When a fresh-faced recruit approaches Levi looking scared shitless, Levi thinks very little of it because it is an expression he is used to seeing on practically anyone who addresses him, even grown men who have been in the military for years.
It’s never stopped being funny.
Levi doesn’t blame them, though, because he is perfectly aware of his own reputation, and he would be lying if he said that he played no part in maintaining it. He’s heard the stories about himself, and while he was not responsible for them starting or spreading, he’s also never made any real effort to repudiate any of them. He let the myth build up around him like some kind of protective layer; it was something he’d learned when he was very young, and old habits die hard, especially for someone like Levi, who takes being a creature of habit to the next level, where it borders on neurosis.
“Why do you let them talk?” Hange had once asked him, at the beginning of their blossoming friendship when she’d first started to realise how different the man people spoke about in awed whispers was from the one she had gotten to know.
Levi had merely shrugged and replied, “The fancy inner district pigs have their walls and I have mine.”
And for the first time, Hange Zoë, always one to question, to demand proof and rationale, could not argue.
Levi almost manages to crack a fond smile at the memory, but he is too agonisingly aware of just how close he came to memories being all he had left of her.
The cadet who’d had the misfortune of having to inform Levi of Hange's condition had done it with a somewhat terrified expression not unlike the one presently being worn by the young soldier who is standing before him now. Then, too, Levi knew that the trepidation on the young woman’s face did not necessarily mean the worst had happened, and apparently he was right not to jump to conclusions, because the next words out of the girl’s mouth, the only ones Levi chose to acknowledge, had been: “Squad Leader Hange is expected to survive, sir.”
Levi had rushed off to the makeshift field hospital where Hange and the other injured were being treated, and while it was jarring to see her like this, bandaged and burned and scarily still, it was also a sight he was all too familiar with.
Equally familiar, thankfully, was the way she would always bounce back, with a snapping bite like a mishandled whip.
After having sat with her for a little while, he’d hobbled around the hospital, encouraging the wounded and comforting the dying, waiting for more news from outside the walls.
The only thing he hates more than feeling useless is feeling helpless, and right now he’s both, among many other things, but if this boy is here to give him another update, then at least maybe he will be able to cross clueless off that list. He thinks nothing of the deeply troubled expression on the boy’s face, because it’s the kind of reaction that his mere presence seems to elicit in some people. The other soldier from before had looked similarly stricken even as she was telling Levi that Hange was going to survive, so certainly this situation must not be much different.
Still, there’s a fissure of dread opening up in Levi's stomach that he can’t seem to close up.
“Well?” he says impatiently when the boy before him seems to have forgotten how to speak.
“Captain Levi, sir,” the kid says finally. “I… I’ve been sent to inform you that they… The last of the troops are returning, sir, and they’re getting ready to close the gates.”
“So this means Erwin should be here shortly,” Levi replies with a flatness that indicates his refusal to believe in any other possibility. “Good. It’s about goddamn time.”
“Actually, s-sir… Commander Smith was n-not reported among the returnees.”
The widening pit in Levi’s gut suddenly bottoms out into a yawning chasm but he is quick to fill it with the only protective insulation he knows how to work with – anger.
“The fuck?” he roars, ignoring the startled glances from the nurses and conscious patients. “They must know there’s a good chance he’s no longer in possession of fully operative maneuver gear, meaning he won’t have any way of getting back over the walls once they close the gate, but they’re going to go ahead do it anyway?”
“Titans have been spotted approaching the vicinity, sir,” the soldier squeaks out, apparently not picking up on the rhetorical (and hysterical) nature of Levi’s question. “A few squads are staying behind to keep them at bay until the gate closes, but Commander Smith is not among them.”
“Well, then where the fuck is he?”
A split second after the words come out of his mouth, Levi realises how much he simultaneously needs and does not want to know the answer.
The recruit looks like he’d rather be swallowed by a Titan than be standing here right now. For a moment Levi thinks the poor kid might actually faint, but then he seems to draw a sudden strength from some unknown source and his body snaps into a perfect salute as he says, “Sir, Commander Erwin Smith has officially been reported missing in action a-and… and presumed dead.”
The boy’s voice is low, but nevertheless a few of the nurses closest to them look up, their shock visible on their faces.
