The first night huddled in the abandoned, creaking farm house cold and dark and dank, he nearly cries.
Levi doesn't remember enough of the early part of his life to know if he was a child particularly given to tears, but he's certainly not an adult who indulges them at all. There's a lot of other people who have much more to cry about, who have families and loved ones to care and worry about. He's written and made enough condolence journeys to know this, even if he himself has no reference for it.
But the house is so cold as he curls in upon himself on the dirty, dusty floor that smells faintly of mouse droppings and shed animal skin, and his head swims with the beginnings of fever from the wound he can't reach to clean on his back. It's lonely and desolate, and he had thought -
He laughs, a wretched, awful sound.
He'd thought, in the last few years, that maybe he wouldn't die alone after all.
It surprises him that that he wakes up the next day, sometime in the late morning or maybe early afternoon. He isn't able to see straight, and he knows that the wound is festering; he can smell his own flesh starting to decay upon itself. He manages to crawl away from his spot on the floor and briefly outside to relieve himself, the heavy winter winds shocking him briefly awake that he is able to retrieve his pack from where he'd dropped it several feet from the house.
An additional cloak, a day's worth of rations, an emergency signal, a field notebook, a pencil, and a knife, but he lacks the dexterity to grip the pencil to write and the strength to pull the tight trigger on the signal to fire. There's barely enough concentration in his addled brain to think beyond the cold. But Levi is a survivor, always has been, and he curls back upon himself inside the farm house in the additional cloak, swimming in fever as his body tries to burn infection out of his skin, the rest of the contents of the pack strewn around him.
It does not surprise him that he falls back asleep.
The next time he wakes, he knows not how long it has been for it is dark and the smell of his own illness is everywhere he turns. He's doesn't try to see, doesn't try to think.
Survive, he thinks, as he forces himself to eat rations like an animal off the floor. Survive, he thinks, as he fumbles out the front door, blind even if it wasn't dark already. Survive, he screams, maybe aloud, because, damn it, he doesn't want to die alone.
The sound of the signal going off above his head is the last thing he knows for a long time.
He wakes screaming loud enough to wake the dead. Pain so intense he thinks he's being eaten, a thousand different memories of titan mouths slamming against the front of his brain, and he hasn't been thinking straight for far too long that it's believable even though he's quite sure his mind would be able to tell truth from fiction up until the end -
There's a sharp jab, somewhere around his neck, and the pain subsides, images fuzzing, like watching the life bleed out of a horse's eyes.
Survive, he begs himself, maybe aloud, maybe imagined. Survive.
Once, he supposes, he had been a boy.
But then again, maybe he never was.
He wakes, confused and discontent from the stew of dreams and memory crawling across his subconscious, and hears the rattle of chains. Familiar noise, dreaded noise, and it draws the sound of a wounded animal from his lips. Was it all just a dream? Survive, he'd begged, but was it all -
Firelight. A candle that throws shadows everywhere. Flagstone, wooden walls, basin on the bedside. A tall figure holding the source of the light. He tries to defend, but the chains keep him flat, tied down on his stomach on a bed that smells like he's been in it for a while. He curls, the best he can, keeps his eyes trained on what little he can make out.
"Levi," the voice from the figure says, exasperated and spent. "For God's sake. Breathe."
He does. Somehow, the command in the last word cuts into the terror, the animal need to survive above all, and Levi sucks in a breath he didn't know he'd been too tense to take. The chains jangle as he tries to get a better look at the figure, and the noise rackets around his brain, steals the air out of his lungs. No, not this again, no, no no no no
"Levi," the voice says, soft and not gentle but there, "it's me. It's Erwin."
