Actions

Work Header

Two Corpses We Were

Work Text:

 

The rainfall is dense, constant: a steady strumming against the thick glass of the windows, a dull roar against the wooden walls. It will surely leave grooves in the earth when it is finished, deep and winding gouges that will scar the rocky hillsides. His untilled garden will be a mess of mud and persistent puddles.

The forest here hardly ever seems to dry out, truthfully; rain and fog like to linger over these mountains, while dew and frost lay fresh claim to everything each morning.  

It can be beautiful. The forest at dawn is a chorus of birdsong and the soothing, sea-like patter of a thousand droplets falling from a thousand trees. But the evenings are often stormy, and this night is like any other. The wind forces the trees to bend and their branches to break, and howls painfully as it meets the unyielding walls of the one-room cabin. The window panes tremble in their frames at each heavy groan of thunder, like the labored breaths of an approaching behemoth.

Erwin doesn’t mind it, at this point. His bed is warm, layered with half a dozen blankets of grey wool and quilted florals. And his lamps and lanterns provide enough light to read by—a blessing when even the days here can be as dim as dusk, all sunlight muted to a faint, smoky gold by clouds, fog, and soaring treetops.  

He reads late into the night, as always, though his current book sits on his nightstand, the page marked with a dried sprig of rosemary. It is a letter in his hands now—all new, still crisp, the ink dark and rich. It’s one of Hange’s, only gathered today during his monthly trip down into the village in the foothills. It’s postmarked with a date at least five weeks past, and the stamps of no less than eleven different post offices chart its meandering journey from Sina out to the hinterlands.

Erwin first notices the noise as he slices open the envelope with the letter opener from his nightstand drawer: it is a gentle clink, barely distinguishable from the patter of rain on the cabin’s roof and windows. Easy to ignore.

He unfolds the paper with deliberate care and scans it first for any words of urgency, any frantic scribbles, but there are only the usual stains and spots of spilled ink. The signature is squeezed in at the very top of the page, as every other inch of paper—three sheets, front and back, margins included—is filled by an uneven, sprawling script that makes him heartsick at first glance.

He touches the crinkled paper softly and for a moment he recalls the days when he received items like this on a daily basis—reports, requests, personal thoughts. It’s a bit like being back in his old office, all golden-toned wood and the dry scents of books and maps, with Hange handing him a page of their erratically recorded data.

It makes Erwin smile, if only from imagining Moblit’s long-suffering expression as he sealed and mailed such a cluttered letter.

Hange’s voice—even only through written word—is a comfort. He settles deeper into the bed, numb to the sounds of the ongoing storm, and lets their reassurances settle his nerves.

All is well, really, or at least as well as it can be in war , he reads. The Regiment is still intact, independent, as you left it to me. And you’re still well-missed! Eren Jaeger’s parents send you their gratitude for heroic efforts to rescue their son. His father, Dr. Grisha Jaeger, plans to construct a functioning leg for Eren; he has offered to build an arm for you as well, at no cost. I’ve seen his work, Erwin, and I’m impressed. I know you have no interest in returning to Sina, which is entirely understandable. (Didn’t Mike always say it smelled like a trenchfoot stuffed in perfumed hose?) I could advise Dr. Jaeger and oversee its design on your behalf if you sent me your measurements. I’ll send you some ideas to look over soon. (And don’t dismiss anything out of hand—hah. Not many people get the opportunity to have a morningstar permanently affixed to one of their limbs. Just something to keep in mind!)

Your office still feels too large without you. I made Moblit move his desk in here, too. It’s helped.

All the talk of tribunals and ‘strategic absorption’ into the other branches has finally died down without Lord Chalais to champion his personal crusade against us. (May whatever hellhole swallowed that devil up keep him!) Free of the constant questioning of whether I am fit for command and whether the Scout Regiment even deserves its funding (And you never told me just how abysmal it is, either. Moblit actually wept when he saw the books! I can only conclude that you are secretly an alchemist and somehow managed to transmute gold in order to finance our campaigns.) I have actually been able to fill your boots quite well. I suppose it helps that we wear the same size!

He re-reads the first paragraphs once more, and then over again, until it settles in and feels real. The Scout Regiment is safe. Hange is safe. No one else is threatening either of them anymore. That news is a balm to his conscience, and the prospect of a prosthetic—far too expensive for even his officer’s pension—is certainly intriguing. If nothing else, Hange would enjoy it.

Erwin continues on, thoroughly absorbed in the remainder of the letter, until the noise again intrudes. That rhythmic tap against the glass—now heavier, more urgent, bothersome — tugs at his attention whenever he tries to read on. He attributes it to a sapling or branch blown close, battered by the wind… until the same measured beat sounds from a different window, near the kitchen.

It is a curiosity, and one that Erwin notes with a small measure of apprehension.

But it is far more likely that it is nothing, no matter at all. The woods produce strange sounds sometimes, and Erwin hasn’t lived here long enough to identify each one properly. The cabin is miles from the nearest town, tucked deeply into a lonely forest; the way is arduous and overgrown, difficult even for a man in good health to travel in fine weather, and he cannot imagine anyone making such a trek to knock at his window and wallow in the rain. Even a foolhardy thief would be hard pressed to find his way out here, especially for such meager reward.

Erwin assures himself that it is not worth fretting over as he puts out his bedside lamp and settles under the covers. The tap soon resumes from the window closest to his bed, steady and insistent, but it easily blends with the rush of rain and reverberating thunder; Erwin slips away into slumber, and the sound follows him into his hazy dreams.

 

-          - - - - - -- ----------- -- --        - -

 

The incident is forgotten by the next morning, as are Erwin's dreams of lying awake, paralyzed, as someone underneath his bed knocks knocks knocks on the wooden frame.

The faint light of dawn does little to brighten the cabin, and it is still dark as Erwin swings his feet over the side of the bed and firmly plants them right in a cold puddle of rainwater. He makes a little noise of displeasure, somewhere between a hum and a sigh—according to Mike and Nanaba, it always came with an unintentional pout, though they aren’t around to tease him about it over drinks anymore—and throws open the curtains to get a better look.

The leak was substantial enough that the water not only pools beside the bed, but under it. Erwin sighs as he fetches a few dirtied towels and uses them to sop up the mess. He places a few buckets beside the bed as a precaution and gets dressed, already considering how to get atop the roof and patch the hole.

Birds sing and cavort through the treetops as he carefully scales the ladder to survey the wide, flat wooden shingles. He can’t find any obvious damage to cause a leak, but he spreads a wide swath of pitch across the patch of roof and layers another few shingles over. It’s not such unbearable work early in the day, though navigating his way back down the ladder is an exercise in balance and caution.

It isn’t until Erwin goes out to split a few logs of firewood a while later that he sees the muddy, two-toed imprints of a deer and recalls the strange window tapping.

It seems to explain things, and his curiosity is almost sated by the thought—some wandering stag attempting to rub the velvet from his antlers against the logs of the cabin and brushing the window instead. Stranger things have certainly happened.

The air is thick with mist and tiny droplets of it dot his eyelashes and dampen his clothes; thin branches of pine are bowed by the weight of lingering rain still clinging to needle leaves.

He sets to chopping wood. It’s slow going with one arm, requiring greater effort and precision than he is used to, and it occupies him for hours.

-          - --  - - -- - ---------- - -------- -        --

The sound returns the next night, and the next.

Erwin is again drawn away from his book—his father’s, one of just a handful he has left, all historical documents with his faded commentary scribbled around the edges—by the persistent rattle at the window beside his bed. It hovers at a level just shy of aggravating, and Erwin is honestly at a loss. He’s checked the shutters twice now, and no sapling or tree branches are close enough to reach the cabin, even in storm and wind.

A tremor runs up his spine when he lays his feet flat on the chilled floorboards, still faintly damp from the leak in the roof. He has to stretch a bit to reach the dark plaid curtains and peel them aside to peer out into the dark.

There is nothing, punctuated by a brilliant flash of lightning that exposes dripping tree trunks and his overturned wheelbarrow, sunken in mud. No branches, no antlers, no creature, no huddled traveler in need or of ill-will.

Erwin is unsurprised and uneasy. He hadn’t seen anything last night, either, no matter how long or hard he had peered through the glass.

Resolve solidifies inside him, a hard lump in the pit of his stomach, heavy as cannon shot or a stack of condolence letters needing his signature. He feels the weight of it lend him some stability as he pads to his armoire and fishes out an old shirt, all stains and rumples, missing half its buttons. It hangs from his shoulders, undone, one sleeve hanging limply as he pulls on a pair of old trousers and then sits to lace up his boots.

His pulse thuds in his ears as the noise continues, now moving from window to window, circling its way around the cabin. It arrives back at the window beside his bed—the curtains once again drawn shut—with a sharper sound. Now impossible to ignore, and too insistent to continue chalking up to the wind. It has become a rap on the glass, bony knuckles in use instead of strumming fingertips.

Erwin throws a thigh-length forest green cloak over his messy ensemble, oiled to ward against the rain. He takes the thin handle of a lantern between his teeth as he lifts the slat that bars the door, and then undoes the bolt with a solid click .

Warm yellow light from the cabin spills out across the narrow porch, interrupted by his broad shadow. Erwin is as physically imposing as ever, even missing an arm, and he counts on that as he lights the lantern and steps out into the dark.

The woods are heavy with the thuds of raindrops and distant whispers of thunder. The rain is so frigid that it may be closer to sleet, and stray droplets sluggishly drag their way down his face and the sliver of his exposed chest; at times the sensation almost feels solid, like the light touch of a hand, heatless fingertips just ghosting across skin.

His trousers are soaked within moments of stepping out from under the cover the porch, where water runs from the roof in a thin cascade. The fabric clings to his legs like a thick second skin and allows syrupy-cold rain to seep down into his boots.

Erwin paces the perimeter of his home despite the chilly hostility of the storm. He checks each window, all of them faintly illuminated by the light held within, and touches the cold glass himself. The tapping of his nails creates the same familiar noise, though maybe a hair deeper. He continues on warily, shining the lantern in dark places—the woodshed, the goats’ shelter, the chicken coop, the muddy rows between his raised garden beds, the empty spaces between stout evergreens and branchless trunks. Nothing and no one appears.

As he rounds the last corner of the cabin, alarm strikes him with the abruptness of a thunderbolt. It holds his breath at the base of his throat, as surely as if a hand was laid there to stop him breathing.

The door is ajar, and he didn’t leave it so. Faint, golden light spills through the slivered opening and brushes the tips of Erwin’s muddied boots as he comes to stand at the bottom of the porch stairs.

He puts out the lantern and stands at the entry, listening. There are no sounds of rummaging or footsteps, though he does spy wet, muddy prints just inside the door.

