Some people sell their blood. You sell your heart.
It was either that or the soul.
The hard part is getting the damn thing out.
A kind of twisting motion, like shucking an oyster,
your spine a wrist,
and then, hup! it's in your mouth.
You turn yourself partially inside out
like a sea anemone coughing a pebble.
There's a broken plop, the racket
of fish guts into a pail,
and there it is, a huge glistening deep-red clot
of the still-alive past, whole on the plate.
It gets passed around. It's slippery. It gets dropped,
but also tasted. Too coarse, says one. Too salty.
Too sour, says another, making a face.
Each one is an instant gourmet,
and you stand listening to all this
in the corner, like a newly hired waiter,
your diffident, skillful hand on the wound hidden
deep in your shirt and chest,
They taught him how to kill a Titan in less time than it takes a person to draw breath. They told him about all the different kinds of ways he could die: eaten alive, crushed under a giant foot like an ant, pulled apart like a broken toy. They gave him a sword and grappling hooks and asked him to lay down his life for people he’s never met.
They never told him about how beautiful the world Outside is.
“Oi, boy genius.”
Levi catches the shovel out of reflex, the heavy wooden handle almost whacking him on the head. “It wouldn’t kill you to hand it over like a normal human being,” he says, glowering.
“Latrine duty,” Zoe smiles and motions with a gloved hand over to the area behind the tents Alpha Squad is busy pitching. “Stop mooning over the lake and hurry up. Commander’s gotta take a shit.”
He has a knife slid up both sleeves, three more in his boots, one strapped to his waist and another sewn into the hem of his cloak. He briefly considers slipping one in between Zoe’s ribs. “I came to kill Titans,” he says and pats his pocket to check that he has his spare pair of gloves. “Not dig shitholes.”
“Tough luck, rookie.” The reflected moonlight gleams in Zoe’s glasses, briefly obscuring amused eyes. “Genius killer or not, you still have to haul ass like the rest of us. Or should I report you for insubordination?”
Levi pursues a strategic retreat, shovel hoisted over his shoulder. Out of the corner of his eyes, he can still make out the other officer’s dark silhouette, stark against the vast stretch of water, the surface so still it seems unreal.
Lake: body of still water surrounded by land, found Outside and in the Albrecht regions behind Wall Maria, he thinks, and the ink-faded drawing in his mind dissolves away.
When he comes back to his tent, there’s another bedroll and pack leaning on his, piles of dirty clothes peeping out from under an oiled canvas covering. He refrains from kicking it away and instead looks for a suitable target to stab.
“You’re back,” Hanji Zoe says brightly, standing up from the ground.
“No,” Levi says and stalks into his tent with his pack.
Zoe pops her head through the opening, brow knit together. “But you haven’t even heard what I was gonna say!”
“Whatever it is, it’s still no.”
“Sorry, but orders from up high,” Zoe says, looking not at all apologetic. “I’m supposed to be looking after you, so we have to share.”
Levi breathes in deeply, counts to ten, and for the five hundred and seventh time that week, curses Irvin for dragging him into this. “Left side is mine,” he says coldly. “Touch my things and die.”
“Fuck you too,” Zoe says easily and unfolds a ragged looking bedroll, setting the pack by the head. He catches a knife slipped under her mat, traces the outline of a sheath tucked in a sleeve and raises his estimation of the officer a few more notches.
The tent was already small for one; there’s barely enough room to breathe with the both of them. Having duly warned her, Levi steps out with his tin cup and plate and stands in line for mash and salted pork. He ignores the cold shoulders and suspicious glares and muttered protests and focuses on the thin sliver of silver hanging in the sky, three days into the waxing moon. Cadet School, Scouting Legion, the streets-- Levi has had a lifetime of practice in ignoring whispers behind his back.
Hans gives him the stink eye when ladling out his portion of coffee but Levi has learned over the course of the day that Hans gives everyone the stink eye and so does not feel too special. He makes his way over to a satellite fire and spots a log with a spare seat. He’s unsure whether to feel disappointed or not that it only takes a fraction of a second for the soldier sitting on it to recognize him and flee for safer waters.
The mash is cold, unsalted and cooked in what tastes like unwashed socks. Levi eats all of it, leaving the pork for last, if only because it will take him an hour to chew it into something swallowable.
“Can I sit here?” Zoe asks, muddy boots stopping just short of stepping on his feet.
“No,” Levi says.
Zoe sits anyway, long legs stretched out in front of her, feet dangerously close to the fire. “Food tastes like shit.”
“I’ve had worse.”
Levi doesn’t even try cutting the salted pork with his knife. He just stabs it, holds it up and starts chewing on the edges. A passing soldier touches his fingers to his temple and nods at Zoe. Levi knows that the nod doesn’t include him. He keeps chewing.
“You make people nervous,” Zoe says.
Levi has his mouth full of pork and doesn’t respond.
