Levi says. “So even if they aren’t labs, I don’t see how I’m going to find out.”

“Could you try to sneak into one of them?”

“I thought you guys wanted me to be discreet.”

“Sneaking can be discreet.”

Levi rolls his eyes. “I’ll try. But I’m not getting myself killed or thrown back in jail for you.”

“Thank you.”

“Anything else?”

“No. You’ve already given me quite a lot to think about.”

“Great. Glad I could do the duty I didn’t sign up for.”

“I am sorry,” Erwin says, hearing the anger in Levi’s words. “I would rather anyone but you in this position.”  

“Then make it anyone but me. Let me walk out with you and put someone else in my place.”

Erwin shakes his head. “It was difficult to get a spot set aside for Pixis to plant someone here. If you run away, it’ll be even more difficult to get a replacement. You’re our best chance.”

Levi clenches his jaw. He feels like he has to, if he’s going to keep from screaming. “I hate you,” he hisses.

“I know.”

“Yeah? You know?”

“I don’t blame you.”

“You’ve ruined my fucking life.”

“I know.”

“Twice. In two vastly different ways.”

“Yes.”

“And that’s it? No regret?”

Erwin’s silent for a moment. Then, “Plenty of regret.”

“But not enough to change your mind.”

“I can’t.” The words sound strangled. They stir up a memory, though Levi can’t quite place what it is.

“Of course not,” Levi spits, turning around so that his back is to Erwin. He can’t look at him any longer. His face makes Levi feel sick, and not a small part of that feeling is longing for a time when it didn’t. He looks at Erwin and remembers the man he once loved, even while recognizing him as the man he now hates. It’s too much.

So he stares down the dark hall that leads back to the laboratory. To his duty, and to silence. He doesn’t have to go. He could outrun Erwin, find the exit and be free. Fuck Erwin and his crusade. Levi’s got his own life to worry about.

He closes his eyes and sighs. He should run, wants to so badly that he aches. But when Levi closes his eyes, he remembers how Lord Leonhardt’s body looked that night, blood dripping from his neck. And he can still hear Annie screaming in her grief. Someone really does have to figure out what’s going on. He just wishes to hell it wasn’t him.

“Thank you,” Erwin says, somehow understanding exactly what Levi’s thinking.

“Guess it’s time to go back to my silent friends,” Levi says. Slowly, reluctantly, he takes a few steps down the dark hall and away from Erwin’s light.

“Levi.”

He turns around at the sound of Erwin’s voice.

“As soon as you find the information we need, we’ll help you escape. I promise.”

“Yeah, well.” Levi shrugs. “As much as it’s killing my soul, I’m a convicted man. I’d just spend all my life hiding from the law if I did escape, so there isn’t much point in running.” He starts to turn away again, but then finds himself looking over his shoulder again. And he hears himself saying, “So you better succeed with your crazy plan. Overthrow the UG, and then make a new government that’ll pardon me.”

“I will. I promise you, I will.”

“That’s the only way I’ll ever forgive you.”

“That’s all the motivation I need.”

Chapter Text

When people do talk, they whisper.

The guards may be silent, but the scientists working at the lab have to speak with each other on occasion, exchanging notes on test subjects or discussing data. Their voices carry in the quiet halls, but they always manage to speak just softly enough that Levi has to strain to make out what they’re saying. Not that he understands what he does hear – they use scientific jargon that goes far over Levi’s head.

Now Levi listens as a man and a woman walk by him, heads together. He hears something about “test subject A.L.” and “possible dosage errors,” and the term “titan” inexplicably thrown in there. They seem worried. Levi wonders what they’d do if he left his post to eavesdrop on them, and he’s almost bored enough to find out. It’s not like there’s any pressing need for him to stay where he is. No one ever goes in the metal doors that Levi guards, and no one ever comes out.

He watches until they turn the corner and listens until the rustle of their whispers is out of earshot. Then he waits a minute longer, just to be safe. Once Levi’s satisfied that he’s alone – with the exception of the mindless drone he’s sharing guard duty with – he reaches behind him and tries the door handle.

Locked, of course, like every other door Levi’s guarded in the three days since he’s talked to Erwin. He would be happy to sneak into one of these rooms just for the sake of having something to do, but he hasn’t figured out how yet. The doors are always locked, and they can only be opened by identity cards that the scientists keep on their person.

Footsteps approach, and Levi snaps back to attention. A moment later, four scientists walk up to him. One holds a clipboard, and a woman on his right holds a syringe and an empty vial.

“Ackerman?” the man with the clipboard asks.

“Sir?”

Instead of responding, the scientist just checks something on his clipboard and says to the woman next to him, “Go ahead.”

Then Levi’s right hand – the one not holding his gun – is grabbed by the female scientist, and his finger is pricked.

“Hey!” Levi protests, but none of the scientists seem to hear him. The woman doesn’t even bother meeting Levi’s eyes as she holds his finger over the vial and lets his blood collect in it.

“Would you consider yourself an excitable person?” a third scientist asks. He’s brought a clipboard of his own and stares down at the questions as he asks them.

“Um . . . no?” Levi says.

“Irritable?”

Well he’s sure as hell irritated now. “Kind of?”

“Do you hold strong political beliefs?”

“No.” The woman drops his finger. She doesn’t so much as offer him a band-aid, so he has no choice but to let the small stream of blood drip to the floor.

“In the past six months, have you suffered any depression, extreme anxiety, or other mood disorders?”

“No.” Unless you count the misery that naturally comes from the turns his life has taken recently.

The questioning scientist double checks his clipboard. “That’s all I need,” he says. “The rest I can get from his medical records.”

Now the fourth scientist finally steps forward. She shoves a cotton swap inside Levi’s mouth, rubbing he side of his cheek with painful force, and then drops it in a vial. “All set,” she says.

“What is this about?” Levi asks, but the scientists are already walking away. They don’t bother looking up as he urgently repeats his question.

He glances down at his pricked finger, pressing his thumb to it to help stop the bleeding. It’s been a long time since he’s been so casually humiliated. In a way, it’s worse than the vicious, mean-spirited humiliation he got at the military academy. It’s closer to being a begging child in the Underground, when people would pass him by as though he wasn’t even there.

Levi grimaces and then glances at his fellow guard. He, of course, has nothing to say about what just happened. Levi wonders if he even noticed it.

“Do you know what that was?” Levi asks him. He doesn’t expect a real answer, but he’s curious what the guard will say. 

The man’s reply is more unsettling than Levi expected, though the words themselves are no surprise. “To better serve the UG.”  

Levi doesn’t want to think about what that means. He checks his bleeding finger again and presses his tongue against the inside his cheek where it still stings a little from the cotton swab. “Did they do that to you?”

“Yes.”

Suddenly, Levi finds it very difficult to breathe. “How long ago?”

“Two years.”

“What happened after?”

“I served the UG.”

“Yes, but what happened with the stuff the collected? What did they use it for?”

“They helped me serve the UG.”

Levi barely restrains himself from smacking the man until he gets a real answer. “How?”

“They made me better so I could serve the UG.”

“How did they make you better?”

“They made me better.”

“How?”

“To better serve the UG.”

Levi grits his teeth and turns away. He’s not going to get any more out of him, and there’s no point in trying.

But he can’t stop himself from asking one final question, though he thinks he already knows what the answer’s going to be. “What they did to you, to make you better . . . are they going to do that to me?”

“Yes,” he says. The guard’s smiling, and the smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “They do it to everyone. And then you’ll better serve the UG.”

Levi’s heart starts pounding, and he turns away, unable to look at that smile any longer. The smile of someone who’s been made better, apparently.

And if he doesn’t get the hell out of here soon, he’ll be wearing that smile, too.

*****

Levi has guard duty from midnight until four am that night. It’s quiet. Levi listens for an hour, heart pounding, for any sound. But by the time one am arrives, the entire complex seems to be asleep.

At one am, Levi lifts his gun and slams the butt into his partner’s temple.

He crumples without much of a sound. Levi has three hours until someone comes to take over their shift, which means he has three hours to do what he needs to do and then get out of there before his absence is noticed. Hopefully that’ll be enough time.

He takes off running, checking around each corner to make sure they way is clear, keeping his steps as light as possible so his shoes don’t make too much noise against the linoleum. He has to take a roundabout route to where he’s going in order to avoid coming across any guards, and even then he can’t avoid the pair guarding the door to his first destination. Levi leans around a corner to get a good look at them – a man and a woman with blank stares. He’s not sure what kind of fighting skills these drones have, but he’s about to find out.

Levi rushes the guards, preventing them from having any time to prepare. They react slowly, confused by the uniform that should denote friendliness. By the time these guards understand that Levi’s attacking them, he’s already less than a foot away. The butt of his gun goes to the man’s temple while he does a side kick to the woman’s rib cage. She’s pushed to the ground, wind knocked out of her, giving Levi enough time to knock her unconscious. The one who initially got the rifle butt to his head is already out cold.

Not bad. Levi’s glad his years of combat training aren’t going to waste, though this is probably not what his drill sergeant had in mind.

There’s a pin on the front of his uniform that denotes his name and rank. The unconscious guards wear similar pins of their own. Levi takes his off and grabs one from the guard nearest him. Then he crouches in front of the door handle and tries to slide the two ends of the pins inside the lock.

Kenny taught him how to pick locks long ago, when he assumed Levi would be following in his criminal footsteps. That was over thirteen years ago. Levi tries to recall what his uncle taught him, though the memory’s faded over the years. It takes him a while, but the door eventually swings open for him.

This is a breakroom for the staff – coffee pot, TV embedded in the wall, a small kitchenette for snacks. Levi had wondered why this room needed to be guarded, but he had gotten his answer when he had been assigned to it the day before. Staff went in wearing their uniforms – including the ID cards that they used to unlock the lab doors – and came out without them. If Levi is going to get any information out of this place, he needs to steal one of those ID cards.

Of course, he could just run without stealing any information. After today, the idea is more than temping. But as much as Levi hates working on Erwin’s delusional crusade, he has to reluctantly admit that it’s important. People are somehow being literally brainwashed here. If Levi can find some information that will help stop that, how could he choose not to?

So he’s trying tonight. And if he can’t find anything by time three am – allowing himself an hour’s head start to run away – then that’s it. He tried. He’s not sticking around to better serve the UG.

There’s a row of lockers against the far wall. That seems like the best bet for finding an ID card. Unfortunately, they’re combination locks, which Kenny never taught him to crack.

Levi scans the lockers, looking for one that’s ajar or unlocked. Of course there’s no such luck. He experiments with all the dials, turning them to the right and left in the hopes that one will pop open, but that doesn’t yield any results, either.

The digital clock over the door says 1:46. He has less than an hour and a half to get some useful information and get out of there. Time to do something risky (well, riskier).

Levi holds one of the locks away from the locker doors and grips his gun near the butt. He leans against the metal to keep it from shaking as he starts pounding his gun on the lock to break it. It’s a lengthy, clumsy effort, and it makes more noise than he would like. When he finally does smash the lock open, the force of the blow makes the locker door shake loudly despite his attempts to silence it.

Levi grabs an ID card from inside the locker and clips it onto his belt. Then he goes to the doorway and listens. There’s one pair of footsteps coming from his left, a nearby guard coming to investigate the strange noises. He darts right.

Every step of Levi’s feet against the linoleum sounds like a beacon calling attention to himself. Levi slips out of his shoes and socks, then turns them to face the opposite direction from where he’s going. As he does so, he listens. He can hear voices now, and a few more footsteps. They seem to come from all directions, and Levi hesitates, unsure of where to go. He wanted to try to sneak back to the door he had been guarding earlier, but it doesn’t sound like he can get there without running into anyone.

He turns left, down a hallway that will take him to the nearest lab door. He’ll take the guards in front of it by surprise, get a quick look around the room, and then leave.

But these guards aren’t taken by surprise like the ones that had been guarding the break room. Somehow, they know to be ready for an attacker. They lower their guns as Levi approaches, and one shouts, “Halt, in the name of the UG.”

Levi barrels toward them, his own gun raised. If they shoot right now he’s done. His only choice is to get to them before they make that decision.

The crack of a gunshot sounds when Levi’s just feet away, and he breathes in sharply, bracing himself for the pain. It takes a moment for Levi to realize that the shot missed. By that point, the other guard is pulling the trigger. 

Levi reaches them in time to swing his own gun into the man’s barrel, throwing his aim wide. The bullet ricochets off the wall and sends plaster flying. Then Levi takes hasty aim at the guard on his right and shoots. A bullet goes into the man’s thigh, and he falls to his knees.

One down but still armed; the other off balance but still dangerous. Levi thrusts the butt of his gun upwards, catching the left-hand guard on the jaw, then kicks out with his bare foot into the man’s groin. He takes advantage of that moment of weakness to snatch the gun out of the guard’s hands and points both weapons at the guard who still holds his weapon.

“Don’t do a thing if you know what’s good for you,” he threatens.

The injured guard looks up. His face is pale with pain, but he still manages that creepy, lifeless smile as he says, “I serve the UG.”

Levi realizes too late that no threat is going to stop this guy. He jumps away, turning so that the ID card hanging from his belt touches the scanner next to the metal door. With a beep and a click, the door opens. A moment later, the injured guard shoots.

His aim is shit, but at such close range, that doesn’t matter. The bullet lands in Levi’s left leg, sending searing pain up his calf.

Levi dives into the room and slams the door shut, letting it lock automatically behind him before glancing at his calf. Blood drips so freely that it’s hard to tell where the actual wound is.

“Shit,” he mutters. But he hears shouts behind him as the guards call for reinforcements, and it forces him to move despite the pain. There’s a desk immediately inside the room, and Levi works to push it in front of the door.

The pain is unbearable and his blood makes his bare feet slip on the linoleum, but he manages to get it far enough in front of the door that it’ll provide a temporary blockade against anyone trying to get in the room. It’s not until that’s done that Levi lets himself sink to the ground and look around him.

He’s in a dark, windowless room. The far side of it is completely obscured in shadow, and the front can only be seen due to a series blinking green lights to his left that look like they belong to some kind of data center. In the dim, ghostly light, Levi can make out a few things – the desk he just pushed over and the leather chair that had gone with it. A computer and a series of monitors on top of the desk, and a lab coat hanging off the chair. Erwin was right – it’s not a lab. But what it is, Levi can’t say.

Levi reaches for the lab coat and feels his wound with his fingers. It doesn’t seem too serious – it didn’t pierce bone or any major arteries. It just hurts like a bitch. Levi pulls at the seams of the lab coat until the sleeve comes off in his hands and then ties it as tightly as he can around his leg.

Once that’s taken care of, he carefully uses the desk to stand up. He’s trapped in here – that much is obvious – but maybe he can use that computer to get some information out to Erwin or Hanji. One last noble act before he’s killed. He hopes Erwin appreciates that Levi’s about to fucking die for him.

Figures that Erwin would ruin his life and then end his life. Levi tries to call up his hatred for the man, but he can’t. He finds he can’t feel much of anything right now. His situation is so insane that there just doesn’t seem to be enough room in his mind to process it, let alone feel anything about it. Asshole or not, Levi just kind of wishes that he could talk to Erwin right now.

“You better find something to use in this data,” Levi mutters to an imaginary Erwin as he limps over to the data center. “Because I’m not fucking going to be able to get you anything else. And when I’m gone, I’m haunting your sorry ass until you fucking destroy this government.” This is probably the first step toward insanity, but it makes Levi feel better. He blindly examines the data array with his fingertips until he comes to something flat and cool to the touch. A screen. Levi taps it until it comes to life with the message, “Enter access information.”

He taps the ID card against the screen until it blinks in recognition. The message changes to read, “Welcome. Please enter your password.”

“Fuck,” Levi hisses. He stares at the ID card in his hand. It belongs to a bland looking middle-aged man. What the fuck would a boring guy working for a shady government agency choose as his password?

The ID card has a birthday on it. In desperation, Levi types in the numbers of the birthday, and the system logs him in.

He can barely believe that a shady government scientist would use the most obvious password possible. He could kiss this boring asshole.

There’s only one usable application displayed on the screen – a record of all the data stored in this room. Levi pulls it up, but the rows of abbreviated words and numbers mean nothing to him. He taps one out of curiosity. Nothing happens.

He tries again, and again, nothing – though he notices something out of the corner of his eye. A quick, white light blinking once on the data array. Experimentally, Levi taps another line of data, and a white light blinks in another spot. Each storage file makes a different white light flash, presumably indicating where the disk is stored.

“Hah,” he says, though he’s not sure why this little discovery should be so satisfying to him. It doesn’t do much to solve his more pressing problems.

Now to figure out which information will be useful. If he had more time he’d pull out each disk one by one and read it on the computer, but that isn’t an option. He’s lucky he’s had as much time as he has. Any minute now, someone could find a way into this room.

He scrolls down the files, trying to make sense of the random jumbles of numbers and letters that label each one. There doesn’t seem to be any reason or pattern to it. But there are three files that begin with “MIR.” It could be referring to project Miranda, or it could be referring to something else entirely. But it’s the best lead Levi has to go on. He taps each line of data and grabs the disks that flash in response.

Something pounds on the door.

Levi has no choice but to go to the computer on the desk, though it brings him closer to the door that’s now being battered in. He places the two guns he had carried in with him on top of the desk and turns them toward the doorway, ready to shoot the moment someone breaks in. Then he kneels behind the desk and starts to boot up the computer.

The pounding seems to grow steadily louder.

The computer takes an agonizingly long time to turn on, and when it finally displays the log in screen, Levi struggles to find the card reader attached to it. And all the while, the pounding continues. They’ve found something to use as a battering ram, and they won’t rest until they’ve forced their way through the thick metal.

“Come on,” Levi grunts in frustration, feeling around the desk for anything that might be a card reader.

Someone else in the room grunts in response.

Levi freezes, listening. It’s hard to tell with the noise on the door distracting him, but he thinks he hears someone moving in the shadows near the far wall.

“Who’s there?” he asks the darkness.

Metal clanks in response, and then he hears a growl. A dog of some sort, then. Hopefully in a cage, judging by the sound of that metal.

“Good dog,” Levi mutters, going back to his search. “Good dog. Of course there’s a fucking dog.”

He finds the card reader and presses the ID against it. The computer prompts him for a password and, thankfully, the guy’s birthday works again.

The monitor lights up. Levi turns the screen to face the back wall so it can cast some light there. He doesn’t like the idea of a dog he can’t see.

But instead of a dog, Levi sees a woman. She stands in a cage in the back of the room, out of place amid the desks and computers on either side of her. Her blond hair hangs over her face, hands white-knuckled around the bars. A low, inhuman growl comes from her. Levi can see wires connected to her skin, feeding through the bars of her cage to a blinking computer box behind her.

Levi gapes. His mind seems to have stopped. The sight fills him with horror, but distantly, as though unable to fully grasp what he’s seeing. He thought that the brainwashing of the other guards was the worst fate he could imagine; now he’s not so sure. It’s impossible to tell what’s being done to this woman, but the wires connected to her skin suggest that it’s more than simply imprisoning her.                

The pounding on the door continues, relentless, and Levi pulls himself back to what he needs to do. There’s nothing to be done for the woman in the cage, but maybe he can describe her situation if he manages to get a message out to Erwin. It’s a long shot, but Levi’s only option is to turn away from her and plug the data disk into the computer.

While it loads, Levi searches the computer for a message app. He can’t find any program that he recognizes, and he doesn’t have any cortex credentials he could use to log onto one remotely. Desperate, he pulls up what looks like the science agency’s internal message system.

The battering ram pushes the metal door inwards, and the desk moves back two inches.

He shoves at the desk, pushing it back into place and shutting the door along with it. It’s nothing more than putting his finger in a dam, but he needs the time.

The caged woman growls in response to the noise and rattles the bars of her cage. Instinctively, Levi glances over his shoulder at her. She’s jumped forward so that the hair has fallen out of her face, revealing icy blue eyes and a slightly hooked nose.

Levi has to look again, and then a third time to be sure. He cautiously asks, “Annie?” but he knows it can’t really be her. Annie would never growl in such an inhuman way or claw at her cage like that. But whatever this creature is, it wears Annie Leonhardt’s face.

The door bursts open behind him.

Levi jumps to the side, barely getting himself out of the way as the desk is shoved backwards far enough to let the soldiers in. Bullets spray into the room. He crawls to the wall behind the door, putting the remaining data disks down the front of his shirt to keep them safe.

“Don’t shoot the titan!” someone yells. “We need her alive. Just get the soldier.”  

He hears footsteps running around the desk. A few seconds until he’s found. And, most likely, killed.

Levi jumps to his feet, grabs the heaviest computer monitor, and throws it at a guard.

There’s only enough room between the doorway and the desk for the guards to enter in a single file, and they have to run around the desk to get at him. That works to Levi’s advantage. He aims the computer monitor at a guard still between the desk and the doorjamb, and she quickly goes down, stunned. Her body sprawls across the narrow entry point. The guards behind her bunch up on top of one another, unsure of how to get past her without injuring their comrade. There’s only one man who had managed to get around the desk before Levi hit the woman with the computer monitor, and now he rushes at Levi, gun raised.

Levi grabs the heavy desk chair and shoves it across the room. The guard jumps out of the way, but he trips and stumbles to his knees. That gives Levi the smallest window of time to grab one of the guns from on top of the desk. He snatches it and then ducks back between the door and the end of the desk.

“Jump over the desk!” shouts the person who said to leave the titan alive. “Step on anyone who falls. Just get him!”

The man Levi had tripped is back on his feet and coming for him. Levi fires.

He’s not the greatest marksman – he always preferred hand-to-hand – but this drone is an easy target. He goes down quickly. Levi tries not to think about who this guy is, or how he’s probably just an innocent victim. Right now, Levi has about as much choice in his actions as these brainwashed guards do.

A guard jumps over the desk, and then another one. Levi sits up into a crouch behind the door, ignoring the strain on his injured leg, and fires. The first one falls immediately. The second shoots at Levi, close enough that Levi feels the wind from the bullet next to his cheek. He sends off a shot of his own, and the guard falls face-forward on the desk.

One guard after another pour in, and if they weren’t coming one at a time Levi would have been dead long ago. He shoots again and again, as quickly as he can. Some he has to shoot more than once, they’re so dedicated to capturing him that they attack even when wounded. A pile of bodies forms on the desk, an endless stream of apparently expendable guards. He shoots until his gun clicks when he pulls the trigger, out of ammunition.

And still they pour in while someone shouts from behind, urging them on. For a moment, Levi’s back in the locker room at Sina Military Academy, with cadets coming at him endlessly, with the sole purpose of hurting him. And no matter how much Levi fights back, he always ends up on the floor. One guy can’t stand up to such a bottomless force. One person can’t survive when it seems like the entire universe wants to him down.

But hell if he’s going to die thinking like that.

Levi flips the gun around in his hands and jumps onto the desk. His left leg throbs, but in the adrenaline of the fight Levi easily ignores it. He crouches low and swings the gun like a club, knocking two of the guards down and managing to rip another gun from one of these guards’ hands. This he uses to fire three shots in rapid succession at the two guards on the desk and the one coming up behind them. Then he stands, backs up a few inches, and jumps.

Bullets fly around him as Levi propels himself through the air. He tucks himself into a ball, making himself a smaller target and preparing to roll into standing once he lands.

He learned how to do that at the military academy. What he didn’t learn was how to aim his landing. He gets a brief glimpse at the alarmed face of the scientist commanding all these guards before falling squarely on top of him.

Levi’s head slams hard into the scientist’s neck. He’s momentarily stunned when they collide; the scientist is more so. They crash to the floor together and Levi awkwardly rolls to his feet a second before another guard is on him.

There are only three remaining guards outside the room, odds that Levi likes much better. He shoots the one that’s furthest away in the kneecap, then throws his gun to the side and rushes the remaining two.

Inside the range of their weapons, Levi’s more in his element. He grabs both of their guns, pulling them towards each other so that they collide, and then takes advantage of their poor balance to push the butts of both guns into their stomachs. With them winded and off balance, Levi can begin to finish them off. He kicks the one on his left in the knee, pushing him to the floor, at the same time that he elbows the one on the right in the side of the neck.

The right-hand guy is having trouble breathing but is still standing, so Levi takes care of him first. He pivots on his right foot to stand behind the guy and twists his left leg around the guard’s left knee. A bit of pressure in the right spot – ignoring the pain in his leg – makes the guard go down, and from there it’s not difficult to pivot again and knee the guy in the head.

The guard with the injured knee gets a punch to the face, breaking his nose and sending blood streaming out in a waterfall. Levi takes his gun for himself for good measure.

And before any of these injured guards can start to think about getting up, he runs.

He needs to get to the east wing, and the tunnel where he had met with Erwin. Now that he’s no longer surrounded by a stream of gunfire, Levi can hear the announcements on the complex’s intercom system calling for all guards to report for duty. The whole place has been roused to catch him. Already he can hear another squad’s footsteps pounding on the linoleum.

There’s no chance of trying to sneak around these guard squads. There’s simply too many of them. There’s nothing Levi can do now but run, and nothing he can rely on but his speed. Speed that is rapidly declining thanks to the wound in his leg.

The sound of footsteps is getting clearer now, coming from a corridor that will join the his in just a few yards. He has to pass it in order to reach the tunnel, but there’s no way he’ll be able to outrun them. And there’s no way he can hope to fight them off.

Levi leans against the wall near the opening of the corridor, leveling his gun and getting ready to take a few people down with him.

A siren sounds over the intercom, high-pitched and ear-shatteringly loud. And then, inexplicably, the footsteps start retreating.

He waits a minute, sure that his ears are playing tricks on him. Eventually he risks a glance around the corner, and sure enough, he sees the squad moving in the opposite direction. Not retreating in the orderly fashion Levi would have expected, but moving quickly as though running away from something.

A deep sense of foreboding comes over, but he doesn’t have time to contemplate what’s going on. He has no choice but to keep going.

The halls are completely deserted now, not a single guard in sight. And all the while the siren continues. He runs, his leg throbbing, waiting for some trap to be sprung on him.

He hears the growling noises when he’s just a few dozen yards away from his exit. They sound like dogs.

A metal door swings open on its own as Levi passes, and three people jump out. Or, at least, they’re each person-shaped. But they make inhuman noises and run with low, animalistic gaits. And they rush with single-minded purpose at Levi.

