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River's End

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My dear brother.

 

 

 

For as long as Levi could remember, he had always been chasing after that back.

 

***

 

Eren’s first word was ‘Levi,’ or at least, a variation of it because his tongue couldn’t grasp the syllables very well. The first time Eren said his name, Levi had felt something struck within him; a deep hidden memory perhaps, he wasn’t sure, but at that moment, he felt that protecting Eren was the most important thing in the world.

 

***

 

When Eren was about three, he was able to recognize letters and some words because Levi had put them on flash cards and taught them to him.

Once, Levi’s class had a fieldtrip to an art museum, and that night, he was inspired by one of the paintings to make another word card for Eren.

“Titan!” Eren said with such clarity and such fever that Levi jumped. “Titan!” Eren cried out once more, smacking his hands on the ground excitedly.

“Yeah.” Levi felt that strange stirring in his chest again, the same one he felt when Eren first said his name. “That’s good, Eren.”

 

***

 

The winter following was a bad one. The heater in their small apartment broke, and they didn’t have the money to get it fixed.

It was a rough year for the town since the chemical company and the car company went bankrupt. Grisha, along with 60% of the town, found himself jobless, and Carla found herself working odd jobs to keep the family fed.

With the future of the economy grim and the thoughts of their parents even grimmer, Levi did what he could and watched Eren, who was nearly five at the time and didn’t quite understand why father was sitting in a rocking chair, staring listlessly at the snow outside without a word, not even when mother came home and gave him a greeting that wouldn’t be answered, not even when she asked him to join them at the table for dinner, not even when they all huddled to sleep on a mattress in front of the fireplace in the living room, stacked with four layers of blankets and a quilt from Grandmother who had lived once with them but luckily passed away last year so she wouldn’t have to see her son in pieces.

Eren lay comfortably between Carla and Levi, but he had an unusual attachment to Levi ever since he was a baby, so he snuggled against Levi’s chest. Carla ruffled his head gently, and Eren smiled happily, not noticing the way Levi did how Mother’s hands had roughened with chemicals and cheap soap. Levi didn’t comment on it. There was a fragile balance that he didn’t want to break.

“I like how Levi is home all the time now,” Eren mumbled into Levi’s chest.

“It’s only for a few snow days,” Levi said. “Then I have to go back to school.”

“School?” Eren said, tilting his head. “I want to go to school with you!”

“You’ll go to kindergarten next year,” Levi said, but saw how his mother turned pale, probably at the thought that they couldn’t afford the kindergarten fees. He backtracked. “If you want, I could teach you how to read more difficult books instead.”

“I want Levi to teach me!” Eren’s interest in school dissipated as quickly as it came.

“Alright.”

Levi knew that his mother would have to keep sending Eren to Aunt Sarah while she worked and Levi was at school. Levi looked at his father and thought he felt something close to hatred.

“No, Levi,” his mother said, and Levi looked away in shame. He tried not to think that way, he really did.

Levi was shocked when he felt a pair of lips touched his forehead gently, the way Mother used to do when he was upset. He stared at Eren, stunned as Eren said, “Does that make it better?”

“Yeah,” Levi said, pulling Eren into a hug and taking in the warmth of his childlike kindness. “A lot better.”

Eren grinned. When Levi pulled away, he curled his tiny fingers around Levi’s hand as reassurance.

Carla smiled, the lines around her tired eyes wrinkled with amusement. For a moment, she looked much younger. “He’s going to develop such a brother complex when he becomes older.”

“It really can’t get worse than this,” Levi mumbled, but if he was honest with himself, his own brother complex was even bigger than Eren’s.

Carla chuckled tiredly. “It’s alright. There’s nothing wrong with it. I’m glad that you two are so close, especially through these hard times.”

Levi gently swept Eren’s bangs from his forehead. Eren’s eyes were drooping, and Levi pulled him against his chest. Eren was still young; his cheeks were still babyish round; his smiles were still free from worries even though they were going through rough times. As the chilly night settled in, Levi closed his eyes and swore that he was going to protect his little brother at all cost.

In these times of uncertainty, the only thing that remained certain was Eren’s hand in his.

 

***

 

There were hard times.

Aunt Sarah opened the door and ushered them all in. “Keep all your coats here. Don’t trail water into the house.” She had said this every time they came, as if they would bring melted snow in purposely to ruin her expensive carpets. She watched Levi closely like a hawk, and Levi didn’t know what problem she had with him. It wasn’t like he was obligated to smile in front of her all the time.

He’s a very unpleasant boy, she once told his mother. Levi eased himself out of his winter gears without meeting her eyes, keeping his grip on his backpack which had his and Eren’s lunch for the day.

“Thank you, Sarah, for agreeing to watch the kids today,” Carla said, helping a sleepy Eren out of his coat. “I didn’t expect that they would call me in for a weekend shift,” Carla smiled, but Aunt Sarah’s gaze remained stern.

“Why does one more day matter? You always dump Eren here anyway.”

“I got him, mom,” Levi took over when Carla fumbled with the old jacket zipper that got stuck. At the corner of his eye, Levi could see Aunt Sarah’s disapproving look.

“Does Grisha have a job yet?” Aunt Sarah’s voice was sharp. She asked the same thing every day they came to her house, which was effectively every day of the week except for the weekend.

“Not yet,” Carla said. “He’s trying.” Her smile became strained.

“Well he’s not trying hard enough.” Aunt Sarah crossed her arms. “And Eren has to start kindergarten next year. Have you even thought about that?”

“I have, yes,” Carla kept her voice gentle, even though Levi could sense that she was growing upset. “Actually, I was thinking of having Eren go straight to first grade without kindergarten.”

“Well who’s going to watch him when you’re not home?” Aunt Sarah’s tone implied that no, it wasn’t going to be her, and Levi knew that his mother had planned to ask her to watch Eren for another year, with pay of course, like she had been doing for this past year. Aunt Sarah was father’s distant cousin, and she was the only one who lived close enough for Carla to ask for this favor.

“I’ll think of something,” Carla looked away.

Aunt Sarah shook her head. “You need to get a grip on your life, Carla.”

“I will try.”

“Well, it’s not good enough,” Aunt Sarah turned sharply to Levi and Eren. Eren, luckily, was half-asleep and didn’t notice.

“Just look at your children, Carla. They’re filthy.” With this, Aunt Carla scraped her finger over a smudge on Levi’s cheek, and Levi felt his skin burned with embarrassment and his eyes watered with pain. Her nail was sharp. “Disgusting,” Aunt Sarah flicked invisible dirt off her fingers. She was about to reach for Eren too, but Levi pulled him out of her way, and the look in his eyes stopped her, and her words dangled at mid-sentence. “Your children look like—”

“Don’t.” Levi said firmly. “Don’t talk to my family that way.”

“What did you say?”

Levi hastily covered Eren’s ears. “You could say whatever you want to me. I can take it. But don’t say it to Eren.” The word “disgusting” still echoed in his ears, and Aunt Sarah didn’t hit him or anything, but her words hurt.

Aunt Sarah didn’t say anything with that.

Levi didn’t remember much afterwards. He vaguely remembered his mother’s arms around him, but not very well because all he could think about was that he couldn’t let Eren be hurt either. All he remembered was that he had clung on to Eren and had tried not to cry.

 

***

 

Sometimes Levi had strange dreams of another world with monsters and blood and deaths that had him blinked awake at the ceiling, eyes wet with tears.

 

***

 

Sometimes Eren would be in those dreams.

 

***

 

“There’s no telling what will happen if we let him loose.”

“He’ll live,” Levi gritted out. “Like a normal person. Like everyone else here.” But Levi’s words fell on deaf ears. The damage done on humanity after the war was unimaginable, and when the celebrations of victories were over, all that was left was weariness.

“He’s a monster,” and Levi turned sharply to Eren, somehow wished that he could block out those words from Eren’s ears, even though Eren had heard them so many times. Eren didn’t deserve this. He was a war hero. He had fought bravely. He deserved better.

Levi thought of the blood stain that will forever remained in his hands, and said, “We’re all monsters at this point.”

This wasn’t the end that he wanted to have.

 

***

 

There were good times.

Eren waited impatiently for the snow to stop falling, and when it did, Carla didn’t have enough time to stop him before he sprang out the front door with only a sweater and a knit cap that threatened to slip off his head. Levi was faster than his mother because it only took him a few minutes to get dressed, and then he ran after Eren like always, his old winter jacket and scarf in tow because Eren had grown out of his own jacket.

“Eren!” Levi called out, and Eren, the little brat, had tackled Levi into the snow, and Levi landed on his back with a whump.

“I got you!” Eren said proudly, perching on top of Levi.

“You got me,” Levi agreed. “Now put your jacket and scarf on.”

Eren slipped the old jacket over his shoulder, and Levi helped him buttoned it up. Eren had a bad habit of missing a button, but Levi wondered if he did it on purpose just so Levi would help him because Carla said that Eren had always buttoned up correctly when she was around.

When Levi handed him the scarf, Eren shook his head. “Don’t want it. Levi, you put it on.”

“I don’t need it,” said Levi.

“If you don’t have a scarf, I won’t put one on either,” Eren said stubbornly, puffing his cheeks in what he thought was a menacing expression, but Levi had to bite the inside of his lips to prevent himself from giggling.

Eren was adorable. Levi poked his cheek.

“Put it on!”

“No!”

Levi sighed. “If you don’t put it on, we both have to go inside the house!”

“We can share the scarf!” Eren looked excited at his own brilliant idea.

“No, it’s too small,” said Levi.

“We could buy one big enough for you two to share,” Carla said, picking Eren up and into her arms. “It’ll be a nice early Christmas treat.”

Eren cheered, but Levi had always been the more practical one. “Eren and I won’t be together all the time. If you buy a scarf that big then we won’t be able to use it.”

“It’s fine. I could undo the scarf and knit two matching ones for both of you,” Carla bounced Eren on her hip, and he grinned, all cheerful without a care for the world. “Besides, that would make a cute Christmas card picture for your grandparents, and I think it would be fun to go out today, don’t you?”

“I guess.”

“I want to share a scarf with Levi!”

Levi had taken one look at Eren’s pout and knew that it was a lost battle.

“It’s alright,” Carla said gently, trying to console Levi, probably because she could read his thoughts. Mothers were psychic like that. “We don’t have a lot, and we can’t do a lot, but we should indulge in the things we can do, even if it’s small.”

“Only because Eren wants to,” Levi said stubbornly. It wasn’t like he had wanted to share the scarf as well because it was a childish idea.

Carla held back a laugh at Levi’s expression.

 

***

 

Carla drove them to the big city, and it was really pretty.

Christmas decorations were out since the beginning of December, but now there was snow everywhere, so it was even better, bright red and green lights twinkling along the windows and doors of shops while the streets were covered in a carpet of white.

Levi clutched Eren’s hand tightly because the side walk was slippery, but Eren was curious and excited and ended up dragging Levi from window to window, their gloved hands pressed against the glass as they watched with bright eyes a toy train, beautifully painted green and never been touched by a child’s hand, as it went up and down the track, passing minuscule people and houses and trees.

Then there was a candy shop, and Levi and Eren could only watch in adoration and jealousy at the colorful candy canes and taffy and fudge bars, and then there were children in bright, new coats exiting the store, holding giant lollipops and a bright pink bag of treats with the store’s logo printed proudly.

Levi’s favorite thing, however, was a blue bike displayed back at the toy store, but he remembered to take one good glance at it so that the memory would stay in his mind, but not long enough for him to feel regret that he didn’t ask his mother for it. He didn’t want to hear things like “when your father comes back, we’ll be better off” because it would hurt more when that didn’t come true.

Eren’s favorite thing was probably the department store because there were so many things in it, and Levi had to admit it would have been his favorite had it not been for the bike.

They picked out a big red scarf that wasn’t as soft as some of the others, but it was thick and warm and comfortable enough, and Levi had wrapped it around himself and Eren just as Eren had wanted. The scarf was big and it covered all of Eren’s face and his shoulders, but Eren didn’t seem to mind as he walked by Levi’s side, his small hand in Levi’s. People passed by and smiled at them and said that they were the cutest thing ever, and Carla had wanted to take a Christmas picture, so they went to the giant Christmas tree in the middle of the store where Santa was.

“You have to tell Santa what you want for Christmas,” Carla explained before the boys lined up with the other children. “I’ll take your picture.”

Levi, of course, was old enough to know that it was all a hoax, but Eren was young and had asked with astonishment, “Will I really get it if I ask?”

“He’ll try his best,” Carla answered generously.

“In that case, I want to stay with Levi forever!”

Levi choked. “You can’t ask that!”

“Why not?” Eren frowned. “Mom said I could ask for whatever I want.”

“Yeah, but it’ll be a waste to ask for that,” Levi rewrapped the scarf around them both. It had gotten them more curious stares from the children waiting in line, but he didn’t mind. “I could give that to you. You should ask for something else.”

“Do you really mean it?”

“Of course.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

Eren leaned against him, a warm presence by his side, and the weight of the promise hang heavily between them like the scarf that tied them together.

Levi’s brother complex was definitely getting worse. Especially when Carla kept her words and undid the giant scarf to make two matching ones for them, Levi felt as happy as Eren when he showed off his new scarf.

 

***

 

Levi learned later in life that it was really hard to keep a promise.

 

***

 

Even though Levi had vowed to protect Eren, Eren had been protecting Levi all along, in his own way.

 

***

 

“I want to keep staying in the Survey Corp,” Eren said, stopping his horse, eyes looking out into the distant valley stretching out before them, the sunset washing over the hills gently.

“Why? There’s no need for you to fight Titans any longer. It’s over.” Levi stopped his horse next to Eren’s.

“I want to see the sea,” Eren chuckled, glancing nervously at Levi, as if he was afraid of Levi’s rejection. “I want to keep traveling with you. I want to see all these new lands together,” he added hastily at the end. “With everyone too, of course.”

“We’ve have to work to uncover new lands for settlement,” Levi said. “What? Were you planning to play around and get fat like those damn lazy asses inside Wall Sina?”

“No sir!” Eren said with a grin, probably understanding Levi’s acceptance, no matter how indirect it was.

 

***

 

But when they returned to civilization after the war, people did not welcome Eren as Levi thought they would.

 

***

 

Spring came, and with spring, came Grisha’s awakening.

Levi had come home from school one afternoon to see Grisha out of his chair for once, clean shaven, sitting crossed leg on the floor next to Eren, who was reading one of the books that Levi borrowed from the library for him. They glanced up at Levi when he walked in, and Eren had immediately dropped the book onto the floor and ran to give Levi a hug.

“Levi!” Eren mumbled into his shirt, and Levi’s hands automatically wrapped around his little brother, a complicated feeling rising in his chest.

“Welcome home,” Grisha said. Levi had almost forgotten the sound of his father’s voice.

“Dad’s back!” Eren cried with delight.

Levi stared at Grisha, frozen where he was. “You can’t do it to us again.”

“I know,” Grisha said grimly.

“You can’t leave again.” Levi could hear his voice beginning to crack, even though he was trying to be strong through this. He didn’t want to break now, but his father was back, finally back, and it was as if the world had patted him in the back, telling him that it was okay to cry now, that it was okay to show how upset he was over his father’s break down because he had been holding back so long for Eren’s sake, for his mother’s sake.

Eren, probably sensing that Levi was about to fall apart, had tightened his grip around his brother. “It’s okay, Levi.”

Grisha walked to Levi and pulled both Levi and Eren into his embrace. Levi cracked, collapsing onto his knees and crying into his father’s shoulder. Eren reached for his hand.

It was really his father, the same scent that Levi recognized the summer he turned five, when his father had hoisted him on his shoulder to reach for the apples in their yard, bright red with a few strokes of golden yellow, and it was the same scent when father had balanced both Levi and a baby Eren on his lap while they travelled through the mystical land of a fantasy novel, giant trees and wide valleys and winding rivers spanning through Levi’s imagination, and it was the same scent as father held his hand and he held Eren’s and Eren held mother’s as they walked down the street, happy because they were all together.

“I’m back,” Grisha patted Levi’s back as he cried. “It’ll be okay.”

Eren didn’t let go of his hand the whole time.

 

***

 

In a way, the Survey Corp was all that Levi had. Levi had asked Eren how it felt to have a real family, and Eren didn’t have an answer for him. Even when Eren’s parents were gone, Eren had always had Mikasa and Armin by his side.

“You still have me,” Eren said, half joking, half serious.

“Good” was all that Levi had said. “I won’t forgive you if you dare leave my side.”

 

***

 

Summer came with brighter sun and with their parents, brighter spirit. The Jaegers decided to leave their town once and for all and moved to another city, where Grisha had found a job, and Carla will do the same once they had settled. They rented a truck to move everything they had to their new place; Grisha and the boys were in the truck, while Carla drove behind them in the family car, crammed with their smaller belongings.

“Levi, look!” They were going through a bridge, and Eren tugged at Levi’s shirt sleeve, pointing to the winding river before them. “So pretty.”

“Yeah,” Levi agreed, feeling a sense of nostalgia washed over him as he watched the river ran into the distance.

“Does it go on forever?” Eren asked.

“No,” Levi replied, trying to remember hazy details of a map. “It probably leads to the sea.”

“The sea?” Eren’s eyes brightened at that. “Really?”

“Yeah, that’s where this river ends,” Levi said, the sense of nostalgia became stronger now, and Levi thought that for a moment, he was looking at a different Eren, a grown up one that had seen much more horror than Levi wanted him to. There was a distant memory slipping away from his grasp, and when Levi blinked, it was gone, and Eren, small and only five years old, looked up at him worriedly.

“Sorry,” Levi rubbed his temple. “I’m okay.”

“Okay,” Eren mumbled. Then, “Let’s go to see the sea together someday!”

“Yeah, let’s go someday,” Levi said. They had this conversation before, Levi had felt, but he couldn’t remember when. The more he thought about it, the more melancholic he felt. He could sense that it was an important memory, but it was a sad one, and suddenly he didn’t want to remember anymore.

 

***


“Corporal, what’s at the end of this river?”

“Probably the sea,” Levi said. If he could trust an outdated map from when the humans first sailed to this land, that was.

“I want to see it,” Eren said wistfully. “I heard that it was like a giant basin of salt water, only there is so much salt that all the humans in the world couldn’t use it all up. Did you know that most of the world is made of salt water and not land?”

Levi followed Eren closely behind on horseback, words sticking heavily in his throat. The court scene kept replaying in his mind over and over again, and he couldn’t let it go.

“Corporal,” Eren startled Levi from his thoughts. “It’s okay, really.”

“It’s not.”Eren didn’t deserve this. The shackles around Eren’s wrists looked heavy.

“Let’s go downriver,” Eren said, and Levi couldn’t see his face right now, but he thought the despair within Eren was probably greater than his own. Maybe Eren had already accepted his fate, and that made Levi angrier than anything else. “I really want to see the sea at the river’s end with you one last time.”

 

***

 

The new apartment was bigger, but Levi and Eren still shared a room.

The first night there, Eren scrambled off his bed and slipped into Levi’s bed. Levi sighed, but didn’t dislike it. Eren rested against Levi’s chest like he had always done, and they slept, clutching at each other until morning, when Carla woke them up.

She had taken a picture, and up to this day, it was one of the few pictures from Levi’s childhood that he still kept.

 

***

 

Levi started at the new school.

It was strange because all the kids already knew each other beforehand, and Levi was a newcomer, but Levi wasn’t too afraid. It was a nice school, much nicer than the one that he had attended back at his old hometown, and the people were much friendlier with his awkwardness than the people back there.

Levi started making friends because he joined the children every day when they gathered to play baseball during lunch break. He had impressed them all with his powerful swings even if they were less than impressed with his height. He met Erwin Smith, who was friendly and blond and all smiles and was in the local baseball youth group, and Levi could tell that they were going to be fast friends.

 

***

 

Carla found a job as a receptionist at an office.

Kindergarten at the new city was free, so Eren went to school for the first time.

A year passed by peacefully. Levi stopped having strange dreams that year. He wasn’t sure if it was because of the new found peace or if it was because Eren had slipped into his bed every night.

 

 

Chapter Text

The years went by too fast for Levi because before he knew it, Eren grew up.

 

***

 

Levi’s dreams came back.

 

***

 

There was an old couch that grew up with Levi and Eren throughout the years. It was the first new piece of furniture that Grisha and Carla had that wasn’t inherited from their parents, and it had weathered through as much hardship as the family, and even though Grisha and Carla were doing a lot better now—enough for them to work slowly toward their first family home—the couch left the old apartment to their new house.

Levi couldn’t count the times he had fallen asleep on its soft, worn-down brown cushions when he sneaked out late at night to watch TV; and when Eren joined the family, Levi would sometimes wake up a little hard to breathe because Eren was sleeping next to him and squeezing all the air from his lungs.

There was also that winter when both Levi and Eren were sick, and Levi was too feverish at the time to remember this very clearly, but he did remember, at some point, he had felt too nauseated and the soup that his mother had just fed him an hour before went up his esophagus and on to the poor couch, and of course, Eren joined him right afterwards.

In the winter it was nice to snuggle inside grandmother’s quilt with Eren, and in the summer when it was too hot, Levi would lie on his back on the floor, feet propped up on the couch as he watched cartoon figures dancing across the TV screen upside-down. Eren was of course too short for this, and he didn’t like how hard the floor was so he stayed on the couch, occasionally kicking Levi’s feet or tickling the bottom of Levi’s feet with his tiny toes.

When Levi finished junior high, his parents had climbed high enough in the job ladder with the recovering economy for them to start their first mortgage on a home. The first time they walked into their new house, Eren was so excited that he immediately ran inside to check out all the rooms, and Levi didn’t have the chance to stop him because the wooden floor was clean and Eren’s shoes were still dirty from playing in the yard. Their parents were amused and quite happy with Eren’s enthusiasm, so they didn’t seem to mind Eren frolicking about noisily.

On the other hand, Levi was calm and took everything in slowly, and perhaps that worried their parents because Carla asked, “What do you think?” after they checked out the bottom floor and headed for the upper floor.

“It’s new,” Levi said. It smelled like new wood and fresh paint, and it was much more spacious than their apartment. It looked nice, but Levi didn’t have a lot of things to say about it.

“Do you like it?” Grisha asked.

“It’s okay,” said Levi, and his parents looked at each other and probably understood that was all they could get from Levi. He had the same response when they moved apartments or bought new furniture, and by now they knew that Levi was the type to grow to love something rather than fall head-over-heel at first sight.

“We’ll keep all the old furniture,” Carla said as a consolation for Levi, who she knew had truly treasured the memories of the old apartment.

“You and Eren could have your own rooms now,” Grisha added, just as Eren came bouncing to them, looking excited as he said, “Could I have the room facing the front of the house?”

“If Levi doesn’t mind,” Carla said.

Levi felt strange at the thought that he wouldn’t be sharing a room with Eren anymore. “I’m okay with the other room,” he said, and Eren jumped up in excitement at the prospect of getting the brightest bedroom in the house. Levi, on the other hand, suddenly noticed that Eren had grown a lot over the years, taller than when Levi was at his age. Eren was growing into bigger and better things.

It was weird because while Eren was ready to move on to new things, Levi felt that he was falling behind, stagnant in past memories, and maybe it was because he didn’t grow up fast enough, not in the way Eren did.

“Eren, wouldn’t you miss sharing the same room with your brother?” Carla asked the question that was burning in Levi’s mind, the one that Levi didn’t have the courage to voice.

And at that, Eren’s face suddenly fell as if the thought had finally occurred to him, and somehow, that was enough for Levi.

“I’ll be right down the hall,” Levi ruffled Eren’s hair affectionately. “My door will always be open.”

Eren seemed to recover back to his initial excitement at Levi’s words. It was a testament of how much better Levi became with lying because Eren didn’t notice the sadness that was lurking beneath Levi’s fond expression.

Or perhaps Eren had gotten worse with reading his brother.

 

***

 

The family decided in the end to buy a new couch.

Levi asked if he could keep the old one in his room.

***

Eren went to school, and his world expanded beyond Levi, but Levi reminded himself that at home, Eren was still just Eren, who was now too heavy to sleep on top of Levi’s chest, but big enough to take a third of the couch, his thigh warm against Levi when they watched TV together in the evening with Mom.

When the evening TV was over, Eren slumped on Levi’s shoulder. “Could you carry me upstairs?” He breathed into Levi’s neck, and Levi’s skin prickled.

“No,” Levi shove Eren off, his skin cold where Eren’s breaths had touched him.

“Please?” Eren nudged his leg against Levi.

“You’re too heavy.” Levi stood up to leave, but Eren was quick, and before Levi could take another step, Eren hooked his legs around Levi’s, and Levi had to quickly get a hold of the armrest before he fell face-first onto the floor. He turned to glare at his brother, but Eren had moved to grab onto his back before Levi could recover his bearing.

Eren mumbled into the back of Levi’s neck, and Levi trembled slightly, “Carry me. Please?”

“Alright, fine,” Levi said. “I’ll give you a piggy-back ride.”

“Can’t you carry me with your arms?”

“You’ve gotten too big for that,” Levi said, hating to admit that Eren was on his way to grow taller than him.

“That’s true. Maybe one day I’ll get big enough to carry you,” Eren said, and Levi scowled.

“Not a chance.”

“You’ll be begging me to carry you.”

“You wish.”

Eren was really heavy, the little brat, and Levi was lucky that the muscle building training over the summer gave him strong enough shoulders to keep Eren in place. He huffed a breath of annoyance as they made their way upstairs, Eren strangely silent, but it felt nice nevertheless because he was drowning in Eren’s embrace. Eren’s arms had gotten long enough to reach around his shoulders; Eren’s legs had gotten long enough that his feet now dangled by Levi’s knees, and Levi had a thought that one day, Eren would get big enough to leave him.

He tried to bury that thought.

“Oi, Eren,” Levi nudged Eren with his shoulder as he walked into Eren’s bedroom. “Get off.”