He's shivering, and if he had mind enough for pride, he would be mortified. But the chains clink whenever he so much as twitches, and -
"You promised," he rasps, and it sounds like he hasn't spoken in weeks. "No more -"
"I did," Erwin's voice murmurs, and Levi can't tell when he shut his eyes against it. "You need to calm down -"
"Fuck," Levi says, but he doesn't recognize the terrified voice that takes his words. "Take them off -"
"You keep reopening the wound," Erwin says, and Levi wants to scream he isn't an animal, no need to speak to him like a spooked horse, but he can't stop shaking, rattling the chains all the more. "Levi, calm down -"
"Trying," that strange voice that's captured his words whimpers out, and Levi chokes as he tries to breathe around it. "Shit. Damn it -"
He forces himself still, pulls the chains completely taunt. The metal shackles bite against his skin, and there is pain, lancing up his back, but it grounds him enough that it turns his breathing ragged but continuous. Pain, so long as he is in control of it, is good, real, a tether when everything else falls away. Survive, and there will always be pain to follow.
"I'm alive," he says into the bedding.
"Yes," Erwin confirms, and Levi hears the keys jingling in the darkness.
He's supposed to still be in bed rest, but bed rest makes him crazy. He thinks too much about the things he should be doing, which leads to thinking about all the things he couldn't do, and then he wants to get that bit of fuzz out of the armchair and scrub the small freckles off his own skin. He can't read for too long without wanting to rearrange the letters of words to the alphabet, and he can't get the collar of his nightshirt to stay perfectly straight. No one understands, but he can't stay on bed rest because, if he does, he will fully and truly lose the plot.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Hange nearly breaks his hands ripping the ink blotter away from him, and he's definitely going to have to redo that page as his paperwork flutters about in sudden disarray. It's not even anything strenuous, and he knows the limits of how long he can sit before the back wound will open again.
"I was almost finished with that," Levi says.
The look he gets is like someone killed the latest Titan experiment. "A week," Hange says, wavering and strangely normal. "It took us a week to find you."
Levi had thought so. No one's briefed him yet on the details and he hasn't gotten to that paperwork, but he's well-aware by the tells of his own body (hello again, ribs and sternum) to guess how long he lost himself in blood loss and then infection. He can guess that he spent another week in bed, probably chained for the majority of it, drifting through fever-madness. It'll take him at least a couple months before he's fit for active duty again.
He lets Hange bully him back to bed, insists that they bring his backlogged paperwork so there's at least something to do as he tries his best to not hobble too noticeably up the single flight of stairs to his room. He changes into a clean nightshirt carefully, aware that he's starting to become unsteady, and, by the time he gets back into bed, he feels properly dizzy.
"I have to tell the Commander, you know," Hange says, and it would be apologetic if he couldn't hear the steel disapproval under that tone.
"He promised," Levi mutters, shutting his eyes to stop the world from trying to pitch him off.
"Promised what?" the question comes, bewildered, but Levi is too nauseous to respond.
He wakes up groggy, like he's been in cups or drugged. There's a dull ache in the left bicep, so he's been drugged. He shifts, his head swims, but at least there are no chains.
"It was the freckles, wasn't it?"
"The hell'd you give me?" and his voice comes out slurred enough that it answers his own question. "Fuck, Erwin -"
Heavy, callused fingers thread through his hair. "The doctor said it would keep you calm."
"Morphine -" And it's hard to keep his thoughts connected, so easy to get lost in the light strokes and pleasant haze.
"I know you don't like it," Erwin murmurs, and Levi isn't going to start lying to himself and call it kindness. "But you're being unreasonable."
"Fuck you," Levi mutters, but he lets Erwin's deep chuckle follow him into a heavy sleep.
It's dull after that. He's allowed to walk short distances after a few more days, and Hange stops eyeing him as if he's about to suddenly blow apart. He finds out that there had a rescue team sent out from the wall because someone from the back flank had made it back alive, concussed and confused but with enough information to make a retrieval attempt of any other survivors seem worth it. If he'd been only a few minutes off with firing the signal -
"Heh," he says, and he's healed enough that he can sit in his preferred position, arm steadying him across the back of the chair, carefully angled so he doesn't have to look directly at Petra's face. "I've got impeccable timing."
"We thought you were dead," she says, voice open and caring and all those emotions Levi can never get used to seeing bared so easily.
"Bet I fucking smelled like it," he grumbles because that's one of the few things he remembers from his time in the farm house.
