Levi's hand hovers over the piece of paper lying on the desk, shaking with exhaustion. There's a single letter written on the sheet with black ink and Levi stares at it with thin eyes. The letter is a thick, ugly line that's even more messy than usual, stamped into the paper like a disgrace.
Levi doesn't want to leave it like this, but he presses the pen back against the paper anyway. Only, he can't bring himself to keep writing. Not when he remembers that Erwin taught him how.
"I can just read my report down to you," Levi says, glancing at Erwin through the corner of his eyes. He doesn't understand why Erwin suddenly brought it up. Levi's never written a report, he never needed to. And he sees no reason behind starting to do it now. Unlike Erwin, obviously.
"It's not exactly reading when you don't write it in the first place," he argues and Levi snorts.
"What does it matter?"
"It's more efficient. We keep the records, so a spoken report isn't of much use."
"Just write it down yourself then."
Levi doesn't get this whole thing. He has no idea why it's so important to keep those records. It's not like anyone will sit down and read through all this shit. It's just the same thing over and over again.
"Levi," Erwin chides, though his voice is still calm, rather soft even. It's almost as if he's trying to sweet-talk Levi into agreeing to this, though he of all people should know better.
"This is a task every Squad Leader has to deal with. You're no exception. I could easily order you to do it."
A second passes, Levi's body turning ever so slightly when he crosses his arms, eyes meeting Erwin's.
"But you didn't," he states, simply. "You asked."
Erwin hums behind a little smile Levi can't quite place. It feels like Erwin is just trying to fuck with him, though Levi can't come up with a why. If Erwin wants something important done, Levi does it, but this, doesn't feel very important. To Levi it feels more like a stupid nuisance he doesn't want to deal with. He has enough shit on his hands.
"We want to know what's going on out there," Erwin finally says, gesturing for Levi to come closer. Levi does with a bit of reluctance, seating himself on a chair across from Erwin's desk. "If we don't keep track, we might forget or oversee important things."
Levi considers Erwin's words for a moment, quietly, figuring that, in a way, he's right. Maybe it is an important thing to do. But truthfully, it's not that Levi doesn't want to do it. He just can't. And he's not sure how to tell Erwin. It never really came up.
A long moment passes, a long, quiet moment where Levi thinks about what to say, wondering if he wants to say anything at all. But the thought is taking too long.
"Is there a reason why you don't want to do this?"
It's weird, for Erwin to ask such a thing. Or maybe it isn't, but the question still feels weird to Levi. He can't exactly put a finger on the why, but now it feels all the more awkward to answer.
"I can't write," Levi finally blurts out. In the end there's not really a reason to keep it from Erwin. Levi didn't try to, Erwin just never asked. And it's painfully obvious he never thought about it. The surprised look on his face tells Levi everything.
"But you can read," he says, almost like he's thinking out loud. Levi shrugs.
"I picked it up over time."
Truthfully it's not like Levi reads a lot. He usually doesn't. It always takes him a little longer to read through a page, though he never really knew why. Maybe because he never properly learned how to. It was just something he somehow managed, like talking. Though people talk everywhere and reading is not something Levi has done for the most part of his life.
"Oh well." Erwin exhales a little breath, his eyes focused on Levi like he's trying to figure something out. Levi wonders why. Erwin's been in the underground, he should know the people living there don't exactly see reading and writing as priority. Or maybe he doesn't.
"Then I guess it's time for you to learn how."
The words take Levi by surprise, the way Erwin says them, like it's no big deal. And he's smiling too, that bastard, like it's something funny. Then again, Erwin doesn't really look amused. It's a different kind of smile.
While Levi wonders what exactly Erwin is thinking, like he catches himself doing way too often, Erwin moves about his desk. He pulls out another pen, some ink and a blank sheet of paper, placing them on the desk in Levi's direction like he expects him to use them.
"Right now?" Levi asks, still taken aback by the whole thing.
Erwin's smile brightens a bit, but Levi only furrows his brow in return.
"What do you expect me to do? I don't even know how to hold a shitty pen."
"I highly doubt that." Erwin laughs, gesturing towards the utensils he put down for Levi. "You've seen me hold one a million times, I'm sure you can manage."
For a moment, all Levi does is stare. First he stares at Erwin, then at the pen lying on the desk, the blank paper, gritting his teeth in the process. Somehow, this whole thing makes him feel stupid. Of course it's expected of people to know how to write here. Levi is quite sure the trainees have to do tons of writing during training as well. Or at least a little bit. But Levi never really was a usual trainee, he's always been an exception. And it feels weird to be one once again now.
But there's not really a reason for Levi to refuse Erwin's kind offer. He always does it like this, even something insignificant like this he can turn into something Levi can't brush off. So he finally moves closer to the desk and picks up the pen. Truth be told, it's not Levi's first time, but it feels awkward in his hand when he tries to hold it the way Erwin always does.
Erwin watches for a moment, quietly. He doesn't laugh, but he does eventually reach out. His fingers are very warm when they touch Levi's hand, gentle when they fiddle around so Levi gets the pen in a bit of a more comfortable grip.
"Don't grip it so tight," Erwin says, smiling that weird smile again. "It'll make your hand hurt. Relax."
Erwin says it like it's the easiest thing to do, but really, it's not. Levi doesn't know how he's supposed to write with this. He doesn't have a single clue on how this works. He's not even sure he can remember any letter he's ever read now either. And he's not Erwin. The words won't just magically appear on the paper when he scratches the pen all over it.
