This is the scene:
"You don't have to watch."
Levi doesn't respond, looks down over the railing separating Erwin and a few others from the Stationary Guard from the crowd below. The banners have already gone out of the gate, fluttering bird's wings in the gloom. Down below, the line and file trudges past, a smudge of colours and clothes that have seen better days, of greying hair and still youthful faces. It's eerily quiet for the middle of the afternoon in the city, a funeral procession with music made of shuffling feet.
Once, when he was still growing, a frightening time, racked by constant hunger and aches down to the bone, there was a plague. The other children in the band he'd been part of stole from the first wave of bodies, paltry things like face veils used in an attempt to give the dead dignity. Most had blood in their stools by the next day, and nearly all had writhed and gagged into their last within four days. They died on the streets and in the alleyways, contorted and bloated by flies and maggots and worms: the titans of the gutters.
The last march of Wall Maria.
He hadn't had an opinion about it, except that it was immoral and wrong, but that was obvious and no point in saying it aloud. The swine didn't even bat an eye, the king up in his golden cage unconcerned, but that hadn't surprised him. After all, Levi had made his living off such guarantees in the past, still did if just with a different label attached. The culling of the refugees, all quarter of a million of them: what are such disposable bodies in the scheme of things?
They're given a day off across the military, ostensibly to grieve with the populace for the sacrifice made for all humanity, really to give the brass a few uninterrupted hours to get the spin on the death toll right. Levi spends the day out riding, trotting his horse up and down the low slopes of the Survey Corps practice grounds, breathing in the late winter air and looking off into the clouds. It rains, and he rides until his horse begins to shiver, until he can no longer feel his hands and feet, soaked through his cloak to skin. He stables his horse, rubs her down thoroughly, and then heads to the training grounds.
The clouds roll, spidery lightning cracking above. There used to be a girl in one of the street gangs he'd gone through, older and weathered beyond her years, whose biggest fear had been storms. She'd held her mouth shut with a lace handkerchief to stifle her whimpers, occasionally exhaling harshly and making the thin fabric flutter. Levi doesn't know what happened to her, remembers that she had disappeared during the plague. He'd just assumed she'd been consumed, too, but maybe she hadn't. She'd been nearly enlistment age and her body strong and mind stubborn. She could have gone somewhere, made something of herself.
Levi grits his teeth, clenches his fists until his blunt nails bite deep into his palms. He can't head down that road.
It's quiet when he finally comes in from the rain, dripping a trail of rain and mud from the entrance through the long halls to the showers. His fingers are so cold that it takes him a few tries at the hem of his shirt to get it up over his head, and he fumbles his way like a drunkard out of his ruined boots and trousers. It's difficult to twist the handles of the shower, and even the starting stream feels warmer than he is. Now that he's stopping, that he's out from under the sky, he can feel the prickling of what will be muscle aches and stiffness from over-taxing his body, and he can feel the muck in his hair and beneath his fingernails. Outside, thunder crashes, and he thinks of lace and veils, fluttering in the breeze.
It'll be an unusually wet but sunny spring.
Good for the crops, Levi overhears, although he knows nothing about that sort of thing. He swallows his tea, listening to the chatter to his right of potatoes and leeks and tomatoes. He remembers the first time he had leeks as something other than boiled down to mush to stretch as far as possible, the crunch of the texture between his teeth and burst of flavour. Erwin had given him such a strange look, briefly uncomprehending of why Levi had gone so still.
"Do you not like it?"
He'd eaten the entire plate, foregoing the mashed potatoes and carefully prepared slices of beef. Leeks, oil, a spice he later figured out to be garlic: Levi had never had anything like it, something that tasted so fresh and clean. Later, in a rare moment of generosity, Erwin had given him a book about edible plants and how to identify them, and Levi had learned that leeks, so long as they survive the initial planting, leeks were hardy, rough plants that could be harvest out of season. Good famine food, which explained why Levi had been familiar with them, but it had been a revelation to actually know what they tasted like.
"So the swine hide away and gorge themselves," he'd said over dinner after a particularly late mapping session.
"Some do," Erwin answered, slicing a small bite of the steak on his plate. "But none of them have ever seen the open sky."
Levi hadn't said neither had they, not really. The expeditions beyond Wall Maria the Survey Corps took never got far, and Levi primarily remembers the wideness of the land, the occasional tree far off in the distance and Titans incoming. He's heard, like many have despite the laws against such information, of rivers that fall from up high and ice that rises like mountains, but the land immediately beyond the walls has none of that. It's flat, tussled grass, littered with Titans and human remains.
Levi swallows a mouthful of tea and closes his eyes.
