Dangerous Territory

BY : Rhov
Category: +. to F > Attack on Titan /Shingeki No Kyojin
Dragon prints: 2483
Disclaimer: I do not own “Shingeki no Kyojin” and do not make money from this fanfic.

Chapter 20

A Bright Garden Walk

 

Levi squinted at the Tanakh, trying to sort out some of the Hebrew text. He remembered that this particular scripture was supposed to be very inspiring, and he wanted to read it to his people later that night, but Levi had a secret.

He could barely read Hebrew.

Once early on, he let someone in another Jewish group he had been in to take his Tanakh and read a few passages aloud. He was enraged to find that the book later had dirty fingerprints. Maybe he was not interested in religion and rarely bothered to read books, but at least he knew better than to touch the paper if his hands were filthy. This was precisely why one used a yad when reading the Torah.

After that, although there were many in his current group who knew how to read Hebrew, Levi refused to let them touch his book. He had been paranoid when he was forced to give the Tanakh over to Eren, and he had searched the whole book for new fingerprints or bent pages—he personally felt that people who bent the corners of pages to mark their place in a book should be shot by the author. Either Eren did not touch the book after confiscating it, or he had clean hands when he did so.

However, in his insistence at reading the book himself, that meant Levi was limited to a few passages he already knew by heart, or sections that had words he recognized. Anything more, he had to study ahead of time so he did not sound like a man who had not given a shit about his religion until four years ago.

"Betakh el adonai bekhol lee- … -beh- … -kha. Libekha; ve'el bee- … bah-naht- … no, dammit, what is this? Binatkha … al … tisha'en. What the hell is tisha'en? Prosperity? No, I remember. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and on your own understanding do not lean. Tisha'en is lean. Bekhol deh- … -rah- … -khe- … oh, derakhekha, your ways … da'ehu; vehu, yeyasher orkho- … ah fuck … orkhotekha. Your paths. Your ways, your paths. Derakhekha, orkhotekha. Got it."

In the middle of this, he heard footsteps above. Levi quickly blew out the candle and hid the book under his pillow. He saw a lantern gleaming as the person walked down the stairs, and finally a person turned the corner into the dungeon. He saw the lamp light up Eren's face.

Levi felt two emotions almost simultaneously. On one hand, he was excited, as he often felt a leap of joy whenever Eren came to visit him. On the other hand, memories of the kiss yesterday returned to him with a cold chill, and he almost felt like yanking the covers over his face, hoping Eren would think he was asleep and go away.

It was too late, though. Their eyes met, and Eren had a bright smile. Of course he did! He wasn't the one who stayed up half the night tormented by a mere kiss.

"You know," Eren said casually, "although you blew the candle out, anyone who walks in here can smell the smoke."

"Then I'll put it out better next time," he stated sharply.

Eren stepped up to the cell. "Do you feel like coming out?"

Levi's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"

"On a walk. No one came to get me, so I figured the prison guard didn't know you're due to be out starting today."

"I simply said nothing. He barely even looked my way, and I'm not going to complain if he leaves me here."

"Good! Then we can walk together."

Eren unlocked the cell, but Levi hesitated. Was this a trick? Still, if it meant fresh air and sunshine, he would be led astray a little. He walked past Eren, glaring sideways, expecting him to make some lewd move, but Eren simply smiled like a happy boy getting to play with a friend.

They climbed up the stairs, and the light bothered Levi. He squinted at the brightness after days in pitch dark, or at most having only a single candle. Eren realized Levi's eyes were half-closed, tortured by the sunny September morning. He had seen this man struggle with light before, the first day they met and he let the Jews out of the closet they had hidden in throughout the village's bombardment. He reached forward and touched Levi's arm. There was a soft gasp, and the small man pulled away.

"We can wait for your eyes to adjust," Eren assured him.

Levi calmed himself. Eren was behaving himself. If he was going to do anything questionable, it would have been back when they were in the dungeon, not up here with soldiers around.

After time to get used to the light, Levi followed Eren out of the castle. However, stepping outside blinded his eyes all over again. He tried to shade them, squinting to see, when he suddenly felt his arm grabbed, not tenderly, but jolting, yanking him forward.

"Hör auf zu trödeln, du Judenscheiße, oder ich lasse dich hängen!" Stop dawdling, you Jewshit, or I'll have you hanged.

Levi felt a flash of anger at the shout and Eren's cruel yanking, until he realized there were two soldiers marching up to the castle. They saluted Eren, and Levi kept his head down so they would not offer to punish the Jew for the lieutenant. After that, he allowed Eren to pull him as roughly as he wanted. He was just watching out for him, after all.

They went around the castle. The building was not huge, more like an old stone watchtower from medieval times, to which a glamorous house was built next to it, with an ancient stone wall to fortify the place. Between the tower and the curtain wall were elegant gardens. Obviously, the owners of this château had luxury—not military defenses—in mind.

There were pebble pathways leading through geometrically shaped flower beds, straight rows of fruit trees, and a central fountain that stood bone dry, yet still elegant. Gazebos dotted the four corners of the garden, surrounded by rose bushes for an aromatic retreat. Despite the war, the bombing, and Nazis taking over the castle, the gardens were still beautiful. As Levi looked around, he knew that it would not take much to get this place tidied up and fit for nobility.

Eren grabbed up a discarded wicker basket and thrust it at Levi. "Halte das für mich. Hold this for me."

Both German and English, which meant they were still being watched. Levi obediently took the basket, and Eren began to stroll along one of the paths to the fruit trees. He picked a ripe apple and placed it in the basket.

"Technically, you're my servant obeying my whims," Eren whispered.

"Bollocks to that!" Levi grumbled.

"In reality, I'm picking apples for your group. So the more apples you can hold in that basket, the more you can eat later."

Levi was honestly shocked that Eren would bring him out so they could both help the Jews together.

Eren smiled back at him. "I wish it was more. There are not many ripe apples yet. Another week or two, and these trees will be filled. I saw some berries on the other end of the garden, though. It's late in the season, but we can pick some of those as well."

"Did you scout out the garden before coming to get me?" Levi asked, meaning to tease him a little.

"Yes," Eren answered honestly.

That stunned Levi. He had thought Eren was doing this on a whim. Instead, he had planned a way to get the Jews food. Eren reached up high to pick a couple more apples, and Levi held the basket for him, amazed that they could work together like this.

"I may be busy over the next few days," Eren warned, keeping his voice quiet. "A lot has been happening."

"With the war?" asked Levi.

Eren practically ripped an apple off its branch. "Yes. I'm sure you'll be happy to learn that it's not going well for us," he said sarcastically. "I don't know how much longer before Americans reach this village." Eren dropped the apple into the basket, then paused and looked solemn. "If I can get you out before then…"

He left that wish hanging, and Levi was not sure what to say in response. He could not ask Eren to help him to escape, since if he was caught, he would be executed as a traitor. Levi wanted no more blood on his hands. However, what crappy timing! Just as Eren finally got bold enough to tell him the truth about his feelings, now the war was on their doorstep.

"I'll think of something," Eren whispered, mostly to himself.

Levi stared at him, and the determined look on Eren's face burned his heart. "Stop doing that," he grumbled.

Eren jolted. "Huh? What am I doing this time?" he cried out.

Levi pouted and turned his face aside. "You're giving me hope again."

Eren had to laugh, and his eyes were gentle as he smiled at Levi. "We all need hope."

"Hope betrays you. It makes it worse when the inevitable happens, and what you hoped for dies."

"Hope makes life bearable, and even if a dream or two doesn't happen, when what your hope for really does come true, it's so much better."

Levi suddenly snapped, "What do you know of losing dreams?" He gasped as soon as he shouted it, remembering what Eren had told him about his past. "I'm sorry."

"No, I understand what you mean." Eren looked around the garden to make sure Levi's shout had not attracted attention. "You had someone you cherished, someone you chose to spend the rest of your life with, to raise a family together, and that hope was stolen from you. What I've lost in the past doesn't even compare." Eren gazed bittersweetly at Levi. "There are things I hope for right now that I know, as nice as it would be, it'll probably never happen."

Levi felt a pang of guilt. "Eren—"

"That's okay," he cut in. "I still won't stop hoping, because if I did that, I would be giving up on my future, and without a future to look forward to, why be alive? I need hope." His voice dropped to a whisper. "What is a man like me supposed to do if I can't hope for a day when I'm not hated for who I love?"