Eren seemed to have fallen asleep, and Levi sighed, moving to the bed to gently pried Eren off of him, but as he sat down on the bed, he was yanked by the shoulders onto the mattress.

“Eren!” Levi said irritably, but Eren moved to spoon against Levi’s back, and Levi knew that he should get Eren off, but he didn’t want to, and he hated himself a little for it.

“Stay with me,” Eren mumbled into Levi’s neck, and Levi hated that part of himself that gave in to Eren as well.

“Your bed is too small,” said Levi, not actually minding.

“Maybe one day I’ll ask mom for a bigger bed,” Eren said, and Levi had to bite back a smile.

 

***

 

Fall came, and with fall came school, so they went out into town because his mother wanted to buy them school supplies, and Eren, of course, ran straight for the pet shop, not being subtle at all that he badly wanted a dog. Levi and his mother watched in amusement as Eren streaked past the people on the sidewalk, gold and brown leaves flying in his path, and stopped in front of the pet shop, pressing his hands against the glass to watch the animals inside with longing.

“I feel guilty every time I told him that we can’t have one,” his mother admitted. “But we’re too busy to take care of a dog properly.”

“I know,” said Levi. “Besides, Eren had a habit of being too emotionally attached to animals. He was so upset when the Survey Corp’s dog died one winter even though we’ve all seen it coming because he was really old, but Eren had loved that dog. It used to follow him all the time, even to bed.” There were guys in the Survey Corp who decided to make some cracks about Eren being trained as a dog, so of course his bed partner would be a dog, but Levi had thoroughly disciplined those guys before the words reached Eren’s ears.

“Levi,” his mother said gently. “What are you talking about? Eren never had a dog.”

Levi blinked at his mom.

“Oh,” he said, his voice gone soft. “Yeah, you’re right.”

 

***

 

“Is dad not joining us?” Eren asked over the dinner table, and Levi looked at the seat that had been empty ever since they moved to the new house.

“No, he’s busy,” Carla said and didn’t show disappointment on her face until Eren had his face turned away from her. Levi saw it though.

 

***

 

Weekends came and Carla took the children to the park for a picnic, taking pictures after pictures of Levi teaching Eren how to throw a baseball properly. The sun was bright and the grass were cool and the air was fresh, and after a lot of frustrated attempts Eren shoved a handful of grass inside Levi’s shirt; their learning session dissolved into a chasing game, Levi pretending to be angry as he ran after Eren, and even though Eren had longer legs, Levi had caught up with him and tackled him onto the grass. Carla laughed along with the boys as she took more pictures; Eren and Levi rolling about, clothes wet with dirt and grass stains and faces flushed with playful glee, Levi lying on top of Eren as Eren laughed into his ear.

When the boys got up, Eren said, “I wished dad was here,” and Levi jokingly tackled him again before he could see the lines around Carla’s eyes deepened.

“No fair!” Eren mumbled from underneath him, and the topic was dropped.

 

***

 

The days faded slowly away and then came the ones when Levi went straight to his bedroom after dinner, the war downstairs piercing through his headphones, and he could hear “What else do you want from me? All of this isn’t going to pay itself” and Levi turned the music on louder, just barely enough to drown out his mother’s reply, and then he closed his eyes and snuggled into his pillow and tried to think of other things.

Eren came into his room, and Levi watched as Eren got on the bed and lay next to him, and he was too old and too big for Levi to pull against his chest, so Levi took off his headphones and put them on Eren, gently rubbing Eren’s back as the reality crashed on him instead of his brother.

But it wasn’t enough because slammed doors and harsh voices became suitcases rolling down the stairs, and Eren looked at Levi sadly as Levi closed his bedroom door.

“I’m going,” Levi said, and Eren hovered in the hallway as if he wanted to stop Levi from leaving, but somewhere in between then and now, the childish honesty and innocence had left Eren, and Eren didn’t say that he wanted Levi to stay. Perhaps Eren was old enough to know that his mother needed someone to be with her, perhaps Eren had grown into pride and didn’t want to say that he needed Levi.

“Do you want to come with us?” Levi asked awkwardly, already knowing the answer.

“I have to stay with dad,” Eren said, and Levi suddenly noticed that Eren had grown as tall as him now, despite their four-year difference. There was an expression on Eren’s face that reminded Levi of another time when Levi had to ride out to a mission that would ensure his death, and Eren had looked at him in this same way, wanting to stop him but couldn’t; both of them bound by duty.

“Alright then,” Levi said. He patted Eren’s shoulder. “I’ll see you.” He didn’t want to embrace Eren one final time because he wasn’t sure if he could let go.

“I’ll definitely visit,” said Eren.

“Yeah.”

Levi and his mother stayed with his uncle from his mother’s side. He had a daughter named Hanji, whose smile was kind even though Levi remained sullen through their introduction.

Levi slept in an unfamiliar bed in a room that was strange to him, and as he watched the shadows of the trees outside danced on the walls, he thought of how much he missed Eren and his dad and his bedroom and the time his mother still smiled when she thought of his father and the last holiday that they had together, warm with laughter.

 

***

 

Levi was to lead an expedition from the western district, while Eren was to go with the others on an expedition from the eastern district.

“Corporal,” Eren called out as Levi got on his horse. “Wait.”

Eren grabbed onto Levi’s hand, and everyone was staring, and Levi knew that he should shake Eren off, but his instinct told him that he wasn’t going to return alive, not this time, and at least, small as it was, Eren’s touch was enough.

“Please come back to me,” Eren said, and Levi was tempted to tell Eren that he had grown to be a man now, so stop making that expression.

But instead, he leaned down and lifted Eren’s wrist to his lips, kissing the thumb that Eren repeatedly hurt in order to become the type of monster that he wanted to kill, in order to fight for humanity, in order to survive for Levi…

“Only if you’ll do the same.”

It was a promise.

 

***

 

“Petra’s staring at you again,” Auruo said, and Levi followed Auruo’s gaze to the blonde girl who was also in Levi’s honors pre-calculus class. She was busy playing soccer along with the other students in the PE class, and she seemed more enthusiastic than everyone else who were sluggish because it was sixth period, and it was PE of all things, and Auruo said, “Well, she was staring at you. She always does when you’re not looking.”

Levi didn’t say anything even though he knew Auruo was gauging for his reaction.

“What? Don’t you think she’s cute?”

Levi didn’t like how Auruo’s tone implied that he should go out with any girl who was cute, but he didn’t have a chance to say anything before another person joined in.

“Who’s cute?” Gunter asked.

“Petra. And she likes Levi.”

“Shut up,” Levi said, but it was too late because now there was a mantra of “what do you think about Petra” and he really hadn’t thought of Petra except that she was smart and kind, but that was about it, but then the other boys thought this was a good way to segue into other topics, like what kind of girls they liked, and Levi was a little overwhelmed.

Gunter asked something but Levi couldn’t hear him very well because he spotted Irvin, his strong arms flexing as he helped the coach picked up some boxes, and when he caught Levi staring, he gave Levi a smile, and Levi felt something within him twitched in ways that Petra couldn’t make him feel.

 

***

 

And then Levi woke up one night, soak in sweat, his underwear wet, the image of a lean, muscled body with scars and red marks from the gear straps moving against his as they came, and then everything blurred and refocused again to dark hair and a pair of green eyes as a voice groaned out, “Levi.”

Levi swallowed hard and tried not to panic.

It’s okay, he thought. It’s not what it seems like.

 

***

 

Months passed, and weekend visits became very awkward because even though they didn’t mean to; there was no right or wrong side, but Levi and Eren unconsciously drifted toward opposite sides of their parents’ argument, so the topic of their parents’ impending formal separation never came up. But nothing else ever came up either, and those days were spent with Levi and Eren being mostly silent to each other, their closeness seemed to die ever since Levi left with his mom.

“How’s school?” Levi asked.

“Fine.”

The laugh track from the TV show filtered into the silence between them.

“Do you have a girlfriend yet?” Eren asked.

“No.”

“But you’re fifteen now.”

“Yeah.”

“You?”

“What?”

“Girlfriend?”

“..I’m twelve.”

Levi looked at Eren. The only light on the room was from the TV, and Levi watched shades of blue and red danced on Eren’s face. Then he turned away.

“Right.”

“What? Did you have one when you were twelve?”

“No.”

“Then why did you ask?”

“Ever heard of a thing call ‘conversation’?”

“Well, you suck at it.”

“Oh, like you’re any better.”

Their conversation ended there, stagnant with frustration and timidness. They each returned to their rooms with slammed doors, Levi curling in the bed that no longer felt like home, in a room that felt too small for the changes bursting forth inside him. He suddenly wanted to leave so badly even though he had thought that he missed this house terribly.

He shouldn’t have come.

 

***

 

Winter break came by with silence as Levi spent half of it with his mom and the other half with Eren and his dad and tried not to think about what their winter used to be.

 

***

 

Mikasa had come by one weekend when Levi was at Dad’s.

Levi had stayed in his old bedroom and had kept his headphones on and had tried not to think about how she had on the red scarf that was Eren’s, the scarf was supposed to be the other half of his.

 

***

 

Mikasa had grown beyond her years, enough to become one of his youngest squad leaders.

Levi respected her, but he didn’t want to remember that the scarf that she treasured was from Eren, didn’t want to think about the special bond binding them that he couldn’t understand.

 

***

 

“Do you still have the scarf from when we were little?” Levi asked with casualness that he didn’t feel.

“What scarf?”

“Nevermind.”

It was only him, Levi thought. He was the only one hanging on to things that no longer existed.

"I see that you have a girlfriend."

Eren looked at him, and there was something cold on his gaze as he said, “At least she won’t leave me.”

 

***

 

Eren came to visit too sometimes. Mostly when he came, Levi stayed in his room the whole weekend, while Eren talked to Hanji and Mom. Levi only came out of his room when Eren was gone, and his mom looked at him sadly. There were more lines around her eyes now.

“Eren misses you,” she said.

“No he doesn’t,” Levi said stubbornly, and didn’t want to think about the regret plaguing his heart, didn’t want to think about how much he should have open that bedroom door and at least take a look at how much Eren had grown.

He didn’t want to think about how Eren might have missed him because he had missed Eren too.

 

***

 

They were losing more men day by day. It would be months before they met up with the troops heading from the east, and Levi wasn’t sure if he was going to make it.

Even though his hands were stained with blood, Levi could still feel the heat where Eren had grabbed his hand.

He wondered if his kiss still remained on Eren’s skin.

 

***

 

Levi was doing homework on the kitchen table when Eren called. His mom picked up, and Levi pretended not to listen into their conversation.

“Do you want to talk to Eren?” his mom mouthed to him, but Levi shook his head.

“I’m busy.”

“Sorry Eren, not today,” Levi heard his mom said, and his heart leapt at the thought that Eren might have asked to talk to him, that Eren might not have forgotten him.

“You two used to be so close,” his mom said sadly.

Levi shrugged. “Eren had a girlfriend now.” He tried not to sound so bitter.

“Oh.” His mom’s voice was soft.

 

***

 

Hanji was nice.

Levi didn’t talk to his uncle or Hanji that often; he didn’t talk much at all really, but there was one time Levi was sitting at the window seat with a cup of tea, enjoying the warm spring sun on his skin when Hanji plopped down next to him without a word. She sat there, accompanying him in silence as she flipped through her book, and Levi enjoyed the comfortable company.

Levi was halfway through his tea when Hanji asked, not looking up from her book. “I miss my mom sometimes, even if I’ve never met her.”

Levi took another sip of tea. There was a hummingbird right outside the window, hovering over a sea of bright red cape honeysuckles.

“I miss my dad sometimes,” Levi admitted. “But mostly I just miss my little brother.”

Hanji nodded and flipped to another page. “Yeah.”

Levi emptied his cup of tea.

 

***

 

Later on, when Levi looked back at these days, he would admit that he didn’t remember most of it; all he remembered were the loneliness that overwhelmed him and one other memory.

Levi was staying at Dad’s place again (Dad’s place, not his home anymore) and one evening when he retreated back to his room, Eren had stopped the door with his feet before Levi closed it shut.

“What are you doing?” Levi asked. He didn’t think that Eren would follow him to his room.

“You promised.”

“What?”

“You promised that your door will always be opened,” Eren said, and Levi was surprise Eren remembered that.

“Alright, fine.” Levi let go of the door knob and went to sit on his bed. He crossed his arms and tried to make an annoyed expression to hide the shock from his face. “There. Happy?”

Eren walked into the room, approaching Levi with slow but sure steps, and Levi noticed how Eren had grown taller than him now; he was still slender, but gave it a few more years and the broadness of his shoulders might rival Levi’s.

“You promised that we’ll always be together,” and then there was a crack in Eren’s voice, and suddenly the maturing Eren in front of him melted into the familiar Eren that he knew, the same one that wanted to share a scarf with him, the same one that wanted to be by his side forever, the same one that held his hand as he cried into his father’s shoulder, the same one that snuck to his bed night after night to chase his violent dreams away, the same one that wanted to be carried by Levi to his bed, the same Eren that loved Levi dearly.

This was the same Eren that he had vowed to protect how could he forget that? and then Levi saw that something in Eren’s eyes that squeezed the air from his lungs, and Levi lurched forward just as Eren stumbled forward into his arms, and they clutched each other tightly, Eren’s weight had them tumbled onto Levi’s bed; Eren was heavy above him and it was getting hard to breathe but Levi didn’t care because Eren had returned to him no matter how much they both had changed.

“Eren,” Levi whispered as he buried his face in Eren’s shoulder; Eren’s scent strange and familiar at the same time.

“Levi,” Eren sobbed into Levi’s shoulder, and Levi could only say, “I know. I’m sorry” because it had been so long since he had let his pride and his fears and his insecurities separated them, but they were back now, not quite at the same place where they were before, but as long as Levi had Eren by his side, that was enough.

“I’ve missed you,” Eren mumbled into his shirt, and Levi rubbed his back tenderly.

“I’ve missed you too.”

They slept in each other’s arms that night, similar but also different from what they used to do when they were children.

 

***

 

Levi reluctantly woke up. His body was aching, and he felt as if he was being burned alive, and hell, it hurt even to breathe, but there was a voice calling him, and the desperation in that voice was enough for Levi to force himself to open his eyes.

“Corporal!”

“Eren?” Why was Eren here? Did they meet up with the troops from the east already?

“The mission is a success. It’s going to be okay. You’re going to be okay,” Eren said, voice trembling, and Levi thought that it was a little funny because Eren sounded more like he was trying to console himself. Levi didn’t know why he found that funny; his mind was getting hazier and hazier, thoughts jumbling together and it was difficult to think—

“Corporal! Stay with me!” Eren tightened his grip on Levi, and fuck, that hurts, damn it. Levi snapped awake, and it was then that he realized he had lost too much blood, and then his vision began to swim again and—

“You promised that you would return to me!” Eren sounded like he was going to cry, and Levi really couldn’t stand him crying, and he wanted to say that, but what he said instead was:

“Aren’t you…going to…welcome me back?”

Eren was in tears, but he managed to say, “Welcome back, Corporal.” He repeated over and over “Welcome back. Welcome back. Welcome back…” and Levi tried to stay awake by keeping himself focused on Eren’s voice.

“I’m back.”

 

***

 

The first thing that Levi saw when he woke up that morning was Eren’s eyes, bright green swimming in the morning sunlight, and Levi remembered a distant memory, a different morning in a different bed but the same pair of eyes, and then Eren smiled, and the Eren from back then and the Eren now merged into one.

“Good morning,” Eren said.

“Five more minutes,” Levi grumbled and snuggled deeper against Eren, and Eren laughed.

Levi fell back to sleep to the hazy thought that Eren had the same laugh as he did back then, full and unrestrained, like when he was a kid, like when he used to tease Levi’s cleaning habit, like the time when Eren accidentally tangled his three-dimensional maneuver gear with his and they ended up—

 

***

 

Levi didn’t talk to his dad very often as he grew up, and he almost stopped completely after he left with Mom. Levi didn’t think he would talk to his dad again, but he woke up late that morning with Eren and they both went downstairs for breakfast to find Grisha at the kitchen table.

“Good morning,” Grisha had said, and there were toast and milk and cereal and eggs at the table waiting for them, and then Levi looked at his father, really looked at him, and remembered that his dad couldn’t cook to save his life, and then he realized that his dad tried, and for the first time since he left, his dad’s place felt like home again.

“I’m sorry for leaving,” Levi said, and Grisha frowned.

“What happen between your mother and I is not your fault.” He looked at Eren. “Neither of yours.”

Eren tugged him to sit at the table, and Levi let Eren led him, Eren’s hand warm in his. Levi tried to take a bite of the toast, but something within him was unwinding, and then he set the toast down, words heavy in his throat.

“Please tell me how I could fix it,” Levi said. “I missed you guys.” If he could just fix everything so that it all went back to the way it was, to the days where it was him and Eren and his mom and his dad, and days where they were loud and sometimes obnoxious instead of the cold silence between them now.

Grisha let out a sharp breath, and then Levi noticed it too: the lines around his dad’s eyes were like Mom’s, and Levi wanted to fix this, he really did, but then Grisha said, “This is something for your mother and I to work out, and we will try our best. You two don’t have to, understand?”

Levi nodded because he didn’t trust himself to talk without breaking apart. It wasn’t enough, yet it was fine because Levi felt like a kid again, wanting to believe in his father’s words, wanting to be safe.

Eren held Levi’s hand the whole time, just like he used to.

 

***

 

The recovery began slowly, but at least his parents were talking to each other again, perhaps prompted by Levi and Eren, and little by little, they began to see each other more, even if Carla was not ready to forgive and Grisha was not ready to give in.

“Do you think they’ll get back together?” Eren asked, his feet dangling off of Levi’s bed, head resting on Levi’s lap.

“I don’t know,” Levi admitted.

“Whatever,” Eren said. “We’ll still have each other no matter what.”

“Yeah,” Levi agreed, stroking Eren’s hair and tucking his bangs behind his ear, feeling, once again just as he did way back then, complete.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

And then came summer.

Summer was the sweltering heat in between his skin and the damp fabric of his flannel shirt, the sweat on his collarbone and under his armpits, the itchiness in between his toes that he couldn’t scratch because it would be gross, and he didn’t want to take his sneakers off in the car. Summer was the faint reflection of the back of Eren’s head on the glass, flickering amidst the bright green leaves outside his side of the car window. Summer was the silence inviting itself along with them in the family trip, rushing just fast enough to slip in as Levi closed the car door, perching in between Levi and Eren, then sneaking out in front to peer between Grisha and Carla, finally making itself at home draping over the dashboard. Summer was Grisha’s and Carla’s attempt to fix things, a promise that they were going to see the ocean at river’s end. Summer was the broken air-conditioning in the car and the scolding that Carla scratched on Grisha’s pride and the knife of words that Grisha threw back while Levi and Eren remained silent, both staring out at the scenery outside the car windows.

Summer were the walls that Levi put up, the heavy metal blaring through his ear pieces, the light tapping of his fingers on his lap, the holes he burned on the glass while secretly trying to make out Eren’s faint reflection. Summer was Levi not peeking at the side view mirror at his mother’s face, only to turn quickly away when she caught him. Summer was Levi digging one hand into his pocket to lower the sound of his music when his father asked a question, only to miss about half of the words, and then Eren, as irritated as everyone else in the car, grabbed one of Levi’s ear pieces and pulled it off, “Hey, Dad asked you a question,” and Levi said he didn’t hear it. Summer was the car sputtering to a stop in the middle of nowhere, and Grisha cursing as he got out to check, Carla sighing to herself and Eren unbuckling his seat belt, wanting to check on Dad but didn’t want to leave the car. Summer was Levi turning up his music before he heard Carla’s frustrated voice, and it was hilarious because he could see his dad’s mouth moving to the screaming coming from his headphones, and then Eren moved at the corner of his vision, and Levi turned to look at him, just in time to see him mouthed, “What’s so funny?”

Summer was Levi and Eren getting out of the car and sat on the grass by the side of the road, each with a water bottle in hand, now warm from the summer heat, while their parents were tossing words back and forth, arms flapping up and down, and it was really funny because Levi couldn’t hear them over the music.

Summer was the sudden wetness that exploded on his face and stung his eyes and made his long bangs which he had meant to cut stuck onto his face. Summer was Levi blinking his eyes open to see Eren, holding the open bottle with an annoyed expression on his face. Summer was Eren bursting out into laughter, and Levi realizing that he had missed that sound so much, that he had wanted to hear that sound all along when he first agreed to come on this trip. Summer was Levi taking out his headphones and tucking them into his pocket and opening his own bottle and plashing Eren in revenge, and then Eren got him back, and they went back and forth until the water was gone, and Eren, with no choice left, used the empty bottle as ammo.

Summer was his parents stopping their fighting to look at the boys, “Boys, control yourselves!” his mother had said, and when Levi turned back to his parents, it was as if a spell was casted and the silence that hung heavily between them was gone. Summer was a brief moment of laughter and then a late lunch that they packed as they waited for the tow truck.

Summer was the roadside service driving them to the closest area of civilization in the early evening, the window rolled down to let the breeze in. Summer was the sky with twinkling stars after the sunset cooled, everything bathing in a soft darkness but Levi could hear the rustling of the trees as the wind passed by.

Summer was the dinner spent at a roadside diner, two double cheeseburgers with fries and sodas and a regular sized American burger and water for Dad and a mushroom burger for Mom who shared Levi’s cup of soda. Summer was Eren stealing Levi’s fries after he finished his own, and Levi swatted Eren’s hand away once, but relented later because he didn’t like fries anyway. Summer was the milkshakes and the ice cream and the white mustache on Eren’s face. Summer was the family agreeing among themselves that this was the best burger place they had ever gone to, and Levi had only said that because it was the first meal that they had eaten together in a long time.

Summer was the family walking to the nearly hotel for the night, pebbles crunching underneath their feet. Summer was Eren catching Levi’s hand in his as they walked, and Levi had turned to him, “What?” and Eren had said, “Just felt like holding your hand.”

Summer was Eren’s warm hand around his. Summer was the sweat and the heat slicking in between their entwined fingers. Summer was Levi not minding that at all even though it was gross.

“Gross,” Levi said anyway.

Summer was Eren’s laugh ringing in the air, and Levi trying to hide the grin that was trying to stretch over his face. Summer was Levi spooning against Eren’s back on their shared bed once the light was out, heart squeezing tight with the fear that if he felt too happy that he was going to lose all of it.

Summer was too much happiness to be taken in at once.

 

***

 

The weather cooled as fall came, and with the cooling weather was the cooling argument between Grisha and Carla.

Eren had run up to Levi just as he opened the door and nearly tackled Levi onto the ground if Levi hadn’t kept a hand steady on the wall. Levi let go of the suitcase and returned Eren’s embrace, breathing in Eren’s familiar scent. It had not been long since they last saw each other, but Levi had missed Eren nevertheless.

“Welcome back,” Eren said, and Levi remembered their younger days when Eren had run up to him and hugged him after he had returned from school, the memory old and familiar and dear despite the differences that prickled at the back of his mind. Eren was still Eren, Levi reminded himself, each new pieces fitting in against the old.

“You’re not going to give me one as well?” Carla asked, amused, already used to Eren putting Levi first.

Levi’s body felt cold where Eren’s heat left him.

Eren hugged Carla as well, and Levi felt a strange peace settling over him, as if there was a white noise buzzing inside his head all this time, and Levi had only noticed it when the quietness came back to him.

Fall was renewal. Fall was everything coming back together once more. Fall was the boys returning to school, and everyone coming home to a noisy house in the evening dinners, food warm as Eren talked excitedly about everything, and Levi calmly inserting in a few sentences about his day. Fall was Carla’s smiles and Grisha’s relaxed shoulders, and fall was stressing out over Thanksgiving and Eren’s favorite cranberry sauce and Levi’s favorite smashed potatoes and everyone’s favorite pumpkin pies and eating too much and falling asleep early from food coma.

Fall was home.

 

***

 

It wasn’t perfect.

There were times when frustration burned behind Carla’s words and stubbornness piercing though Grisha’s glare, and then there would be this strained silence, and Levi would stop midway through finishing washing the dishes, his reflection broken into little pieces on the crystal plate. Eren would place his cereal bowl down into the sink for Levi, the milk stained with red.

“I have to go to work,” Grisha would say at last.

“Me too,” Carla would rise from her seat, and Levi would add.

“I’ll see both of you at home later.”

“Have a nice day!” said Eren, and then both of them would look at their parents expectantly, pleading. There would be a moment when Grisha remembered why he tried and Carla remember why she stayed, and then there would be an awkward truce, a reluctant one, and the peace felt like it wasn’t fitting quite right, but Levi and Eren tried to slide the frame in place anyway.

It was only a matter of time, Levi thought, hating himself for feeling too happy before.

 

***

 

Levi insisted that they started Christmas chopping early, and Eren had grudgingly agreed, so Levi searched for the bus route and the boys dragged themselves to the mall. Eren’s favorite hobby seemed to be dragging Levi to every shop, and Levi protested just so that Eren could grab his hand and pulled him along. Levi felt a little kid, but he could feel the heat of Eren’s hand even through the glove, and he didn’t want to let go.

“Hey Levi,” said Eren, as they left the toy store, of all places. “What do you want for Christmas?”

“I don’t really have anything that I want in particular,” said Levi. Eren could give him literally anything and he would be fine with it.

“So boring,” said Eren.

“I don’t want to hear that from someone who got me the same thing every Christmas,” Levi said, shifting all of his shopping bags into one hand, and Eren entwined their fingers together.

“It’s because you’ve never told me what you wanted,” Eren defended himself, and as Levi thought about it, he honestly didn’t want anything because he had never felt that he was missing something from his life.

“Don’t blame your lack of imagination on me,” Levi said.

“I’m getting you another book,” Eren said spitefully.

“Whatever.”

Eren had gotten really tall, and Levi was torn between pride and jealousy as he stood on his toes to ruffle Eren’s hair. “I’m getting too tall for this.” Eren laughed.

