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Slowly, Then All At Once

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There was a silent, thick snow falling over the world. It muffled every sound, until Levi wasn’t entirely convinced that he hadn’t gone completely deaf. Heavy, wet flakes drifted down onto his cloak, which he tugged more tightly around himself as he crossed the courtyard, glancing up at the window of the room he was aiming to reach.

Erwin and the other squad leaders had spent a lot of time putting together the plan they would be enacting that morning. With defenses at the walls now reduced, public opinion was turning onto the military branches, and with Annie Leonhardt still in her crystal tomb, the Survey Corps had to recover some ground or they’d find themselves disbanded.

Levi didn’t want to guess what that would mean for his squad. Eren, Mikasa, Armin, all the other brats, they’d be shared out between the branches and Eren would be lucky to make his next birthday, if the Police had anything to do with it.

They’d made the decision, given Eren’s basement key and the pressures being placed on them, to retake Shingashina.

Levi sighed as he started up the stairs to Erwin’s office. Part of him felt like it was suicide, but another part of him felt like they had no other choice. He idly rubbed his eyes as he made the first landing, then he found himself almost punching his own eye out as someone hurtled into him.

He reacted more quickly than the other and caught hold of their elbows, blinking to clear his eyes and ascertain who it was. “Arlert?” he asked, sounding a little sleepier than he usually liked to when dealing with the men. “Why are you skulking around?”

Armin blinked owlishly, his whole body going stiff in Levi’s hands, and he stuttered over a few syllables until Levi let him go. He didn’t know if Levi had any idea how much he admired him - most people seemed to forget Armin over Eren - nor how utterly distracting his closeness was. “I-I was… Sir.”

Levi tilted his head, then replied, “You were…?”

Armin swallowed and looked at Levi’s boots. Levi wasn’t used to looking down on anyone, but given Armin’s slight frame, it wasn’t hard to, and he waited patiently for the kid to find the words he was hunting for. “The Commander asked me to come up when I woke up. He… He’s worried about Eren.”

Levi’s eyebrows raised at that, but he nodded in reply and stepped to one side so Armin could move passed him. “Go and wake everyone. I want those horses tacked up and all the supplies restocked. Understand?”

Armin looked down, and nodded fitfully before turning and almost scurrying passed Levi down the set of stairs. Levi shrugged to himself, then finished climbing the stairs and let himself into Erwin’s office.

Laid out on the table were the maps and plans they’d made when they’d been establishing the current action they were about to undertake. Slowly, the other Squad Leaders crept in, and altogether, they went over the plan once more, rehearsing it time and time again to ensure they were all up to speed on every detail, before they left the room in convoy to start preparing their horses as well as themselves.

Armin hadn’t let Levi down. Every soldier was awake and either tacking up, gearing up or mounting their horses, a dull silence amplified by the snow. He found his horse, prepped and ready, checked her over, then made sure all his gear was ready to go.

As he strapped on his scabbards, he mentally ran through the plan. It was simple, but immensely risky. His squad, with Erwin and Mike providing back up, was going to get Eren to the huge hole in Wall Maria—alive, hopefully. From there, they protect Eren while he transformed into his Titan form, keeping him safe while he blocked up the hole in the wall using a gate from a secondary wall, while the Garrison brought down another gate to block up the newly created hole.

That was the theory, anyway. However, between them and the hole were nearly 300 Titans. Even with the 250 strong force Erwin had brought together, Levi still thought they were outnumbered. The death toll would be catastrophic, if the plan even worked at all, but with the discontent stemming from the public, and pressure from the other military branches, they had to try something, before the Survey Corps was disbanded completely.

He swung carefully up into his saddle, checking his girth and stirrups out of habit, and then settled himself in his seat before untying Lancet, picking up his reins and steering her towards the five members of his squad.

Armin Arlert, Eren Jaeger, Mikasa Ackerman, Jean Kirschtein and Historia Reiss. Levi hadn’t chosen them, Erwin had, but they functioned well as a team when they were in training together, and Levi just guided them more than anything. Even if he frequently wanted to punch himself in the face because of how dumb they could be.

“Good morning, Heichou,” Historia said with a polite smile, pulling her thick cloak around herself tighter to keep the cold out. She was so slight, it was a marvel that she hadn’t frozen to her saddle, but he noticed she was wearing gloves and a scarf he couldn’t recall her wearing previously.

He nodded to her reply in acknowledgement, checking the others over quickly and looking at their horses to ensure all were well. From what he could see, they were, and he had to remind himself to trust them and their decisions. He looked at Eren, and said, “Is everything ready?”