The first one – a man close to Levi’s age with dirty, ragged clothing – pounces. It’s a move Levi’s completely unprepared for, something he would have never experienced with a normal opponent. The guy falls on Levi, knocking him to the ground, stronger than Levi would have expected from his ragged appearance. Levi’s gun gets pinned under his body, and the animalistic man starts scratching Levi’s arms as though he has claws. The two other people – or “titans,” as the scientist had called Annie – rush into the fray, piling on top to claw at Levi and his attacker with equal ferocity.

Levi wriggles his right hand under him so that it’s touching the gun’s trigger and manages to lift his left side enough to get out of the way of the barrel. His shot hits one of the creatures in the chest, and she falls away from him. Then he slams his left arm up, trying to elbow the guy on top of him. But the angle is bad, and the Titan doesn’t seem to feel a thing.

Hands close around Levi’s throat. He tries to tug them away, but this guy is strong and his grip is like iron. Even as Levi flattens his palms to the floor, preparing to push himself upwards, he feels himself weakening from the lack of air.

He pushes, then pushes again. The titan squeezes his grip. Levi chokes in one last gulp of air and uses every remaining ounce of strength to shove himself over.

He roles to his side just enough to grab his gun, and then shoots up and behind him. The first shot misses. The second lodges into the titan’s hip. His grip loosens just enough in his pain that Levi manages to roll free and shoot again.

The remaining woman leaps over her fallen comrade and straight onto Levi. He shoots her in her stomach, and she falls from the air.

In her last moments, her gaze suddenly becomes clear. She looks up at Levi, apparently confused, and mumbles, “I . . . serve . . .?”

Levi gets to his feet and runs.

More growls come from behind him, and he forces himself to hurry despite the burning in his throat that makes every breath an effort. Titans pour from the hallways around him. One manages to scratch Levi’s throat before he pushes himself out of its grip; another pulls at his hair until Levi shoots it. He unloads the gun wildly, fending off titans that come from either side before leaping through the basement door and slamming it closed behind him.

Levi jams his gun through the handle to keep the titans from following him. Judging by the way the handle shakes and the door trembles on its hinges, it won’t take long for them to burst through anyway. He hurries down the stairs and drops through the grate, closing and latching it firmly. Then, with the noise of his pursuit still loud behind him, Levi runs into the darkness.   

Chapter Text

Levi’s surrounded by darkness.  

He runs blind down the tunnel, bare feet slapping painfully against rough cement, one hand trailing the wall to keep him on the right path. His left leg twinges with pain, but he can’t slow down. His can see the ragged, animalistic people from the laboratory all too vividly in his mind’s eye, and in the echoes of his footstep he swears he hears growling behind him.

The darkness is so absolute that when Levi finally does see light, it nearly blinds him. It falls into the tunnel in small squares, and Levi has to blink several times before he can see where it’s coming from.

There’s a metal grate up above him, a storm drain or something that used to be a storm drain. At the sight of it, suddenly Levi feels as though he’s back in the Underground, feet bare because he there wasn’t any money for new shoes this year, a metal grid constantly separating him from the sky.

Levi rubs his eyes and brings himself back to the present. He’s not in the Underground. He’s arguably somewhere that’s much worse, but he now sees iron ladder rungs set into the wall. That means that unlike the Underground, there’s a way out of this place. Levi grabs the cold metal and starts to climb.

He pushes against the grate, but it holds firm even as he shoves with all his strength. Panic starts to well up in his chest, and he quickly tries to smother it. There’s no use for panic. Nothing to be gained from the thought that he might be stuck here, forced to wander these dark tunnels until those ragged people catch up to him . . .

Levi shoves again, but nothing happens. The grate is bolted closed. He lowers his arm and collapses against the wall, feels cold iron bolts and unyielding concrete trapping him in.

One of the bolts sinks into the wall when Levi leans against it, and the grate noiselessly swings open.

Of course. This is Erwin’s operation that he’s dealing with. Levi should have guessed that it would be filled with secrets and tricks, nothing as it seems. If a commander can pose as a Companion, why shouldn’t a button pose as a bolt? Levi lifts his head out of the ground.

He’s not outside, as he expected. Instead, he’s in what looks like a small metal shed. Bare walls of tin are illuminated by a single bulb hanging from the ceiling, and around him are stacks of what look like army supplies. Rope, carabiner clips, a stack of preserved food, matches. Knives. Guns. Levi takes one each of the weapons, then fills his pockets with a couple protein bars. He checks the inside pocket of his uniform jacket for the data chips that he had gone through all of this trouble for and sighs with relief when he finds them there. Erwin better appreciate this. Erwin better bow at his damn feet.        

Levi closes the grate. Hopefully those creatures don’t figure out the secret button.

The door to the shed is locked from the inside with a series of bolts. Levi undoes these gently, careful not to make any noise, then opens the door just a crack. A dark alley, filled with trash, the shed forgotten at the back. Levi hurries through it, taking special care not to step in trash and make noise, and carefully looks out into the main street to figure out where he is.

He doesn’t recognize the street, but he recognizes the bright lights, loud music, and garish advertisements. The Playground district. Figures.

But at least he knows where to go from here. He follows the street north until he reaches a relatively open area. The roof of Erwin’s companion house comes into view, and Levi makes his way toward it.

There are a lot of sirens in the city tonight. Levi suddenly realizes that his uniform makes him extremely conspicuous. The street is empty right now, but the Playground never fully goes to sleep. He ducks into the next alley and takes off his uniform jacket so that he’s clad just in the t-shirt underneath, wrapping it around his gun to hide it.

When Levi steps back onto the street, it seems that there are even more sirens than just moments earlier. A low throbbing noise sounds, and Levi ducks under the awning of a restaurant just in time to hide from a helicopter that passes above him.

The whole city is out looking for him.

Levi runs from alley to alley, spending as little time out in the open as possible. Every time someone passes him, he ducks his head or sinks back into the shadows, seeing a potential enemy in every drunk partier that goes by.

His leg is throbbing by the time he reaches the Companion house. He squeezes into the alley next to it – the one that Petra had shown him – and presses against the brick wall.

Nothing happens. Again and again he tries, slamming his hands on different areas of the wall in an attempt to open the hidden door. But the door doesn’t appear. It’s all smooth, unyielding brick.

Levi’s leg threatens to give out underneath him. The gun is unusually heavy in his fatigued arms. He needs to get in. Somewhere on this wall is the brick that will let him in. Damn if he came all this way to be beaten by a brick.    

Footsteps pound on the sidewalk, and Levi ducks back into the shadows of the alley. He recognizes the rhythm of those footsteps, the gait that was trained into each running person. They’re the footsteps of a military squad.

Someone enters the alley. Silently, Levi squats lower into the shadows and holds his breath. But the person turns on a flashlight, and the shadows that were hiding him disappear.

The light shines on him for a single terrifying moment, bright enough that Levi can’t make out the form beyond it. Then it disappears, and the shape returns to the mouth of the alley.

Levi rises to his feet and takes aim.

“What in the verse is this?” the person asks. It’s a woman’s voice, gentle and confused and just a little bit sultry. A Companion. Levi waits. He doesn’t risk lowering his gun.

“We’re searching for a fugitive, ma’am,” someone replies from the street. “It’s not safe for you to be out here.”

“A fugitive? Is he dangerous?”

“Very, ma’am.”

“What does he look like?” Levi’s finger drifts toward the trigger.

“Short, with black hair and gray eyes.”

“Can’t say I’ve seen anyone like that.” Levi breathes and finally lowers the gun.

“We’ll have his picture on TV tomorrow. He’ll be caught. But right now you need to go indoors, ma’am.”

“As you say, officer. I’ll leave all the dangerous, daring work to you.”

Levi’s not sure what she does to the poor soldier, but his next words come out flustered and weak. “W-we’re only doing out duty, ma’am.”

The soldier moves on. The Companion waits until long after the footsteps fade.

Then she moves back into the alley. A moment later, the brick wall swings open. In the dim light coming from the doorway, Levi can see wavy black hair and bright red lipstick. The woman from the night before his graduation. The woman working with Erwin.

“I take it you’re here to see him.” Levi nods. “Does he know you’re coming?” Levi shakes his head. Then, “Can you walk?”

“Well enough,” Levi says, though when he looks down at his makeshift bandage he sees that blood has started to soak through it. His leg trembles just standing on it.

“Come on,” the Companion whispers. “I’ll get you up to him.”

Levi enters the stairwell, and she closes the door behind them. Without speaking, she takes the gun and lets Levi wrap his arm around her shoulders, taking some of his weight.

They make slow, hobbling progress up the five flights of stairs. She doesn’t make conversation as they do. The stairwell is completely silent and still, the sirens from outside barely loud enough to reach this hidden place. Levi wonders if she’s back from an appointment or some mission for Erwin. She wears a Companion dress, but her bearing as she hoists Levi up the stairs is anything but delicate.

Levi’s seeing spots by the time they finally reach Erwin’s door. The world has a dream-like quality to it. Even the pain seems distant as she raps on the door in the same complex rhythm Petra had used.

“Thanks,” Levi hears himself mutter. “I’d have been fucked without you.”  

She laughs softly. “Think nothing of it.”

The door opens.

Erwin’s face is white.

After that everything becomes confused, and Levi’s grip on reality slips as the pain in his leg climbs past what he can handle. Erwin’s there, and Levi’s so relieved he nearly collapses into him. Or maybe he does collapse. He can hear Erwin’s voice – that familiar voice. It’s worried now, worried about him, presumably. Asking things like, “Where’d you find him?” and “Where’s he hurt?”

Then Levi’s floating. Erwin’s chest is right next to his head. Levi puts his hand on that chest. Feels the broad, strong muscles underneath his tank top. Definitely Erwin. It’s been a few years but he knows that chest and he still loves it, even after all the shit Erwin’s put him through. Levi closes his eyes, curls up to it, and mutters, “Fuck you.”

“I’m sorry, Levi,” Erwin says. “I’m so sorry.”

A sheet goes on Erwin’s couch. Levi’s laid on top of it. Gentle fingers undo the makeshift bandage on his leg as Erwin instructs the woman to call for someone with a strange name.

“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry,” Erwin says. It’s said softly and passionately. It’s said in the same tone of voice Erwin once used when he called Levi beautiful, so beautiful.

He keeps saying it. It fades into the background, along with the sirens and the voice of the female Companion talking on a comm.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Levi’s fingers dip into his pocket, and he tosses the two data chips onto the coffee table. “From the lab. Hope they’re worth it.”

Erwin stares at them, shocked. “Levi . . .”

“Kiss my ass later,” he hears himself say, half-unconscious already. “I’m going to pass out now.”

And, safe under Erwin’s protection, he does.  

*****

The next time Levi wakes, a woman stands over him. She’s doing something to his leg, but Levi can’t feel it.

The woman looks up, somehow sensing that Levi’s awake. She’s short and blond, with green eyes and a close-cropped haircut. “I’m sewing up your wound,” she informs him. “There’s some local anesthetic on it to keep you from feeling pain. I would have woken you up before working on you, but you were bleeding out fast and we needed to act.”

Erwin’s standing over her shoulder, watching Levi carefully. Levi’s eyes are on him as he drifts back into unconsciousness.

The next thing Levi knows, it’s late in the afternoon and he’s alone.

He sits up carefully. The pain in his leg is present, but in a dim, distant sort of way. There’s a blue plaid blanket on him. He lifts this away from his leg and pulls up the cuff of his pants to look at the newly-stitched wound.

The room is empty, and its simple hominess contrasts sharply with the fear of the previous night. One of the chairs from the kitchen is next to the couch, though no one sits on it now. The data disks are no longer on the coffee table.

Levi swings his legs to the floor. His feet have been cleaned, he notices, and a bandage put on a cut on his sole that he hadn’t even noticed that he got. He presses his bare feet into the carpet, testing the pain, before slowly standing up.

His steps are limping, but he manages to walk without too much pain. Undoubtedly the anesthetic is still at least partially at work. He crosses to the window – the same window he saw Erwin looking out of the last time he was here. It’s covered with thick, dark blue curtains now, but Levi pushes one aside and looks out. The Playground district looks completely normal, filled with its daytime crowds of cheerful shoppers. Levi half expected to see it under military rule.

A door opens behind him.

Levi freezes, eyes out the window. He hears the footsteps on the carpet, and then hears them stop.

“Levi?” Then, “You shouldn’t be standing on that leg. You need to rest.”

Levi shrugs. “It won’t kill me.”

“It needs to heal.”

Levi braces himself. He turns to look at Erwin.

He’s wearing a tank top with jeans, standing at a door to Levi’s right. One that leads to a room Levi’s never been in. And he looks at Levi with an expression that Levi doesn’t recognize – it doesn’t seem to fit any of the Erwins Levi’s known.

“Please, sit down,” Erwin says. “I’ll get you anything you need.”

What Levi needs are some answers, and a safe place to go, and to be somewhere where he doesn’t have to look at Erwin. But he doubts Erwin can provide any of that. He limps back to the couch.

“Are you hungry?” Erwin asks as Levi sits back down. “Thirsty? Is your pain alright?”

“I’m fine,” Levi says.

“Levi, I am . . . I am so sorry for what you’ve been through. So incredibly sorry,” he sits down in the chair beside the couch and braces his forearms on his knees, leaning towards Levi. So earnest. Or at least appearing to be. You never could be sure with Erwin.

“You said that last night,” Levi says.

“I know, but I . . . I wanted to give a proper apology. While you were more conscious. I never intended things to get this far with you. I never intended for you to be in any real danger.”

“Yeah, well.” Levi sits back and draws the blanket over his legs. He uses it as an excuse to not look at Erwin. Levi had to suffer from a lack of eye contact the night of the riots. Now Erwin can see how it feels. “I’m sure there was always risk calculated into the plan.” Erwin’s quiet intake of breath shows that he recognizes his own words.

“I . . .” Erwin falls silent for a moment, and when he does speak, his voice is uncharacteristically hesitant. “I used you unfairly.”

Levi snorts. “That’s an understatement.”

“I didn’t mean for you to be placed at the laboratory.”

“I know,” Levi says. “I don’t really give a shit. Right now I’m having trouble caring about your excuses and explanations. Try again later.” He hears the bite in his words and feels as though he should regret them. He doesn’t.

Erwin freezes. After a long, stretched-out moment, he nods. He says, “Please call if you need anything. Anything at all.” And he retreats back into the other room.

Levi lies on his back and stares at Erwin’s ceiling. He lets himself drift in and out of sleep and tries not to let himself think of the future. If he even has one. The world outside Erwin’s window may look quiet, but he isn’t naïve enough to think the military has given up on him. He escaped a secure government research compound and stole some data from it. He’s probably the most wanted man in the damn universe.

And all this because he signed up for a night of casual sex three years ago.

*****

Levi wakes again as the sun is setting. Erwin sits on the chair next to him, reading a book. Levi shuts his eyes as soon as he sees him, not wanting to deal with the man.

Unfortunately, Erwin notices the moment Levi wakes. He closes his book and lays it down on the coffee table. “How are you feeling?”

Levi puts an arm over his eyes. “Fine.”

“Do you need anything?”

“No.”

“I made some dinner for you.” Levi drops his arm and opens his eyes. He doesn’t want to eat Erwin’s food. But he hasn’t eaten since dinner the day before, and at the thought of a meal his mouth begins to water. “And I put a stool in my shower in case you want to bathe, so you can wash without have to put weight on your injured leg. And I had a friend buy some clothes in your size so you can change out of your uniform.”

“What service,” Levi mutters. “Is this guilt?”

“Yes.”

Levi raises his eyebrows. He didn’t expect Erwin to actually respond to that, let alone respond affirmatively. It’s not usual for him to so directly state what sounds like the truth.

“I hate what I’ve done to you,” Erwin says. “Of all the people to sacrifice . . . if I could have kept you out of this completely, I would have.”

“No one made you hand me that letter all those weeks ago.”

“I know. But I thought it was the right course of action at the time. I truly thought you knew something about Project Miranda.”

That’s not the excuse Levi expected to hear. “Huh?”

“I owe you fuller explanation than you’ve received. You see, I gave you that letter in the hopes that you’d break the basic code in it. I had reason to believe that you were connected to Project Miranda.”

Levi’s surprised into sitting up. “Me?” he says. “What? Why the fuck would I have anything to do with any of this?” 

“Because the little information we had on the project that had your name all over it.”

“My name?”

“Not your full name, but your family name. Ackerman. And according to all public records, you and your relations are the only Ackermans who have been living on Sina in recent decades.”

“What, exactly, did this information say?”

“One moment. I’ll show you.”

Erwin gets up. He returns first with Levi’s dinner – a bowl of soup and a toasted sandwich delivered on a tray without Levi’s permission. But once it’s in front of him, Levi can’t hold himself back from devouring it. While he’s eating, Erwin retrieves a small handheld computer. This he sets down on the coffee table, propped up so that Levi can read what’s on the screen.

It’s a plain text document, not a word processor or a cortex page, and much of what he reads makes no sense. Jumbles of words and phrases that don’t seem to connect to each other fill the screen, and at the bottom of the page, words turn into a completely indecipherable code of random numbers and symbols. But it what has been decoded, Levi sees his name mentioned several times. “Formula derived from Ackerman,” it says at one point. And then, towards the bottom of the screen, “Samples to be obtained from Ackerman.” And again, “Ackerman solutions.”

“These are notes on Project Miranda – written in code, and written in vague terms so that it’s difficult to understand even when it is decoded,” Erwin says. “I initially suspected that these references to an Ackerman were unrelated to you, but I could not determine who they were related to. After all other options were exhausted, and I was desperate for some new information. I gave you the letter with the simple coded message – ‘Do you know about Project Miranda?’ – to see if you had any information. I assumed that if I was vague enough, you would be tempted to open the letter. And, of course, the contents of the letter were so inane that I knew it would be obvious that it was a coded message.”

Levi doesn’t tell Erwin that the coded message wasn’t obvious to him. It’s not his fault his mind isn’t as twisty as Erwin’s is. “Why didn’t you just ask me about it directly?”

“There was no safe environment in which to do so. I wasn’t going to risk speaking about my movement on a UG military base, and I knew I could not get you to meet with me privately without a great deal of planning. I did have a message for Pixis, besides. It was written in invisible ink on the back of the letter. I simply thought I could accomplish two tasks at once.”

“But I didn’t know anything. So it was pointless.”

“Yes, I suppose it was.”

“Good to know I ruined my life for a pointless mission.”

Erwin doesn’t bother to dispute that.

“So if that was the point of the first letter, what about the second?”

“Pixis and I communicate to an extent electronically, but those messages can be hacked, so we save the most sensitive information for handwritten letters in invisible ink. Since you were guarding the gate that night, you were convenient. The third message from Pixis was entrusted to you for a similar reason, though I did tell him to help me devise a way to see you in private, just in case you did have anything to say about Project Miranda. So, the third message was given to you both because Pixis needed to deliver essential information to me, and to give you an opportunity to communicate with me privately if needed.”

“Shit.” Levi shakes his head.

“I should have left you alone after the first message, I know. I pursued a dead end too hard, and I put you in danger as a result.”

“Not just that,” Levi says. “I thought you were just using me to exchange messages. But you had this whole other purpose underneath that that. All these plots within plots and little details that no one else would think of . . . how do you do that? How do you even fucking think of it all?”

Erwin doesn’t respond right away. He looks down at his lap for a moment, and Levi thinks he hears a sigh. “I seem to have a talent for it.”

“Have you ever done anything straightforward in your life?”

Erwin doesn’t answer. Instead, he says, “I cannot foresee everything, though. Pixis and I had discussed sending someone to infiltrate the laboratory, but I would have never imagined he would choose you.”

“So all those soldiers who arrested me, Pixis was using them as part of a plot to get me planted as your spy?”

“Yes,” Erwin says quietly. “They didn’t know it, of course. They simply thought they were doing their duty as soldiers. But they were in the right place at the right time through no fault of their own.”

“That’s fucking bullshit.”

“I am sorry.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard. I don’t care. What’s the point of all of this, anyway? Besides trying to overthrow the UG?”

“The UG is experimenting on people. Altering their minds.”

“I saw. And I guess you think you’re the one who has to stop them?”
“Yes.”

“How?”

“I’m not sure yet. There’s still much I need to learn – about what exactly they’re doing, and how, and who is supporting them. I cannot bring down the UG through mere force. Simply revealing the truth to the public will not be enough either – the UG controls the media and can easily devise a cover story. And if I were to somehow destroy the laboratories performing these experiments, they would simply be rebuilt. That’s why I need information on them. I am sure that, eventually, some weakness will be revealed. For that reason, the data you’ve brought me is invaluable. And I am deeply, profoundly in your debt.”

“Is there useful stuff on them?” Levi asks, sitting up a little. “I just grabbed what I could.”

“It’s encrypted. But what I’ve managed to decode so far seems promising.”

“Good. It better be fucking useful.”

“What you did last night . . .” Erwin begins, and then trails off. He starts again. “That you bothered to try to obtain information instead of simply saving yourself – I can’t express how grateful I am. You had no reason to help me, and yet you did.”

Levi shrugs. Last night he had wanted Erwin to thank him, but now that he is, he’s finding it very uncomfortable. “I just did what I thought made sense. If you can stop this freaky shit from happening, that’d be great. Those people were . . .” He remembers the emotionless smiles and constant silence of his fellow guards. “They were as good as dead, they were so far from being a real person.”

Erwin nods. “Perhaps the government is experimenting with creating compliant citizens.”

“Slaves,” Levi spits. “They almost did it to me. Took some preliminary tests. That’s when I knew I had to get out.”

“I had no idea,” Erwin says. “I would have never let you stay if I knew. Never.”

“Yeah, I know,” Levi sighs. “And there were others . . . Annie Leonhardt was there.”

Erwin doesn’t seem surprised by this revelation. He only nods sadly. “We knew she had been captured.”

“How long ago?”

“Two years. I suspected that her father knew about Project Miranda, and I gradually convinced her to send me his files. Apparently he had been a supporter of it before fully understanding the scope  of the project. According to Annie, he had a change of heart and warned her that he was going to reveal some information that could put them in danger. A few days later he was dead.”

“So she worked with you. But the UG knew to watch her and kidnapped her at the first sign of trouble.”

“Apparently.”

“Why not just kill her like her father?”

“That’s still a mystery.”

“She was . . .” Levi grits his teeth. “She wasn’t like the others. She wasn’t quiet and obedient. She was like . . . an animal. Just violent and unthinking.”

“Really? That’s the first I’ve heard of anything like that.”

“They called her a titan,” Levi says, remembering. “And there were a lot of others like her. Nearly killed me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Stop fucking saying that. It’s not going to fix anything.”

“Ok,” Erwin says, surprising Levi with how easily he agrees. Then after a moment he asks, “Is there anything that will?”

“No,” Levi says. Erwin can wallow in his guilt, for all Levi cares. Nothing he can tell him will change the mess that’s been made out of Levi’s life.

Though, there is a lot he’d like Erwin to tell him. And Erwin’s already talking more than he usually does. It occurs to Levi that perhaps he should take advantage of this guilt while it lasts. “Actually, yes. Tell me the truth.”

“What do you mean? I’ve been telling you the truth today.”

“The whole truth. I want every mystery about you solved.”

Erwin stares at Levi. He’s perfectly still, and his expression is completely composed, but there’s something about the set of his shoulders that suggests nervousness. “You realize I can’t do that. Giving away too much information can be incredibly dangerous for this movement I’ve built. If you’re captured-”

“I don’t care about the details of your little movement,” Levi says, interrupting him.        

“Then what do you want?”

“I want to know about every incident that has affected me,” Levi says. He pauses to sort through his questions and decide what to ask. Might as well start at the beginning. “I want to know how much of this was going on when we . . . knew each other before. And how much of . . . how you acted around me . . . was actually for the movement.”

“None of it,” Erwin says. “The movement was barely beginning when I knew you before. I hadn’t even seen the files with your name in them yet.”

Levi’s about to pose another question when Erwin interrupts him with, “No . . . that isn’t the full truth, I suppose.”

“Then what is?”

“There was one moment when I contacted you just to try to get information. I invited you to a dinner.”

Levi remembers that dinner. Very clearly. “That dinner . . . wasn’t real?”

“In the end, it was much more real than I ever intended. But my purpose in setting it up was to provide an environment where I could surreptitiously ask you about your uncle and gain more information about how he was connected with the murders. I didn’t know if you’d contract with me again after that night, and I didn’t want to let go of the opportunity to learn any secrets you may have known.”

“You tricked me? That whole shit about not wanting me to feel indebted to you was just a cover?”

“Yes.”

Levi’s hands clench the blanket hard enough to nearly rip it. He shouldn’t be surprised. It’s Erwin. Everything’s a trick with Erwin. But that dinner . . . that dinner was . . .

“It . . . severely backfired on me, as I believe you learned more about me than I learned about you,” Erwin says with a sigh.

“And what else?” Levi asks. “Was that last night with you a trick, too? How much, exactly, did you manipulate me?”

“Not as much as I should have, I promise you.”

“What does that mean?”

“You learned more about me than any client should ever know. On top of that, Companion policy dictates that if I start to develop genuine feelings for anyone, I must cut off ties with that client immediately and let the relationship whither. But I didn’t. And that is the full, honest truth.”

The room’s silent. Levi’s hands don’t loosen. Erwin’s face doesn’t show a thing.

After a few beats of uncomfortable quiet, Erwin says, “Those feelings are, of course, faded by now. The passage of time has diminished them.”

“Course. And I don’t feel anything for you, either.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to.”

“It’s been three years.”

“And it’s only natural that our feelings should fade with time and distance, not to mention what I’ve put you through.”

Another beat passes, and then Levi says, “Ok. So why were you so interested in Leonhardt’s murder?”

“I had obtained some clues that suggested something suspicious was happening that could, if uncovered, lead to the downfall off the current government. I’ve been servicing powerful people for some time, and in taking me into their confidences, they’ve revealed some interesting things to me. There’s Hitch Dreyse, of course, who had complained about her father meeting with unsavory people, including hitmen. And I’ve been servicing the president’s wife, who also-”

“Wait,” Levi interrupts him. “The president’s wife?”

“For some time now,” Erwin replies. “It really shouldn’t be surprising if you think about it. She has the same desires as anyone, despite her powerful connections. And, well, you’ve seen President Reiss.”

Levi stares. And then can’t keep himself from snorting with laughter. Yes. Yes, he has seen President Reiss.