Levi dropped his gaze. Hated for whom he loves? Just the thought of it hurt Levi deep inside. He knew that sort of life. When he married Petra, there were many who protested. A Catholic and a Jew were not supposed to fall in love. That sort of hate led to her death.

Here he was again, someone falling in love with him, but it was much more than an issue of different religions.

"Look, Eren, about yesterday—"

"Monsieur Jäger?"

They both gasped and turned at the high voice. Krista stood on the garden path with a basket of fennel and leeks in her hands.

Eren bowed slightly to her. "Guten Morgen."

"Bonjour," she greeted back with a curtsy. Then she tipped her head to Levi. "Capitaine Ackerman."

"Sérieux, ne m'appelle pas comme ça." Seriously, don't call me that.

She smiled apologetically. "Levi."

Eren spoke in English. "I'm going to climb this apple tree. I see some ripe ones near the top. You two talk."

Levi snapped, "We have nothing to talk about."

"Well, she doesn't speak German, so I can't talk to her." He leaned in and whispered, "Ask her for me if she can bring bread again this Saturday. I'll pay her."

With that, Eren leaped and grabbed a branch of the nearby apple tree, easily swinging up into the leafy canopy. Levi cursed under his breath. Eren probably thought Krista was nothing more than a sympathetic French girl, and he could not tell the truth without putting her in danger.

Krista gazed up at Eren as he climbed to the top of the tree. She commented in French, "He's very trusting of you."

"He knows I can't run. If I leave, the rest of the Jews are dead." He glared scathingly at her. "He understands that."

"I came here hoping to find you, precisely about that issue."

"Levi!" Eren called down. "Catch."

An apple dropped, and Levi easily caught it with one hand while still holding the basket with the other hand.

Krista looked up into the tree. "Has he mentioned anything about the German army?"

"Just that they're losing. Good," he grunted.

"Then he doesn't know." Another apple dropped, which Levi caught. "Something is going on in the city of Metz. This company will be relocating soon."

"Relocating? What's going on in Metz?"

"A last stand. A suicidal move. Sacrifice a few divisions to save the rest of the Wehrmacht."

"That's stupid," Levi said, his eyes on Krista as he automatically caught an apple without even looking up. "Even Hitler isn't that much of an idiot."

"It's his command. They are to go to Metz and stall the Allies for as long as they can, to stay and fight until not a single soldier is left alive. Surrender and retreat are forbidden, by orders of the Führer. This company will join them next week." She looked around at the soldiers in Heer uniforms. "It's a shame. Germany may be the enemy, but these men don't deserve to be sacrificed."

Levi looked up into the tree and saw Eren stretching to reach an apple far out on a limb. He was pushing his body to the limits, all so the Jews could eat. Such a man like this should not be placed in a stupid, suicidal mission.

Krista went on in a whisper. "The members of Operation Bagel are working to get you Jews out as soon as possible, within the next few days. If the lieutenant follows his normal routine and takes you to the river to bathe, we can see about acting at that time. Let's pray that he only brings two of his men with him again. That, we can handle easily."

"Don't kill them," Levi muttered.

"I can't promise that."

"Then don't kill him," he said, his teeth baring in a sneer. "That's part of my agreement. I'll work with the Resistance if you get us all out, and if Eren is left alone."

"Protecting the enemy?" she asked with a smirk. "Or is he a friend now?"

Levi realized how foolish it sounded, to have befriended the man who locked him away in a dungeon. How much more insane would she think he was if she knew Eren had also confessed he had feelings for Levi?

Quietly, he said, "My loyalty lies with whomever is loyal to me."

"Levi, catch!"

He grabbed a dropped apple without breaking his scowling glare at Krista. "Eren has gone out of his way to save my life. You and the rest of France cannot say the same. France betrayed us Jews. You need to prove yourself worthy of my assistance."

She tipped her head. "I'll aim for that. The other members know about your stipulations, and we'll do our best to protect the lieutenant. We'll get you out first, and soon. You're the most important target. I will then take your place as translator, and with any luck, I can facilitate the rest of the operation from within. We'll get the rest of the group this weekend by the river."

"Au diable tout ça." To hell with that. "I will not leave until the women are rescued."

Krista laughed awkwardly. "That will not be easy. You don't understand how hard it is—"

"I don't understand?" he challenged, raising his voice. "You don't understand what it's like to watch a woman get raped right in front of you, and you can't do a damn thing because you're behind bars. All you can do is tell her a prayer and hope to God the man finishes quickly. You don't understand what that's like!" Another apple dropped, and Levi instinctively caught it, almost crushing it in his hand. He dropped the bruised apple into the basket and lowered his voice to a hiss. "I am not leaving before those women, and that's final."

She sighed in frustration, but her eyes softened. "You're a true gentleman, captain."

"Je me souviens quand les Français n'étaient pas des lâches, mais des honorables." I remember when the French were not cowards, but honorable.

Just then, Eren landed down from the tree. "That's all the ripe ones I could find."

"Then we're done here," Levi said, staring hard at Krista.

Raising her chin stubbornly, she replied, "Le plan devra être réajusté. Je vais devoir parler de ça avec le groupe." The plan will have to be readjusted. I'm going to have to discuss this with the group.

"Tu vas le faire, alors." You go do that, then.

Levi turned away and began to walk down the garden path. Eren looked between the two, wondering what happened. He had thought Levi and Krista would make good friends, yet he was excessively cold to her.

Eren pulled out his wallet, handed over some bills to Krista, and whispered secretively, "Bitte kaufen Sie mehr Brot, falls es geht." Please buy more bread, if you can.

She smiled as she pushed the money back. "Ich werde beschäftigt sein." I'll be busy.

Eren slowly pulled the money back and pouted. "Ist das so? Es tut mir Leid, dass ich Sie um so Vieles bitte." Is that so? I'm sorry, I'm asking so much of you.

"Nein, ich möchte helfen." No, I want to help. Krista looked down at the money, and impulsively she took it. "Ich werde sehen was ich tun kann." I'll see what I can do.

Eren's face brightened into a smile, but Krista was struck by a feeling of being heartbroken. Such a nice man, and yet his future was doomed. Impulsively, she tiptoed up and kissed Eren on the cheek.

"Bonne chance!" Good luck!

Then she took off, fleeing from him as her face struggled with emotions.

Eren watched her go, confused by her farewell. Good luck? Why would he need luck? He shrugged it off, figuring it was a French thing, and went to catch up with Levi. However, the Jew had paused by a tree, holding onto the trunk as he breathed laboriously.

"Levi!" Eren ran forward to make sure he did not pass out.

"Fine … I'm fine," Levi muttered as his head swam with vertigo.

Eren began to reach forward, but Levi slapped his hand away. Still, he leaned heavily on the tree, struggling to stay upright. Eren frowned as he saw Levi suffering.

"When was the last time you ate?"

Levi let out a weak laugh. "They wouldn't let my people bring me a bowl of soup for dinner last night, and I didn't even touch the bread they brought this morning. If I'm going to die, it won't be from bread covered in rat shit."

"You haven't eaten since what I gave you yesterday?" Eren cried out. "Sit! Now! You're going to eat." He looked around. "Ich sehe einen Pavillon. I don't know what those things are called in English, but we can sit there."

He took the basket so Levi could focus on walking, and they went over to a gazebo. Levi gladly sat in the shade. Eren plucked an apple out of the basket and thrust it into Levi's hand.

"Here. Eat this. Seriously, you need to tell me if you're hungry. I could have gotten us lunch before going on a walk."

Levi bit into the apple and felt the sweetness burst into his mouth. After chewing and swallowing, he muttered, "I'm finally being let outside for the first time in almost a week. Do you think I'm going to push my luck by asking for food?"

"You know I would feed you."

Levi glanced up into Eren's amiable face, then stared forward as he took another bite of the apple. "It's … difficult sometimes … reminding myself that you're not like the others."

Eren smiled sadly at hearing that. He was glad that Levi saw him differently, but it also meant he sometimes thought of him as just another Nazi, and most Nazis he met were cruel. Eren had to admit, normal Nazis would rather kill a Jew than feed one.