“Height doesn’t equal maturity,” Levi said, feeling a little irritated that he had to stand on his toes. Eren linked their hands together as he spotted another shop that he wanted to visit and said, “I’ll catch up to you soon, don’t worry.”

“Aww, Jaeger got a boyfriend,” an irritating voice came from behind them, and Levi felt Eren’s anger before he saw it on Eren’s face.

Levi tried to tug his hand free, but Eren tightened his grip as they kept walking. Eren was very determined to not look back, and even though Levi was curious, he didn’t look back either. They tried to keep a pretense of normalness, but that irritating voice had disturbed the comfortable peace, had shattered the glass wall that Levi had put around them, and now reality was rushing in too fast, and Levi felt as if everyone in the mall, who were minding their own business, was turning to stare at them now, staring at Levi’s and Eren’s joined hands, and Levi felt the burn slowly making its way on his face.

“Aww, don’t be like that, Jaeger. Introduce us.”

Levi tried to tug his hand free again. “Let me go, Eren,” Levi said, and Eren looked betrayed. “I mean it, let me go now.”

Eren let go.

Levi whirled around to the asshole before Eren did.

“I didn’t know you go for the spunky ones,” he said just as Levi turned to look at him, feet spread apart and fists clenched by his side in preparation. Once he had taken a good look at the dark blond hair and tall but not muscular frame, Levi straightened his shoulders and said, “Try saying that again, horse face.”

The other boy looked taken aback at the sudden confrontation. He regarded Levi carefully, and Levi knew that even though he was short, he was definitely more muscular and definitely looked like he could pack a punch. If this boy was smart, he would avoid a fight at a public place like this, but if he wasn’t, Levi wasn’t afraid. Levi knew he could win in a fight, even if he wouldn’t resort to one.

“Just kidding,” the other boy laughed nervously.

“Jean, meet my brother,” Eren said, sounding more amused than angry now. “There, I introduced him.”

“Brother?” Jean looked at Levi strangely. “You still hold hands with your brother?”

“I don’t want to hear that from someone who wore his mother’s nighties,” said Eren.

“It was one time!” Jean flushed.

Levi was already losing interest, and Eren could tell because he gave Jean a wave and said, “See you at school, Jean.” They walked away quickly, hoping that Jean wasn’t heading in the same direction as they did, and once they reached the corner, Levi looked back. No sign of Jean.

“Well, glad we got rid of him,” said Eren, reaching out for Levi’s hand once more.

Levi shook Eren’s hand off.

Eren looked as if Levi had slapped him.

“What’s wrong?” Eren sounded hurt, and Levi continued to walk ahead of Eren. “Wait, Levi!”

Eren ran to catch up to him, but Levi walked faster. “Hey, care to tell me what’s wrong?”

Levi stopped walking, and Eren almost tripped over his own feet.

“It’s weird.”

“What’s weird?”

“Us.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’re weird,” Levi said as he looked up at Eren.

“Do you think that me wanting to be close to you is wrong?” Eren asked.

“No,” Levi said. “But that’s not what I meant.”

“Then what do you mean?”

Levi didn’t answer him. People passed them by, footsteps fading in and out of existence, a constant rhythm, and Levi wondered if he and Eren looked normal to those people, to everyone else. Levi looked at their reflection on the store window, and faint reflections of two boys amidst the wisp of moving people stared back at him.

“Let’s just go home,” Levi said.

 

***

 

Snow decided that it wanted to arrive late this year. Nevertheless, it was freezing as Levi and Eren waited at the bus stop. The bus was delayed, and Eren was shivering because he had forgotten his scarf.

“You idiotic brat,” Levi said as he pulled his own scarf from his neck to wrap it around Eren.

“You don’t have to,” Eren said, but the scarf was warm and Eren had stopped shivering. Eren pulled the scarf up to cover his mouth, and, when he took a sniff, he said, “Wait, is this the same scarf that you’ve had since we were little kids?”

“The same one,” Levi said, looking away. It had been the same red scarf that he had once shared with Eren, well, half of it anyway, the wool now worn down with age and care and love, the scarf that was once a pair with Eren’s.

“Okay,” Eren said as he snuggled his face deeper into the scarf.

It snowed that day.

 

***

 

The cold followed them as they headed south, and Eren shivered in his thin jacket. They hadn’t given Eren a lot of warm clothes when Levi and Eren left to head downriver, probably not wanting to waste them on a monster who was going to die anyway. Perhaps they even hoped that Eren died along the way.

Levi felt his fingers going numb with how tight he was holding the rein in his hand.

A shudder ran through Eren’s entire body this time, and Levi couldn’t watch this anymore.

“Eren.”

Eren turned around, and barely had enough time to react when Levi tossed his Survey Corp cloak at his face.

“Corporal—”

“Put it on before you freeze to death.”

“But, won’t you be cold?”

“A little chill won’t hurt me,” said Levi, even though he could feel a shiver beginning to take over his shoulders. Luckily, Levi at least had an extra shirt underneath his clothes, and his slacks were thicker than usual. “Just put the stupid thing on,” Levi said irritably when Eren still looked hesitant.

“I…I can’t wear this anymore,” Eren said, looking down at the pair of crossing wings with longing. “And it doesn’t matter if I die anymore, does it?”

Levi looked at Eren’s scarred hands then, remembering the wounds that were no longer healed by his titan power, and there were others too that Levi couldn’t see, wounds that Eren wasn’t afraid to gain even though it might mean his death. And now Eren was here, after he had kept humanity safe from the titans, ready to give up his life to keep humanity safe from himself.

“You’re as deserving of the Wings of Freedom as I,” said Levi.

Eren looked at Levi then, and Levi said gently, “Keep it. It’s yours.”

It was the only thing Levi could give. He was going to make sure that Eren died a soldier, at least.

“Thank you,” Eren said, wrapping the cloak around himself, the wings fluttering in the breeze as they continued ahead, and for a moment, Levi could pretend that Eren was in fact, truly free.

 

***

 

Eren never gave Levi the scarf back, and Levi never asked for it, even though he felt the emptiness where the scarf should be around his neck. Every winter, Eren had always forgotten his own scarf, but this was the winter that he actually remembered, wearing Levi’s scarf comfortably as if it belonged with him all along. Levi was fine with this because Eren finally wasn’t asking for a cold anymore.

Christmas came and there were colorful lights and warm food and presents and laughter, and even though sometimes the laughter trailed off to awkwardness, Levi swallowed it down because he didn’t want to lose this anymore. Eren must have the same thoughts because he was a lot louder and more obnoxious than usual. The ornaments hanging on the Christmas tree screamed as they hit each other.

And after everyone went to bed, Levi had returned to his room, fully intending to start reading the book that his dad had gotten for him, only to be interrupted by Eren walking into his room, very clearly hiding something behind his back.

“What is it?” Levi asked, a little suspicious.

Eren walked toward Levi’s bed, face schooled into a neutral expression, but Eren wasn’t very good at hiding his emotions because the corners of his mouth were definitely twitching desperately into a smile. Finally, after Levi’s various shades of not-amused expressions, Eren caved in and whipped out something green from behind his back and handed it to Levi.

Levi swallowed when he saw what it was.

“Merry Christmas,” Eren said.

“But you’ve already gotten me something, that stupid book,” Levi said, his mind was frozen and suddenly there was a numbness in his fingers, a horse rein beneath his grip, a winter chill in his bones. He was afraid to touch that green scarf in Eren’s hand, afraid to even look at the patch of a pair of crossing wings sewn at the end.

“It was just a joke,” said Eren. “Did you really think I would give you that for Christmas?” Eren, the brat, had glued Levi’s face on every single page of the “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” book and gave it to Levi just this morning as a present.

“How?” Levi asked, hazy dreams returning to him, and his heart was thumping so loudly in his chest that surely Eren must have heard it.

“Mom helped because I didn’t know how to knit,” said Eren. “There’s a hole, and that’s my fault, but we covered it up by sewing a patch there.”

“I meant the design,” said Levi. “How—how did you—Eren, do you remember?”

The instant the words left his mouth, Levi knew that he shouldn’t have said them. It wasn’t—none of those dreams were real—it was stupid and..but….

“Remember what?” Eren looked confused.

“What this symbol means?”

Eren frowned. “I just came up with a wing pattern because I figured that you would like it? Mom did the actual embroidery, so maybe you should ask her.”

Levi felt the wave of disappointment before he could try to keep a grip on his facial expression, and Eren saw it.

“Levi, do you…Is there something wrong? Do you not like it?”

“No, this is great,” Levi said as he took the scarf from Eren, and then stood to pull Eren into a hug. “Thank you.”

“Okay,” Eren said, sounding like he wasn’t very convinced. “Are you okay? Really?”

“Yeah,” Levi said. “I’m just shocked that you managed to knit without poking someone’s eyes out.”

“I did poke Mom. In the arm though.”

Levi snorted in amusement, but inside, he felt so happy and lonely at the same time.

Eren didn’t remember because none of it was real.

It was all in his head.

 

***

 

Levi would blink awake sometimes, and that person would be next to him, a hand in Levi’s face and a leg over Levi’s knees. That person had always been a sloppy sleeper, claiming most of the bed while Levi had to scoot over to the edge to avoid being hit by that person’s swinging limbs.

Other times though, Levi would be awakened to that person’s smiling face, a hand reaching out to pull Levi’s bangs back as he pulled Levi into a kiss, and Levi would shove him away.

“Your breath is gross.”

And then the familiar green eyes would crinkle in a smile, and Levi would almost be tempted to kiss him, morning breath be damned because in a few minutes, they had to hastily get dress so that he could sneak out of Levi’s room before day break, before anyone had a chance to find out.

“Eren.”

And then Levi woke up in his bed, heart thumping with longing and fear and this was wrong.

“Levi?”

Levi jerked from his seat, and then he realized that he was still sitting in his English class even though class was over, and it was time to go to his next one. People he didn’t recognize were sitting sparingly all around him. Petra’s face came into sight. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah.”

Levi rubbed his hands over his face. He had to get a grip of himself. Dreams were blending with reality, and now he wasn’t sure how he got here in the first place, and he was at school for fuck’s sake, and he shouldn’t be thinking about this anymore because they were just dreams; they didn’t have any meaning.

He was fine. He was normal. There was nothing wrong.

“You know, if you’re not feeling well, I could take you to the nurse?” Petra said.

“I’m fine!” he said, realizing too late by Petra’s flinch that he might have sounded harsher than he had meant to be. “I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry to bother you when you’re not feeling well,” Petra said. “Well, I hope you’ll get well soon.” She rushed off, and as if Levi hadn’t felt guilty enough, Auruo, for some reason, was sitting in the desk next to his and felt the urge to add his opinion, “You didn’t have to be that mean. She really likes you—”

“No one asks for your fucking opinion,” said Levi, and judging from the expression on Auruo’s face, Levi wasn’t doing very well in the social department today.

“You need to chill out man,” Auruo said, and Levi shoved his notebook into his backpack just as Auruo nudged his shoulder. “Go get laid. I’ll introduce you to some girls if you’re that opposed to Petra,” and Levi didn’t want to think about it right now, didn’t want to think about the warm body that fitted against his better than anybody else, the lips that ghosted over the skin in the back of his neck, the voice that grown deeper as the years passed by them, the hands that grown rougher as they fought side by side, but none of that was real and none of that should be real because it wasn’t Eren, it wasn’t, and it couldn’t be Eren because he didn’t…he didn’t think of Eren that way; he was his brother, and it wasn’t like that, and no he didn’t want to get laid and he didn’t want anything right now so just—

“Fuck off,” Levi said before he hastily made an escape.

 

***

 

They made camp when night fell, and Levi made a fire while Eren took out the ration from Levi’s pack. They had just enough food, but if there was a need for more, Levi wouldn’t mind going hunting.

Eren sat across the fire from Levi, the warm orange light dancing on his face when he said, “Thank you for the cloak, Corporal.” Eren hugged his knees and tugged the cloak up to cover half of his face. “It smells like you. Like the Survey Corp.” The last part came in almost a whisper. “ Like home.”

Levi swallowed down his emotions with another sip of tea. Home had betrayed Eren. Home had wanted Eren to die for its survival. There was no real home for Eren anymore.

When Levi turned to Eren, he found that Eren was staring at him.

“What?”

“Nothing,” said Eren. “I just…I just want to remember all the details of your face.”

Levi turned away. “You’ve seen it plenty of times.”

Eren crawled toward him then, drawing closer and closer to Levi, and then Levi couldn’t pretend he wasn’t watching from the corner of his eyes anymore. Levi felt Eren’s fingers caressing his face, committing everything to memory, and Levi closed his eyes. Eren’s kiss was so gentle that Levi barely felt it, a butterfly landing on Levi’s lips for a fleeting moment, a farewell, and Levi yanked Eren by the collar and slot their mouths together desperately because it wasn’t time for good byes yet, it wasn’t time for Eren to leave yet…

They still had time.

Don’t say farewell just yet.

 

***

 

Levi got home to a mostly empty house. “Eren?” he called out, but there was no answer, even though Eren’s school got out earlier than his. Eren could just be slower than usual, perhaps. Besides, Levi had to dump his laundry basket in the washing machine downstairs, and then he could start on the load of AP homework waiting for him impatiently in his backpack.

Luckily, he still had some clothes left, but they weren’t going to last him throughout the week, so he hoped that Mom was going to do a laundry load soon because—

Eren?

Levi halted just before he reached the laundry room, peering through the open door at Eren. He seemed like he had finished loading his own stuff into the washing machine, but—but he was just standing there, staring at Levi’s scarf in his hand.

Levi was about to say that Eren could just keep the scarf when Eren put the scarf up to his nose and took a deep inhale.

Levi,” Eren sighed.

Levi froze.

This wasn’t—this wasn’t normal, was it—but, but even though Eren didn’t remember like he did, didn’t dream about the titans or the war or going downriver or their bodies tangled up together on early mornings, even though all of that might not even be real, Eren—Eren—and then Levi remembered Eren pulling Levi’s cloak up to his nose because he wanted to remember Levi’s scent, but it was no use now because the memory was already lost to Eren.

“Eren?” Levi said, and Eren jumped, jerking away from the scarf and looking at Levi with a deer-like look.

“It’s not—” Eren swallowed. “I just—”

But before Eren could say another word, Levi dropped his laundry basket and rushed toward Eren, and Eren moved just as Levi did, both of them tangling their bodies together and Levi really shouldn’t do this and he knew he should back off, but then Eren’s tongue slipped inside his mouth and his brain stopped thinking together, and then Levi pushed Eren against the wall, hands moving underneath Eren’s shirt, but then it was all wrong, the skin underneath his fingers were all wrong and the muscles that were so familiar to Levi weren’t there, and Levi jerked away from Eren because—because—

Eren panted heavily, trying to catch his breath. “Levi?”

It wasn’t the same. The Eren that Levi had lost wasn’t here anymore.

“Levi? Why are you crying?”

The Eren that he once knew was gone.

“Levi, hey.” Eren pulled Levi into his arms, but all the strength had left Levi suddenly, and then he remembered that these were not the arms that he once knew, these were his brother’s arms, his little brother, a different Eren, and then Levi couldn’t control the tremor rushing through his body.

“Don’t say goodbye,” Levi mumbled into Eren’s shoulder, but those words had come two thousand years too late.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“How did you think it was going to end?”

 

***

 

Levi’s bedroom door was left open, as promised.

There were only four steps from Eren’s bedroom to his, and ten steps from his door to the bed. Fourteen steps total. Levi knew because he stayed up every night and listened to the rhythm of Eren’s footsteps padding toward his bed.

"Levi," Eren whispered, and Levi clenched his eyes tightly closed. The bed creaked, and he could feel the mattress sinking under Eren’s weight, but he was determined not to turn back. He let out a breath as Eren lifted the sheets, coolness crawling along Levi’s back, and then Eren’s body heat embraced him, Eren’s breath brushing his neck and Eren’s fingers ghosting over his skin.

It was warm.

Levi,” Eren whispered once more, and Levi trembled as Eren placed open-mouth kisses down his spine.

“We can’t,” Levi said, abandoning all pretense of sleep. He turned his body to face Eren, wishing that he had more control over his body’s reaction to Eren’s touches.

“Why not?” Eren’s eyes were nearly black under the pale orange street light that seeped through his curtains, and suddenly it became very difficult to think when Eren’s hands were all over his body.

“Our parents will hear us.”

Their parents’ bedroom was on the same floor.

“No they won’t.”

“We can’t.”

“Do you not want to?”

And then Eren’s hands stopped where they were, waiting. Levi knew that Eren had made his choice, but there was a familiar voice in his head, perhaps it was even his own—he couldn’t remember, but it was there, haunting, mocking, “How did you think it was going to end?” The problem wasn’t that Levi didn’t want this; the problem was that he wanted this.

He knew how it was going to end, just as he did back then, riding through the forest, the fresh morning dew on his clothes and the hazy white mist clouding Eren’s figure in front of him, and Levi had wanted to reach for Eren to make sure that he was real, only Levi hadn’t because he knew what was coming at the end of this river.

“Don’t do this to me, Eren,” said Levi, not knowing which Eren he was speaking to anymore.

“So you really don’t want this?” Eren asked, his finger playing with the hem of Levi’s T-shirt.

“We can’t.”

“You keep saying that. Why not?”

Levi caught Eren’s hand before it could slip under his shirt. “What do you mean by ‘why not’? Isn’t it obvious?”

Underneath his thumb, Eren’s pulse was racing with the same blood as his. Eren clasped his other hand over Levi’s, and Levi looked into Eren’s eyes then. It was too dark, but Levi could imagine the same shade of the sea one early autumn morning, green stretching into the distance, a sight that felt familiar to him even if it was foreign in this lifetime. And Levi could also imagine the same shade of green that glimmered with sunlight on the leaves last summer, the same green that softened in the dim evening as Eren wrapped his hand around Levi’s, and Levi had known that things were going to be okay. All these shades of green flashed in Levi’s mind as he pulled Eren’s hand up to his lips and kissed every knuckle.

Levi was struck with the memory of old wounds curling around Eren’s hand, and he kissed the ghost of those scars, remembering how Eren had gotten each one of them even if Eren hadn’t. Eren’s low chuckle startled Levi, and suddenly, all of Eren became one in his mind, the past and the present, but Levi could see space where the Eren now had mellowed under the peace of this world, slipping off the rigid frame that the Survey Corp molded from his past self.

“I want to stay with you forever,” Eren said, and Levi could feel Eren’s gaze on his lips rather than see it. “I mean it.”

“I know.”

“But it’s not enough, is it?”

“I don’t know,” Levi admitted. “I can’t predict the outcome.” Eren’s hands remained warm and sure around his, and Levi knew what he wanted. “How do you think this is going to end?”

“I don’t know either,” said Eren. He pulled his hands from Levi and cupped Levi’s face gingerly. “I only know that want you.”

A feverish silence fell in between them. Levi knew that his own want was reflected in Eren’s eyes, and then his body just moved on its own, and he felt Eren’s arms wrapping around the back of his neck before his lips met Eren’s. Levi slowly crawl on top of Eren, shivering as Eren’s fingers sliding underneath his shirt left a trail of goose bumps down their path.

Eren laughed into the kiss as Levi’s hands spread across his waist. “You’re ticking me.”

“Do you want to do this by yourself?” Levi said with an irritation that he didn’t feel.

“No, I need your help,” Eren said, and then his voice lowered as his hand slipped under the waistband of Levi’s pants. “You should teach me.” He sounded mocking.

Levi realized with a startling thought that he didn’t know what to do next, but Eren’s touches were gentle and patient, and even if he couldn’t recall the all memories of Eren’s body moving against his, Eren’s skin warmed with the glow of the candle in the bedroom that once belong to humanity’ strongest, it didn’t matter because the Eren now was here for him, not for the man that once bear the wings of freedom on his back.

“Do you feel good?” Eren asked hesitantly.

“Yeah,” Levi said, settling in between Eren’s legs. Something stirred within him as he gazed down at Eren’s innocent face. Levi pulled away because that rush of want was startling, but Eren quickly yanked him down into a heated kiss, and then the world became nothing but Eren’s body rolling into a rhythm against his.

Levi felt strangely at peace with himself.

 

***

 

The water was cool against his ankles.

Small pebbles, worn over the years by the current of the river, felt smooth underneath his feet. Levi took another step, and the birds perching on the larger stones all scattered with a rush of flapping wings.

A small feather fell on Eren’s head.

There was a scar that ran from Eren’s forehead and disappeared in Eren’s hair. Levi reached out a hand to trace that scar with his finger.

Eren closed his eyes.

The sun felt warm on his skin as he slid his hand in Eren’s hair and pulled him down to slot their mouths together. Eren’s hand teased the sensitive skin on the back of his neck, where it now felt raw from the bites Eren left behind last night.

“Did you miss me already?” Eren said as he pulled back, teasing, but his smile fell when he saw that Levi didn’t bother to keep the shield on his face this time.

“Why did you agree to those terms?” Levi asked, wondering if his voice reflected the trembling he felt inside.

Eren turned to look at the water shimmering with sunlight before them. A gust of wind rustled passed; the branches overhead swayed in the breeze, and a rain of golden leaves showered over them.

Then all was still once more.

“I can’t be a prisoner forever,” said Eren. “I’ve fought my whole life to be free. I’d rather die a free man by your hands.”

Eren’s shackles clinked.

“It’s the only victory I could seek for myself,” Eren whispered so softly that his words were almost lost to the wind before they reached Levi.

“It’s a shitty victory,” said Levi. Selfish words bubbled in in throat, things that he couldn’t say, things like, ‘what about me?’, things that did not linger in Eren’s mind as he made that choice in court, things like Eren chasing after an illusion of a victory while Levi would have to remain behind with the loss.

“What do your friends have to say about this?” Levi asked instead.

“They’ll learn to accept my decision,” Eren answered.

The leaves circled around Levi’s feet before the rough current swept them away.

“What about you?” Eren asked.

Small fishes teased Levi’s ankle with feathery touches. He couldn’t look at Eren. “You’re asking me that now?”

“Would you rather that I be a prisoner forever? Never even get to see the sunlight?”

An ugly part of Levi wanted to answer yes, if it meant that Eren could remain in this world. As if Eren could read his thoughts, Eren placed his hands on Levi’s shoulder and gently turned Levi toward him.

“You know I won’t settle for that.”

“I know.”

“So please,” Eren said. “Just let me have these few days.”

“Yeah,” Levi said, knowing that the day would come where the small possessive bruises that Eren left on his skin would be gone. He knew. He even knew back then, when Zacklay had given Eren those two choices, which one that Eren would pick.

It didn’t make it any easier to accept.

 

***

 

“Are you okay with that, Levi?” Erwin had asked. “You’re never going to see Eren again.”

“Are you really okay with that?”

 

***

 

Levi,” Eren groaned, and Levi covered Eren’s mouth with his to muffle Eren’s voice before it leaked through the walls of his bedroom. Levi took a moment to listen for an indication that his parents were awakened, but there was nothing but their heavy breathing breaking the silence of the night.

The bed creaked as Levi rolled his hip in short, sharp thrusts, Eren’s cock hot and hard against his. Eren thrashed underneath him, and Levi had to pin him down until the movement of their hips matched with each stroke of Eren’s hands over their cocks. Their body moved desperately against each other, their skin slicked with the sweat and pre-come squelching between them, and Levi’s senses were filled with the Eren’s musky scent and smothered moans.

Levi broke their kiss, feeling an overwhelming urge to watch the red flush spreading over Eren’s aroused expression. He could barely see it with the little street light that filtered into the room, and he wished he could see it in its entirety. Eren let out a soft whine that sent a shock straight to his groin, and Levi clenched his teeth and willed himself not to come just yet.

Eren rubbed his thumb over the head of Levi’s cock, and Levi let out a cry. “Ah—”

Levi felt a surge of panic washed over him, wondering if he was too loud, wondering if their parents could hear them, and he knew that they shouldn’t do this; Eren was his brother; they shouldn’t be allowed to do this, but it felt so good.

Levi scraped his teeth over Eren’s collarbone, his tongue lapping at the sweat pooling there. He felt the blood in his vein becoming heavier as Eren jerked under his touch, Eren’s breaths growing shorter and coarser as Levi gave the spot at the base of his neck a bruising, possessive suck.

“Levi—ahh—” Eren whined as his hip sputtered into sporadic movements, hot come spattered over their stomachs, and at the sight of Eren’s face—eyes fluttering and lips quivering as orgasm washed over him—and then Levi felt the heavy pressure in his cock becoming unbearable until the world burst in white over his eyelids as he came.

Levi collapsed on top of Eren, feeling as if all of his bones had melted. He rested his head at the crook of Eren’s neck, the fast rising and falling of Eren’s chest calming under him, and he could hear each of Eren’s gasp for breath as he slowly recovered.

“I love you,” Eren said.

Levi froze.

 

***

 

The harsh lines on Eren’s face reminded Levi that they were no longer young men. Levi wondered if he could trace each year that they were together by counting the wrinkles on Eren’s face.

“I love you,” Eren said as he placed butterfly kisses down Levi’s chest, his hands undoing the remaining buttons on Levi’s shirt, and Levi wished that Eren hadn’t reminded him of this because he didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to know that Eren was willing to leave him even though Eren had loved him.

Levi wished that he was younger and more stubborn, wished that he had hope instead of weariness, but the weight of age and war was heavy.

Eren’s touches warmed the part of him that felt hollow inside, but the clinking of the cold shackles on Eren’s wrists brought the emptiness back. Levi placed a hand over Eren’s heart, feeling the steady thumping under his fingers.

Levi didn’t tell Eren that he loved him back.

He should have.

 

***

 

“It’s okay,” Eren said, rubbing a gentle hand over his back, and Levi realized that he was making Eren’s shoulder wet with tears. Eren didn’t ask him what was wrong anymore because Levi wouldn’t tell him.

“Don’t go,” Levi said.

“I won’t,” said Eren. “You’ll still have me.”

