Hearing piano music drifting out of an old building isn’t really an unusual thing, especially if that building happens to contain Jean Kirschtein…but there’s something subtly different tonight, different enough that it causes Levi to pause on the front porch with the sub-zero wind burning his ears, tilting his head to listen. The music’s not drifting down out of Jean’s attic bedroom (like it used to do for days on end, more than a decade ago) and his window’s dark in any case. The music’s right on the other side of the door, a pretty drifting waltz tune, intermixed with giggling voices and the occasional thump.
Levi jumps, and then sneezes, as something brushes against his ankle: one of the local scrawny barn cats he’s never been able to convince the boys to stop feeding. (A few winters ago Jean rigged up a couple next boxes and a space heater in the crawlspace under the porch, and Levi’s trying not to think about the cubic feet of cat no doubt packed under the boards he’s standing on.)
Erwin, of course, already has a kitten in each hand, cooing disgustingly while the little furballs purr uproariously at the attention. He raises his eyebrows as Levi hesitates with his hand on the doorknob. “What’re you waiting for?”
Fair question, Levi thinks, as Erwin sets the kittens down and they slip off under the porch. The answer ain’t exactly a logical one either: something’s different. Something inspired Jean to drag his beloved (heavy-ass) keyboard down the steep attic ladder, and that’s not like him and Levi’s a neurotic creature of habit who’s deeply suspicious of change…and what’s more, so are Jean and Eren.
Erwin slides a warm arm around his shoulder, and Levi sighs and leans into him a little (even if his coat smells like cat.) “C’mon,” Erwin murmurs in his ear. “It’s warmer in there.”
Levi chooses to express his gratitude for the patience and love by sneezing at him, and opens the door, letting out a rush of warm air and tangled music and voices.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand one two an’ three an’ one two an’ three an’ one-don’t-look-at-your-feet two an’ three an’ one, Jean, that’s really pretty…“
At first glance, the high-ceilinged living room seems to have undergone drastic remodeling: the boys have shoved their thrift store jumble of furniture back against one wall, leaving a wide expanse of scuffed hardwood floor clear between the door and a tall, slightly scraggly Christmas tree. Jean’s sitting cross-legged on top of the coffee table with his keyboard balanced precariously on the arm of the couch in front of him, providing the music that Marco’s counting over.
“One two an’ three an’ one – see, I told you turning’s easy,” Marco’s saying. He’s flushed and breathless despite the brutal cold outside, one arm around Eren’s waist and the other holding his hand tight as they spin through the cleared floorspace. Eren’s clearly concentrating, brows knit together under the bangs sticking to his sweaty forehead, but Marco makes dancing look easier than walking.
“I could do without the color commentary,” Eren grouses as he stumbles on a turn and Jean grins and whacks the crap out of a random bunch of keys, matching Eren’s wobble with a discordant clang in the music.
Marco just laughs. “No foot-watching,” he says, leaning in to nuzzle his nose against Eren’s cheek (tilting his gaze up away from their bare feet in the process.) Eren smiles, letting his eyes flutter shut as he tilts his head into the touch, and his movements across the floor come easier and more graceful as he stops thinking and lets his martial artist’s poise take control.
Jean looks up at the opening door and the blast of cold air that follows it, and uses a slow spot in the song to wave enthusiastically, before dropping his hand back to the keys without missing a beat.
Eren manages to gasp out a greeting the next time they spin by, breathless and flushed and eyes lit up from laughing. “I don’t think I can stop without crashing – woahshit—“ he breaks off as Marco pulls him up short and dips him so low his hair brushes the floor (it’s getting long again, working its way out of the perfunctory ponytail at the base of his neck.) “Warn me before you do that!” he gasps, clinging to Marco’s neck and laughing as Marco pulls him back up.
“There’s hot chocolate in the kitchen,” Marco says, resettling his arm around Eren’s waist, and Jean slows down a little for them, taking over the counting until they find the rhythm again.