Eren held Levi’s stare and nodded, “Everything.”

Mikasa opened her mouth to speak, but Erwin calling for the company to move out, obliterating whatever she had to say. It was probably a grand sweeping statement about protecting Eren; Mikasa liked reminding him that she would protect Eren, and usually threw in a comment that Levi wasn’t capable of doing the same.

He held his tongue, and fell in amongst the whole company with Armin on his right and Eren to his left. They were all supposed to just appear as one large group, anyway, and Levi was keen they stay close to the middle to ensure no one got picked off early.

The streets beyond the yard were lined with people. Levi’s less charitable side reminded him that most of the people out on the pavement, watching the horses and their riders walk by, were more interested in guessing how many of the hundreds wouldn’t come home, rather than seeing them off safely, but many of the younger recruits still seemed buoyed up by the perceived support.

There was no great charge like there had been for the 57th Expedition. The gates rolled open and they trotted forward as one, every eye fixed forward on the snowy grass beyond the Wall and the heavy, grey, leaden sky above that. Shinganshina was roughly east of them as the crow flew, and at full gallop, it would take them about thirteen minutes to make it to the shattered gate they would use as their ingress.

As the last of the soldiers came through the first gate, Erwin called for a gallop, and every horse in the company threw itself forward. Usually, there’d have been at least a few whoops of excitement, but this time there was not a single sound, just every horse rising through its gaits with their rider steady on their backs.

Levi’s eyes weren’t on their destination - his horse would carry him there with the others - but instead were fixed on the empty space either side of the whole group. For the next few minutes, they were completely out of luck if a Titan or two turned up.

The next minutes passed agonisingly slowly. Levi felt like the world had been steeped in sugar, a molasses-like texture to their action as the gate seemed to loom further and further away. Was it shrinking? It looked like it was.

The first hoofbeats to ring out in the shattered gateway of Shinganshina were sweeter than any other sound Levi could recall hearing. However, that feeling of hope and elation was short-lived, and before he could even begin to enjoy the sensation, there was screaming.

Eren had fallen a little behind, dropping back with Mikasa and Jean, leaving Levi, Historia and Armin together near the front of the line. Levi leaned out and caught the reins of Armin’s horse, pulling both their horses up in front of Historia’s, which caused a pile up of horses and soldiers. “Stop!” Levi looked around for the source of the voice, almost feeling surprised at it being Jean. “Fall ba-”

Levi leaned across and punched Jean’s shoulder hard. “If we fall back now, all this will have been for nothing,” he hissed, turning his horse back around and looking out at everyone. “Follow me.” He wheeled his horse in a tight circle and aimed her at the broken gate, pushing passed the others and leading the way through the gate.

It was a bloodbath. Could Titans lay in wait for people? Because if they could, that’s exactly what they’d been doing. There was more blood than Levi had seen in a while, and there were so many dead. Forty, at least, he counted in the short span of time between passing through the gate and firing his maneuver gear. He yelled out an order for the others in his team to follow him.

Landing on the nearest roof, he turned around to look for his men - look for anyone. His hurried search was foiled by a 14 metre class Aberrant that crashed through the roof of the building he was standing on. He launched off, doing what he did best.

Killing Titans.

Although he didn’t hear Eren transform, Levi put his trust in his squad. He knew Eren would survive, no matter what, with Mikasa by his side. Historia and Kirschtein would be okay, he hoped, which left Arlert, who was braver and brighter than most anyone else Levi had met.

He aimed for the shattered gate the Colossal Titan and Armoured Titan destroyed five years previously. If the plan had succeeded, then all the others would be headed that way as well, and the best thing he could do to help them was to kill as many Titans on his way over there.

Levi heard the familiar sound of Eren’s Titan transformation, then he felt a tug on his line. That momentary slip of concentration had been enough for a passing Titan to catch his line, and before Levi could even react, he hit the ground hard enough that the whole world went black.

*~*~*

Levi’s eyes opened slowly. They stung, like there was something in both of them, but he could only lift one hand to rub at his eyes. The other one, his left… He could feel it, and wriggle both fingers, but lifting it was out of the question. He looked down and found it neatly bandaged and in a sling that was so perfectly creased he wondered if he’d done it in his sleep.

He glanced around and made to sit up properly, rather than leaning on an old chair that smelled of dampness and death, but his left hip screamed at him, forcing him to gasp. He shifted his left leg awkwardly, and found he had pretty good movement and feeling, reassuring him that nothing was broken, but his left arm hadn’t been so lucky. Broken. Bleeding, too, or it had been - it had probably taken most of his weight.

“S-sir?”