 

***

 

Morning came with Levi waking up to an empty space by his side where Eren should have been.

Levi had a second of confusion before Eren walked into the room, freshly showered and very much shirtless, and Levi couldn’t help but stare at the wet hair matted against Eren’s forehead and the beads of water trailing down his torso. It disappeared into the towel wrapped around Eren’s waist.

“Good morning,” Eren said with a grin. He closed the door behind him.

“Morning,” said Levi, rising from his bed just as Eren plopped down next to him and leaned in to give him a chaste kiss. There was quietness in his mind, and for once, Levi didn’t think about the past or the fact that what they did was wrong or the worries that numbed his entire being. Levi was content. Levi had Eren by his side. That was all there was to it.

“I feel gross,” Levi said, remembering the stickiness on his body.

“Want me to help you shower?” Eren asked.

“No,” Levi said, and he caught himself before a laugh escaped him. Eren’s fingers were sliding over his skin again, and Levi held back a shiver as he slapped Eren’s hands away. “I’m taking a shower.”

“I’ll wait for you downstairs then.”

Levi felt strangely exposed as he grabbed his clothes from the drawers because Eren’s eyes were following his every movement.

He turned to glare at Eren.

“Alright, alright, I’ll stop staring.” Eren rose from the bed and headed out the door. Levi didn’t mind Eren looking at him, but Eren’s gaze now felt different.

He wondered if the way he looked at Eren had changed as well.

By the time Levi went downstairs, his parents were already up and about in the kitchen, and a flash of guilt jolted through him, but then he saw Eren, sitting at the kitchen table and already working his way through a bowl of cereal. Eren stopped and glanced up at him, and then Eren smiled, cheeks puffed as he chewed slowly through another bite, his hair a mess of a bird nest, sticking out in all direction, and Levi stood back and took in the sight of Eren in his threadbare t-shirt and sweat pants, the clothing fraying a little at the edge from age, and something inside Levi began to unwind.

“What?” Eren asked after swallowing his bite of cereal.

“Nothing.” Levi went and took a seat next to him.

“You look happier than usual today,” Carla said as she placed a carton of orange juice on the table.

“Do I?”

“You do,” said Eren, and as Levi turned to look at him, at the morning sunlight dancing with a soft glow over his hair, Levi believed his words.

“We’re going to the grocery stores to pick up some things,” said Grisha, who was busying himself with the coffee maker.

“Do you guys want to come? Do you need anything?” asked Carla.

“No,” the boys answered simultaneously. They turned to look at each other.

Eren broke into laughter first.

“What’s so funny?” Carla asked with an amused smile.

“It’s nothing,” said Levi. “He’s just being a weird brat, as usual.”

“We’ll wait for you guys at home,” Eren said. He tickled Levi’s ankle with his toes, and Levi didn’t hesitate to give him a kick into his shin.

“Oww,” Eren whined. “You’re so mean to me.”

Boys,” Carla sighed, although Levi knew that she wasn’t as exasperated as she sounded.

“We’ll try not to get into trouble,” Eren said, but then he shot Levi a sly look that told Levi exactly what kind of trouble he wanted them to get into.

Levi gave him another kick.

“Oww!”

Levi!

Levi bit back a grin.

It was frightening how happy he felt inside.

 

***

 

Their parents’ car hadn’t even pulled out of the driveway before Eren and Levi stumbled into Eren’s room. The window was shut but Levi could hear the sound of the car’s ignition outside as Eren pushed him into the bed this time, clumsily claiming Levi’s mouth with his tongue and tugging Levi’s shirt up to pull it over his head. They broke the kiss so Levi could take his shirt off, and then Eren did the same with his, both of them shaking with want, and Levi couldn’t keep his eyes from staring at Eren’s developing body, at the places where muscles were starting to build.

Levi didn’t have a chance to comment on it before Eren pushed him back against the bed, holding Levi down by his shoulder as he placed desperate short kisses down Levi’s chest, and a tremble ran through Levi’s body to curl his toes on the sheets.

Ahh, Eren,” Levi sighed, tangling his hand in Eren’s hair.

Eren flicked his tongue over Levi’s nipple, and the sudden hot and wet sensation had Levi yanking Eren from him out of shock. “What are you doing?”

“Do you not like it?”

Levi swallowed. “It’s not bad.”

Eren let out a snort. He leaned down and took Levi’s other nipple into his mouth, tongue teasing until Levi’s body writhed underneath him. Levi jerked from the bed when Eren gave a hard suck, and he had to bite his lips to muffle his moan, except Eren took this opportunity to grind his erection against Levi, and Levi couldn’t hold his voice back anymore.

Eren glanced up at him. They both were equally shocked at the embarrassing noise that came from Levi’s throat.

“Fuck,” Levi said.

“But I want to hear your voice,” Eren said, his hands slipping away from Levi’s shoulder, sliding over Levi’s skin as if he was trying to memorize every little detail, mapping every rise and dip in his mind, and Levi watched the curve of Eren’s neck as his gaze followed his hands on Levi’s skin.

“Is my body that interesting?” Levi asked, feeling a strange nostalgia washed over him. A bed of grass against his back, stars blinking overhead, the rustling of the trees, a fire dimming into a few embers among the ashes, and he couldn’t see Eren very clearly, but he could feel the heat of Eren’s eyes brushing over his skin.

“Yeah.”

Levi placed a hand underneath Eren’s chin and guided him up to a kiss. Eren grabbed the waistband of his pants, and Levi helped Eren wiggled them off, and then they both sank back into the sheets, drowning in the gentle heat between them as their bodies moved together.

The world became very quiet as everything melted away until only Eren remained.

 

***

 

Levi didn’t remember when it began, but all he remembered was the look at Eren would shoot him sometimes as they sat on the floor of Levi’s bedroom, Levi trying to write a draft of his college essay while Eren abandoning all hope of productivity to stare at Levi. There were only so much Levi could write about his high school achievement before Eren began to slide his hand over his thigh, and by then Levi just tossed his notebook aside and pushed Eren back against the floor.

And then there would be moments when Levi walked downstairs just as Eren began to head up, and then Eren would brush against his shoulder purposely as he passed, and just as Levi turned to him, Eren took the chance to pull Levi up the stairs, Levi’s heart racing inside his ribcage, his blood thickening with the thought of scratching Eren’s bare back with his nails so that everyone would know that Eren already belonged to someone, but then they didn’t even make it back to the room because Eren was too hasty in pushing Levi against the wall. Levi only weakly protested that Mom was right downstairs, “she’ll hear,” but Eren was sucking and biting at his neck, and Levi spread his thighs so Eren could slip a hand down his pants, a finger slicked with saliva teasing the rim of his ass.

Levi accidentally smacked his head against the wall a little too hard as Eren’s finger eased inside him, and downstairs, his mother called out, “Is everything alright?” and Levi wanted to push Eren away, but then there were two fingers, and Eren wouldn’t let him go, fascinated by Levi rocking his body on the fingers, and then he added another one, probably just to hear Levi’s surprised cry that was too loud because his mother called out again, “Are you okay? Levi?” Eren had to answer for him, “Yeah, he’s fine.”

“Give me a hand here,” Levi said impatiently, and Eren did.

Summer rolled by, and with the heat wave came the days when Levi’s body slicked with sweat riding above Eren and the days when Eren pounded against Levi’s hip until Levi’s sweaty back slid against the cold floor, “It’s okay, dad is napping on the couch, he won’t hear,” the posters of his childhood bedroom swirled in a storm of heat with the humid air, the hot wind rushing in from the window brought no relief as Eren’s hand held the base of Levi’s cock so that he couldn’t come, and when Eren finally let go after teasing Levi for so long, Levi came so hard that he passed out amidst the smothering heat and the heavy scent of sweat and come.

Eren’s friends came over sometimes, and Levi would silently pretend not to see while Mikasa, still wearing Eren’s red scarf under summer’s oppressing heat, putting a possessive hand over Eren’s shoulders as they watched a game on TV, or Armin sitting way too close to Eren, their bare shoulders sliding together. Eren would stand rise from the couch and goes to the kitchen, and Levi would follow him.

Levi wasn’t even surprised when he saw Eren bending over to look for something inside the fridge, and Eren seemed to expect it when Levi fitted his hip against Eren’s ass, his hands with possessive hold on Eren’s waist. Eren chuckled as he rubbed back against Levi, and Levi swallowed hard as he moved his hip in long, slow thrusts against Eren, the fact that Mikasa or Armin could walk in on them anytime made this even more exciting, and they kept going even though Armin shouted at Eren to come back because there was a turning point in the game, “Come quick,” but Levi refused to let Eren go until they had made a mess of their pants.

Levi took great satisfaction in watching Eren walked awkwardly back into the living room, face flushing in embarrassment because his underwear was wet.

But, there were other moments too, and strangely, these were the ones that Levi remembered the most. There were nights when Levi jerked awake, the lingering pain of a giant hand snapping his leg remained from his fading dream, his hands still soaked with the blood of the soldiers fighting by his side, and then Eren’s arms would wrap around him, soft kisses at the back of his neck. “It’s okay. You’re okay now.”

Levi would remember that he was home.

And there were other nights too, when he would be awakened by the soft, barely audible sobbing from Eren. “Mom,” Eren would whisper with a tear-stained face, eyes rolling violently behind his eyelids in nightmare, and all Levi could do was to press his forehead against Eren’s, hoping that Eren wouldn’t remember when he woke up, even if that meant Eren wouldn’t remember the man that Levi once was or what they used to be to each other.

 

***

 

“You’ll go to a college close to home, right?” Eren asked.

“If they’ll accept me,” Levi answered.

“Good.” Eren rolled onto his back and looked at the ceiling. Summer was ending, and a year remained until the day Levi left the house. The air had cooled enough that they could stay in bed side by side without soaking sweat in to Levi’s sheets, but warm enough that Levi could appreciate Eren’s bare chest, simple boxers, and naked thighs.

“I’ll be home for the holidays as well,” Levi said, kicking Eren’s leg lightly.

“Yeah,” Eren said, sounding distracted.

“I’ll see you again,” Levi promised, something that felt dangerously like past fears dwelling up inside him. He clutched Eren’s hand tightly as if their happiness was going to slip away like the warmth of summer slowly draining away to a cool autumn.

Levi wouldn’t let go. Not this time.

 

***

 

“Will you let me go?” Eren asked.

There were only a few days left until they reached the end of the river.

Levi couldn’t give him an answer.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Do you have any siblings?”

“Yeah. A younger brother.”

A curl of smoke brushed his face. He tried not to flinch away. The heavy music pulsed through the wall behind his back, but the coolness of the dark alleyway was calming despite the row of trashcans lined up against the opposite wall. Something smelled foul, like damp mold and rotten meat.

Levi looked up at the sky above. It looked so narrow between the tips of the buildings and electrical wire lines, dark and confined. There were no stars.

“You still talk to him?” A scraping of shoes across the concrete, rustling of a parka against the brick wall, and Levi shook his head even though it was too dark for the other person to see him.

“No.” Levi shoved his hands in his pockets, thinking about the wide sky of stars one summer when his family went on a trip, Eren’s hand warm in his. Everything seemed so attainable back then. “He grew up.”

Levi swallowed back the words “I grew up too.”

“That’s rough, man,” the other person said, in the camaraderie of complete strangers both avoiding the stupid college party inside. There was a low hum, and then warm steam began to rise from one of the vent on the ground. “I got a sister at too, but I haven’t talked to her since the parents split up.”

“That sucks,” Levi said.

“Yeah,” the other person agreed. Bright red specks stared back at Levi from the darkness, and then another curl of smoke. “Family, man.”

“Yeah,” Levi turned to watch the line of cars out on the street. “Family.”

Another companionable silence filtered between them.

“Who the hell dragged you to this shitty party?” The other broke the silence.

“Roommate.” Levi shrugged. This was one of Levi’s attempts to get along with his roommate. But he knew it wasn’t going to work.

“Sucky-ass roommate.”

“There’s only a month left,” Levi said.

The other person chuckled darkly. “Yeah.” There was more rustling of clothes, and then a light stomp, more scraping on the concrete. “Well, good luck man. See you.”

“See you.”

And then the person disappeared with the creaking of the backdoor of the building. The heavy music spilled into the alley as he opened the door, but disappeared into a mute hum as it slammed closed.

Levi sighed and watched the sky.

It was cold.

 

***

 

Things were so much simpler back then.

 

***

 

Fall was a wakeup call.

The last of the boxes was squeezed tightly in the back of the car before Grisha slammed the trunk shut. Eren leaned against the side of the car, his head bent forward as he stared at the ground in defeat, scraping his sneakers across the cement. Levi stood in front of him, hands shoved in his pockets, unable to voice the heaviness tugging at the back of his throat. He stood on his toes to flick the tassel hanging from Eren’s ski hat, and Eren flinched, pulling tightly at Levi’s scarf around his neck.

“You better head inside,” Levi said even though that wasn’t what he wanted to say at all. “It’s cold.”

“I’m not cold,” Eren mumbled.

“Is that the last of everything?” Grisha called out, and Levi shouted back, “Yeah, that’s all I have.” He wasn’t bringing a lot with him to college, especially since he had vetoed any random items that his mother suggested that he bring, like a coffee machine or a bean bag chair, because he didn’t need those things.

What he really wanted—or rather—who—was staying here, and this was something he couldn’t change.

“I want to go with you,” Eren said.

“I know,” Levi patted his shoulder. It couldn’t be helped. Eren was going to start school tomorrow, and making this long drive bringing Levi to college would be impractical. Levi had to make the trip with just his father, while his mother and Eren were staying home.

“Well, I’m ready whenever you’re ready,” Grisha said, coming around to the front to slip in the driver’s seat.

“Alright.”

Before Levi could tell Eren that he was going to call home often, Eren leaned down and placed a sloppy wet kiss on his left cheek.

“Hey!” Levi shoved Eren away, frantic eyes turning to his father who was in the car and hopefully didn’t saw. “What if he—”

“It’s okay; he didn’t saw,” Eren said. “Besides, so what if he saw?”

“Eren?”

Eren tightened his grip on Levi’s scarf and pulled him in slowly as Grisha called out, “Boys, is everything alright?”

“Yeah,” Levi said, at the same time Eren whispered, “Let him see,” Levi’s feet moved without thought, and then Eren’s face was so close that he could feel Eren’s warm breath fanning his face, memories of Eren’s body trapping the sticky summer heat in between them returned, and Levi didn’t want to leave.

“If I ask you to run away with me, would you?” Eren asked.

“Eren—what—”

“Would you?” Eren looked into his eyes, pleading, and Levi could feel it too, the distance of their impending separation growing by the second, and he knew that he needed this anchor as much as Eren did, so the words stumbled from him without a second thought.

“I would,” Levi said. “If you say the words, I’ll pack up and go wherever you will go.”

The words felt like a half a truth, half a lie.

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

The words felt heavy in Levi’s throat.

“And nothing would matter,” Eren said, lifting the end of Levi’s scarf up to his lips to kiss the pair of crossing wings at the end, and Levi felt something clenched tightly in his heart at the familiar sight. “Because we’ll have each other.”

“Yeah,” Levi said. “Would you really ask that of me though?”

“I don’t know,” Eren admitted. “I don’t think I can ask you to give up everything. Heck, I don’t think I can give up everything.”

“Yeah,” Levi said. The promise was a dream. An illusion. A lie that the world around them wasn’t important, even though it was.

Levi covered Eren’s hand with his and tugged Eren’s grip from his scarf.

“Wait for me,” Eren said. “I’ll grow up soon.”

Levi stood on his toes and ruffled Eren’s head.

He would wait for as long as it would take.

 

***

 

Levi watched as Eren, now twenty-five, the youngest in the formation line, stood proudly with the others as Erwin promoted them to Squad Leader. Snow was beginning to fall again, a pale halo on Eren’s hair.

“Congratulations,” Levi said as they began to head back. “You’re all grown up now. Ready for the winter campaign?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Eren said, voice a lot deeper than Levi remembered. “Now that I’ve became squad leader just as I’ve promised—”

“Yes, I remember,” Levi sighed. “What do you want as a reward?” When he realized that Eren wasn’t by his side anymore, Levi turned around, ready to admonish Eren for being as damn slow as when he was a trainee, only to be met with Eren’s lips against his.

Eren pulled away before Levi could smack him, and Levi frantically looked around to see if anyone had seen them.

“Everyone’s already back inside,” Eren laughed. “Don’t worry, no one saw.”

“Just for that, you get nothing,” Levi scowled, hastily walking away before Eren could see his face getting uncomfortably warm.

“But it was a joke,” Eren said, jogging to catch up to Levi.

“No.”

“Please?”

Even though Eren was twenty-five, it was as if the decade that had passed them were nonexistent with the way Eren was acting. “Alright, what do you want?”

When Eren fell behind again, Levi scowled, “With how slow you are at walking, I don’t even know why you were promoted to –” but then the expression on Eren’s face stopped him. “What is it?”

“You promise to give me anything I want right?”

“Only what I can give.”

“Then I want you.”

“What?”

“I mean—” Eren’s face turned red. “When the war is over, would you come with me to see the world outside?”

Levi stared at Eren, and then he looked away. “Only if we both stay alive for that long.”

“But if we both do.” Eren stepped into Levi’s line of vision once more. “Would you?”

“Of course I would,” Levi turned away and began heading back inside. “If we both are alive by then. Why do you even have to ask?” He tried to sound irritated but couldn’t. “I’ll keep my words if you keep yours.”

“Thank you,” Eren said, and as they walked side by side, Eren gave Levi’s hand a reassuring squeeze.

“I’ll keep my words.”

 

***

 

Back then, Levi really thought that they could both wait.

It was different now.

 

***

 

First year of college was a blur. Levi didn’t quite understand what he was doing. He remembered going through the motions—he must have—because when he woke up, he was staring at the ceiling of his dorm room, his roommate snoring on the other side.

Levi turned to look at the other side of the room, barely making out the dark shapes of his roommate’s messy desk, stuff falling from the edge to pile on the floor, dirty clothes spilling on the ground. The room smelled like old moldy sour cream.

He silently got out of bed, slipped on his sneakers, and walked out of the room. The hallway was empty, except for the dude who lived next door whom Levi had already forgotten the name of. He was hunched up in a ball next to the door of his room typing furiously on his laptop, wearing large stereo headphones like a helmet to block out the world. He didn’t notice when Levi nodded at him. He didn’t even notice Levi was there.

Whatever.

Levi took the stairs instead of the elevator even though he lived on the fifth floor. The white paint on the railing was peeling off under Levi’s hand; the pale white light blinking as he passed, and Levi vaguely remembered that he didn’t bring a jacket, but he couldn’t find it in him to care.

The cool night air prickled on his skin as he stepped outside.

Levi felt like he could breathe again.

The sickly yellow street lamps hovered over him. It was quiet.

Empty.

He sat on the front steps and watched the starless sky, wondering if Eren was doing okay.

 

***

 

Levi called home.

“How’s your first semester of college going?” His mother asked. There were clanking of pots in the background, and Levi remembered how much he missed his mother’s cooked meals, the family sitting at the table, Eren kicking his ankle.

There were a million things that he wanted to say, but he didn’t know where to begin. It was as if he had nothing to say at all.

“It’s fine,” Levi said, even though it wasn’t. “Is Eren there?”

“No, he’s out with Mikasa and Armin,” his mother said. “He has been so busy with school lately, so I’m glad that his friends are here for him.”

“Oh,” Levi said, feeling strangely hollow. “Tell him I said hi.” Eren was moving on to bigger and brighter things, and that was good.

Good.

“I will.” A loud whump of a cover over a pot. “Levi, is everything alright?”

“Yeah,” Levi said, leaning against the railing of the balcony and watching the college students moving about below him. They looked so small from up here. “I’m fine.”

 

***

 

Everything felt so empty.

 

***

 

The thing was, Levi wasn’t completely sure what was wrong with him. He wasn’t sick, but his head felt hazy like he was having a fever, and nothing seemed clear even though his vision was fine, but he was going through the motions without feeling them.

“You know man, you should go talk to someone,” his roommate said over a large bite of pizza, grease dripping from his lips. A piece of pepperoni jutted out from his chin.

“What are you, a therapist now?” Levi said and kept working on a draft of his essay.

“I don’t have to be one to know you need one.”

Levi’s fingers halted on the keyboard of his laptop for a fraction of a second before he kept going. He didn’t want to hear it from someone who did nothing but skipped classes and played games the whole day. At least Levi was still getting shit done.

“I’m not the only one who needs one,” Levi thought to himself and let the sound of his roommate screaming angrily at the computer washed over him.

If Eren was here, Levi thought, he would say something funny. And then Levi would laugh, and he would watch Eren’s eyes crinkled with happiness, a kick to his ankle, and Levi would kick back.

Levi let himself sank into that thought.

 

***

 

Levi called home again.

Eren wasn’t there.

 

***

 

The days passed, but Levi couldn’t really feel them.

 

***

 

“Eren’s catching up on his sleep right now. He’ll call you back.”

 

***

 

Levi watched the sky—still unfamiliar even after months of staying here. There was a playful screech, and Levi looked below to the group of students playfully shove each other, their book bags flopping about as they chased each other about.

Levi felt a strange twisting inside him. Something was missing inside him.

He kept watching the sky until evening settled in.

Levi wondered what Eren would say if he was by his side right now.

 

***

 

Levi called home again.

Eren was there this time.

“How are things?” Levi asked.

“It’s great,” Eren said. “I tried out for the football team.”

“Did you?” This was news to Levi. He tried to imagine Eren with his gangly limbs playing football, but he couldn’t do it. Levi looked at the calendar on his laptop, wondering if that much time had passed already, wondering if Eren had changed so much from the person that he once knew.

“I didn’t make the team,” Eren said, his voice familiar as always, but something felt out of place. “So now Armin wants to drag me into the drama club, of all things, but I’d rather do weight training with Mikasa.”

“Biology is so stupid, and—” Eren’s words began to filter through his ears, and the weight shifted even more out of place. Levi tried to push it down, but it remained there, staring at Levi with its ghost-like dark eyes from the mirror attached to the door, and it was then that Levi realized the thing out of place was him.

“Levi, are you alright?”

Levi’s throat felt heavy. There were so many things that he wanted to say to Eren, yet there was nothing he wanted to say to Eren. He wanted to tell Eren about the late nights when the sour smell of the dorm room got too bad and he had to take a breather downstairs, about going up to the English literature building every day and just watching people moved about listlessly below, about the food that was cardboard scratching his throat, about the narrow sky with no stars, but when he thought about those things he felt hollow again. Empty and wordless. “I’m fine.”

“You sure? How’s college, anyway?” Eren asked, and suddenly Levi didn’t want to talk anymore.

“There’s not much. I go to classes. Eat. Shit. The usual.”

Eren laughed.

“You know, I really miss you,” Eren said, and something warm floated up Levi’s throats, and the words returned to him, only they didn’t make any sense because Levi blurted out.

“Hey, if I ask you to run away with me, would you?” Levi asked.

There was a pause.

“Levi, is everything alright?”

“I’m just asking.”

Another pause.

“Yeah.” Eren’s voice was soft. Uncertain. “I would.”

Levi tightened his grip on the phone.

“You know you can tell me if something is wrong, right?”

“Yeah,” Levi said. “I know. Anyway, tell me about the drama club—”

 

***

 

“You’re lying,” Levi said.

Erwin’s expression remained grim.

“I don’t lie to you,” Erwin said. “Levi, you knew that. Especially not this. Eren had said that on the day of the court he will choose to—”

“I want to hear it from Eren himself,” Levi said, feeling that he was losing the ground under his feet, fast. His mind was reeling, back to Eren’s words to him, “When the war is over, would you come with me to see the world outside?” and Eren had said that he would keep his words.

“Levi—”

“I want to hear it from Eren himself.” Eren had said that he would keep his words. Levi knew he did.

“Levi, we all knew that it was the only way—”

“No.” They could find another way to get Eren out. They could—

“Levi.”

They could try to talk to Zacklay again. They could—

“Levi!”

“No. I want to hear it from Eren himself.”

 

***

 

The next time, his mother called him first.

“How is life in college?” She asked.

“I have to go to class,” Levi said, and his mother reluctantly let him go.

 

***

 

The time after that, Levi received a text from a number he didn’t recognize.

“Hope you’re doing okay. Hey, I got a cellphone—Eren.”

Levi saved Eren’s number and didn’t text back.

 

***

 

Levi watched the number count of missed calls on his phone climbed higher and higher until two weeks had passed.

He sent a single text.

“I’m busy.”

The rain tapped softly on his window. Levi watched the sky began to sob with thunder and rain.

 

***

 

“I have a midterm right after Thanksgiving. I can’t be home. But I’ll be home in about three weeks for Christmas Break.”

 

***

 

There were a lot of angry voicemails.

Most were from Eren.

 

***

 

Levi last text was:

“If I ask you to run away with me, would you?”

Eren didn’t text back.

 

***

 

Levi woke up to Thanksgiving evening to a knock at his door. He was tempted to ignore it because most of the dorm were gone by now, but the knocking became more insistent, so Levi reluctantly dragged himself out of bed to check who was at the door.

He opened the door to a familiar face.

“Hey!” A cheerful voice greeted him. “Levi?”

“Hanji?” Levi squinted against the brightness of the hallway, trying to adjust his eyes after being so used to the darkness of his room. “What are you doing here?”

“I go to school here.” Hanji looked like she wanted to laugh.

“Well, I got that now,” Levi said.

“I’m just here because we’re having a Thanksgiving dinner for all the people who are still staying in the dorms,” Hanji explained. “Want to join us?”

Before Levi could think about declining, however, this stomach chose that moment to growl quite loudly. He suddenly remembered that he hadn’t eaten all day.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Hanji said. “I’ll see you downstairs.” And then she bounced off to knock on the next door before he could explain himself.

Admitting defeat, Levi grabbed a jacket and walked downstairs.