"Writing takes some time," Erwin says, interrupting Levi's thoughts. "Memorising the letters, putting them together into a word. Don't worry about it, you'll get the hang of it."
Levi isn't so sure about that and he wants to say it too, but Erwin doesn't give him the room to talk about it. Maybe he knows Levi well enough after all.
"Let's start with something easy," he simply suggest. "Try writing your own name."
A long moment passes, a long moment where Levi feels as if he forgot his own damn name. Of course he didn't. But he doesn't know how to write it anyway. He's not sure he's ever read it somewhere either.
"I don't know how," he says eventually. Sitting there, doing nothing won't help, so he might as well tell Erwin he's hopeless. But, Erwin keeps smiling.
"Scouting Legion," he prompts. "Legion starts with an L too. I'm sure you've read it sometime."
Levi has, of course he has. But it's not helping him either. He can't remember what an L looks like. He could read a word with an L if he saw it, surely, but he can't write it.
"I don't know," he says again, clicking his tongue before specifying. "I don't know how to write it."
"Well..." Erwin makes a little pause, thinking before he puts his finger on the desk, drawing a straight line down towards himself on the surface.
"It starts like this, just draw a straight line towards yourself."
Levi doesn't even want to try, but he does anyway. Slowly, with a little too much pressure perhaps. The line on the paper looks thick and ugly, not even very straight, but Erwin says nothing. Instead he draws another invisible line on the table, this time straight to his right.
"Draw another line at the bottom of the first, to your right."
Levi tries, not very satisfied with the outcome. The second line is even shittier than the first, crooked and not even entirely connected with the first. But again, Erwin says nothing about that.
"And that's an L," he says instead, still smiling. Levi looks at him for a moment, then the paper, trying to take it in, though it seems weirdly hard. It doesn't really look like anything Levi's ever read before. Just two weird, ugly lines.
"This is stupid," he says, almost glaring at the paper. He wants to put the pen away, but Erwin's warm hand against his skin prevents him from doing that.
"It's not," Erwin says. "My first L didn't look any better, if not worse. Writing isn't easy."
"It is for you."
"Because I've been doing it for many years." Erwin's smile softens a little and Levi wants to believe him. "You can do it Levi, you just have to keep practising."
Slowly, Erwin pulls his hand away again, Levi's skin itching with the loss of the comforting warmth. But there's nothing he can really do about it. So he only watches Erwin move, watches how he pulls out a few more papers and uses one to draw some lines on it. They look very straight to Levi, very beautiful even when they're this simple, not at all the way Erwin usually writes.
When he's done, Erwin hands the stack of papers to Levi, the one with the lines on top.
"That's your name," he says and Levi looks at the straight letters. They look familiar, but Levi doesn't think he's ever read them in this way ever before. Or maybe he just forgot.
"Keep it, try writing it."
It's not an order, neither a question. It's a suggestion of sorts with enough room for Levi to say no. But somehow, he doesn't really want to. Maybe he wants to try. Still, Levi hands the paper with his name written on it back to Erwin.
"Write your name," he says without hesitation, though Erwin doesn't act as quickly. He seems to need some time to process the words, but eventually, he takes the paper, picks up his pen, and draws a few more lines. Levi watches carefully and when he takes the paper back, the name looks a lot more familiar than his own. He's read it a million times, though he never paid attention to the letters.
"Why do these," Levi mumbles after further inspection, pointing at both the E and I and his and Erwin's name, "look the same, but sound different?"
It feels like a weird question, but in comparison now, Levi thinks it's weird. He's surely noticed before, it can't be the only case where this happens, though it never occurred to him to question it. So the question feels weird now, though again, Erwin only smiles.
Erwin says it like it explains everything and Levi feels stupid for not getting it. It makes him realise how little he knows about those things and how much Erwin knows.
"It's a bit on the advanced side, I'll try to explain it to you some other time."
"Fine." Levi shrugs and gets up, slowly gathering the things Erwin offered to him so kindly. It still feels somewhat stupid, but at the same time, for some reason, it feels as if Levi is taking a little step closer to Erwin. Something he hadn't quite realised he wanted till now.
"Just ask me whenever you have a question," is Erwin's last offer when Levi is already about to leave. He spares a last glance at Erwin, not entirely convinced he will ever truly learn how to write, but the smile Erwin sends him, definitely makes him want to.
Blinking away the memory Levi keeps staring at the letter he wrote. Thick and ugly, much like that first L he wrote all those years ago. So much like the first E he wrote back in the privacy of his quarters. But even though he did not expect it, Erwin did teach him how to write. He taught Levi how to put together all the letters, how to pronounce what when it was written so differently. He was kind and patient and Levi scrawls over the ugly E because it's not what Erwin taught him.
For a moment, Levi stares at the black splotch on the paper, thinking, remembering, recalling Erwin's voice telling him it was okay whenever he messed up. It was always okay when his writing looked shitty. With Erwin everything was always okay, there was always tomorrow to try again. He just never gave up, not even on the little things. And finally, Levi writes. The letters aren't pretty, not smooth and curvy like Erwin's, but they don't need to be.
"It's okay," a voice in Levi's head whispers, but this time, there's no tomorrow to try again.
List of deceased soldiers
- Erwin Smith