“Anyway, she trusts me a great deal and observes more than the president realizes. And she, too, discussed the president hiring hitmen. So you see, I had good reason to suspect that the government was behind the murders. I just needed to find out why.”

“So you were just beginning to investigate that when I first met you,” Levi says. Then, remembering something else, he adds, “Is that why you were snooping around the Dreyse house right before Leonhardt’s murder?”

“Yes.”

“You took something from a desk drawer.”

“A receipt for payments to your uncle, written on paper and hidden beneath a false bottom.”

“Did Hitch ever catch on that you were spying on her father?”

“After a time, yes. But she didn’t stop contracting with me. She never got along well with her father.”

No loyalty, then. That sounds about right for Hitch. “So after all this time searching, you finally came up with the name of the secret project these people were murdered for. And not much else.”

“We discovered a great deal of other governmental crimes along the way,” Erwin says. “Bribery, corruption, manipulating the media, rigging the courts. Of course, the residents of the UG have lived so long with such things that they’ll barely blink an eye at them. We need something shocking if we’re to gain any momentum for an uprising. And for a long time, I was certain Miranda was it. Thanks to your efforts, I’ve been proven correct.”

“So you raided the Sina Military Base for information on Miranda,” Levi says, working to connect each event that he witnessed

“Yes. Pixis manipulated it so that copies of data would be stored there and ensured we’d have an easy time getting in and out.”

“And then once you found out what lab it was all happening in, you got a spy in there. Which was accidentally me.”

“Correct.”

“And the riots last week? Blowing up government clinics and all that?”

“A multi-purpose attack.”

“Because nothing you ever do has only one purpose.”

“We stole some arms and ammunition and broke into various other government buildings for recon purposes. We had reason to believe that the clinic was attached to the Miranda lab, supplying it with chemicals and possibly with test subjects as well. We stole some data and then blew the place up so our theft wouldn’t be detectable.”

“I see.” It makes sense. As long as Levi doesn’t remember the bodies lying facedown in the rubble, it makes sense.

“And now I’ve told you much more than anyone outside the movement knows, and more than many inside it know as well,” Erwin says. “I felt I owed you answers after what you’ve been through, but know that not a single word of what I’ve said can ever leave this room under any circumstances. I will be sending you off world soon so that you cannot compromise us.”

“Off world?”

“I believe that’ll be safest.”

“I’ll be hunted as much on this world as on the next.”

“Not on Oceanus. Rebels have taken control of the majority of the planet. You’ll be safe there.”

Levi nods. He doesn’t like the idea of leaving the only planet he’s ever known, but he can see the logic in it. He’ll be on the run for the rest of his life if he doesn’t leave. Maybe he’ll find Kenny on Oceanus. He only wishes he had the opportunity to say goodbye to Hanji, and Farlan and Isabel. “Alright then.”

“I’ll get that taken care of as soon as possible,” Erwin says. “In the meantime, I have some safehouses I can put you in.”

“Good,” Levi says. Then, when an uncomfortable silence falls, Levi says, “I’ll take that shower now.”

“Of course. Let me help you up.”

“Don’t bother,” Levi says, throwing the blanket aside and painfully pushing himself to his feet. “I’ll walk by myself.”

It’s somewhat satisfying to leave Erwin reaching out to Levi, the guilt plain on his face.

*****

The shower feels amazing. So do the new clothes that Erwin has left for him, a t-shirt and sweatpants made of the softest material.

Erwin has an appointment that night, a strange reminder of his other profession. Levi watches from the couch as he emerges from the bathroom, his hair styled and his suit pressed. A transition into the Companion Levi first met.

Erwin haltingly explains that the living room and the entertaining room share a wall, and he’s not sure what Levi will hear. Levi doesn’t need any more prompting to move to Erwin’s bedroom.

He sits on an armchair, not the bed – does everything in his power to not even look at the bed. There’s a TV in this room, and Levi watches old movies from back when everyone still lived on Ancient Earth. He watches sci-fi movies about alien attacks and laughs at the outdated special effects and even more outdated ideas. Humanity’s gone pretty deep into space at this point, and no one’s come across extra-terrestrial monsters. Humans do a decent enough job of being monsters on their own.

He’s dozing off by the time Erwin returns, wearing his black silk bathrobe and carrying the pieces of his suit. Levi rouses himself when Erwin comes in and rubs his eyes. “Good fuck?” he asks.

“The engagement went smoothly,” Erwin replies. “Did you have a pleasant night?”

“You’re talking like a Companion,” Levi says, carefully lifting himself to his feet.

“It can be a bit hard to turn off. Do you need any help getting back to the couch?”

“Not from you,” Levi mutters.

He limps across the dark living room and collapses onto the couch, leg throbbing by the time he reaches it. He falls asleep to the sound of Erwin in the shower.

*****

Light peeks around the curtains when Levi wakes next, though he can’t be certain what time it is. Erwin isn’t up yet.

He limps to the kitchen and steals a piece of fruit from the refrigerator. Opens the cabinet where he remembers Erwin keeps his tea and stares at it for a moment. Everything’s still there (including the male performance enhancement). He sees the tea that he had three years ago, and then selects something else. Puts the kettle on and drops the bag of black tea in a mug that looks different from the one he used before.

He’s sitting on a kitchen chair sipping his tea when Erwin appears. He freezes in the doorway when he sees Levi, then shakes his head a little, a strange look on his face.

“What?”

“Nothing. Good morning. Glad to see you’ve helped yourself. How’s your leg feeling?”

Levi scowls. He’s about to pressure him into explaining what that headshake was about when a knock sounds on the door, that same strange rhythm that Petra and the female Companion had used. Erwin excuses himself and goes to answer it.

Through the open kitchen doorway, Levi sees a group of black-clad people enter. Erwin ushers them into the room against the far wall that Levi hasn’t yet been in. They disappear behind the door and don’t come out for hours.

More of Erwin’s shady business. Levi considers eavesdropping. Probably would have if the opportunity presented itself a few weeks ago. Now he just can’t muster up the energy.

He brings his tea into Erwin’s bedroom and settles on the armchair, turning on the TV. Trying not to look at the unmade bed. There’s a lot of talk about Levi on the news. How he murdered his fellow guards in cold blood and stole from the laboratory before disappearing into the night, probably to kill more innocent, law-abiding citizens of the UG. The person they paint him as really is fascinating. Someone who commits crimes simply for the sake of committing crimes, maybe scarred from his Underground days, maybe bent on undoing the civilized class that he had lived among throughout his adolescence. People he hated from the military academy give testimonies about how they never did trust him. Talking heads remind everyone of the murder of Lord Leonhardt and how he got off on that for no apparent reason.

Two heavily done up women on a talk show have a lively debate with each other and try not to make it obvious that their debate is dictated by teleprompters. The debate is about him, of course. It doesn’t seem like there’s much televised content out there that isn’t right now. One woman thinks that he’s a solo agent. The other thinks that he’s connected to the rebels who blew up government buildings the previous week. Levi wonders if they’re both wrong or both right.

One woman pauses with her hand on her ear. “I’m getting word of some breaking news in connection to this story,” she says. Levi tenses. He listens, half expecting to hear sirens or pounding feet approaching he Companion house. “Close friends of the culprit have been arrested for interrogation. Within a few days time, we should have more details on who this mysterious Ackerman is and what’s motivating him. The arrestees are two young soldiers who stuck by Ackerman during his military academy days, and we have it on good authority that they were widely disliked by their classmates. They-”

Levi turns the TV off.

He walks across the apartment. He can’t feel the pain in his leg. He raises a hand to the doorknob of the room that Erwin’s in, but the door’s locked. He has to try a couple times to make sure that’s why he can’t open it, not because his hands are shaking too much.

He pounds on the door in that same strange rhythm he’s heard others use, and Erwin opens it. With a dry mouth Levi says, “I’ve found your next mission.”

Chapter Text

“Our military contacts can discover what prison they’re being held at,” Erwin says. “I’ll speak with them later today. Mike, begin assembling a squad for the prison break. You’ll perform recon tomorrow night, and we’ll tentatively schedule extraction for the night after.”

“I was going to ferry a message to Schultz today,” one of the men in the room says. “I can include a query about these prisoners.”

“Erwin,” Mike says, his voice firm enough to cut off the conversation despite his quiet tone.

Levi glares at the man. He remembers him from when coordinating the dinner Levi had with Erwin all those years ago. Then, he had said he was a Companion manager, but apparently he, too, leads a double life. The way Erwin mentioned him while giving his orders suggests that he’s someone Erwin trusts a lot, a second in command or something like that. And Levi has a bad feeling about what he’s about to say.

“I’m surprised you’re taking up these soldiers’ case,” Mike says in an even tone. “It isn’t like you to stray from the main course of the mission.”

Erwin hesitates, and then says, “Of course. You’re right.”  His face seems to cloud over, without leaving any expression behind.  

Levi remembers Erwin on the night of the riots, when he discussed how some deaths are necessary. He remembers how his face was completely devoid of expression, just as it is now, and a flare of anger rises in Levi’s chest that’s stronger than any emotion he’s felt in years.

“Right,” he spits. “Because I guess saving a couple of innocent people from brutal torture and possible death is just too inconvenient for you and your grand mission.”

The other men in the room, who had mostly ignored Levi even as he spoke about Farlan and Isabel, are now shocked into giving him their full attention. Levi limps away from where he’s been standing near the wall to approach Erwin. “You disgust me. You sacrifice people left and right in the name of good, but there’s nothing remotely good about letting people get tortured into-”

“Into giving away sensitive information,” Erwin interjects. “Which I’m sure they know, being so close to you. No, you’re right, Levi. We cannot let them remain in jail. We have no choice but to free these soldiers and then make sure they’re out of enemy hands by putting them on the same transport that’ll be taking you off world.”

Levi’s momentarily surprised into speechlessness as he tries to figure out the meaning behind Erwin’s words. Farlan and Isabel don’t know any sensitive information. And Erwin has no reason to think they do.

“Gentlemen, I believe we all have our orders for this mission and the ones we discussed earlier. Meeting adjourned. We’ll discuss our progress tomorrow.”

The men mutter goodbyes and ask a few last-minute questions as they make their way out. Mike shoots Erwin one last questioning glance, but he doesn’t say anything. In moments, Erwin and Levi are alone.

“What was that about?” Levi asks.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Erwin replies. He walks out of the room, and Levi limps after him. He watches Erwin carefully lock the door and then check the lock. The room had been empty but for some chairs and some computers, but Levi can imagine what kinds of clandestine data stored on those computers that would necessitate such careful locking.

“You do know what I mean,” Levi retorts.

“You got what you wanted. I wouldn’t look too closely at why.” Erwin crosses his living room at a brisk pace, giving the impression that he’s trying to outdistance himself from the conversation. Levi has to hobble as fast as his injury allows to keep up.

“Well, nothing’s ever as it seems with you, so I’m going to look as close as I’d like.”

“Ah. You’re learning.”

“Is that supposed to be a fucking joke?”

“You should sit,” Erwin says with a glance at Levi’s leg.

Levi limps so he’s directly in front of Erwin and obstinately stands in his way.

Erwin shakes his head, and on his lips is something that could almost be considered a smile. “It’s nice to see that the years haven’t taken away your charm,” Erwin says. “Very well. The truth is, for once, exactly as it might seem. I know that these soldiers probably don’t have any sensitive information. But they might. Given how close they were to you, they were probably aware of your movements and could reveal something that they don’t even realize is dangerous. More than that, I’m fully aware that if I didn’t authorize a prison break, you would either berate me until I did or try to conduct one yourself, and I don’t want either of those things to happen.”

“So you’re doing it to shut me up.”

“I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” Erwin says. “And for once, the right thing to do doesn’t get in the way of what I have to do.”

Levi wants to ask what he means by that, but the rhythmic knock sounds on the door, and Erwin ends the conversation to answer it. Two women enter, both of whom Levi recognizes.

“Levi!” Petra says. “I heard what you did. Are you al-”

“Why are you standing?” the blonde woman says, cutting her off. It takes Levi a moment to figure out why she looks familiar. He was only half conscious when she was sewing up his leg. “You shouldn’t be putting any weight on that leg. Has he been standing long?”

“Unfortunately, he has,” Erwin says, betraying him.

“I feel fine,” Levi says.

“Sit,” the blonde woman says in a tone so authoritative that Levi actually obeys her before realizing that he doesn’t have to.

“Levi, this is Nanaba, the movement’s physician,” Erwin says. “I don’t believe you were properly introduced before.”

“We met, but I’m pretty sure you had no idea what was going on,” Nanaba says. “Pleasure.” She holds out her hand, and as Levi shakes it, shr adds, “That stunt you pulled at that lab is one of the most gutsy things I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of shit with this movement. Needless to say you’re a legend now as far as the soldiers are concerned. And I just want to say thank you for putting your life on the line for the cause.”

“Oh. Uh. You’re welcome.” Levi hadn’t really expected anyone would be thanking him. Or considering him a legend. Or, really, thinking about him at all.

“Now for what I came here for. Mind if I check on your leg?” Levi nods, and Nanaba kneels down to roll up the cuff of his pants.

“I second Nanaba,” Petra says. “I was afraid you had changed, but what you did last night was so brave. I . . . I have a lot of respect for you.”

“Well, I . . .” Levi’s words falter. He never thought of himself as brave or daring. He just did what he had to do in the moment. Levi wants to tell these women that they’re mistaken, but he’s not sure how.

“Petra,” Erwin says, saving him. “Shall we have our meeting?”

He and Petra disappear behind the locked door while Nanaba examines Levi’s leg. She concludes by saying that it should heal well – if Levi doesn’t stand too much, of course – and joins Petra in the other room. The two leave after half an hour of some kind of private discussion and thank Levi once again on their way out.

Erwin doesn’t emerge from the room for several more minutes. Levi’s staring at his bookshelf and wondering if he’s allowed to read one of those old paper books when he finally hears the door open. He doesn’t bother to look up until he hears Erwin’s footsteps stop right next to the couch.

“Levi. Someone will be by to take you to a safehouse tonight.”

“The plan to get Farlan and Isabel?”

“Is well under way. Petra and Nanaba will both be taking part in it, as will I.”

“And I guess I’m not allowed to take part.”

“Of course not,” Erwin says. “You’re injured. You need to allow yourself time to heal. Besides that, you’re currently the most wanted man in Sina, and you’re thoroughly uninitiated as to how we perform operations.”

Levi frowns. Erwin’s completely right. He hates that Erwin’s right. And he hates the thought of Farlan and Isabel’s lives being entirely out of his hands.

“Can you tell me what the operation involves? Just so I know?”

“No. We keep such things secret in case one of us is compromised.” Then, on seeing Levi’s expression, Erwin adds, “I promise you that I will do everything in my power to free them. No harm will come to your friends.”

“Is this more guilt?”

Erwin smiles. “Can I not wish to aid you without an ulterior motive?”

“If you really cared about aiding me, you never would have gotten me caught up in this mess to begin with.”

After a beat of silence, Erwin says quietly, “That’s fair enough.”

*****

The safehouse, Levi’s unhappy to discover, is located in the Underground. A condemned apartment building has been converted into a secret stronghold, its windows filled in with concrete, its doors barred and padlocked, and its rooms stuffed with idealistic soldiers. They enter through an unassuming deli shop in the Air district above it and descend a secret staircase into the top floors of the complex. Levi tries not to think too hard about what neighborhood he’s in.

All the beds in the place are full, but they find a spare mattress for Levi and shove it in the only place it won’t get in anyone’s way – a cleaning supply closet. Levi’s actually pretty satisfied with the arrangement. It’s private, and while it may not be very glamorous, he can at least rest assured that it’s clean.

Levi arrives in the middle of the night, and if anyone thinks it odd to see an additional face the following morning, no one says anything of it. He gets his breakfast from a small cafeteria on one of the bottom floors and sits alone observing the people around him, trying to understand what sort of person would sign up for Erwin’s crusade.

He’s amazed at the scope of the operation around him. This safehouse only holds about sixty people, but if this is just one of many safehouses, and if there are more people, like Erwin or Petra, who outwardly live their normal lives and stay in their normal homes, then the soldier count must be in the hundreds. Keeping all of these people armed, fed, and informed must be a nightmarish administrative undertaking, and Levi has trouble imagining that even Erwin could pull it off while also coming up with convoluted plots and being a full-time Companion on the side.

After breakfast most people seem to have chores assigned to them or business for the movement to attend to, but Levi has nothing to do with himself and spends the day limping around the safehouse with a pair of crutches taken from the place’s infirmary. He sees a couple dingy recreation rooms, a communal kitchen, an armory, and a bunch of barracks. And on the lowest floor – a basement even by Underground standards – he comes across a sight that feels very familiar.

Pairs face off against each other in roped-off sparring rings, while other people pound on punching bags at the edges of the room. Behind thick metal doors, Levi can hear the crack of gunshots going off in steady succession. Foam and plastic weapons of every shape, size, and weight hang from the walls.

A training gym. Smaller and more crowded than what he was used to at the military academy, but with all the expected sights and smells and sounds of a training gym. Levi enters slowly, the room taking him back to memories that aren’t entirely pleasant. And yet in a way, after all that’s happened over the past few weeks, it’s almost comforting. At least Levi always knew what was going on when he was in a training gym. He knew what the challenges were and how to survive them.

Levi leans against the wall of the gym and watches the trainees work. A few people look decent – there’s an Asian girl pounding on a speed bag that has especially good form – but the vast majority of people in this room are pathetic. They’re young and clearly inexperienced, all their moves sloppy, imprecise, and slow. It’s almost painful to watch. Levi sees two young boys directly in front of him grappling with loose grips, missing blocks, and failing to take advantage of blatant openings. The brown-haired boy manages to get his blond friend on the ground, thereby winning the match, but in Levi’s view it’s not so much that he succeeded as that he didn’t fail quite as much as the other boy. Both boys seem completely unaware of this fact, however, and brown-hair cheers loudly at his success.

Levi lets out a derisive snort that must have been more audible than he intended, because brown-hair quickly abandons his celebration and leans on the ropes, fixing Levi with an angry stare. “You got a problem?”

“I got a problem with your sparring,” Levi replies.

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“It’s shit.”

“I just won my match,” the boy protests.

“Because your partner’s shit, too. You go up against a real fighter and you’d be floored in seconds.”

This boy apparently has anger management issues, because his nostrils flare and his face reddens. He jumps through the ropes and onto the floor before stalking over to Levi and getting in his face. “Who the fuck are you to tell me how to fight?”

Giving his name or even his military rank probably won’t mean a thing to this boy, but if Petra and Nanaba are to be believed, there’s something else that would impress him. “You hear about the guy who escaped from the government lab? I’m him.”

The boy rapidly goes from angry to astonished. His big green eyes widen, and he actually takes a step back. “You?” he says. “You took on a whole regiment of soldiers unarmed?”

That’s something of an exaggeration. Levi didn’t get past a whole regiment, and he was armed for most of the fight. But he doesn’t see any harm in taking advantage of this boy’s misconception. “Yup.”

“But . . . but you’re so . . .” His eyes flicker up and down. Then he meets Levi’s gaze and sees a glare that makes what was undoubtedly a comment about Levi’s size die on his tongue.

“Height’s irrelevant if you know what you’re doing,” Levi says.

“Oh,” the boy says, clearly uncomfortable. In the span of ten seconds he’s gone from angry to shocked to embarrassed. This kid is clearly an emotional whirlwind.

To Levi’s surprise, the boy’s partner pipes up from inside the ring. “So what were we doing wrong?”

He’s a petite boy, almost girlish looking, with blond hair and blue eyes that are similar in color to Erwin’s. Levi can take one look at him and know he’s not meant to be a soldier. But his question is earnest.

Levi limps toward the ring on his crutches. Out of the corner of his eye he notices most of the other people in the gym watching this exchange. The girl at the speed bag had stopped her own workout long ago and is watching Levi with a critical look, and even those who are pretending to still be practicing have one eye on Levi. He guesses it’s not too often that a stranger comes in and insults one of their comrades. Or maybe they heard Levi say who he was.

“It’s hard to know where to start. You were barely doing anything right. I would show you some things, but.” Levi nods toward his injured leg.

“You could tell us,” blondie suggests.

Levi considers it. The boy seems eager, but Levi’s not sure how helpful it’d be to describe fighting techniques without demonstrating them. And it’s probably not worth the bother to try. These kids aren’t anything to him. So he’s surprised when he finds himself saying, “I’ll talk you through some things. You’ll need a partner, though, so your friend here has to go along with it.”

Brown-hair crosses his arms and looks between Levi and his friend. When his friend nods at him, he says, “Fine. But only because Armin wants to.” He tries the layer his words with reluctance, but the speed with which he jumps back into the ring betrays how eager he really is.

Levi limps closer to the edge of ring. Now a small crowd of people have started watching, gathering a few feet away to see what the guy who took on a whole regiment unarmed has to say about fighting. “Let’s start with some basics. Let me see you throw a punch.”

Blondie goes first, and he’s barely moved before Levi says, “No. Not like that. Don’t swing from the shoulder. It’s weaker and slower. Keep your fists in front of your torso at all times, and snap them out from there. Who taught you to fight like that?”

“Mikasa,” he says, nodding toward the Asian girl.

“No, she didn’t. I saw her working the bag earlier. She knows what she’s doing and you don’t.”            

“We kind of taught ourselves,” brown-hair volunteers. “Mikasa’s shown us some things – she used to do competitive martial arts. And sometimes ranking officers will visit and teach us something when they have time. The commander taught me how to shoot a gun a few weeks ago.”

Levi’s amazed at the thought of Erwin knowing how to shoot well enough to teach it. But he shouldn’t be. He should know by now that Erwin’s a fucking well of surprises. In addition to firing a gun, Erwin probably knows how to swing from a trapeze and do competitive fucking flamenco dancing.

“You can’t teach yourself combat,” Levi says. “Not with sparring partners who are just as shitty as you are. You have this massive underground movement and you don’t even have a combat instructor?”

“We’re kind of spread a little thin,” brown-hair shoots back with not a little bit of sass. “Everyone who can fight is actually fighting, not hanging around teaching it. And it’s not like we can put an ad out asking for a combat instructor.”

“Well, you’ve got one today. Now let’s see your excuse for a punch.”

*****

Brown-hair (who’s actually called Eren) and blondie (Armin) don’t end up being Levi’s only students that day. A crowd of people come to watch the lesson, and when those two are done, others step forward to ask Levi if they can get some pointers as well.

Levi had always assumed that he would be a shitty teacher if the need ever arose. And it’s true that not all his students seem to like him. A handful of the kids get surly or offended when Levi offers a particularly blunt observation. But all of them learn. They learn a lot faster than Levi would have expected, too. And it’s feels surprisingly good to see these brats getting better. So the next day, with nothing to do and no word from Erwin, Levi finds himself returning to the training gym.

His classes grow in size. Levi has to teach several people at once to accommodate them all, setting them to drills and limping between all the rings as they work. The story about his daring escape must have reached further than he thought, because there’s no way Levi’s getting all this attention and respect due to his winning personality.

He manages to occupy himself in teaching these young soldiers until late into the night. And it’s a good thing he does, because otherwise he would have spent the whole day thinking about the fate of Farlan and Isabel. The operation to free them is scheduled for that night, but he has no idea what the plan is and no way to know how it’s going. It’s enough to make Levi paralyzed with fear if he stops to think about it. And so he doesn’t think about it.

He can’t distract himself forever, though. The soldiers eventually stop showing up for lessons as night falls. Levi has little choice but to retreat to his broom closet when everyone else settles into their barracks. And after that point, there’s not much Levi can do except lie on his mattress and imagine all the ways the operation could go wrong.

Levi resigns himself to a sleepless night. There’s no way he can calm down enough to sleep. He spends the whole night telling himself that they’ll be fine, that Erwin’s smart enough to come up with a foolproof prison break plan. But he can’t believe it. Not until he sees his friends for himself.

When he hears panicked shouts and calls for a doctor in the early hours of the morning, Levi’s almost not surprised.

He jumps off of his mattress and runs through the complex, ignoring the shooting pains of his injured leg as he makes his way toward the noise. A hundred horrifying scenarios occur to him as he runs, and he wonders which one he’ll see – Farlan and Isabel dead, or dying? Or perhaps tortured so brutally that they’ve been permanently maimed?

But Levi rounds a corner and sees Farlan and Isabel running toward him, all in one piece. He’s taken by surprise into simultaneous embraces from the two of them that nearly knock him over.

Levi wraps his arms around them and, though he’s still confused, allows himself to sink into relief for a moment. His friends are here, on their feet. Nothing can truly be terrible if that’s the case.

“We’re alright,” Isabel says into Levi’s shoulder, sensing his relief.

“We’re alright,” Farlan echoes. “No small thanks to you. They said you made them come and rescue us.”

Levi takes one step back, remaining close enough to keep his hands on his friends’ shoulders, and looks at them. He searches for any sign of injury, but finds none. “I’m so sorry I got you into this mess.”

Farlan shrugs. “You got us into it, but you got us out, too. I’d say we’re even.”

“What happened to you while you were locked up?”

“They asked us a lot of questions we didn’t understand,” Isabel says. “But that’s all. No one hurt us.”

Levi lets out a breath that he feels he’s been holding all day. “But what happened? If the mission was successful, what was all that noise just now?”

Farlan and Isabel glance at each other, their expressions growing serious. “One of the operatives,” Isabel says. “His name was Erwin. He seemed like one of the leaders.”

Levi’s heart seems to stop beating. “Is he . . .?”

“He’s alive,” Farlan says. “But he was pretty badly hurt.”

“He jumped on a grenade for us,” Isabel says. “Managed to throw it away, but he still got some of the blast.”

“How badly hurt?” Levi asks. The words come out strangled, his mouth dry.

“His arm was . . .” Isabel trails off.

“He’ll live,” Farlan takes over for her. “But it wasn’t pretty. Do you know him well?”

Levi can only nod mutely. He’s plummeted from relief to anxiety again. Erwin always seemed undamageable. For all his hatred toward the man, the thought of him injured seems to tilt Levi’s world on its side. And what did Isabel mean about his arm? Why couldn’t she finish her sentence?

Isabel wraps her hand around Levi’s elbow, gently pulling him out of his thoughts. “He’s with the doctor right now,” she says, reassuring him. “And she seems really know what she’s doing. I’m sure he’ll be ok. Come on. We have a lot to catch up on.

