Levi clenches his hands. The soldier before him (Levi should know his name, but he doesn't) shivers, whether from the cold or exhaustion or fear, Levi doesn't know. He forces his hands to unclench, forces his mind to move. There is a well of emotions, full and straining and tight, like someone mixed methane into it, but Levi will have to wait, cannot acknowledge it now.
"Okay," he says, taking a step towards the carriage; he does not look at the soldier's face. "Let's go."
Once, not so very long ago (less than a decade, but each of the past five years feels longer than a century), if a person in uniform came to him and told him to get into a carriage without specifying where or why, he would have laughed in their face. Once, he had been a boy, and he had run barefoot from a towering grocer after stealing a handful of nuts from the overflowing basket at the edge of the stall. And, once, he had been a soldier, bone tired and long worn thin with the wings of freedom blanketing his back, a thousand stars in his eyes as he stared up at murky skies.
"Levi," Moblit gasps, hurrying from the chaos as Levi steps down from the carriage.
"You are relieved," Levi says, and Moblit sags in open gratefulness.
He moves past Moblit, but that doesn't seem to surprise either of them. If anything, Moblit comes more alert, and Levi sweeps his eyes over the Stationary Garrison soldiers scrambling about, a couple of Survey Corps slumped over at a table with half-touched food who spring up to attention as soon as they see him. Armin and Jean, Levi's brain supplies as he strides forward, Moblit at his heels.
"Where's Eren?" he asks, not stopping as he heads deeper into the building, climbing the stairs to the offices.
"With Mikasa," Armin's voice answers, voice tired but steady.
Levi pulls a ring of keys out of his jacket's inner pocket to unlock the command office. "Krista."
"Resting," Armin says before Jean breaks in to say, "next to Mikasa."
Levi makes a noise of acknowledgement, returning the keys to his pocket as he sets about the dark office, pulling out the matches for the candles from the desk drawer, going around the office lighting them from memory. He deposits the used match in the ashtray, moves to the desk to sit. A half-finished letter addressed to a politician whose name Levi vaguely recognises sits on the blotter, stopped mid-sentence. Levi stares at it for a moment before he forces himself to sit down.
"Where the hell is Pixis?"
"We're looking for him," Moblit answers, and Levi opens the right hand file drawer to pull out the Survey Corps membership ledger.
"If he's passed out drunk, I will slit his throat," Levi says, meaning every word of it.
He opens the ledger over the letter, careful not to wrinkle the paper. He reaches out awkwardly to draw the ink pot and quill closer, unscrewing the ink pot and dipping the quill carefully. It's stained from having been left still inked. Erwin must have been in such a hurry to not -
Levi inhales. "Tell me the known casualties."
It takes the rest of the night, Levi scribbling fiercely as Armin, Jean, and Moblit rattle off the injured and the dead. Levi's calligraphy is awful, nothing more than self-taught chicken scrawl, and he has to work hard to form his words (missing, confirmed dead, injured, presumed dead) quickly but legibly. Someone comes in with tea, but Levi doesn't touch his even though he's desperately thirsty because he doesn't know who made it and he can't ask. Erwin -
There's a snap, and he has a splattered blotch of ink all over the middle of the third to last page of the ledger. Levi swears, sets the broken quill down on the blotter, and stares for a moment at his ink-covered fingers. He needs to go wash his hands, needs to clean up this mess, needs -
He's aware of how quiet it is. Slowly and with force of will that he is surprised he possesses, he reaches up with his left hand and pull off his cravat, uses it to wipe the ink off his fingers. Selfishly, he lets himself take his time with it, cleaning the ink out from underneath his nails as best he can and concentrating on the numerous little scars at litter his hands. He thinks about where they came from, of maneuver gear and knives and fistfights, all the things he ever has been but will never be again.
Carefully, he sets aside the soiled fabric, opens the top left desk drawer, and takes out one of the two extra goose feather quills there. It's sharpened already, Erwin ever thorough, and Levi inks it as he draws in a deep breath.
"Moblit," he says, and his voice is hoarse from overuse and dehydration.
A straightening. "Sir."
Levi begins to rewrite missing/deserter next to Reiner Braun's name. "Where the fuck is Pixis?"
Moblit gets to his feet swiftly despite how long he's probably been awake. "I'll go find him myself," he says before heading out.
"Check the status of those in medical and report back."
"Sir!" Armin says, his salute before he leaves a stab at all the things that Levi is trying to ignore.
"What about me?" Jean asks, bald in his own exhaustion and determination.