A lot of the students who still remained at the dorm were international students who couldn’t return to their country only for a four day break, while the rest were students who lived too far from home and would rather save the money to return for Christmas Break. And then there was Levi.

He was going to keep silent about it until halfway through the cranberry sauce, Hanji nudged his elbow. “Hey, how have you been?”

“Good,” Levi said.

“How’s life? Any clubs? Parties?”

“Nah. Just classes. And sleep.”

“Why didn't you go home?”

Levi shrugged. “I have a lot of things going on.”

“What about the family?”

Levi gave her another shrug. “They’re probably fine. They sounded it last time I called.”

Hanji gave him an inquisitive stare, but didn’t comment on it. “Yeah, my dad is off to a funeral of some distant relative, and I wasn’t interested in joining him.”

“That sucks,” Levi said, and desperate to change the conversation, hopped on another topic. “Anyway, what are you up to these days?”

“Busy, you know, as is the life of a pre-med,” she grinned.

Levi gave her a weak quirk of his lips back. “Aspiring doctor. Have you started seeing sickness everywhere yet?”

Hanji laughed. “I’m starting to. Ever since I started volunteering at the hospital I’ve started to see sickness in nearly everyone.”

“Everyone?”

“Yeah, everyone.”

“Even me?” Levi shook his head and began working his way through the slice of pumpkin pie. It reminded him of the last Thanksgiving he’d spent at home, how much better the food tasted then, but Levi swallowed it down with another gulp of root beer.

“Yes,” Hanji said. “Even you.”

“Really,” Levi said drily. “What’s my diagnosis?”

There was silence then, and Levi looked at Hanji questioningly, only to be met with her hard gaze. “You’re not going to like what I will say to you.”

“Just say it.”

Hanji’s eyes were steady and calm as she said softly. “You’re sick from loneliness, Levi.”

Levi nearly dropped his fork, but he caught himself, the waves of emotion shimmering in his chest rising, rising, and his voice was shaky as he spoke, “Did my mom call you?” Hanji’s words stung, stung badly, stung so much that his mind was becoming numb.

Hanji’s words had hurt because they were true.

“She’s worried, Levi.”

“It’s not any of your business.”

“It’s not,” Hanji agreed, although she reached out to give his hand a comforting squeeze. “I’m sorry if I overstep my bounds. But just know that they still home, alright? They’re still waiting for you.”

“Let go of me,” Levi said, his voice low, and Hanji withdrew her hand.

 

***

 

It was like the first time that he had talked to Eren, and Levi could barely discern the difference had he not seen the hardened frame of Eren’s body, broader and stronger than when he was fifteen, but the defeated slouch was still there, along with the chains around his wrists.

Eren perked up when he saw Levi, but as he noticed Levi’s stormy expression, his gaze down casted to a corner of the cell.

“Tell me that it’s a mistake.” Levi gripped the bars of the cell tightly, feeling the rusted iron scratching his skin.

“You didn’t seriously think—” Levi yanked at the bars in his anger. They didn’t budge. “You seriously think that I could kill you?”

“Corporal—”

“I want to hear it from you.”

Eren didn’t dare to face Levi as he said. “I’d rather die by your hands.”

Levi wanted to say “You lie to me,” wanted to shake the sense back into Eren’s shoulders because Eren was never the first one of them to give up, but yet here he was, discarding everything so easily.

The worst part was that Levi realized he had wanted to fulfill the promise more than Eren did.

Levi didn’t want things to end this way.

 

***

 

Eren was fading away in the cell.

Levi watched silently as he shivered in a thin blanket, body tossing and turning in a restless sleep. Levi watched as Eren who had grown into a man shriveled back into the boy that humanity had used and abandoned, just as it had been when Levi first met him.

Levi was the one who put Eren back in this place. He was the one who had pulled Eren into the Survey Corp, thinking that it would save Eren.

He was the one who had sealed Eren’s fate. He had chosen to put the noose around Eren’s neck.

And Eren had foolishly trusted him.

 

***

 

He understood now.

 

***

 

A strange peace settled over Levi as he woke up that morning to the loud rapping at his door. He had left his curtains opened last night, so the full blast of weak morning sunlight greeted him. The sky was heavy with cloud, promising rain in the late evening.

And the rapping at his door became impatient.

“Coming,” Levi called out, making his way through the door. Whoever it was had to qualm in stopping however, so the knocking didn’t stop even as Levi opened the door. “What is i—”

Levi didn’t finish his sentence before large hands shoved him inside the room and slammed the door closed behind them.

“Eren,” Levi gasped. “What are you doing here?” His mind was reeling in confusion, but Eren was here, and then it was gone, the numbness that buzzed underneath his ear disappeared, and Levi wanted to touch Eren just to convince himself that this was real. 

“What’s going on?” Eren sounded angry. “Why didn’t you answer any texts or calls? Why didn’t you go home?”

“How did you get here?” Levi asked with wonder, feeling his inside cracking away slowly because he hadn’t seen Eren in so long. Eren’s shoulder were much broader than Levi remembered, his voice much deeper, and Levi noticed with a pang in his heart that it was true, Eren was growing up and moving on to brighter things.

And he should.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Eren scowled. 

“I miss you,” Levi said, and at those words, the anger in Eren’s eyes cooled. He took another step until Levi was only an inch from him, brushing Levi’s cheek with a large hand.

“I miss you too. I was so worried.” A crinkling of plastic bag swung from Eren's elbow, and Levi could hear the clunking of turkey bones tapping against tupperware, maybe even a slice of pie, and Levi remembered that Eren wasn't the only one worried about him. 

Levi knew. He knew all along that Eren was worried, that Eren was suffering with his silence. He thought about Eren trying out for the football team and joining the drama club and competing with Mikasa at weight training, thought about Eren enjoying high school, enjoying his life, thought about all the wonderful things that Eren could do now that the world was quiet and the ground was still, no rumbling of the earth from the steps of the titans, no deadline imposed on Eren’s death, no court, no sword, no war. But there was still one thing from the Old World that casted a shadow over Eren’s life.

“You came,” Levi said. “You really came for me.”

“Of course I did,” Eren said, pulling Levi forward and leaning down to rest his forehead against Levi’s.

Levi thought about the haunting words of the past that once curled around Eren’s wrist in chains, “would you come with me to see the world outside?” and he had known how this had ended, but now Eren was in a peaceful world, could live without both humanity and titans chasing after his life, yet, the chains were still there, still heavy on Eren’s wrists because Levi put them there. The words were different, but they were the same.

Levi knew that Eren would cast everything away for him, would toss aside the peaceful new world that they were blessed with, just so he could be here with Levi. But Levi also knew that Eren was happy now, truly happy; this life had its ups and downs but Eren was alive and breathing and free, just as he had always wanted. Eren could have everything that he had lost in the Old World, if only he could be freed from this last link.

“Eren.” Levi kept the shakiness from his voice as he said, “Let’s end this.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

At Eren’s hurt expression, Levi jolted awake. Suddenly, he didn’t remember the numbness that paralyzed him for the past many months.

Eren pulled away from Levi.

“Eren, wait,” Levi began but couldn’t finish because he wanted to take back his words, but he couldn’t.

“I brought leftovers,” Eren said, walking to Levi's desk to set the bag of tupperware down. He opened the bag and took out each plastic container, stacking them carefully next to Levi’s textbooks. “There’s also a slice of pumpkin pie. I kept telling Mom that you don’t like pumpkin pie, but Mom said you could share with your roommate.”

“Eren,” Levi said as Eren calmly pulled his scarf off, unzipped his winter jacket, and draped them both over the back of Levi’s desk chair. Levi watched as Eren sat on his bed, knowing that Eren was shimmering with anger but didn’t want to explode just yet. He would eventually because Eren was never one to deny himself the honest expression of his emotions.

“What?” Eren planted his hands behind him and leaned back a little. “End what? I’m listening.”

“Don’t pull that crap on me.” Levi shook his head.

“Pull what?”

“Don’t pretend that you don’t know,” said Levi, feeling frustrated himself for reasons he didn’t understand.

“No, I don’t know,” Eren said, sitting up on the bed and resting his hands on his knees, rubbing them up and down his thighs agitatedly. “What do you want? End what? End your college education? End our relationship? End our brotherhood? End what, Levi?”

Levi turned away with a heavy sigh, and Eren rose to his feet. “No Levi, you don’t get to do this.” Three wide strides and Eren was right in front of Levi. “Look at me. You don’t get to toss me aside without me having a say in it. Tell me, what do you want?”

Levi kept his gaze away from Eren and to the left side of the room where his laundry basket was. Eren waited for his answer, but Levi didn’t have one to give him. At least, not one that wouldn’t hurt Eren.

“Three months.” Something heavy hung from Eren's words, and Levi wanted to see the expression on Eren’s face, but he couldn’t because it would be too much to bear. “I waited every day for three months for your calls and for the day you come home—”

At this, Levi made a mocking noise at the back of his throat.

“What?” Eren scowled. When Levi didn’t say anything, he grabbed Levi’s shoulder, leaning down so that his face was only an inch from Levi’s face. “Say it to my face, Levi. You already had three months to be cryptic. That’s enough.”

“You weren’t waiting for me,” Levi said before he could think about his words. They surprised him, how petty and childish and full of loneliness they were. He didn’t realize how jealous, how lonely, how hurt he had felt when he thought Eren was moving on to better things than him. Shame quickly took over Levi, and he knew that he had to set those ugly feelings aside. “And you shouldn’t have to,” Levi added softly. 

“What? Why shouldn’t I have to?” Eren placed a hand under Levi’s chin. “Levi, look at me.”

Levi turned to face Eren at last, but he kept his gaze on the bridge of Eren’s nose, not ready just yet to look at Eren square in the eyes. But Eren knew Levi as well as Levi knew himself because Eren repeated. “Look at me, Levi. Don’t hide from me. Don’t,” Eren swallowed. “Don’t pull away from me.”

For a moment, Eren didn’t look so grown up and out of his reach. In just that moment, Eren was the Eren that Levi had always known, the little boy with the red scarf, the lost eyes that watched Levi pulled the suitcase down the stairs, the arms that hold Levi together as he cried, the hush whispers in Levi’s bedroom late at night, the smile over the breakfast table, and the person who was waiting for him.

“You’re everything,” Levi thought, knowing in his heart that those words were painfully true. “If you have to throw everything aside and run away with me, would you?”

He already knew the answer before Eren spoke.

“Yes,” Eren said without hesitation.

Levi looked away.

He knew.

“I can’t do it.”

“Do what?”

“I don’t want to throw everything away for you,” Levi said.

There was a heavy silence. Then:

“Is that because you don’t want to be with me or because you can’t let me lose everything?” Eren asked slowly.

Levi didn’t answer.

“Don’t use me as an excuse for you being scared, Levi.” Eren sounded angry. “I don’t need protecting anymore—what?” he frowned when he caught the expression on Levi’s face.

Levi shook his head. He didn’t want to tell Eren that behind Eren’s words was a different memory, another Eren that told Levi he didn’t need protecting, a fragment of the person that was no longer within his reach. Levi remembered then why that person was out of his reach. “I’m not doing this for you.”

Eren’s voice was barely a whisper. “So, you don’t want me anymore?” 

Levi couldn’t give him an answer. He didn’t want to lie to Eren, so he chose silence.

“But I thought you—all the things we did together—what was that to you?” Eren shook Levi by the shoulders. “Levi, answer me. Don’t just give me the cold shoulder and think that’s enough.”

“Eren.” Levi’s voice sharpened as he found his resolve. He had made his choice and he was going to stand by them. “We’re not going to do this anymore.”

“Oh, so you get to decide what we will do,” Eren said. His grip on Levi’s shoulders was growing painful. “I don’t get a say in it? I’m the other half of us, Levi. I get a fucking say in this!”

“You can do whatever you want—I can’t make you, but I’m not doing this anymore.”

“Oh fuck you!” Eren growled, shoving Levi roughly away, Levi stumbling on his feet at the sudden force. “That’s the same thing as having no choice. That’s the same as me having no say in this.”

“Fine,” Eren said, powered along by his anger as he approached Levi, Levi taking a step back every time Eren moved closer to him, until Levi felt his back hit the front door. “Toss me away.” He planted a hand on the door next to Levi’s head, his other hand grabbing Levi by the front of his T-shirt. Levi tensed, ready to push Eren away if he needed to.

But then Eren’s face went blank. Slowly, each finger loosening from his hold on Levi’s shirt, Eren pulled away.

Levi wanted Eren to become angrier, but he didn’t want this. He didn’t want to watch Eren looking defeated and lost. “Eren—” Levi began but didn’t have any words.

“Is it really over between us?” Eren asked softly.

Levi sucked in a breath.

“Yeah.”

The finality of his word hurt more than he expected.

“Let’s do it one last time,” Eren said.

Levi froze.

Eren shuffled slowly to Levi, his head hung low. “Let me touch you one last time.”

Levi shifted his eyes to meet Eren’s at last, but Eren was the one to avert his gaze this time. Levi wanted Eren to yell at him, scream at him, any expression of anger, anything but the acceptance of defeat. This wasn’t Eren. Eren didn’t accept losses so easily. Eren was a fighter to the core.

“Eren,” Levi said, but stopped himself when he realized that all along, he had wanted Eren to stop him. It was a weakness that he didn’t expect from himself. “Trust in yourself and do not regret your choices” was a model that he had always lived by and had taught to Eren in the past, but now, he had become so weak and so emotionally reliant that he couldn’t recognize himself anymore.

And he had dragged Eren into this.

"What have we become?" There was a humorless chuckle, and Levi realized that it was coming from him.

"We are who we’ve always been, Levi," Eren said.

And then there they were, across each other, the wide expanse of the blue sea stretching beyond them, the smell of salt tickling his nose, the seagulls soaring above, the cold air numbing his fingers. Levi tightened his grips around the hilts of the blades, the sunlight glinting on the metal. “A clean cut to severe the spine at the back of the neck” was the order, and Levi stepped forward, sand scrunching under his boots.

Levi looked at Eren whose back was to him, head bowed forward, waiting for his execution, and Levi thought about the boy who had vowed to defeat the titans for humanity,  the soldier who lived on a promise made to those who had lost, and the man who vowed to fight for the freedom that their humanity had never known.  

Levi lowered his blades.

"We are who we’ve always been, Levi," Eren had said, as if sensing Levi’s hesitation. "Soldiers for humanity, then and now."

"We are," Levi agreed and lifted his blades.

But Levi forcefully yanked himself from that memory before he could reach the end that he had never wanted. 

"Eren," Levi whispered.

"Yeah?" Eren gingerly cupped Levi’s chin with his hands. Levi didn’t notice how close Eren’s face was to his until he felt Eren’s breaths brushing warmly against his cheeks.

"We’re brothers, Eren," Levi said. "We can’t do this to ourselves anymore. We have everything that we could ever wish for in this life." Things that they couldn’t have in the past. Peace. Freedom. Family. "We can’t lose it all for this."

 ”I know.” Eren swallowed heavily. “I look at our parents, at my friends, at everything that I’m so lucky to have, and I just feel so guilty for not feeling bad about fucking everything up just for my selfish wants. For us.”

Eren should move on to bigger and better things than him, Levi realized. Eren deserved this.

"I thought that you would give me a different answer," Eren said. "I wished that you would say that it was going to be alright and that we’ll be okay."

Levi couldn’t possibly do that, even though he wanted to so badly.

"I know. I’m sorry," Levi whispered before pulling Eren by the shirt and fitted their mouths together. 

Levi knew that he had to let Eren go. Levi knew that he had to let Eren lived the life he never had the chance to live. Levi knew that even if it pained him, he needed to watch Eren matured and learned and made friends and fell in love with someone that could make him happy.

Levi knew all of these things.

But for the moment, he wanted to have at least this small thing for himself.

 

***

 

They hastily shuffled to the bed, Eren tugging off his shoes, and Levi quickly pulling off his shirt before Eren pushed him into the mattress. The bed creaked under the sudden weight, and Levi only had a few seconds to worry that they might make too much noise for the neighbors before Eren captured his lips again, hot touches roaming over Levi’s skin. Levi returned the favor, tugged at Eren’s sweater, and slipped his hands under Eren’s shirt, running his fingers all over Eren’s body and hungrily taking in every detail that he had forgotten from months ago and all the new ones that he didn’t have the chance to know. Eren moaned into Levi’s mouth, and he broke their kiss to place wet open mouth kisses down Levi’s neck to his chest, and Levi arched his back to Eren’s kisses, wanting more.

Levi’s hands slid away from Eren’s skin, and he pulled at Eren’s sweater, desperate for more skin contact. Eren got the hint and pulled it off, and Levi ground his hip against Eren to hurry him along. Eren fumbled with his shirt for a moment, distracted by Levi’s hip, but he managed to get his shirt off and tossed it behind him, returning his attention to trailing a hot tongue down Levi’s skin.

"Ahhh, Eren," Levi groaned as Eren went lower and lower until he reached the waistband of Levi’s sweatpants. Eren must have grown bolder over the months that Levi wasn’t with him, or perhaps he was as desperate as Levi was, knowing that this would be the last time, because he quickly tugged Levi’s pants down without a warning, while Levi shimmering his lower body so that Eren could get his pants off.

Eren stopped all of a sudden, and Levi was about to berate him when Eren shook his head and said, “Sorry. It’s just—I forgot how much I miss you.”

Eren’s eyes roamed over Levi’s body then, and Levi shivered, feeling more naked under Eren’s gaze than he was a second ago. “Did you miss me or my body?”

"I miss everything about you," Eren said. 

Suddenly it was hard to breathe.

"Well, I miss what your mouth can do," Levi said, hoping that his crude words would dispel this weight in his chest and make Eren stop looking at him like he was everything.

Eren scoffed and then the amusement in his eyes dimmed away as fast as it came. He crawled over Levi until his face was only an inch above Levi’s and murmured. “I’ll make sure you will miss more than that.” Levi didn’t miss the bitterness in Eren’s words.

Levi wanted to say that Eren didn’t have to try because he already started to miss everything about Eren. Eren was within his reach, yet, he wasn’t. He was here in front of Levi, but he would always be the one that Levi had always wanted but could never get.

But at least, Eren would be alive.

Levi tried to console himself with that thought.

"Show me," Levi ordered, and Eren wasted no time in capturing Levi’s lips once more.

 Eren touched Levi as if Levi was going to disappear from his reach in any moment. Levi was doing the same, nearly smiling at the slight stubble around Eren’s jawline, the developing muscles underneath his touch, probably from weight training, the bit of light freckles peppering his nose that Levi didn’t notice from afar. Levi undid the button and pulled down the zipper of Eren’s pants, Eren’s body tensed as Levi tugged the jeans and underwear down to his upper thighs, barely enough to free Eren’s cock. Eren swallowed, and Levi tried to remember the bobbing of his Adam’s apple, the way he clenched his eyes tightly as if he was trying hard not to come, the tickling of his hair on Levi’s shoulder. Eren’s hair smelled like apples, like the orchard in autumn, and Levi tried to remember that too.  

A crinkling sound, and Levi wanted to laugh because Eren had brought packets of lube with him. “Someone wanted to get lucky.”

Eren wasted no time in slicking his fingers. “I’m not relying on luck.” He chuckled.

"Oh, cocky here, aren’t we?"

Levi felt lighter at the sound of Eren’s laugh even if the weight pushing down on his chest was still there. He was going to miss this too, Eren’s laughs, and he didn’t know how he was going to feel when Eren found someone else that made him laugh. 

Eren slowly slid in a finger, and Levi tensed. Eren stopped, but Levi wrapped his arms around Eren’s neck and pulled him closer.

"Keep going," Levi whispered in Eren’s ear.

"I don’t know. Are you sure?" Eren was hesitant. "We haven’t…we haven’t done this before, not like this."

"Do it," Levi said. "I want you to." It was the last thing Levi could give Eren, the last thing Levi could accept for himself.

Levi could feel Eren’s heart racing against his skin. He wondered if Eren could feel his heart too.

"Alright," Eren said, and finger slowly sliding in deeper. Levi took in deep breaths and let them out slowly, willing himself to relax as Eren added another finger. Eren was gentle, wet fingers slicking Levi inside, and Levi rolled his hip to the touch, needing more. Eren didn’t quite know what he was doing, probably going off by Levi’s cues alone, and even though Levi felt so open and vulnerable to Eren’s touches, Levi wanted to give this to Eren when he couldn’t give Eren the feelings that he would keep forever hiding inside. 

"Is it good?" Eren asked tentatively.

"It’s fine," Levi said even though he wanted to say that it wasn’t okay because he couldn’t stop dreading that this would all be over.

Don’t think about it.

Eren added a third finger, and Levi bit his lips to stop a whine from escaping his lips, his hip twitching under Eren’s. It was good, but it wasn’t quite enough for Levi, so he let go of Eren’s neck and wrapped his hands around their cocks, urging Eren on with a thrust of his lower body and a stoke of his hands. Eren buckled in response and almost lost his balance, his fingers accidentally grazed over a spot inside Levi that made Levi jerked from the bed, vision whiting out for a second as he felt the jolt all the way to his cock. 

"F—fuck," Levi groaned, unable to hide the sound from escaping his throat any longer. Eren, spurred on by Levi’s response, began to tease that spot over and over again, and Levi knew that if Eren kept going he was going to come. "Eren, don’t. I’m too close."

Levi didn’t want this to end just yet.

But his brother was a little shit because he kept rubbing against that spot until Levi was close to the edge, the body heat between them slicking Levi’s skin with sweat, the burn in Levi’s lower body building up to a nearly unbearable pressure, and Levi waited for another touch to bring him over the edge.

Just as Levi waited for it, Eren pulled his fingers out. Levi writhed his body at the hollow feeling, and his voice was almost to a whine. “Eren, what are you—”

Eren rubbed the head of his cock against the cleft of Levi’s ass as an answer, smearing hot precum until it trailed down Levi’s skin. Levi pushed his hip back and spread his thighs apart, urging Eren to hurry it up, but Eren had been a shitty brother and an even shittier lover because he took his time to nudge at Levi’s entrance but refused to enter, as if he enjoyed watching Levi twitching underneath him and begging for it.

"Keep doing that and I’m going to jerk myself off, I don’t care what you want to do," Levi growled, even though that was most definitely a lie.

Eren let out an amused huff of breath before thrusting forward, entering Levi with a wet sound. Levi clutched tightly at Eren’s back and burried his face in Eren’s shoulder. They both froze for a moment, Levi trying to adjust to the sudden feeling of being completely filled with Eren, and Eren probably trying to still the twitching of his hip from further movement until Levi was ready.

"T-tight," Eren whimpered into Levi’s ear.

They both tried to catch their breaths. Eren’s hip continued to shift slightly back and forth in desperation, but Levi was too busy trying to calm himself down before he came too early.

"Levi, can I—?"

"Yeah," Levi sighed, trying to savor the sensation.

Eren began to move, and Levi dug his nails into Eren’s back as Eren pulled out and shoved roughly into him, the white ceiling above them blurred with Eren’s every movement. It burned so much that the tip of his nose began to sting, but Levi swallowed down the groan of pain that threatened to break from his lips. The dorm room was too small for them, the air was too hot, the smell of apples and sweat too heavy, and each of Eren’s desperate thrust reminded Levi of summer with their secret touches and hushed voices.

"Eren," Levi dug his nails deeper into Eren’s back. "Slow down."

Eren didn’t reply, but his movements did slow into steady circular thrust, and oh, that was it, that was good. Levi rolled his hip against Eren, and Eren quickly grabbed Levi’s waist and moved Levi’s hip along with his own. Eren’s hands had gotten large, Levi realized, as he felt the hard and firm grip, fingers spreading from below his waist to his lowest rib.

"You have large hands," Levi gasped.

"You like?" Eren murmured, voice rough. "You probably do, with how much of my fingers you took in."

"Less talking and more work." Levi wrapped his legs around Eren and ground his erection against Eren’s stomach, and that felt even better. "Eren," Levi moaned, and Eren lifted his head from Levi’s shoulder to nibble at the skin below Levi’s jaw, earning a moan from Levi in the process. Levi knew that he was close, the pressure building in his cock was becoming too much.

Eren gave Levi a particularly cruel thrust that ripped a climax from him, and Levi dug his heels into Eren’s thighs, gasping as he came messily in between them. Levi’s legs began to gave away and fell from Eren’s back, his body feeling boneless and spent, but Eren’s hands shifted down to grabbed Levi’s hip hard.  

"It’s not over yet," Eren growled, speeding up his thrusts.  Levi felt boneless, but each raw shove still sent a jolt to his softening cock, and his skin was oversensitive, every graze of Eren’s sweat-slicked body against his felt agonizingly good.  

Levi had a strange thought amidst his warm post-orgasm haze that he wanted Eren to take more of him, all of him, eveything before the coldness of the reality awaiting their decision settled in. All of Levi was Eren’s for this moment, as all of Eren was Levi’s. 

Eren’s body tensed, and he began to pull out of Levi, but Levi used all of his remaining strength to wrapped his legs around Eren’s once more, trapping him in place. “Wait, Levi—I’m—” But before Eren could finish his sentence, he collapsed on top of Levi, crying out as he came. Levi gasped as Eren released deep inside of him. It was wet, hot, and gross, but Levi waited patiently for Eren to catch his breath, taking comfort in Eren’s overheated body all around him.

Levi closed his eyes, basking in the warmth.

It was over.

At last, Eren pried himself from Levi, slowly pulling out with a slick sound. Levi made a noise from the back of his throat in protest, but didn’t stop Eren. He waited for Eren to slump back on to the bed next to him.

Something wet and warm hit Levi’s cheek. Then another. And another.

Levi opened his eyes. 

"S—sorry." Eren wiped his eyes. "I—" He paused, looking at Levi with wet eyes. His lips trembled, but he molded them back into a firm line. "I’m fine. I should go."