He looked around the garden. The gazebo was tucked away in a corner amongst rose bushes and shady willow trees. No one was around this area. He scooted a little closer to Levi, biting his lip as he could feel the warmth radiating off of him.

Levi felt the movement and looked down to see their legs were a finger's-width apart, so close, but Eren held back from touching. Trying to seem casual, Levi leaned his leg over until their thighs were flushed against one another. He heard a small gasp from Eren, but he pretended like he did not notice, eating his apple as he stared out at the garden.

Beside him, Eren's heart was racing from just that one gesture. He had thought Levi might shift away. Had he leaned his leg up against him on purpose? On accident? He seemed to not realize it was there. Did he want this closeness? Did he notice it?

"I … I was thinking about something," Eren whispered. "As much as I enjoy your company, I want you to be safe. I think … this Saturday … I'm sure I can convince Armin to help, and Jean will likely go along with it. If it's the three of us again … we can let the Jews escape."

Levi looked over sharply at him. "Are you serious?"

"I paid Krista to buy your people bread. That's my alibi, proof that I had no intention of letting you go. We'll figure out a way to make it look like a struggle. I might get in a little trouble…"

"Then forget it!"

"No!" Eren slammed his hand down onto Levi's thigh and glared sternly at him. "I can't keep sitting by and watching you suffer. I can't! I would rather be reprimanded, demoted, whipped, whatever punishment I get, if it means you're safe." His jaw clenched with determination. "I'm getting you out!"

Levi felt oddly warm hearing Eren's conviction. Instead of a frivolous and naïve boy, this time he saw the hardened soldier, planning for a battle where he had everything to lose. Then he felt tingling on his leg and looked down. Eren's hand was gripping his thigh with firm fingers.

Eren followed Levi's eyes down and saw where his hand had landed. "Ah! Sorry." He yanked it away. "I thought you might run away on me."

That warm tingling remained, and Levi kept his eyes down at where his trousers now had a hand-sized crease. "Krista," he whispered. Levi looked around the garden. "She's near the exit. Run to her. She … She can help."

"A little girl like her?"

"She offered. She … look, just trust me," Levi snapped. "Run to her, tell her you plan to let us go on Saturday. Just, for the love of God, trust me on this and don't ask questions."

Eren nodded firmly. He guessed enough. As he bolted across the garden path, chasing after the blond teen, he realized why Levi was cold to her earlier. She must have offered something. Maybe she had connections. If she had offered to help Levi to escape, the temptation must have been great. That was why he talked sternly to her and wanted to get away.

"Krista!"

She paused and looked back, stunned to see Eren running at her. She began to turn and flee, fearing that Levi tattled on her. Eren easily caught her, pulled her over to a building, and pressed her up against the wall.

She struggled against his strong hold. "Lâchez-moi!" Let go of me!

"Bitte hören Sie mir zu." Please listen to me. Eren's voice dropped to a whisper. "Können Sie Levi helfen, diesen Samstag zu fliehen?" Can you help Levi escape this Saturday?

She gasped at the whisper and stared up in shock. Eren was so close, if anyone saw them, they would think this soldier was having his way with a pretty girl. Yet this close, those fiery teal eyes could not lie. He was serious.

Krista nodded with determination. "Wir können sie alle retten." Let's save them all.

Eren agreed solemnly. "Wir gehen die Details später noch genau durch." We'll go through the details later. Then, with a shove to the brick wall, he pushed himself away and tipped his head genteelly. "Bis Samstag." Until Saturday.

Krista's lips fluttered in a smile, and as Eren strode away, she saw for a moment what it was about this soldier that so enamored the former French captain.

Eren tried to hurry back. He had taken off without even bothering to ask Levi to follow, knowing he could barely walk. Now he realized that he was putting a lot of trust into Levi not running away. He also feared what might happen if another German noticed him sitting there with a basket of apples, seemingly on a picnic in the garden instead of washing dishes or scrubbing toilets.

Thankfully, Levi was still sitting in the gazebo, his eyes on Eren and … was that a smile? By the time Eren got close enough to see his face clearly, the turn to the lips was gone. Eren sat back under the shade of the gazebo, and it felt natural that he was close enough for their legs to touch.

"So?" Levi prodded.

"She'll help. I'm not sure how, and maybe I don't want to know." He glanced down at Levi. "Has she been helping your people?"

"She brought us bread once. That's all."

Eren was not sure if that was the truth or not, but he decided not to pursue the issue. Levi was almost done with his apple. "How are you feeling now?"

"I'm realizing that this will probably flush right out my arse, but at least diarrhea is better than hard shit right now."

"I think they grow Möhren here. I don't know the English word. If you can gather them, you can have them."

Eren began to shift to stand, but Levi's hand shot out, landing on his leg.

"Stay. I … want to sit here a little longer."

It was peaceful, the garden was serene, and being outdoors in fresh air was healing to his soul. Levi felt almost normal sitting here, like the war was far away, even though a Nazi soldier was sitting right next to him. Levi felt a hand lay on top of his, and he looked down, finally realizing that he had grabbed Eren's leg. Now Eren's hand was over his, giving him a comforting touch.

"Okay," Eren whispered. "We can stay here."

Eren's hand did not move, and as the minutes passed by with the buzz of bees and birdsong, Levi grew increasingly self-conscious that his hand was trapped on Eren's thigh. He probably could have yanked it away, but … he didn't mind. At least for a little while, they could sit like this. Even when Eren's thumb glided up and down his knuckles, Levi kept his hand where it was.

It felt … nice … to touch another human like this.

They sat in silence for what felt like hours, yet was probably no more than ten minutes. Then Eren's hand slid off, and the coldness of the air felt disappointing. However, his hand glided over until it landed on Levi's thigh. At first, he just let it lie there, warm and hesitant, barely even touching, but gradually Eren grew bolder. His hand rested firmer, gripping Levi's leg slightly. Eren's thumb again slid back and forth, feeling the trouser fabric.

More minutes ticked by slowly. Levi could not look up into Eren's face. His eyes were down, seeing their arms crossed, their hands on each other's legs, sitting so close, touching one another so intimately. His heart raced in a way it had not done in years.

Then Eren's hand shifted, slowly gliding up the thigh. Levi watched, like the slow stalking of a predator, yet he was too scared to move.

Or maybe, he didn't want this to stop.

"Levi," Eren whispered.

The voice jolted him, and his eyes flashed up, only to be ensnared by a gaze so intense, it left Levi paralyzed. Had anyone, even Petra, ever stared at Levi the way Eren did? Petra had been coy, playing the bashful maiden long after they were married. Eren looked more like a wolf about to devour him.

Levi knew one thing for sure: no person had ever made his heart race like this from just a touch. He was breathing so fast, with his mouth slightly open in shock, that his lips felt dry. His tongue darted out to moisten them, and that tiny move made Eren's breath hitch. He also dragged his tongue slowly over his lips, leaving them glistening in the sunshine.

Those lips … yesterday, they gave Levi such hope. He could practically feel the soft caress of those lips again, and it filled his heart with both warm yearning and cold dread. Terror, joy, despair, hope, nightmares, dreams, trauma, healing: they all clashed in a war of their own.

Then they heard the crunching of pebbles down the path, and both of their hands yanked away. Levi cursed under his breath, and Eren instantly slid down the gazebo bench. He grabbed the basket, slammed it between them, snatched an apple, and bit into it. Levi dropped his head, acting the part of the obeisant servant as he hoped no one recognized him.

The approaching soldier passed by, casually saluted the lieutenant, and thought nothing of an officer resting with his civilian attendant for a little snack. He continued on, and Eren let out a long, tense sigh. Then he heard Levi hiss beside him.

"What the hell are you doing?"

He felt stung by the anger in those words, but Levi was right. They were in the open. He was doing things like this where anyone could see him. This was more than just dangerous. It was stupid! Still, if Levi was leaving in just a few days, Eren no longer wanted to hold back.

On his side of the bench, Levi knew those words were aimed not only at Eren, but at himself. What the hell was he doing, touching a Nazi soldier like that, and allowing himself to be touched?

Then again, if he was leaving … part of him wanted to let Eren do whatever he wanted. They might never see one another again. What was the harm in letting the man have a little fun before they parted?

A lot of harm, Levi scolded silently to himself.