Levi begins to reprint the names lost to the ink spill on a new page. He can see all their faces because he always remembers names to faces, vital skill left from the place he'd been born. He thinks of Hange injured, of Mike presumed dead, of Erwin -
He swallows, and it's like dragging sandpaper down his throat. He takes a moment to ink the quill again.
"Make a new pot of tea," Levi says, "and help me finish this."
Jean brings tea and bowls of oatmeal on a tray. Levi berates his body into obeying, into stomaching the oatmeal and drinking two cups of tea even though all his senses scream danger because he doesn't know where the tea leaves are from or who made the oatmeal or if the utensils were washed recently. They finish the ledger, moving onto condolence letters for the dead who have families, and Levi gives the extra quill to Jean and opens a new ink bottle.
"I don't know him," Jean says, pained as he looks at the first name on his half of the ledger.
"You don't have to," Levi says, and he's going to lose his voice at this rate; he isn't sure he's ever talked this much in his life. "Think of what he gave. Think of what he means."
Did I contribute to humanity? Or did I die pointlessly?
Levi represses a shudder, presses his nails into his knee under the desk. Jean stares at him from where he's bent over the coffee table, eyes bright and open and devastated.
"Damn it," Jean mutters, clutching the quill between his fingers. "Damn it all."
Pixis arrives just past noon, face grave for once as he enters the office. Levi stares at him across the desktop, condolence letter open in front of him, a stack in the file to be sent out. Jean jerks awake from his doze on the couch, swiping the drool from the edge of his mouth. Moblit looks half-dead on his feet, but he stands at full attention by the door anyway.
"Where the fuck have you been?" Levi asks, and he sounds like he's crawled out of his own grave.
"Utopia had to be kept up to date," Pixis says as he takes the seat across from Jean, careful not to disturb any of the papers. "It was important until I heard Erwin had indicated a replacement."
"Fuck you," Levi says, and there's far too much real venom in his wreaked voice. "Moblit, shower and go to bed. Jean, you, too."
They both salute and Levi has to tighten every muscle in his body to restrain himself from leaping over the desk and beating them both bloody. Pixis stays seated as the door clicks shut behind them, and Levi can see shadows under his eyes. Slowly, Levi takes a deep breath, sets down the quill, smooths the edges of the half-finished letter on the blotter needlessly.
"I can't do this," he says without preamble because Pixis is the only person who he can tell this to.
"No one wants command," Pixis says, humourless and bland. "Not unless you're ignorant or crazy."
Levi laughs, a terrible, shredded sound that makes him want to strangle himself. "I'm the craziest fuck-up in this shitty building, and we have kids who turn into titans. We had five. Now we have two, and one's frozen in a damn crystal like a fucking fairy tale. I have no idea what to do. Why the hell do you think I'm writing condolence letters?"
"You let them salute you," Pixis points out.
"Either I let them or I add another two casualties to this shitty list!" Levi pounds his fist on the cover of the ledger, ink stains still under his nails. "The fuck am I supposed to do?"
"Why are you choosing to freak out at me?"
Levi picks up the almost empty bottle of ink on the desk and hurls it at the window. It cracks against the frame and shatters when it hits the ground.
"You know damn well why!" he shouts, picking up the candlestick at the top of the desk with its burnt out wax stub and throwing it as hard as he can at the door; it makes a horrific cracking noise. "I'm not a fucking replacement -"
As soon as the word leaves his mouth, it's like the floor has been ripped out from underneath him, and he has to catch himself against the desk to prevent his knees from buckling. He feels like he's going to blow apart, fall in upon himself, simultaneously burn up and evaporate into nothing. His vision tunnels, becomes a single speck within blackness, and he has to clench his right hand tightly around the side of his own neck to ground himself, to stop himself from breaking more of Erwin's things.
The realisation draws a wretched sound from him, the noise of a dying animal. Levi remembers riding out on a clear day, so long ago now, and spending hours admiring the sunlight in Erwin's hair. It had been the farthest an expedition ever got from the walls, and they had slept beneath the stars, the moon casting a shimmering glow over their skin. Levi hadn't slept at all that night, had watched the stars so clear and bright above burn away as the sun bled up over the true horizon, unblemished by stone and brick. Hange had chanted names for stars, Mike had lifted fine, mossy dirt to smell, and, for a few precious hours, they had all ridden with their faces turned to the sun.
"Levi," Pixis hasn't moved, his voice exactly where he should be sitting, "are you done?"
It takes all of his strength and will, but he unclenches his hand from around his neck. There will be bruises there, and it will ache when he allows himself to start feeling again. Erwin would have commanded him not to do it in the first place, but Erwin isn't here. Erwin is injured, maybe dying, and he needs someone to do his job. If that's his order, if that is what he wants Levi to be for him, wants them to be -
"Yes," Levi says, nails over slate.