There are just over a hundred survivors. None of the Survey Corps who set out with the refugees survive. An honourable death, some would say, will say. It tastes like ash in Levi's mouth.
"Two hundred fifty thousand," Erwin says, standing at the window, eyes unfocused, looking out beyond the walls.
Levi sits on the wide bed, the only luxury in Erwin's rooms, rubs his hands in slow circles over his upper thighs, his knees, his calves. Back in town, he imagines the leftovers, the children, those who'd managed to prove their usefulness outweighed the cost to feed. He thinks of the brief influx of recruits to basic a month ago when the plan was announced, the spike in desperate numbers and the drastic fall of those who had been immediately turned away. The swine say that the sacrifice was terrible but necessary for the survival of humanity; the Wallists say the walls have been strengthened to protect them all.
"People," Levi says. "They were people."
Different shades of hair, all in their own clothes, they marched out under the wings of freedom to their deaths. Free to die a million different ways, freedom as much a prison as a promise: Levi understands the irony even though it makes him feel sick. He can admit that to himself, can find comfort in how even he can feel the abhorrent nature of this perversion. Erwin stares out over the training grounds, towards the city and the wall, his tea long cooled in his hand.
The candle by the bed burns low, almost out, and it's beginning to feel chilly.
"Erwin," Levi says, skin prickling, "come to bed."
They started doing this on one of the few expeditions beyond Wall Maria that lasted more than a couple of days, after a night when Erwin had rolled against Levi in sleep. Levi hadn't noticed, which was rare in and of itself; even asleep, the touch of another would have usually woken him, which was why he slept at the tent's entrance, only Erwin immediately nearby. When they'd woken to take their turn at watch, it had been a brief shock, Erwin blinking against Levi's shoulder, Levi's left hand halfway to his knife. They hadn't talked about it, hadn't intended to repeat it or let it evolve to what it's become: sharing each other's beds, drinking the same tea, eating the same food. There's a lot of things between them that neither ever intended.
Some time in the evening, as the sky begins to lighten but before the sun creeps over the wall, Erwin finds Levi's hand and curls their fingers together. It doesn't stir Levi as he doubts either of them are going to find sleep, and he lets Erwin lift his hand, catching it in the light off the open window, feeling the whorls of his fingertips. He'd told Levi a story, on one of the two occasions that Levi has seen Erwin drunk, that he'd had a friend in training whose gas mechanism on her maneuver gear malfunctioned and blew off her hands.
"Later that evening, when I was shaking out my cloak, I found one of her fingers. It had fallen in my hood, and I didn't notice because I hadn't had to pull it up during the day. I remember standing in the laundry, just staring at her finger, and I kept remembering how she offered me a hand up on the first day of training. I'd never met a girl with callused hands before then."
Levi had swallowed a mouthful of wine and reached for the assortment of nuts that Mike had left out before heading off somewhere with Hange. "What did you do with it?" he'd asked, and, when Erwin didn't answer immediately, staring vacantly at the label on their current wine bottle, Levi clarified, "The finger."
"Oh," Erwin breathed, eyes still faraway and lips lifting in that creepy, vacant smile; Levi had chosen to shove a few nuts in his mouth than comment. "I gave it back when I visited the next day in the infirmary. There wasn't much that the medics could do, really. I don't know what happened to her."
"Sina brat," Levi had muttered but without any heat, and Erwin had laughed, the odd, disconcerting smile fading away.
Levi wakes with a start, a shout on his lips that dies between his tongue and his brain. He sits for a long moment, sweat from distress drying in the cool air of the room, the dregs of the dream hand prints on dirty glass, indistinct and blurred over, thoughts like mud trickling over a clogged storm drain.
Erwin is half-dressed, dress shirt, underwear, sock-braces. They're going into Utopia today, to attend an audience on the results of the expedition. Levi stares at Erwin until his heart stopped pounding in his ears.
"You didn't wake me."
Erwin picks up a sock, leaning over to pull it on. "You weren't to be woken."
Levi understands. He'd been truly asleep then, and if Erwin had tried to wake him, Levi would have panicked and struck out, and they can't go out in public with bruises or gashes showing. It's happened before. Erwin has a scar on his shin from colliding with the fireplace, and Levi had gotten a bloody eye just over a year ago that took a month to heal during which they'd largely avoided each other and people had talked.
"We can't do this," Levi had said after he'd overheard a hushed conversation among Hange's soldiers.
Erwin had glanced up from his papers, away from the maps full of blank spaces where human memory had failed to remember the world; his face was unreadable. "Do what?"
Levi had stared for a long moment before he'd broken himself off with a harsh laugh. Erwin, Sina brat he is, knew well what sort of whispers those were, could come up with all the notoriety Levi's bruised and swollen eye could breed for himself. The only reason that Erwin would play the fool here was because he'd wanted to hear it, to taste the slander in Levi's mouth and lend it truth.