Levi also realized the conflict growing in himself. More than anything, he wanted to leave this place before anyone else died, but he knew he was going to miss this brat. He had grown fond of Eren, befriended him, and now struggled with the knowledge that Eren had feelings for him. A person doesn't just forget someone like that. For as long as he lived, he would always remember the kind German who saved his life and gave him hope in the middle of a horrific war.

"We should head back," said Eren.

His voice sounded cold, and it made Levi want to apologize. He must have taken his words as a fierce scolding. Levi just wanted to warn him that this path was dangerous. He was worried about Eren's safety. If they kept this up…

No good could come from this.

As for the clandestine touches, as flustering as they were, as confused as he was about what to think about them … he didn't mind.

Near the back of the estate grounds, close to the kitchens, was a potager garden. This area was also laid out with clean precision, decorative yet functional, filled with vegetables, herbs, leafy greens, and rimmed with berry bushes. A cook needed only to step outside to collect some fresh rosemary or pluck off a few berries to top a dessert.

Eren occasionally stopped by places around the potager garden. He spoke only in German now, but Levi understood enough. Sharp orders were barked out to pick carrots, beets, onions, radishes, green beans, zucchini, collards, leeks, broccoli, and tomatoes. Eren called out the vegetables in German, but Levi could see for himself what they were.

The basket creaked with the weight, but Levi knew that the more he could hold, the more his people could eat. With that in mind, he lugged the basket along from area to area, ending up at some berry bushes. Picking the berries stained his hands, but they filled in the spaces between the other vegetables.

Once the basket really did look ready to break apart, Eren took Levi into the castle kitchen, giving a sharp order to the young soldat stuck on kitchen duty that Levi was to clean the vegetables. The soldat saluted and let the lieutenant do as he pleased, not wanting to upset an officer.

Levi got to work scrubbing dirt off the carrots, radishes, and other vegetables. This also allowed him to clean himself a little, scrubbing his arms and rubbing a little soap onto his face for a quick wash. It felt good to be clean, even if it was not a full bath.

Eren sat to the side, tapped out a cigarette, but as he searched for his matches, he realized he had given them to Levi. He walked over to the stove and was glad to see some matches next to it. He lit up the cigarette and took a long, relaxing drag. Then he put the matchbox into his pocket.

The fresh-faced soldier cleared his throat. "Entschuldigen Sie, Herr Leutnant, aber Sie sollten wirklich nicht rauchen." Pardon me, lieutenant, but you really shouldn't smoke.

"Ja, ich weiß, es ist schlecht für mich." Yes, I know, it's bad for me.

He knew about Hitler's anti-smoking campaigns, but Eren still continued without much heed. Even if it was unhealthy, it was a habit now. He had his first cigarette when he was fourteen, hiding behind the school with Reiner and a few other boys, often passing a single cigarette around. Back then, it was a way to rebel. During the Battle of Anzio, smoking was a way for him to calm his mind, and he ended up going through many cigarettes a day. He had been trying to cut back ever since, but it was too easy to buy some cigarettes off a local Frenchman and feel that same sense of relaxation. Besides, the teenager in him still wanted to rebel against what society said he should and should not do.

As Levi continued with the hard work of scrubbing the vegetables, Eren began to separate the haul. He took a burlap sack from the side of the kitchen and placed enough vegetables to feed the Jews. He tried to be generous: an apple for each of them, three green beans per person, two radishes each, a small tomato for every person, there were six zucchinis so they could split them in half and share, and since Connie hated broccoli, he gave all of those as well as all the berries to the Jews.

He set aside enough to make his men happy. There were still enough carrots for a soup, and Thomas would love to cook the beets, onions, and collards, which would be hard for the Jews to eat raw. He also put in a few apples. Maybe Thomas could make strudels.

As Levi dried his hands, Eren tied the burlap sack closed. They left the kitchen and walked through the château. The kitchen was in the west wing, while the dungeon was far to the east, in the area that was oldest and near the original medieval watchtower. In the grand hallway that connected the two wings of the château, soldiers milled about. A few saluted Eren as he walked by, but generally went along with their own business.

Then a voice shouted out. "Leutnant Jäger, haben Sie kurz Zeit?"

Eren paused and looked over at a soldier coming up to him. The man saluted with a proud "Heil Hitler" and began to speak. Levi waited, but he knew who this man was already. He was basically their jailer, letting the Jews out in the morning and doing roll call in the evening before locking them away. He was likely asking Eren about when Levi was due to return to work.

Sure enough, as Eren talked with the man, his face took on that same hollow coldness that Levi had come to understand meant he was burying his personal emotions in order to act the part of a loyal Nazi. The two soldiers saluted Heil Hitler once more, and Eren continued on his way. His face was darkened, his eyes frigid, and he said nothing.

"I guess I work again," Levi muttered.

"Halt die Klappe, du Judenscheiße." Shut up, you Jewshit.

The harsh shout stunned Levi, but he merely kept his head down. There were soldiers around. They could not talk friendly in this area. Levi followed Eren, acting subservient, until they were in the east wing. The closer they got to the staircase that led to the dungeon, armory, and other areas of the old castle, the fewer soldiers they saw, until finally they were the only two people in the hallway. Eren let out a heavy sigh.

"Sorry about that."

"You're a soldier," Levi reasoned. "Your duty comes first."

"He wanted your key. I said I was using you as my servant for the day, I would lock you back away later, and I'd give the key to him this evening"

Levi nodded in quiet understanding. "It was nice while it lasted."

They went to the staircase leading down to the dungeon. Eren was again hit by the reek of feces and body odor. This was worse than any public toilet he had ever been inside. Not even the smell of his cigarette made the room bearable.

Eren lit a lamp and helped Levi to distribute the apples and carrots, hiding them under pillows in each cell. Other items were too soft or would stain the bedding, so they would need to be passed around after the lights were out and Germans could not see them. Levi found a bucket, hid the sack with the remaining food inside, and pushed it under the cot. Even if a German noticed, they would think it was a toilet bucket and would not dare look inside.

Eren's cigarette was out, and the foul fumes were getting to him. "Let's go. No offense, but I feel like I'm going to vomit if I stay in this room for too long."

"I feel that way all the time, takhshet."

Levi gladly left, and he was not surprised when Eren took him back to the armory. This was a room where he felt safe, and they could be together with privacy. Levi's heart already began to race. If yesterday was a timid kiss, what would today bring?

"I stole this." Eren brought out a small tart. "You need to eat more, if you skipped breakfast. One apple isn't enough."

Levi was not about to turn down food. The pastry was filled with lemon curd and topped with a raspberry. He carefully bit in. The crust flaked, and he put a hand under to catch crumbs. The sour-sweet taste of lemon melted over his mouth. Levi closed his eyes as a tingle went from taste buds to toe tips.

Eren reached into the basket meant for his men and pulled out an apple for himself. They moved over to a bench on the side of the room and sat to enjoy their small meal. Eren watched Levi eat the tart, and while it filled him with warmth to see Levi enjoying himself, it was also pitiful. Thomas had made tarts earlier that summer, and Eren had devoured two without much thought. Meanwhile, Levi ate this small treat like it was food of the gods, licking crumbs off his hand.

They continued to eat in silence, each hiding smiles from the other, lost in thoughts and feelings of anticipation, as well as sadness at the realization that they would be separating soon.

"So, Saturday is the big day. I'm both relieved and sad. It'll be lonely without you around."

"You have your men," Levi said with his mouth full.

"Yes, but I can't talk to them like I can with you." He looked longingly at Levi, but his gaze quickly shot away. "I hope this plan works," he whispered, then added with a wry laugh, "and hopefully it doesn't involve shooting myself in the leg."

He heard a small snort of a laugh from Levi, and he looked up at him. Levi might have laughed, but there was still no smile. Once again, Eren could not look at Levi for long before turning his flushed face aside.

"About earlier today, I'm sorry if I did something you hated."

Levi's head shot up. "What do you mean?"

"In the garden, touching you like that."

"Oh." Levi felt his face warming up all over again. "It's fine."

"No, it wasn't. You were mad at me."

"Because you did that in public, where anyone could see."

Eren shyly looked over. "Then, what if I did it in private?"

Levi realized too late what he had said.

Eren lowered his voice. "Did you like it?"

Levi's face burst out red, and his throat felt too dry to speak for a few moments. He gulped hard and muttered sharply, "What do you expect me to say?"