*****

They barely begin catching up before the three of them fall asleep, curled up against each other on Levi’s mattress in the broom closet. It’s impossible to tell what time it is when Levi wakes, but he feels rested enough that he guesses it’s late morning. Farlan and Isabel are still asleep on either side of him, so peaceful Levi can’t bear the thought of waking them.

He dozes for a while, enjoying the luxury of being able to do so and the peacefulness of knowing his friends are with him. But thoughts of the previous night and questions about Erwin’s state invade his peace until he can no longer stay in one place. Careful not to wake his friends, Levi gets up and leaves the broom closet.

He limps on his crutches down to the infirmary, careful to avoid anyone he may recognize in case they ask where he’s going. Fortunately, the place seems to be almost abandoned when Levi arrives. Most of the sick rooms are empty, and he has to go all the way to the end of the hall to find Erwin.

Through a small window set into the door of his room, Levi tries to get a sense of how badly Erwin’s hurt. He sits propped up in a hospital bed, his face pale and his hair falling across the pillow in mussed strands. There’s a massive bandage on his far shoulder. Levi can’t see a major injury, but he knows one occurred from the look on Erwin’s face. It’s different than anything Levi’s ever seen from him before.

No matter what persona he has on, Erwin always gives the impression that he’s thinking, his mind fully engaged with whatever’s happening around him. But today his eyes are hollow, staring at nothing, and he doesn’t give any sign that he’s registering his surroundings. In fact, he isn’t doing anything at all. It’s as though the Erwin Levi knows has departed, and all that’s left behind is an empty shell. Some sliver of residual compassion for the man aches in Levi’s chest.

Levi’s considering entering the room when he sees movement against the far wall and realizes that Erwin’s not alone. He backs away from the window just as Mike steps closer to Erwin’s bed.

Erwin speaks now, and Levi finds himself standing against the door listening, hoping for a sign that Erwin’s coming out of this painfully lifeless state.

“I’ll try to keep entertaining,” he says to Mike in a voice that sounds weak and thin. “We’ll have to develop a believable story for these injuries. An automobile crash might do.”

“You could always stop,” Mike replies. “You’re close to retirement age anyway. And lord knows you have enough to do without your night job.”

“Being a Companion is a good cover,” Erwin says. “And it gives me an excuse to get close to members of the nobility.”

“You’ll have fewer clients.”

“My regulars will remain, and they’re the ones who matter.”

“Don’t decide this today,” Mike protests. “You shouldn’t even be thinking about work right now. You just lost your arm, for god’s sake.”

Levi barely holds in a gasp. The temptation to peer through the window at the bandaged shoulder is almost too strong to resist. What does Mike mean by that? Is Erwin’s arm paralyzed or truly gone? How much of it? Would anyone contract with a one-armed Companion?

The next thing Erwin says is too soft for Levi to hear, and he has to practically press his ear against the door to catch the last few words.

“One arm is hardly repayment enough.”

“You have nothing to repay,” Mike asserts.

“You know that’s not true.” A pause, and then, “Perhaps I’ll pay off the rest of my debts in hell someday.”

“Erwin,” Mike says. “When you ran at that grenade, what were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that I needed to save the lives of Levi’s friends.”

“You saw it coming, and you ran to meet it and then throw it away,” Mike replies. “But you would have had enough time to run and take shelter. And that would have been safer for everyone.”

“What are you suggesting?” Erwin asks softly.

There’s a stretch of painful silence, and then Mike says, “Perhaps you didn’t think things through.”

“Perhaps,” Erwin replies. But Erwin always thinks things through.

Before Mike can say anything more, Erwin says, “Would you mind finding Levi and sending him to me? There’s something important about his connection with Miranda that I need to speak with him about.”

And with that Levi knows that when Mike does come to find him, he has to be far away. There’s no way anyone can suspect that Levi heard that discussion.

Levi hurries through the safehouse until he arrives back at the broom closet. Farlan and Isabel have disappeared, probably in search of breakfast and possibly in search of him. He feels a little guilty at having ignored his friends in favor of looking after a man he hates.

Someone knocks on the doorframe of the closet. Levi tries his best to feign surprise at seeing Mike there. Mike stares at Levi for a bit longer than seems normal, but if he notices the faked expression, he doesn’t say anything. Instead, he delivers the summons Levi expected and leads him back to Erwin’s room.

Levi enters the room and approaches Erwin’s bed. He tries not to immediately look at his right arm, but it draws his gaze and Levi’s unable to stop himself. The bandages stop halfway down his bicep, and there’s nothing below them.

“A rather gruesome sight, isn’t it?” Erwin asks in a calm, composed voice.

Levi draws his gaze up to Erwin’s face. The vacant look that had been in his eye is gone, and he seems to have combed his hair. He almost looks like his normal self. “What happened?”

“The operation hit a snag in its final stages. A prison guard took a different route than expected and saw us. The alarms were raised, and guards came out in force to prevent us from escaping. Someone threw a small grenade when we were only yards away from the van. I saw it rolling across the ground toward your friends and knew I needed to keep it away from them. I hoped to throw it far enough away that it would explode at a safe distance. I was a fraction of a second too late.”  

All of this is delivered in an even tone, free from distress or regret or, really, any emotion at all. Levi doesn’t know why he expected any different.

He sits down in a metal folding chair on Erwin’s left. The angle hides the stump, and Levi’s grateful. “You seem to be taking this well,” he says.

Erwin glances at his stump, as though expecting it to elicit some kind of emotion. If it does, Levi can’t see it. “I suppose I reconciled myself to the likelihood of injury a long time ago.”

Levi thinks of Erwin’s conversation with Mike and suppresses a shiver. What kind of person can be so calm about such a dramatic injury? What was he actually thinking when he ran for that grenade?

“Still,” Levi insists. It suddenly feels extremely important that he gets Erwin to admit just how shaken he must be by this. “You have to be upset at how big an injury it is.”

“It is rather inconvenient.”

“Inconvenient?”

“But I will have to learn to work around it. I called you here to discuss a different matter, though.” Erwin picks up a handheld computer from the table next to his bed and pulls up a window on the touch screen. “I’ve set a very talented cryptographer to work on the data you stole from the lab. It’ll still be some time until we’ve decoded everything, but he has noticed several repeated words. And a repeated name.”

“Why does this matter to me?”

“Because, Levi, the repeated name is yours.”

Chapter Text

“Levi, every time I think your story can’t get weirder, it does,” Farlan says.

Levi sighs. “You’re fucking right about that,” he says as he pushes the rest of his dinner – some dry chicken dish with a really questionable sauce – onto Farlan’s tray.

Levi brings to food much of the same particularity he brings to cleanliness. But Farlan’s not nearly as picky, and he’s been eating Levi’s rejected meals since early in their military academy days. It’s strangely comforting now to spoon the shitty food he’s gotten from the safehouse’s cafeteria onto Farlan’s plate. One normal, familiar habit to keep him grounded. And Levi thinks to himself that even though he’ll soon be on a brand new planet, he’ll be with familiar people. And considering that, it’s really not the worst fate.

“So, what exactly did Erwin tell you?” Isabel asks.

“That based on what they’ve decoded so far, there’s something about me . . . somehow . . . that helps them make the chemical formula they’re using in Miranda.”

“That’s all he had? Just ‘something about you’?”

“Yeah. The data just said ‘formula derived from Levi Ackerman.’ Over and over.”

Erwin had had to show Levi his computer screen to convince him. Not that seeing his name on the screen made Levi feel any better. The thought still makes him sick to his stomach, that he could be a part of this whole mess and not even know it.

“You were at the Miranda lab. Did they treat you any differently from the other people there?” Farlan asks.

“No. Maybe they . . . I don’t know. Didn’t want me to suspect anything? They did take blood and saliva samples at one point, but I thought it was to make me into one of them.”

“This is really fucked up,” Farlan says, unnecessarily.

“It also said . . .” Levi grimaces. This part especially freaks him out. “The data also said something about ‘Ackerman blood’ a couple times. So we’re pretty sure there’s something in my blood connected to the experiments. Somehow.”

“How would they get at your blood?” Isabel asks.

Levi shrugs. “I’ve had blood drawn at the doctor’s office every year since I’ve been adopted.”

“That would make sense,” Farlan says. “No one would question their doctor if they said they needed to do a couple blood tests.”

“Yeah.” Levi looks down at his empty tray but doesn’t really see it. He can’t reconcile himself with the thought that someone – maybe a doctor, or his father, or someone else – stole something from his body without him knowing. But more than that, he can’t accept the idea that he’s somehow a part of Project Miranda. All those people with blank stares and mindless smiles, blindly doing whatever they’re told to do . . . if he’s a part of that, Levi can’t see how he can ever forgive himself.

Isabel’s hand rests on top of Levi’s, which has been clenching on the table without him realizing it. “It’s ok,” she says.

“This would make Project Miranda my fault, wouldn’t it?”

Farlan and Isabel’s “no’s” are loud and in unison. “That doesn’t make any sense,” Farlan protests.

Isabel’s hand tightens on Levi’s. “You didn’t do anything,” she says. “You didn’t even know what was happening. It’s the UG that’s done this, and the UG only. Place the blame where it belongs.”

Levi sighs. He glances from one to the other, and then flips his palm up so Isabel can squeeze his hand. “You know,” he says, “I think I’m really looking forward to running to Oceanus with you guys. I’m really looking forward to not having to deal with all this shit.”

“You’ll need to deal with it for at least one more night,” a voice says from behind Levi.

It’s not Erwin’s voice. At this point Levi would almost expect Erwin to come up behind him with some dire message like that. But it’s an unfamiliar voice, and it sets Levi on edge. He turns around and finds Mike standing behind him.

“What do you want?” Levi asks.

“We need your help with something. The commander wants to perform an operation on your father’s manor to see if he can find anything that will reveal why your name was in that data.”

“Was anyone going to ask me before breaking into my house?”

“I’m asking right now.”

“What if I said no?”

Mike gives him a lazy sort of shrug and a half smile. “What do you think?”

Levi thinks that Erwin would do what he thought was best regardless of how Levi felt about it, and Levi hates him for that. But the truth is, he wants to spy on his father as much as Erwin probably does. He wants to know what he knew and how, exactly, he’s connected to Project Miranda. “I take it you need to know how to get in.”

“That’s correct.”

“Would you hurt anyone?”

“If we do our jobs right, no one will even know we were there.”  

Levi nods. “Fine then. Let’s go.”

He promises Farlan and Isabel that he’ll find them later and grabs his crutches. Mike leads to a part of the safehouse Levi hasn’t been in before, with bare concrete walls and few people passing by. Through ajar doors, Levi can see small offices, usually with nothing but an empty desk and chair in each one.

“Erwin coming to this?” Levi asks.

“Erwin’s on another mission,” Mike replies. “You’re stuck with just me.”

He leads Levi into an office at the end of the hall. It looks a little more used than most of the others, with papers scattered across the desk and a picture of a beach scene hanging on the wall.

“Have a seat,” Mike says, pulling out a folding chair from where it had been leaning against the desk.

“This your office?” Levi asks.

“I share it with some friends. It’s whoever’s office whenever we need one.”

Levi sinks down onto the chair and lays his crutches against the side of the wall. Mike seats himself on the desk chair and searches for a notebook in one of the desk’s metal drawers. While he does, Levi takes the opportunity to observe him. He’s tall and blond, but that’s where the physical resemblance to Erwin stops. This man is lanky, so tall that it seems excessive, all limbs and long nose. Levi notes that he doesn’t seem to be making an effort to be pleasant like Erwin would. He’s businesslike, and honest, and quiet. Levi thinks that he might like this guy if he wasn’t so closely associated with Erwin.

“When I first met you, I was under the impression that you were Erwin’s manager,” Levi says.

“And I basically still am,” Mike says. “I just manage a lot more than most Companions’ managers do.”

“So, what, you’re some revolutionary idealist who Erwin convinced to pose as a Companion manager?”

Mike shakes his head, a discreet smile visible behind his stubble. “Oh, no. No, I was a Companion manager long before Erwin convinced me to be a revolutionary.”

“How’d he convince you?”

“Erwin can be really persuasive when he wants to be,” Mike says. “But ultimately, it was clear that he was starting this movement whether I joined him or not. And he’s too close of a friend for me to let him do it alone.”

“I didn’t think Erwin was the type that had friends.”

“Not really,” Mike agrees. “But he has me.”

“How long have you been his friend?” Levi hates himself for asking that. He hates how, even after everything that’s happened, he’s still curious about Erwin Smith.

“Well, it would be . . . we both turned thirty this year, so . . . about twenty years.”

Levi gapes. “Twenty years?”

“Yes. We met when we were ten.”

“That means . . .” Levi thinks back to what he knows about Erwin’s past, what he learned at that dinner three years ago. Erwin was recruited from an orphanage when he was twelve. Which means that when he was ten . . .

“We met because we lived in the same orphanage,” Mike says.

“And, what, you reunited years later when he became a Companion?”

“We never separated. We were both recruited to study at the Companion Academy. Then puberty hit, and I grew out of much of my attractiveness while Erwin grew into all of his. Since I had already been studying the business, they had me spend my last couple years at the academy learning about finance and administration to become a manager. Most people who work behind the scenes at Companion houses are academy dropouts.”

Levi resists the urge to shake his head. From what Mike’s saying, Erwin and Mike should be best friends, almost family. But every time Levi’s seen Erwin around Mike, they’ve appeared to be no more than associates. There’s a level of familiarity, sure, but none of the warmth that you would assume would be there after knowing someone for twenty years. “So knowing him for that long, you must know him better than anybody.”

“One would think that.”

“Well, do you?”

Mike gives Levi a curious look. “I thought we were here to discuss breaking into your manor.”

“We are.” The words come out sounding defensive, though really, Levi doesn’t have anything to defend. He was just curious.

“You know, Erwin assured me that you had both definitively fallen out of love.”

A hot flare of rage grows in Levi’s chest that makes his cheeks feel warm. “We have,” Levi spits. “And I think it’s pretty shitty what you’re trying to imply. You have no idea what you’re talking about and no business talking about it anyway.”

“I apologize,” Mike says. “Should we move on to discussing your manor?”

“Yes.” Levi says quickly. As much as he’d like to continue the conversation – not because he’s interested in Erwin, but just because . . . well, fine. He is interested in Erwin. But it’s not the same kind of interest as three years ago, when he desperately wanted to know who Erwin was. Now he just kind of wants to know about all the ways Erwin’s flawed. It’s satisfying, in a twisted way. Makes his hatred feel justified.

“Alright, then,” Mike says, opening the notebook and picking up a pen.

“Actually, wait,” Levi says.

Mike lowers his pen, eyebrows slightly raised. “Yes?”  

“I’m not interested, I’m just . . . confused. Why wouldn’t you feel like you know Erwin after all this time?”  

Levi thinks he sees Mike smile, but it’s gone so quickly he can’t be sure. “Well, Erwin’s . . . changed in recent years.”  

“Changed how?”

Mike doesn’t answer right away. Instead he looks off to the side, thinking. “If I were to answer that, I’d have to betray my friend’s trust and speak of things he’d rather keep private,” he says slowly.

“I’m going off world soon. What does it matter what I know?”

Mike chuckles. “It is true that I’m tempted. It weighs on you, being the only person who cares about someone who so desperately needs to be cared about.”

“Cared about” seems like a strange choice of words to Levi. It suggests someone who’s weak or vulnerable, and those are the last words Levi would normally use to describe Erwin. Then again, there are moments Levi remembers from that last night together three years ago – small smiles mixed with grief, an overwhelmed expression at the gentlest touch. Levi becoming gripped with a driving need to make Erwin happy, because that Erwin – the private, real version of Erwin that Levi saw for only one night before he left for the military academy – that Erwin needed to be cared about.

“So use someone who’ll be taking their secrets off world tomorrow to talk about Erwin like you want obviously to,” Levi says.

“You make it sounds so simple.” Mike sighs. “But I’ll take the risk, not for my own benefit, but because I think you need to hear this.” Before Levi can ask Mike what he means by that, he begins.

“Erwin’s always been driven,” Mike says. “And he’s always had an uncanny ability to turn his emotions off when he needed to. I think that’s what makes him such a good Companion – he can compartmentalize so well that if a client were to upset him, he’s able to push those upset feelings to the side.

“Deep down, though, he always had a dream of doing something important. Something that would make the universe a better place. We used to talk big about it at night when we were students together, discussing politics or sociology or revolutions. Erwin always came up with these complex ideas and political theories. I just listened.

“Even when we were kids in the orphanage, Erwin liked to talk about how the government was corrupt – and I didn’t even know what corrupt meant when I was that age.” Mike smiles and shakes his head. “Erwin always had grand ideas about changing the universe. And I always thought that was just what they were – ideas.

“But around five years ago he started hearing rumors of government conspiracies among the high society who employed him. He got curious, so he manipulated his clients into talking to him about what they knew and then investigated it as far as he could. Something about what he found pushed him to act. He dug up old connections with friends of his parents, like General Pixis, for example, to see if they could help him with his investigations. Started going to clandestine meetings to get forbidden books and discuss forbidden ideas with other idealists and revolutionary thinkers.

“Erwin started to research how to pull off a successful revolution. He became obsessed with it. After he lost you – well, I think it would have happened whether you were around or not. But after his fling with you ended, he really threw himself into creating this movement. Every moment not spent entertaining was spent thinking about the details of what it would take to build it. There were days when I had to remind him to eat and force him to sleep.  

“But I wasn’t really afraid until after he started building this thing and the fighting began. See, it takes a certain level of ruthlessness to do anything that’ll have any sort of long-term consequences. When Erwin started breaking into secure facilities to steal arms or information, he started getting into conflicts with guards and cops, and not everyone gets out alive in those kinds of fights. Then there have been a few times when cops have found one of our safehouses, and we’ve had to . . . well, we’ve had to make sure they couldn’t share that information with anyone.

“Erwin’s always been good at switching off his emotions. When the violence started, he switched them off. Permanently.

“I think he realized that he wouldn’t be able to handle all of this otherwise. He wouldn’t be able to handle the stress of all the plotting and scheming and living a double life. Or the guilt of all the people he’s had to kill or soldiers he’s had to send to their deaths. So he just sort of . . . lost himself. A revolutionary machine instead of a person.”

Mike sighs. A heavy silence falls over the two of them.

“He is different,” Levi says eventually. “Different than before.”

“Sometimes I want to just end this damn movement. Get my friend back.”

“You probably could, with all you know about it.”

Mike shakes his head. “I could, you’re right. But I won’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because the truth is, I care about this movement, too. I want the government toppled almost as much as Erwin does. I want to get my friend back, but after twenty years of dreaming about a better universe, it’s hard to let the idea go.”

“Even after all the terrible things it’s done?”

“This is a war, in a way,” Mike says. “And I do believe we’re on the just side. But war will inevitably involve terrible things.”

“So you’re ideological too.”

“And you’re not?”

“I never cared much about big ideals.”

“What do you care about? And don’t say nothing, because Erwin would have never fallen for you if that was the case.”

What does he care about? Levi’s never really thought about it. He cares about keeping himself safe and getting himself through the day. He cares about the concrete and the real and the problems that are right in front of him. He cares about doing the right thing, sure, but not in the sense of living up to some sweeping ideology. Just in the sense of doing right by the people he cares about.

And there, in that thought, is his answer. “People,” Levi says. “Not everyone. Just the people I’m close to. And just, you know. Getting through each day.”

Mike chuckles. “All good things to care about.”

“Probably doesn’t impress big revolutionaries like you.”

“Honestly? If more people cared about simple things, we probably wouldn’t need revolutions.” Mike sighs. “And now I really do need information about your manor. Erwin will be back in an hour, and he’ll want to start planning the operation. Should we do what we came here to do?”

“Sure.”

“In that case, I need you to sketch a rough floorplan of each floor in your manor.”

Levi takes the pencil and notebook that Mike holds out to him and does as he’s asked.

Once he’s done that, Mike has a dozen questions for each floor, asking for the size of the rooms and the thickness of the walls and what each one is used for. Levi discusses the manor’s security systems and explains the codes needed to get past them, reveals which rooms would be most likely to hold secret information and how good their locks are.

It’s surprisingly easy to talk with Mike about how to break into his house. And it’s comforting, in a weird way, to discuss familiar ground. Even if he is discussing how a bunch of strangers can best break into that familiar ground. It’s better than mind control and secret formulas found in his blood. At least now he feels like he can be useful, instead of just hearing about all the ways he’s been used.

It’s nice to have some control over the plans for once, too, and that may be part of the reason Levi says, “I’d like to come on this break-in if I can.”

“That makes sense,” Mike says. “And if it weren’t for your injury I’d say yes. But you’d probably just slow us down. It’d be dangerous for you, too, given how easily you’d be recognized there. But,” he adds when he sees Levi’s frown. “I’ll talk to Erwin.”

“Fine. Me too.”

“Think you could convince him?” Mike asks, closing the notebook and slipping it into a drawer with a false bottom. “He’s usually hard to sway.” 

“Probably not. But he’s done something just to shut me up once before.”

“I see.” Mike pauses in his movements for a second after those words, as if thinking about something. It barely lasts long enough to notice, and then he’s standing up and opening the door. “Thanks for your help. I’ll keep you updated on the operation.”

“Great.” Levi stands and reaches for his crutches. He hobbles to the door, and then pauses in the doorframe. Finds himself saying, “I hope that . . . well, I hope you get your friend back someday.” 

“So do I,” Mike replies softly. “So do I.”

*****

It turns out that Erwin actually wants Levi along.

Well, he wants Levi sitting in the getaway car parked two blocks away, with an untraceable comm on, ready to answer any questions Erwin’s team may have about the manor. And otherwise staying masked and silent.

It’s sounds painfully boring, but it makes sense. As much as Levi may want to, he knows that going into the manor would be plain stupid. At least this way, he still has some involvement in the mission.

Those calm, rational thoughts dissipate when they drive by the manor, though. Levi looks out the window of the van and sees the only home he knew for the majority of his life. It wasn’t a perfect home, sure, but it was still his home. And more importantly, Hanji’s in there. And Levi will have never have another opportunity to say goodbye to the closest friend he’s ever known.  

He sits in the back row of the van and watches as the small team Erwin’s assembled suits up with masks and weapons. They move with an efficiency that would have made his instructors at the military academy proud. Mere seconds after the van’s parked, it’s emptied of everyone but Levi and the driver.

The driver turns on soft music, quiet enough to not be heard by anyone outside. “You want to move up here? Keep each other from getting too bored?” he asks.

Levi glances down at his feet. He sees a handful of extra weapons and carefully picks up a handgun. “I’m fine back here,” he says.

“Suit yourself.” The driver leans his chair back to better stretch out his legs and starts tapping his fingers against the steering wheel in time with the music. Very quietly and very carefully, Levi lowers the window next to his seat.

Luckily the van’s a newer model with windows that are practically silent as they go up and down. The little noise it does make is covered by the music and the driver’s humming. The part of Levi that hasn’t lost its fucking mind is mentally repeating a litany of “stupid, stupid, stupid,” as he slides out the window and lands hard on his injured leg. He forces himself to his feet regardless of his injury – just another bit of gratuitous stupidity – and moves as quietly as he can to his father’s manor.

Levi’s no stranger to stubborn and reckless stunts, but this is definitely up there on the list of most illogical things he’s ever done. But he can’t bring himself to regret it. What he would regret is knowing that he was just a block away from his home – and his best friend – but didn’t take the opportunity to see either.

Besides, there are no police patrols in this neighborhood, and Levi knows the movements of his father’s security guards well. He knows when and where they do their rounds and how to enter the right codes in the side gates and back doors to get in without setting off any alarms. Ten minutes later he’s inside, making his way through the empty kitchen, the humming of equipment and flashing lights in the dark putting him at ease. Levi steps into the servants’ hallway and enters the metal service elevator at the back.

Hanji’s room is on the fourth floor, right below his own. Levi thinks that he’ll step into his old apartment – even though he doesn’t think he’ll really miss it, a sentimental part of him wants to see it one last time – and then go visit Hanji on the way back down. The doors slide open on the fifth floor, and Levi limps to what used to be his front door.

The apartment is dark, and it smells a little off, musty from disuse. Levi reaches for the light switch.

A voice from inside what should be an empty apartment says, “Don’t turn on the light.”

In a second Levi’s drawn his gun, planting his feet and aiming it as a shadowy figure stands up from Levi’s couch.

The man doesn’t move toward Levi, nor make any sound. Levi cocks the gun and forces himself to think through his options. Running will be difficult on his injured leg. Shooting his gun will alert everyone in the house that he’s there. There’s no choice he can make that will end well.

The man speaks again, cutting off Levi’s train of thought. “Do you really think so lowly of me that you expect me to turn you in?”

And now Levi recognizes his voice, and the man’s tall silhouette. Lord Falkanrath. His father. He lowers his gun a fraction.

“How’d you know I was here?”

“I changed the codes on the gates last week, then programmed the system to send me an alert on my comm if anyone used the old codes.” 

Shit. Erwin had the old codes. His father probably assumed the alerts he got were all due to Levi, but if he were to look closely at the alerts, it’d be clear that more than one person was sneaking into this house. “Who else knew about that?”

“No one,” Levi’s father says. “I made the changes in the central computer myself and the alerts are only sent to me. Come in. I don’t want to risk anyone hearing us.”

Levi hastily steps in and closes the door behind him, the gun still primed in his right hand. “What do you want?” he asks.

There’s a period of silence, and Levi can’t see his father’s expression through the darkness. He doesn’t know why he’s hesitating, and Levi’s heart speeds up, wondering what his father could be planning.

Eventually he says, “I wanted to speak with you, Levi. Is that so strange?”

Levi can tell from the hurt in his tone that he’s being honest. He lowers the gun and pulls off his mask. “About what?”

“We can start with, are you alright?”

“Fine,” Levi says. “All things considered, pretty great.”

“What’s going on?”

“A lot,” Levi says. “More than I can tell you about.”

“How much of what they’re saying on the news is true?” his father asks. “I’ve gone to every military base and police precinct and government office I can find and no one will tell me anything. Not a damned thing. They’re trying to tell me my son’s a murderer.” His voice rises, and then cracks. Levi’s never heard his father emotional before, never mind hearing his voice break like that.

“Not much of it is true,” Levi says.

“I know,” his father says. “I know you’re not a murderer. But why are they saying it? Does it . . .”