Erwin is suddenly aware of the pace of his heart—racing, and filling him with the same frantic edge that he’d had as a young cadet on his first maneuvers. What is not the same is the eerie chill that crawls up his spine and coaxes the short, fine hairs on the back of his neck to raise like a dog’s hackles.

He squares his broad shoulders and pushes the door open the rest of the way; the heavy slab of white oak swings slowly, smooth and silent on well-greased hinges.

There is someone inside.

He stands beside his wood-burning stove, small and dripping and entirely out of place. The warm-toned light of the cabin falls wrong on him, settles uncomfortably over deathly pale skin and clothing so wet and sheer that it is almost transparent.

Erwin recognizes him at once, the force of the memory seizing him by the heart with an iron grip. If not for the very physical sensations rippling through him—trepidation and wonder, and a slithering fear that makes him look toward the nightstand drawer containing his pistol—he might think he was only dreaming. Even still... he wonders if he is half-asleep, sleepwalking and confronting hallucinations.

But no, he is awake—suddenly so on edge that it feels like he will never sleep again, or at least not in this same house— and he assures himself of this as he tightens his hand around the thin wire handle of the lantern.

His first steps toward the stove are uneven, and the room feels close ; the air is as heavy as it sits in the trenches, thickened by fear and the nearness of death. Standing just feet away, Erwin can see all the same details that he remembers: the delicate blue streaks of veins under near-translucent skin; coarse strands of ink-dark hair, dense and feathery all at once; the fine-boned wrists peeking out from under tattered, fray-threaded sleeves.

Erwin is paralyzed, but without the rigid fear that is all too common on the battlefield. This hold on him is soporific, like being immersed in honey or something similarly viscous. It bears down on him gently, constricting any movement and drawing out the seconds into small eternities. He can’t quite fill his lungs, and each of his soft, shallow breaths seems as loud as the thunder outside.

If the other man notices, he doesn’t care. He is busy fiddling with the tea kettle on the stovetop, checking that there is water within before he moves it to the center to start a boil. Rainwater drips and drops from his hair onto the floor, sizzles when it hits the black iron of the stove. The puddle beneath his bare and muddy feet grows ever larger.

Erwin watches his chest—so narrow, wrapped tight in a sticky-wet button-down and a threadbare vest—for the telltale signs of breath that he knows will not come. His guest is less preoccupied now, his attention shifting from the heating kettle and searching around the tiny corner kitchen, passing over Erwin once or twice in the process.

The blond connects the man’s hunting look with the kettle already on the verge of whistling, and without quite thinking he reaches for the tea kept high on a cabinet shelf behind him; it’s probably not quite in view of the petite man, who is of about chest-height beside Erwin.

“No, not that shit,” is the first thing the man says to him, a ghastly hand waving him off in irritation.

His voice is lower than Erwin would have expected, hard and nothing close to friendly. Erwin’s thick brows raise considerably in reaction, and he slides the tin of green tea back onto the shelf. He lets his hand hover over the black tea and looks down expectantly.

“Yes. Please,” his uninvited guest bites out, shifting uneasily now that words have been spoken.

“I used to prefer the black myself,” Erwin says as he sets the small tin down on the countertop and then busies himself with collecting the other necessities. It is slow going at first—his limbs initially resist, his fear-stricken body not quite ready to settle back into domestic tasks. But Erwin’s calm even in the face of this evening’s bizarre turn overrides the adrenaline that has seeped into every inch of him and steadies his hands as he fishes out cheesecloth and honey and two battered teacups.

“Terrible quality,” is the other man’s only comment. He peeks inside the cheap tin and sniffs it, then pulls a face.

“You were the one that wanted it.” Erwin points out uncertainly. It feels more and more like has sleepwalked through nightmare and into a dream: one where even the most bizarre occurrences somehow feel ordinary, and everyone carries on in spite of the oddities. Questions are already boiling in him, as rapid as the water in the kettle.

“I would have thought you could afford better,” is the flat reply. He fixes the tea for both of them, meticulously precise and utterly disdainful when Erwin offers to help.

Erwin accepts the cup that is offered to him, as though he is the guest in his own home. He drags his finger around the rim as it steams, watching the way the small man cups his tea with both hands, holding it with the same reverence that priests and priestesses reserve for sacred flames and incense.

“Thanks,” the man says at last, after taking his first long sip. His lips are colorless, the skin so thin and delicate that Erwin briefly worries he may cut himself on the chipped rim of the teacup. “I bet you weren’t expecting ever to see me again.”

It’s true enough, and Erwin can’t resist smiling, though he is more puzzled than ever by the creature sitting before him, perched on the edge of his tiny kitchen table with a cup of tea in thin and ghostly hands. “Well, no. Considering the grave state I found you in last time.”

It makes the man chuckle into his cup, low and ringing with unexpected amusement. He glances sidelong at Erwin as he drinks, storm grey eyes considering him like a purchase about to be made. “You’re not really how I expected you to be.”

“I didn’t realize you had any recollection of me at all.” Erwin is quiet after that, thinking. “What is your name?”

“Levi Ackerman. Yours is Erwin Smith.”

Erwin doesn't question how Levi knows that. He's found him, here at the edge of the kingdom, as far from Sina as he could go without outright going into exile. Knowledge of his name is far less impressive than the effort to track him to the farthest flung reaches of the king’s realm.

“How did you find me here?” he asks, feeling his brow knit tightly. There is a great deal about this that doesn’t make sense to him, and the lateness of the hour isn’t doing him any favors. His nerves still have him wide-eyed and attentive, too cautious to let his guard down, but drowsiness waits in the corners of his mind, eager to spoil the clarity of his thoughts.

“I followed you,” Levi said plainly. He glances away, the empty teacup dangling from one fine, bony finger, and makes a disagreeable noise before explaining further. “I went home first, but I’d been away so long. Isabel and Farlan were fine, and I didn’t want to ruin what they’d made in my absence. I didn’t have many options, to be honest. I chose to follow you.”

“That’s quite a ways to travel.”

Levi frowns, shrugging his narrow shoulders in agreement. “I didn’t realize you would be fleeing into the wilderness as soon as I sought you out--”

“I left for an unrelated reason.”

“I’m aware of your ‘unrelated reason’,” Levi says pointedly.

Erwin feels his heart shudder again, until he pinpoints the man’s change in tone as teasing. “I didn't realize you were... conscious of what was happening.”

“I wasn't at first, but I came around. You’re a really shitty gravedigger, by the way,” he says in an almost-drawl. “Seeing as I know a good grave inside and out, I fixed it for you.”

Erwin isn't certain whether to be comforted or worried by Levi's intervention. “In my defense, I was more than a little thrown by your sudden appearance.”

“It was also pretty apparent that it was your first time,” Levi continues, that same sort-of-teasing, sort-of-biting tone in play. “Shoddy work. Swampy areas are tricky. You’ve really got to pack down the soil if you don’t want them bobbing back up in a week. But I guess the military doesn’t bother teaching its officers about disposal?”

“There are no drills for dumping murder victims in bogs in the dead of night, no.” Erwin feels the ghost of a tremor in his hand as he takes another drink from his cup, now wishing it was something stiffer.

“Anyway,” Levi sighs, “you lost me once you set up post out here. It took a week before I realized you didn’t live down there in town at all. But I hung around, hoping you’d eventually turn up. And then I was able to follow you back here.”

Erwin makes a little noise of understanding as a few curious pieces come together-- odds and ends that he had noticed but not quite affixed to a satisfying explanation. “Here I’d just thought a local holy day was coming up and the villagers were preparing,” he says, recalling his most recent visit down the mountainside.

Hinterlands villages tended toward superstition—living close to nature meant having greater need of her mercy, he supposed, especially so far from the central might of the kingdom—but the change in the local village between this visit and his last had been sudden and zealous. Charms of pine tar, wood, and amber hung in every window, salt stones and pine needles flanked each threshold, and towering bonfires burned all through the night. Even the mossy, centuries-old altars to the resident forest spirits, bearing only a few token offerings on his previous visits, had been overflowing with beer, bread and berries.

“Your presence must have frightened them,” he tells Levi.

The man shrugs it off. “I was only looking for you.”

Erwin’s most curious question presses to be asked, as it had been the source of most of his grief the last few nights. “So, why the theatrics?” He finishes his tea and set the cup aside on the table. “Banging on my windows all hours of the night, I mean. Why not simply knock on the door? I would have answered much sooner.”

It’s the first time Levi has looked anything shy of certain. He is less collected—a little lost, even, at the mention of his window-tapping. “I… don’t know. I really don’t. I think I’m a little different when I’m alone.”

Erwin is still thinking of this answer hours later, after he has heated water for Levi to take a bath, has given him clothes that aren’t threadbare and bloodstained, has let him lie down before the hearth with half of the blankets from his own bed.

It is only hours from dawn, and even with the lack of sleep stinging his eyes, Erwin cannot stop staring at the unmoving body curled underneath his grandmother’s quilt.

 

-   -- - --- -- - ---- -- ------------ -- - -------- -     -

 

Levi is gone when morning comes. The blankets sit in a tidy stack beside the hearth, all neatly folded. His borrowed clothes sit atop them, shown similar care. The door is still barred from the inside.

Levi returns after sunset, just as a shower rolls in, and taps at the window beside Erwin’s bed.

Erwin pauses in his dishwashing, a shade of apprehension returning as he dries his hand on an old tea towel, but he unbars and unbolts the door anyway. His reason tells him that it doesn’t matter if he leaves it locked, as Levi can probably come in the same way that he left this morning. (He’d puzzled about that all day, and found no satisfactory possibility except the chimney.)  

And in spite of having the good sense to recognize this as potentially quite a dangerous engagement... he wants to see more of Levi. It is, he decides, an effect of being secluded for so long. He wants to talk to the man again, both for the simple pleasure of conversation and for his own personal edification regarding their past.

He leaves the just slightly ajar and waits, his breaths shallow and fast.

Eventually Levi comes round, quiet as a snake slithers. He pushes the door just wide enough to enter and creeps in, his gait disjointed.

It chills Erwin to recognize it as inhuman , unsettlingly so. His apprehension swells to a peak of sharp, true fear that lances him through the gut. He lets his gaze drift to the half-dozen knives drying on the kitchen table—only for a second, he swears—and looks back to find that Levi has darted across the room, now so close that Erwin catches the scent of earth and petrichor. He resolves not to take his eyes off of the other man again.

Levi hovers beside the empty tin tub in the corner, mute and avoidant. His body is streaked with mud and the dark clay that is ribboned throughout these foothills, with thin strands of roots wound through his pitch-colored hair. His toes, stained black by the earth, curl gently against the now-filthy floor.