Not that Levi sees any of this, however. All he sees is this kid, this fucking random stranger they sent to tell Levi that the most important person in his life is dead (or ‘presumed’ dead, but of course Levi knows the real meanings behind each and every one of these bullshit euphemisms; after all, he’s blankly repeated them to soldiers' stricken loved ones more times than he’d like to admit, or can even remember). He sees the impeccable posturing of the young man’s salute, the solemn respect in the kid’s eyes, and all he can think about is how wrong this is, this isn’t what he wanted – clearly none of this is what he wanted, but in the rare times when he’d allow himself to envision the end, he’d always imagined the news would’ve come from one of their friends. Someone who had been with them since the very beginning. Hange, perhaps, with enough furious courage in her heart for the both of them; or maybe Mike, silent and strong as ever, a veritable pillar, keeping Levi upright even as everything collapsed around him. Even Nanaba would have been better than this, because though Levi wasn’t as close with them as they were with Erwin, they always knew exactly what to say – or when to say nothing at all.
But Hange is laying here still as death, and ‘expected’ to survive is different enough from 'definitely going to' to make Levi worry, and nobody’s heard from either Mike or Nanaba, and Levi refuses to consider the implications of this.
He refuses to consider the ever increasing likelihood that he has lost everything.
He can’t do this again. Not so soon after having lost his squad. There are some things that even Humanity’s Strongest can’t be impervious to.
He berates himself ruthlessly for this self-indulgent display of weakness. Tells himself that he’s not the only one who’s suffering, that just because this time the dead are people whose favourite flower he knows and whose lips he has memorised doesn’t make it any more of a tragedy. If people who have lost even more than he has can continue on living, then certainly so can he. He has no excuse, no reason, no right not to.
Usually reciting this abusive litany of reminders is enough to shake him out of whatever slump he’d gotten himself into, at least for long enough to get the job done. There will always be time to break down later.
This time, though, the time is now.
He thinks of Erwin, of the man who had flipped his world upside down but in return Levi had overturned Erwin’s, too, so they ended up not on distant, opposite ends of the spectrum but rather as two sides of the same coin. He thinks of the smooth deep rumble of Erwin’s voice and the earthy scent of his sweat and the blue of his eyes that there isn’t an ink or a dye or even a name for. He thinks of Erwin’s hands, how they were capable of dealing death in spades but also of the teasingly gentle, barely-there touch that would have Levi arching helplessly up against him, desperate for more friction. He thinks of the way Erwin would accidentally hog all of the fucking blankets at night and how Levi would complain about the cold and in response Erwin would pull him in close towards his warm, familiar body that felt safer than any wall.
Most of all, Levi thinks of how he will never see, hear, feel, taste, touch, smell or live any of these things again, and the notion seems as fatal as being deprived of oxygen that for a long moment he actually cannot breathe.
He blinks a few times and the room comes back into focus. He notices that pretty much anyone who is physically capable of it is staring at him with the hushed suspense of a collectively held breath. A completely irrational part of him suspects that they’re all mocking him somehow, getting some sort of sick satisfaction from seeing Humanity’s Strongest knocked down a few pegs, being forced to experience all the same grief and terror that the rest of them face every day.
Wildly, he wonders what they’re waiting for. What they expect him to do.
That’s about when he realises he’s not doing anything, really. He’s simply standing there, breathing hard and swallowing convulsively, nostrils flaring, throat working around a sob that can’t seem to come out. His hands are flexed into loose, shaky fists and he looks down at them with a detached bewilderment, as though he’s forgotten what they’re for or how to use them, or, worse, that they are no longer able to do what they were meant to do.
That feeling spreads through his entire body until he’s quite certain that not a single part of him is able to do what it is meant to, least of all the part of him responsible for keeping him alive. For keeping him wanting to be alive.
Mind made up, he limps over to a wounded soldier who seems to be the closest to his size and he grabs her abandoned maneuver gear without a word, fixing her with a hardened glare as though daring her to say something, which she doesn’t. He could be getting dressed for any ordinary mission, the slight quivering of his hands being the only thing betraying his veneer of calm. All the initial confusion and chaos that had been fogging up his brain are gone, replaced by a startling, lethal clarity.
“Sir?” he hears someone say meekly from somewhere behind him.
He ignores the speaker, continuing to adjust the straps on the gear.
“Captain, I must insist that you stay here,” a nurse says frantically. “Your body is in no condition to handle the stress of operating the maneuver gear, let alone in combat-”
He ignores her, too.
He checks the gas supply and the blades, deems them both satisfactory–
(not that it would matter if they weren’t, and he knows how selfish this is, to give everything up all because of one person, to deprive humanity of its best soldier when it’d already lost its best leader, but he doesn’t care anymore, not when every reason he’d had to fight in this war is laying mutilated on the ground or slammed into the base of a tree or dying alone and abandoned without anyone even so much as knowing how or when or where or why)
-and he fires himself off towards the walls.