Hot chocolate is all Erwin needs to hear, but Levi lingers a little longer after he’s peeled off his damp coat, listening to the boys laugh. (“Want to try a lift?” “Are you trying to kill me?”) He leans against the wall next to the tree, remembering…their first Christmas in this house, which was still mostly an old stone barn then, cold and drafty and empty. The Christmases he’d care to remember then he could count on one hand, trying to figure out how to throw a celebration for one broke nineteen-year-old and one deaf six-year-old with raw burn scars wrapped around half his body, back when either one of them were lucky to make it through a night without waking up screaming.
And five years later, Eren bodily carrying Jean down out of the attic he hardly ever left, oblivious to the raw stitches in his nose and his hand, and dumping him on the floor in front of an almost-new electric keyboard, shiny black and a full 88 keys, watching Jean’s face light up with the first smile either of them ever saw…the same keyboard propped across the couch, its plastic facings gray and scuffed, and Jean’s not even bothering to watch his hands on the keys as his eyes trail Eren and Marco around the room. He’d tried to tell Eren, back then, that they couldn’t possibly afford a full keyboard, even secondhand, and Eren made him swear up and down he wouldn’t buy him any Christmas presents, or birthday presents, or anything for as long as it took, as long as Jean got the piano.
You’re gonna give up everything?
Yeah, Jean’ll play for me, that’s enough, that’s more than enough.
And there had been another Christmas Eve, much later on, on one of the rare nights that Jean fell asleep early and it was just the two of them again, and Eren asked if Levi believed in God.
I don’t know, kid. Truly, I don’t. And he’d hesitated for a second, and then asked, what about you?
Eren had gone silent for a long, long time, staring at the tree and the cheap white lights that Jean had rewired, so they flickered and dimmed and brightened softly and randomly, mimicking the stars outside the window.
I don’t know either, he said eventually. He’d curled up into Levi’s side with his head on his shoulder, a little like he used to do when he was still tiny enough to fit in Levi’s lap. But…okay this is stupid, so don’t laugh…but…I know that when I could hear again…when I could hear music for the first time in five years, I know that you somehow brought home a musician.
The boys’ twirling path around the room brings them close to Jean perch on the coffee table, and Marco reaches down in passing, trails his fingers across the back of Jean’s hand and all the way up his arm and shoulder, ruffling through his hair before they spin away and Eren catches his hand again. The same Marco Levi met in the terminal at Jinae, a little over a year ago, sleepless and dead-eyed and flinching at shadows, his fingers bitten and twitching and fluttering over anything they could grab like he was searching for an anchor, and now he’s smoothing his steady hand over Eren’s back, fingertips tracing around the scars on his shoulders. Eren leans into him, resting his head on Marco’s shoulder, clearly no longer having to think about the dancing as he lets Marco lead, and Jean’s watching both of them as he plays, eyes glowing in a way that has nothing to do with reflected light.
Erwin slips back into the living room with two mugs of Eren’s Genocide-by-Chocolate crockpot concoction, hands one to Levi and drapes his arm over his shoulder. Levi takes the mug with a sigh, leaning back into Erwin’s chest, and traces his thumb over the ring on his finger that he still hasn’t quite gotten used to. His boys aren’t the only ones who’ve changed.
“Jean, how long is this song?”
“I’ve been looping for like twenty minutes, I totally forgot how it ends…”
“Well make something up, my feet are tired—“
“You did good there,” Erwin says in his ear, resting his chin on the top of Levi’s head. “Those three are unstoppable, together.”
Normally he’d object violently to Erwin leaning on him, but this one time Levi just smirks and turns his head enough to look up into Erwin’s blue eyes, that he used to think were so cold…
How the hell are you planning to do this? How are you going to keep another kid safe? Especially this kid?
You fucking tell Eren that we’re leaving him behind!
You can’t do this. You can’t keep…keep adopting strays, Levi—
He’s not a stray, he’s a child, he’s a person, you son-of-a-bitch—
…and sometimes, with the last ten years of pain and fear and bloodshed somehow behind them, with everything so goddamn different now, it’s hard not to be terrified of the next ten years.
Jean chooses that moment to somehow turn his pretty waltz into the last few bars of the Looney Toons theme and bring Eren and Marco to a crashing, giggling halt.
…and sometimes there are moments like this one, when he’s not afraid of the future…and that’s something he’s never been before.