The way he trails off is unusual as well. Levi takes a couple steps further into the room, trying to see his father’s face through the darkness. “Does it what?”

“Does it have to do with . . . any sort of experiment?”

Levi approaches his father in a couple strides. He tosses his gun onto the couch, grabs his father’s shirt, and demands, “What did you know?”

“It was just medical research,” his father gasps. “That’s what I was told.”

“Medical research?”

“I was told that your mother had a gene that made her immune to certain diseases, and she may have passed that gene onto you. Back when I adopted you.”

“You adopted me for medical research?”

“I adopted you because I wanted a son,” his father says. “I was able to find you because the government helped me, and the government helped me because they wanted your blood for medical research.”

Levi slowly lets go of his father, takes half a step back as he thinks about what he said. “So thirteen years ago, a shady government official approached you and told you that they needed your son for research. And you just went along with it?”

“They told me they needed Kuchel, actually. That’s who I wanted to find.” He pauses. “I never thought she’d have gone to the Underground. I never thought she would have . . . I always thought I would meet her again, and this seemed like my chance.”

Levi’s never heard his father mention his mother before. He had always thought their relationship was purely superficial, a spoiled lord fucking his maid and then sending her away to hide his shame when she got pregnant. “If you wanted to meet her again you shouldn’t have sent her away in the first place.”

“Sent her away?” his father asks. “Is that what you’ve thought all these years? Kuchel ran.”

“Ran?”

“Escaped in the middle of the night, right after her first check-up after she got pregnant.”

“Why would my mother run from a steady job to live in the Underground?”

“I’ve wondered that for thirteen years. Our relationship had been . . . struggling . . . at that point, and I always assumed that was part of it. But . . . it still didn’t seem like her.”

Levi feels as though his life is a puzzle that’s just gotten broken apart into its separate pieces. The picture he had in his mind of where he came from and who his parents were doesn’t align with what his father is saying. For all his life, he’s seen his father as bad, his mother as good. But if his mother wasn’t cast out, but ran of her own volition – intentionally bringing a child into a life in the Underground . . .

There’s nothing glamorous about growing up as the son of a servant, but it would have brought steady meals and warm clothes and access to the kind of healthcare that could have kept his mother alive. It would have been a stable, predictable life. But instead he spent his childhood starving and orphaned, and for what? 

Levi wrenches his mind away from that question. “So you found me instead. And you never questioned it when the shady government officials said they needed samples of my blood.”

“Privately, yes. Of course. But . . . they found you for me. And all they wanted in return was for the doctor to draw blood at your yearly physical exam. Silence and compliance seemed like a small price to pay.”

“Price?”

“For finding me a son.”

“But you hated me.”

“Hated you?” his father asks. “Well. I suppose I can’t blame you for thinking that. You were superiorly irritating. But I only ever wanted what was best for you.”

Levi scoffs. “What was best for me? Forcing me into the army and letting mysterious people draw my blood every year?”

“The army was so you could build yourself a suitable future,” his father says. “You were meant to be fast-tracked to an officer rank after a year of service. And the matter with the blood didn’t harm you.”

“Didn’t you ever suspect that whatever they were doing with it might harm other people?”

“Other people are not my concern.”

It’s so callous that Levi’s struck silent, though he really shouldn’t be surprised. Reading Levi’s shock, his father continues, “My concern is my family.”

“Your family?” Levi shakes his head. “If that’s what you want to think.”

“I see your time away hasn’t changed how you think of this family.”

“We’re not a family,” Levi snaps. “We’re two people who can barely stand the sight of each other.”

“I loved you,” Lord Falkanrath says in an angry, raised voice that suggests anything but. “But I know what the world is and what it expects of you. And of me. Having a son out of wedlock is something everyone may publicly judge but will privately accept as normal. But if I have a family member that doesn’t conform to what’s expected of the nobility, I’m made a social outcast. And if I die without an heir, I’m remembered as a failure. You never understood what your role was.”

“I understood it and chose not to follow it,” Levi replies. “What you never understood is that I could never be what you wanted me to be. If I tried, it would be nothing but pretend.”

“We’re all pretending,” his father says. He speaks in an exasperated tone, as if Levi should know this, as if it’s something obvious that everyone else is aware of. “Being a noble is nothing but one protracted game of pretend. No one gets by in this world without pretend.”

“I don’t pretend,” Levi says softly.

“And your life is going so smoothly.”

Well, there’s nothing Levi can say to dispute that. And though he knows his problems aren’t necessarily because he refuses to pretend, he isn’t in the mood to explain exactly where they stem from. So Levi only glares, anger boiling up in his chest, and he changes the subject before it overflows. “I’m going off world tomorrow,” he says, for some reason. Perhaps to say goodbye. Perhaps to see if his father cares.

If his father cares, it’s hard to tell. He only nods and says, “Good. I hope you’ll find a better life wherever you end up.”

Levi nods in return. It sounds like a dismissal, or at least a relatively positive place to end things. “Thanks for . . .” he struggles to find something that sounds profound and fails. “The adoption.”

Levi takes one last glance at his old home – though it never did totally feel like home – and turns away.

He opens the door and sees a shape in the darkness of the hall. Levi’s pretty sure he knows who the familiar silhouette belongs to.

“Levi,” his father says, stopping him.

The silhouette ducks backwards, blending with the shadows. Levi glances over his shoulder.

“I loved your mother,” Lord Falkanrath says. “I want you to know. However short-lived our relationship was, I did love her. I would have married her if society would have allowed it. And I loved you, too.”

He’s struggling to keep his tone neutral, but to Levi his voice sounds pathetic, as if pleading to be believed. Levi sighs.

“No, you didn’t,” Levi says. He glances down the hall to where he can just barely make out the shape of broad shoulders and neatly parted hair. “You loved what you wanted me to be. The vision in your head of the perfect son. And you hated me when I didn’t live up to it.” He takes one last glance at his father, and though Levi can’t read his expression in the dark, he can tell his posture is rigid. “But I think that’s the closest someone like you can come to love, so. Thanks.”

Levi closes the door, leaving his old home and his father behind, and turns to Erwin.

Chapter Text

Erwin waits for him by the elevator. It’s too dark to see his face, but Levi can picture the stoic look with a hint of disapproval that Erwin’s probably wearing.

He pulls his mask back on as they ride down, and Erwin does the same. There’s a tense moment of silence before Erwin says, “I wish I could say I was surprised by your recklessness.”

“Hey, I didn’t hurt the mission.”

“The mission was not compromised, by some rare stroke of luck,” Erwin says. “But it could have been. And you could have been. It’s a good thing you’re going off world soon, Levi. Your tendency to put yourself in danger is driving me to . . . distraction.”

The elevator doors slide open, and they leave the manor without another word. The quietness remains during the long walk back to the van, both conscious that making noise in the still night would draw attention to themselves. Erwin walks quickly, almost unnecessarily so, so that Levi on his injured leg has no choice but to walk behind him instead of beside him.

It’s not until they’re within sight of the van that Erwin slows down and speaks to Levi in a whisper. “We did not find the information we sought tonight,” he says. “But we found the names of the government officials who first located you in the Underground. By investigating or following them, we should be able to discover how you are connected to Miranda. Meanwhile, we picked up a new recruit. I think you’re going to be pleased with who we found.”

Before Levi has a chance to ask who it is, Erwin opens the van door. In the next moment, he’s knocked to the ground.

Instinctively, Levi grapples with his attacker, trying to roll them off of him. But then Levi hears their voice saying his name, and all his panic dissolves; he wraps his arms around Hanji to return their hug, not even caring that he’s lying in dirt, and he thinks that he feels far more at home now than he did when he was in the manor. He should have realized that home was a person, and not a place.

“I’ve been scared fucking shitless for you,” Hanji says.

“I’m alright,” Levi replies. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you. I’m alright.”

Erwin clears his throat, gently yet firmly, and the two of them scramble into the van. They huddle together in the backseat, and Levi watches Hanji’s face as the streetlights flash over it, feeling himself get a little calmer each time he gets a good look at those big glasses and that messy ponytail. He feels a pang at the thought that they’ll be separated for good tomorrow, a pang that he tries to ignore.

Hanji demands to know what’s happened with him, and Levi obliges, unfolding his story from the time Hanji last saw him to the present. It takes a while, continuing beyond the van ride and lasting until well into the morning. The story’s end finds them curled up on the frayed couch in the safehouse’s dingy rec room, half asleep as Levi finishes. They’ve stayed up the whole night, but in a strange way Levi feels rested. It’s calming, to unload this whole story for Hanji hear.

Levi asks Hanji how they ended up in the movement when he’s done. Their account is much briefer than his. Apparently, the manor’s cook had joined a short while ago, and Hanji had become close friends with him in Levi’s absence.

“You remember Moblit?” they ask Levi eagerly. Levi doesn’t recognize the name, but when they describe him he remembers him, a quiet, even-tempered manor cook who specialized in pastries.

“That guy?” Levi says. “He’s the last guy I would have ever imagined joining something like this.”

“He doesn’t seem like a fighter, but he has a good heart,” Hanji replies. “He just wants to help people.” Their smiles gets a little distant, and Levi’s pretty sure he sees redness on their cheeks.

“Hanji?” Levi asks, incredulous.

“What? Don’t worry about it. I’m here for the right reasons. I want to overthrow the government too.”

Levi snorts. “I would have never thought I’d see the day. Hanji Zoe has a boyfriend.”

“He’s not my boyfriend!” Hanji says, shoving him. And then they add, “Yet.” Which, like any good friend, Levi gives them shit for.

Hanji resumes their story when the teasing subsides, describing how Moblit asked them to look up something for the movement on the cortex, thereby getting them tangentially. When Hanji encountered movement soldiers in the manor last night after coming in from a late night astronomy session, they made the quick decision to join – especially after hearing that Levi was with them.

“I’ve been thinking for a while that I wanted to be involved for real,” Hanji explains. “I’ve learned a lot of different things from skimming the cortex over the years. I think I could help.”

“Aren’t you afraid for your safety if you join this thing?”

“Sure I am,” Hanji says. “Isn’t everyone? But this is important.” And they sound so brave that Levi’s momentarily ashamed of himself. Hanji always was the stronger one.

“I’m going off world tonight,” Levi says, as though apologizing for it.

“Erwin told me. I’m going to miss the hell out of you, but I know it’s better that way. I don’t want anything to happen to you, and you painted a big target on your back when you stole that data from the lab.”

“I wasn’t even thinking of that,” Levi says. “I was just thinking that I needed to get out of that lab, and I might as well make my time there worth something.”

“I think most heroic acts are done without really thinking about it,” Hanji replies.

“When did you get so wise?”

“Excuse you, I have always been wise. You’ve just never bothered to listen to me.”

Levi’s forming his brilliant retort when a voice says, “Hey.”

When he looks up, Eren’s standing in front of him with his two friends on either side, all looking different degrees of apprehensive. “We’ve been practicing what you taught us, if you want to look.”

Fighting lessons are the last thing on Levi’s mind, and he kind of expected them to be the last thing on the kids’ minds, too. The fact that Eren and his friends actually sought him out is a surprise – and a kind of flattering one. Levi spares a glance for Hanji, who’s raised their eyebrows and has the beginnings of an amused smile on their lips.

“I was on a mission all night and I haven’t gone to bed yet. Maybe in the afternoon.” Eren shrugs and agrees, Armin thanks him, and the three kids retreat from the rec room.

“What was that?” Hanji asks.

“I was bored to tears the other day so I ended up teaching some brats to fight.”

“Aww, Levi as a teacher. That’s so cute.”

“Don’t you ever call me that again. Come on. You need to meet Farlan and Isabel, and then I need to pass out.”

*****

Farlan, Isabel, and Hanji all take to each other immediately, probably because they’ve all heard enough good things about each other already. Farlan and Isabel volunteer to help Hanji find a place to sleep, which Levi is grateful for as a wave of tiredness hits him. He leaves them to get to know each other while he returns to the broom closet and passes out.

He wakes up disoriented a few hours later. After a bleary trip to the canteen, he learns from some other movement soldiers that it’s now the middle of the afternoon, and Eren and his friends are waiting for him in the training gym.

Giving a lesson isn’t entirely what Levi’s in the mood for, but he did say he would do it. A quick session to Eren and his close friends won’t be too much of a bother.

When Levi arrives, though, it’s not just Eren’s close friends who are there – it’s all of his friends, and plenty of people who dislike him, too. Everyone Levi taught the day before and a few more besides. Even Hanji has heard the rumors of Levi’s lessons and shown up, giving him an irreverent grin from the back of the room.

Levi stares at the crowd, which started to form a loose half circle around him as soon as he entered. He’s never had so many pairs of eyes on him at once – at least, not so many pairs of eyes belonging to people who felt halfway positive about him.

“Um, well . . .” Levi says to the crowd. Hanji grins wider and nods at him to go on. “I can’t teach all of you at once. So uh, split into groups. I’ll look at the people I’ve already taught first, and I’ll get to the rest of you later. I guess.” And they do what he says, which is another strange feeling for Levi.

Levi directs Eren and his friends into a ring and makes them demonstrate different moves he’s already shown them. He uses Hanji (who followed him) to model where they should be hitting, since his still-healing leg makes demonstrating on his own difficult. (Hanji brings some dramatics to the fake fights, which is a big hit with Levi’s students and not so big a hit with Levi.) Then he sets them to drilling what they learned while he goes to the other side of the room and assesses the new people that have shown up.

The time passes quickly as he goes back and forth between the two groups, limping on his crutches from one end of the gym to the other as fast as he can. At one point, Farlan and Isabel wander in and sit on a bench near the door. It feels weird, like he has an audience, though he guesses they probably just don’t know what else to do with themselves. Still, if he thinks too much about it, it gets to be a little distracting. So Levi keeps his attention away from the side of the room they’re sitting at.

That, Levi tells himself, is how he missed Erwin’s entrance. He doesn’t know how long Erwin has been there, sitting on a bench a few yards down from Farlan and Isabel, but he doesn’t notice him until a kid casts an uneasy glance in his direction and Levi turns to see what she’s looking at. Erwin sits leaning forward, his one remaining arm braced on his knee, eyes on Levi.

From that point on, Levi finds it difficult to concentrate. His words come out slower and his corrections get less accurate as he feels Erwin’s gaze on his back. It isn’t long before Levi wraps it up for the day.

As everyone leaves, Hanji sidles up to Levi and whispers, “Someone wants to talk to you,” in a singsong voice.

“Yeah, I’ve noticed his creepy lurking,” Levi grumbles.

Farlan and Isabel come up to him now, joking about how Levi’s the most popular guy in the movement. Levi rolls his eyes and, as he turns his gaze away from them, accidentally locks eyes with Erwin.

“I’m going to see what this asshole wants,” Levi says quietly to his friends before limping across the training room on his crutches to Erwin’s seat.

“It seems you’re quite the teacher,” Erwin says when he approaches.

“I’m not a teacher. These kids just don’t know what they’re doing. What are you thinking, recruiting soldiers without teaching them the basics?”

“I’ve been looking for a decent combat instructor for some time,” Erwin says as a response. “We had one, but he . . .”

“He’s indisposed,” Levi finishes.

“Yes.”

“What do you want?”

“We’ve managed to uncover why you were important to Project Miranda.”

“And?”

“This is a conversation best had in private.” Erwin rises and gestures for Levi to follow him out the door.

He leads him two floors up and down a row of hallways, silent the whole way. Levi watches Erwin’s rigid back ahead of him and tries not to let himself panic about what this silence might mean.

They finally arrive at a small office in the center of the warehouse. It’s spartanly decorated inside – a desk, two metal folding chairs, a dim desk lamp, and a metal filing cabinet that’s padlocked closed. Erwin turns on the lamp, creating a circle of pale yellow light that doesn’t reach the corners of the room, and closes the door behind them. “Please, have a seat,” he says.

Levi does, resting his crutches against the desk. “You know, you’re really creeping me out right now.”

That gets the smallest exhale of what might be a laugh from Erwin. “Don’t worry, you’re in no danger. Well, no more than you already are. This information is purely about your past.”

“So? What is it?”

“One of the government officials who initially contacted your father thirteen years ago stored backups on a network that we managed to hack some months ago,” Erwin says. “With a little digging, we were able to find the answers we were looking for. You see, a long time ago, when the UG was first formed, an Ackerman – your great-grandfather – was a rebel, fighting to keep all the planets independent. He was very close to the leader of the rebel forces, in fact. And when he was eventually captured, instead of simply being executed, he was experimented on.”

“What kinds of experiments?”

“Altering brain chemistry to create more compliant citizens.”

“What I saw in Miranda.”

“Precisely. It appears that this elder Ackerman was the only one who didn’t die during the earliest versions of the procedure. They . . . this is going to be very upsetting.”

“It’s already very upsetting,” Levi replies. “My whole life for the past couple weeks has been very upsetting. I’m constantly upset. Keep going.”

“Well, it appears they forced him to have a child in order to see if the newfound obedience would transfer to another generation.”

“Who was the mother?”

“They didn’t even deign to write the poor woman’s name down.”

Levi feels sick. But of course, this is no more than what he’d expect from a government that turns people into slaves. “Go on.”

“The program was temporarily shut down. It wasn’t showing enough return on investment, apparently. Though the child – your grandfather – carried trace amounts of the successful chemical formula in his blood, he didn’t show any signs of being especially obedient. So he was released from the program and lived a fairly normal, though poor, life. He married and had two children, your mother and your uncle. I found records of tests that had been done on your mother, though none for your uncle. Perhaps he was already rebellious enough that they could tell Miranda had no effect on him.

“Regardless, the government let your mother go but kept track of her. When she became pregnant, she was informed that the government would want to take the baby into custody for an indefinite amount of time. And so she ran, to protect you.”

It takes a few moments – Levi doesn’t know how long – for the full scope of Erwin’s story to sink in. He waits for him to go on, but he doesn’t. There’s nothing left to say. The next part of this story of government control is the part Levi’s lived through.

Levi he feels himself stand and begin to walk, ignoring the pain of his injury. He has nowhere to go, but he needs to move, as though by walking he could somehow leave his disturbing past behind. He paces to one wall of the room, and then turns around and paces to the other. The walls trap him, and it suddenly seems hard to breathe.

His mother lived in the Underground and died in poverty of a disease that was probably preventable . . . for him. To protect him from Miranda.

Levi remembers what his father said last night. That he would have married his mother if the universe would have allowed it. “If the universe would have allowed it” – isn’t that always the case? His parents would have been married, and his mother would have never wanted for money a day in her life, if the universe would have allowed it. She wouldn’t have had to resort to hiding in the Underground, if the universe would have allowed it. Levi would have had a normal life. If the universe had allowed it.

And in the end it had all been for nothing. The government got its hands on Levi anyway, even if he hadn’t realized it. Information about Project Miranda was lifted from him without his consent or his knowledge. And it was going forward, sucking away people’s free will despite all the sacrifices his mother had made. Because that’s what the UG did, one way or another. It took away people’s free will. Levi’s mother had chosen to save her child and live in freedom with him, but instead she died and her child ended up in their power anyway. And all this time, ever since his adoption, Levi’s been trying to choose to maintain his independence, to not be what society wanted of him. But he was born with what society wanted of him hidden in his blood, and there isn’t a thing Levi can do to change that.

The full irony strikes him - how he, who values his independence so much, has been the key component in taking so many people’s independence away. It’s almost funny. He would laugh if he didn’t feel like he was on the brink of throwing up.

“Levi?”

Levi blinks. He’s stopped moving, though he never consciously made the choice to do so. His forearm rests against the wall, pushing against it, as though straining to get out.

Levi glances at Erwin. His posture is rigid and his expression blank. Here’s another example of someone who became exactly what society wanted him to be – a poor, desperate orphan who had no good choice but to become a Companion. To throw away his personality, whatever it originally was, and become whatever the universe’s rich and elite wanted him to be.

“Does it ever just . . . fucking tear you up?” Levi asks Erwin. “To look at your life and know that every step was planned. That you’ve only ever existed to serve someone else.”

Erwin gives Levi a long, measured look. When he eventually speaks, he only says, “Yes,” in a quiet, strained voice.

“I get why you want to tear it all down.” Levi turns back to the wall and shakes his head. “But then, you can’t exactly call yourself free right now, either.”

“Yet.”    

“Think we ever will be?”

“I think that with persistent organizing and many years of fighting, it’s inevitable. That history always favors those who seek progress, even if it takes them centuries to reach their goals.”

“Centuries? So you don’t think you’ll be around to see it?”

“I’m not counting on it.”

“That’s a lot of sacrifice for something you won’t see.” Levi nods at the bandaged stump of Erwin’s arm, though he’s thinking of other sacrifices besides.

“But it’s a sacrifice I choose to make.”

Levi nods. He thinks he gets it. He thinks that, if he had the chance to make an independent decision and strike a blow against the UG at the same time, he’d also sacrifice a lot to make it.          

*****

He leaves without saying goodbye, not out of rudeness, but because he’s too distracted. Farlan and Isabel are waiting for him at the canteen, and after a few failed attempts at asking, they don’t force him to say what he’s thinking about. Levi’s grateful for that. Right now he’s not sure what he’s feeling, and he’s not in the mood to figure it out.  There’ll be plenty of time to process everything on Oceanus.

Oceanus. In just a few days he’ll be there, a rebel-controlled planet. Free to live how he wants to live. Levi knows he should be relieved at the thought, but the relief doesn’t come. He can’t imagine what he’d do as a free person. All his life, he’s been penned in from every side, his choices limited. What choices would he make if he could make any choice at all?

Of course, going to Oceanus won’t be total freedom, simply because he has no other choice but to go there. If he could choose, he would stay. He hates Sina, but it’s home. And the thought of leaving while Hanji stays behind to fight and Erwin runs himself to his death one limb at a time doesn’t sit well with him.

Levi spends the night with Hanji. They talk about everything, and they talk about nothing. He asks Hanji why joining Erwin’s movement means so much to them, and they give an answer that seems like a non-sequitur at first.

“I couldn’t go to university,” they say.

“So you’re doing this instead?” Levi asks.

Hanji shakes their head. “No, no. I mean, this is a society that won’t let me go to university. And that made me realize that the universe is really fucked up. It made me look a little closer at how things are and why they are that way.” They give him an ironic half smile. “You’d think the gender thing would have tipped me off first, but I guess I never could imagine a universe where people like me were accepted. A universe where I could get a degree, though, that seems like it should be simple.”

“And you want to fight for a universe where anyone can go to university?”

“I want to fight for a universe where anyone can be what they’re actually meant to be,” Hanji replies.

“I really hope you find that universe,” Levi says softly.

*****

They leave at 2AM to catch the transport to Oceanus. Levi sits in the back of a van with Farlan and Isabel and watches as his city disappears behind him. They drive out into scrubland beyond the city, past factories and farms and mines, until they reach an old spaceship parked in the middle of an open field.

A ramp leads to an open doorway revealing a bleak metal cargo bay. A man in a brown coat stands by the entrance as people file in, other refugees or criminal fugitives like Levi. As Levi makes his way to the door, he sees a familiar broad-shouldered silhouette in the shadows to the right of the ship.

“You guys go on ahead,” Levi says to Farlan and Isabel. “Erwin’s here. I’m going to see what he wants.”

Farlan and Isabel glance curiously over their shoulders, but they file up into the cargo bay with everyone else. Levi approaches Erwin and says in a soft voice, “I wouldn’t expect the commander to see off some lowly fugitives.”

“It was on my way,” Erwin replies.

“Well. It’s been . . .” Levi struggles to find the right words. What has it been? Awful and stressful and frightening. But in the beginning, when he first knew Erwin, exhilarating and beautiful. And real.

“Interesting,” Erwin completes for him.

Levi nods. “That’s one way of putting it.”

“Good luck, Levi.”

“Yeah, you too. Don’t lose any more limbs.”

“I’ll try not to.”

And with that, Levi leaves Erwin Smith behind. He limps up to the bay door and takes one last glance over his shoulder to where Erwin’s barely visible in the ship’s shadow. Maybe it’s the darkness or the fact that Levi’s a little higher up, but he seems smaller. His black clothing, the kind that he usually wears on missions, serves to give the impression that the darkness is enveloping him, and the empty sleeve of his shirt flaps helplessly in the breeze.

“Levi?” It’s Isabel speaking. She was once fragile, too, when Levi first met her. But she’s far from it now. She’s a trained, talented soldier. And she’s traveling with Farlan, so she won’t be lonely. “Levi, come on in. We’re picking bunks.”

Levi takes a breath, and makes a choice.

“I’m not going,” he says. 

Isabel’s eyes widen. Farlan’s brow furrows, confused.

“What?” Isabel asks.

“I’m staying here. I want to help with the movement.”

“Then we’re staying too,” Isabel says, making the decision without hesitation.

Levi shakes his head. “No. You have a chance at a new life.”

“Well, so do you.”

“I don’t think I’d be happy.”

“You think you’ll be happy staying here? Fighting and maybe dying instead of sitting on a beach on Oceanus?”

“No, I know I won’t be happy,” Levi says. “But I think it’d be worth it.”

“Well then it’d be worth it for us, too. Farlan and I can fight the good fight as well as anyone, right?”

But Farlan doesn’t respond. And when Levi looks into Farlan’s eyes, he sees understanding starting to dawn. “I think we have to let him stay behind, Isabel,” he says quietly.

“What? But he comes everywhere with us! It’s the three of us. Always.”

“We don’t have anyone else to look out for. Levi does.”

“Hanji?” Isabel asks. And Levi nods before Farlan can say otherwise.

“I know you’ll be safe,” Levi says. “I won’t know that they will. You can stay with me if you want, but I really think it’d be better if you left. I know you don’t want this. You want peace and happiness, and you both had those things for long enough in your lives that you miss them. I never really did. I wouldn’t know what to do with them. But I promise, when all this is over, I’ll find you.”

“Unless you can’t,” Isabel says. And in the blinking lights of the ship Levi can see tears trickling down her face.

That’s almost enough to change Levi’s mind then and there. He draws Isabel into a tight embrace, and Farlan joins them. And for a minute it’s the three of them supporting each other, just like it was always meant to be.

But it’s not meant to be anymore. Levi knows that deep in his gut. While still in their embrace, Levi says, “Be safe.” And then he hurries down the ramp before they can say anything that’ll change his mind.

Erwin sees Levi approaching and comes forward to meet him. “What is it?” he asks, his voicing betraying the urgency that his controlled expression doesn’t show.