"'You're disgusting. Stay away from me. Don't ever touch me again.'"

Levi realized that normally, that would have been his reaction right away. Another man touching him, especially his leg, the most sensitive part of his body, should have been disgusting. He should have slapped Eren's hand away immediately.

Instead, he carefully weighed his words. "You're … not disgusting."

Eren began to reach forward, but he pulled back with second thoughts. He really was pushing things, but knowing Levi would be leaving soon … he really wanted more! Boldly, he placed his hand on Levi's knee.

"Just this much," he said to himself.

It was a simple touch, but it meant so much to him. Everything, every look and smile and blush, were all so precious to Eren. He knew he might never get a chance to experience happiness like this again.

"You … You plan to go to America, right?"

Levi hesitated before nodding. Eren sounded so sad, it was heartbreaking.

His fingers lazily stroked Levi's leg. "Where exactly?"

Levi swallowed down the last of the tart. "I have a cousin in New York."

"New York," Eren said dreamily. "What is it like?"

"I've never been there. Crowded, according to my cousin. Diverse. Many languages, many races, many religions, all living relatively in harmony with one another."

"Sounds like paradise."

"Sounds like chaos," Levi grumbled. "But peace, acceptance, tolerance … those sound nice."

Eren looked down at the apple in his hand. New York. The Big Apple. The Empire City of the New World. "It's a big city."

"The biggest in the world," Levi agreed.

"A person could get lost there."

"I'd rather be lost than found by Nazis. No offense," he added.

"No, I understand," Eren muttered.

"Personally, I never liked big cities," Levi grumbled. "I lived in Paris for a few years. Hated it! I lived in London off and on. That was even worse. I've been to Warsaw. Gorgeous city, but overcrowded. Still, sometimes, a crowd can be safer. If I can vanish in a big city and just be a face in the crowd, all the better."

"But how would anyone find you?"

"If they want to find me, they can."

Levi paused as he realized what Eren was saying. After the war was over, how would they find one another again? It really was an issue. The world was a big place. Finding one person amidst billions would be a real challenge.

"You're a Jäger," Levi whispered. "A hunter! If you wanted to find me, I'm sure you could."

Eren's face burst into a smile. "Would you want to meet up again after the war?"

Levi's brow pinched together. "We're friends. I wouldn't hate it if you showed up at my doorstep one day."

"Then it's a promise!"

"Don't promise something you can't fulfill," he snapped. "Anything could happen in this war. You could die. I could die. This whole village could be bombed to the ground tomorrow. The war could last another twenty years."

"I would wait twenty years to find you," Eren said, his voice quiet and his eyes serious.

A chill ran down Levi's arms, as well as something akin to a fiery arrow pierced his chest. Why did those words fill him with so much faith?

"You're doing it again," Levi grumbled.

"Doing what?"

"Giving me hope. Making me want to live."

"Is that a bad thing?"

"No," Levi whispered, laughing softly to himself. "Not bad at all."

Eren smiled bittersweetly to himself. At least Levi now liked that he was giving him hope, rather than panicking about it. He saw his apple sitting to the side, picked it up, and handed it to Levi.

"Please, eat it."

Levi narrowed his eyes, but he slowly took the fruit. There were many bites in it, but less than half was eaten. Knowing he would not get more food, and receiving dinner was questionable, he dug into the apple, determined to finish the whole thing, even the core.

Eren watched him eat. Something so simple made him happy. Caring for Levi, giving him food, sitting with him, resting his hand on his leg: they were all little blessings. He could have sat there the whole day, just gazing at this man, and feel like it was the best day of his life.

He also knew this was not going to be possible anymore. Tomorrow, Levi returned to work, slaving away. He would likely face cruelty. Definitely, all the Germans knew who he was, and a few would feel it was their duty to punish him. This moment of peace would never come again.

At least all of this would be over on Saturday. With a lot of luck, the Jews would be on their way to freedom.

That thought made Eren hold Levi's leg just a little tighter. He wanted him out of this dangerous place, but he also did not want to let him go.

Eren saw that Levi was almost done with his apple. He began to open his mouth, but hesitated. He scowled, really not wanting to bring it up, but he needed to say this while he still could.

"I know you said you don't hate it, but I just want to say … I'm truly sorry," Eren sighed.

Levi gulped down the apple and raised his head. What was he apologizing about this time?

"After what happened to you last week, I shouldn't have said anything about my feelings, but … but I think because of what happened, I was forced to admit it to myself."

Levi relaxed to hear the timid confession. "It's fine. It's not like I hadn't figured it out weeks ago." He took another bite from the apple.

Eren laughed awkwardly. "Weeks ago? Really? Now I feel like an idiot for not saying anything sooner."

"You are an idiot."

His hand lazily stroked along Levi's thigh. "I just couldn't keep telling myself I was mistaken. I was so successful at suppressing my feelings for years, so I almost didn't realize why you made me react in strange ways. Especially since it was a man … like you."

"A Jew?" asked Levi.

"Partly, yes, but also—no offense—a man so much older than me. Don't take this the wrong way, but you're really not the sort of person I usually think is cute."

"Good. I'd kick your arse if you said I was cute."

Eren chuckled at the gruff retort. "This is the sort of thing that made me fall for you."

Levi raised an eyebrow. "Insulting you? Are you a masochist?"

"No, I mean, you talk to me like a normal person. All my life, I've either been treated as a child, ordered around as a soldier, or obeyed as an officer. Few people in my entire life have ever treated me as a friend."

Levi knew the feeling all too well. Leaving the military and returning to civilian life had been a huge adjustment. He got angry with many people who treated him with contempt as a Jew, and not with the respect he had grown used to as an officer. That was partly what made him interested in Petra. She treated him with respect, but also acted casual around him. It was a weird experience for Levi, being befriended.

Eren went on, "After what happened last week, I couldn't keep telling myself that I was mistaken. A part of me was not just enraged at what the captain made Moses do, and of what that soldier did to you. Part of me was … was … eifersüchtig. Jealous?"

Levi sneered. "Jealous? Of what? That he was the one who raped me, not you?"

"No!" Eren cried out. "At first, that you had to go through that, and I had to watch, and … and everyone got to see it. I hated that they all got to see your body, and they all witnessed your shame. Armin had to stop me three times from shooting the captain."

Levi muttered, "Tu aurais dû le tuer ce salaud." You should have killed that bastard.

"Then later, I was jealous that what Grützmacher was doing was what I wanted to do."

Levi's head shot up. "What?" he screamed.

"I don't mean…"

Levi leaped away. "Get the hell away from me."

"No! I would have asked. What he did to you was evil! What I had dreamed about was gentle, loving, something we'd both want, something we'd enjoy together…"

Levi clasped his hands over his ears. The memories of that time were still there, and it made Levi's stomach heave.

"I'm sorry," Eren cried out. "I'm just being honest. I dreamed of making love to you, and to see someone getting that chance made me … maybe jealous is not the right word. He was daring to hurt you in a way that I wanted to pleasure you. He forced you, whereas I would have begged you for the honor."

"Stop," Levi whispered in anguish, trying to keep his stomach down.

"I would never hurt you. Never! But I was … I can't think of the right word. More than just mad. It was my dream to touch you like that, my dream to pleasure you like that, and there he was, daring to do things that I was too scared to admit that I wanted. I felt like you were mine, and how dare he touch you! I was scared that after experiencing that in such a brutal way, you'd never want to do it with me. It was like he stole you from me before I could even admit to myself just how much I—"

"Stop!" Levi clenched into his hair. Eren's words made his memories blend and distort, with Eren's face, his voice, and his hands touching him, only it was not gentle at all. It was all the worst of his dark memory, and now it was Eren hurting him, beating him into submission, violating his body.

"How could I let someone who took pleasure in you live? How could I not kill him for daring to touch you, for hurting a person so precious to my heart?"

Levi collapsed to his knees, shaking as the twisted nightmares threatened to drown out Eren's fervent words. "Stop it," he whispered. "Please, stop."

Eren's head dropped. "I'm sorry. I just need to be honest with you. These are my true feelings. They're not at all pure. They're dark and ugly and twisted. I am eine Abscheulichkeit, an abomination, and I understand if you don't want me around you. Don't feel like you have to accept any of this." He sadly muttered, "I never expected you to accept my feelings anyway."