“You’re wanting a bath?” Erwin asks, barely deeper than a whisper, faintly incredulous. When Levi merely continues to ghost around in the corner, saying nothing, the blond decides to chance it. He keeps watch on the man— who watches him back with dark, hollow-rimmed eyes half-obscured by his messy crown of hair—as he begins heating one large pot of water on the stove and another on the hot stones close to the hearth.

Erwin tries not to blink too often or too long while he waits. Levi is nearly still at this point, aside from the occasional shuffle or effort to scrape the mud from his hands; he has yet to speak or make any sound at all.

Erwin gathers the things for a bath—cheap pine tar soap and a wash rag, a bristled brush for scrubbing, a thick towel to dry him afterward—and then sits tensely on the edge of his writing desk until the water has warmed. The dishes remain half-done for now, as he worries the tremble in his hand will cause him to break the few decent ones he has.

Venturing close to Levi is an exercise in fortitude. Erwin grips the handle of the oversized pot so tightly that his knuckles nearly blanch to Levi’s shade of corpse-white. The water within is still bubbling gently, the boil only just beginning to die down.

This near, Levi reminds him of a feral animal. Not fearful, but wary—too familiar with humans to be either trusting or panicked. His narrow frame teeters slightly as Erwin gets close enough to make out the black tips of Levi’s nails, packed with soil, and the thick, dark mud that is beginning to ooze from one of his nostrils.

Erwin is self-conscious as he pours the hot water into the tub, steam scalding his hand. He can feel Levi’s stare on him as he empties the next pot, and then cuts the simmering bathwater with cool water straight from the well pump. He tests the temperature with a dip of his fingertips, finds it tolerable, and by the time he glances back up, Levi has stripped.

Erwin barely has time to avert his gaze before Levi is shuffling to the tub and climbing in. He settles into the bath like it’s a ritual completed, sinking entirely underwater for a few breathless minutes.

Half of the dishes still sit in the sink, soaking in soapy water; the other half are still dripping wet. Unsure of what else to do, Erwin busies himself with drying and washing. Occasionally he spares a peek back toward the tub, its water now gone dark and opaque, still as stained glass. He’s just finished putting away his flatware when Levi finally resurfaces.

He does so with his hair smoothed back from his face, though a few stray strands cling to his temples or fan across his forehead. “Thanks,” he murmurs breathlessly.

“You seem like yourself again,” Erwin notes. He’s relieved, though baffled.

Fuck , I do,” Levi confirms, sinking back into the muddy water and clearly relishing it. He lets the back of his head rest along the rim, his pale, bruise-ringed throat bent in a graceful arch. “I was disgusting,” he adds, a barely suppressed shudder passing through him.

Erwin refrains from making a comment about the color of the water—a cloudy, smoky grey from which the white peaks of Levi’s knees and shoulders emerge—and instead offers to pour him a clean bath. Levi’s response is eager and grateful, and makes the hassle of pumping more water entirely worth it.

Levi helps him carry the dirtied water out to the porch to dump. A thick, muddy sludge stubbornly lines the bottom of the tub, which Levi seems more embarrassed about than his flagrant nudity. He waves Erwin inside, cursing to himself as he uses rainwater falling from the rafters to rinse it clean.

As Erwin gets the next round of bathwater heating, Levi cleans his prints off the floors and wipes the occasional stray handprint from the wall. “I’m not usually messy. Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” he replies. “It’s no worse a mess than when I shovel out the ashes, honestly.”

When the bath is fixed for a second time, Levi sits down in it with a contented sigh that makes goosebumps rise on Erwin’s arm and across his shoulders. He lathers up and scrubs for close to an hour.

When Levi’s finished and dry, he slips on one of Erwin’s plaid shirts; its tails fall to the middle of his milk-white thighs, thin but defined with muscle. In only that garment, he fills the kettle and fixes tea for them both—though with a bit of griping when Erwin’s height is once again necessary to reach the shelf with the tins and honey.

They stand in the kitchen and drink—silently, until Levi says, “I hope you aren’t too pissed at me for intruding.”

“Not at all,” Erwin replies in between sips of milky green tea, his eyebrows lifted high. “I was a little bit frightened, I’ll admit. But this isn’t so bad, is it?”

It isn’t, not at all. It’s actually very nice , in Erwin’s opinion. It’s been a long time since he’s had company of any sort, and once he’s himself , Levi is easy to be around.

“It’s a lot better than sitting outside in the rain,” Levi agrees. “Never meant to scare you.”

The blond inhales, a little shaky. “It’s just a bit to parse through, that’s all.”

“A bit to parse through,” the other man mimics, halfway to a smirk. “You’ve handled this much better than most people would. I was expecting to get shot at once or twice, at least. I know I come off creepy as hell.”

Erwin has to laugh. It’s tired and subdued, but very genuine. Levi seems encouraged.

“Do you have anywhere to sit?” Levi asks, glancing around the sparsely furnished room in a pointed sweep. “I can… make do on the floor if not.”

The blond hums a distressed little note as he realizes there is nowhere for the both of them to sit. His tiny kitchen table boasts only one chair, which he also uses for his writing desk. “I didn’t anticipate having a guest any time soon,” he feels the need to explain. “You’re welcome to the chair. I can sit on the bed.”

Levi drags the chair fireside, placing it close to the low flame blazing in the hearth. He balances his teacup on his crossed legs while he laces his fingers and then bends them until they pop. “I could clean this place for you,” he comments, grey-eyed gaze drifting around the room with a languid sort of appraisal, “to make this fairer.”

“You don’t have to worry about paying me in any way,” Erwin counters. After a beat, he asks, “Do you think it’s not clean?”

“Erwin…” the other man trails off. “I’m a guest and I don’t want to be rude. But this cabin looks like it has ten years’ worth of dust and cobwebs up there.” He looks up toward the exposed beams and rafters and frowns as serious and stern as if there was structural damage.

“It was only built last summer.”

“Exactly my point.”

“I wouldn’t be opposed to help,” Erwin says after a moment to consider it. “If this is going to be a regular occurrence.”

It became exceedingly regular. Nightly, after that, without fail.

Levi would come, dressed in his ragged clothes and a fresh layer of dirt or mud, and bathe until he felt himself again. Then they would take tea and talk. At first conversation was intermittent, peppered through the night while Erwin read and Levi scaled the walls to clean every inch of the log cabin; soon it was constant, with Levi dusting the same spot for four or five minutes while he educated Erwin on the benefits of drinking only hot liquids, and Erwin gently closing his books without ever remembering to mark the page as he launched into an impromptu history lesson.

It’s a little too easy to ramble to Levi, especially after a lifetime of biting his tongue in Sina. Erwin is still getting used to using his voice so often again; he’s hoarse after the first few nights of heavy conversation, his throat punishing him for being so chatty after such long neglect. To his surprise, Levi is more than willing to fill the silence—it’s mostly complaining, but not the spiteful sort. Erwin gets the impression that it’s Levi’s version of making small talk about the weather.

But what they never speak of is this: that night, nearly a year ago, when they first met in a mire that held more dead than any proper cemetery.

Lightning had branched through the clouds in pulsing, sprawling veins, black rain and rolling thunder spilling wherever it split the sky. Water ran down striated cypress trunks and dripped from hanging moss, and the ground squelched underneath battered boots that had known similar conditions in the trenches.

Erwin left his placid mare tied near the road, on higher ground, for fear of her breaking a leg in such engulfing muck. Alone, he carried his burden through waterlogged woods and past overrun creeks until he came to the edge of the bog.

Thick steam rolled off of the fetid earth, unperturbed by the heavy rains. It pooled densely around his ankles, disguising the grasping mud of the bog, and snaked upward with loose, winding tendrils that smelled like the hot breath of death itself.

It was there that Erwin had chosen to dig.

He’d let the thick canvas bag he’d been half-dragging, half-carrying fall to the ground with a wet thud. It was nearly two-hundred pounds, if he had to guess, and his hand had still trembled as he gripped a fistful of the material and propped it up against the nearest tree. Reasonably certain he could remember his path and recognize this place, he then doubled back to the horse for his shovel.

His arm—what remained of it, at least—was still raw and healing at the time, and the perpetual ache resided deep in the bone. Erwin had only been released from the doctor’s care a day prior and had yet to shave or master the upset in his balance that the loss of limb had caused.

Digging a grave with one arm was a struggle. He had an unfortunate amount of experience in maintaining trenches, but even the years on the frontlines had not prepared him for this—there was no steady ground anywhere, no firm bedrock underneath the sucking mud. The bog soil was thick but soft, densely pressed, rich in rotting plant matter; it was like shoveling through rot, pure and dark, while inky water licked at his ankles and rushed to flood his progress.

The sticky mud stung and itched wherever it managed to touch his skin—his wrists, down into his gloves, flecks across his right cheek— and he felt twenty pounds heavier from the water drenching his clothes. It was misery of a hellish sort, something that Erwin almost embraced as an integral, deserved part of his crime. Still, he had no doubt that Lord Chalais’ death would benefit Hange and the Scout Regiment as a whole, and he would gladly be the cause of it again, if forced to make the choice a second time.

Discovering some other murderer’s work was… unexpected, though. An arm emerged first, unearthed by his shovel, strikingly pale against the black water pooling in the grave; the incessant downpour revealed more by the second, and Erwin’s horror could not dampen his curiosity. The very spot he had chosen to bury Chalais was already occupied.

He settled down on his knees in the fetid mire, the slurry of rain and bog mud soaking his thighs; the shovel had seemed suddenly inappropriate.

He cleared aside handfuls of dirt and ripped away thin, clinging roots, unveiling the corpse within bit by bit. He wiped the mud from the pale, heart-shaped face, and the steady rain soon revealed the slight, undernourished body of a man not much older than himself, still incorrupt. He looked nothing like the tales of bog bodies Erwin had heard of growing up, those twisted and long-forgotten corpses that the university sometimes acquired for study; his flesh was deathly pale but intact, firm muscle resting lax underneath half-rotted clothing.

Darkly, Erwin had wondered if maybe he should have included Hange in this gambit to protect the Regiment. They certainly would have loved this part.

Thunder rumbled near enough to cause a tremor in the earth as Erwin pulled the unspoiled body free of its ignominious resting place. He briefly wondered what this man had done to meet the same fate that his own victim had earned—murdered and left to rot, nameless and forgotten.

…But this man had refused to rot, or was so fresh in death he hadn’t had the chance. His eyelids lacked the sunken look of the corpses Erwin was familiar with, as if the soft tissue of his eyes still rested intact beneath. He looked like the soldiers they would find dead in the mornings, never to be roused from sleep. The only sign of trauma Erwin could note was the clear garroting around his slender neck. Not the worst way to die, at least.