He sits down, settles with his arm around the back of the chair. He feels thin and used, tired in all the worst ways, and he stares at the soiled cravat on the side of the desk.
"Tell me about Utopia."
It's late night or early morning. Levi isn't sure.
"Corporal, have you slept at all?"
He's made himself tea, the fragrant, floral kind that Erwin keeps in his desk in a small, blue and white tin. It had calmed the shaking in his hands enough to finish the condolence letters, has eased the ache in his chest that passes back and forth between stabbing sensations and a vice grip. He brings his cup to his lips, sips it gently, conservatively. He doesn't know if he'll ever be able to find this sort of tea again.
"Did you deliver the letters?"
Moblit's face crumbles and he looks down off to the side. Levi breathes in, the scent of gardens and all the things Erwin never said coiling in his lungs.
"Who did you take with you?
"Sasha Blouse and Armin Arlert," Moblit answers, straightening up again.
"Good choices," Levi says.
He lets himself stare into nothing for a long moment, his mind leaking out of his ears as more and more tries to come in to replace it. Erwin's tea makes him think of his soap, of yellow dresses, of the scar on his shin and all the things they never talked about and probably never will. If Erwin survives the fever that Levi's been told rages through his body, he'll still be without an arm and more a liability on the field than an asset. They are no fools. They will not ride out together again, Levi watching the sun in Erwin's hair.
But those days were long gone. Levi sets his teacup down, stands up carefully to keep his vision from greying out.
"I'm hungry," he says, although he really isn't. "Let's go see if there's any dinner left."
He'd wanted so many things. It's truly baffling to realise how much he'd wanted. Levi had never stopped to think about it, couldn't, really, especially not in the last five years since the Colossal Titan (Bertolt Hoover, he corrects himself; it has a name and a face and) broke Wall Maria. To think about such things, wants and dreams and nightmares: that was a luxury of time and peace he'd almost dared to think would last forever.
Levi pulls out a pot, a chopping board, two potatoes and a leek, stopping at the sink to wash them all thoroughly. Moblit hovers uncertainly in the kitchen doorway, and Levi selfishly has no orders for him. He should dismiss Moblit, let him go back to medical and Hange or to bed or whatever, but Levi can't be alone right now, not with his own thoughts. He doesn't know if Moblit understands, but he's been in the Survey Corps long enough that he must at least have an idea.
Levi finishes washing, taking a knife from the block and wiping it down. "Help me with the potatoes."
He lights the stove and boils the potatoes and leeks because it's the only reliable way he knows how to cook. Erwin did the cooking usually when it was too late to get anything from dinner because he couldn't stand Levi's. Before Wall Maria fell, Erwin had talked about teaching him, giving him proper lessons in how to prepare beef and scallop potatoes. Levi had scoffed and called him a Sina brat, and Erwin had smiled that real smile, the one that is so long gone nowadays. And maybe it's gone for good now that they know for sure Eren isn't a simple anomaly, that the titans are humans, even if Erwin doesn't -
Levi grabs the bowl, ladles out a serving of the pale soup. He hands the soup to Moblit, who doesn't look entirely thrilled but accepts it. He ladles out a bowl for himself before leaning down to put the stove out.
"Are we going back to work?"
Levi picks up a spoon from the drying rack, still wet from the earlier washing. He thinks about his dirty cravat, still on the desk, Erwin's unfinished letter under the many reports Levi still has to fill out. He hasn't gotten to bathe in fifty-two hours, has gone almost forty-eight on maybe three hours of sleep. The bruises he self-inflicted to make himself stop screaming at Pixis are going to make swallowing the soup painful, and his voice probably sounds like someone took a grater to his vocal cords. His ankle no longer pains him.
"No," Levi hears himself say, aware that he's simply been standing in the middle of the kitchen with a wet spoon and bowl for far too long to play it off as simple consideration. "You're dismissed for the evening."
"Okay," Moblit says, and he's been around Hange too long: he's developed that ability to say one thing but clearly communicate he doesn't believe a single word that just came out of Levi's mouth. "I'll see you in the morning."
Levi grinds his teeth but ignores Moblit, takes a seat at the table nearest to the door and sets down his bowl and spoon. He listens to Moblit exit, how the door doesn't shut behind him; he'd known to prop it open, that Levi prefers to have the exits clear in whatever room he's in. It's dark in the dining hall, the windows letting in little light, but Levi doesn't bother to light the table candle, eating in silence and semi-darkness.