"Fuck you," Levi'd bitten out, getting up from the couch and grabbing his jacket off the back of the chair.
"I'm not playing your shitty games," he'd snarled before opening the door and turning away down the hallway.
It had been the last time they'd fought, both physically and verbally. Levi knows they're both thinking about that as the carriage rattles through the streets up to Utopia, Erwin gazing ahead out the back of the carriage, Levi's face turned to watch the street go by. Rose behind them, Sina moves about undisturbed. They pass a newstand, a salon, a number of inns, bookshops and butchers and fishmongers, brightly coloured signs and dresses in windows. No one looks their way, unquestioning of the black carriages rolling past.
"They'll have read it in the broadsheets," Erwin says as the carriages stall outside the gate into Utopia.
"If they bother," Levi says, and his voice is slightly rough; it's been a long ride and he's very thirsty.
"There will be a lot of people at the reception," Erwin continues, straightening his cuffs. "I think Pixis is going to give a speech."
"I hope there's wine," Levi mutters because he has a hard time imagining Pixis doing this sober.
"Yes," Erwin says, and Levi hears the groan of the gate opening.
The swine crawl the walls of their pen, stumbling about the opulent halls and luscious gardens, meat and sweets tumbling off tables and trays. Levi accepts a glass of champagne, holds it before himself as he watches Erwin make banal conversation with Niles, tries not to think about how many hands the glasses and champagne must have passed through before coming to them. There are toasts to the fallen, and Levi forces himself to swallow the sweet, sparkling liquid, tries not to think of poison and falsity. Servants with lowered eyes and fingernails that show manual labour come around the tables to refill the glasses before the next toast, and Levi wants to check beneath the nails, wants to follow them and see where they come from. He sits instead, standing at the right places in the speeches with the rest of the cattle, raising glasses and downing drink that tastes like summer breeze.
At some point, after the endless toasts and inability to stomach the sweet cakes adds up to light-headed discontentment and the beginnings of vague nausea, he finds himself outside in a garden. There are a few others out here, a middle-aged couple in Utopia splendour, two young women who are comparing their folding fans, a young MP by the exit who looks bored, lost, and out-of-place. Levi sits down on one of the delicate low benches surrounded by purple and white flowers that he can't identify and therefore are inedible and tips the last of his champagne down his throat.
He stares up at the sky. It's a clear day, still chilly with the ends of winter, but he's far too warm from the champagne to notice. The flowers give off a pleasant, innocuous scent, and he wonders what their names are. Erwin has a bar of soap that smells a bit like these, saved for special occasions like his birthday or the rare times an expedition can be called a calculated success. Levi turns his empty glass between his fingers, rolling it like the tiny wisps of clouds overhead.
"So this is where you'd gotten off to."
Levi turns his head just enough to see Erwin and Mike, Erwin smiling blandly at him, Mike leaning over to sniff one of the purple flowers. They're all in black suits, wearing metals and wings of freedom on their breasts. Levi breathes out through his nose and turns his eyes back to the sky.
"Do you want something?"
"No," Erwin answers, and Levi can hear Mike shuffle a bit to smell one of the white flowers. "It's too early in the year for birds."
"I'm not looking for fucking birds," Levi says, the words leaving his lips easily and he feels a little bit less drunk.
Erwin takes a couple of steps forward, between Mike and Levi, turns his face to the sky. "What are you looking for?"
When he was young, he remembers sleeping under the stars, on the grounds of alleyways, behind skips and bins to shield himself from the wind. He had stared up, looking into the pitch black and trying to pick out the smattering of light painted across the heavens. He'd watch the moon wax and wane, turn yellow and wispy in clouds. Hungry, aching, and often cold, there had been such wonder in the night sky. But it's day time now, and it hurts to look straight into the sun.
"Nothing," Levi says, tongue thick and so very tired.
They have to stay for dinner and the gala that follows. Levi feels sick and eats only enough to be polite, which is too much. His head swims on the never-ending flow of champagne and wine, and he finds himself obsessively tracking Erwin, cataloguing faces and motions of those around him as if the swine are titans or assassins. It's a ridiculous thought, but he's being reduced to basic instincts. Protect, serve, survive: these are things that Levi has spent his entire life doing, no matter how drunk or sick or injured he is.
"Mike," he says, and Mike looks over, vacant, obtuse expression heightened by the flush of alcohol in his cheeks. "What are we doing here?"
Mike blinks, turns his head enough to look back over the crowd, the fluttering dresses and stuffed suits. Levi feels dizzy with all the spinning colours and bright lights, and he clenches his fist to bite his nails into his palm; his wine sloshes pretty against the curved glass. He wants to scream.