The mission had felt wrong from the start, even though at first Levi hadn’t been able to pinpoint exactly why. He’d thought that perhaps it was the spur-of-the-moment nature of the operation that made him uneasy – lacking the preparation and forethought of a well-planned military campaign, it was more a blind flail forward, a kneejerk reaction to an unexpected threat, the desperate do-or-die plunge of a man jumping from a burning building.
But then he realised that it made no sense to be this worried simply because they hadn’t had time to think the mission through. Erwin was commander of the Scouting Legion for a reason, and Levi knew he was just as clever and calculating when improvising on the spot as he was during the countless meticulous hours of mapping out battle formations in the war room.
Levi also knew that Erwin valued his own life too much to do anything stupid out there. He would never fall prey to the self-sacrificing sentimentality that led so many other soldiers to their deaths as they tried to save a friend or retrieve a comrade’s body so that there would be something for the parents to bury. Though seemingly unfeeling, Erwin’s self-preservation drive had nothing to do with callousness or wanting to save his own skin, it was simply that he knew just how important a role he played in this war, knew that there were very few people who could fill his shoes, so the best thing he could do for humanity was stay alive.
No matter how badly he may wish he didn’t have to.
“Sometimes I wonder if maybe I’d be of better use to the cause by becoming a martyr,” he’d once mused to Levi, only days before the 57th expedition.
A terrible blind panic had seized Levi by the throat. In all the years that they’d known each other, fought alongside each other, experienced loss with each other, not once had Erwin ever spoken this way, with this particular breed of defeat in his voice. The kind that was borne not of a hopeless situation but rather an intensely personal despair that came from within.
“What the fuck are you trying to say?” Levi had demanded, even though he knew.
Erwin was silent for a long time before he finally replied in a very quiet voice, “I’m saying I’m tired, Levi.”
Levi stared at him, unsure of what to do. What he’d wanted to do was tell Erwin not to scare him by saying stuff like that; he wanted to kiss Erwin and remind him of everything they fight for, remind him about the ocean they’ve never seen and all the ways in which the world could be just as beautiful as it is cruel, if not even moreso.
What he’d ended up doing was saying, “Well, that’s just too fucking bad, isn’t it?”
He’d half-expected Erwin to react angrily, or at least fall into a bit of a self-pity parade in order to make Levi feel guilty, but Erwin just nodded and murmured, seemingly mostly to himself, “Yes. Yes, I suppose it is.”
“Don’t you dare do anything stupid, asshole,” Levi muttered, the closest he’d ever come to saying Don’t leave me.
Erwin had rolled his eyes. “As if you would ever let me.”
It was thinking back to that exchange that made Levi realise why he’d felt so unnaturally apprehensive about the mission they were about to embark upon.
This was the first one since they’d truly come to care for each other that Levi has not been able to be at Erwin’s side.
(Though how fucking stupid he’d been, to think he could have protected Erwin when he hadn’t been able to save even just one member of his squad.)
Just before the Scouting Legion were about to head out in pursuit of the Titan shifters who had taken Jäger, Levi fussily picked dirt out of Erwin’s uniform and leaned in to mumble into Erwin’s shoulder, “Just make sure you come back.”
Levi felt Erwin tense up against him, and he knew exactly why. It had always been an unspoken agreement of sorts that they’d never march into battle on words like that – words of people with something to lose. Levi knew that it was comforting to some, to exchange empty promises that they would return, to plan a future together and pretend they would both would live long enough to see it, but neither Erwin nor Levi have been capable of that kind of idealism for a very long time now.
This isn’t to say that they were without their own ways of dealing with the constant looming threat of losing the other. In the days preceding a mission, their touches would become softer and more frequent; Erwin would speak even less than usual, gradually shutting himself in, and Levi would become more talkative but also meaner, gradually shutting everyone else out. At night, they would sleep facing each other, their noses almost touching, and it was the only time when Levi wouldn’t mind being that close even if Erwin hadn’t sufficiently brushed his teeth beforehand.
“I know it’ll be hard not having me around to save your stupid ass all the time,” Levi said clumsily, face still pressed into the fabric of Erwin's cloak, “But you better come back, or so help me—”
Levi felt the chuckle vibrate through Erwin’s chest as Erwin interrupted with exaggerated mock disapproval, “Tch. Giving orders to your superior officer now, are you?”
Levi drew back with a scowl and swatted him on the arm, embarrassed by the vulnerability he was letting himself show. “I mean it, you bastard.”
“I know,” Erwin said, voice suddenly soft. “Don’t worry, Levi. I’ll come back. I always do.”
For a long time, Levi had been so certain that not making any promises would keep it from hurting when they were broken.