He lets his mind wander, sipping weak, starchy broth that reminds him of thin days and thinner clothes. When he met Erwin, he'd been more monster than human, a thousand sharp and brittle shards of metal that had seen better days. They'd shafted against each other, leaving cuts that scarred over, woven themselves into each other's flesh and bones. There's been days and nights where Levi had forgotten where he started and Erwin began, and, a few times in the last couple of years, Erwin had whispered words against Levi's shoulders and back, had traced symbols that Levi pretended not to notice onto his skin.
Between them, there had always been a chasm, deep and dark and irreparable. Gutter child and Sina brat, murderer and commander: a thousand lies for every truth. Levi can't say where all the bridges came from, had simply looked down one day and found nets between them, suspended in mid-air with no foundations. For all Erwin's planning and Levi's kills, they never thought to want the million things that lie between them, and there are so many things they've never discussed, never touched, never done. Erwin is the commander and Levi -
He sets his spoon down and reaches up to rub his eyes. It's natural, he reassures himself, to cry when stressed. It's quiet and dark, still the long hour before dawn, and he is alone. He's never once seen Erwin cry, but Levi isn't Erwin; he's not that kind of strength. He's a killer, a blade that Erwin honed, and since he's been killing humans by killing titans, he's still the murderer Erwin first met, too. He's just been made into a better weapon, sharpened and shiny, but a poor replacement for Erwin who'd been carved out of gold and steel.
A sob bubbles up in his throat, and Levi covers his mouth, bites the inside of his bottom lip. It would be quite the sight for someone to walk in on, he knows: Humanity's Strongest, hunched in the dark and weeping like a child. There's nowhere he can do this but here. He can't go back to his room and look at that cold bed, and he can't stand the quarters everyone thinks he sleeps in but never actually does. The bed will still be made, just as Erwin always makes it with the sheet and blanket tucked in at the end, and there will be personal letters scattered on the coffee table. Usually, Levi sits on the couch and reads Erwin his mail, letters from parents and siblings and a few people that Erwin has stayed in contact with outside of military capacity, and Erwin darns their cloaks and socks, cuts the cloth for Levi's cravats. It's so different from what they usually have to do, and, for the hour or two they have to spare, they pretend they're something else, an image they'd seen in their childhoods looking into other people lives. Levi had thought, had dared to hope in those rare, precious moments, that maybe, someday they could have something like it, too.
They'd been such fools.
The shirt and pants he'd taken from the extra stack in the laundry don't fit entirely right, cuffs too large and legs too long, but the shower at least makes Levi feel less like an animal. He is aware that he looks like one. Lack of sleep lends an over-bright feral quality to his eyes, and he's honestly quite surprised that his hands haven't stared shaking again. They will if he doesn't sleep soon.
That's the only reason he's walking across the training fields as dawn starts to draw over the horizon, a hand drawing his jacket closed over his chest. There's a tale he heard once as a young man, on one of the evenings he'd gone to the theatre, of a man who makes a deal with the devil to experience the pleasures of the flesh. Levi remembers being mesmerized by the story, how he'd leaned as close as he could to the stage as the devil took hold of the man and pulled away the costume of a stooped, wizened figure to reveal a young, spry man beneath. For a brief moment, he'd been transported, carried away to a world long lost and never his own.
The nurse on duty starts at the front desk when Levi opens the door. "Corporal -"
"Where is he?" Levi asks.
The nurse visibly seems to shake himself to wake himself up more, blinking furiously. "Who -?" he starts before he corrects himself. "Commander Smith is down the hall, fourth door on the right."
Levi nods briefly before turning on his heel and walking. He can feel the edges of his frayed control starting to crack, and it's becoming difficult to breathe. The door looks exactly like the others in the infirmary, and everything smells of detergent and lingering illness. Levi opens the without knocking, steps through and closes it behind him. He stands for a long moment, facing the door because Erwin is in the bed behind him, and when he turns around, Erwin's arm -
His arm is gone.
Levi stands there at the door and stares at it, at the bandages and the stump. He's seeing it, he knows it's real, but every fibre of his being rejects the reality that Erwin's right arm is gone. He blinks and expects the image to correct itself, for Erwin's arm to suddenly be there again, magically like the devil from the play pulling away costume to reveal resplendent health beneath. It's a ridiculous fantasy, but Levi's mind wants it anyway.
Slowly, because his feet feel like lead, Levi crosses the room and draws one of the two uncomfortable wooden chairs by the window towards the bed. Erwin lies in repose, face slack and chest rising and falling steadily in sleep. It's so unnatural that Levi almost wants to shake Erwin awake because he should have jerked alert as soon as Levi entered the room unannounced. In the dimness, Levi can still see how pale he is, blood loss and stress and growing fever sapping all colour from his skin. It makes his hair seem more like straw than gold, and Levi reaches out to smooth it back into something resembling Erwin's usual well-kept appearance.