"I don't know," Mike answers, slow and steady. "Who's that Erwin's talking to?"
"How the hell should I know?" Levi grouches, never taking his eyes off Erwin's bland smile and placid eyes as he chatters with a group of young women with shining faces.
"The one in yellow," Mike clarifies, and he starts to motion to which, but he wobbles and thinks better of it. "They've been talking for about twenty minutes."
"Have they?" Levi asks, blinking rapidly and somewhat alarmed; has he begun to loose sense of time? "His face is so fucking disinterested."
"Erwin's never been interested in women," Mike says, and Levi feels his head snap around to stare at Mike as he continues, "I've never once seen him look down their shirts, not even when we were in training."
Levi realizes he's gaping. He snaps his mouth shut before opening it again.
"Mike, shut up," he hisses, eyes darting about to check if anyone is listening.
"I wonder if that's why he joined the military," Mike ponders, and Levi cannot believe this is happening. "His family -"
"We're going outside," Levi decides, and he grabs Mike's elbow because he'd gladly drink poison than let this continue where anyone can overhear.
"To smell the fucking flowers," Levi answers with enough force that a couple of curious heads turn their way; Erwin can handle himself among the swine until Mike sobers up a bit.
He makes Mike sit on the bench that he sat on earlier that day, grabs a handful of the delicate purple and white blossoms, yanking them from their stems and dumping the crushed flowers on Mike's lap. He waits for Mike to pick one of the white petals up, watches Mike bring it to his nose, inhaling and letting his eyes fall shut. Lines that Levi hadn't noticed before ease out of Mike's face, and he smiles dreamily. He looks like a complete idiot. Levi tosses the full contents of his wine glass down his throat to stop himself from commenting.
"I don't think I've ever seen you drink this much," Mike murmurs, wispy and far-off.
Levi glances back, watching impassively as Mike smooths out the petals he'd crushed. "They keep refilling the glasses."
"Hm," Mike says, and Levi wants to punch him.
Erwin finds them like that, Mike sitting with the flowers, Levi standing in the middle of the path with another glass of wine that a waiter had come around to replenish. Erwin moves like he does after a long day on horseback, like his entire body pains him. To anyone else, he would seem simply sedate, but Levi knows Erwin, knows that, even if it doesn't show in his outward behaviour, this is wearing on him, too.
"I think we can go now," Erwin says, unusually imprecise. "Can either of you walk?"
Mike stands up, flowers fluttering to his feet; he sways momentarily before steadying and nodding. Levi tips the wine down his throat, tosses the fragile glass into the flowerbed; it cracks. Erwin smiles, the first real one that Levi has seen in a long time.
"Yes," he says, and they follow Erwin out.
He glances up, sees Hange with her eyeglasses reflecting the firelight. She's wearing casual clothes, and he wonders how long he's been sitting in the dining hall, the same pot of tea before him. No, that's a lie: he knows exactly how long he's been sitting here. He's been here since this morning, when Erwin confessed against his ear their new mission.
She draws out a chair, keeping one between them. "You're scaring everyone."
"You should be," Levi hears himself say from somewhere very far away.
"Are you and Erwin fighting again?" she asks, and Levi feels his eyes slide towards her, which she takes as a response, brows furrowing.
"The hell," he starts to make himself say, flat and blunt until the thought strikes him of how appropriate that answer is for everything here; he reaches compulsively for the teapot before just as quickly drawing his hand back to himself. "No."
There's this note in her voice, like she doesn't believe him, and Levi wants to scream, cuss her out, tell her everything, but he can't. Erwin can't. Neither of them can put a label on what the thing is between them, and they might not live long enough to do anything about that. The new mission -
Levi reaches for the teapot, pours himself a cup of cold tea. It's dark and murky, left to seep for far too long. It looks like mud. He puts the teapot back down on the tray and doesn't attempt to drink. He can feel Hange staring at him, scientist eyes searching. He wonders what they see.
Erwin gives the speech the next day at noon, and Levi watches the apprehension turn to horror in the faces of the Survey Corps. But the horror turns into bitter, stretched expressions and salutes, and Levi wonders if his face ever communicated that much information. Maybe it had, a long time ago. Levi doesn't remember that far back.
"We'll ride out next week," Erwin says, late that night as he stares at an large map of the eastern segment of Wall Maria.
Levi says nothing. They had leeks for dinner tonight, the strong wintry ones that Levi knows Erwin doesn't enjoy but Levi absolutely adores, especially when there's garlic. It's an apology and a request in one. He breathes in deep.
"Tell me the plan."