“Hand picked by the Commander off the streets and sent off to Cadet School to graduate in less than a year when it takes most people four.” Zoe swirls a finger through the mash, drawing pictures that Levi doesn’t recognize. “Then less than a week after earning your wings, sent Outside on a recon mission.”
Levi swallows. “And?”
Zoe shrugs. “Look, you’re not exactly helping your case here by being an asshole.”
“It’s not my problem if I make people uncomfortable,” Levi says and puts his pork down, knife hitting his plate with a soft clink.
“No, it’s the Commander’s.”
Levi watches the fire eat away at the deadwood, red cracks spidering through blackened sticks and branches.
“People think he’s making a mistake, bringing you out here.”
A piece of wood crumbles into black dust, the fire licking hungrily at the ashes. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because it’s my job. And because I think the Commander’s right and people need to have more faith in him.”
They sit in silence for a long while, listening to the soft crackling of the fire. “And how do you think I should make people feel less uncomfortable?” he asks, a little grudgingly.
“Kill a shit ton of Titans,” Zoe says. “And people will come around.”
Levi approves of this idea. Simple, direct and it plays to his strengths. He throws his half-eaten piece of pork into the fire and stands up. “Good night,” he says and rethinks his plan to add laxatives to her tea.
Irvin found him sitting in his cell, waiting for the judge to sentence him to death by hanging. He’d been more than a little impressed at all the names read aloud during his trial; the authorities had kept better track of his kills than he’d thought.
Sixteen years old and already a figure of the stories mothers told their children to keep them in line. Be good or Levi will carve you up with his knives. Eat your greens or else Levi will come and cut your eyes out while you still breathe.
Irvin crouched down on the floor of the cell, ignoring the acrid smell of piss and shit mixed with the moldy hay scattered all over the stonework. “Twenty-one counts of murder.”
Levi smiled, the corners not quite reaching his eyes. “That they know of,” he corrected, metal links rattling as he’d raised his cuffed wrists in order to scratch his neck.
“They say that you never miss.”
Levi shrugged. “What’s it to you?”
“With any sort of blade.”
Levi’s eyes narrowed. Even in plain clothes, Irvin carried himself with a quiet dignity; there was a self-possession that came with wearing the wings of a Scout. Levi knew military when he saw it.
“Odds are ten to one I’ll be hanged before tomorrow night,” he said. “What does the Scouting Legion want from a dead man?”
Irvin sat down on the ground so that they were at eye-level and pulled out a small box from the pack slung low on his back. “I have a simple proposition for you: kill Titans instead of humans.”
Levi’s lip curled. “Thanks but no thanks. I like living.”
Irvin arched a golden brow. “It doesn’t seem like the other option has gotten you anywhere,” he said pointedly, looking around the dingy cell they were sitting in.
Levi leaned forward with the grace of a cat, chains scraping across the floor like a death rattle. He stopped just short of Irvin’s mouth, line going taut with a dull twang. “Don’t play with me,” he said, dark eyes glittering in the torchlight. “I know how to make men wish they were never born. I can make you scream for your mother as you tell me all your deepest, darkest secrets.” He leaned closer, wrists turning white as he strained against his bonds. “Be careful with what you say, officer.” Levi licked his lips, Irvin’s breath ghosting over his skin.
“Am I supposed to be impressed by that speech?” Irvin unfolded the box in his hands, revealing a travel-sized chessboard made of cherrywood.
“One game,” Irvin said. “If I win, your charges will be cleared, your record sealed and you’ll be signed up for Cadet School. If you win...”
Levi drew back into the shadows, feeling for the sharpened rock he hid up his sleeve. “Your life is forfeit,” he said.
Irvin smiled, strong white teeth gleaming. “I’ll take black.”
“Checkmate,” Irvin says, leaning forward in his chair with clasped hands, the barest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. The canvas behind him ripples in the night wind, a reminder of the fragile safety they are sheltering in.
Levi shrugs. Irvin is one of the few people he does not mind losing to so the loss rankles less than it would had it been at the hands of another person. He tries not to think about Zoe’s gloating face. Damned four-eyes.
“How did your first encounter with the Titans go?”
Levi thinks back to the hot sting of blood splattered on his cheek and all over his new gloves. “Gross,” he says distinctly, silently blessing his foresight to pack as many spare handkerchiefs as he could stuff into his pack. It had still taken him an hour at a stream to scrub most of the blood out of his clothes, earning him a sore back and a cloak that smells of wet dog.
“Yes, they do tend to bleed more, given their proportions. The mechanics of it still baffle me though. You’ll have to ask Squad Leader Zoe about that.”
Levi raises a brow. “ Why her?”
“Them,” Irvin corrects, fingering a black rook, ridges worn smooth by years of playing. “That’s what they prefer. Hanji’s taken to studying the Titans in their spare time, doing research and singlehandedly writing most of our texts on the monsters.”