"Eren, wait," Levi sat up, but Eren quickly got off the bed and fumbled for his clothes. Levi swung his feet over the edge of the bed and attempted to stand, but a sharp pain shot up his lower back, and he nearly collapsed onto the floor had it not been for an anchoring hand on the bed. Eren hastily pulled his pants back on and zipped them up, and he was about to grab his shirt and sweater when Levi reached him, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Eren."

Eren jerked away, and when Levi reached for him again, he jumped from Levi’s touch. 
“Leave me,” Eren cried out, his fingers grappling at his shirt, but he couldn’t get it to turn inside-out. One of the sleeves was stuck inside the sweater, and Eren was trying to get it out with his shaking fingers to no avail.

"Eren, calm down," Levi said. "Let me help."

Eren threw the ball of shirt and sweater at the door. It bounced off the wood with a heavy thump.

Levi took in a sharp breath.

"What am I supposed to do, Levi?" Eren’s voice cracked mid-sentence, and Levi didn’t want to watch Eren falling apart like this. "I don’t want us to end."

Eren collapsed onto the floor, curling his legs and slumping his forehead against his knees. Levi knew that Eren was trying not to cry, but Levi had known Eren since before he was born, so Levi recognized it right away, Eren’s pressing the back of his wrist against his mouth to muffle his sobs.

Levi fell to his knees next to Eren.

It caught on to them quickly, the cold reality, the weight of Levi’s choice. There was nothing left to say. But even though Levi told himself that he wasn’t going to feel regret, his heart didn’t seem to listen to him. He didn’t want to hurt Eren, not like this.

Eren had already walked down this path with Levi. There was a phantom weight on Levi’s hands, heavy like the blades that used to be strapped by his sides, and Levi knew that his choice now was the right one because Eren had lost everything then, and now, if Eren repeated this choice, he would lose everything again.

And who was Levi to force Eren to sacrifice everything?

"Eren, we will always be brothers, and I will always be there for you,” said Levi. “But I can’t be more than that.”

"I know," Eren mumbled. "I was hoping that you would say something different."

"I can’t. You know that."

"I know."

Perhaps they were never meant to be together this way. Not in the past, and not now.

"I’ll always watch over you," Levi promised, knowing that he would have to watch as Eren grew up, fell in love, married, be happy with a person who could give him a future that wouldn’t require Eren to lose everything. His chest stretched tightly at this thought, but this wasn’t only about him.

"Promise?" Eren said, and Levi thought of a younger Eren sharing a red scarf with him, asking if they could stay together forever.

"I promise."

They sat there together for a long time.

Levi didn’t want to let go until he had to.

 

***

 

Eren took the train home the next day. Levi took the bus with him to the train station.

Their hands intertwined between them.

Levi let Eren rested his head against his shoulder until they reached the final stop.

The bus only had a group of uni students who didn’t return home for break heading to the next city for more excitement than this quiet college town. It was loud with the chattering and laughter and shouting of people, but to Levi, it was so quiet because all he could hear was Eren’s soft breathing next to his ear.

 

***

 

Eren left.

They made plans for Christmas, but there was a void inside Levi that nothing could fill.

 

***

 

Levi returned to his dorm in the evening. The room felt so empty when it felt so much livelier a few hours ago when Eren was still here. Levi turned on the light, and it only made the emptiness even harder to look at. At least in the dark, it was hidden.

Levi blinked once. Twice.

There was something familiar draped over his desk chair. Levi shrugged his coat off and placed it on the bed. He walked to his desk and gingerly pulled Eren’s red scarf from the chair.

Words from the past returned to him.

 

“I want to share a scarf with Levi!”

 

“I want to stay with Levi forever!”

 

Levi tightened his grip on the scarf. Eren’s voice kept echoing in his ears.

 

“Good morning.”

 

“We’ll still have each other no matter what.”

 

And the words that Levi had always kept closest to his heart.

 

“I love you,” Eren had said.

 

“I love you too,” Levi thought, and buried his face in Eren’s scarf to let out the tears that he had been holding in for Eren’s sake.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Hanji was the last person that Levi wanted to see after the Thanksgiving episode, but nevertheless there she was right in front of him, waiting in line for an early morning coffee. An oversized parka was draped over her form, and her glasses flashed with a hint of fluorescent blue from the light hanging above them.

"I'm sorry that I crossed a line" was the first thing she said to him.

Levi waved it off. She wasn't wrong at the time. He just didn't want to talk about it.

"How are you doing?" she asked.

"Fine."

Hanji had a scrutinizing look about her that Levi didn't like. The last time that Hanji had that look, she struck Levi deep without much effort.

"How's Eren doing?"

Levi's heart leapt in his chest, but he gradually calmed down once he realized that she couldn't possibly know. He watched the expression on her face—friendly, all smiles—and couldn't find any sign that she knew about Eren.

"He's doing better," Levi said.

Hanji nodded and didn't push further. "You ready for exams?"

"No one is," said Levi, feeling at ease with the change of topic.

"You're camping out at the library?"

"The dorm is too distracting."

"Which library?"

"Physics. It's the cleanest."

Hanji smiled.

She asked if she could join him. He said that he didn't care if she followed.

Levi ended up with a study buddy who would watch his stuff in the library when he needed to piss. Hanji was quiet but made enough small noises next to him by shifting in her chair and softly thumping her books, to make Levi feel less like he was by himself.

 

***

 

 

Levi hasn't received a single text or call from Eren since then.

He had expected this, but checking his phone every few hours to find nothing was more difficult than he thought.

 

 

***

 

 

What Levi discovered in the time he spent with Hanji was that everyone liked her. She was just the right combination of brilliance, enthusiasm, and friendliness that it was difficult not to like her. It was weird to see her without Moblit, and perhaps the lack of his presence was the reason why Hanji seemed a lot more subdued than Levi remembered her.

"You're a lot different from what I remember," Levi said suddenly one evening as they walked back to the dorms.

"I grew up," Hanji replied. Her parka rustled as she tugged at the straps of her backpack.

Levi knew they meant two completely different things, but it didn't matter because Hanji wouldn't know anyway. "You're a lot different now without your babysitter."

It was only six, and the sky was already pitch black. Levi saw Hanji's white puff of breath as she spoke. "It's quieter now without him."

Levi tugged at the bottom of his gloves so they covered his wrists properly. He wondered how long this conversation could continue before Hanji realized he wasn't talking about her father. "He deserves a retirement for what you put him through."

Hanji laughed.

Levi felt strangely liberated, as though the truths which were bound tight inside him were being untied one by one, even though he knew they were having two different conversations.

"He's my superior at work now, actually," Hanji said. "He's moving east next spring."

Levi's mind was reeling at this information. There was something playfully sad in the voice.

"Levi."

At Hanji's sharp voice, Levi stopped in his tracks and turned around. She had stopped several paces back, her lips in a tight, thin line as she met Levi square in the eyes. That scrutinizing gaze that Levi didn't like was back again, and he was about to ask what the hell was wrong with her when Hanji spoke, her voice crisp in the quiet winter air.

"Moblit's getting married. That's why he's moving."

Levi froze.

His mind scrambled to recall whether Hanji had ever mentioned Moblit in the past, but he couldn't find any instance where she had. There was still a pessimistic part of him that wanted to crush his hope, however. Perhaps Hanji mentioned him before, but Levi had forgotten.  

"Do you remember Moblit?" Hanji asked hesitantly, the sharpness in her voice slowly dissolving to uncertainty, the scrutinizing gaze faded to disappointment. Suddenly it hit him, the fact that Hanji remembered. She was the only one aside from him who remembered.

"I do," Levi said. He swallowed. "I remember everything."

At first, Hanji kept staring at him as if she couldn't believe him. "What does that mean, everything?"

"It means that I remember saving your sorry ass from the titans."

Hanji let out a choked sob. She covered her mouth with her hand and collapsed into a crouch. Levi lurched forward on instinct to catch her, but stopped immediately when he realized that she was laughing, of all things.

"I take it back." Levi stood back as Hanji got back to her feet. "You haven't changed. You make as much sense now as you did back then."

"I can't believe out of all the people you're the one who remembers." She tilted her head curiously at him. "I always thought that you would be the first to gladly forget everything."

"Why?"

"If you could forget those pointless deaths, you would."

"They didn't die in vain," Levi said tightly.

Hanji took a second to study the expression on his face. Levi would have dared her to argue with him, but he didn't know if he could win. It was much easier now to say that those deaths meant something in the bigger scheme of things.

Hanji got back on her feet. "Did you find anyone else from our past?"

"My brother, you know him," Levi answered.

"Does he remember?"

"No." Levi sighed in a long white puff of breath. They kept walking in silence. Hanji didn't know what to say and Levi didn't feel like explaining himself. His situation was self-explanatory.

All the leaves were gone from the trees now. All that was left were the ghost-like branches that casted arms of shadow over the spilling streetlights on the sidewalk. Levi felt the chill seeping through his pants and crawling up his legs, and he remembered fall campaigns and long nights of keeping watch over the bare tree tops.

"I didn't find anyone else who remembered." Hanji broke the silence. "I found Mike, but...he had to go to therapy. He probably saw something worse than titans before he died, and I didn't want to bring it up. He thinks it's all a dream and I'd rather that it stays that way."

"I found Erwin," said Levi. "He was on my junior high baseball team. I found my old squad too. No one remembered, and they all moved on with their lives." It was strange that the people that were once by his side all drifted away with the current of life. There was nothing that bound them to him anymore, no war, no duty.

People in modern time moved a lot more than they used to.

"I wished back then that we could someday forget all of it, but now that I'm alone I wish that someone would remember with me," Hanji said.

"You can't force people to live in the past." Levi kicked a rock in front of him. It bounced off the road and landed in the grass. "We can't force ourselves to live in the past either."

"Right." Hanji nodded, but her voice sounded far off.

Levi told himself it was fine to let things go.

 

***

 

 

The hours Levi spent waiting for Eren's contact stretched into days, into weeks, and eventually, Levi stopped checking.

 

***

 

 

A month had passed since Levi last talked to Eren.

 

***

 

 

It was Christmas.

 

***

 

 

Levi dreaded going home.

 

***

 

 

Her name was Annie, and she was a nice girl.

She sat next to Eren and across from Levi at the dinner table. Her dry humor made everyone laugh. Even his father, who never seemed to like anyone, liked Annie.

Eren didn't meet his eyes.

When he did, it was only a brief second before he turned to their parents and said, "We're going to be okay."

"Armin and Mikasa will be there too," Annie added in her soft but strong voice.

Levi calmly ground his dull knife into the steak to keep himself from staring at them and noticing that Annie's hand was definitely on Eren's knee under the table.  

 

***

 

 

No one noticed.

Levi watched them, and no one noticed.

Not even Eren.

 

***

 

 

Levi wanted someone to notice. He didn't know who, but he wanted someone to know.

It couldn't be Eren anymore.

Eren would know.

 

***

 

 

Eren went on a ski trip with his girlfriend and a group of friends.

 

***

 

 

The temperature dropped sharply over the next few days, though there was no snow. Levi wrapped himself in many layers of clothes before treading down the road filled with leafless trees. His mother kept a gloved hand around his elbow.

The path curved around the park. Soft laughter echoed in the air from the playground, bumping against the occasional cheer from the nearby baseball diamond. By the time the laughter reached Levi and his mother though, it was only a small cluster of ringing bells.

They stopped at a small bench in a secluded part of the park. A woman was laying out in the sun, engrossed in a book, her dog running about with her kid.

"I remember how you used to play baseball every summer in junior high," his mother said, watching a kid rush to third base.

At the reminder, Levi could vaguely recall it.  It was a distant but happy memory, overshadowed by the many things that happened later on in his life. "I don't remember it much."

"You were very good."

"Was I?"

"You were."

A moment of silence, and then his mother spoke. "Do you still talk to Erwin?"

"No," Levi said. They were friends, but they weren't close. Once they went to different high schools, that was the end of their friendship.

That was how most people in Levi's life were to him: leaves floating down a river current, twisting and turning down a waterfall to where he was - a still and unmoving stone. Some of them stopped, but eventually they all washed away from him, nothing but distant flashes of gold or orange downstream, faint memories in his mind.

And Levi was fine with that because Eren was always there, a constant in his life. Another stone by his side. But rain and storm and harsh weather came, and Eren too, wore away from him, until the next morning Levi looked by his side to find Eren there no longer.

"I haven't gone for a walk since you left home." His mother let out a small sigh. She turned to him and, in an old habit, fixed the scarf around his neck. She didn't have to do much because Levi always dressed neatly, but he enjoyed the attention because it had been a while since she fussed over him.

"Is this Eren's scarf?"

"Yes," Levi answered.

Carla studied him carefully. "Did you have a fall out with Eren?"

Levi considered denying it, but he remembered how she would pull at Eren's ear if she caught him lying, and he decided against it.

"We're okay now."

Carla nodded and squeezed his hand. Levi watched the ridges of wrinkles on her rough hands and thought about the old days. They were good old days. They were bad old days. But they happened. Completed. Done.

"He loves you," said Carla, startling Levi. "We all love you. I understand that I can't expect you to stay near us forever, but we're always a place that you can return to."

Levi swallowed. "I know."

It was nice to be reminded. Sometimes, it was easy to forget.

He wondered then if he should tell her - not everything of course, just hints - but the possibility of hurting her, hurting everyone, the image of her face twisting into horror, and the prospect of both him and Eren losing the one place they could return to, all of it was too much to risk.

"It's fine," said Levi, knowing his mother was worried but feeling too guilty about what he had done to face her.

She squeezed his hand one more time for good measure.

"If something is bothering you, you can always tell me."

"I know."

Levi squeezed back.

 

***

 

 

Hanji called him over winter break. Her dad was attending a funeral, and she was home alone and bored.

"I should have visited you instead," Levi said out of frustration. He didn't even know Hanji that well.

"No, Levi," Hanji sighed. "No."

She was right.

 

***

 

 

Eren didn't return on time to see Levi before he left.

 

***

 

 

"That brat didn't even give me a call back," Levi shouted drunkenly into Hanji's shoulder.

Hanji carefully lifted Levi to his feet. "Hey guys, we'll be leaving now," she said. The people sitting at the table scooted to give them space, and Levi stumbled over several laps before they made it out of the bar.           

The cold air did nothing to sober Levi up.

"He really moved on without looking back," Levi laughed bitterly. That was it, wasn't it? He had hoped that Eren would stop him.

He was so, so stupid.

"Did you really want him to look back though?" Hanji asked, huffing slightly with Levi's heavy body swaying about.

"Yes."

"No, no you don't," Hanji muttered.

"Yes I do," Levi scowled. "Stop putting words in my mouth."

"Alright, fine," Hanji sighed in irritation. "Fine."

"I do, and I don't," Levi admitted. He wanted Eren to be happy, but he didn't want himself to feel hurt. He didn't want Eren to leave him behind, but if Eren didn't leave him behind, Eren wouldn’t be happy, and besides, Eren would leave him someday anyway. That didn't make sense. Did it make sense, Hanji? Hanji?

 

***

 

 

Months later, it came unexpectedly one day when Levi was grabbing dinner in the dining hall. The text was simple and short.

"I'm okay."

"Good," Levi thought, although his mind and his feelings said very different things.

Eren was going to be okay without him.

 

***

 

 

Levi saw him sometimes, the ghost of his past, lingering in his reflection in the mirror every morning. A green cloak that once belonged to him, a worn out but neat shirt, a cravat that he once wore, a deep frown that was once tattooed deep into his brow, and the scars that were once his ran over the skin of the man in his reflection.  Levi could still feel the muscle strength that he no longer had, the tension in his body that had now evaporated with the changing time.

But he didn't recognize that person anymore. There was someone who was once willing to sacrifice everything for humanity because he knew it would all be lost in time, but Levi couldn't fit himself back into that mold.

"Are you happy now?" a petty part within Levi asked.

The man in the mirror didn't have an answer for him.

Levi lived to repay the guilt of Eren's shortened life.

Now that debt was paid.

It was over. Done.

"Both of you are free," the Corporal seemed to say without moving his lips.

And just like that, he was gone.

 

***

 

 

All the dreams of the past stopped haunting Levi.

That was that.

It was over.

 

***

 

 

Freedom felt an awful lot like loneliness.

 

***

 

 

Levi let go and went down river.

 

***

 

 

It was by complete accident that Levi bumped into Erwin again. Erwin got back into Levi's life via a flyer shoved into his face and an annoying insistence for Levi to vote for him in the election for student council.

"You’ve got to be kidding me," Levi thought as he stared at Erwin’s fancy blue shirt in disbelief - more because he didn't expect to see Erwin again and less because there was something particularly unusual about his appearance.

Although, Levi noticed with more glee than he should have, Erwin would probably have a receding hairline when he grew older.

He tried to avoid Erwin's advertising like an experienced college student who was dodging unwanted flyers, but when he found out later that Erwin was in the Speech and Rhetoric Club that Levi had reluctantly joined for easy units, Levi had to take a flyer.

And that was how Levi was re-acquainted with Erwin Smith, who was now a poly-sci major that, upon graduating, wanted to do something ridiculous involving politics that Levi didn't care for.  

An interesting thing Levi discovered, though: Hanji and Erwin did not get along well because Hanji went environmental-protection mode in this lifetime, and Erwin accidentally stuck a foot into his mouth when he talked about the environment.

They were both decent drinking buddies though.

There was something calming about nodding off to the sound of their loud chattering.

Levi had the best sleep he'd ever had in a while on Erwin's couch.

 

***

 

 

"You remember when we used to play baseball back in middle school?" Erwin asked out of the blue one day. He didn't mention it when they met again, so Levi didn't think the topic would come up.

"Yeah," Levi said. "Why?"

"Nothing, I just remember that you had such a brother complex back then. Eren followed you around everywhere," Erwin leaned back against the couch, tossing the game controller on the coffee table. "It's strange just seeing one of you now. Is he doing alright?"

"He's fine," Levi said curtly. The "game over" sign flashing on the screen became much more interesting than it had been a minute before.

"He's still in high school right?"

"Yeah."

"That's good."

"We both grew out of the brother complex thing."

"Did you?" There was a strange inflection in Erwin's tone, and Levi turned to him, heart racing, wondering if Erwin too remembered.

But nothing in those eyes indicated that Erwin's past followed him. They were just curious. "Might as well, right? You two can't stick by each other's side forever."

"No, we can't."

They didn't talk about Eren at all after that.

 

***

 

 

Levi was slowly adjusting.

 

 

***

 

Erwin was as magnetizing now as he was in the past. He pulled people to him without much effort. Hanji and Levi were both attracted to his charisma, and soon enough Levi was seeing more and more of them both every week.

"It's not the same," Hanji said. Her eyes looked wistful.

Levi watched as Erwin fussed over new approaches for the campaign with his student manager while Hanji kicked Levi's ass in a game of chess, again.

"No, it's not," Levi agreed.

"I'm relieved that it's not," Hanji said.

"I can't believe you guys came over just to eat my food and not help," Erwin shouted across the room. He frowned when Hanji took a handful of chips and shoved them in her mouth.  

Levi took another Doritos from the bag and munched on it without guilt.

"We're helping you in spirit."

Besides, student council was kind of stupid. It was, however, at least better than Sina's mess of a government.

 

***

 

 

Levi switched his major to econ. It was a much better fit.

 

***

 

 

Erwin got in student council and seemed very determined to change the university. As if he could.

But then again, this was Erwin.

Some things were different. Some things stayed the same.

 

***

 

Levi got work over the summer and sent a text to Eren.

“I’m okay now.”

And that was that.

 

***

 

 

Hanji was hilarious when she stressed out over exams. Hilarious.

“I want to quit,” she said, even though she didn’t want to quit at all. “I’m going to quit and pack up my things and move to live by the beach.”

At the mention of the ocean, Levi thought of Eren and their promise back when they were children.

It all seemed like so long ago.

It was funny how the hurt and the coldness that were so overwhelming before were nothing but a small twinge now. He wondered if in time, Eren would become that much smaller in his life.

“Wanna come?”

“No,” Levi snorted. “You want to be stupid? You got to do it alone.”

 

***

 

 

They were waiting for the next train. Occasionally, the cold morning air from above came in a strong gust of wind whistling down the tunnels of escalators and stairs. Levi zipped up his jacket and put his hands in his pockets as another wave of chill hit him.  Meanwhile, Erwin, completely unaffected by the cold, was surfing the internet on his phone.

Levi looked at the wall across from him. A line of old advertising posters were on the wall, running from one end of the tunnel track to the other end, until they disappeared into the dark hole that swallowed the rest of them.   

Levi shivered as another gust of wind hit him.

“Erwin?”

“Yeah?” Erwin said, sounding distracted because he was on his phone.

“Thank you.”

That got Erwin’s full attention. Erwin looked at Levi, puzzled, his thumb pressing at the button to turn off the screen of his phone. “For what?”

“For letting me join.” Actually, it was more like Erwin made him, but that was beside the point. “It gave me something to look forward to.”

Levi didn’t regret joining the Survey Corp, and he didn’t regret that Erwin came into his life, whether it was then or now. It was easier telling him this when he knew Erwin wouldn’t understand the true meaning of his words.

“You hate going to these political rallies,” Erwin said, skeptical of Levi’s sincerity and completely missing Levi’s meaning. His frown deepened. “If this is about me shouting at you yesterday, I didn’t mean it. I was stressed out from the council meeting—”

Levi shook his head in amusement.

Erwin stared.

“Well,” Erwin turned on his phone again as if he was hiding his gaze from Levi. “You don’t have to thank me for anything. I just like having you around.”

Levi turned away because he couldn’t look at Erwin anymore. “You’re so lame.”

Erwin shrugged.

Hanji was right. Levi was glad that things were different this time around.

 

***

 

 

It was the right choice for both him and Eren.

Things had to be different this time around.

 

***

 

 

They went out to some sort of action movie. Avengers the fourth movie, probably. Levi wasn’t sure; this was Hanji’s nerding out area. They passed a bulletin board, plastered with too many flyers and no actual university news, where some artistic asshole decided to paint giant letters over all the flyers. Bloody red paint streaked over the neon papers: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn—Ernest Hemingway.” It was part of the literature department’s protest against the new cuts they made this year.

“For sale: English degree, never used,” Levi mumbled, feeling particularly bitter that day because the same group of protesters had spammed the econ department too, and Levi had had to help the TA cleaned up the mess.

A passerby glared at Levi.

“That’s mean,” Hanji laughed, but she didn’t sound particularly scornful.

“It’s nothing personal,” Levi said, watching as the passerby walked away. “At least mine is relevant. What’s the point of rewriting a quote that has nothing to do with the stupid protest?”

“Let them be. It doesn’t hurt for you to be nicer this time around.”

That gave Levi pause for a moment.

Then, “I am nicer this time around.”

Hanji hummed a disbelieving noise.

Levi rolled his eyes.

 

***

 

 

“I really tried,” Levi told Hanji later, after the movie.

“Tried what?” She asked, their conversation before the movie was already lost to her.

“To be nicer.”

Hanji looked confused. Levi didn’t know why he brought it up either. She frowned, as if trying to decipher the words Levi himself didn’t quite understand.

“It’s good,” she said. “But don’t do it because you’re trying to compensate for guilt that you should have let go.”

Levi swallowed.

“Oh hey, is that Erwin? Erwin! Over here!” She waved excitedly at a blond head buried in a crowd of people several feet ahead of them. Sure enough, Erwin turned back to wave at them. As he wove through the throng of people to get to them, Hanji turned to Levi and said:

“Stop apologizing for things that weren’t your fault and just live on, Levi.”

Erwin greeted them before Levi got a chance to tell Hanji something.

 

 

***

 

Live on?

What did that even mean?

 

***

 

 

“Why haven’t you called home?” was his mother’s angry voice over the phone when he picked it up Sunday morning. He wanted to sleep for an extra hour, but his mother was still not finished with her worried rant. Levi was half-listening until she said, “Eren wants to talk to you.”

Levi snapped awake. “Eren?”

“No, I don’t,” Levi heard a muffled voice say in the background. Tell mom that you have to go, do it, but Levi couldn’t do it. He hadn’t heard from Eren for so long. He told himself that it would be okay even if Eren didn’t want to talk to him - even though in reality it wasn’t.

There was more shuffling in the background. He could imagine it: Eren and his mother’s hushed voices fighting over the phone.

“Levi?”

Levi jumped. He didn’t expect Eren to agree to talk.

“Yeah.”

A moment of silence. It was as if they didn’t know how to talk to each other anymore.

“How are you?”

“Good. You?”

“Good.”

Another silence.

Eren spoke first. “School is better?”

“Yeah,” Levi said. “Why do you ask?”

“You never mentioned school so I thought it was upsetting you somehow. Glad to know you’re doing better now though.”

Levi sat up on his bed. “I didn’t think you noticed.”

“I know you so well. How could I not?”

That was a lie. There were a lot of things Eren didn’t know about him.

Eren didn’t know anything.

“But you don’t know everything.”

Eren didn’t say anything. He was so quiet that Levi had to check to see if he’d hung up.

Soft thump thump of feet rushing up stairs, and then a door creaking closed. Eren was in the sanctuary of his room, Levi guessed.

“Then tell me,” Eren hissed over the phone. “What don’t I know?”

“Eren—” Levi began, but couldn’t finish what he wanted to say.

When he didn’t say anything, Eren spoke. “Did you think I was disgusting?”

“What?”

A pause.

Then, Eren’s voice was a lot softer. “It’s gross right? What I wanted to do with you?” A sharp exhale of breath, and Levi could tell that Eren was trying to hold it in. His voice cracked at the next few words. “I’m broken, aren’t I?”

“No, Eren. You’re not.”

“You think I’m disgusting.”

“I don’t.”

“You let me have what I wanted even though you didn’t want it, and then you had to toss me aside because you couldn’t stand it anymore—”

“That’s not true—”

“Was it that gross being with me?”

“Eren—”

“It was gross, and it was such a relief to fuck me and then get rid of me.”

“Shut up, Eren! Shut up for once and listen to me!”

Eren stopped. Dead silence.