“I’m staying.”

And that gets an expression on that blank face – and not a mild one. “What? On Sina?” he asks, his voice filled with more surprise than Levi’s ever heard from him before.

“Yes. To help with the movement.”

“You can’t. You’ll be captured.”

“I’ll stay in the safehouse.”

“But that’s no kind of life for you. You’ll be trapped indoors constantly. It’ll feel like a prison.”

“And what kind of life is on Oceanus? Sitting on the beach and twiddling my thumbs?”

“Peace and freedom with those who love you. Levi, have you lost your mind?”

“Possibly. But this is my choice, and it’s final.” Levi looks Erwin in the eye as he says that, as though daring him to talk him out of it. In reality Levi’s a hair’s breadth away from changing his mind and getting on that ship, but hell if he’ll give Erwin any reason to think he’s wavering.

“Why?”

“Because . . . it’s a choice that I can make. And a way to fight back against the government that’s been pushing me around my whole life, controlling every step without me even knowing it. If I go to Oceanus, I’m running away. They’ve won. At least if I stay, I can give them a little payback for what’s been done to me.”

Erwin seems taken aback by Levi’s little speech, and in a way, Levi is too. He’s never been about grand gestures or sweeping political goals. He still isn’t, really. He’s just tired of being pushed around.

Levi pushes forward with his argument before Erwin can respond. “And you need a combat instructor. You know you do. Those kids in the safehouse don’t know which limb to punch with. You send them out into the field like that and they’ll be dead in seconds. You need me.”

“Levi, think about what you’ll be giving up.”

“You didn’t,” Levi says, still firmly holding Erwin’s gaze.

Again, Erwin seems surprised, though true to his nature he recovers quickly. “I didn’t have anything to give up. No chance at freedom.”

“Really?” Levi crosses his arms. “Because I remember someone asking you to run away with him.”

Erwin gapes, this time rendered completely speechless.

“But you didn’t, and it wasn’t because you didn’t want to, was it? It was because you were building the movement. You could have gone to Oceanus and lived a life of peace and freedom, but you gave it up for the movement. So don’t talk to me about giving things up. You think you’re the only one who gets to make sacrifices?”

“I would prefer it that way,” Erwin says quietly.

“Well you’re not. Quit being such a martyr. I know what I’m doing. I know I’m going to be miserable and angry and probably die, and I also know that if I leave tonight I’ll never be able to live with myself. This is my choice.”

“Hey!” The captain of the ship yells down. “You coming or what?”

“No,” Levi calls back, turning to face him. “I’ve changed my mind.”

“Levi, please,” Erwin says. “I . . . can’t have you here.”

“Why not?” Levi tries to again look Erwin in the eye, but this time he falters. His eyes slip to the side. They’re something new in Erwin’s gaze, a level of earnestness that stirs up a strange feeling in the pit of Levi’s stomach.

“You’re . . . because . . . the fact is, you’re . . . a distraction.”

Levi doesn’t miss the uncharacteristic way Erwin struggles for his words. “A distraction?”         

“I worry about you.”

“I’ll keep my head down,” Levi spits, his arms crossing again as if to contain that strange feeling.

“And . . . complications seem to arise when you’re around.”

“Complications?” Levi’s eyes snap back up. He feels a brief flare of anger and holds onto it to keep his gaze steady. “You mean like your guilt for what you put me through?”

“Among other things.”

Levi shakes his head. “I’m not leaving just because you feel bad for your own decisions. That sounds like your problem.”

Erwin seems desperate. He’s running out of excuses – or maybe he’s just realizing that no excuse will work. “Levi, please,” he begs. “I . . . can’t see you die.”

Levi freezes. His throat dries up. The feeling in the pit of his stomach grows until it seems to push against his chest, and he needs to look away from Erwin’s eyes but he can’t.

There’s a whir to his left, pulling him out of his thoughts, and Levi immediately turns his attention to it.  The ship’s door is closing, and the ramp is being raised. None of Erwin’s arguments can make a difference now. It’s too late to board the ship.

Farlan and Isabel stand by the door until the last second, waving to Levi, and Levi promises himself that he’ll find them as he waves back. Reminds himself that he really is doing the right thing.

He watches the ship take off, his escape route out of Stohess becoming nothing more than a glowing light against the night sky, and doesn’t turn back to Erwin until it’s become indistinguishable from the stars.

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s go back.”

Levi can feel Erwin’s presence behind him as he limps back to the van that brought him here. Erwin walks a few feet behind Levi, still probably wondering what to make of his decision. Well, so is Levi. But he’s made his choice, and it’s a choice he knows he won’t regret.

He hopes. 

Chapter Text

The next morning, Levi opens his eyes to the dim gloom of the safehouse’s broom closet.

He was supposed to be opening his eyes to the prickling lights of stars as seen through a spaceship’s windows.

Levi stares up at the closet’s ceiling and sees the events of the previous night painted across the concrete–the lights coming from the ship’s bay door, Erwin’s dark form swallowed by the night, and Farlan and Isabel waving goodbye as the ship prepared to take off.

He tries to track the events that leadi up to his decision to pinpoint the moment he realized what he would do, the thing that made his choice clear. But he can’t. It was a decision made on an impulse, and now he can’t help but think it was a foolish one.

The little broom closet seems smaller than ever, every physical detail threatening to press in on him now that he knows he isn’t going to leave. He notices things that weren’t worth his attention yesterday – the lumps in the old mattress beneath him, the tang of cleaning chemicals in the air, the patterns of shadow cast on the plaster ceiling by the thin band of hall light from  under the door. This is his life now. This is where he’ll be living until either Erwin overthrows the government or Levi dies. Whichever comes first. He would put his money on the latter.

Levi sits up, but he stops short of getting out of bed. He’s not sure what the next step would be after that. What does he do now? How will he fill his days?

Making his decision last night, he felt so full of purpose. Now he feels directionless. He’s turned his world upside down and doesn’t know to right it.

But the hesitation only lasts a moment because Levi is not one to sit in self-reflection. Levi’s one for action. He keeps moving because the other option is to get overwhelmed by his regrets. And Levi doesn’t do regrets.

In a weird way, he’s reminded of the morning after his adoption. He had woken up in his new bed at the manor, the strangest place he had ever woken up in, and couldn’t process the thought that this was his life now.

That was the day Levi had discovered the manor’s gym and the virtual track he could run on. He had gotten on that track and run until his lungs burned and his legs ached, until he was too exhausted to think about his worries and confusion.

Levi doesn’t have anywhere he can run now, but he can find other ways to keep moving.

*****

Hanji’s waiting for him when he arrives at the canteen for breakfast. Rumors of his decision must have spread through the safehouse, because they don’t ask him why he’s there. They just give him a hug, and though Levi’s embarrassed to be embraced in public, it’s what he needs.

They bring him to a table. Petra’s there, and Nanaba, and a few other faces he recognizes. They all thank him for staying, but the conversation doesn’t dwell too much on him, and Levi’s grateful for that. He is, after all, attempting to not think too much about his decision.

To do that, Levi needs to fill his days. So he goes with Hanji to their chores after breakfast, hoping to get something assigned to him. Nothing makes him feel stable quite like cleaning.

It turns out that Moblit’s in charge of assigning chores, and he’s thrilled when Levi asks to help. Evidently a little uncomfortable at telling his former boss’s son what to do, but he quickly gets past that at the excitement of a willing worker. A few hours ago Levi had been wondering how he would fill his days; it’s not long until he starts wondering when he’ll get a second to spare.

It takes a lot to run the movement, and most of those tasks don’t have anything to do with fighting or espionage. Most tasks are the boring, mundane things people would never think of: sweeping the floors and cleaning the toilets and doing the troops’ laundry. Cooking for dozens and doing dishes for dozens afterwards, not to mention the mix of shopping and black market trading it takes to keep the kitchen stocked. And speaking of the black market, they seem to always be in need of more supplies – whether it’s clothing, weapons, medicine, or something else. After a couple days of helping Moblit, the sheer scope of the movement begins to make Levi’s head spin. He can’t imagine how Erwin keeps track of it all.

Levi’s days quickly fill with cooking and cleaning, and the simplicity of the work gives him a strange sense of normalcy. His combat lessons continue too, at first informally, but eventually scheduled and official. He still doesn’t understand why new recruits are so eager to have him scold them over their sloppy fighting skills, but even the weirdness of finding himself a teacher eventually starts to fade.

There is still sometimes, in the back of his mind, a niggling “what if” – what if he had gotten on that ship and kissed Sina’s problems goodbye? What if Farlan and Isabel are unhappy and it’s all his fault? But overall, he’s surprised to find himself settling into this new life. Compared to all the shit he went through in the weeks before, he actually feels normal. Calm.

Of course, Levi can only afford to feel calm because he’s isolated from the realities of the movement. Erwin never sends him out on missions because the price on his head is too high and the news stories that plastered his face over every TV in Sina too recent. So he stays in the safehouse to clean and teach in safety, the dangers of the fight far from his mind.

Sometimes he’s reminded, though. He’s reminded of them when he wakes in the middle of the night to shouting as the injured are brought in from their missions, and he’s reminded of them when the pain in his leg flares up. He’s reminded of the fallen during memorial services held in the training gym, which gets temporarily cleared of boxing rings and punching bags to be turned into a chapel of mourning.

(The rings and bags get put back up shortly after. They can only pause to mourn for so long before turning their attention to the next fight.)

Levi doesn’t believe in regrets, but during those moments, regrets are hard to push away.

*****

And then, of course, there’s Erwin.

Levi barely sees Erwin. He’ll catch glimpses of him here and there, but weeks go by without so much as a greeting exchanged between them.

Levi doesn’t think too much of it at first. After all, Erwin’s leading a political revolution. It kind of takes up a lot of time – and that’s not taking into account his remaining duties as a Companion.

So it takes a few weeks for Levi to become suspicious of the lack of contact he has with Erwin. Not that he expected to be talking to Erwin on a regular basis – most soldiers in the movement barely exchange two words with him, and Levi is a regular soldier now. And he doesn’t want there to be anything extra between him and Erwin. He’s done with Erwin, in that way.

It’s just that . . . well, the night he decided to stay, Erwin had seemed . . . no. He hadn’t seemed anything besides confused and concerned. And if Levi had thought otherwise . . . but no, he hadn’t even thought anything of the sort. And it’s stupid to start now.

Still, it eventually becomes evident that Erwin’s avoiding him. Not in obvious way. He doesn’t avoid saying hello when they pass in the halls of the safehouseor sparing him a glance when he happens into the training gym while Levi’s teaching (which he doesfairly often, for one reason or another).

But if there’s ever a chance at a prolonged conversation, Erwin avoids Levi. He picks up his pace a little when they pass each other in the halls, and he’s always gone from the training gym as soon as Levi’s lesson is over. One evening he comes to the canteen during dinnertime to schmooze with the common soldiers, make them feel like their commander values them or something. But he completely avoids the side of the room Levi sits on.

Levi can’t prove Erwin’s avoiding him, but he knows he is and it drives him insane.

After all, Levi stayed behind for – well, for himself, mostly. But part of his motivation, maybe, had been to look out for Erwin. And besides, given the amount of history they have – regardless of whether it’s good or bad – Levi thinks he deserves more than occasional hellos and passing glances.

Levi tries to corner Erwin once, and it goes so poorly that he resolves to never do it again.

It’s the day after Erwin greeted soldiers in the canteen. Levi sees him in the training gym, working out in the corner opposite from where Levi’s teaching. Strengthening his left arm by practicing throwing some punches with it. Levi calls to Hanji – who’s become one of his most eager and most irritating pupils – and asks them to make sure everyone keeps going over their drills. Then he crosses the gym to Erwin.

For a moment, he just watches. Erwin’s working with a large bag right now, and he’s not looking great. The loss of his arm has shifted his balance too dramatically. His stance is unsteady and his strikes sloppy and weak, and judging by the tenacity with which he tries over and over, Erwin knows it.

Levi’s tempted to ask why he’s bothering, why he doesn’t just let his soldiers fight in his place now that he’s injured. He doesn’t. He can guess what kind of response he’d get.

Instead, he says, “Need a teacher?”

Erwin freezes mid-punch. His eyes slide over to where Levi leans against the concrete wall, and he schools his face into a mask.

Levi notices that little shift. The brief moment when Erwin’s face goes from the surprise he genuinely feels to the calm, composed expression Levi’s so used to. Levi’s at once pleased that he was able to catch the lowering of the mask and irritated that Erwin feels the need to put on the mask in the first place.

He doesn’t let either emotion show. Instead he says, “There’s only so much you can do with a punching bag. If you really want to improve, I can spar with you. Maybe figure out some new techniques for fighting one-handed.”

“That’s very generous of you,” Erwin says, his tone polite and even.

Levi shrugs. “Just helping the movement and all that.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I need you to focus on teaching the new recruits. I can figure this out on my own.” He turns his face away, back to the punching bag, a silent dismissal.

Levi steps away from the wall. “Maybe you can, but you shouldn’t. You’ll learn how to compensate for your weaknesses a lot faster if you spar with someone else.”

“Mike’s been sparring with me.”

“Mike doesn’t know what I know about combat.”

Erwin lowers his raised fist and looks at Levi, catching and holding his gaze. Levi forces himself to stare back. It reminds him of the night when he decided to stay on Sina, how they held each other’s gaze like it was a challenge.

“Levi,” Erwin says. And then he stops, as though whatever he was about to say got blocked in his throat. Levi waits for it to come. The air between them grows thick with whatever it might be.

But of course, Erwin controls himself. Like he always does. And what he ends up saying is simply, “You should be getting back to your students.”

“Erwin,” Levi says, hoping his tone contains his frustration. His annoyance. His dismay.

“What is this about, Levi?”

And now it’s Levi’s turn for words to get stuck in his throat. Because this isn’t about Erwin’s fighting, not really, and he’s annoyed that Erwin’s figured that out. He’s annoyed that Erwin’s been avoiding him, and Erwin’s beating at the punching bag now with such futility that it makes him almost sick with annoyance. In every way that Levi can imagine, Erwin’s annoying him.

And he just doesn’t want to leave Erwin’s presence yet.

Levi sighs. “It’s about your fighting,” he says. “I thought that was obvious.”

Levi doesn’t talk to Erwin for almost two weeks after that.

*****

“No, don’t open up!” Levi snaps at his student.

The kid he’s yelling at pulls his fists in to protect his torso, but too late to stop his partner from landing a hit. It’s the third fight he’s lost in a row. Levi sighs and lifts himself up into the ring.

His leg’s almost back to normal now, thank god, and all he feels is slight twinge when he jumps up and slips under the ropes. It doesn’t slow him down any as he strides to confront his pupil.

It’s a freckly kid with a disposition that’s way too friendly to be any kind of soldier. Levi doesn’t remember his name. Something with an M. (He has a lot of names to remember these days and not much skill at remembering them.)

Usually, M is smiling, but not many people can keep smiling under the weight of Levi’s glare and M is no exception. “What have I been telling you for a solid month now?” Levi asks.

“Don’t leave my center open.”

“So why are you leaving it open?” Levi prods him in the chest to emphasize his point.

“I’m sorry! It gets hard to remember.”

“Doesn’t matter. Work on remembering it, or you’re dead on your first mission. Fists close to your torso. Snap them back immediately after throwing a punch. Go again.”

M’s partner, a douchy kid with an undercut, looks at Levi with an expression of absolute murder. He’s pretty protective of M. Levi’s pretty sure they’re fucking. Or on the verge of fucking. Some kind of teenage lust going on between them.

“Don’t go easy on him,” Levi tells the kid. “You’re not helping him if you do. He’s got to remember to keep his guard up if he’s going to survive.”

Undercut’s hand clenches into a fist. Levi’s pretty sure that if he hadn’t spent the past month demonstrating his prowess in a fight, that kid would have decked him right then and there.

“Levi,” a voice calls from behind him.

Levi turns to see Mike approaching the ring. The other students in the class hurry to part and let him through. Mike’s something of a legend among these kids, the one person who has the ear of the commander they all worship.

“Got a minute?” he asks.

He really doesn’t, but Mike wouldn’t seek him out like this if it wasn’t important. Levi leaves Armin in charge of adjudicating the sparring match and drops out of the ring.

“What is it?”

Mike turns and walks as soon as Levi reaches him, and Levi works to keep up with his long stride. “I have good news and bad news. The good is that our recruiting numbers are skyrocketing. We’ve gained dozens of new soldiers in the past week alone.”

“How’s that happening?”

“The movement’s gaining recognition in some areas. We’re gradually starting to make ourselves known among some sectors of the public, and the message has spread better than we hoped.”

“Surprised that many people are willing to give up their regular lives to join this thing.”

Mike shrugs. “We’ve recruited a lot of people from the Underground. A lot of factory or farm workers who weren’t satisfied with their lot. Most of the newest recruits are people who didn’t have much to give up in the first place. Anyway, that’s the good news. The bad news is that we’re running out of space to put them.”

“So what’s the plan?”

Mike holds the door open to exit the training gym. Levi follows him into the hall. There’s nothing on this level other than the gym, so the corridor is empty and silent. Instead of walking to the stairs, Mike heads to the far wall and leans against the gray concrete. Levi crosses his arms and waits to see where this is going.

“We’re in the process of setting up another safehouse,” Mike says. “Until we do, we’ll need to relocate some people. We’re thinking of hiding some of our peoplewith soldiers who still live in their legal homes, the ones who lead a double life.”

“And I take it I’m one of them.”

“We can’t keep you in a broom closet forever.”

“Fine. Who are you putting me with?”

“Erwin.”

The word hits Levi like a punch to the jaw – first with the visceral, angry feeling that Levi always gets these days when he hears Erwin’s name, and then with the lingering sting of realizing exactly what livingwith him would mean.

“Is this a fucking joke?” he snaps.

“No.”

But Levi can’t help feeling like someone’s playing a joke on him regardless. Every time he thinks he’s done with Erwin, some weird trick of fate brings them together again. Levi’s sick to death of it. “I’ll stay in the broom closet.”

“Levi, be reasonable.”

“I am. Is it really safer to put me in the Companion house? It’s not exactly the most secure place.” That’s just an excuse to get out of living with Erwin, but Levi thinks it’s a pretty intelligent sounding one.

“He’s been doing secretive things in the Companion house for years without any repercussions. Besides, the majority of his colleagues are working with him to some extent. You shouldn’t be in any danger there.”

“There’s nowhere for me to sleep.”

“You can sleep on the couch. You have before.”

“I’m not doing it.”

“You don’t have much of a choice.”

“Put me with someone else. Put me with a stranger.”

“Levi . . .”

“Erwin and I do not fucking get along.”

“I don’t think that’s entirely true.”

Levi almost steps forward, fists clenching, before he stops himself. Decking Mike for presuming to have any idea how he feels about Erwin probably isn’t a great idea, but it’s tempting. “What you fucking think is idiocy. My skin crawls at the sight of him, and I’m pretty sure he feels the same way about me. You could not have picked a worse person to pair with him. Everyone else in this movement idolizes him. Put one of them with him.”

“I think the worst thing for Erwin would be to live with someone who believes him to be as infallible as he likes to pretend he is.”

“I think the worst thing for Erwin would be to have to see my face every day. There’s no way Erwin’s going to agree with this, either.”

“He’s probably not thrilled with the idea, but he can’t say anything without either looking uncooperative or explaining the history you guys have to other members of the movement.”

“So you’re basically forcing him into this? Some friend you are. I thought you were worried about him or something.”

And then, when Mike fails to look properly ashamed at that, it dawns on Levi.

“Oh, no,” he says, shaking his head as if to keep the realization at bay. His stomach twists in something between dread and irritation. “You can’t be.”

“I can’t be what?”

“Doing this on purpose. Because you’re worried about him.”

Mike gives Levi a very slight smile and shrugs.

“You fucking idiot. I don’t like – I mean, I’m not going to help him.”

“Whether or not you like him to the same extent that you did before, you’re the only person who knows him as someone other than the commander. You’re the only other person who thinks of him as . . . well, a person.”

“If you can’t get through to your friend, that’s your own problem.”

“You stayed behind for a reason.”

“Not for him! For . . . look. He’ll never listen to me. Not in a million years.”

“It won’t hurt to try. Please. It’s just for a few days.”

“I’m going to kill you.”

Mike just shrugs.

“What do you even want me to say? Stop being an ass?”

“It’s a place to start.” Mike’s expression falters. He glances around the hall, double checking that they’re alone, then drops his voice and leans forward a little. “Levi, I . . . I think he might be a little suicidal,” he whispers.

A vice clamps down on Levi’s chest. His lungs stop working; his heart can’t beat. In the space of a moment, a deep dread has settled low in his gut that he knows he won’t be able to shake. Levi steps back, as if to get away from the truth Mike’s just given him, raking his hand through his hair.

“Not overtly,” Mike continues. “I don’t think he’d intentionally do anything to harm himself. But he seems to be putting himself in more and more dangerous situations without any regard for how he might get hurt. I think he’s hated himself for so long that it’s . . . destroying him.”

Levi looks away, pressing the heel of his hand against his forehead. He kind of hates Mike for telling him, because now he knows he’ll never be able to look at Erwin the same way. It’ll get harder to force himself to ignore Erwin or to convince himself that he doesn’t care.

“Levi?” Mike asks, and Levi realizes that he’s been silent for what must be close to a minute.

“Even if that’s true, I don’t think I’d be able to do anything for him,” Levi says, voice low and weak. 

“I’m not expecting you to single-handedly save his life,” Mike says. “Just . . . look out for him.”

Levi takes a slow breath in. “Fine then,” he says. “Fine. I’ll look out for him.”

*****

It’s still weird to walk into Erwin’s apartment.

Levi’s had enough unhappy nights there toeclipsethe one extremely happy one, but it’s still the happy one that floods his mind when he walks through the door. The bookshelf makes him think of Erwin quoting archaic poetry, and the couch makes him think of when they shared why they fell for each other, and the door to the bedroom makes him think of asking Erwin to run away with him.

Being in these rooms reminds Levi that, once, Erwin was the most important thing in his life.

Now, that formerly important thing is in the bathroom, taking a shower as Levi lays out blankets on the couch and makes sure the few belongings he has are neatly arranged. All he owns these days are a few articles of clothing, some basic toiletries, and a handful of weapons, all donated to him by the movement. It doesn’t even fill one duffle bag. But Levi arranges it all anyway, because there’s never any good reason to not be neat. Besides, it distracts him from listening to the pattering of the showerand thinking about who lies beyond that bathroom door.

Erwin comes out of the bathroom in a cloud of steam and crosses to his bedroom wearing nothing more than a towel. The years haven’t changed his body much – excepting the scarred stump of what used to be his right arm, of course. Levi had been hoping for some sign of flab or wrinkles, but leading arevolution must be a pretty good workout, because Erwin still appears to be in prime shape. And now Levi’s thinking about the last time he saw so much skin on Erwin, which is really not what he needs.

Levi sits on the couch and turns on the TV. He surfs through the usual government-sponsored bullshit programming – a couple news stations, some kind of drama, a sports game, and of course the government channel that no one watches. Today it’s discussing an upcoming sham of an election that President Reiss is sure to fraudulently win.

Erwin emerges from his bedroom in an undershirt and sweatpants. Levi makes a point of not watching him as he passes into the kitchen.

“I’m glad you’ve made yourself at home,” Erwin says politely. “Would you like anything to eat?”

Not with him, he wouldn’t. Levi can’t imagine anything more awkward. But it is dinner time, and he hasn’t eaten since an early lunch back at the safehouse. The safehouse that he’s really starting to miss right now. “What do you have?”

“Nothing very interesting, I’m afraid. I don’t have much time to cook these days. Some cans of soup, pasta. I could probably make a sandwich.”

“I don’t care. Whatever you’re having.”

Levi keeps flipping through the channels. He ultimately lands on the news station. It’s been a while since he knew what was happening out in the world.

This channel is also covering the upcoming election. Apparently the UG wants to make it into some big deal. They’re really into that – giving political events more hype than they deserve. There had been a planet-wide festival last time Reiss “won” an election, complete with carnival games and free food and mass broadcasts of political speeches.

“Levi.”

Levi glances up. Erwin’s standing in the kitchen doorway, his one hand braced on the doorframe.

“Neither of us are comfortable with this. Let’s try to make the best of it,” he says.

“I think the best would be to ignore each other as much as possible.”

“If that’s how you want to do this, I’m happy to comply.”

Erwin disappears into the kitchen. Levi watches as he leaves. His shoulders slump, just a little bit, when he thinks Levi isn’t watching.

Levi sighs, turns the TV off, and goes into the kitchen. He strains on his toes to reach the high cabinet where bowls are kept while Erwin heats up a pot of soup on the stove.

“What are you doing?” Erwin asks.

“Getting the dishes out. What does it look like I’m doing?” Erwin gives him a bemused look, and Levi sighs. “If you have to deal with seeing me around, I’ll make up for it by helping out a little. Sound fair? I’ll do the dishes tonight. You probably don’t clean them well enough anyway.”

Levi thinks he sees the ghost of a smile on Erwin’s lips as he turns back to the pot of soup and says, “Sounds fair.”

The soup finishes quickly. It’s one of those cheap kinds you buy in bulk, chemicals and salt stuffed into a can. Erwin spoons it into the two bowls and hands one to Levi. It’s weird. So casual and familiar. So outside of the dynamic that exists between the two of them.

“There is something we should discuss. I suspect I know what Mike’s motivations were in putting the two of us together,” Erwin says as he sits down at the table. “I’m sure you have your suspicions too.”

Levi doesn’t sit with him. That would just be too domestic. He stands while he eats. Leans against the counter in a way that feels incredibly awkward no matter how casually he tries to do it. “Don’t know what you mean,” he mutters around his first spoonful.

“Lying was never your strong suit.”

Levi sighs. “I’m not going to do anything,” he says. “I’m not here to . . . try to talk about your feelings or whatever.”

“That’s good. I don’t think it’d be fruitful for either of us.”

An awkward silence falls as they eat. Levi notices that Erwin’s eating fairly fast, in a hurry to get this interaction over with.

“You have been avoiding me, though,” he says.

“Avoiding you?” Erwin says smoothly. “What could make you say that?”

“Stop with the bullshit. Lying is your strong suit, but I think I’ve finally figured out your tell.”