Right now, as he’s hurtling through the gate, going against the flow of the incoming troops, rushing headlong towards death as opposed to fleeing in the opposite direction, he is realising just how wrong he was about everything.
He touches down with an uncouth landing not too far from the walls, hissing in pain as his weight falls on his bad leg. The terrain is completely flat between him and the few Titans he can see in the distance, so he orders the first mounted soldier he sees to give him his horse.
“Sir?” the Scout says worriedly as he hops to the ground, “I know it’s not my place to ask, but why—”
“You’re right, it’s not your place,” Levi growls, hoisting himself up into the saddle, and he gallops off before the soldier can get another word in.
He doesn’t make it to the scene of the skirmish in time. The elite squads responsible for keeping the Titans at bay until the rest of the troops made it through the gate end up bringing them all down before Levi can get there.
He watches the last Titan topple to the ground, steam rising like a smoke signal from the gash in the back of its neck, and his grip on the horse’s reins tightens until his knuckles go white. He feels no sense of closure knowing that one of those Titans might have been the one that had taken Erwin. It’s not enough just to know that they are dead; Levi has to be the one to personally take everything from them just like they have taken everything from him. His veins are alight with molten fury and a part of him wildly wonders how he hasn’t actually caught fire, so scorching is the rage that lashes inside him.
“Captain?” one of the Scouts says quizzically when she sees Levi approaching.
Levi recognises her face, recognises almost every one of the men and women here, but for some reason he can’t seem to match any of them to a name. He feels like his brain is enveloped in a thick fog, everything muted and blurry save for a single light, that being his anger, a glaring lantern in the mist that he has no choice but to follow if he wants to get out of this darkness.
“Captain Levi, what are you doing here?” the Scout presses when Levi does not respond.
“Where is it?” Levi demands, scanning the land ahead of him. “Where the fuck is it?”
“Where’s… what?” another soldier asks, an edgy cautiousness in his voice, like he’s talking to a spooked horse.
“The shit-eating motherfucking piece of dickless dirt that did it… The… that… took—… 'rwin…” Levi’s voice suddenly breaks, breath wheezing through pursed lips.
The squad members all exchange nervous glances before one says quietly, “There were so many of them, sir… We’d never seen anything like it… Commander Erwin, he… He sustained a – ah – a major injury, and there were swarms of Titans everywhere, a-and—”
“And you left him behind?”
The soldier’s face immediately darkens into something a shade between sadness and guilt and she says angrily, “No, sir, of course not.”
Levi feels bad for snapping at her, especially considering the fact that he has issued more than his fare share of orders for others to do the very same to their wounded comrades. Of course these good men and women would never have abandoned their commander unless it was the absolute only option. Knowing Erwin, he’d probably had to order them to do so himself, and knowing the Legion, these soldiers probably hadn't obeyed him without a fight.
“He was nowhere to be found,” somebody says in a trembling voice. “There was nothing we could do. We had to retreat otherwise we risked losing Jäger again.”
“Captain, we’re sorry,” someone else adds solemnly. “He… he truly was a great man.”
No, he wasn’t, Levi thinks, allowing himself a bleak smile. He was fucked-up and stubborn and ruthless and overly-pragmatic and repressed and manipulative and difficult and hypocritical and guilt-ridden and hard to read.
Hard to love, even.
But even harder not to.
Bitterly, Levi wonders if Erwin is happy now, wherever he is. He finally got his fucking martyrdom. Became the ultimate symbol for his cause.
How cruel it seemed, though, that it had happened in this anonymous, decidedly unglamorous way. That of all people to die a soldier’s useless and undistinguished death, it had to be him.
He deserved better than this, Levi thinks to himself, an overwhelming sadness building up pressure in his chest.
But he’d have to be a fool to believe it could have ended in any other way.
Head bowed to shield himself from the others’ eyes, Levi turns his horse around and begins galloping back to the wall at full speed, pain bolting up his leg with every bump, but instead of slowing down, he clings to it, clings to the pain in his mending limb in order to distract himself from the one in his heart that cannot be splinted or healed.
He’s only a few hundred feet away from the walls when he feels it. The telltale rumble of the earth shuddering beneath a Titan’s thundering footsteps. They have started to lower the gate, but he can see the faces of the people inside, their features contorted with terror, eyes fixed on something somewhere behind him.
He risks a glance over his shoulder and sees an abnormal Titan barrelling towards the city, all gnashing teeth and flailing limbs. It’s clumsy-looking, but fast, and Levi realises that the gate is not going to close in time. This Titan will get past the walls.