Levi didn’t yell. He had never yelled at Eren before.

But he did.

“I wanted it too,” Levi admitted. “I want you so much I hate myself.”

“You’re never disgusting to me.”

He needed to stop.

“Come back soon,” Eren said.

“No, Eren. We can’t. We can’t lose everything. I don’t want you to lose everything.”

But he wanted to go home. He wanted to see Eren. He wanted to touch Eren.

“Let’s run away,” Eren said.

“We can’t.”

There was something sharp prickling at the bottom of his stomach, a feeling of dread. He had heard this before, not only in this lifetime, but somewhere else.

Then he saw it, the ghost with the green cloak returning to his side, the cold voice echoing in his ears. Back then, he had thought about it every day. Every second that passed as they headed down river, Levi thought about turning to Eren and saying, “Let’s run away.” He thought about giving up everything, the Survey Corp, humanity, the ugly person that he had become and start anew, forever leaving behind the comrades, the ghosts, the duty that bound him to humanity and just run.  

Don’t run, the ghost clamped a cold hand around his wrist. Don’t run from your debt.

“Then just come home for spring break,” Eren said. “I want to see you.”

“I can’t, but I’ll be home for a week over the summer before my internship.”

Don’t.

There was a shackle around his wrists. It tightened.

“Say his full name,” the ghost said, clenching his hands over the left breast pocket where the wings of freedom rested. It was ironic how those wings of freedom bound him to an eternal guilt. “Say it and remember what you have to do.”

“I want to see you too,” Levi said at last, the first honest thing he’s said in a while. “I’ll come home.”

“I can’t wait to see you again,” Eren said, and Levi forgot about the ghost even if it was just for a moment.

 

***

 

 

Levi’s dreams came back.

 

***

 

 

“Eren got stranger after he broke up with Annie,” his mother sighed. “She is such a nice girl too.”

“She is,” Levi answered, feeling glad she couldn’t see his face over the phone. “That’s really too bad.”

“Eren said you’ll be home for a week before your internship?”

“Yeah.”

“He’s probably feeling down after his break up, so you coming home would definitely cheer him up.”

“Yeah,” Levi said. The feeling of guilt was so familiar to him now that he barely took note of it as he continued. “I can’t wait to be home.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

By pure luck, Levi began interning for the district representative, and Erwin had insisted it was because of his skills. Levi was sure he only got the job because of the event planning and data compiling that he was forced to do for Erwin’s political conquest on campus.

As the new intern, he got stuck with coffee duty and copy making of course, but that only lasted about five days before one of the older interns left due to family issues, and everyone on the ladder moved up one step. Levi still had to fetch coffee and make copies of documents, but now he was also allowed to work with a team doing research and help field staffs with casework.

It was strangely exhilarating because everyone was always in motion. Representative Robert Franken had a lot of events on his plate, and all the staffs and interns were scrambling to get things done. Levi came in at the right time because Franken wanted to run for the open senate seat, so he found himself coming in weekends sometimes.

“Do you have those graphs?” Isabel poked her head from behind her laptop, bright red hair flashing under the sunlight from the floor to ceiling glass window.

“Forwarded to you just now.”

“Got it.”  

“Yeager, you’re on coffee duty again. Room 2016.”

Levi groaned, although he was glad to get a chance to get out of his chair. Isabel laughed. He shot her an annoyed expression, but it might have been ruined because of the smile he was trying to suppress.

“Hey, the other interns are planning to go to Benny’s downtown this Friday night. You in?”

His mind flared at the possibility of talking to Isabel and Farlan who was in the other office.

“Yeah, what time?”

 

***

 

A lot of the interns were friends already because they had one or two years on Levi, but Levi found them easy to talk to nonetheless. They were all older than Levi - one of them had graduated already - but they were friendly to him and he only felt awkward with their inner circle jokes once this evening.

He did talk a bit to Isabel and Farlan, but he ended up talking more to Joseph, who was interestingly a bartender before he decided to go to college. There were others too: Erin who graduated early because she was some sort of a bored genius and Ryan who took gap years to backpack and work in Asia and was planning to leave the team after the November election to work there permanently.

Levi liked them as much as he would allow himself to, and his plan to check on Isabel and Farlan became less and less important as the evening rolled by.

Something told Levi that perhaps he couldn’t fit with Isabel and Farlan as well as he used to, but he didn’t feel too much loss over it.

There was no harm in that, changing.

 

***

 

"Are you okay with that, Levi?" Erwin said. "You're never going to see Eren again."

"That's not true," Levi said, his fingers clenching Erwin's desk so tight that he felt the wood might crack under his fingers. The wood remained steady, hard. Unyielding.

He knew that even if Eren died, the shade of Eren's ghost would always haunt him. He wouldn't forget.

He never forgot anyone.

"I always thought that he would outlive us," Erwin admitted, and for the first time in a long while, Levi could finally read the expression in Erwin's face as one of pure exhaustion. "Fortune stood by our side longer than she should." All of Erwin's hair had grayed out, his scalp thinning until only half of his hair remained.

Or misfortune, Levi wanted to say.

They were getting old.

"I would be happy if She stood by the side of my soldiers instead," Levi said. They could have used it. Eren could have used it.

Erwin flattened his palms on the desk. "It has to be you, Levi. You're the only one that Eren trusts with his life."

Levi knew. But it still stung. "Isn't there," he paused. Swallowed. His throat still felt constricted. "An easier way?"

Erwin looked uneasy. "They want his head."

Levi let out a shaky breath.

"There's more to it," Erwin continued. "There are more reasons why it has to be you. The new regime, they want," he hesitated, and Levi wondered what expression he had on his face that warranted this look. "Deference."

"From me?"

"From us."

That made it worse. It meant Eren's death was nothing but symbolic.

Levi felt sick.

If he killed Eren, he didn't think he could return to this humanity, even if they sacrificed so much to save it.

"You don't strike me as someone who follows their orders," Levi gritted out.

Something strange passed Erwin's face, but it was gone too fast for Levi to read. Maybe in another universe, he could read Erwin. Maybe in another universe, they could have been friends.

"No, I suppose not."

 

***

 

It was easy to talk to Erwin precisely because he didn’t remember. If Erwin was surprised Levi came to him instead of Hanji, he didn’t mention it. He simply let Levi pretend to read the same page about activism in Native American music until Levi was ready.

Conveniently, Erwin placed a mug in front of Levi. A tea bag bobbed up and down at the movement. A fresh scent of lemon filled the air.

Erwin sipped on his own steaming cup before placing it on the kitchen table and returning to his open laptop.

“Erwin.”

“I’m listening,” Erwin said without his eyes leaving the laptop screen.

Levi wondered how he should start. Hanji reminded him again and again that he shouldn’t force Erwin’s mind into remembering because it never ended well. She cited Mike as an example. It was one example, but one that haunted her until now.

But Erwin was different, Levi reminded himself.

“Do you ever wonder if we were other people in a past lives?”

“Like in Hinduism? Or like rebirth in Buddhism?” Erwin finally lifted his head to peer at Levi. “Why? Are you going spiritual?”

“I’m not,” Levi huffed. He looked at his hands, mostly unblemished from marks of war.

“It’s really bothering you.”

Erwin’s observation caught Levi off-guard.

“It doesn’t.”

Erwin didn’t bother to hide his skepticism. “It’s very obvious from the look on your face that it does.”

Levi squirmed under his gaze.

“Drink the tea, Levi,” Erwin said gently.

Levi did. Erwin remembered to put in a spoon of honey, he noticed. More silence passed between them, each sip of tea brought a wave of calmness washing away the anxiety he didn’t know was there. Levi stared at Erwin, wondering how he knew. Erwin had returned to his laptop, content to work in silence until Levi was ready.

“Sometimes I wonder if I was someone else in the past,” Levi admitted.

“All of us are different people in the past,” Erwin said. “You were a different person yesterday, and last week, and last year.”

“But that’s not what you’re referring to.” Erwin studied Levi’s face with a strange wonder, as if he was seeing Levi for the first time. It quickly disappeared, replaced with contemplation. “It doesn’t matter does it? If we’re reincarnated from previous lives that we don’t remember, if those even existed in the first place.”  

Levi pressed his fingers hard against the burning ceramic of the mug. “What if you do remember. Everything that you did and everyone that you lost. And what if they’re in front of you again and you know—”

Erwin frowned. Levi flinched, knowing that he should back off. He waited for it, for the moment when realization dawn across Erwin’s face, for any sign for the a gust of wind to scatter away the dust setting over the chest, curiosity gently prying the chest open, a creak of old wood, light peeking out from the small crack of hidden memory.

“Levi,” Erwin said gently. It was a comforting voice that Levi couldn’t have heard from the Commander. “Let’s say that the reincarnation thing does happen. Would you still be my friend if I am not the same person I was in a previous life?”

Levi wasn’t sure. He had paused where Erwin was in the midst of rushing through life because he recognized Erwin. And Levi had stayed. Stayed even though Erwin didn’t remember the past because his warmth was genuine, his smile real, and his heart kind. Levi thought about trying to match Erwin now to the mold he once knew, but they didn’t fit, they never did. He thought about Erwin’s habit of keeping his eyes on a phone or a laptop or a paper, but his ears were always listening and his heart was always open. He thought about Erwin walking into this life and staying there even though Levi didn’t know how to keep him.

Levi’s throat constricted.

“I don’t know if I believe in reincarnation or if I even want to,” Erwin said. When Levi glanced up at him, Erwin was looking at a point beyond his shoulder, eyes far off to a distance that Levi wasn’t sure was still in this world. “I’m content enough with who I am now.”

It hadn’t occurred to Levi that Erwin might not want to remember. He frowned at his reflection in the tea mug.

Erwin could, but Levi could never separate himself from his past. He never thought about what would have happened if he wasn’t anchored to the people he cared about now because of his past life. Would he still care for them?

Would he still love Eren more than he should?

Levi was terrified that he didn’t have an answer to that question.

 

***

 

Eren was swept away with his busy school life, and for once, Levi was glad there was distance between them. Before he feared he would lose Eren, but now he feared that Eren would come too close.

Levi didn't understand what he wanted.

 

***

 

Hanji declared three days in advance that they were driving Friday night right after her midterm so they could make it to the sea Saturday afternoon. Levi's heart jerked at the suggestion.

Erwin, on the other hand, was less than amused. "I was going to go home." As it was, when he called his mother about it, she had insisted that he went on and have fun with his friends. "And say hi to Levi and Hanji for me," he reported his phone call to them. "If I didn't know better, I would say that she was trying to get rid of me."

"She's trying to get you out of the house, Erwin," Levi said. "So make sure the debt she's accumulating for you is worth it."

"Maybe we should stop by the Reserve just for Erwin," Hanji tapped her fingers on the steering wheel thoughtfully, turning to Mike. "What do you think?"

Erwin sighed. "If this is about what I said regarding the rainforest, I didn't mean it." He looked like he was going to tackle on a comment about nature to redeem himself, but wisely refrained because he would most likely fuck it up and sound like a global warming loving bastard.

Mike had been curiously quiet throughout the entire thing. Hanji had placed him in the shotgun hoping that it would coax him out of his shell, but conversations bounced off him despite everyone's efforts. It was understandable since with the exception of Hanji, he'd only met Levi and Erwin today—or at least—the modern counterpart of them.

Levi wondered how much Mike remembered. Probably too much, judging from his eyes. He looked older than he should be.

The drive through the night was pleasant, voided of traffic and noise once they left the city limit, all that was left were the dark shapes of trees that Levi could barely make out. Levi fell asleep to the soft humming of classical music that Mike turned down low once Erwin was knocked out with exhaustion, his face smashed open-mouth against the window.

Hanji and Mike were talking in low murmurs, but Levi couldn't make out what they were saying. The clock on the dashboard was a rectangle of electric blue, and soon it blurred into blackness as Levi drifted off, feeling warm and safe and content.

 

***

 

The feeling of safety was a mistake, as Levi learned the next morning when he awaken to his reflection on the window, his face filled with black scribble of a marker.

"Which one of you?" Levi's voice was sharp.

Hanji shrugged. She had migrated to the back seat with him sometime during the night.

Erwin was driving.

"I know it was you, Erwin," Levi scowled, not feeling as antagonistic as he might have sounded.

"It was actually Mike," Erwin said.

Levi looked at Hanji.

"Mike," she confirmed.

Levi peered at Mike.

Mike didn't say a word.

"It wasn’t Mike," Levi said.

"You sure?"

"...No."

They were all smiling. Even Mike's mustache was twitching in amusement.

"It was Mike?" Levi asked hesitantly.

Everyone's smile grew bigger.

"All of you can go fuck yourself," Levi said, making a note to exact revenge when he had the opportunity.

 

***

 

It was probably Hanji.

 

***

 

Having fun without you, Levi texted to Eren.

Where?

The sea. Hanji decided to give up on her academic career.

You know, you promised me that you would take me to see the ocean.

Levi stared at the text. He reread it, blinking a few times before replying.

I didn't think you would remember.

It was a long time before Eren replied.

Yeah, I don't know how I remember either. But you owe me a trip.

 

***

 

Despite the dawn of spring, the beach was a stretch of cool gray sky above and equally gray waters. It was too cold for a dip, but Levi was content with watching Hanji making a fool of herself against the waves. She better have brought extra clothes because Levi did not want her to track wet sand and salt water into their rental car.

Erwin was busy engaging in the adult hobby of hoarding scraps on the sand.

Mike and Levi stood side by side, watching the seagulls sweeping across the sky above.

Mike broke the silence between them. “You haven’t asked me how much I remember yet.”

Levi tried to hold back a laugh as a particularly strong wave made Hanji lose her balance and fall. She did several spectacular summersaults with the wave before landing face first into the wet sand.

“You alright?” Mike called out.

“Yeah!” A few coughs and shakes of the head and wiping of glasses and she got back onto her feet.

“She told me not to pry,” Levi said.

“Ah.”

“Well can I?”

“Can you what?”

“Ask about it?”

Mike sucked in a breath, as if he was expecting Levi to ask but still hadn’t gather up the nerves to answer. Levi was almost sorry that he’d asked.

“Ask away.”

An undignified shriek that was definitely not Hanji’s pierced the air, and Levi gave Mike a look before both of them turned to see the evidence for themselves. Erwin barely got to his feet, but Hanji grabbed his ankle and he fell back into the water once more. His bangs flopped over his eyes, and he shook his head, water droplets hitting Hanji’s face.

Hanji laughed.

He looked like a dog. Golden Retriever.

“Do you like this life?”

Mike took a long time to answer.

“I thought it was too quiet at first,” he said at last. “But this world has its own conflicts.”

That was true. War and greed and fear would live as long as humans do.

The waves began getting too close for both of their sneakers clad feet were comfortable, so they headed up to the dry sand. Mike sat down with a sigh, and Levi followed.

“I don’t believe that they’re memories,” Mike said. Levi turned to him, startled. “Nightmares at worst, but they don’t feel real to me.”

The memories always felt real to Levi. Sometimes, one would drift to the surface of his mind, and he couldn’t help but reach out for it. But all of them were there in his mind, like they had always been there and always would be, even if his flesh disintegrated in this world as well.

“Hanji describes her dreams to me, and she looks so hopeful that I wanted to remember them for her. But they weren’t right. They’re just recollections from what I remember from her stories,” Mike continued. “I try to reach for my own, but there’s nothing.”

Levi felt it was best he didn’t say anything, so he didn’t. They watched Erwin and Hanji in comfortable silence. Erwin had dropped his façade of being very adult and was splashing Hanji back in earnest, but Hanji was a lot quicker than he was.

Mike spoke so softly that Levi barely heard him over the wind. “I’m tired of searching for something that’s no longer there or was never there in the first place.”

“You don’t have to,” Levi said, trying to think of something Erwin would say. Erwin was better at this. “The person that you’re now is enough.”

“I know,” Mike said.

It was probably best that Mike and Erwin were the ones who didn’t remember. Erwin took Mike’s death the hardest.

 

***

 

Levi asked himself if he would be okay that Eren would never remember all of him. He told himself that he would be fine with it. He felt guilty because he was lying to Eren, for loving the parts of him that no longer existed.

It wasn’t fair to Eren, he knew.

 

***

 

Dad’s gonna surprise you in a few days, Eren texted.

Well, it’s not a surprise anymore.

I just want to make sure that you’re there when he is.

I’m not going anywhere.

I wish I could come too. I want to see you.

I’ll be home soon enough.

 

 ***

 

There were mornings that Levi woke up to a soft buzz of his phone indicating a text, and he would smile, knowing who it was from without looking at the screen. There were evenings when he set his phone on the nightstand before shuffling under the sheet, forcing his eyes to remain closed because he wanted so badly to reach for that phone, and some evenings he did, words that he weren’t ready to say threatened to spill out.

Because if he didn’t lose Eren by pushing him away, this certainly would make him lose Eren permanently.

I have to tell you something. About the things that you don’t know about me.

About the things that you once knew about me.

But Levi couldn’t bring himself to do it. He wished he could be like Mike, could dismiss the memories as if they were just bad nightmares, but he couldn’t do it. Interwoven with the nightmares were the dreams he never wanted to forget even if they reminded him of what he couldn’t have.

He would be lying to Eren if he said that he wasn’t motivated by the past.

He needed to tell Eren.

Eren deserved to know.

 

***

 

Grisha came one Saturday morning, his coat and hair wet because of an unexpected spring shower. Levi spread his coat over the back of the chair to dry. His roommate broke the coat hanger by the door, so there was no other place. Grisha was only here until the afternoon before he had to leave for a business trip, so they went out for lunch.

They walked to a small deli a few blocks from the dorm. The rain had stopped by now although the sky was still gray, promising rain in the evening. Levi liked the smell of asphalt and newly mowed grass.

Grisha didn’t talk much, just asked Levi a few questions here and there about his classes. A year or two ago, he would have shied away from questions about friends, but now he warmly spoke to his father about them.

Grisha listened silently the whole time for the things that were spoken and for the things that weren’t. He kept the same intense silence as they ate lunch, prodding from Levi what he needed to know but not prying too much.

At last, when Levi went through his turkey raspberry sandwich and made his way through the side order of fries, Grisha spoke.

“I’m glad you’re not lonely anymore.”

Levi’s skin prickled. His lungs felt too tight. “Yeah,” he said, realizing for the first time that Grisha’s words were true. It was painful, but Levi wondered if the temporary separation from Eren was necessary. He wasn’t sure if he would have reached out to people had he not lost his anchor.

“I wanted to ask,” Grisha continued. “But I knew that if you felt trapped, you would have pulled away completely.”

Levi remembered his reaction to Hanji’s observation, “You’re sick from loneliness, Levi,” and he had recoiled completely, curling within himself because the realization hurt more than the ignorance.

“I would have,” Levi admitted.

“All we could do was to be the place that you could return to,” Grisha sighed.

“It’s enough,” Levi said.

It was.

“You’re a strong and kind boy, Levi,” Grisha continued. Levi was startled at the praise because he never felt that he was either of those things. “You’ll make it, no matter what you decide to do.”

The prickling spread to the back of his eyes. It had been a while since Levi believed that he was loved.

 

***

 

Levi wondered what Grisha told Eren and Carla because he received a text from Eren.

I don’t think I’ve ever told you, but I’m glad that you’re doing better.

He tried to swallow the lump in his throat.

 

***

 

May was rapidly approaching, and with its greeting came Hanji's farewell.

"What?" Erwin looked absolutely betrayed when she told them out of the blue, nearly dropping the two pitchers of beer when he barely dodged a couple, one on the other's lap, both squeezed in a white plastic chair that looked like it was going to collapse at any moment. It was Friday night and the entire place was full, so they headed to the back table stuck by a window that looked out to an alley.

Levi took a seat across from Hanji and winced as the seat cushion seemed to suck in his ass. Remy's Garage was as fancy as its name would suggest, and being an undergrad bar known for the cheapest beer in town, the frequent patrons usually tried to forgive its clutter of old furniture that looked like they were someone's forgotten stuff in a garage.

"We could have gone to The Den," Levi said sullenly.

Hanji latched on to that, seemingly content to ignore Erwin's outburst. "I'm not paying an extra two dollars a pitcher to bump into the grad students from my group."

"You said you were staying for next year," Erwin accused. In his shocked state, he still managed to pour out a glass of the amber ale before sliding it to Levi without looking.

"I changed my mind," Hanji said, pulling the honey wheat pitcher closer to her, clearly intending to claim it for the evening.  

"Did you know about this?" Erwin turned to Levi.

Levi shoved popcorn in his mouth and shrugged. Hanji never told him, but he had a feeling. She had been more restless of late; her feet itching to get out even though she liked Levi and Erwin.

"Careful Erwin," Hanji broke into a grin, although the smile didn't quite reach her eyes. "I might think that you'll miss me."

"Of course I will," Erwin said earnestly.

Hanji suddenly looked shy, and Levi shifted awkwardly, feeling like a third wheel. He glanced at them both.

Erwin kept his intense gaze on Hanji.

Well this was an interesting development. Levi didn't think of their political fights as some sort of mating dance, but now he was having trouble not thinking in that direction.

"Can you guys not make out while I'm here?" Levi spoke. They both glared at him.

He responded by taking another gulp of beer.

Erwin smoothly changed the topic, and they all latched onto it gratefully.

The evening was warm; the late breeze that promised a coming summer rolled past and ruffled the napkins tucked under the basket of popcorn. Beyond the soft haze of condensation on the glass, Levi could faintly make out Hanji’s hidden smile on one of the facets of the pitcher and Erwin’s returning one on the other. He tore his eyes away from the glass and watched them and thought that yes, it was much better to see them now as they were in front of him.

Farewells were coming, but for once, Levi didn’t feel guilt or regret or fear.

Summer was coming early this year, he noted.

 

*** 

 

Erwin actually got Hanji a large bouquet of flowers for graduation. She beamed up at him from her crooked cap.

Roses. Subtle, this Erwin.

The regal effect of the highest honors' medallion around Hanji’s neck was lost by the amount of wrinkles on her gown.

"How did you survive for the past twenty-one years?" Levi asked. It was a spectacular talent to always appear as sloppy as her without even trying.

"You didn't get her anything?" Erwin asked. "She'll be outdone by the other graduates." Even Mike got her something, a stainless steel wire twisted and bent into a shape of an Erlenmeyer flask, hung on to a black leather necklace.

"This is not one of your elections, Erwin. It's graduation, not a competition."

"I got her an iron earlier." Levi frowned. "I don't think she put it to use."

"Don't worry, I got this medallion. It'll distract from the wrinkles in the pictures," Hanji said.

Levi wasn't convinced.

Mike's mustache kept twitching. Levi wondered if it was alive.

 

*** 

 

The wrinkles showed up in crisp detail in the pictures on Facebook. Hanji's dad had a very fancy camera.

"You'll have to iron your clothes when you start working," Levi said.

"Not working yet," Hanji sing-songed.

Levi tried to remember the stretch of her smile as she waved at him from the front seat of the U Haul truck. It was weird, the thought that it was unlikely he would bump into her again after this, even if they had each other's contact information.

 

***

 

"Look like it's just you and me," Erwin said. "And possibly Mike. But I don't know him that well."

Levi stared at him.

"I should have graduated this year."

"Be quiet." Erwin shoved his shoulder, sadness and amusement at once. "You're all horrible. All of you."

 

***

 

Yes, I remember that I’m going home tomorrow. Stop nagging.

Levi could hear Eren’s exasperation as he read. Just making sure. Then, something soft and gentle. I miss you, you know.

You said it only a million times. Levi replied. Then, he added. I really want to see you too.

 

*** 

 

The middle of May called for an early heat wave that rolled over the town. The grayness that dusted the trees from what remained of winter evaporated with the heat, and with its absence, green began rushing in, dripping over the overladen branches with bright leaves. They were a nice shade of jade at one angle, but when the wind came rustling by the golden sunlight refracted on them like it would a mirror; the leaves flickered then, uncertain between green and gold, and when the wind left they let out a sigh and returned to their original color, save for a few that rebelliously wore spots of gold on them still.

When the train finally began moving, green and gold and the blue of the sky all melted into streaks of color on the glass. Summer was waving its flag at Levi's window.

Levi felt the brightness of the season seeping into him and condensing into a quiet peace. With its arrival the gaping guilt inside him was soothed, although it still stung if he brushed gently over it. So he didn't.

He kept himself focused on the thought of home, where Eren was.

Someone moved to take the seat across from him, and he glanced up to briefly assess the stranger, only to be shocked to find out that it was Erwin.

"I didn't think we would see each other again so soon," Erwin said as he stowed away his bag with much difficulty with one arm. They had both assumed that they wouldn't see each other until summer ended, and had last parted ways with farewells accordingly.

Levi stared at the cast on his right wrist.

"An unfortunate accident with tennis," Erwin explained when he followed Levi's gaze. "Nothing to worry about, although my mom isn't going to be happy." He sat down carefully, the cast on his right arm still made him nervous. A recent accident then. "Excited to be going home?"

Levi stiffened. "Something like that."

If Erwin noticed, he didn't mention it. "Have you made up with your brother?"

When Levi didn't answer, Erwin explained himself. "Hanji told me that you guys had a falling out."

Levi relaxed. "We're fine now."

"That's good."

Levi didn't ask about Erwin's family, but Erwin filled him in anyway, learning that Levi wasn't good with asking after people. Levi made the appropriate comments, and then they fell into a comfortable silence, Levi digging in his pocket for his iPod and Erwin breaking out one of those dry political autobiographies.

Levi snorted in amusement. Erwin in modern times was so terribly predictable that he couldn't be compared with the Commander in the past.

A thought struck Levi then, an hour into their train ride. He pulled off his headphones. "Erwin."

"What?" Erwin asked, not looking up from his book. Levi was reminded of him refusing to take his eyes off reports when Levi walked into his office, although he was always on the alert for potential threat even as his body language gave away nothing. Erwin here was relaxed. Levi could even tell he was slightly annoyed at being interrupted.