Levi pulls his hand back to himself instead, working off his boots and setting them to the side behind his chair. He tucks his legs up against his chest, resting his heels on the edge of the chair and his chin against his knees. Next to him, Erwin sleeps on, drugged and unaware, and Levi closes his eyes, heartsick and so very sad.
He'd thought, stupidly, that they had more time.
The sound of the door opening jolts him awake, and Levi is halfway into a charge, the wooden chair falling with a thumping clatter over his boots, before he remembers where he is and the doctor's startled face registers. Levi straightens from his defensive stance between the door and the bed, deliberately forces his hands to uncurl themselves from fists, makes himself take deep, even breaths to slow his heart rate.
"Corporal," the doctor says, carefully bland and neutral, "we're here to change the Commander's bandages and check for infection."
Levi nods, a short, jerky motion that isn't fooling anyone, and makes himself back off. He rights the chair and picks up his boots to pull them back on, tracking the doctor and the nurse as they move about Erwin. The light coming in from the window tells him that he's slept maybe two hours, three at best. His entire body feels like a vice pulled tight, and he has to fold himself back into something resembling a presentable state as the doctor and nurse finish their check-up and redressing what's left of Erwin's arm.
"Did he become conscious at all during the night?" the doctor asks as Levi attempts to smooth out the wrinkles in his too long sleeves.
"No," Levi says, and he needs to find a glass of water; he sounds like a frog. "How is he?"
The doctor sighs, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose; she looks like she's slept about as much as he has in the past few days. "Besides the obvious? He's not at death's door, but he lost a lot of blood. Infection is the main problem now that shock is less likely to set in."
Levi nods, tries not to think about how much dirt and filth he must have tracked in from his walk across the training grounds. "Keep me updated if his condition changes," he says because that's what he has to say, even if he wants to scrub the walls and windows and floor of any and all contaminants himself.
"Of course," the doctor says, and there's that look on her face that Levi is seeing far too often these days. "You should go get breakfast."
"Yes," Levi says.
Breakfast is porridge, thick and well-stirred to avoid lumps. It's unusual care for the dining hall, and Levi restrains himself from asking what the difference about today is. He fills his bowl and sets about making tea to take up to the command office, letting the rest of the morning rotation of the Survey Corps (so few, so very few) filter through the kitchen around him. It feels oddly normal, except he only has one bowl and one cup on the tray, and he hasn't retrieved the butter for Erwin's porridge portion.
He stops briefly in the dining hall at the table to the left of the door, drawing attention from the scattered soldiers. Moblit looks up, spoon of porridge still in his mouth; he looks like he didn't sleep well. Levi waits for him to swallow before speaking.
"Come up to the office when you're done eating."
Moblit nods, sharp but steady. "Sir."
Levi doesn't tell Moblit not to call him that; Erwin's body is still warm, but he's not fit to command anything, let alone for Levi to sleep against him in bed. Until Erwin is conscious and cognizant, Levi is in command, and there are formalities to command that need to be adhered to for the sake of Levi's own sanity if nothing else.
He eats his porridge seated at the couch next to the coffee table, scraping down the sides of the bowl. It's a habit that Erwin finds uncomfortable to watch, so Levi usually attempts to be more subtle about it, keeping the bowl on the table and not lifting it close to his mouth. But Erwin isn't here, and Levi can't waste his waning energy reserves on controlling himself in this. He'll scrape porridge off the bowl and into his mouth if he wants to.
Levi stands up with a rough sigh, squeezes his fingers against the bridge of his nose. He's acting like a child. Erwin named him replacement, left him in charge, and that's the right thing to do, even if it takes none of Levi's own feelings or desires into account. It's Levi's own fault that he never prepared himself for a situation like this. He'd acknowledged the possibility, yes, but he'd let himself be lulled into a sense of security, let Erwin's presence at his side and their bed ease the worries of that part of the future from his mind. Erwin hadn't, had obviously planned for the day that he would fall. That Levi is the last to know, that he had to be told of what had happened by second-hand accounts: it's strangely appropriate.
A knock on the door draws him out of his self-depreciation. Levi sets his bowl back down on the tray with his spoon and pours a cup of tea.
Moblit pushes open the door, a bundle of correspondence tucked under one arm from the post room and a folder with medical's stamp on it. Levi stands up, cup in hand and makes his way to the desk. His dirty cravat from the evening before still sits on the right-hand corner. Levi pulls on one of the corners with his nail, smoothing just enough of it out to put his teacup down on to avoid creating a ring on the wood. He takes the folder from Moblit and then sits down, opening it over Erwin's unfinished letter.