It overtakes him quickly, and for a terrible, selfish moment, Levi has half a mind to not do anything at all. Despite this, his body ultimately reacts on autopilot, and he fires off his maneuver gear in the Titan's direction, intending to latch onto the flesh of its back, but he must be more frazzled than he thought, because his aim is wide and the hooks find nothing but open air.
By now, the Titan is only steps away from the gate and Levi wonders why he hasn’t seen a single cannon go off, until he realises that they are probably afraid of the unpredictable projectiles hitting either Levi or the other Scouts who are not too far behind. Instead, several troops have mobilised themselves just in front of the gate, but with nothing but field ahead of them and lacking the experience to fight on flat terrain, they are virtually useless.
The Titan kills several of them beneath its feet before Levi is finally able to sink his hooks into its shoulder. The wires pull him up towards the Titan’s neck, and they’ve passed the gate now, people are screaming, a warning bell is going off somewhere, but Levi hears nothing save for the heavy blast of wind streaming past his ears as he draws his blades and strikes.
There is the sick, familiar sensation of a steel edge sinking into soft meat, a wild arterial spatter of blood that steams as soon as it hits the air, and then the Titan is falling and Levi is going down with it, still slicing away. He makes no effort to launch himself towards the safety of the rooftops, he simply lets himself drop, burying his blades deep into the Titan’s back to help him keep his balance when the monster’s body finally hits the ground with him still standing on it.
Applause erupts from the the crowd, consisting of both soldiers and wide-eyed throngs of civilians who’d been gathered to watch them return from the walls.
Levi doesn’t hear any of this, either, though.
He yanks the blades out with a wet sucking noise and continues to hack away wherever he can reach, stabbing and slashing and spearing as though he could stave off the sadness that threatens to rip him apart by doing the same to something else. His throat is raw, and he realises he’s screaming, unintelligibly, just a wordless animalistic cry heaving on repeat. He can feel the heat of the Titan’s body even through the thick leather of his boots and it’s getting slippery beneath his feet from all the blood.
The crowd’s applause has stopped, replaced by a horrified silence.
Levi keeps going.
There is the glint of sun catching on steel, the gulping whooshing sound of an object lashing through the air at full force, and then a sick squelching noise when the blade meets its mark. Over and over again. Blood and chunks of tissue are being flung every which way, there are whole strips of flesh missing from the Titan’s body, and still Levi does not stop.
It’s only when the Titan’s corpse finally dissolves into a brittle framework of ash and bone that Levi’s blades finally go clattering to the ground.
Without anything left to bear the brunt of his anguish, the fury-fueled adrenaline drains from him in an instant and all that remains is the torrential sadness that he’d been trying so hard to fend off with his swords. It comes pouring into his chest like some kind of dam has broken, and it certainly has the same effect as fluid flooding into the pleural cavity, in that the pressure makes it impossible to breathe.
His lips are trembling as he struggles to suck air into his lungs, teeth chattering so hard from the effort of holding back a sob that he bites down into his first two fingers until he tastes copper on his tongue. He can’t lose it right now, not in front of all these fucking people, who are already staring at him in such shock that one would think gnawing on his hand had caused him to transform into a Titan, too.
He needs to be strong, for their sake. Morale must already be pretty abysmal right now, and the last thing they need after losing their commander is to see their most revered warrior breaking down like a child.
He just needs to get out of here, lock himself up in his room – the room he shared with Erwin, he realises, feeling nauseous, wondering how long it will be until the sheets no longer smell like him – and there he can scream and cry and fall apart to his heart’s content, his heart that will never find contentment again.
He takes a single step, then the ground suddenly seems to rush up to meet him and everything goes black.
The first thing that Levi’s mind registers as he regains consciousness is pain. Even through the sedative he can still sense clogging his awareness, every muscle in his entire body feels like it’s been tied into knots, his leg aches more than ever, and he’s also aware of a new hurt, this one in his hands, a bright sting from where he’d torn his palms on his own blades when the sheer force of his thrusts and the ensuing recoil had caused his grip to slip forward past the hilt onto the sharp edge.
The second thing that Levi’s mind registers when he regains consciousness is also pain.
Originating in his heart and being pumped like poison through his veins until not a single cell in his body is left uncontaminated, it is septic, gangrenous, threatening to consume him.
He lies there for a long time, not moving an inch, not even so much as opening his eyes, because if he opens his eyes, if he truly wakes up and everything is still the same, it will mean that it’s for real this time, not just some fucked-up nightmare or fever dream. As long as he keeps his eyes closed, his body and its curable aches and pains are all that exist, keeping the door open for the possibility that everything is okay somewhere beyond the periphery of his consciousness.