"If you had a choice between doing the right thing and doing something that makes you happy, what would you choose?"

Erwin didn't say anything for a while. When Levi thought Erwin didn't hear him or chose to ignore him, Erwin spoke with a hint of amusement.

"Are those choices not the same thing?"

 

*** 

 

They had to part ways at their stop. Erwin asked if Levi wanted a ride from his mom, but Levi declined. It struck Levi that this might be the last he would see of Erwin if he and Eren ran away together.

"Levi!" Erwin called out from across the rush of crowd of the train station. Levi watched the flow of people part around Erwin, as if he was a stone standing strong against the current of the river.

Levi turned to him, caught by Erwin's strength the way he did thousands of years ago. The soft late afternoon sunlight too were caught by him, and for a moment Levi was gripped with the thought that Erwin remembered, he must have.

"Good luck."

"With what?"

Erwin smiled, giving Levi a small wave before he eased into the moving flow of people. Levi took a step forward before he realized that he didn’t want to chase Erwin down. The afternoon light blinded his sight for a moment, and when he recovered his sight, Erwin was gone.

 

*** 

 

It was another hour by bus before he got home. The day was longer so it was still light out when he arrived at his front door, the sky a soft dusty blue even though dinner time had passed.

The house had changed. There was some attempt at flowers lining the front, but Levi could tell it was going to be futile because neither of his parents were good with plants. Levi didn’t notice last time he was home, occupied as he was with other things, but age was beginning to worm its way into the house, and rather than the cold new feeling of wood and cement, the house wore a warm air of use and love. A streak of bike tire scratched the lawn, and Levi chuckled to himself thinking that this had Eren painted all over it.

Perhaps he had been gone longer than he thought because he forgot how to knock. He took a deep breath and told himself that there was nothing to be nervous about. This was home. Home was familiar—

His thought halted when the door swung open.

“Levi.”

The sight of Eren squeezed all of the air from his lungs, and Eren had grown up so much, practically looking like an adult now, and then Levi didn’t have a chance to take in the sight of Eren because Eren launched his body at him, Levi barely having the wit to brace himself and catch Eren in his arms.

“Eren,” Levi choked. He couldn’t believe the sound that escaped his throat; it couldn’t be his.

"Welcome back," Eren breathed against his neck.

For the first time since a long time, Levi felt grounded. Home finally felt like home.

"I don't get you two." Levi pulled back from Eren to see Carla behind him. Eren didn't let him go, not until she smacked his forearm. He reluctantly stepped out of the way so that Carla could pull Levi into her arms. "One moment you refuse to talk to each other, and the next you're like this."

"It's good to see you too mom."

"Alright," she pulled back. "Go wash up. Dinner's in twenty minutes."

"I'll help you bring your stuff upstairs," Eren said, even though there wasn't much and Levi could handle it by himself. He took the duffle bag next to Levi's feet and began climbing up the stairs. Levi followed him, feeling more nervous now that it was going to be just them.

"How's school?" Levi asked once they got into his room. It was the safest topic he could find.

"Good," Eren said, placing Levi's bag neatly next to his bed. "I'm in varsity baseball now."

"Really?"

"Yeah. Dad gave me your old glove, said you wouldn't mind. You had big hands for such a little kid."

"You know what they say about big hands," Levi said drily. He set the other bag by his closet. When he looked up at Eren, Eren was gazing at him with so much longing that Levi found it difficult to breathe. He froze in place as Eren approached him with hesitant steps; Eren never lost their eye contact for a second, and then he was right in front of Levi. It was much harder to control his breathing when Eren was looking at Levi like he was a wonder, like he couldn't believe that Levi was right within his reach.

"You're really here." Eren's voice cracked. All of the bravado that Levi had seen from him downstairs disappeared. His hands were twitching by his side, as if he wanted to touch Levi but wasn't sure if he could.

Levi wrapped his hand around Eren's, feeling Eren trembles under his fingers. "Yeah," he whispered. "I'm here."

"How long?" Eren asked. Levi could barely hear him. "How long until you decide that you have to leave?"

"I will be here for a week break before my internship starts again."

"That's not what I meant."

Levi sucked in a breath. He understood what Eren was really asking, but he didn't know if he had the answer for him.

It was then that Levi knew. The answer had been haunting him, and he didn't want to tell Eren just yet, but Eren deserved to know. He couldn't pretend that he never thought about Eren from the past life, could never dismiss the fact that he loved him and might have continued loving him, could never gloss over the reality that this Eren was not the one he knew. He didn't know if he could tell Eren about the guilt, maybe this might not be the right time, but he had to be truthful to Eren, especially since Eren was willing to sacrifice everything to be with him.

"I will always be with you for as long as you need me to," Levi said. Eren inhale sharply, but Levi continued before he had a chance to say anything. "But before you decide that you want me, that you want us, there are some things that I need to tell you."

Eren frowned. "If this is about the consequences—"

"It's not."

Silence filtered in between them. Then, "I'm not going to give you up to anyone, Levi."

"Hold that thought," Levi said even though all he wanted was to pull Eren against him, to kiss Eren and to touch him and to tell him he had always belonged to Eren. "There are some things that you need to know about me." He swallowed, knowing he wasn't ready yet. He knew he should get it over with, ripping it out as fast as he could rather than dragging it out painfully. "I will tell you. But," He let out a shaky breath. "I need a few days."

Eren looked anxious and confused at the same time, but his voice was gentle. "Take your time, but don't leave me in the dark again."

It was a stupid idea, he told himself. It was stupid to get involved with his brother. It was stupid to leave him. It was stupid to come back. It was stupid to want to keep him and then tell him something that would make him fall out of Levi's reach.

But Levi tightened his hold on Eren, trying to remember that he was loved. And that he too, loved Eren.

He hoped it was enough to give him the courage to be honest.

"Let's go downstairs for dinner."

"Yeah." Eren squeezed back, a shy smile on his face. "Whatever it is, it can wait."           

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

For a week it felt nice because Levi was home, and everything fell into place as if he’d never left. Levi stayed home and ate home cooked meals and squished himself between Eren and Mom on the couch as they watched TV, and when he felt particularly nostalgic he would go out to the park with Eren and play a bit of baseball with a couple of Eren’s friends.

They were good at being brothers. Levi would kick Eren’s leg when Eren took too much space on the couch, and Levi would snatch the last chocolate chip cookie from the dessert plate. Eren would decide to take a shower when Levi needed to piss, and Levi would slam on the door telling Eren to quit jerking off in there, and it was all perfect because they would earn their mother’s exasperated but affectionate scolding and their father’s gentle shake of his head.

It would all be perfect except for the not-so-innocent brush of Eren’s foot up and down his leg underneath the dinner table, the shiver that ghosted along Levi’s spine when Eren kept a hand on his thigh underneath the Snuggie they shared on the couch where his mom couldn’t see, and the lingering glance that Levi trailed down Eren’s body as he left the showers.

It was so much easier not to think too much about it. At night they were giggles and choked laughs and “Shhhh, you’re going to wake them” and “I’m not the loud one here.” At night they were tangled limbs and Eren’s knees hooked over Levi’s shoulder and Eren muffling his cries into Levi’s neck. At night they were soft grunts and creaking of the bed as Levi slowly lowered himself on Eren’s cock. The air was thick with sweat and summer humidity slipping in through the open window.

But the part that Levi loved the most was when Eren lay next to him in bed.

“What’s so interesting about my hand?” Levi asked as Eren brushed his open palm against Levi’s and curled their fingers together.

Levi could barely make out Eren’s shrug in the dark.

He huffed out a chuckle.

Levi was good. And Eren was good. In the morning Eren returned to his own bed. During the day Levi helped his mother cook and smacked Eren’s wandering hand from the pot and had coffee with his father in the backyard over a crossword puzzle.

Everything was fine until Eren got a call one day while they were watching TV, and Levi couldn’t help but notice Eren’s shoulders tensing next to him.

“Okay.” Eren’s voice was soft as he rose from the couch. Levi’s side felt cold where Eren’s warmth used to be.

Levi turned to his mother when Eren left the room.

“It’s probably Annie,” his mother said. Her eyes never left the screen.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

“Everything alright?”

Eren was lying on his back on the bed. He tilted his chin to look at Levi up-side-down. “Yeah.”

Levi closed the door behind him and went to join Eren on the bed. “You sure?”

Eren shifted to lie on his side and tugged Levi in closer by his shirt. He didn’t say anything for a while, and Levi felt this feeling of dread pulling at his insides.

“Annie called,” Eren said.

“Mom said that might be her.”

Levi caught Eren’s hand before he began pulling at the loose thread on the collar. Eren’s nails were all bitten down. Levi never saw them before this way. He’d only felt the jagged edges digging into his back at night.

“I’m going to pick up some stuff I left at her place.”

Levi let out a breath that he didn’t know he was holding.

“Want me to come with?”

Levi didn’t know what else to say.

“I’ll drive us there.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Eren hadn’t left much at Annie’s place, just a small box of things that Levi didn’t dare peek into because he couldn’t help the feeling of devastation at the thought that Eren had once chosen someone else. He knew he shouldn’t feel that way because it was his choice to push Eren away in the first place, and ultimately, against all odds, Eren still wanted to choose him.

The silence in the car was heavy.

“Let’s go somewhere,” Eren said.

“Where?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t want to go home yet.”

Levi didn’t have to think twice.

“Anywhere is fine with me.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

They drove for hours, stopping once for gas and once to grab dinner at a diner and then they were on the road again. Levi knew where they were going before they began the trip, and he had the foresight of calling their parents to let them know.

“Make sure Eren is okay” was what his mother said. “You two have to look out for each other.”

“I know,” Levi said. She didn’t have to tell him. There was a pause where neither of them said a word, and Levi was struck with the thought that perhaps Mom knew more than she let on. Maybe they weren’t as good at acting like they were brothers like Levi originally thought.

But then the moment passed, and she wished him a goodnight.

“You gonna let me drive you to god knows where?” Eren said when Levi got off the phone.

The answer was always clear to Levi. Perhaps it had terrified him, but Levi didn’t feel that gut wrenching fear anymore. He grew to accept it. Eren already had long ago.

“You came after me,” Levi said. “I think it’s about time I follow you.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

It was eleven PM when they reached the sea.

It was too dark to head to the beach, and Eren looked like he was about to tip over even though Levi switched with him halfway through the drive, so Levi decided to check them into a motel despite Eren’s insistence that they could sleep in the car. Levi had to catch Eren when he nearly fell over in exhaustion.

He led Eren to the bed, and Eren immediately slumped into the cheap mattress. It groaned loudly under his weight.

“I’m gonna shower first, do you mind?” Levi asked.

Eren planted his head face-first into the pillow. A muffled no.

Levi left him to it. He wasn’t sure how to deal with Eren in this mood. Usually he was the moody one, and the sudden switch in their role was disorientating.

He felt much better after the shower.

Eren was asleep.

Levi carefully pulled Eren’s shoes off and placed them by the night stand. He tugged the cover over Eren and slipped in next to him, hopeful and dreading the long awaited conversation that they needed to have the next morning.

That night, he dreamt of a world long ago that never came to be, where they both retired from the Survey Corp, Eren lived long enough for Levi to see gray peppering his hair, and Levi never had to watch Eren die by his own hands.

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Levi woke up the moment Eren got up from bed, the cold air slivering up next to him. He lay in bed and listened to the sound of the showers seeping through the paper-thin walls, wondering when his past would stop haunting him. He wished he knew how to stop it.

A warm hand brushed his bangs from his forehead, and Levi was startled from his thought.

“What are you thinking of?”

Levi peered up into Eren’s eyes.

“Levi, you know you can trust me.”

The heavy feeling clogged up his throat and strained tightly against the back of his eyes. He shook his head.

Eren slipped into the bed next to him, resting his forehead against Levi’s. His breath smelled like peppermint. “I think you had to face a lot of your own demons alone, and I want you to know that you don’t have to anymore.”

Levi didn’t understand why, but he shook his head. The rough and cheap cotton of the pillow scraped against his scalp.

“I love you,” Eren said. “You’re wanted.”

Levi felt as if his insides were scratched raw.

“I’m sorry.” The words bubbled up his throat. He swallowed before the heaviness could break him into tears. “I’m a coward.”

It burned. The truth burned. But he felt lighter inside, admitting it to himself.

“Levi—”

“I left you first before you could leave me,” Levi croaked out. “I left you first because I couldn’t stand the thought of being left behind.” Anymore—he wanted to say, thinking of everyone that was lost to him and those who returned, but they weren’t the same.

He was angry. He was so angry because he really thought Eren would stay, that throughout everything that they went through together, through every mission where one of them should have died, that the end of the war against the Titans would mean that he wouldn’t have to watch the people close to him slip past his reach anymore. But most of all he was angry at himself for being unable to keep them. He was angry at himself for being unable to protect them.

He was angry at himself for hurting Eren now. He knew pulling away from Eren would hurt Eren, but he did it anyway because he didn’t want to be hurt anymore.

“It was a coward’s way out and I knew it.”

Levi couldn’t meet Eren’s eyes. He felt Eren’s arms tighten around him, and he wanted to cry. It was sad, he thought, how he couldn’t shed a tear in his past life, but now it appeared that he couldn’t stop.

“I’m still angry at you,” Eren whispered into his hair. “I’m still hurt that you left me. I still couldn’t believe that you cut me out like that.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m sick inside, and I knew that. But the thought that you hated me for it broke me.”

“I could never hate you.” Levi burrowed his head into Eren’s chest. “Never. It was my weakness, not yours.”

“No!” Eren pulled back from him, and Levi felt his heart plummet. He braced himself for Eren’s anger, thinking, This is it. This is when I will lose Eren.

“Levi, look at me.”

Levi couldn’t. He wanted to be the strong one. He was supposed to be the strong one. He was supposed to be someone that Eren could lean on, but he was a mess, and Eren knew it. He made a promise to protect Eren, but he couldn’t do it.

“Levi, look at me.”

A hand nudged at the bottom of his chin, and Levi did. He expected rejection or disgust, but Eren’s eyes had none of that.

“If we’re going to do this, we’re doing it together,” Eren said firmly. “It’s my weakness too, and I’m not going to let you suffer alone. But you have to meet me halfway.” Then, his voice became gentle. “Levi, I already made my choice a long time ago. I want to ask if you’re ready to make yours.”

“Even after everything, you still want to be with me?”

It sounded like a test, and Levi hated himself for saying it.

“To me, there could never be anyone else.”

Levi sucked in a breath. Somehow, he always knew. The truth was always there, but he didn’t have the courage to face it. But it was different somehow, hearing it directly from Eren.

“Me too,” Levi whispered. “The person I want by my side—it has always been you.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

The ghost returned, just as Levi thought he would. He had been waiting for him.

The sun burned the back of his neck, sweat dampening his stiff collar. The green insulating cloak was good for the winter chill but unbearable for the lingering summer heat. A voice at the back of his head grumbled that even though it was approaching autumn, the weather showed no sign of cooling.

Other ghosts whispered through the crumbling walls and decaying wood of houses left behind. The wind brought the smell of campfire and voices from the distance, and Levi knew that there was a camp of soldiers nearby.

For reasons that Levi couldn’t quite understand, this place was a fragment of one of the ghost’s strongest memories.

The ghost narrowed his eyes in distaste.

‘You’re me,’ he seemed to say.

“Yes and no,” Levi said. Even though they shared the same face, they weren’t the same person. Something light fluttered at the back of his mind, and without checking, Levi knew he was wearing the same T-shirt and shorts that he had on when he fell asleep next to Eren.

“He chose you.” The ghost’s solemn voice made Levi’s chest tighten in pain. “But he would rather die than choose me.”

“That’s not true,” Levi said gently. “I didn’t recover all of your memories, and my Eren is different from yours, but I know that he would chose you.”

“He would rather be executed than stay with me!” Levi had never heard the ghost raise his voice, and he had a feeling that losing himself to the depth of his emotions wasn’t something that happened often with the ghost. Levi understood though. When it came to Eren, he understood the ghost’s pain.

Levi thought about the determination and loyalty that always burned brightly within Eren. “Do you honestly think so little of Eren that you think he would lie about wanting to be with you?”

The ghost looked tired. “No.” Anguished and exhausted. “No, he wouldn’t.”

‘But duty came first,’ Levi thought. The humanity that they would give their lives to protect came first. The friends that remained with them after the war despite Death creeping behind them at every step came first. The ghost believed that. His Eren believed that.

“Do you—” Levi swallowed. “—remember when Eren died?”

“No,” the ghost said. “I couldn’t bear to retrieve those memories. You won’t have to carry them.”

Levi sighed in relief. He would rather live without that nightmare.

“I am not you,” Levi said. The ghost quirked an eyebrow at him. “I am not bound by the same responsibilities, and I know Eren chose me.” He knew, with the same certainty that he knew he was Levi Yeager, that Eren truly loved him and would give up friends, society, everything to be with him. “I won’t give up on him.  I can’t.”

And he knew too, with the same frightening certainty, that he would do the same for Eren.

“Perhaps he will grow to resent me,” Levi mused. There was a possibility that Eren would eventually hate Levi for making him lose everyone—Levi knew that loneliness was a force not to be underestimated. There was a possibility that eventually their love would feel like a cage, and Levi knew that Eren could never be kept in a cage. Levi could never be kept in a cage. The one similarity that they shared with their counterparts was the fierce longing for freedom that could not be marred by time.

“You would rip him from living an honest life? Make him hide for your selfishness?”

“No. I can’t make him do anything. If he chose to give up an honest life, and I chose to give it up, then so be it. I’ve given him up for one lifetime. I won’t lose him again.”   

“You’re supposed to protect him—”

“From making his own choices? I doubt I can do that.” Levi sighed. “I am not you. I need him to protect me as much as I do for him.”

That was a difficult admission to make. As much as Levi would like to think that he was older, that he had more experience, that he might know better what Eren needed than Eren did, that he could protect Eren from everything, he couldn’t. He lived with the pride that he could do everything and make all the decisions himself, but he wasn’t able to. His own fears and insecurities and loneliness had hurt him and Eren.

In fact, it was his own fear that Eren would leave him that brought many heartbreaks between them in the first place.

The promise that he made when he was a child to be by Eren’s side and protect him was not one he could keep with only his strength. “It was foolish of me to think that I could do everything by myself. Eren is here with me because despite everything, he was strong and determined enough to stay with me. I can only do what I can.”

The ghost seemed resigned. There was nothing worse than being haunted by regrets after one’s death, forever living with the knowledge of what could have been. “I’ve always wondered what would have happened if I had asked rather than assumed that he didn’t want to be with me. I should have just asked.”

“Yeah,” Levi said.

The last thing he remembered when he slowly returned to reality was the promise that he would live a life with no regrets this time.

‘Goodbye,’ Levi thought as he blinked awake to the sight of Eren’s face hovering over him.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

“You’re going to get sunburned,” Eren said.

“What?” Levi mumbled until he began to register the sand scratching his scalp and the back of his neck. The smell of salt and the sound of seagulls and the familiar rhythm of waves lapping at shore washed away the last lingering traces of his dream. “How long was I out?”

“A little less than an hour,” Eren replied. “I didn’t want to wake you. You seem really tired.”

“I don’t know why,” Levi sighed. “You were the one that did most of the driving.”

“I don’t think it was just physical exhaustion.”

Eren hit the nail on the head. Levi moved to sit up so he wouldn’t have to meet Eren’s eyes. “How did you grow up so much faster than I did?”

From the corner of his eyes, Levi could see Eren dip his head with a smile.

They watched the vast ocean stretched out in front of them, and Levi remembered that he made a promise to Eren that they would see this together one day. And now here they were, finally stumbling into a future that Levi used to be too frightened to even imagine the possibility of. It was strange how much calmer he felt even though he chose to follow a path that could be painful in the long run.

‘Because Eren is here,’ he realized.

“What’s up?” Eren’s voice brought him back from his internal musing.

“I had a dream.”

“A dream?”

Eren frowned.

“Many dreams, actually,” Levi said. “I dreamt that we were in a world where we were both bound by duty. I dreamt that we were happy even though it was a harsh and bloody world because we had each other, and we had friends around us that we loved.”

Levi waited for the sound of ghosts to echo at the back of his mind, but to his surprise, only silence greeted him. “But I also dreamt that I lost you.” Levi swallowed, trying to get the heavy stone of grief to slide down his throat. It was difficult to breathe. “I dreamt that I was scared that you wouldn’t choose me, and I let you die without ever telling you that I loved you. I dreamt that I lost you.”

Levi tried to blink the moisture from his eyes as he felt the warmth of Eren’s body heat slide gently by his shoulder. He felt relieved when he didn’t let any tears fall. It was a small comfort to get a grip of himself.

For the ghost who would forever live in regret, Levi said, “I’m sorry for never telling you how much you meant to me back then.”

And with that, Levi felt his chest loosen. The ghost of the past left him. His mind was his own. His decisions were his own. His life was his own.

“Are you—” Eren sounded amused. “—apologizing for something you did to me in a dream?”

“Among other things,” Levi said, feeling silly for telling Eren all of those things, although he knew he needed to say them. They were from Levi Ackerman. “I’m sorry for all the times that I’ve hurt you because I was an emotional mess.”

And that, was from Levi Yeager.

Eren placed his hand on top of Levi’s palm and entwined their fingers together. “I want to stay angry at you for what you did, but I don’t think you broke us up to intentionally hurt me. I think in your own way, you wanted to protect me. I know it wasn’t easy, and I know the relationship between us will never be easy.”

The fear rose in him again, but Levi pushed it down and tightened his grip on Eren’s fingers. Eren didn’t comment on it.

Levi was startled when Eren leaned against him. With how much taller Eren was, it wasn’t the most comfortable angle for Eren’s neck. “I’m scared of losing you too. I’m scared of the consequences that we will have to face. But I want to do this with you, I really do. But do you—do you really want to do this?”

“I’m sure.” Levi kissed the top of Eren’s head.

Eren let out a soft sigh, and for the first time in a long time, Levi felt at peace.

That night, Levi dreamt about Eren by his side always. He dreamt about the future they were going to have together, and for a moment, he felt a wrinkled hand wrapped around his. He knew without looking that it was Eren. The hand, gnawed with old age, was familiar.

It felt like home.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“You seem happy.”

Levi shrugged. He felt different ever since he made the choice to stay by Eren’s side. He wondered if it was really that obvious to see.

It didn’t matter anyway. Hanji knew.

Across the table from him, Hanji broke into a soft smile. Levi found his face heating up, and it was difficult to meet her in the eyes. He focused on a point beyond her shoulder, out the window into the snow swirling with the wind outside.

“I am,” Levi said. “Happy, I mean.”

“It’s too bad Eren couldn’t join us. I would love to meet him,” Hanji mused. “It has been a long time.”

When Levi asked Eren if he wanted to join them, Eren’s response was to burrow further into the bed sheets. Levi took that as a “no.” In a way, Levi was relieved that Eren couldn’t come. He didn’t want Hanji to scrutinize Eren and possibly compare him to a memory of the past. Even though he had made it clear to her that they were different people, the past was a curse that they both shared, and Levi knew that Hanji would do it unconsciously.

The morning coffee did not go as awkwardly as Levi expected. He told Hanji of his plan to get a job near Eren until Eren finished school, especially since Eren had been eager to move out of their parents’ house. Hanji told him of her plans to move to Spain in September of the following year, and offered to host him and Eren if they ever wanted to visit. He asked after Mike and Erwin, who both seemed to be doing well according to Hanji, and Levi made a note to contact them once in a while.

For now, it was easy. But later, Levi knew people would start asking questions about him and Eren.

“What is it?” Levi asked when he caught Hanji watching him with a considering look.

“Do you really not remember what happened to Eren in the past, Levi?”

“No,” Levi said. “I don’t want to.”

Hanji spoke, and Levi swore that her voice became unfamiliar and familiar at once. Something old, but recognizable. “You found Eren, Levi.”

Levi frowned.

“Don’t worry about it.” Hanji shook her head and her gaze dipped down onto the cup in her hands. “It’s nothing.”

Something tickled at the back of Levi’s head. Found. He found Eren. Those words meant something to him once, he felt. If he reached further back into his mind, just so, he could—

No, it didn’t matter anymore.

“I did,” Levi said. “And he found me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once, there was a house. A house on a hill. Several miles east, there was the sea.

There were two old men living in that house. The men were not related, but they lived together. The men were nice. The village children liked them even if their parents told them to steer clear of the men.

The older but shorter one was grumpy but he was kind. He saved Anna from drowning once, and taught the children how to ride horses. He did not speak very much.

The other man was younger, but he was still very old. Wrinkles had settled deep around his eyes and burrowed into his hands. He had many invisible scars, but he had the brightest smile. He told good stories. Tales of the giants who ate people. The giants that haunted their parents’ generation. The giants that the children had never seen but had to grow up with residual fears.

The children asked the nice men if they ever met Humanity’s Strongest Soldier. Aaron—the younger one—would have a twinkle in his bright green eyes. He would turn to his companion, who would scoff and look away.

The men came from far away. Someone said they must have come from the original cities protected by walls.

Little Anna brought them things that her mother baked because their family owed the older one a lot. She asked the men if they were brothers.

Aaron had laughed and said, “He is my guide. My friend. My brother. My everything. Do you understand?”

Anna didn’t, but she nodded anyway.

In the late afternoon, the men could be seen walking together on the beach after they helped the fishermen pulled in the haul for the day. They would hold hands and lean into each other.

The men were mysterious and they didn’t speak much about their pasts, but they were nice even though one of them was grumpy. On a good day the older one would teach the children hand-to-hand combat, and the younger one would tell stories. They would help around in the village, and they would tend to their garden like everyone else. The children liked them. The adults didn’t quite trust them, but when soldiers came by, the villagers pretended that they had never seen the people the soldiers were looking for.

There was a house. A house on a hill. Several miles east, there was the sea. There were two old men from a faraway land. They came to rest from a long journey.

They lived, and they were in love.

 

 

 

 

 

The End.