Levi took slow, deep breaths, working through the flashbacks. That man was dead, the injuries were healed, but memories could live on long after the event.

"I … thought about you," he said, his voice weak and shaking. "When he was … doing that … I wondered, did you just have weird feelings for me, or did you want to do that with me as well. Every time … Every time he raped me, that thought ran through my head. 'Did Eren want this as well?' I … I broke when I realized, if you did want sex like that, I would never be able to let you do it. Not after what he did. I don't even know if I can love a man, but I know … I can't ever … let a man do that to me … ever again. That thought was what finally shattered me, because I felt like it was my fault you'd never get the chance."

Eren dropped his head. Then it was like he feared. Grützmacher stole Levi from him that night.

"I … I wanted you to come and kill him for me. I prayed to God that you would come save me." Levi's lips quivered. "And then, you did. You were there, and he was dead."

Yes, but too late to save Levi from being broken. "I hope you can forgive me if I told you at the worst time possible, and if I made … all of this … even worse for you." His face drew up in anguish. "Like I said, I make a horrible friend."

"No, it's … it's fine. I told you, I already guessed about you. You weren't exactly subtle about it."

Eren smiled bitterly. "And here I thought I was good at hiding my feelings."

"You're shit at it."

"Then it's just like when I was a child and my friends figured out I was homosexual just by seeing how I stared at some boys."

"Exactly. Your face is too honest." Levi stared forward in the cold, stone room. "You better learn to hide better. I wouldn't want you to be discovered and killed."

"Then I guess it's a good thing you'll be leaving on Saturday. I can go back to focusing on being a soldier and not constantly thinking about how to escape early from a meeting so I can come here and see you."

Levi pulled himself up and returned to the bench. When he sat down, he was much closer to Eren. "Do you … Do you think about me a lot?"

Eren looked ready to cry. "Constantly!"

Levi still shook inside from the memories of that painful humiliation. His hand trembled as it reached out, but when it fell upon Eren's hand, he grasped tightly, as if to hold on for dear life, needing someone there next to him to pull him out of the abyss. He muttered, so quietly that the words barely made it out of his mouth, "I wish I could have experienced what it was like to be loved by a man, before I experienced what it was like to be raped by a man."

Eren felt his heart shatter at that fragile confession. His arms began to move on instinct, but he forced them back. "Be honest if this is too much, if you don't want it, but … may I simply hold you? I promise not to do anything weird—"

Levi did not even let him finish. He grabbed around Eren, almost tackling him back with the force. He buried his face into the uniform as his whole body shook from the nightmares and the misery of lost possibilities. He wanted to apologize to Eren for being broken, for having that happy dream of the future ripped away from him, for being weak and overpowered and so fucking helpless. He knew it was not his fault, but he still felt guilty. He would never be able to give Eren the love he deserved.

Eren wrapped Levi up into his arms, almost crushing him, as if to squeeze out all the darkness of the past. He stroked his fingers through the black hair and planted a little kiss on top of his head. "I'm so sorry," he whispered as tears slid down his cheeks.

Minutes passed in silence with only Levi's occasional ragged breaths breaking the peace. Eren wanted to protect him, and now that meant getting him away from here. For now, he wanted to always remember this feeling of warmth in his arms.

"I don't want to let you go," he confessed. "I wish I was a knight, and you could be my squire, and I'll take you along with me into battle."

Levi muttered into Eren's uniform, "I'm older than you, idiot."

"How old are you? Twenty-five? Thirty?"

"I was born in 1910."

Eren glanced down and hummed. "You don't look that old."

"You look like a child."

Eren chuckled and squeezed him closer. "Then how about I be your squire?"

Levi rolled his eyes. "I'm hardly a knight."

"You were a captain. You outrank me."

"That was a long time ago," he sighed.

The French Resistance wanted him purely because of the reputation he had back when he was France's assassin, known as La Lame Juive, the Jewish Blade. If the British Secret Intelligence Service and Deuxième Bureau wanted him back this badly, it did not take much to guess why.

The last assassination attempt on Hitler failed. They needed something less bombastic, more efficient, something that sent a clear message. What poetic justice it would be, to have the German dictator who despised Jews die on the blade of La Lame Juive.

Levi was haunted enough by his past as an assassin, the last thing he wanted was to go back to that life, but to save his people…

Eren wanted to help him to escape, but would he still be willing if he knew what Levi would be asked to do? They would definitely be enemies, and he would be actively fighting to destroy the Nazis.

Maybe Eren no longer cared, or he was willing to ignore the reality of their situation. Or maybe his feelings for Levi were stronger than his loyalty to Hitler.

As Eren quietly caressed him, Levi wondered what he was thinking about. Was it the past? The future? The dark reality of the present?

Oh well. He closed his eyes, and his shoulders loosened as he enjoyed this comfort while he could. He felt another kiss to the top of his head, and he did not mind. A smile almost lifted to his face, but it struggled there, like his muscles needed to remember how to do it. He was glad Eren could not see his face.

Eren whispered sadly, "I want to see you as often as possible. I'll see about having you assigned as my servant."

Levi sighed, also feeling the deep loss to come. "Promise me you'll be safe about it."

Eren laughed with a bittersweet smile. "None of this is safe." He pulled Levi out a little and gazed over his face, trying to commit every detail to memory. His eyes lingered on Levi's lips. "I know this is asking too much, but I might never get another chance. May I kiss you?"

Levi glared. "You're right. That is asking too much."

Eren flinched and pulled back. "I'm sorry."

Levi wanted to stay firm on this. He could not shake the fact that this was a man. Kissing him was dangerous. However, after how kind Eren had been to him, after letting him gather food, after offering to help him to escape, and the fact that they would be separated and possibly never see one another again, he rolled his eyes and gave in.

"Fine. You may."

"I won't if you don't want me to."

"I gave you permission, didn't I?" he snapped.

Eren pouted, not sure if Levi was doing this out of pity, out of actual interest, or at least out of some sense of curiosity. He slowly leaned closer.

"Are you sure?"

Hearing Eren constantly asking for permission, after the nightmarish forcefulness of a week ago, was the sort of soothing balm his heart needed. "Permission granted, lieutenant."

He saw the surge of wistful hope in Eren's eyes. Seriously, his face was way too honest. Then Eren leaned in, closed his eyes, and their lips met.

The kiss was awkward, nervous, and the arms holding him were clumsy. If Eren had closed himself off to love all these years, it meant he had not kissed someone since those childhood experiments with his friends. Levi realized, these immature kisses really were like a child just learning how to kiss.

Part of him wanted to show Eren what a real kiss was like. Another part admonished himself. A real kiss? Seriously, they could both be killed if anyone saw—but still, he did not pull away.

Levi finally realized what was so weird. Eren was merely pressing their lips together, top and bottom lips aligned, and their noses were in the way. Frustrated by the novice mistake, Levi pulled back and took Eren's cheeks to hold him still.

"Like this, idiot."

He forced his head to tilt sideways, and Levi aligned their mouths properly so their noses did not smash together. Now, their lips fit nicely. Eren gasped at the new experience. This was immensely better!

Levi pulled back, still looking aloof. "If you're going to kiss someone, do it right."

Eren burst out in a smile. Levi would only tell him this if he actually liked being kissed. He leaned in again, tilting his head this time, and gave him a stronger, fuller kiss.

Much better! Not that Levi was comfortable with the idea of a man kissing him like this, but at least they felt like real kisses. Then suddenly, Levi felt Eren's mouth capture his lower lip and give it a soft tug.

Something shot through his body, straight down to his groin. Against his will, a small moan escaped his throat, only to be choked back.

Eren pulled away with a coy smirk. "Like that?"

Damn him for kissing so good so quickly!

Eren chuckled at the blushing scowl on Levi's face. So cute! Not that he would ever tell him that. He tried it again, bolder now, capturing Levi's mouth and nibbling his lower lip. He had seen soldiers kissing like this, and he wanted to try all the things he had only witnessed.

Levi now closed his eyes, succumbing to the familiarity of passion. It had been so, so long since he was kissed like this. There was a bitterness to the memories it evoked, but also a warmth from simply knowing someone felt this way for him, no matter what gender or what uniform that person wore.