The rain rinsed the strange body clean while Erwin broadened the grave. He filled it with Chalais’ bulkier corpse, and couldn’t deny there was satisfaction in seeing the dark water and engulfing mud swallow him up.  

Guilt again twisted through his gut, but not on account of what he'd done to Chalais. It was for the man he had pulled from the earth. It seemed wrong to leave him here, or to re-inter him in another unmarked bog grave. Erwin stared and deliberated, the freezing rain still coursing down him in thick rivulets.

The corpse sat limply atop the exposed, gnarled roots of a spruce tree older than either of them. If not for the stillness of his chest and the choker of red and purple bruises wrapped around his throat, he might have been mistaken as just nodding off.

Erwin ended up carrying the man’s corpse through the woods, as gently as he could with one trembling arm and bone-deep cold. The clouds eventually broke, though the thunder continued to rumble far in the distance. The moon spilled through the scattering storm to illuminate the forest, and Erwin found a good place underneath the glimmering boughs of a weeping willow. He laid him down in that lush, quiet place well away from the bog, with stalky springs of marsh marigolds and primrose enveloping his body like funeral flowers.

He was cold and colorless—more so when framed by such vibrant hues—and Erwin walked away with the thought that the man would be nothing but thin, delicate bones in a month’s time.

He had certainly never thought the corpse he had unburied and laid to rest would follow him, nor that he would visit nightly, unfailingly.

 

-        -- -   --- ----- - - ---- -  ------------- - --------- - -   -- -

 

The very last of the lingering snow higher up the mountain soon melts, its runoff joining with the spring rains to bring forth shoots of new grass and tender saplings, blooms that are so heavy with pollen that shafts of light catch in the grainy air. When Erwin explains that his sneezing and general misery are a result of the pollen, not an illness he picked up in town, Levi’s disgust turns to something like sympathetic pity.

He instructs Erwin to tie a handkerchief or cheesecloth so that it covers his mouth and nose as he works out of doors. Skeptical of Erwin’s ability to manage it on his own—and with a good deal of mumbling about how helpless well-to-do people can be—Levi first demonstrates the proper way to do it. He has Erwin kneel on the floor so he can knot the corners at the blonde’s nape, his fingertips icy where they tickle against his skin.

Levi’s visits become habitual, as reliable as the waxing and waning of the moon. Erwin soon realizes that he’s unwittingly adjusted his sleep in order to better accommodate the hours that the other man keeps.

Levi bathes each night, first and foremost. He isn’t shy about it, either, so focused is he on the stiff-bristled brush that he uses to scrub the graveyard dirt out from under his fingernails and between his toes. He borrows Erwin’s outfits—comically large on him, with sleeves that swallow up his hands and trousers that must be rolled five, six times not to drag across the floor, cinched tight at the waist by a double-wrapped belt—and takes his tea while standing and staring at Erwin’s carefully organized bookshelf.

They end up talking, without fail, and the discussion lasts until Erwin is nodding off where he sits, his chin tucked against his chest. Sometimes Levi lets him sleep, and Erwin wakes late in the morning to an empty cabin. More often, he is woken by the sounds of deliberately inconsiderate cleaning; Levi will suddenly decide to scrape the stove or beat the rug, stopping only when he sees Erwin sitting wide awake again.

Levi is endlessly curious about him. Erwin finds that surprising and… endearing? Few people have ever given him such consideration, except maybe in an attempt to wring some leverage from him.

The dead man’s impressive effort to feign disinterest even as he rattles off a dozen personal questions is probably what gives Erwin the most enjoyment.

He answers, regardless. Most of the inquiries are harmless. What’s with the arm? Are your parents also giants? Why do you fold your laundry wrong? What are you reading? Who taught you how to clean?

Sometimes they’re more pointed; barbed, but not intentionally. Levi never ventures too close to that night in the bog, never asks after the man that took his place in the ground, but he gently prods in other dismal areas of Erwin’s history.

Where is your mother now? What was the war like? Why’d they want you out of the military so badly? These books are your father’s? What happened to him?

Erwin answers those and more. Somewhere in the back of his mind the adage of dead men tell no tales is whispered encouragingly— though he wonders now, given Levi’s present state. He begins with the easiest, shortest to explain: his mother, so sick for so long, deceased before he even made commander, and works his way up to the rest, as if building a tolerance to poison.

He tells Levi things that he has never said aloud to anyone before, not even Hange or Nile. Mostly about his father and his passion for history, teaching, and learning, about his suspicions about the Reiss family and the series of hunting accidents and other misfortunes that have shaped their rule. Suspicions that a young Erwin had, with the naiveté and trust of an eight-year-old child, voiced to other schoolyard children with sincere concern.

His father’s murder had been made to seem an accident, and in a sense it was: Erwin had never intended to expose his father or be the death of him. He and his mother had returned from a day at the market to a house aflame, the fire so intense that it spread to another two homes before it burned low enough to be doused.

And only Erwin knew, standing with the toes of his small shoes buried in the ash of his home, that it was connected. That he had invited this destruction, and that someone had responded eagerly. Among the smoldering remains were his father and his work, including every piece of evidence he had accumulated—newspaper articles and interviews, historical records and lineages going back eight generations.

Erwin doesn’t realize he’s been weeping until Levi offers him a cup of green tea and says something about it being calming. He drinks it too hot and scalds the roof of his mouth, but he does feel calmer.

Strange as it all is, the companionship fills a portion of his life that Erwin hadn’t even realized he’d missed. His letters to Hange and Nile, which had helped tide him over well for his previous six months of solitude, now seem too brief to be satisfying. It is the nightlong conversation with Levi that he anticipates as he tends the garden and patches the roof, the breeze laden with the perfume of a thousand wildflowers in bloom.

But however personable Levi can be in the late hours of the night, he still leaves each day before dawn and comes back after sunset, disoriented, coated in dirt or mud, his nails caked with it. They never speak of it, tiptoeing around any direct mention of his condition . Erwin’s curiosity never fades—the other man is a perfect mystery sometimes, and one that he would love to know better—but he learns to stifle it for Levi’s sake. The result is a comfortable if unusual arrangement: one in which they both benefit so greatly from each other’s company that he is willing to overlook some of Levi’s more worrisome tendencies.

And there are worrisome moments over the course of their acquaintance: frightening ones, times in which Erwin really and truly fears what he has invited into his home, times when he has lain under the covers and pretended to sleep as the floorboards around his bed creak under the weight of hands and feet. More than once he has drifted off early in the night and awoken to find Levi keeping vigil at the foot of his bed, still as a statue, uncannily inhuman when he is not in some manner animated.

The eeriness is worst when Levi is, as he says, not himself . It begins close to dawn, when his speech tapers off and he seems to slip in and out of thoughtful consciousness; he’ll stare through Erwin, at the windows and doors, and seek out his old clothes. He’ll go mute and retreat out into the fading dark, ambling like a ghoul from a story meant to keep children in bed.

Dusk finds Levi still hazy, as if stirring from a long dream that is difficult to shake, like he is still sorting out where slumber ended and waking began. He knows well enough to seek Erwin out-- though the blond still doesn’t know how -- but the door still seems to elude him. He’ll click and tap against the windows, searching aimlessly, frustration building with every minute spent circling the cabin until Erwin opens the door to let him in.

And there are nights, cool and clear, when he whispers Erwin’s name down the chimney, thin voice echoing against the soot-blackened bricks; there are evenings where Erwin swears he senses Levi long before he hears those telltale nails on glass, his skin prickling with the sensation of being watched.

Eventually Levi begins to remember, though, and Erwin is thrilled and heartened by his progress. He might first linger outside on the porch for a few minutes, or force black-tipped fingers through the crack at the bottom and scratch at the pine floorboards, but a knock will follow soon after-- tepid and uncertain, a little lost until the wood gives way and he’s again bathed in warm firelight.

 

-       - --- - - -- ------------------ -- ------ --  -   ------------- - -- - ---- ----- - ---

 

The height of summer brings bloated, full-bodied storms that sweep through the woods with hot-breathed fury; they leave the air sticky and steaming, with the earth carpeted in bruised leaves and splintered branches. The deluge brings gushing mud that topples trees from the roots and sweeps away Erwin’s hunting trails, too. But for all the destruction, the forest is more alive than ever. Game is plentiful, and the ponds and rivers are swollen with fresh water. The insects sing loud enough to wake the dead, their droning buzz lasting deep into the night.

And Erwin often leaves the windows open for the sake of a cool breeze—insects or no, rain or no.

Levi is steadily getting better about curbing his less-human behaviors, but the temptation to climb through the open windows is apparently quite strong. At least once a week Erwin is startled by the thin, dirt-stained hands gripping the sill, nails digging sharply into soft pine.

It takes Erwin stooping before the window and chiding a mud-streaked Levi about using the door to bring the other man to his senses. He is often still not quite himself at that point— tight-lipped and ghosting around on silent feet, darting from place to place whenever Erwin turns his back on him—but he listens well. And once the day’s dirt has been scrubbed from his skin, with nary a mark left behind, the real Levi returns.

Erwin chalks it all up to Levi’s time in the bog—perhaps months’ worth, though he can’t say for sure just how long the man was buried—imprisoned alone within the rich, corpse-fed soil. Or perhaps it was the dying that did it, or whatever curse has brought him back. It’s hard to know what calls Levi back to the grave each dawn, or why a bath and clean clothes can go so far in helping him feel human again. (More than once Erwin has been sorely tempted to write Hange about Levi and his peculiar situation. He still might, one day down the road, if Levi ever seems amenable to exploring the past.)

They have it down to an art, at this point. There really is some ritual nature to it, Erwin decides as he draws a lukewarm bath one sultry summer evening. It is what seals Levi’s transformation each night—like something from a fairytale his parents might have read to him as a child, magical and dark— and that alone is enough to captivate the ex-commander. He allots a little more of his pension than he should to luxuries like scented soap and bathing oils and soaking salts.

Levi even lets Erwin wash his hair, making it sound as though he’s doing the man a favor by allowing it.

And he is, really, at least to Erwin, who has never done this sort of thing before. He likes Levi’s hair, which is so unlike his own (and somewhat reminiscent of Nile’s). He combs out the clay and leaf bits with his fingers and then rinses away the fine dust and dirt; the color of Levi’s hair changes, deepening to a rich coal-black once the impurities are washed away. Erwin marvels at the dark, silky spider-threads between his fingers, touching them as delicately as saffron strands. They never need trimming—not even the short strands cropped close to his nape.

He can kneel beside the tub for half an hour sometimes, combing his hand through that dark crown of hair until Levi finally huffs and asks if he’s about finished?