Erwin's medical report stares up at him, and Levi would kick himself if he could for the momentary faltering it causes him. Instead, he digs his left hand's nails into the meat of his palm.
"Sort the correspondence from most urgent to least," he says, and he sounds as strained as he feels; he was never good at hiding his emotions, never really had to. "Keep anything from Utopia sealed."
"Sir," Moblit says, and Levi hates that it steadies him.
The day passes in a whirlwind. Levi goes through the medical reports, sorts through the damages to resources, tallies horses lost against the meagre budget. Niles comes down from Sina, ostensibly to talk about the Military Police involvement and the refugee situation underground but really to accuse Erwin of usurping Military Police command and sending everyone off to die. Levi sees red the entire time, but he has to keep his head about it because Niles isn't Pixis, who can take and understand sometimes anger and minor destruction is the most expedient and humane way to dealing with bad situations. By the time Niles leaves, Levi is vibrating with barely contained rage and can't see straight.
"Moblit, you have command for an hour."
By the time Levi gets outside to the training grounds, he's lost control of his expression. If Erwin was here, he'd have someone to spar against, but Erwin would stop him because Levi's not been cleared for active duty because of his stupid ankle. That thought stops him for a moment, halfway to the weapons and equipment stores, and Levi feels himself attempting to shake apart because he needs to do something, anything that isn't sitting in Erwin's office in Erwin's chair doing Erwin's job because this isn't what he agreed to, not at all -
He takes a deep breath, clenching and unclenching his hands, and storms into the armoury. He grabs a set of manuveur gear that someone left out half assembled and fairly throws himself into the task of cleaning it. When he finishes with that set, he moves onto the training swords, lines, belts. He isn't wearing gloves, but he's not stupid; he's not going to damage his hands. He cleans the armoury windows until they shine in the daylight and considers scrubbing the floor before he realises it's been nearly an hour and it would not be fair to force Moblit to continue beyond his order. It's not fair that he's making Moblit cover for him at all, but Levi never claimed to be a fair person.
"Sir," Moblit says, openly relieved when Levi re-enters the command office, seating himself back behind the desk, taking the new papers from medical and Pixis that Moblit hands him to review.
He never claimed anything more than a criminal or a soldier, Levi thinks darkly, but here he is, second-in-command of an entire division of the military, a position for which he has never been more ill-equipped to handle. Once, he would have laughed. Now, Levi doesn't know what he is.
Fever has settled under Erwin's skin.
Levi presses a cool cloth over his forehead, pats it carefully over his face and neck. It isn't a harsh fever, more the body running high in self-defence rather than infection. That's what the doctor said when Levi arrived after dinner and showering, her eyes heavy with her own lack of sleep but still piercing. Levi doesn't trust her word alone, though, had cleaned the room after she left, scrubbing down the floor as he hadn't allowed himself in the armoury earlier. His hands throb slightly from abuse, but he feels inordinately better about the environment.
He let himself curl on the seats of the two wooden chairs, tucking himself up on his side to that he can watch Erwin in the moonlight. The fever lends his skin a pallid colour, but at least it's something rather than the complete, disturbing stillness as the night before. Stubble flecks his chin and jaw, speckling over his upper lip. Levi had decided against attempting to shave him as to avoid introducing more foreign material to the room.
A noise of distress jerks Levi awake, far before dawn creeps up over the walls. He sits up quickly, unfolding himself from the foetal position he'd huddled himself into on the chairs, eyes sweeping the room for any danger before settling back on Erwin, who seems to be clutched in some dream. His left hand twists in the sheets, the remainder of his right arm twitching awkwardly at the shoulder. The sight makes Levi want to cry.
"Erwin," he says, and it comes out as a croak; he clears his throat while Erwin's breathing picks up. "You're dreaming. It's not real. Wake up."
Erwin doesn't, and Levi hovers on the edge of his seat, considering if he should risk trying to shake Erwin awake and risk startling him. But Erwin decides for him, making a high noise of pain and beginning to move more frequently, jerky and uncontrolled. Carefully, Levi rises and crosses over to crouch next to the bed, readying himself to dodge a blow or to use himself as a shield to prevent Erwin from doing more damage to himself in half-conscious panic. He extends his left hand over Erwin's knee.
"Erwin," he says, gripping Erwin's knee and giving it a firm shake, "wake up."