If he opens his eyes, that door closes.
He’s disgusted with himself for coping this way. Accustomed to the enemy being something external that he could identify and touch and therefore conquer, he’s never been one to run away from anything. He’s run towards it, fists raised or blades poised, and though he didn’t necessarily win every time, he always lived to see another day, which means he never truly lost.
He supposes his luck had to run out some day.
Just like Erwin’s had to, too.
(Levi does not open his eyes.)
Perhaps part of why he is so unequipped to handle this is because he never thought it would happen. Of course he knew better than to count on both of them living to see the end of this war, but he’d been so, so certain that he would be the first to go. Despite his occasional distracted hypothesising about what might happen if Erwin died, it was always just that – an if. Never a when. When was a conjunction reserved for Levi alone. He’d accepted the inevitability of meeting an untimely and ignoble end even long before joining the Scouting Legion.
Erwin had once admitted that this fatalistic, nothing-to-lose attitude was part of what had initially drawn him to Levi: it was easier to lead someone who had so little direction. Levi had been incensed, but not for the reasons one might think. He was more angered by the fact that Erwin had thought him to be so malleable than he was about Erwin essentially confessing that he’d only wanted Levi for a pawn.
Levi had already known that. He wasn’t born yesterday, after all. He was born decades ago, into a world that could not only devour you whole without having to chew, but also do so without anyone even noticing, let alone caring.
Whenever someone cared, it was usually a warning sign that they were after something.
This was another thing that Levi had learned very early on in life. He’d almost believed the kindness of others the first few times, until he discovered that it was all just yet another way people tried to take things from him. Those people were the most dangerous kind, insidious and almost impossible to spot, their gentle words slipping from forked silver tongues and blinding him from their fangs until it was too late to dodge the fatal strike.
With this in mind, Levi had spent his first months with the Scouting Legion on full red alert, vigilant almost to the point of paranoia. He was so convinced that there had to be some sort of catch to this arrangement, and he’d be damned if he let it take him by surprise. As he waited for the second shoe to drop, he trained like hell, turning his body into a weapon since he was no longer allowed carry his own, and he washed and scrubbed and polished as though he could uncover some kind of ulterior motive beneath the years of dust and mildew.
Cleaning had always been a weird hang-up of his. On the streets he hadn’t had the time or luxury to indulge it, but here, he certainly did. Here, in this weird new life that made no sense to him, he found solace in something that did. He knew it was irrational – neurotic, even – but clean meant calm. Clean meant control. Clean meant nothing sinister was buried in the dirt.
The real surprise, though, was that there was none.
The real surprise was for Erwin - that being that Levi’s apparent lack of concern for his own future did not mean he was open to accepting whatever future other people had in mind for him. Levi’s lack of direction came not from aimlessness but from infinite inertia. He was the immovable object to Erwin’s unstoppable force.
Levi is no scientist or scholar, but he’s familiar enough with the way things work to know that it’s impossible for two such concepts to coexist at the same time.
And sure enough, they do not. Not anymore.
Neither of them exist at all anymore, really. Erwin in the more literal sense, of course, and while Levi is technically still alive, he is as good as gone. His heart has given out; he’s just waiting for it to actually stop beating. For his physical body to catch up with the death that’s already taken place inside of him.
Erwin’s unstoppable force has been halted dead in its tracks, and Levi, once that unyielding object, is now in freefall.
(He does not open his eyes.)
He’s not sure how long he lies there before it happens.
He hears it before he feels it, and he feels it before he sees it. A slight rustle to his left, and he’s tensed up like an animal preparing to make the crucial decision of fight or flight. He’s already chosen the former when he feels the soft touch grazing his forehead, and he reacts on pure reflex, rolling over and grabbing the person’s wrist with one hand, flailing out a blind punch with the other, instinct trumping the pain even as his entire body shrieks in protest against the sudden movement.
He opens his eyes.
Then tries to open them again because certainly it couldn’t have worked the first time, because there is no way he could have seen what he saw.
What he’s seeing.
Which is Erwin, knelt on the floor beside him, head bowed, one arm bracing himself against the bed, and the other…
The other isn’t there.
Levi doesn’t notice right away, since the ill-fitting hospital tunics make everyone look kind of misshapen, and besides, Levi is too caught up in the rest of Erwin to really care about what’s missing. Because even with a limb gone, this is still more of Erwin than he’d thought he’d ever be able to see again.
(Of course, he knows they’re not in the clear just yet – he remembers fatal fevers, blackened flesh, the putrid smell of rot. The poor souls who kept returning to the hospital each day to have a little bit more of themselves hacked away in a futile effort to halt the spread of infection. But for now, Levi thinks, this is enough.)