While the rest of Levi seeps up the heat from the bathwater, temporarily leaching enough warmth to almost be mistaken for living, his head and scalp remain cool to the touch. Erwin prefers it this way, if he’s being honest, especially given the pervasive summer heat that leaves him a sticky mess of perspiration and faint, salty odor. His shirts—somehow always uncomfortably warm, and the sleeves soaked to the elbows with hot water—cling to his lower back and underarms, growing damper by the minute. The steam from the tub doesn’t help matters much, either, and soon Erwin learns to just forsake a shirt entirely.

Yet even so… on more than one occasion he’s still been tempted to press his flushed cheek against Levi’s shoulder or the flat expanse of his back, both of which promise some relief for his burning skin.

Afterward, Levi sniffs through Erwin’s clothes for the most freshly laundered things and slips into them without hesitancy, his own tattered garments left in a thoughtless pile beside the tin tub. He smells himself, too, as if checking for any lingering grave odor, and even Erwin, when he thinks the man isn’t aware. He is also fond of picking soaps for Erwin to use (generally ones that smell like cedar or sandalwood, sometimes honey or barley), as if Erwin’s scent is a thing he hopes to curate on a day-to-day basis.

Relatedly: one evening, he pitches Erwin’s bottle of aftershave out into the woods, where it will “hopefully fall into a sinkhole forever”.

In Levi’s defense, Erwin didn’t care for the stuff much, either. He’d stopped shaving for a time after losing his arm; he had sported a full beard by the time he arrived here and made his home with the some hired help from the village. And he’d kept it for those first few months of languishing here in his self-imposed exile.

But then he’d caught sight of himself in a mirror while in town—ragged, unkempt, looking forty-five rather than thirty-three—and felt such a longing for his old life, his old self . Losing the beard was a start to that, he figured. He’d had to make do with what the town druggist had in stock, which wasn’t much: horsehair brushes, straight razors, cheap shaving whip, and stinging aftershave that reeked of cheap rum and bay leaves. He had purchased pomade, too, though it wasn’t of the same quality as he’d used back in Sina.

It took time and practice, with many little nicks and missed patches along the way, but Erwin eventually found his way back to the clean-shaven look he had sported since his youth, his hair neatly parted and gelled in place. It didn’t matter that no one else saw him, or that he only went about gardening and hunting and other woodsy labor—it was his own ritual, like Levi’s baths, that kept him tethered to whom he had been prior to… unfortunate events. And he probably did require a better aftershave for it.

Levi has plenty of opinions on the matter, and he shares them without much prompting.

“I’ve always hated the smell of lavender,” he’s quick to advise as he peeks over Erwin’s shoulder while he peruses the catalogue from the druggist’s. “And no one’s ever gagged from an aftershave that’s too subtle . Witch hazel is good, or anything with mint. Steer clear of that bay rum this time. I felt tipsy just standing near you before.”

Erwin can barely contain a scoff and rustles the page to cover the evidence of this. Levi doesn’t even breathe without conscious effort, so smelling is almost certainly something he chooses to engage in willingly, even at the cost of finding it offensive.  

Erwin ultimately picks a few bottles of an aftershave that he thinks they’ll both like, though it will be months before they arrive in this backwater. In the meantime, Levi has him splash cool green tea on in place of his old aftershave. It certainly doesn’t leave his skin taut and dry, as the bay rum did, and Levi seems to like the faintly lingering scent of it. He hovers closer than ever, as if the old aftershave had been a repellant keeping him at bay.

Levi shares himself, too, with a stiffness that is telling of how infrequently he does so. His stories come mostly in the form of, “Once, Isabel and Farlan had this dumb idea…”

From them, Erwin is able to piece together a rough sketch of Levi’s adult life, pre-bog. It’s full of corrupt MPs, blackmailing local authorities, fighting other criminals, theft, death, and eking out an existence in the underground ruins beneath Sina. Erwin can’t help but feel his jaw tighten during some of Levi’s stories, his fists clenching with useless ire on Levi’s behalf. It makes Levi’s manner of death all the more tragic, he thinks—a hard end to a hard life with very few soft spots.

Levi’s soft spots include: Isabel and Farlan, various street urchin orphans he helped at one point or another, animals (especially cats), fine black teas, soft linens, hot baths, and luxurious bath soaps, salts and oils. Erwin indulges these creature comforts whenever possible, and Hange only teases him a little when he begins to request packages of exotic products that he can’t procure on his own.

Levi appreciates the gifts enough that he tries to repay Erwin in kind. He’s already cleaned the cabin so thoroughly and consistently that it takes little maintenance to remain tidy; he instead directs his attention to mending, repurposing, perfecting. Levi’s nimble fingers stitch and sew far better than Erwin can, and he is soon indispensable to the ex-soldier.

Levi’s skills are numerous and practical— ranging from basic carpentry and food preservation to mixing gunpowder and proper garroting technique— and he holds a wealth of household knowledge. They do disagree on the best method of removing bloodstains from clothing, though. (Levi prefers vinegar, cold water and salt, all common enough in the slums he called home; Erwin is partial to soap and hydrogen peroxide, both of which could easily be found in any hospital tent or facility, even on the front lines.)

He is softer even than Erwin expected, underneath the tough carapace of a man who has done terrible things to survive. He is openly impressed by Levi’s ability to retain that tender part of himself—his humanity, if he had to put a name to it— even through death. Erwin knows from personal experience that it is a thing both burdensome to hold and chilling to lose. He’s seen soldiers die for that softness which is a death sentence on a battlefield, a tripwire for indecision, inaction, and regret; but he’s also seen soldiers hardened through and through, those shell-shocked husks that return from the war more lifeless than Levi.

No, for persons of their kind, it requires a delicate balance, or at least the ability to set that gentler piece of humanity aside when needed—a burning ember best held tight but at an arm’s length, or else safely buried until it can be nurtured again.

Levi is still warm from the bath when he presses close one night as they lay beside each other on his bed, talking of new roof leaks or how Erwin lost his arm. He is remarkably solid for his size, and the bed dips with a soft groan as he shifts a little closer to the other man. They aren’t quite touching, not yet, but he is close enough that the honey-brown hair on Erwin’s forearms brushes the fabric of Levi’s oversized, borrowed shirt.

It opens a new door, and every night after they walk a little further through it. Levi draws a little closer, without fuss, and Erwin arranges himself to better let him near. They sink together in the middle of the mattress, outer thighs, sides, shoulders in constant contact.

And then Levi is always after his body heat, his small body seeking and taking wherever he can. He likes to slide a leg between Erwin’s and twine their limbs together; he buries his face against the blonde’s chest, clothed or no, and tucks his frozen fingers under his arms. He’s like a cat or serpent sunning himself, though in this case he prefers Erwin to all other forms of heat. The hearth, once his favourite place to linger, is left vacant in favor of clinging to the other man like mistletoe around a strangled tree.

The concept of personal space is left behind upon climbing onto the bed; Erwin doesn’t miss it for a moment. He hasn’t had closeness like this since he was in the trenches, huddled with Hange and his soldiers during the worst of winter. In those bleak moments, he could never have imagined something as pleasant as this ; skin to skin, all searching touches, firm strokes over clenched muscle, soft caresses everywhere else. Levi’s flesh wicks the heat right out of him—which is honestly a blessing on these oppressively muggy summer nights—and then reflects it back, like moon does the sun’s light.

Levi kisses like he’s finally hungry, using teeth and lips in almost equal measure. He bruises Erwin, brings ache and the flush of blood to the other man’s skin, and then soothes it with the cool touch of his tongue. His small mouth moves across Erwin’s jaw and down his neck, licking and sucking like every nutrient he needs can be drawn from the man; his bloodless, heatless lips need never break from Erwin’s skin to take breath.

Once Erwin isn’t quite so overwhelmed, he pushes his fingers through Levi’s hair and gently tugs him back up, up , a full-body shudder passing through him as Levi deliberately exhales a ghost-cold breath across the damp trail of kisses he left behind. Erwin meets him in a crushing, open-mouthed kiss that matches Levi for intensity, if not endurance. The other man barely gives him leeway to breathe, so insistent is he.

Levi lays him back and pins him to the pillows and quilts. His thin, strong hand slides up Erwin’s arm, fingers wrapping tight around his thick wrist. Sunken down into the layers of softness piled on the bed like this, with Levi looming above him, Erwin is strangely reminded of a mirroring of their first meeting.

He imagines himself in Levi’s place that fateful night—murdered by his enemies, left dead and alone for what might be an eternity. Raised up from a nameless grave by small, thin hands and sinewy arms that saw something worth cherishing in a sad and forgotten corpse; freed from a devouring mire and given a humble but peaceful place of rest in its stead; awakening and seeking those very hands again, even if it means crossing half a kingdom, the memory of one wretchedly rainy night spurring him onward through the dark.

The weight of Levi straddling Erwin’s middle is enough to cause a thrill deep and low in the blond, its intensity doubling when Levi stretches out atop him, flush against the larger man as they kiss.

Erwin thinks the pounding of his heart must be something Levi can feel through both of their ribcages. It is working at the staccato rate of machine gunfire, sending his blood rushing to meet anywhere that the other man touches. It’s enough to make him dizzy—or that might be Levi, who is playing gatekeeper with his air again.

He tastes faintly earthy, though Erwin knows Levi is almost obsessively diligent about cleaning his teeth and tongue each evening during his bathing ritual; above that base note is tea, and then a sharp, clean hint of mint from the leaves Levi chews in lieu of eating.

They rut against one another deep into the night, hips moving slow and sinuous as their kisses deepen.

Levi swallows every breathless noise he makes, chases his groans with awed, whispered oaths and obscene pillow-talk. He bears down on Erwin with more strength than the blond could ever have guessed might reside in such a small form. He presses Erwin’s back into the mattress and wrings from him the messiest, most feverish, most satisfying orgasm he’s had in over a decade.

It leaves him exhausted and Levi energized. Erwin watches, boneless and smiling as stupidly as a fool, as Levi playfully laces his fingers through his own.

Like that, their comfortable routine changes. Erwin is a little surprised to find that for the most part, Levi rather likes this very particular type of dirty—the smell of Erwin heavy on him, the thin sheen of drying sweat on his skin, his thighs still sticky. It isn’t until Erwin teases the smaller man about it one night that Levi comments, “So? I like taking a little bit of you with me in the morning.”

Levi never bruises, never flushes rosy pink or panting red. He does all of that and more to Erwin, though.