There's less than a second to react. Erwin lurches as his eyes fly open, and Levi avoids a hook to the head only because Erwin instinctively attempts to punch with his missing right arm. Levi surges up to keep Erwin from tipping himself off the narrow infirmary cot and gets Erwin's left hand clenched clumsily but far too tight for comfort around his neck for the effort. Levi hears himself make a whining noise of pain, and he reaches up instinctively to try to pry Erwin's grip away, forcing himself to keep one hand in Erwin's shirt to keep them both steady instead of throwing Erwin off. It goes against everything that Levi used to be not so very long ago.
"Erwin," he chokes, desperately because, while he isn't in danger of suffocating, he is in danger of hurting Erwin. "This is Levi. Stop. Please."
He isn't sure if Erwin actually recognises him or if it's the begging, but the grip on his neck eases just enough that Levi can pull Erwin's hand from his neck without risking damaging either of their fingers. Erwin's eyes are half-lidded and the barely there awareness in them is fading quickly, fever colour high on his cheeks. Levi works to get Erwin to lie back down in bed, says something nonsense and soothing that he doesn't even comprehend leaving his mouth. It's only after Erwin's eyes close completely and his face goes slack in unconsciousness that Levi allows himself to sit down on the floor and breathe.
He stays sitting there for a long time, shifting only to lean against the side of the bed and rest his head on the mattress. He looks up to Erwin's sleeping face, turned now on the pillow and lips slightly parted, and resists the urge to try and close the gap between them. The light in the room shifts subtly as the sun begins its slow climb, and Levi dozes, even though the position will make his neck stiff alongside the new bruises.
It's later than the day before when the doctor comes in, knocking first before entering. Levi moves to sit on one of the wooden chairs, reaching up to massage the worst of the soreness out of his neck as she takes Erwin's temperature and her assistant begins changing the bandages.
"He woke up during the night," she comments as Levi runs his fingers through his hair to resume something close to his usual appearance.
"Briefly," Levi answers, and she looks at him pointedly. "He wasn't there."
"The fever's mostly subsided," she says, almost reassuring. "Unless something drastic changes, he should begin to recover."
Even though Levi had guessed as much after dawn had broken and Erwin slept on, he can't keep the rush of relief that floods him from showing on his face. He breathes out, rubs both of his hands over the line of his jaw (he needs to shave) and neck.
"Good," he says because he can't trust himself to expound further; he leans over to begin to pull his boots on. "Let me know if he wakes."
"You need a good night's rest," the doctor says, causing Levi to look up sharply; her gaze is on his neck. "I wouldn't suggest coming back here tonight."
Levi clenches his jaw and finishes with his boots. He stubbornly wants to say nothing, but doctors have power outside of the rest of the military structure, and she could order him rest if she deemed it necessary, likely pulling into precedence Levi's ankle (which is healed, he knows his own body). He stands up, folding his cuffs against the inside of his wrist to keep the sleeve from riding up as he pulls on his suit jacket.
"Fine," he says. "But if he wakes, tell me."
The doctor nods, clearly suspicious of his sincerity. "Of course."
It's shaping up to be a fine day.
It's as Levi is going over locations to hide Eren Yeager and Krista Lenz that he abruptly misses Mike. He sits for a long moment staring at the map of Wall Rose that he has spread over the desk, staring blindly at a cluster of mountains near a potato farming village, thinking of Mike and how he'd always loved riding out into what little nature the walls held. The world smelled different in nature, he'd once said, even though it still smelt of the walls. He would have been the perfect person to lead this mission.
But Mike is dead. Levi went to give the news to Mike's mother himself, watched the middle-aged woman's face crumble and scrunch even though she didn't cry.
"Did he die alone?" she'd asked, and Levi had had to breathe in before answering.
"He died to buy his squad time to escape," Levi had said before breathing out, "but probably yes."
"You don't need to be honest," Erwin had told Levi a long time ago now before Wall Rose fell when he was teaching Levi how to write condolence letters.
"People this side of Sina are complacent not stupid," Levi remembers saying, leaning his elbow on his knee and tilting his head to look up at Erwin's bowed face. "You don't gain anything from bullshit."
"Some people want to be lied to," Erwin had pointed out, and his expression was such an exquisite study in gravitas it stole Levi's breath. "You have to make that judgement yourself."
Levi reaches up and pinches the bridge of his nose. It's quiet in the office, which means that's he's been still for too long and Armin and Sasha have sensed that something's up. Levi presses his fingertips under his eyes because there's no point now in pretending he doesn't have a raging headache before speaking.
"Armin, go down to medical and pick up today's reports. Sasha, you're from a mountain village originally, right?"
"Yes, sir," she says, looking to him from her place over the financial reports on rations and as Armin salutes and heads out the door. "Dauper Village."