Eren's hands grew bolder, pulling Levi in closer, clawing into his shoulders, although they were still untrained and awkward movements, like he was trying to mimic what he had seen others do. Levi held still, letting him do as he pleased, although he did not return any of it. He was still unsure, but he did not mind the warm feeling it gave him. Part of him was even growing to enjoy this.

He could feel the passion in Eren's groping hands. This was passion for him. After all the beatings, whippings, scars, losing his fertility, and enough violence for a lifetime of nightmares, he never thought any person would fall in love with him again. So while he was conflicted, it felt nice to be wanted. In a world that wanted to kill him, this man wanted to love him.

He began to relax into it, letting himself press up closer to Eren. He laid one hand on Eren's thigh and gave it a squeeze.

"Levi…"

He shivered at Eren's quiet moan. When was the last time someone whispered his name so tenderly?

Then suddenly Eren's mouth aimed for Levi's neck, giving a kiss there that almost felt like a bite. That shocked Levi, and he shoved Eren away.

"No! That … That's enough." He rubbed the moistness off his neck and cringed as he tried to calm himself.

"Sorry," Eren whispered. "I guess I got a little excited."

Levi glanced down and saw that, indeed, Eren's uniform trousers clearly showed just how excited he was. "From just a kiss? You really are a little boy."

"You're not much better, old man."

Levi hissed in shame and looked away. He did not even want to look and see how Eren had stirred him up.

With his eyes on that slight bulge that had formed in Levi's trousers, Eren's hand inched forward. "I could help you with—"

Levi slapped the hand back. "Don't you fucking touch me!" After shouting it, he forced his instincts back down. This was Eren. He would never be cruel.

Eren looked down in guilt. "I'm sorry."

Levi cursed under his breath. How could this German soldier look like a hurt puppy? It wasn't fair! "I'm … I'm not ready for that."

"I understand. I won't do anything you don't want to do."

Eren scooted away, but now Levi felt like there was a huge distance between them. Maybe he should have left Eren with those childish kisses. It was dangerous to teach him more.

Eren pouted, worried if he had offended Levi. "Do you want me to leave, or do you want to help me more today? I promise, I won't even touch you."

Levi was still trying to calm his mind, but he knew one thing: he did not want to return to the dungeon. "I'll come with you. Just give me a moment. I need to take a shit."

"Oh! Uh, okay. You could probably use the toilet in my house."

"If I have to walk all the way across the village first, I'll end up constipated. Just give me a few minutes of privacy."

"Sure. I'll be at the top of the stairs." Awkwardly, Eren took the basket of food and walked away.

Levi returned to the dungeon and pulled out his toilet bucket. He yanked his belt loose, dropped his trousers, but looked down at the half hard arousal.

"Putain! Pourquoi doit-il être si mignon?" Fuck! Why must he be so cute?

* * *

Eren smoked another cigarette as he waited for Levi. He was taking a while, but Eren wanted to respect his privacy. After pushing his limits like that, it was the least he could do.

Finally, Levi came up the stairs, but he refused to look Eren in the face. That was probably for the best now. They had to be careful. Eren forced the basket into Levi's hands.

"Folg' mir." Follow me.

Levi was glad for a little more walking and fresh air. As they walked through the village, he happened to see one of the Jewish women. She looked surprised to see Levi out, but smiled when she saw whom he was following.

Eren probably did not realize just how much the whole Jewish group had come to admire him. He was practically their savior.

Eren kept his pace brisk, snapping into salute as he passed by soldiers. Levi shuffled along behind him, keeping his head down. He wondered if they were heading anywhere in particular, but soon he realized that all they had done was make a loop around the village.

"Are you on patrol?" he asked softly.

"No," said Eren. "I just thought you'd like to walk. Do I need to go slower?"

"Maybe a little," Levi admitted with a contrary grumble. "I haven't been able to walk around much for a week. My legs are out of shape."

"I figured as much. Let me know when you're tired."

"Can … Can I see where you buried Moses?"

Eren slowed down and glanced at him with deep pity that he knew he could not show on his face. "I'm afraid not. Because it's outside of the village, it would be suspicious to take you out there."

Levi frowned, but he realized Eren was right.

Eren continued, but now his eyes were narrow as he made up a plan of action. "Follow me."

He sharply turned to the side, and Levi scrambled to follow the new direction. After a few minutes, they reached the house Eren had taken over, and the lieutenant entered with a bold declaration.

"Your commanding officer returns with a gift. Hey Thomas, are you here?"

Thomas rushed in from the kitchen. "I can already smell those onions and apples. Lieutenant, you're the best!"

Eren motioned Levi to take the basket to the kitchen. All the soldiers who were in the house followed to see what food they got.

"Why didn't you get more apples?" Thomas cried out.

Eren replied, "It's barely the season, unless you want unripened fruits." Damn, maybe he should have made sure to pick enough apples for all the Jews plus all of his men.

"Connie! Don't you dare eat that carrot! Oh hey, these are already washed."

Eren shrugged. "Yeah, I figured I'd have the Jew wash them while he was there."

Franz had been picking up an onion, but he dropped it with a sneer. "The Jew washed them? Thomas, you better wash all of these again."

Thomas retorted, "If you're so picky, you wash them."

Eren called out, "Arlelt, Kirschtein, I need you both. Connie, you better not eat the food. Thomas, you have permission to punish him if he does."

"Hey!" Connie yelled. "I'm ranked higher than him."

"Which means you should know better than to argue with an officer. Hands off the food!" He looked down to Levi and whispered in English, "Let's go. I don't want you to stay here for too long." He glared toward the kitchen. "I didn't realize Franz hated Jews so much."

Levi shrugged. "Isn't that normal?"

Eren hated to admit that it was. He waved Armin and Jean to follow him. Levi kept close as Eren left the house and walked briskly through the village. Armin and Jean said nothing, although they both quickly guessed where they were going when Eren began to head toward the field of wildflowers. A soldier on patrol looked startled to see the Leutnant marching by with an Unteroffizier, an Obergefreiter, and a boyishly small civilian man who kept his head down like a beaten slave. The four continued out into the field to where there was a dirt mound. Small white stones had been shaped into the letter M atop of the grave.

Armin shrugged apologetically. "Entschuldigung, aber das ist das Beste, was wir tun konnten."

Eren translated, "He said, sorry but that's the best we could do."

"Tell him I'm grateful."

"I will. Stay low, and be quick. We can't stay here long."

Levi crouched, trying to stay under the height of the wild grasses, and immediately began to recite a Hebrew prayer.

Jean blurted out, "Was ist denn los, Jäger?" So what's going on, Jäger?

He glanced cautiously around, and although they were far from the village, he still kept his voice to a whisper. "I need your help. I want to get the Jews out of here."

Instantly, Armin grinned. Eren knew he would support this idea. Jean however scowled.

"You're going to let him escape? Then why bring us?"

"Not just him. All of them."

"That's insane. The captain will have your head."

"I would rather be demoted or even court-martialed than let those women be raped again. Or do you plan to first let them be raped, and then avenge their honor?"

That shut Jean up; Eren knew it would.

"I can help plan something," Armin said eagerly. "I've thought of twenty-seven ways to release them without anyone knowing until it's too late. Their bathing time down by the river is the easiest."

"I was thinking the same thing, but this plan must also look like we were overwhelmed by an enemy force." Eren reluctantly realized, if Krista brought any friends to help, they might honestly be outnumbered.

"We'll be killed for this," Jean warned. "We'll be sent to the labor camps in their place."

"I will take full responsibility." Eren looked down at Levi, who was still in the middle of his prayer. "As a Christian, it's my moral obligation to help. As a human, I cannot allow them to continue to suffer."

Jean shook his head. "Fine, I'm in, but I don't want to know the details. Don't even mention it again to me. As far as anyone is concerned, I know nothing about this. I'll simply not stop you, but you're taking the blame, Jäger."

"Yes, I am." Then he felt a smile of relief melt onto his face. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me," Jean warned. "I will stand by and do nothing if the captain decides to execute you for this."

Armin chuckled. "No you won't, because you'll be worked into my plan on how to break him out just before the execution."

Eren laughed. "We've been through so much together. I know I can trust you two if this all goes wrong." He looked over to Levi as he rose from the grave and told him in English, "They'll help."

Levi bowed his head to the two men. "Merci."