This gets Erwin to slow down. An expression flashes in his eyes, gone before it can fully register. If Levi hadn’t been watching carefully, he would have thought that Erwin was completely unfazed by his comment. “I’m not lying in this instance, though. You’ll have to explain to me what you mean.”

“See, you’re always so cool and composed. You’ve got this really specific expression –more a lack of expression, actually – that you put on when you don’t want anyone to read you. Your tone gets smooth, your words get formal. Basically, you act like a Companion. That’s your tell.”

“What you’re describing is my usual demeanor.”

“You’re usually lying.” When Erwin opens his mouth to protest, Levi says, “Even if you’re not telling a lie, exactly, you’re usually putting on some kind of a performance. Maybe everything you’re saying is true, but you’re not actually as calm as you appear or something. That’s a type of lying. Right now you’re actually lying, though. You have been avoiding me.”

Erwin finishes the last few spoonfuls of his dinner in slow, methodical movements. He stands up and rinses his bowl in the sink.

“Nothing to say?” Levi says, feeling rather smug. It feels like he’s beaten Erwin at his own game, for once.

“I have a client tonight, and I need to prepare.”

Levi snorts. “So I’m right.”

Erwin clutches the edge of the sink. The knuckles of his remaining hand go white, and the one-handed grip makes him list to one side, giving an impression of unsteadiness.

Eventually, he says, “You’re demonstrating exactly why I may want to avoid you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare.”

*****

Levi doesn’t like seeing Erwin in his suit.

It bothers him. It stirs up too many memories. Makes him feel too many uncomfortable feelings. Isn’t Erwin above all that, now that he’s got his movement? Why does he keep doing this? Why does he plaster on that dazzling smile and utter charming words to some client who doesn’t understand – and doesn’t care about – what he truly is?

Levi’s confined to Erwin’s bedroom for the night. The living room shares a wall with the entertaining room, and Levi doesn’t want to risk being close enough to hear anything. Knowing what’s going on is one thing. The thought of actually hearing it is enough to make him gag.

He watches TV without seeing much of it. Last time he had been in this situation, sitting in Erwin’s room while Erwin entertained, there had been too many other things on his mind to think too much about what Erwin was doing. But tonight, after that weird conversation in the kitchen, it’s all Levi can think about.

What did Erwin mean, Levi was demonstrating why he may want to avoid him? Because Levi made him confront his bullshit? Was he really that dependent on lying all the damn time?

Well, now he’s lying to some sucker of a client, so he must be happy. He gets to put up his mask and keep it on all damn night. If that’s what Erwin wants, fine for him. Let him fuck one uncaring, selfish, spoiled noble after another.

It shouldn’t make him this upset. Levi always knew what Erwin was. He knew and didn’t care. Of course, he didn’t think of it much, of Erwin putting on his charm for someone else who didn’t deserve –

Levi hears the door to the entertaining room open and close. He turns off the TV and listens to the footsteps crossing the apartment. It’s only eleven, much too early for Erwin to be done.

Levi opens the bedroom door and sees Erwin tossing his jacket over a the back of the couch. He looks up at Levi. His expression is controlled and blank.

“You can come back into the living room. The evening ended early.”

Levi feels relieved to hear that for some reason. “What happened?”

“She was unattracted to me.” Erwin struggles one-handed with his tie. “She was a repeat client who previously said she liked me enough that she wouldn’t be bothered by my injury. However, seeing me up close made her change her mind.”

“What a brat.” Sounds just like the spoiled noble Levi had been imagining. He’s glad she’s left Erwin alone.

Erwin raises a brow. “Cripples are not generally considered attractive.”

“So? It’s not like you lost anything where it matters,” Levi says, directing his words more at the selfish client he’s imagining than at Erwin himself.

Erwin puts his head in his hand, and Levi’s surprised to hear a soft chuckle from him. “Oh, Levi,” he says. “As crass as always.”

Levi thinks over his words and realizes with horror exactly how they sound. “No! No, I mean, that’s not . . .” Erwin sinks onto an armchair and continues to chuckle. Levi face grows warm. “That’s not what I meant,” he insists.

“It’s not? I find it hard to believe an arm would be considered unnecessary for all but the most specific activities.”

“Will you stop talking like that? I wasn’t talking about your dick.” This gets the loudest bit of laughter from Erwin, and the deepest shade of red from Levi’s face.

“Then please enlighten me. What did you mean?” Erwin asks.

“I mean, just that . . . you know . . . you look the same.”

“Do I?”

“You’re still . . .” Levi gestures awkwardly to him. “You.”

“I’m still me,” Erwin muses. “That’s an interesting way of putting it.”

Levi crosses his arms and leans against the doorframe, praying that his face returns to its normal color soon. “Why?”

“Because you asked me, a few weeks ago, who I really was. Which implies that you didn’t know the answer.”

It takes a moment for Levi to remember what he’s talking about. Erwin standing before his window watching a burning city the night of the riots, and Levi blurting out, Who are you, really?

“Well, I had just found out that my old Companion was actually a political insurgent. It was a fair question then,” Levi says.

“And have you found an answer?”

Levi narrows his eyes. “What do you mean? You’re you.”

“Of course.” Erwin stands and stretches. “Well, I have a bit of work I’d like to get done in this extra time I’ve obtained. I’ll be in my office if you need me.”

“Erwin,” Levi says, stopping him in his tracks. “What did you mean earlier? When you said I was demonstrating why you avoided me?”

Erwin gathers up his jacket and tie, fumbling with sliding them over his single arm. Levi can tell it’s an action used to buy time, make him look busy while he thinks. “I perhaps shouldn’t have said that.”

“Well you did. So explain it.”

“You have a habit of pushing for the truth, even when it’s inappropriate. Sometimes the truth is best kept buried.”

“You know I’m going to call you out on your bullshit, and that scares you.”

“Scares me? No. It only inconveniences me.”

“Inconveniences you? What does that mean? If you can’t stand-”

Erwin crosses the room, and then surprises Levi by resting his hand on his shoulder. The touch is heavy and warm, and it startles Levi. He never expected Erwin to actually touch him. The last time he did – besides that night when he showed up here half dead – was . . . well, it was a while ago.

“Leave it buried,” Erwin says. “There are a great many things that are best kept untouched. Trust me.”

Levi doesn’t agree, but there’s so much earnestness in Erwin’s eyes that it leaves him speechless, and he doesn’t recover until after the door to Erwin’s office closes.

*****

Levi’s pretty sure Erwin doesn’t go to sleep that night.

He wakes up a few times – he’s finding it hard to relax enough to get a sound sleep – and each time, he sees the light on in Erwin’s office, shining around the edges of the door.

Levi wakes early the next morning, but Erwin’s already in the kitchen, downing a cup of coffee. While Levi makes his own cup of tea, he sees Erwin finish that one, drink a second one, and fill up his mug a third time.

“Didn’t sleep last night?” he asks.

“I slept fine,” Erwin says. “A van’s going to be coming around to take me to the safehouse. Would you like to come so you can teach your lessons?”

He would, and Levi joins Erwin as he’s shuttled to the old safehouse. Erwin’s not with him when he’s driven back to the apartment and handed a key to get into the rooms alone. In fact, Erwin doesn’t come back at all that night. Mike comes by the next morning to shuttle Levi to his lessons again, and when Levi asks where Erwin had been all night, he simply says, “Working.”

Erwin does come back the following night, but not until the early hours of the morning. The gray light of dawn is peaking around the curtains when Levi’s woken up by the sound of Erwin’s footsteps entering the apartment. When Levi gets up later that morning, he’s already halfway through his three-cup coffee routine.

“Do you ever sleep?” Levi asks.

“Of course.” Erwin fills his third mug and takes a coat from off his chair. “I’ll be going to the newest safehouse today, but someone will be by to drive you to your lessons. Have a pleasant day.” And he’s out of the apartment before Levi can respond.

That night, Erwin has a client. This one actually stays for the full appointment. Erwin comes in around one in the morning and goes into his office. He’s still there the next morning.

And for some reason, that’s the last straw. Levi throws off his blanket and bangs on the office door.

There’s no response, so Levi bangs again. Eventually, in a very tired voice, Erwin says, “What do you want, Levi?”

“I want you to go the fuck to sleep.”

“I’m fine.”

“Like hell you are. I haven’t seen you sleep the whole time I’ve been here.”

“That is not your concern.”

“It’s my concern if you’re so sleep-deprived you drive yourself into an early grave. Go to bed.”

Levi expects arguments, excuses, persuasion. What he’s shocked to actually hear is the simple word, “No.”

“No?” Levi asks, incredulous. Erwin must be exhausted if he can’t come up with anything more eloquent than that.

“No,” Erwin repeats.

Levi bangs his fist against the doorframe. “Open this damn door.”

“No.”

“What do you mean, no?”

“It’s a rather simple word.”

Levi could strangle the man. “Fine,” he snaps. “Work yourself to death, then. I don’t care.”

The frustration fades as quickly as it came. He sits on the couch, facing Erwin’s office door and wondering what to do, how to help, if he can take back his words. If this is part of what Mike was talking about. By the time he stands, ready to try to coax Erwin out of his room again, some movement soldiers show up and the opportunity is lost. 

*****

An uneasy week passes. Erwin doesn’t get a full night’s sleep for any of it.

It’s not just that. Levi notices he doesn’t eat very well, either. Snatches of food here and there, but hardly anything that looks like a full meal. Erwin’s fridge is always on the verge of being empty, and he’s evasive when Levi asks why he doesn’t have someone else get groceries for him. (“It’s not the best use of my soldiers’ time,” is Erwin’s response. Levi counters that going to the grocery store is definitely not the best use of the commander’s time, but Erwin insists it’s not a problem.)

The apartment isn’t necessarily messy, but Levi quickly realizes that’s because Erwin doesn’t spend enough time there to make a mess. He finds dust in the corners of every room, signs of a lack of activity or care. Even the precious collection of paper books has gotten dusty, and Levi suspects that they haven’t been touched in ages.

And yet, despite clearly not having the time for it, Erwin insists on entertaining clients. It pisses Levi off every time he sees him pass by in that fancy suit. He hates the idea of Erwin being with those bratty fucks, giving them the time and attention he’s clearly not interested in giving himself. He never says anything when he comes back, but he always looks incredibly tired before disappearing into his bedroom or, more often, his office.

It’s enough to make Levi want to explode. He knows he probably has to be subtle to get through to someone like Erwin, but he just doesn’t know how. And he’s running out of time. He told Mike that he’d look out for him, and he’s barely done that.

So towards the end of the week, Levi sits down across the table from Erwin when he’s on his third cup of coffee and says, “You’re coming apart at the seams.”

Erwin actually glances at his shirt seams in a brief moment of confusion, and Levi could smack him. And himself. He’s off to a great start. Really missed his fucking calling in therapy.

“You’re not sleeping or eating,” Levi continues “You’re going to destroy the movement because you can’t keep yourself together.”

Erwin sighs. “Tell Mike that if he wants to send someone in his place, he needs to provide them with a better script,” he says.

“I’m not just saying this for Mike,” Levi says. And then, realizing what he’s just admitted, he quickly adds, “I’m saying this because you’re really annoying me.”

“Then it’s a good thing the new safehouse will be ready soon, and I’ll be out of your hair.”

“So that’s your plan?” Levi snaps. “You’re going to keep pushing yourself like this until you push yourself to death? And once I’m out of here, you’ll continue ignoring me so you can avoid having hard conversations and keep your precious secrets buried?”

“I suppose so.” Erwin casually takes a sip of his coffee, leaning back in his chair and barely deigning to look Levi in the eye.

“You make me sick.”

“You’re rather irritating yourself at times.”

“Me? What have I ever done?”

“Well, you’re disturbing the peace of my breakfast, for one.”

“Your extremely healthy coffee breakfast.”  

Erwin pauses a moment to think. Then he puts his coffee down on the table and gives Levi his patented even expression. “Your hypocritical prying and blunt attempts to help are generally unwelcome.”

“Hypocritical?”

“Yes.”

“What the fuck have I ever done that’s hypocritical?”

Erwin gives him an infuriating half smile. “You really don’t know, do you? That’s what’s always been so fascinating about your mind.”

The conversation has rapidly gotten away from Levi, and he doesn’t like where it’s gone. “My mind? What the fuck are you talking about?”

Erwin stands, brings his mug to the sink. He’s taking his time, enjoying having the upper hand. Levi wonders if this is something he planned. He can’t imagine what the plan is, but the confidence in Erwin’s movements suggest that he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Erwin turns around, leaning against the sink and bracing his hand on the kitchen counter. “You are always so intent that I’m honest, that I cut out the bullshit, as you would say. But you are, yourself, profoundly dishonest.”

“I’ve never lied to anyone.”

“Except yourself.”

Levi stares, confused. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You lie to yourself about your own emotions. It’s quite interesting, actually. I may hide my true self from the world, but you hide your true self from yourself, and that’s arguably worse.”

“I can’t hide myself from myself. You’re full of shit.”

“From the moment I first met you, you’ve been suppressing your emotions. You cover them with a mask of bitterness and crassness, giving the impression that you don’t care about anything. When you first came to seek my services, you insisted that you hated Companions even though your presence in my room stated otherwise. You attempted to insist that you were not attached to me specifically when your repeated engagements clearly showed that you were. And of course, your attitudes during and after intercourse were very different from each other.”

“So I was uncomfortable with the whole thing. What does that have to do with anything?”

“No.” Erwin shakes his head. “I thought, at first, that you were simply uncomfortable, but there’s more to it, isn’t there? You were so uncomfortable with your feelings that you tricked yourself into believing that they weren’t as strong as they truly were. That led to the confusing duality I saw in you. I see it in other parts of your life, too. Your words and actions are harsh and uncaring, but you care more about those close to you than almost anyone I’ve met.”

Levi feels himself sitting up more rigidly with each word, forearm pressing into the kitchen table as though he’s trying to steel himself against Erwin’s onslaught of criticism. “I’m not here for your amateur psychoanalysis.”

“You say you don’t care about political gestures, but you gave up everything to join the movement, and you risked your life to steal data from the Miranda lab. And you say you hate me, but you’re sitting in my kitchen trying to help me. What’s true, Levi? What do you really feel?”

“You think you know everything about me?”

“No, not everything. But perhaps a great deal more than you do.”

“You don’t know a damn thing. You’re making shit up to avoid your own problems.”

“No. I’m simply pointing out your hypocrisy. I’ll make a deal with you, Levi. I’ll deal with my demons when you deal with yours.”

Levi’s fists clench with anger. How dare he? How can he say he knows Levi? He doesn’t know the first fucking thing about him. Levi’s torn between wanting to smack Erwin and wanting to run from this conversation altogether. “I don’t have any demons.”

“Is that so?”

“You listen,” Levi threatens, standing up. But before he can say a word, there’s a knock on the door.

Erwin’s eyes flicker toward the door. He raises a brow at Levi, and Levi’s pretty sure there’s some mocking behind it, before he goes to answer the knock.

Levi hovers in the doorway to the kitchen. The knock had been in the specific rhythm that marks members of the movement, so he knows it’s safe. But that doesn’t prevent his heart from momentarily stopping when he sees Commissioner Dawk step into the apartment.

“Nile,” Erwin says, surprising Levi by using his first name. “This is an unexpected pleasure.”

“Not a pleasure.” Dawk steps into the apartment and closes the door. When he looks up again, he sees Levi leaning against the doorframe. His eyes briefly widen; Levi hadn’t expected to ever see the policeman again in his life, and Dawk probably felt the same about him. “You?” he asks in surprise. Then he hastily waves his head in Levi’s direction and says, “No, it doesn’t matter. Erwin, you’re in danger.”

“What form of danger?”

“The cops are onto you.”

There’s a beat of silence. Levi sees Erwin’s mask fall, concern settling across his brow, and that scares him far more than Nile’s words.

“I thought you were the cops,” Erwin says, trying to keep his tone light despite the fear in his expression.

“Yeah well, I’m not all of them, and some of them started getting suspicious of how unwilling I was to look at their evidence. Some of my subordinates went above my head to get permission to search your apartment. They’ll be here this afternoon.”

Another silent moment passes, and suddenly Erwin’s mask is back up and tied firmly into place. “Levi. I need you to destroy the computers in my office. Thoroughly smash them. Everything in them is already backed up. Nile, how long can you be away without being missed?”

“Probably about an hour.”

“Go to this address . . .”

It’s obvious that Erwin has planned for this moment. He barely needs to think about his orders, doesn’t hesitate when choosing what to bring and what to leave behind. His bag is filled with data disks, handwritten notebooks, and the bare minimum in personal belongings. Levi puts movement material in his own bags when there’s no more space left in Erwin’s. They’re ready to leave the apartment behind for good in less than an hour.

This is the space Erwin’s called home for over a decade and likely the only place where he could relax or be himself. The only place that’s ever belonged to him. But Levi wouldn’t have guessed that watching him now. Erwin’s utterly ruthless with how efficiently he packs up his life.

He only hesitates once – when he passes his bookshelf on his way out of the apartment.

Levi sees his steps falter. Watches as his eyes travel across this massive collection he worked so hard to curate.         

“You have to take at least one,” Levi says.

Erwin’s fingers brush the spines of the books, and in that simple gesture is a world of emotion at odds with the matter-of-fact way he packed his bags. Levi’s confident that he’ll select one or two to take with him.

But then his hand drops, his mask comes back up, and he keeps walking.

“No,” Erwin says. “I don’t.” And he doesn’t even look back as he closes the door to his home behind him.

Chapter Text

“A traitor and dangerous criminal is on the run as of this morning. The fugitive Erwin Smith is wanted for heinous crimes against the state, including treason, and the UG is urging all of its citizens to help bring him down.”

The words of the newscaster hang heavy in the hidden room. Levi glances around and sees anxiety on the faces of everyone near him.

He’s in the safehouse that’s been assigned to be his new home. It’s an underground bunker from the unification wars, a place originally intended to hide UG troops from the bombs of Independent rebels. The bunker stretches under so much of Sina that it had been more cost effective for the UG to leave it in place, abandoned and forgotten, until Erwin secretly repurposed it decades later.

Now, many of the higher-ranking movement members have been relocated there to make room for new recruits in other safehouses. As of this morning, it’s Erwin’s home, too.

Not even a few hours have passed since Erwin had to escape his home and go into hiding. The place is likely being sacked at this very moment.

But if Erwin’s concerned at suddenly finding himself wanted and homeless, he doesn’t show it. As always, his primary concern is the movement. The first thing he did when he arrived at a new safehouse was call a meeting of his closest followers and lieutenants. He informed them calmly of his change of situation and, to demonstrate just how wanted he had become, turned on the local newscast.

Erwin may be calm, but he’s the only one. Levi hears some soft gasps and muttered curses as Erwin’s face appears on the TV screen.

It’s a 3D computer rendering, eerily realistic and complete with animation: the image spins in a slow circle as the newscaster speaks, then nods up and down to give viewers a good idea of what Erwin would look like at all angles.

“This man has been posing as a Companion for over a decade,” the anchor explains. “It is believed that he used that trusted position to steal state secrets. Authorities suspect that he has also been breaking into government-owned buildings and may even be plotting grievous acts of rebellion. If seen, call the UG tip hotline immediately. Do not engage.”

And then, adding to Levi’s anxiety, a creepy 3D rendering of his own head appears next to Erwin’s and begins doing its own set of spins.

“Erwin Smith maybe travelling with Levi Ackerman, the fugitive wanted for mass murders committed at a government research facility over a month ago. We are reminding the public that Ackerman is still at large and must be brought in immediately. The reward for information on him has again increased.”

The freaky spinning heads disappear from the screen, thank god, and the camera pans down over three heavily done up news anchors. “And now, with that gruesome business out of the way, it’s time for our daily coverage of the presidential race,” one of them says with a peppy smile.

“Enough with the damn presidential race,” Nanaba mutters as she turns off the TV. Levi silently agrees with her. The news has been hyping it up endlessly, pretending it’s a close race and promoting the universe-wide festivals that’ll be held on (re-)inauguration day with sickening levels of patriotism.

No one responds to Nanaba, though. The room has fallen silent in the wake of the newscast.

Levi again looks at the faces around him, wondering who will break the silence.

He looks first at Hanji, who had followed him and Moblit into the meeting. They hadn’t been invited, but Erwin doesn’t seem bothered by their presence. The three of them sit in a back corner, Hanji’s worry manifesting as an intense gaze magnified by their glasses, while Moblit bites his nails.

Closer to the front of the room, near where Erwin leans against the wall near the TV, sit Mike, Nanaba, and Petra. A small group of soldiersstand in the opposite back corner, including Schultz, who Levi remembers from the military base. They all watch Erwin carefully, wondering how he’ll react to this turn of events.

In the end, it’s Erwin who breaks the tension and ends the silence. He pushes off the wall and to stand before the group and announces, “I intended for this happen.”

There’s a snort. Levi identifies the culprit by following Erwin’s gaze to Nanaba.

“You always say things like that,” Nanaba says, unapologetic. “Sometimes they’re true, sometimes they’re not, but we can never really know which it is.”

“You don’t have any evidence that anything I say is ever untrue. Is it so hard to believe that I truly do plan for everything that happens?”

“It is. Even for you.”

A ghost of a smile plays over Erwin’s lips, but he doesn’t confirm or deny Nanaba’s suspicions. “Regardless, I did indeed intend this. I intended for it to happen several weeks from now, and I intended to give you all some time to prepare, but I always planned to be going into hiding eventually.”

“Why? What can you do in hiding that you couldn’t do from where you were?” Petra asks.

“For this movement to work, it can’t always remain secretive. It has to become known. To become an interplanetary force that touches every reach of the universe. In the process of becoming known, my face and name need to be popularized.”

“As a wanted criminal?”

“As a rebel.” Erwin pulls a sheet of paper from his back pocket and unfolds it. He holds it up for all to see. Levi can’t get a good look at it from his place in the back of the room, but he sees the words “Join the Resistance” in large gold letters across the top. A pair of wings, one white and one blue, hover behind the headline.

“Propaganda,” Hanji says. Erwin raises his gaze to them and gives them an affirming nod.

“The fuck is propaganda?” Levi asks.

“A word that’s fallen out of use since the founding of the UG. They didn’t want the universe’s citizens to be able to name what UG news broadcasts truly are,” Erwin says. “Propaganda is messaging with political intent behind it, such as the news you consume or the political speeches that are often on TV. And this is, too – but instead of making the viewer complacent with oppression, it’s designed to make them feel empowered. I’ve had a number of these posters printed up, and tomorrow night, we’re covering the Underground with them.”

“Travelling to the Underground to hang up incriminating posters? That doesn’t sound very safe,” Mike says.

“Is anything we do safe?” Erwin responds. “If we’re going to find a receptive audience and willing allies anywhere, it will be in the Underground. We’ll hang these posters and spread the word that I’m the leader of this movement. The people in the Underground will see the news broadcasts about me and compare them against the messages that we spread, and I’ll go from criminal to hero.”

“Real humble, huh?” Levi says. A couple people in the room snicker.

“I knew you’d say something like that,” Erwin says before turning back to the matter at hand. “I’ve made contact with some activists based in the Underground, the ones behind the occasional riot that will break out down there. At midnight tomorrow, they will be waiting to meet us at an agreed upon location. On your way, I’d like you to hang as many of these posters as possible. Levi, we will need your help for this.”

“Information on the Underground?” he asks.

“And guidance into it, if you’re willing to take on the risk.”

“I am,” Levi says, ignoring when Hanji hisses his name. They don’t love the idea of him doing a mission with such a big bounty on his head, but he’ll be careful. Staying inside safehouses is starting to grate on him.

“Thank you,” Erwin says. “You’ll be taking us one step closer to bringing down the government.”

*****

Levi pulls off his mask and breathes in the scent of home sweet home – piss and sweat and mold. Strange how it comforts him and repels him at the same time.

“This place smells horrible,” Petra whispers next to him.

“Don’t say anything about it,” Levi responds. “Don’t say anything about anything. Don’t look around you, either. Those things prove that you don’t belong, and people who don’t belong get jumped.”

They’re hiding in an alley, squeezed between a residential building and a ramshackle factory. Taking the normal elevator down was too risky – there are security cameras monitoring who goes into and out of the Underground. So they had snuck in through an insecure section of grating onto an apartment building’s roof, then used the building’s rusty fire escape to climb to the ground. They wore the usual black masks to hide their identities on the way to the Underground, but once they had climbed down, Levi had recommended that they come off. They won’t be the only ones sneaking around the Underground at this time of night, and masks make them look like they’re up to something suspicious – well, more suspicious than what people usually get up to at midnight in the Underground.

“Aren’t they afraid someone will tell the cops on them if they mug an outsider?” Nanaba asks, though she checks the rounds in her gun just in case.

“Cops don’t bother doing any real policing down here. They just yell at people and arrest whoever pisses them off the most. Come on, let’s go.”

They walk out onto the main street. The group – which consists of Levi, Petra, Mike, Nanaba, and a friend of Petra’s named Erd Jinn – has been instructed to appear as casual as possible to make it seem as though they belong here. They wear street clothes, not the usual black ensemble that movement soldiers wear on missions and carry the kind of weapons that would be seen as normal in the Underground.

Night’s darker than usual in the Underground. There are no stars or moon, and the UG can’t be bothered to install enough streetlights to make a dent in the gloom. As soon as the sun sets, most people go inside and lock their doors – if they can afford to have doors to lock, that is. But there are those who do most of their business at night. The gangs, the drug dealers, the black market traders. And, of course, the activists.

There have always been activists in the Underground, usually young people who haven’t yet gotten too run down by life. Underground residents talk about them with a headshake and a sad smile, at once admiring and pitying them. Some are dreamers, looking up through the grates of the Underground’s sky and imagining that they can fight for a better life. And some are simply angry, knowing they can’t change anything but too pissed off to accept that without a fight. Levi wonders if he would have ended up among them if he hadn’t been rescued from this life.

The address that had been sent to Erwin by his contacts leads to a hidden warehouse inside an industrial complex. They hang posters on their way, pausing whenever no one else is in sight to plaster them wherever there’s room. They can’t risk going down the main streets for fear of getting caught, but in a way that’s a good thing. It’ll make it harder for the cops to rip all the posters down, and it’ll ensure that people are still discovering them days from now. By the time they reach the activists’ hideout, half the Underground has been litteredwith propaganda.