"Yeah," she confirms, and he can tell out of the corner of his eye that she's going to let him take the humour route on this. "It was weird."
He stays up late that evening, dips into his rarely touched ration of wine, and pretends to go over paperwork. He rereads the scouting reports of how the titan grabbed him and threw him, from the days following where they'd tried to guess if he was dead or not, and then the ones directly following his return. He debates getting his medical records from the infirmary; being an officer gives him access to his own records, if nothing else. The nagging thought that he's forgotten something doesn't ease even after he starts on a second bottle of wine, and he gives up trying to find what he's forgotten in other's reports.
He wakes up past noon the next day, hungover like a Titan got a piece of his head instead of his back, and spends over an hour in the bathroom one hundred percent hating himself. Stupid, he berates the pale, still too-thin image in the mirror. Stupid to let Petra's concern unsettle him like that, stupid to let bald concern throw him so off even after so long. It's the injury and the malnutrition, and Levi knows that if he can just heal the physical ailments, he can get back in control of his mind.
It's not like he was ever terribly stable to begin with, but he has a job to heal up and get back to because no one can kill like he can. No one ever really could, not even in the before, when Levi was a lot of things and none of them good. Killing is instinctive, doesn't even need a motivator, but with the right motivation -
Well, he thinks darkly, as he carefully does up the buttons of a clean and starched shirt. If he can kill it, it means he's survived.
There are new recruits.
He stands in uniform even though he's not yet been cleared for active duty, watches the mass of fresh faces and haunted eyes mill about the field below. Erwin gave him a look when he came out to observe, but he didn't order Levi away, so it's as much permission to stay as he's going to get. He still stinks of illness, he suspects, because everyone stays away, and Levi ignores the impulse to wash his hands.
"Going to give them the speech?" he asks, dull and almost derisive, just on the edge of insubordination because he's going crazy without anything real to do for over a month now.
Erwin gives him a hard stare, and Levi returns it with one of his old smiles, the one that used to earn him a recalculating gaze from would-be opponents in the damp. Now, it only gains him a narrow, knowing look, and Levi looks away, back out to the field.
They're left with maybe a quarter of the recruits that originally showed up by the end of Erwin's speech, and Levi can't choose the right expression to wear for the newest Titan fodder, so he wears none at all. His back aches by the time it's all done with, and he heads back up to his room without any prodding from Hange or Petra, undresses, washes, gets back in bed. He lies there for a long time, mind cautiously focused on nothing.
A knock comes, just enough time later for him to have a good guess who. "Come in."
Erwin's face is unsmiling and grave, and he's got a tray of tea and something that smells of meat balanced on his left arm. He sets it down on the low coffee table that Levi still finds vaguely ridiculous before turning to examine Levi's prone form in bed.
"What was that?"
Levi doesn't know, so he doesn't answer. Erwin sighs, harsh, but crosses the short space to sit down next to Levi. The familiar motion of Erwin's fingers through his hair, the extra heat of his body in bed: it eases the huddled, feral creature that lives in Levi's skin. Levi doesn't know sometimes where that frightened, unstable part of himself ends and where he himself begins. He suspects if he knew, if he could fully separate, it would be the end of everything he has ever been.
Erwin stays that night, makes Levi get up after a while to eat and drink. Levi feels like his head has been stuffed full of cotton, but the tea is the same tea they always have and Erwin eats the food, too, so he knows it's not poisoned. The old paranoia is never going die, not until Levi himself does, and he doesn't intend for that to happen any time soon.
They curl up against each other in bed, after Erwin goes and showers and changes into one of the too-large sleepshirts that Levi always steals from the laundry. He smooths his fingers through Levi's hair, and Levi curls against Erwin's chest. Outside, there's the faint noises of the changing of the watch.
They don't sleep, can't, but something eases deep down inside.
He's cleared for active duty a week later than he would have liked, but he doubts he'll actually see the field for another couple of weeks unless something drastic happens. Erwin knows him too well: he hasn't returned yet to his normal weight, needs to build back the precious muscle lost in illness and then convalescence. Levi isn't fool enough to argue Erwin's obvious intent to keep him grounded until he's back to full health.