He reaches out and cups his bandaged hand around Erwin’s chin, inhaling sharply as his fingers run along the strong, familiar edge of his jawline, and he nudges Erwin’s head upwards so he can see his face. For a ridiculous split-second, Levi is terrified that it will be that of a stranger, but then their eyes meet, and the breath that Levi hadn’t realised he’d been holding finally escapes between his lips with an audible shudder.
It’s him. His hair is disheveled and still crusted with dirt and dried blood, his eyes are dull, morphine-constricted pupils swallowed whole in a sea of bleary blue, and he’s much too pale, sallow-skinned and sweat-sheened, his features drawn with pain, but it’s him.
“Oh, god,” is all Levi can say, which is something he never says, never invokes the name of some false idol deity when he has yet to see proof that they have any mercy, if they even exist at all.
He trails his fingers up Erwin’s jawline, thumb gliding over his cheekbone, his touch featherlight and hesitant, almost as if he’s still not one hundred percent certain that this is all real and is worried it will all crumble like a Titan’s body into ashes at his feet if he believes in it too fervently. It doesn’t help that Erwin has yet to say a word or really even move, though after a few more minutes he attempts the latter.
Levi watches as Erwin awkwardly heaves himself to his feet so he can sit himself on the bed, and it’s so strange to see him like this, teetering and weak like a newborn fawn. It sets off this uncharacteristic feeling of protectiveness within Levi that he tries to suppress because he knows the last thing Erwin wants is his pity.
They sit there for several minutes, still without speaking, until finally Levi can stand it no longer and he bursts out, “You’re a fucking asshole.”
Erwin’s chapped lips pull themselves into a knowing little half smile, as though this is exactly how he’d expected Levi to react. Sometimes Levi hates being so predictable.
“It’s good to see you, too,” Erwin says, voice only slightly slurred from the painkillers.
“No. Shut up. Where the fuck have you been? You-” Levi’s voice finally snags on the jagged edges of the sob caught in his throat. “Y-You said you’d come back.”
“You didn’t specify how much of me had to come back,” Erwin replies wryly, and while it’s reassuring to know that neither his injury nor the morphine have had any visible effect on his ability to be a little shit, Levi is thisclose to punching him in his stupid goddamn face but realises just in time that it’s probably not the best idea right now.
He files away a mental raincheck to do so at a more appropriate time.
Erwin seems to notice his agitation, because his tone is less snarky and more soothing when he adds, “Hey, come on. I’m here, aren’t I?”
Levi barks out a rough sound that’s somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “Yeah, b-but… No. Fuck you. H-how can you… No, you know what? Just fuck you. I thought you were dead.”
“So did I,” Erwin says, voice perfectly even, but there is a new, sadder shade of blue in his eyes that Levi swears hadn’t been there before.
“How…” Levi trails off uncertainly, eyes flicking unconsciously towards the empty space below Erwin’s right shoulder.
Erwin is quiet for a long time, and Levi wonders what he’s thinking about, if he’s reliving what had happened, or if he feels any bitterness or regret.
“It had caught me by the arm, and I knew right away that even if it released me, the damage the limb sustained would be irreparable, so I did what I had to do,” Erwin says finally, sounding alarmingly detached and clinical, like he’s talking about carpentry, not amputating his own fucking arm.
Levi swallows hard.
“I fashioned a tourniquet out of cloth and ordered everyone to keep going,” Erwin continues. “We managed to free Jäger and begin the retreat, but I ended up falling behind in the ensuing chaos. Eventually I… I made it back to the walls on my own, on a dead man’s horse.”
He’s finally started to look a little stunned, like he’s just come to realise how fucking crazy it is that he’s still here.
(Levi, meanwhile, is already suitably astonished, but still not as astonished as he’ll later find himself to be, once he learns all the details, and he’ll finally give Erwin that punch and tease him for having told such a modest version of his heroics.)
“They got him back, Levi,” Erwin says, referring to the Jäger kid. “We got him back. We won.”
These words trigger an inexplicable surge of emotion in Levi’s chest that’s too relieved to be anger but also too vicious to purely be relief, and he growls, “I wouldn’t have cared if we’d lost, if it meant I didn’t have to lose you.”
He’s being truthful, but Erwin must think he’s kidding because it’s certainly not a sentiment he or anyone else would expect from Levi. Erwin laughs a little, and Levi forces himself to do the same, embarrassed and even a bit perplexed by his own weepiness. He isn’t used to feeling this way.
…Or is he?