Levi startled at the sound of the voice, soft and timid, but close enough to surprise him.

“Sorry sir,” Armin said sheepishly, stepping out into the muted light and rubbing the back of his neck nervously. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Levi shook his head, then regretted it as his vision spun and made him feel sick to his stomach. “I’ve had worse. Report.”

“You’ve broken your arm in a few places, and your hip was-”

“Not about me, Arlert. The mission. The others.” Levi didn’t like to sound so dismissive, but he had too much pain in his body and too little energy to pander to Armin’s insecurities.

Armin looked at his boots, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot as he thought about the answer he was about to give. “I don’t know, sir. Eren and Mikasa… I saw Eren’s Titan form, but I-I don’t know where they are now.” Armin swallowed, feeling the fear and worry that had been brewing inside him start to spill over in his voice. “Commander Erwin and Squad Leader Hanji Zoe called for a retreat, but the Titans… Sir, there were Titans everywhere. They cut us off.”

Levi listened in silence, wishing Armin would get to the point. He was quite low on every reserve he had, and honestly, he just wanted to know if anyone had survived besides them.

“As I tried to find a horse, I found you, sir. I dragged you in here and tried to treat your injuries, then I retrieved a couple of horses,” Armin said softly, then added, “I don’t know if anyone else is alive.”

The tears wouldn’t stay in his eyes any longer, and Armin’s head dropped so he could cry, his hands covering his face like he didn’t want Levi to see.

Levi moved forward, going as slowly as he could so he didn’t jar himself too badly, standing up by using his right leg to take the most weight and leaning on the wall so he could awkwardly limp over to the window. Armin didn’t need an audience, and Levi had to find a way for them to get back to the city. He stared out of the window at the falling snow and steely sky, wracking his brain to formulate a plan.

He didn’t notice Armin crossing the room to stand beside him, so jumped a little when he realised the kid was right there, less than an arms’ length away. His face was red and blotchy, a few wet patches on his jacket, but he had a determined look in his eyes and stance that Levi wasn’t about to argue with.

“If we can get on the horses after nightfall, we can use the cover of the wall to skirt around to the main gate and get back to the city,” Levi said quietly, glancing at Armin to check he was okay. Armin nodded mutely, looking at the snow building on the windowsill outside. “If anyone survived this, it was Ackerman and Jaeger,” he said sharply, a frown on his face. Levi was aiming for supportive and reassuring, but missed by a long shot.

“I’m worried they’re gone without me,” Armin whispered, his voice hardly audible. He turned to look at Levi, and added, “And I’m worried you won’t make it back.”

Levi’s eyebrows shot up with genuine surprise, and though he wanted to look away, he held Armin’s gaze. “I will. Nothing’s managed to kill me off yet, although there’s always the chance.” He frowned quickly, “Why would you worry about that?”

Armin blushed and looked away, shifting again from foot to foot. “I don’t want you to die, either.”

Levi nodded as though Armin had merely stated that it was snowing. Did people really worry about him? He couldn’t fathom why, honestly, but he wasn’t about to stress Armin by querying. “I need to sit down again,” he said instead, “I need to lean on you to get back over there.”

Armin said nothing, just turned around and gave Levi his shoulders to lean on, supporting him over to the chair he’d been in before, still blushing from the contact and the things he’d admitted to Levi.

*~*~*

Getting on the horse Armin had found was the single most painful thing Levi had experienced in his whole life.

They’d found a wall he could just about scramble onto, and Armin held the bay horse as still as he could, but there was still a moment as he mounted where Levi’s weight shifted onto his injured hip, and he couldn’t help but cry out in pain. He sat stock still for a few moments, letting his bruised body adjust to his weight again, before he took up the reins.

“Follow me,” he called as Armin swung up onto his horse’s saddle, and wheeled around to face the direction they were going to be heading in. Levi started his horse at a walk, then a loping trot, and tried to sit through a canter but the gait jarred him around too much. He pulled up and bent double, regaining himself.

“Sir?” Armin pulled his horse up beside Levi, concern written all over his face. Levi nodded, then glanced at Armin and tried not to look as broken as he felt.

“I’m okay. Let’s go,” Levi replied, kicking his horse into a trot and leading Armin towards the ruined gate.

They saw and heard nothing and no one. In a lot of ways, Levi was glad - other forces meant distractions, and that was the last thing they needed - but he’d also been hoping to see some other soldiers that could support them on their way back to the city. Or his friends, or hell, anyone from his company.

They weren’t that lucky. Even as they approached the gate, Levi wondered what the death toll would be, how many families would get letters from the Commander explaining that their child, their brother, father or sister was gone.