 

- --   ------ ------- -- ----- --------------- --- ------- -- - --   -    -

 

Come autumn, they have settled into a domestic life that is certainly less than natural, but comforting all the same. Erwin is reminded of moments from his childhood: watching his mother and father wash dishes side-by-side, seeing them on the loveseat, her reading the paper and him reading some dusty tome; sitting around the table, the both of them listening animatedly as he recounted his day’s explorations.

By the time the leaves turn fiery shades of red and gold, Levi no longer slinks back into the forest in the predawn dark. He instead creeps down into the dirt-floored cellar, and Erwin is able to go about his daily chores with the reassurance that Levi is close by— though he never sees any sign of the man when he ventures downstairs for jam or jarred summer vegetables.

It’s incredibly selfish, but he wishes he had more time with Levi. He thinks of how it could be, if their situation wasn’t so peculiar: splitting logs together for firewood, Levi’s stack growing at twice the pace of Erwin’s; exploring the hills and forest, avoiding the unnaturally quiet places where Levi warns him not to tread; Levi’s loose shirt billowing as they worked on the roof, sun falling on him so bright that it would hurt to look at him directly; hunting together, weeding the crops together, pickling them together. Levi again seeing blue sky and a world lit in full color.

Maybe one day, Erwin thinks. Levi’s sense of himself has improved over time; he’s more comfortable, more confident, more in control. If anyone could eventually overcome the siren’s call that separates the both of them when the world wakes, he believes it would be Levi.

It is Levi who trims his hair now, giving Erwin the same clean, precise cuts he’d had during his military career. The hands on his neck and shoulders are as cold as the blades of the scissors, and his nails almost as sharp. He likes to drag them up Erwin’s nape when he’s done, raking through the undercut to shake loose stray trimmings and then twining his fingers in the longer golden strands up top.

Levi touches his hair whenever possible, actually, which is anytime that the blonde is sitting or lying within reach; he undoes the neat part and careful coif, combing until his hands smell like pomade and Erwin’s hair falls across his forehead in shaggy, tousled spikes.

Erwin is glad that he built a wide bed, though his motive at the time was only to distance himself from the narrow cots and bunks he’d known for the last eighteen years; they lie together in it for hours, until the first birds begin to herald the coming sun. He always falls asleep in Levi’s arms, head pillowed on his slim chest, ear over his unbeating heart. He wakes up alone, as ever, to the smell of roasted coffee beans and sometimes pancakes. Levi is not much for cooking (and even less for eating) but his little gestures stay with Erwin all through the daylight hours.

He forgets, most nights, that he and Levi have spent a lifetime apart. It doesn’t feel right— not when they can talk until he is murmuring nonsense, unaware of what is even passing his lips, or when he sees Levi’s teas and soaps sitting orderly in the cabinets, as if they have always belonged there.   Surreal suits the feeling as much as it does anything else between them, as if he unwittingly wandered into the realm of sleep and dreams that night in the bog and has resided there ever since.

It surely doesn’t help that he sees Levi even in his dreams, in scenarios where Erwin found him sooner, saving him from a grisly death in the slums by subjecting him to a grisly life on the battlefield. He joins a still-living Levi on horseback or in the blood-stained trenches; he is with him knee-deep in mud, or baking as they uncurl long lengths of barbed wire and avoid snipers.

Erwin has nightmares of standing before titanic monsters, the kind that dwell deep in the ancient myths of long dead societies but cast shadows that reach all the way to these modern times. They’re peculiar and primal nightmares, so far removed from the realities that normally torment his sleeping thoughts—shrapnel and poison gas, severed limbs and hacking disease, starvation and the constant pursuit of ever better machine guns to churn earth and men alike into shredded pulp.

It isn’t all bad, though. He also envisions Levi soaring and wheeling in the air, clever and crow-like, before returning to perch at his side; no monster stands too high or sits too mighty to be toppled by his blades. All Erwin has to do is ask.

But these are only dreams. They each have some thirty years’ worth of history to unpack, much of it as of yet left untouched.

“What about your mother?” Levi asks one night, somewhere between two and three, which Erwin had grown up knowing as the hour of witches and monsters. He sits propped against the footboard of the bed, cross-legged, a cup of tea perched on his knee. His hair is still tousled and damp from a second bath, a limp cotton shirt hanging loosely around his shoulders.

The question stuns Erwin for a moment, his sleepy mind slow to switch tracks from their previous conversation on replacing the lackluster silverware. But soon the image of his mother came to him, as he remembered her best—soft and golden, sitting on the red armchair by the window. Her hair loosely pinned back. Her hands always busy.

“She was very kind, very practical. My father would get absorbed in books and work, all to do with the past, but she was firmly set in the present. She liked to keep birds,” he added, teeth showing in a small smile. “Around a dozen. Some she nursed to health herself. Her favourite was a crow named Vogel. She was old and clever, and she’d sit on the arm of the chair as my mother knit. After my father’s death, though… we lost everything. My uncle gave us a small home with some furnishings, and we continued on. My mother was never the same, understandably. She was heartsick for a very long time, and I do think that is partly why she died so young. I had just graduated and made lieutenant when I received the letter.”

“My mother drew a lot,” Levi said after a long lull in which they had both sifted through memories of their own mothers. “Mostly portraits. She could look at someone for just a minute and then perfectly put them to paper. It was something she did on the side of her real job,” he explained, staring down at his nails. “She’d practice on me. She’d fill up one sheet of paper with twenty different versions of my face. Different angles, different expressions.”

“I can hardly imagine how you looked as a kid,” Erwin chuckles, fond and honest, before worrying that he should have held his tongue a bit longer. The moment is all too fragile, and he briefly wonders if he’s ruined it.

“Better than you did, probably,” Levi snips back without pause, giving Erwin reason to smile. He lifts his index fingers to his eyebrows and wiggles them for emphasis. “Or did they only bush out when you got old?”

Erwin feels the ache in his cheeks from grinning too hard. “No, they’ve always been… distinct. My mother called them her two favourite caterpillars.”

Levi’s tea shoots up his nose, and he sputters for a minute. “Shit, they are,” he says, awed, and reaches out to run a finger over one of Erwin’s eyebrows. “Or like the cattails that grow in the marshes.”

“Thank you,” the blond says quietly. He smiles as Levi continues to smooth the pad of his finger across his eyebrow, very nearly petting it now.

“Anyway,” Levi sighs as he settles back again, “I never had her talent for it, or the patience, really. But I picked up a little. I can draw flowers pretty well. Not a lot grew down there, and what did grow was mostly mold. The apothecary sold some flowers that were supposed to be medicinal, and I’d memorize them so I could draw them for her later. The real thing was too expensive, but I could fill our room with drawn flowers… I think it really did make her happy.”

“You’re a good son.”

“Not really,” Levi disagrees, without much fight. “I wasn’t with my mother when she died, either. She’d always been sickly. It wasn’t a plague or anything like that. It didn’t spread,” he explained softly. “It was just her constitution. I was only away for a few hours, but that was all the time it took. I came home to her pyre, which happened to be our entire home. It was a shack. Just four walls and a roof, really, but still…”

Erwin shifts to the side and offers the space beside him to Levi, who puts aside his tea and crawls under the covers; the spot is still warm with the blond’s residual heat, but even so, Levi’s cold toes search out his calf and wriggle under it.

“It’s hard enough to lose someone,” Erwin says as they settle close, comfortable. “Losing everything you had of them, too, in one fell swoop? There’s no feeling quite as hopeless as standing there and seeing it disappear in front of you.”

“You still have a few of your father’s books,” Levi points out. He doesn’t sound bitter, or even envious. Only a little longing.

“I do,” Erwin says. “I was fortunate in many ways.”

“I could’ve cleaned her and buried her like we’re supposed to,” Levi said. “She deserved that much. But they were so afraid it might be another plague,” he said, a hollow laugh trailing his words. “To be cautious, they burned the whole place with her in it. If I’d been there--”

“You may have been lost with her.” He grimaces as soon as he’s spoken, fearing it sounds too selfish, not comforting enough. “I’m sorry. I’m not the best at consolation.”

‘”You’re doing fine.” Levi presses close, a hand laying gently on Erwin’s bicep to reassure him. “I don’t really need consolation, anyway. It happened a long time ago. I just… wanted to tell you.”

It’s a gesture of trust that makes it hard for Erwin to speak. He nods, and after a moment adds, “Thank you for telling me.”

It’s in the twilight of one of a night like this that Erwin considers his retirement. He had anticipated a lonely life in the wilderness, tethered to humanity by a monthly pension and the need for basic goods he could not make himself. What he has found was a small and intimate existence, more fulfilling than he could ever have imagined after leaving the only life he'd ever known.

 

-- - --- --------  - ------------------ ------- - -- --------------- --  ---------- -  

 

Nights in winter run long, and Erwin has never been so grateful. What little daylight there is grows so wan that he has no trouble sleeping until dusk; he now wakes at the same time as Levi, and beds down to sleep not long after the other man retreats to the cellar.

His garden has curled up and died since the harvest, excepting a few hardy winter greens and squashes that soldier on despite the frost. Game is scarce, and the few pheasants and hares he manages to hunt are tougher and scrawnier than their summer counterparts. It won’t be long now before the ponds ice over, thick enough to traverse, and he'll need to bring a pick if he plans to fish. The trees loom tall and barren, their spindly branches glittering with a thin sheen of ice each morning. Frost glazes the windows and makes the porch steps treacherous. The very first snows are brief and powder-soft, a gentle warning of what is to come.

Last week, he made what would likely be his last trip into the village until winter’s end. It was an arduous trek, but now the cellar is fully stocked for winter, with generous stores of spices, dried meat, jarred vegetables and bulging sacks of grain. A dozen tins of tea sit in orderly rows in the cabinet, along with an oversized jar of honey; it’s an overly cautious estimate, but he’d rather not run out midwinter and suffer Levi’s wrath.

When he catches himself in the mirror one morning-- just as the weather is turning to true winter, everything brittle and glittering as the cold and ice settle in to stay--  it strikes him that he’s a few shades paler than normal. Sallow , his mother would have said. He tilts his chin at different angles as he shaves, studying the starker appearance of the blue-green veins under his skin. He decides it must be an effect of his shifted sleep schedule, which has drastically cut his daylight exposure. That's the cost of running on Levi's time, he supposes.

He pats on his new aftershave, which smells faintly of sandalwood and spice, warm and smoky-- Levi likes it enough that he even dabs some on Erwin’s pulse points like cologne—and dresses in crisply folded flannel and warm wool.

They roam through the woods together some nights, hand-in-hand.

Erwin likes the quiet, likes the way the cool air fills his lungs, likes the impossibly wide and deep breadth of the stars when they sit alone on their side of the mountain, the moon hovering just overhead. He brings a chart of the heavens one night and they identify obscure constellations together; hallway through, Levi starts inventing his own, with the majority being references to some part of Erwin’s anatomy.