Being given back training at least eases the beast that lives under his skin as much as he hates the stench of sweat created by his own body. It smells too much like titan, and he hates how it clings to his clothes as much as his skin. He can't understand how anyone who has encountered a titan can stand it, the stench of humanity so close to the creatures that are so eager to consume them. It takes forever to wash the stench out of his skin.
He goes to get his hair cut. Before he was who he is now, he'd gone through a phase of uncaring, worn his hair long and wild, had only cut it if someone he didn't want to got a hold of it. It had been hacked at, pulled, torn, and sometimes Levi catches sight of himself in the mirror and expects it to be a bird's nest again. He can't stand the sensation of hair brushing his neck, so he keeps it shaved close along the sides and lower back, long enough for the rest to cover the scars that litter his scalp.
"Where did these come from?" Erwin had asked, back when they thought they might answer each other's questions.
Levi had closed his eyes, reached back inside of his mind to the shredded bits that litter the memory of before he was Humanity's Strongest, and found only dust and ash. Dirty, like everything that he was and still could be again. It made him shiver, almost a shudder, and Erwin had lain his hand flat over the crown of his head, the closest they ever got to apologies.
Hange finds him bent double in front of a training dummy, dirt-flecked and sweaty. There's an almost polite pause to wait for him to spit out the saliva that's collected in his mouth before speaking, far too bright as usual.
"I need you at the lab grounds! We've got a five-meter -"
Straightening still gives his back a bit of a twinge, but he ignores it to get a better look at the half-crazed light deep in those eyes. "Why do you need me?"
A shrug, almost uncaring. "Erwin said you should come."
It draws a dark noise out of his chest, something that almost passes as a laugh. "A command," he says, pulling out a handkerchief from his jacket's inner pocket and wiping his hands slowly on them.
The titan is nailed down, only the neck and top of the bulbous head free of the stakes. Levi cleans the build up of sweat from his face with a second handkerchief, keeps watch as Hange springs this way and that, wild and delirious in the findings. It makes something inside of Levi twist and writhe, and he unconsciously rests a hand over his stomach, thinks of tapeworms and wasted, bloated bodies in the gutters.
"Hange," he says, and he sounds harsh to his own ears. "It's time for dinner."
Predictably, there's whining, but they break, leaving the guard and heading back across the fields that separate the research grounds from the rest of the base. Levi turns away once they are inside, leaving Hange calling after him:
"It's all going to be cold by the time you're done!"
Cold food doesn't matter. Any food, clean and safe, is better than none. He thinks such things as he scrubs off dirt and grime and everything created by his own mind, as he redresses in what passes as casual clothes to get whatever is left from dinner. Once, he had only the clothes on his back, not even really his, ripped from the backs of other children who died in the gutter. It was important to know how they died, to make sure he wasn't unknowingly drowning himself in pox or plague. He stole from the bodies dumped out the back of the black auctions, looked with dispassion upon those who wouldn't submit and were killed, wrapped himself in the tattered shawls of the whores who didn't cough or bleed. Uniforms, made off the back of tax payers money and rationed cloth: it isn't so different.
The potatoes and thick, toneless stew with specks of carrots are cold, but he doesn't notice, scooping the dregs out of the pot that Hange probably told the cooks to leave out for him. The dining hall is empty and he has to relight the candle at the table closest to the door, but the food is the same as what everyone else ate, and the tea he makes himself from the tea box everyone takes leaves from is warm. Boiled water kills off bacteria, and the chances of poisoning communal water is low. He soothes himself with such reassurances.
Erwin is waiting for him back in what are technically Levi's quarters but really have become both of theirs. He smells of soap and nothing else, and he holds Levi close as if he is the one that needs the reassurance. Perhaps he does; Levi has never asked.
"You wanted to know if I am still useful," Levi murmurs as their breaths even out and begin to grow long.
"I never doubted," Erwin mumbles.