It occurs to him that maybe he’s felt this way all along, not only about Erwin, but anyone he’s been close to, and it’s just that he was usually a lot better at burying it. Right now, though, faint and lightheaded with utter, drenching relief, pulse having yet to even itself out, he simply doesn’t have the energy to keep pretending.
“You know we can’t think like that,” Erwin says softly, as though he can tell exactly what’s going through Levi’s mind, which he often can. He’s looking at Levi not with reprimand in his eyes, but with an almost defeated sorrow that makes Levi feel a little sick.
“Wait a second,” Levi says suddenly, wanting to talk about absolutely anything else. “Why the fuck are you up and about? Shouldn’t you be in bed or something?”
“I have been, for the past day.”
Levi blinks. “…What?”
“You’ve been out for almost twenty hours.”
“And you’ve been here that whole time?” Levi demands, a bit hysterical. “Without telling me?”
“In my defence, I was… somewhat preoccupied,” Erwin responds mildly.
“Well, why didn’t anyone else come fucking wake me up and tell me? And most importantly, why the fuck did you think it would be a good idea to wake me up by touching me when I wasn’t expecting it!”
“I seem to recall it often being a very good idea.”
Levi snorts. “You’re just lucky I don’t sleep with a knife under my pillow anymore or you’d be minus your other arm, too.”
His eyes widen slightly as he realises what he’s just said. He knows Erwin takes his tasteless sense of humour in stride, but maybe this is too soon…
But Erwin just chuckles, and Levi relaxes for a moment until the older man says quietly, “Either way, I’m pretty much useless now.”
“Don’t,” hisses Levi. “Don’t you dare.”
“It’s all right,” Erwin says, even though everything from his tone to the hunch in his posture says otherwise. “Levi, we must be realistic. I can’t fight like this.” He chuckles humourlessly and adds, “Hell, I can’t even feed myself or put on my own fucking shirt.”
There is a disgusted bitterness in his voice that makes Levi’s skin crawl, but that’s not even the worst part of it. The worst part is the defeat. Levi is used to Erwin’s words dripping with self-loathing, but this kind of crushed resignation Levi has only heard once before, when Erwin had told Levi that maybe he’d be better off as a martyr.
Better off dead.
“Is that really all you think you are?” he asks angrily, “A fucking cart horse that’ll be shot once it outlives its purpose?”
“I suppose I could use this to gain sympathy for the Scouting Legion,” Erwin muses, as if Levi hasn’t said a thing.
“Will you just stop with the martyrdom shit?” Levi snaps, and he intends to sound exasperated but it comes out as more of a desperate plea and he hates the imploring tone that he can’t seem to keep out of his voice.
“You seem upset,” Erwin notes in one of his more astute observations.
“Do I? Do I really? Erwin. You lost your fucking arm and all you can think about is what great propaganda it’ll make. I… I thought you were dead. Do you have any fucking idea what that did to me?” Levi knows full well just how petty and selfish he sounds right now, but he can't seem to bring himself to care.
“I did hear about your, ah, somewhat erratic behaviour,” Erwin says judiciously.
“I know what you’re going to say, about how we can’t afford to feel like this, and all that bullshit,” Levi continues, and every instinct he has is screaming at him to stop, to shut the hell up before he says anything really stupid, but there is a chaos inside of him that he can’t ignore anymore, and like Rumpelstiltskin who retreats at the sound of his name, the turmoil is a monster that can be vanquished only by being voiced out loud. “I thought I could stay like that forever, but I can’t. I tried to be like that with my… w-with the special ops squad, but then I lost them and guess what? Having pretended I didn’t care didn’t make it hurt any less. It doesn’t fucking work.”
“So,” Erwin says slowly, “What exactly is it that you are trying to say?”
Levi makes an unintelligible noise of frustration. “I’m just… Damnit. I don’t know. I guess… Can’t we just be glad you’re alive? And not only glad because it means you can keep on with your fools’ crusade. I mean glad for you. And for me. Fuck the rest of humanity. Just for today.”
There is another lengthy silence as Erwin seems to give the idea some serious thought. The only sound comes from his labored breathing, and Levi can see that even this small bit of interaction has taken its toll on his already over-taxed body. He’s about to say forget it and urge Erwin to go back to his room to get some rest when Erwin exhales deeply, the tension in his body seeming to dissipate along with the air, and he says, “All right. Just for today.”
“Maybe tomorrow, too?” Levi asks, with the sly smirk on his face that he gets when he’s pressing his luck and knows it, and Erwin returns the smirk with the slight roll of his eyes he uses when he’s about to let Levi get away with it.
“Tomorrow, too,” he agrees.