Erwin hasn’t seen stars like this since he was a child, back when his father took him to see meteors streak the sky and taught him all the important constellations by heart. The intervening years were dark, starless: first, locked away in the academy, subject to a strict schedule that no scholarship cadet could afford to flaunt, staring at a blank ceiling until sleep overtook him; then a decade spent on the battlefield, where smoke and gas obscured the sky as often as not, and enemy planes and falling mortar shells were of greater concern than the stars.

Levi doesn’t quite share his interest in the heavens. He doesn’t understand why Erwin finds the forest refreshing or the yawning, dark sky worth tearing up over. But he is indulgent, if unwilling to let Erwin roam alone in spite of his own lack of love for the outdoors and quick to voice his grumbling objections every time Erwin starts lacing up his boots around midnight.

“I’ve spent more than enough time outdoors,” Levi says when Erwin teases him about being such a homebody. “Six feet under. Remember?”

“But it’s not so bad when you’re above ground,” the blond replies. The air tonight is cool and crisp, the world sharp with the clarity of stark weather and barren earth. “Levi… I would like to go back to Sina one day. One day soon, actually.”

“What? And leave all of this behind?” Levi is quick to ask, immediately wary of the prospect of losing the cozy home they have made. He wears his own clothing now, picked from a wardrobe that Erwin purchased in town; the tailorwoman in the shop had glanced askew at him when he’d given her Levi’s slight measurements. They’re still a bit too large, a bit roughly spun, country-style, but far better than trying to make-do with Erwin’s attire.

“Not all of it,” Erwin says, hoping to reassure him. He stops to wait for the other man, the toes of his boots disappearing in a small drift of snow.

Levi scoffs at that, his little scowl deepening as he dwells longer on Erwin’s words. He is practically dragging his heels. Punishing Erwin by making him wait longer, maybe. “How could I ever go with you? You know how I am.”

“You’ve improved,” Erwin points out. It’s true. The months have softened Levi, made his grave behavior milder. “And we could travel by night.”

“And let you be a target for every brigand from here to Sina?”

“I trust you to protect me.”

Levi snorts under his breath, as flattered as he is annoyed. He crosses his arms and looks up to the blond expectantly. “And in the city? Will you fill a tub with soil for me to sleep in?”

“Hange has planting troughs for their studies on photosynthesis. I think one of those would be more comfortable for you.”

“And will your Hange experiment on me, too? Will I be dissected in my sleep one day? Or--”

“Absolutely not,” Erwin says, sharper than he means to. He is moving again, winding through the woods without a marked path or any clear intent, propelled by a sudden, unfocused outrage and revulsion-heavy thoughts that he hopes to somehow outpace; his footsteps crunch and crack through snow and fallen twigs, while Levi silently trails in his prints.

“Of course not, Levi,” he affirms again, more softly. “Never.”

“Why?” Levi asks after another twenty, thirty paces in silence. He is tense with frustration, his narrow shoulders drawn high. “Why go back there?”

Erwin slows as they reach a clearing set against an outcropping of mountain stone. The jutting earth is ribboned with veins of sparkling mineral, gleaming bright by the moonlight; the wind hums and whistles over the rock, but they are sheltered from its bone-chilling touch. The birch trees that surround them are young and pale, with snow piled against the west-facing sides of their trunks. Something makes this seem like the right place to lay the rest of himself bare to his lover.

But before he can speak again, Levi’s voice breaks the night.

“How did you know to come here?” he asks, flat voice lifting in the oddest way. He makes no sound as he approaches, ghostlike, until he lays a hand over Erwin’s spine, just below his shoulder blades.

Erwin feels it through the many layers of fabric and fur, just as if it was on his bare skin. He is, for the first time in weeks, caught and confused by something Levi has said. He half-turns and surveys the clearing anew, trying to gain his bearings. “Where is here, exactly?”

Levi edges past him without answer, his hand trailing across the other man’s back and down his forearm as he goes. He drifts to an unassuming spot of sunken snow near the upward jut of colorful stone, quiet as a wraith. It makes a soft crunch when he drops to his knees, swallows up his legs with a soft, powdery hiss. He digs down through it, pushing aside handfuls of icy, crystalline snow until he reaches the dark, frozen earth underneath.

“This was where I came to sleep,” Levi says with an air of realization, as if only just recognizing the significance of the tract of earth himself. As if only just able to voice its meaning. “This was my resting place, when I couldn’t be with you.”

Erwin comes and kneels beside him, heedless of the cold that quickly threads through his breeches and long underwear to chill his skin. He touches the exposed ground of Levi’s self-made grave with his mitten-bundled fingers—the soil is frozen and hard, but not so much that it couldn’t be dug out by determined, bloodless hands.  “I had no idea, Levi.”

“You know me better than you’re aware of, apparently,” the small man says with a little snort that is, to Erwin, endlessly adorable. “It’s not the meadow of flowers you gave me, of course,” Levi adds, sounding a little humble and embarrassed. “But it did have dandelions in the summer.”

“You picked a lovely place,” Erwin says, glancing up again at the beautifully veined stone that looms above them, “but I’m glad you use the cellar now. I hate thinking that you made this trek twice a day, especially in poor weather.”

“I can cover a lot of ground, even in the dark and the rain. Better than I even could when I was alive,” Levi says, his gaze darting away from the other man as he brushes the soil and snow from his hands. He’s shyly subdued after such a direct confrontation with what he’d rather ignore—the things that mark him as unlike other people. Unlike Erwin.

It’s the look of growing, creeping despondency in Levi’s eyes that spurs Erwin to speak. He knows the doubts that plague Levi and the pain they’ve bred: that he has been remade a monster, a warped reflection in death of how he lived in life. A thing scuttling in the dark, as he did in the underground slums.

“I need to go back for my father’s sake.” Erwin inhales deeply, the cold stinging deep in his lungs; it imparts a soft burn, similar to the ache of needing breath. He feels Levi’s hunting gaze, his restrained curiosity. “I never did right by him.”

“He’s dead, Erwin.”

“Yes. By treachery.” His own, truthfully, but he doesn’t dare breathe a word about it here and now. Levi’s stare sits on him like a heavy, warning touch: the man will spit fire until sunrise if Erwin so much as mentions his culpability in his father’s murder. “The man I’d killed and was burying the night we met was a lord.”

“No. You’re shitting me,” Levi says, looking at him sidelong. There is an awed glimmer in his steel-grey eyes, more intense than usual-- his admiration, stark naked, bared like the leafless limbs of the trees surrounding them. “A lord? Really? And you got away with it.”

When he sighs, his breath is visible, wispy. “A lord named Chalais. An unpleasant man by all accounts. I barely had any idea of him until I graduated from the academy, but he knew quite a bit about me. Once I began to review the circumstances of my father’s death, I found myself convinced he had played a part in it. But I couldn’t know for certain, and such prying would likely only grant me the same fate as my father.”

Levi hums glumly at this, his expression stony and sour. He’s shared enough stories with Erwin of predatory nobles and their presence in the slums he grew up in, their tendency to use people from the undercity for one end or another and then dispose of them.

“So I threw myself into my work. Into the war. The comparative success of my squadron-- then my unit, and then my regiment— afforded me some respect and latitude as a commander, but the rumors and pushes to discredit me never ceased. Chalais liked to spearhead those, as well as efforts to weaken my soldiers: more cuts to my budget, younger and greener recruits, riskier objectives. The demands upon us were greater and greater. Unreasonable at times, truthfully.”

“Why do it, then?” Levi asks, incensed. His glare burns cold and severe, and though it is directed at Erwin, it is meant for the people who have disregarded him. “You didn’t owe them anything.”

“I swore an oath, Levi,” Erwin half-smiles as he taps his chest with the wrong hand, on the wrong side, with the wrong arm. “But really… I knew that the consequences would be far worse if I didn’t shoulder it and keep on. This is the first war of its kind, and tried and true strategies no longer work. Yet there was reluctance to risk and pursue new modes of attack. It’s both curious and frustrating, Levi. There are many officers—far too many, most of whom have only seen the battlefield at a distance, on a map—who will send dozens of soldiers blindly to their deaths in doomed, fruitless charges, wave after hopeless wave, accomplishing nothing. Meaningless, careless sacrifices that number in the hundred-thousands now.”

“Well, the exchange rate of a commoner’s life to a noble’s isn’t too good, Erwin,” Levi says with dry, morbid humor.

“Never truer than on the battlefield,” Erwin agrees with a hard squint. By end of his service, he was being sent children. But not the sons and daughters of old blood or significant wealth—farmers’ children, hunters’ children, orphans without any other means to provide for themselves. “My bargain with my soldiers was that I would minimize our losses whenever possible, and never to ask more of them than I myself was willing to do. I knew Hange would do the same. I could not abandon them to commanders that would demand their sacrifice but risk nothing themselves.”

He rises and huddles a bit closer to the stone that shelters them, feeling numb from the knees down. Levi follows suit, hovering close, his scarf ruffled by the licks of wind that snake past the outcropping.

“Which is why the… the breaking point for me,” Erwin hesitates to say, eyes nervously searching Levi’s expression at this admittance of weakness and impulsivity, “was when I lost my arm. I woke in a field hospital with a fever and my closest friend from the academy at my side. He warned me that Chalais had whipped the pearl-clutching nobility and taxpayers into an uproar over the suitability and questionable morality of my successor. He led vicious attacks on Hange’s character while they were off in the heat of battle, leading in my stead, unaware and unable to refute the assault on their reputation.”

He ghosts over the despondency of those days and nights spent wallowing in his recovery, only Nile as a bulwark against the sinking depression that sat inside him like some foul ichor, so heavy in his remaining limbs that he barely moved an inch. But Levi’s hooded gaze catches his, brief but full of his sharp, forceful concern, and Erwin knows that it will be the subject of inquiry on some other night when they are safely nestled together under the covers.

“I knew Hange’s passion for knowledge and understanding could be spun, Levi,” he dutifully continues despite the growing tightness in his throat, “into the desire to commit treason. I knew they were dragging Hange’s good name and work through the dirt, burying it, and would do the same to Hange themself if it seemed to benefit their aims. I couldn’t… I couldn’t let that happen to them. I couldn’t let it happen to my soldiers—to be divvied up and placed in the command of men and women who would leave them to wallow in the trenches while they themselves sleep in a tent, far removed from the front lines. To be wasted on rote assaults that will have no yield, fed through a meat grinder by careless officers who couldn’t strategize their way out of a paper bag.”