A surprisingly young girl greets them when they arrive. She states that no more than two unarmed people can come in at a time, and in response, Mike tries to negotiate entrance for all of them. A conversation that seems to consist more of subtext than outright discussion passes between them as they both try to outsmart the other into giving them what they want – all without dropping the guise of amiability. It’s exactly the kind of conversation that would drive Levi insane, and he’s more than happy to let Mike deal with it.

Ultimately, they reach a compromise: Mike agrees to leave two of his people behind, while the activist girl agrees to let them enter with all their weapons. It’s a fair agreement, though Levi can’t help but think that if Erwin were there, the girl would have been convinced to let all five armed people into her hideout, and would thank them for it.

Mike chooses Levi and Petra to stay behind. They stand guard outside the sliding metal door of the warehouse, looking out into darkness that presses so close it seems to separate them from the rest of the world.

Levi pulls his gun out of his holster and slouches against the wall. He’ll be ready in case something were to happen, but he’s not standing at attention all night. It would remind him too much of working as a guard in the Miranda lab.

He glances at Petra. There’s a single dim lightbulb hanging over the warehouse door, giving just enough light to see her by but not enough to make out her expression clearly. She clutches her gun in both hands and stands rigidly in front of the doors. Her posture is tense and watchful, as though she expects someone to jump out of the darkness at any moment, and Levi realizes with some surprise that she’s scared.

The whole time he’s been with the movement, Levi’s never see Petra scared. He’s seen her come back from missions bloody and seen her run across the rooftops of a burning city, but he’s never actually seen her scared.

Now, she looks more like the Petra he knew years ago, before any of this had ever started. Like the girl who drank iced tea with him in her landscaped courtyard and asked him with horror if he’d ever been knifed. The new Petra probably wouldn’t blink at being knifed herself. But apparently the Underground still frightens her.

“We’ll be fine out here,” Levi tells her. His voice sounds small in the open space of the industrial complex, barely cutting through the thick darkness. “Most likely, no one will come this way because they know it’s activist territory. If someone does, they’ll probably see we’re guarding something and leave us alone. The gangs want easy marks, not armed people like us.”

“Was I really that obvious?” Petra asks. Levi can barely make out her shaking her head. “It’s just that it’s unfamiliar. I can face anything when I know what to expect. Anything new is going to set me on edge.”

“Well it’s familiar to me, so I’ll tell you if there’s anything to watch out for.”

Levi hears a quiet laugh from her. “Thanks, Levi.”

“Anyway, you can take some Underground thugs,” he says. “I know you’ve fought much scarier people.”

“I’ve learned how to handle those scarier people,” she says. “I was terrified of them my first couple missions.”

Petra relaxes, but not by too much. The gun still sits comfortably in her hand, gripped so it can be raised and shot in a moment. Her stance, while casual, is the firm stance of a fighter. He wonders what happened to change her so much.

“When were those first couple missions?” Levi asks. “How long ago did you join the movement?”

“Why do you ask?” Petra responds.

“When I first met you, you were a sweet noble girl who liked chemistry. Now you’re standing in the Underground holding a gun like you know how to use it. It makes you wonder what happened in between.”

Petra laughs. “When you put it like that, it sounds ridiculous,” she says. “Well, I found out about the movement through Nanaba, actually. She led one of my labs, and we got along well. Then she started acting strangely – not coming to lab, acting distracted when she was there, things like that. I tried to figure out what was bothering her – I just assumed she was horribly depressed or something – and that eventually led me to discover the movement.”

“But then why join? You had a pretty good life before.”

“Did I?” Petra shrugs. “I wanted to do something important. Something that would matter in the future. I thought science would give me that opportunity, but it was becoming clear to me that no matter how much I studied at university, I would never be let onto the really interesting projects. I’m a woman and was born a commoner, and the academic community is nothing if not backwards. I got really frustrated at being blocked at every turn.

“And of course I wasn’t thrilled about the whole pressure to marry, and all the parties and balls I had to attend even though I knew everyone was laughing at me behind their hands. I was getting tired of feeling like my life was boxed in. I thought this was a chance to break free of it, and to help create a world where other people could break free, too.” After a beat of silence she adds, “And I was kind of inspired by you.”

Me?” Levi asks. He couldn’t have been more surprised if Petra said she was inspired by a rat in wig. “What the fuck did I do?”

Petra laughs again. “Nothing. But do you remember that tea we had together, all those years ago? You said all these things about being true to yourself, not letting society tell you what to do or who to be. And at the time I had thought that those were ideals I wanted to live by. But actually living by them turned out to be really hard. And even if I were to live my own life differently, it wouldn’t get rid of any of the problems I was running into. All of society needs to change. This is my chance to change it, and the closest I can get to those ideals you were talking about.”

“Oh,” Levi says, still dumbstruck. He’s never thought of himself as capable of inspiring anyone, let alone someone thoughtful and kind like Petra.

“You’re more than you realize, Levi. In a lot of ways,” Petra says. “More inspiring, more thoughtful, more brave. You hide it well, but I’ve always known there was a lot going on behind the scenes.”

“Um, I’m sorry you’ve been tricked you into thinking that.” Levi tries to make it sound like a joke, but it comes sounding out awkward and forced.

Petra only laughs. “You said the things I most needed to hear at that time. I have to admit, I had quite a crush on you back then.”

Levi nearly drops his gun, he’s so startled. “Crush?”

“That’s so hard to believe?” Petra asks, giggling. “It’s not like I’m the only person who’s ever liked you.”

“Actually, I think you are.”

“Oh, please. I know about Erwin.”

Levi’s face begins to burn up in embarrassment. How does she know he used to be Erwin’s client? Did she guess? Has Mike told her? Does the whole fucking movement know? Levi forces himself to not do anything that would make him look especially interested. He’s thankful it’s too dark out for Petra to see his blush. “I’m not sure Erwin counts. And it was a long time ago.”

“A long time ago?

“Three years isn’t yesterday.”

“What happened three years ago?”

Levi stares at her, confused and even more panicked than before. If she’s not talking about the time when he was Erwin’s client, what could she be talking about? What does she know – or think she knows?

“When you say you know about Erwin, what do you mean?”

“Oh.” Now it’s Petra’s turn to act embarrassed. “Um, I assumed . . . I mean, I didn’t . . . I might be completely off. Am I completely off?”

“Completely.”

“I just thought . . . whenever you two are around each other, there’s this weird sort of tension. He looks at you when you’re not looking, and you look at him when he’s not looking, so I just thought . . .”

“I do not look at him,” Levi asserts.

“Fine, but he definitely does.”

Levi feels his face grow even warmer, and something flutters deep in his gut. “Look, we . . . we had a . . . something happened . . . three years ago. But we’ve had a falling out since then. I think the tension you’re talking about is just actual tension.”

“But you lived with him last week.”

“Not my decision.”

Petra gives him a long, measuring look, and then just says, “Okay.”

Levi feels compelled to convince her even though a part of him knows that he’ll just look like he’s in denial if he tries. “There are some things Erwin’s done that I can’t forgive,” Levi says. His voice sounds desperate, even to his own ears. 

“Oh?” Her tone encourages him to explain, but Levi’s not going to share that whole saga right now.

“It’s not like the movement’s any place for a something like that, anyway,” he says, and then immediately wants to smack himself. What if she takes that to mean he wants “something like that”?

“Mike and Nanaba are managing fine.”

And again, Levi nearly drops his gun. “Mike and Nanaba?”

“You didn’t notice? They keep it low key, but they’ve got an affair going on.”

Levi has trouble picturing them together. “She’s like, half his size.”

“You’re one to talk.”

“I’m not – that’s – “

The door rolls open, and Petra gives Levi a knowing smile before following their comrades as they leave the warehouse. Levi doesn’t even have the chance to sputter out a good protest.

He leads the way out of the Underground, and knows as he does that he should be concerned with the mission first and foremost on the mission. But instead, it’s Petra’s accusation, and what he can do to convince her she’s wrong, that occupy his thoughts.

*****

“How was going back home?” Hanji tosses something at Levi, and he catches it reflexively.

“Don’t call it that. What’s this?” He sinks down next to them on the small rec room’s couch. A meeting was called to discuss their encounter with the Underground activists, though everyone but Levi is late. Hanji wasn’t invited but showed up anyway.

In his hands is a small metal box with some switches and wires sticking out from it. Levi can’t even tell where the front is, let alone how it works.

“Transmission blocker. Erwin told me to try my hand at making one. Moblit told him that I was science-y, so Erwin’s letting me do science. It’s great. I’ve got a few other tricks that I’m working on, too.”

Levi tosses it back. “What else?”

“All sorts of stuff. Encryption and private communications channels and some weapon-type things.”

“You know how to make all of those things?”

“The best way to learn something is on the job! Moblit’s agreed to be my assistant, too. He doesn’t really seem to like science . . . seems confused a lot . . . but it’s good bonding time.”

“So are you two official?”

Hanji just grins and giggles.

“Ok, stop. I never want to see that expression on you ever again.” Hanji and Moblit, Mike and Nanaba. Even a few of his trainees are hooking up. Why is everyone suddenly pairing off? Maybe that’s why Petra thought Levi had something going on with Erwin – she just expected it because everyone else was hooking up.

Probably not, though.

It’s been a full day since the mission, but Levi hasn’t been able to move on from what Petra said. He can’t stop wondering where she got the idea that he and Erwin were . . . doing something. He’d like to convince her she’s wrong, but he if he doesn’t know why she thinks that in the first place, how does he disprove it? 

Between Petra’s comments and Erwin’s accusation that he doesn’t know his own feelings, it seems like a lot of people are pretty convinced that they know Levi better than he knows himself. And he doesn’t like it.

“Hey, Hanji. Question,” he says when the giggling ends.

“Go.”

For a brief, crazy second, Levi had been about to ask Hanji why Petra might think . . . what she thinks. But he changes his mind before he can do something so stupid. He doesn’t need the teasing Hanji would give him for that. Instead, he decides to ask them something else that’s been pressing on his mind.

“Do you think I . . . I mean, am I ever, like . . . What I’m asking is, someone recently accused me of being kind of . . . fake. They’re not right, are they?” Levi doesn’t understand why he tripped over the words like that. It makes him sound so much more concerned about the answer to this question than he is.

“Fake?”

“Well, not exactly fake. Just that I . . . it sounds so stupid I can’t believe I’m even asking about it. But they said I hide my own feelings from myself, or something like that. Which doesn’t even make sense-” Levi intends to go, but Hanji cuts him off.

“Oh, yeah. You do that.” 

“What?” Levi snaps, surprised to find himself suddenly angry. “I do not.”

“Well if you’re so confident that you don’t, why’d you ask me?” Levi struggles to formulate an answer. “You’ve got this unfeeling tough guy act going on, but you’re really a big old softie. And everyone knows it but you.”

“That is not true,” Levi hisses.

Their argument gets cut off as more people arrive for the meeting, and Levi’s not sure if he’s relieved by the interruption or not. He sits back on the couch and doesn’t face Hanji, though his glare remains in place.

Mike and Nanaba enter and sit next to each other in folding chairs at the front of the room. Now that he knows they’re fucking, it’s hard not to see the way they stick by each other’s side and exchange quiet smiles.

Then Petra comes in with Schultz, Jinn, and another soldier named Bossard, who all sit around her laughing at some joke at her expense. No one’s fucking there – at least, Levi’s pretty sure. They all seem to treat Petra like a little sister.

Erwin’s the last person to arrive. Levi glances up at him, but then finds himself quickly looking away again.

He sits on a folding chair at the front of the room, his remaining arm braced on his knee. There are bags under his eyes. Erwin doesn’t usually look so tired, though with how little he sleeps, he really should. Levi wonders if Erwin uses makeup to hide his exhaustion.

Either way, his exhaustion isn’t hidden today. The bags under his eyes make him look older and more rundown as he surveys the room.

“First thing’s first,” he says, and the room immediately quiets. Even looking haggard, he still commands attention. “The meeting went well?”

“It did,” Mike says. “They were a little suspicious of us at first, but they have the same values we do. We made some good first steps to an agreement.”

“That’s excellent,” Erwin says, though he can’t seem to muster up enough energy to be genuinely enthusiastic. “Tell me more about them. Who are their leaders and what are they like to work with?”

Mike, Nanaba, and Jinn work together to answer Erwin’s questions. Most of the meeting consists of rehashing details of a meeting Levi wasn’t at, so he only pays attention with half his mind. 

With the other half he finds himself, much to his frustration, thinking about Erwin.

So Hanji agrees with Erwin about him. But Erwin’s accusation still doesn’t make any sense. If Levi hides his feelings from himself, then he’s technically not feeling them at all, right? And who fucking thinks that hard about feelings, anyway? They’re just emotions. They come and they go, and they don’t mean anything unless you let them.

Levi glances at Erwin. He looks especially bad today, and Levi knows he probably feels worse if he let some part of his façade drop. Levi wonders what caused this lapse – if it was something specific, or if Erwin is simply beginning to crack under the pressure.

I’ll deal with my demons when you deal with yours, Erwin had said. Levi wonders if that’s true. If he could possibly get through to Erwin by talking about his own supposed issues. It seems like an absurd concept, but if it worked, he’d do it. He’d do almost anything.

And that, he realizes with something akin to dread, is not a thought that someone who didn’t care about Erwin would have.

But he doesn’t care. Well, he cares to some extent, but he doesn’t care like he used to. 

Levi shifts his gaze toward Erwin, and then immediately shifts his gaze away.

This is stupid. He knows how he feels about Erwin. He doesn’t need to think so much about it. He feels annoyed, mostly. Erwin’s let him down in so many ways. After making Levi care for him to the point where he actually wanted to run away with him, Erwin’s now cold and unfeeling toward him. And Levi hates that. He hates that Erwin’s not acting like himself or being the person Levi knows he could be, and that he’s put both Levi and himself in danger as a result.

When Levi looks at Erwin, he doesn't see the guy he used to love. That guy isn’t there anymore. He died sometime during the years when they were apart. And while Levi would kill to have that version of Erwin back, he knows that won’t happen. And he hates Erwin for that.

Erwin’s gaze flickers his way. With a start, Levi realizes that he’d been staring without knowing it. He quickly looks up at the ceiling and hopes Erwin doesn’t notice.

This is pathetic. The whole scenario is pathetic. He’s in the midst of a secret meeting about partnering with Underground criminals to take down the government and he’s thinking about romance.

But it’s hard not to when the whole reason he’s here in the first place is because of some dumb romantic entanglement from three years ago, and damn, he really wishes he never took that Companion appointment in the first place.

If he hadn’t, he’d still be in the military right now, doing his time as a normal soldier before getting fast-tracked to a cushy officer position, and he’d be . . . well, he wouldn’t be as stressed. That’s for sure.

But at the same time, he knows he wouldn’t be happy, either. It’d just be an extension of his life beforehand, dull and colorless and repetitive.

The moment Erwin entered his life, it’s been in color. Sometimes pretty ugly colors, but at least what he’s doing now matters. At least he’s not wasting his life away working as a pawn of the UG, feeling empty all the while.

No, for all the strife it’s brought him, the choice to walk into Erwin’s entertaining room is one he doesn’t regret. If he’s going to be honest with himself, he has to at least acknowledge that.

But if he’s going to keep being honest with himself, Erwin has made him feel a lot of things he’d really rather have gone through life not feeling.

And, if he’s going to really, truly be honest with himself, that may still be the case.

*****

Most soldiers in the safehouse sleep in barracks, but Erwin’s got his own room. Commander’s privilege. It’s a closet of a room, but compared to where everyone else is sleeping it’s luxurious. It’s also right next to the small meeting room Erwin uses to talk to his inner circle, so Levi happens to know exactly where it is.

He leans against the wall across from the door, stares at it, and hates himself for being there.

It’s nighttime, two days after that meeting. Levi’s been practicing being honest with himself. He doesn’t like it.

It’s stupid, really. He doesn’t need honest feelings or whatever to be of use to the movement. Or to do anything else important. So why bother?

But he knows why he’s bothering. I’ll deal with my demons when you deal with yours. He’ll show Erwin. It’s not that hard.

(But it is.)

He crosses the hall, raises his hand to knock, and then drops it and backs away. He doesn’t actually know what he’s going to say. Most of the “honest feelings” he’s been thinking about have been about Erwin, and he sure as hell isn’t bringing those up. But he’s not going to sit around waiting for some useful emotion to pop up while Erwin keeps wasting away. He’ll probably just march in there, make some shit up about feeling tired or scared or whatever movement soldiers typically feel, and then demand Erwin do the same.

But, then again, there is a bit of a flaw in his plan to make shit up about his “honest” feelings.

Levi sighs. He knows what he actually has to say. If he wants to get anywhere, he has to admit to Erwin that he was right about him.

Which, honestly, sounds like too high a price to pay.

“Levi?”          

Shit.

Levi turns and leans against the wall, watching Erwin approach from down the corridor. “Just wanted to see if you were actually going to sleep like a normal person tonight,” he says. Lamest excuse he’s ever given. Erwin’s going to see through it in a second.

“You’re still on your crusade to make me sleep?”

“Things usually go poorly when the commander collapses from exhaustion in the middle of a mission.”

“I’m confident that won’t happen.” Erwin takes out a key and unlocks his door. “Why are you really here?”

“Um . . . Hanji had a question.”

Erwin opens his door. “I doubt that.”

Erwin enters his room and gestures for Levi to follow. Levi reluctantly obeys. His heart starts beating faster, for some reason. Is he nervous? Why the fuck is he nervous?

Erwin closes the door behind them. The room really is a closet. There’s barely any space to walk between the bed and the dresser. Erwin sits down on his bed and gestures to a metal folding chair against the wall for Levi to sit in.

“What’s this about?” Erwin asks. He runs his hand down his face, and damn, he looks exhausted.

Well, better get this over with so Erwin can go the fuck to sleep. Levi sits down and opens his mouth.

He’s about to say that Erwin was right, but he just can’t make himself. So he thinks maybe he should just say that he’s been being more honest with himself.

But this is Erwin, and he knows what Levi’s goal is. And because of that, he won’t believe Levi unless he gets some kind of proof. It hits Levi then just how flawed his plan. Erwin’s going to need more than some half-hearted confession. The only thing that will persuade Erwin is evidence of Levi actually “dealing with his demons.”

Levi opens his mouth and is surprised to hear himself say, “I’m probably like this because of when my mom died.”

Erwin’s drooping eyelids perk open, and he stares at Levi in confusion. And Levi realizes that, shit, that’s not going to make any sense to him. He scrambles to try to fix it, but what comes out is a nonsensical jumble of words.

“I mean, the whole – what did you call it? Mask of bitterness and crassness? That whole thing. My mom dies, and emotions kind of stop being useful. Having a hitman guardian for a few years probably didn’t help either. This is what you wanted, right? ‘I’ll deal with my demons when you deal with yours’? Well these are the demons. I guess.”

Erwin’s face is . . . it goes beyond surprised. He’s completely bewildered. Mouth gaping, eyes blank, frozen in place. A brand new expression for Erwin. And as much as Levi loves getting new expressions out of him, this one’s a little disconcerting.

Erwin blinks a few times, and then slowly shakes his head and – is that laugher? It’s very soft, but Erwin is laughing at him. Great.

“When I said that,” Erwin says, “I never in a million years actually expected you to follow through with it. Levi, you always manage to surprise me.” He stops shaking his head and meets Levi’s gaze, suddenly serious. “For over a decade, I made it my job to read people so I could predict their actions and meet their every need. Yet for all my expertise in predicting what people will do, you are the one person who manages to constantly surprise me.”

“That a good thing or a bad thing?”

“I honestly don’t know.”

Levi crosses his arms, leans back in his chair, and is definitely feeling some kind of emotion, but thinks he’s done enough feeling of things recently and decides to ignore it. “I kept my end of the deal. Now you keep yours.”

“I can’t argue that you did,” Erwin says. “But I don’t know what you actually want from me.”

Levi’s not entirely sure, either. What he really wants, deep down, is to get the Erwin that he knew three years ago back. But he doesn’t think that can ever happen. He also wants Erwin to stop working himself to death, but he suspects that asking for that outright will just lead to more evasions, even if he does get Erwin to agree to some kind of deal. So he goes with something else he wants.

“I want you to stop lying to me,” Levi says. “Like it or not – I know I don’t – I’m someone whose seen you the most . . . you know . . . real. So it’s insulting when you lie to me. Same goes for Mike, by the way.”

“I understand. But I’ve spent my entire adult life building a career out of lying. You have to realize how uncomfortable full honesty can sometimes be for me.”

“I’m uncomfortable as fuck right now, but I did it.”

Erwin shakes his head again, and – is that a smile? “Well, I can’t argue with that.” He takes a deep breath. “Alright, then. What lies would you like cleared up?”

“You have been avoiding me.”

“. . . Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because . . .” Erwin struggles to come up with the words, looking off into the distance as he thinks. Several times, he begins to speak and then stops. Then, suddenly, he stands and crosses the little room, stopping in front of the dresser at the far wall. He braces his hand on the top and doesn’t look at Levi. “You wouldn’t like the answer.”

“Rather have an ugly truth than a comfortable lie.”

“Would you, really?” Erwin glances at him over his shoulder. “Comfortable lies have their place. Some truths are too ugly or too inappropriate to be shared. Some secrets are secrets for a reason. If I answer your question right now, you’ll never be able to look at me the same way again.”

“But if you don’t, I’ll never stop wondering what the answer is. I’d rather be offended now than live the rest of my life knowing you’re hiding something from me.”

Erwin turns away again. “And are you sure you . . . don’t already suspect the answer?”

Suspect the answer? What could Levi possibly suspect? The pit of his stomach grows warm with trepidation as he says, “Erwin. Say it.”

Erwin shakes his head, but he turns around to face Levi again. He leans against the far wall and doesn’t quite meet Levi’s eyes as he speaks.

“I know you don’t approve of my tendency to ignore how I’m feeling, but the truth is I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish a fraction of what I’ve accomplished with the movement if I couldn’t make myself hollow. Being a Companion taught me to master the art of being a blank slate so others could write their desired personality onto me. I’ve learned to be a machine, performing actions without the emotions that typically come with them.

“That skill enabled me to develop the ruthlessness and focus I need to lead this movement. It allowed me to be unencumbered by the small emotional concerns that often hold people back, such as fear or sentiment. It’s freed me of regret and even pain. If it’s freed me of happiness as well, that’s an acceptable sacrifice.

“For the past three years – ever since I began the movement in earnest – I haven’t felt a thing. I succeeded in entirely removing my humanity for the sake of this cause. Every expression, smile, or kind word was simply the type of performance I mastered in my years of being a Companion. At first I was a little frightened by myself, and then I lost even that. The only thing that mattered to me was the success of the mission.

“For three years, I didn’t feel a thing – until I saw you.”

Ironically, Levi doesn’t feel a thing at Erwin’s declaration. It’s like the numbness that comes after being on the receiving end of a particularly hard punch. Sometimes, the sensation is so great that it takes a while for it to actually register. Sometimes, you just feel a dull sense of shock.

And then it hits, and Levi feels like he’s falling – like the ground’s disappeared and he’s hurtling toward something, but doesn’t know what.

“What do you mean? What did you feel?” he asks.

Erwin runs his hand through his hair, mussing it. Strands come free of his neat part and fall loose across his forehead. “A lot of different things. Things that took time to identify, since it had been so long. Not love – I don’t want you to worry about that. But . . . fondness, yes. And some longing for before. Guilt for using you. And some fear – not of you, but of the realization that my efforts to become hollow were not as successful as I had thought.”

Something flutters deep in Levi’s stomach. He can’t think straight enough to string a sentence together in response. This doesn’t make any sense. There’s no way that he, Levi Ackerman, could have this profound of an effect on anyone, let alone on Erwin. He has no idea what this will mean, and he’s afraid to find out.

“At first I thought I would have you once again out of my life when my questions about Miranda were addressed. Then I thought you would be leaving for Oceanus, and once you were gone, things would go back to normal. But you’re still here, and will be here indefinitely, and every time I see you, I become a little less of a machine. And I can’t risk that. The movement can’t risk that.

“I’m avoiding you because, for reasons I cannot fathom, you are the only person who has managed to remind me of my humanity. And I have hated you for it.”

Erwin’s words hang thick in the air, waiting to land. He watches Levi with a guarded expression.

“Why me?” Levi asks softly.

“I’m not sure. Perhaps because you’ve always striven to see me for who I am. Perhaps it’s the memory of before,” Erwin voice is just as quiet as Levi’s. Then, in the silence that follows, he says, “A truth for a truth. Why did you stay?”

“Because I wanted to make my own decision instead of letting life lead me around,” Levi says. And then adds, “And because you weren’t bothered by losing an arm.”

Erwin’s remaining hand absently goes to the remains of his arm. “Why does that matter?”

“It made me realize how much you’re . . . messed up.”

“And you want to save me.”

Levi shrugs. “I want to make sure you don’t keep sacrificing yourself one limb at a time.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever stop being ‘messed up,’ as you say. And I don’t think it’s worth your effort to try to save me.”

The defeatism in his voice breaks Levi’s heart. “Erwin.” He struggles for something encouraging to say, but only manages to come out with, “Of course it is.” 

“I thought you hated me.”

“I do, sometimes. Mostly at times like this, when you’re being so damn self-destructive.”

The faintest smile ghosts over Erwin’s lips. “There’s the Levi I know.”

Levi shakes his head. “No, I shouldn’t have said it like that.” He stands and then, after a second’s hesitation, crosses the room. It only takes three steps in the small space to come within a few feet of Erwin. “Erwin, I . . . we . . .”

“Don’t,” Erwin says.

Levi’s not sure what Erwin was telling him not to do. He stands frozen in place, and he notices that his right hand is partially raised, as though just beginning to reach out toward Erwin. He wants to touch him with a desire that he hasn’t felt for three years. Erwin said that Levi’s been able to restore some of his humanity; a crazy part of him thinks that perhaps if he were to just touch him, he could restore all of it.

“There’s been too much truth for one night,” Erwin says.

“There hasn’t.” There can’t be too much truth, not until Levi’s discovered all of it.

“I’ll try to get some sleep tonight,” Erwin says quietly.

Levi hears the dismissal in his words. He lowers his hand.

“You better,” he says, and tries to not let the disappointment show in his voice.

“Goodnight, Levi.”                

How many other times, three years ago, had Erwin said goodnight to him to like that? It sounded almost as mournful then as it does now.

“Goodnight, Erwin.”

He steps out the door, leans against the wall, and waits for his heart to stop pounding.