Levi remembers the reports, remembers she is one of the lives that continued because Mike died. He motions for her to come to the desk and then taps his fingers between several agricultural and forested areas he's circled. Erwin will be pissed that he wrote directly onto the map, but they can get another one. Levi needs to keep track of his thoughts.
"Which of these areas has the least amount of people going through?"
He lets himself sit back in the chair, presses his hand over his eyes to at least momentarily reduce the light seeping in to aggravate his head. He listens to her boots on the floor, the soft rustle of paper and clothing as she leans over to examine the spaces he's circled.
"Probably here," she begins and Levi drops his hand and focuses on the circle she's pointing to, a small field bordered by mountains and forest. "My family used to trade for root vegetables with a couple of people who lived here, but they abandoned it before I joined the military. I don't think there are any other routes running through."
"Do you know who might currently own the land?"
She pauses, face scrunching up as she thinks before shaking her head. "No, sir. I'm sorry."
Levi shakes his head, leaning forward again to grab the ruler to start calculating the exact distance between Hermiha and the circled area. "Did they leave their houses?"
"I think so?" She frowns in thought, and Levi selfishly wants to tell her that her expressiveness is disconcerting to him. "They were there when we last went when I was eleven."
"Remember that place," he says, committing the location's coordinates to memory before nodding to the fireplace. "Make a fire."
He burns the map, even though he knows Erwin will be displeased. Maps are expensive, but it's easier and less costly to replace them than recover Eren or Krista. He'll keep this plan inside his own head, keep it neat and ordered until he's sure he can pull it off before he tells anyone of it. They've already lost so much, so a little paranoia will do them all nothing but good.
Erwin's not here, and Levi's isn't going to be a fool again.
He's half undressed in Erwin's (their) private bathroom when he realises he's forgotten to eat all day. Levi sighs and reaches down for the ill-fitting dress shirt that he's dropped on the bathroom floor, putting it back on because he doesn't want to dirty a whole new set of clothes just to go down to the kitchen and dining hall. He makes the mistakes of catching a glance at himself in the mirror over the sink and the hollow-eyed, grey-skinned version of himself stares back. It's eerily similar to how he remembers himself in the gutter, and the sight makes him feel nauseous.
There's thin stew and five individual bread loafs left, and Levi forces himself to take a full bowl and bread both even though his appetite is non-existent. Connie and Krista are seated together at the table in front of the door, and they look up in vague surprise and alarm when Levi sits down. He ignores them and simply begins to eat, two bites of stew and then one of bread, and they eventually relax enough to begin speaking of the gossip of Mikasa, Jean, and Eren's relationship again. It's nothing that Levi hasn't already heard or witnessed for himself, so he doesn't have a reason to join the conversation and can let the food settle like a rock in his stomach, unfriendly but not in danger of coming back up.
"Both of you," he says after he's finished eating, standing up and taking his plate and bowl with him, "I want you to come to the command office tomorrow morning after you finish your duties. Tell Jean, Sasha, and Armin to come as well."
They both nod their understanding and Levi doesn't wait for any questions they might have before leaving to wash up his dishes. The less they know or understand at this point the better for their safety and Levi's sanity. He's not Erwin who can plan a hundred different scenarios with half the required resources and somehow come out on top. Levi is as he always has been: get in, complete the objective, get out. As soon as he lets himself get too distracted or too entrenched, he looses his edge.
He undresses for the the shower, dumping his clothes in the laundry basket in the corner of the bathroom, atop a pair of Erwin's sleeping clothes that have probably been there a week. For so many years, Levi's objective had been simple: protect Erwin and survive. Doing these two things meant he was serving his purpose to humanity, and it made him their Strongest. He had been content with that, and that had made him complacent. There is nothing so damning as complacency, not in this cruel world.
Levi smiles in the darkness, into the shower spray. He's been fooling himself, thinking he's any different from the rest of the human swine and cattle. At the heart of it all, he'd wanted the exact same things as they did: safety and security, and, for him, Erwin had been that for so many years. Erwin wouldn't let him die meaninglessly and didn't allow him to die alone. He'd made promises and both fulfilled and broke them, but he'd kept Levi whole and safe at the end of the day. And, for that and so many other things that have piled up and woven themselves between them, Levi loves him.
He can admit that to himself, here in the dark. He can admit that even as he plans to move ahead without Erwin because Erwin isn't here; he's injured irreparably and Levi is his back up plan. In the end, for all of Levi's love, his purpose remains the same: serve humanity, and Erwin is just one individual. No matter how much Levi loves him, or what Erwin's feelings are, humanity comes first. Levi can't be selfish, can't make his decisions based on wishes. He can't choose his own objectives, not any more.
He'll move forward, with or without Erwin, and seal that hole in the wall.