There is still a bitter taste in his mouth over it, he finds; like the acrid haze of gunpowder and battlefield smoke, thick enough that each breath could coat their lungs. Death in war was not only tolerable, but essential. Vital to progress. That truth probably meant little or less to weeping families back home, but it offered Erwin Smith some reassurance as he stitched body bags shut and signed condolence letters with numbed fingers.

But that didn’t mean he couldn’t ward off its cold grasp wherever possible, outmaneuver it when able. If Death had to be their constant companion on the battlefield, then Erwin Smith would see it starved, subdued, shrunken into a little wraith with a weak appetite; his peers, however, seemed hell-bent on making Death a glutton.

“Nile said deals were already being cut behind closed doors,” Erwin says, voice barely more than a croak. “Who would replace me when Hange Zoe was out of the picture, who would get the most skilled soldiers of the Scout Regiment, what we be done with the rest. They considered me a dead man already, or just as useless. Orders for my discharge had already been delivered to my bedside, while I laid semi-conscious and consumed by fever for a fortnight. No one’s eyes were on me anymore.”

“After I was shipped back to Sina, I resolved to do… something. I was perhaps still a bit feverish. Delusional. Drunk on morphine, maybe. I thought, this is my best chance. No one would expect me capable of anything so physical, not in my condition. I had kept tabs on Chalais and many other nobles, as a defensive measure. I knew each of his mistresses and when he visited them, and there I waited.”

He’s surprised by Levi’s sudden grin, the chuckle that follows.

“I… I’ve done that same thing,” the man offers as explanation to Erwin’s inquisitively cocked head. “I’m sorry, just the thought of you… I can picture you on a battlefield so clearly, but hiding in an alley? Like I used to?”

Erwin cracks a small smile, teeth chattering slightly. “It feels somewhat ridiculous, looking back. Unlike me, at least up until that point in my life. I suppose it’s a testament to what desperation can do to someone.” He sighs, smile fading to grimace. “When he saw me there, he laughed, exactly as someone laughs at a joke. ‘Come to avenge your father now?’ He had a named blade, gems in the hilt and everything. He must have seen my sorry state and thought it would be simple bloodsport. He wasn’t prepared, though. He didn’t…”

Erwin’s mouth moves silently, brow furrowed as he hunts for the words.

“For someone so familiar with casual cruelty, Lord Chalais was shocked by my brutality. I killed him like I was back in the trenches. I thought I was, for a few moments,” he admits, suddenly breathless as he recalls rainy nights confined in those crumbling, dripping walls; the terror of winding through enemy trenches in pitch black like cattle through a chute to the slaughterhouse; the twisted intimacy of it, every encounter with the enemy a desperate, personal grapple. The gurgles of men choked with barbed wire. The sputtering of soldiers lying prostrate as they died, aspirating mud. Mike, found dead at his post the night before a week-long ceasefire, face streaked in blood and rain--

“Erwin? Erwin.” Levi lays his hand on Erwin’s arm, squeezing just hard enough to be felt through the thick layers of Erwin’s sweater and wool coat.

“I’m sorry.” He blinks once, twice, a dozen times more. The wind stings harder at his eyes.

“You’re alright.” His attempts to comfort Erwin range from brushing errant flakes of snow from his shoulders to sliding his cold, bare fingers inside Erwin’s mitten to grasp his hand, skin-to-skin. Levi keeps close, his presence a bulwark against the resurgence of bloody phantoms-- all the dead who are not as kind to Erwin as he.

“I was ruthless, Levi,” he states, comfort in knowing how Levi will respond, how he’ll understand.

“You had to be, Erwin. You’re alive because you acted when it was required, and so are people you care about,” the smaller man states, grim, hand squeezing Erwin’s with a firmness that reaches the bones. He lets that linger a few frosty seconds before adding, “So. How’d you do it?”

“With my hands. Hand,” he answers, glancing down where it grasps Levi—large and square-palmed, wrapped in a wool mitten. He remembers Chalais’ dry, soft skin, the prickle of his neat, salt-and-pepper beard, the color of his face changing. “I don’t think he expected me to do it like that. I didn’t quite expect to, either. And then I just couldn’t let go, not until long after he was dead.”

“He deserved worse.”

The blonde smiles ruefully as Levi leans into his side. “I wrapped his body, slung it on my mare, and rode to the bog under cover of night and storm. And you know the rest from there.”

Levi’s hand is still in his, squeezing so tight that the blood cannot pass. There is a faint wavering in his voice as he says, “If you hadn’t killed him, you’d never have found me. I’d still be down there in the mud. Drowning in it. Sinking deeper every day--”

He draws Levi close and puts his arms around the other man’s slender frame. Erwin can feel him tremble, and not from the cold. “It’s alright, Levi.”

“Will it still be alright if we go back?” Levi asks, summoning as much bitterness as he can while simultaneously burrowing deeper against the blond’s side. “Your father was killed there, and so was I. It’s not worth it. They’re not.”

“Levi--”

“I can break your legs if necessary. You’re aware of that, aren’t you?”

Erwin smiles, earning a frustrated groan from Levi’s lips. Such a threat from such a man might’ve chilled him to the quick a few seasons past. Now it just rings of affection. “I’ve been thinking about it a great deal, Levi. When I left, I felt I had nothing more to offer. I had entrusted my command to Hange and I had never had much of a life outside of the military. I’d committed a grave crime and taken what I thought was a great stride in atoning for my father’s death. And I was tired.”

Levi is drawing his meticulously cleaned nails down along Erwin’s wrist, repetitive and soothing. He doesn’t even need to look to trace the veins perfectly.

“But… I’m not really satisfied with that,” he mutters, finding Levi answering his gaze with one that is sympathetic in its disappointment. “The things my father died for knowing… I’m sure he was onto something. I want the truth of it—all of it. And I want to expose it for what it is. And them for what they are.”

“And kill them, too?”

Erwin is silent. He licks his lips and feels the frigid air wick the moisture from them instantly. “Possibly.”

“I’ll go with you,” Levi sighs. “Anywhere. I’m not thrilled about it, though. I want you to know that.”

“You could see Isabel and Farlan again.”

“If they’re still…”

“They are.” Erwin clears his throat a little nervously before continuing. “I mentioned them to Hange… I asked them to send someone to check on the two of them periodically. Help them, if they needed it badly. They’ve been managing quite well on their own, though. A courier service, I think, with a little bit of smuggling on the side.”

Levi’s expression warms with pride, and Erwin thinks he sees a measure of relief, too. It fades as quickly as it came. “I don’t know if they would want to see me like this, Erwin. They think I’ve been dead for years, you know. Farlan would probably piss himself if I showed up like this.”

“Oh,” Erwin hums, feigning confusion. “Is that not an incentive?”

Levi’s laugh is as sharp and bright as falling ice. “Shit. You’re right. I guess this is happening, then,” he sighs, loud enough to challenge the whistling of the wind.

“You’ll have quite the experience meeting Hange,” Erwin says, leaning down to Levi’s height, noses nearly touching. He thinks briefly of Mike and Nanaba, Ness, the others he’d have loved to introduce to Levi. “Really looking forward to seeing how you two interact.”

“I notice you’re deliberately avoiding any comment on whether or not I’ll like meeting them,” Levi grumbles as he sways forward a hair. Ice crystals glint along his dark lashes and unmelting snow dapples his dark hair as they kiss, quick and soft, noses brushing gently.

“Fuck, you’re cold,” Levi says suddenly, a flicker of realization crossing his face, followed by fright. His hands press against the blond’s pale cheeks, nearly as cold as the air itself. “You’re freezing , Erwin. Fuck! Why didn’t you say something?”

“I-I don’t feel that cold--”

“Move it, now , or I’m carrying you back like a sack of potatoes.”

Levi is at his heels like a sheepdog, herding him back to the cabin at a steady lope. When they arrive, he pulls off Erwin’s boots and clothes to check for frostbite-- making small, relieved grunts when he finds all of the man’s fingers and toes to be unmarred-- and then sets the blond beside the fireplace to warm through.

“We spent way too much time out there. Look at the frost on the windows. Shit. You’re lucky you didn’t turn to ice. ”

“Must be my love for you that keeps me so warm,” Erwin says drowsily. He thinks Levi worries excessively, but it is charmingly reassuring in a way.

“No frostbite, but you’re clearly delirious,” the man comments dryly as he presses a cup of tea into Erwin’s hands. “I knew there had to be some consequence to dawdling in the cold like that.”

Erwin drinks until the dregs of tea leaves are all that sits at the bottom of his cup, watching as Levi throws himself into the task of preparing for a journey back to Sina. He is already taking inventory, consulting their respective wardrobes, pulling Erwin’s maps from the chest at the foot of the bed to chart their route along the hillsides and roadways.

If Erwin didn’t know better, he’d almost think Levi was excited .

 


 

Epilogue

 

Queen Historia’s reign is ushered in at the close of the decade, the event marked with the peals of church bells, throngs of well-wishers in the streets, and a banquet to feed her new subjects, stocked with game from the castle’s own private woods. Taverns are filled to overflowing as ale flows freely in honor of their new liege, the promised peace, the hope for the future.

Of course, her coronation doesn’t pass without acrimonious protest from Sina’s remaining nobility, or tipsy, loose-lipped whispers among the commoners about how curious her rise to power was, how laced with intrigue.

But naysaying gossip doesn’t maintain much of a foothold in an era of peace and prosperity unseen in recent memory. The war is concluded over a number of political talks, to the relief of a weary populace and a worn army; the tall, freckled diplomat sent to reside in Sina finds herself well-received in the Queen’s court. Corruption is at an all-time low, and the confidence of the people in their ruler soars to new heights.

Historia Reiss is quickly beloved as a voice of compromise and sensibility, a champion of education and progress, baseborn and royal-blooded both; that she rose from the ashes of a scandal-wracked aristocracy is quickly forgotten, forgiven. That her unlikely ascent to the throne dovetailed curiously with the rumored appearances of a pair of ghostly men, said to punish deceivers both highborn and low, never quite passes from the lips of the superstitious.

The Queen politely laughs off the predictable slew of questions that inevitably work their way into evening parties and diplomatic dinners, always offered with flattery or an expression eager for gossip: Perhaps the ghosts of royal protectors past returned to restore a monarchy gone corrupt? Perhaps it is souls from the cursed bog to the west, where the land is fed with more dead than is good for it? Have you ever seen anything in the castle, anything inexplicable? In your woods? Perhaps the goddesses simply grew tired of men upon the throne? Do you ever venture where King Fritz and the others were found? Is it true that their blood cannot be washed away?

Ymir is a great help in dissuading persistent inquiries, and in protecting her from the remnants of the old families that once held sway over the throne-- so are the two men that reside in a small cabin deep in the royal wood, all of their maneuvering done by night, their skin as pale and cold as moonlight.