Jean pointed a finger into Levi's chest. "Sehen Sie zu, daß diese Frauen nie wieder für den Rest ihres Lebens leiden."

Eren translated, "He says, see to it that these women never suffer again for the rest of their lives."

Levi nodded in agreement.

Jean looked angry, but satisfied. "I can't stop thinking about how those women must have suffered for months, and we didn't even know it was happening. There are some soldiers in the Wehrmacht who deserve a bullet to the head."

"Save your bullets for the British. Now, we better hurry back. I'm not certain that Thomas won't kill Connie for eating something. I have to lock the Jew back in his cell, and I have a meeting with the other officers this evening, but I'll be back in time for dinner."

"Be safe, Eren," Armin warned.

They walked back to the village, and the group parted ways. Unburdened by the basket, Eren and Levi walked along the street. Eren even returned to the garden, simply strolling along the paths now. He wanted to waste time, to give Levi as much chance at fresh air and sunshine as he could.

Eren passed by a gardenia bush and picked one of the white flowers. He continued to sniff the flower as they walked along.

"Eren?" Levi whispered after almost an hour slowly circling the garden. "As nice as this is, I'm tired."

Eren quietly turned back to the main entrance. They returned to the dungeon, and Levi dropped face-down into his pillows. What an emotionally draining day! He hated that the pillows still smelled like Moses.

Then suddenly, he smelled something floral. He raised his head to see the gardenia next to him.

"For you," Eren said with a bashful smile.

Levi buried his face into the pillow so Eren could not see it turning red. "What idiot gives a man flowers?" He realized, he had said a similar thing when Eren gave him chocolates. "Don't you dare treat me like a woman."

Eren smiled to himself. "I would never give a woman flowers." He bit his lip and looked aside. "I figured, this way, you have something nice to smell while you're stuck down here. You can throw it away, if you want." Eren left the cell and locked the prison door. "If … If you want anything more, let me know."

Levi's eyes shot up to him. What precisely was he offering? By the timid smile, it was obvious that Eren was suggesting much more than medication, food, or even flowers. Levi slumped his head back down into the bed with a groan.

Eren tried to stretch back in, but his arm was not long enough to reach Levi's head, and he had already locked up the prison. He pulled back with a sad expression. "I'll try to be around later." With that, he walked out of the dungeon.

Levi listened to those heeled boots marching away. He stared ahead at the faces that constantly haunted him: Petra's brave eyes just before she died, Moses' look of horror as he realized that what he had done to Levi was not enough to survive, so many faces, so many deaths, so many voices ready to scream at him in the dark.

Did he have the right to find happiness after all the suffering of those around him?

He looked over to the innocent white flower. He would definitely have to hide this, not just from the guard, but from the women in his group. If they knew Eren was giving him flowers, he would never hear the end of their gossiping. For now, he picked it up and slowly inhaled.

"Idiot. Do you know what this flower means?"

Likely, Eren knew nothing about the language of flowers, but Levi did. Petra had been really into that sort of thing. She had carried a bouquet of gardenias at their wedding because of its meaning: secret love. Their love had been secret up until he married her, and then it was controversial. Similarly, this love Eren had for him had to be secret, because if anyone found out, he would be arrested or even killed.

The same flower Petra used to symbolize their socially taboo love … there was no way Eren knew about that!

"I swear, Petra, you really did send him to me. Fine! So be it. What the hell do you want me to do about it? Fall for the brat?" His eyes lowered, sad as he whispered, "I can't. Not after that."

Levi pressed his nose into the flower, letting it keep the nightmares away for now, as he thought about love and secrets and the unfairness of life.

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The lines Levi reads at the beginning are Proverbs 3:5-6.

בְּטַ֣ח אֶל־ יְ֭הוָה בְּכָל־ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְאֶל־ בִּֽ֝ינָתְךָ֗ אַל־ תִּשָּׁעֵֽן׃
בְּכָל־ דְּרָכֶ֥יךָ דָעֵ֑הוּ וְ֝ה֗וּא יְיַשֵּׁ֥ר אֹֽרְחֹתֶֽיךָ׃

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and on your own understanding do not lean. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths."

It'll be clarified later, but Levi was not raised in a religious environment and did not learn how to read Hebrew until after Petra died. He knew how to speak Yiddish, but he honestly had no interest in religion or his heritage until the Nazis wanted him dead because of it.

"using a yad to read the Torah" – Yad is Hebrew for "hand." It is a pointer shaped like a tiny hand with one finger out, used to help read the Torah without touching it. A Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) is traditionally written on vellum. Whereas pulp paper will start to turn yellow and crumble after a few decades, real calfskin vellum (not that synthetic stuff in art supply stores) has been known to last 800 years if properly cared for. However, vellum does not absorb ink like paper does, so a finger swiping across it can eventually wear off the letters. A brand new, handwritten Sefer Torah can take 18 months to create and cost $50,000 USD. In order to stop the inadvertent destruction of scrolls, the Sadducees decreed that touching the vellum of a Sefer Torah makes one ritually impure. Thus, rabbis began to use a pointer, and by the time of the Ancient Greeks, the same pointing-finger design still used today was being crafted. One would also never touch the yad to a very old scroll, since even that much can eventually damage the parchment. Touching a machine-printed Chumash or Tanakh is okay, since those are deemed non-kosher. Levi is just very strict about fingerprints in books. (I am 100% with him on that one! I once loaned a few books to my dad, who is a diesel mechanic, and they came back with black, oily finger smudges all over. I almost cried.)

Biggest city in the world – In 1925, New York City surpassed London as the most populous city in the world. It was also the first city in history to have 10 million people. It would lose its spot to Tokyo in 1965.

Potager – a French term for an ornamental kitchen garden. Potagers are geometrical with the vegetables planted in patterns or groups, rather than in rows, often with flowers, fruits, herbs and ornamental hedges. The idea is to make something not only useful for the family, but a work of art.

The castle/château – Anyone who has read my novels (Daughters of Ashby and Dodatrad Heiress) knows that I have an obsession with medieval culture, including castle architecture, something my husband keeps taming down. "Normal people don't know what a barbican is, dear." So I tried to keep my medieval mind tamed and only casually described the castle. The most common medieval castle was simply a tower, or keep, where the nobleman or châtelaine lived, often with a wall built around it for protection. The keep might have as little as one massive room, where the lord slept, ate, and entertained guests, or many rooms: a bedchamber, kitchen, dining area, throne room, ballroom, solarium, garderobe (toilets); as well as multiple buildings near the main keep: barracks for soldiers, stables for horses, an armory, chapel, library, and a dungeon. The richer you were, the more additions you could afford on your castle. Later, as castles became less defensive and more a status symbol, many nobles began to build palaces and country houses, sometimes using ancient designs like turrets, crenelations, moats, and barbicans; more often, they had none of the military aspects that we generally associate with a castle, and were basically just big-ass houses. The French call all of these "château," but in English that word has a more specific meaning of a mansion, country house, or manor; it is not used for defensive structures, or castles. The castle/château in this story is a blend of the two, a remnant of a medieval watchtower with the newer, more modern and comfortable mansion next to it. The picture above is Tracy House, a 16th century manor, but with the little section on the side that looks a bit different, that was basically how I imagined this French "castle" to look like. Honestly, it would be even smaller than this. It was a small village, after all.

Nazis were anti-smoking – I had thought Eren being a chain smoker worked to place this in the 1940s, but I was corrected. The Third Reich had an anti-smoking public health campaign, prompted by German research in 1939 and the world's first epidemiological, case-control study, which showed a link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer. The Reich sought to produce fit and healthy soldiers, and to "preserve the racial health of the Volk." Hitler himself banned any smoking in his presence, never drank hard liquor (he occasionally sipped wine), and in 1942 he claimed he was a strict vegetarian, using graphic descriptions of animal cruelty to dissuade anyone he was dining with from consuming meat. Although he tried to promote his anti-smoking, teetotaling, vegan lifestyle throughout the country, it was never enforced. So while Germans had begun to think of smoking as unhealthy, plenty of people (like Eren) continued to smoke despite knowing the dangers.

Gardenias – In the Victorian Age language of flowers, gardenias mean "secret love" or to tell a person "you're adorable." Because of their white color, they also represent the purity of one's feelings. They are common flowers in wedding bouquets.



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