Levi remembers the slim booklet he’d been given during Cadet School, listing what people knew about them. There hadn’t been very much in it, that he could remember, aside from They Eat Humans and They’re Very Big. He’d skipped to the part where it talked about how to kill them and ignored much of the rest.
“I’ve heard that your transition was a little more difficult than expected. The rumors...” Irvin trails off, rook still in hand.
“Which ones?” Levi asks in a monotone. “There’s the one that has me sucking your dick, another with me being a criminal sentenced to death by mastication-- oh, my favorite one has me as your love child with a riverside whore, never mind that you’re only ten years older.”
“I won’t hold it against you if you decide to leave after this mission.”
Levi gives him a sharp look. “What and after all that crap you made me go through to get here?” He snorts, running a hand through immaculately combed hair. “I’ll live,” he says, voice a touch dry. “This is practically like living up in the capital compared to what I’m used to.”
Irvin sets the piece down with a dull thunk. “You’re needed here Levi,” he says quietly. “Without you yesterday, we might have lost half the team.”
Levi opens his mouth to shoot off another smart remark and closes it when he catches Irvin’s solemn gaze. “Whatever,” he finally says, looking away. “Best out of three?”
Later, when he’s leaving the Commander’s pavilion, a passing soldier (Peter or Charles or something like that) nods in his general direction. It’s only when he’s reached his own tent that he realizes that the soldier had been nodding at him.
The days blend into monotonous blur of horse shit and spectacular sunrises; Levi even gets used to the absence of the Walls, the sunlight longer and brighter and more real without fifty meters of stone to cut it off. Mostly, riding with the Scouting Legion means slathering eye-stinging ointment onto his sore thighs, climbing on top of his old mare and ignoring Hanji’s continuous stream of chatter for five or six hours. In the afternoon, Hanji holds meetings with their squad to draw maps and exclaim over a boulder that looks exactly the same as the one they marveled over yesterday.
Levi learns to count the days by the growing number of stains on his once-starched cloak, each one earned like a badge from an encounter with the enemy. The big splotchy one covering the tip of his silver wing is from a deviant Titan who had broken Hans’s leg. The question mark curling around the hem from a female-type Titan that looked more cow than human, its dumb brown eyes reflecting the gleam of Levi’s whirling blades. He is very good at killing. It doesn’t come as a particular surprise to him that he is given a field promotion a week into the mission, the pin still wet with someone else’s blood.
At night he keeps his mouth shut and his eyes averted while Hanji changes, bindings pulled off and stuffed under a pack-cum-pillow. In return, Zoe makes their squad sit with him during mealtimes. Levi likes making the grunts tense every time he reaches for his knife. (He thinks less of elaborate contingency plans involving sharp edges now and more about how Hans is growing progressively bad-tempered, judging by the state of the meals.)
Three weeks of this day in and day out and it almost takes him by surprise when he sees Wall Maria’s gleaming white tops in the horizon-- another’s day worth of hard riding and they’ll be back. Home.
“I can almost taste the beer,” Zoe says dreamily, hands clasped against their chest. “The lovely byproduct of exquisite microorganisms swimming around in our bread.”
“How do you make everything sound so disgusting?” Levi asks, pulling out a mostly clean handkerchief to rub at a spot of dust on his third-best riding gloves.
“How do you make everything sound so asshole-ish?” Zoe shoots back, riding like they were born on a saddle.
Levi’s about to make an extensive comment on the many ways he can kill a human being with a pair of glasses when Zoe gives him a stupid look, eyes all dopey wide and kind enough to make him want to shove his sword up their nose.
“I understand, Levi. It’s okay to be homesick,” Zoe says, voice saccharine sweet. “Even emotionally stunted dwarves are allowed to have feelings.”
Up until this point, Levi hasn’t even thought about missing Darligen. He misses running water, clean laundry and being saddle sore-free. He looks up at the horizon and the strip of white in the distance steadily grows taller with every hoofbeat. He’s not sure he misses the other things that lie behind the Walls.
“Shut up,” Levi says half-heartedly and looks down at his reins.
Levi removed himself from the social dynamics of his trainee group with a precision that made him infamous in his previous life. Even the power hungry bullies kept their distance, wary of his reputation and the knife he kept up his sleeve. It helped that he skipped from trainee group to trainee group, eventually joining the Eighty Fifth as they were entering their final month before examinations. He had officially been a cadet for seven months and twenty one days as of his transfer.
He’d been sitting alone in the mess hall, his table notably cleaner than all the others in the room, when the Head Instructor decided to visit. The door swung open, a smartly turned out lieutenant standing by the door and making menacing faces at any poor soul that dared meet his eyes. Instructor Sadis stepped into the room, iron-tipped boots giving his footsteps a grim finality. The sound of wooden chairs scraping on the floor and feet hitting the floor filled the air for a few minutes, cadets standing at attention and saluting.
Levi sipped at his soup.
“At ease,” Sadis said and moved through the room, cadets automatically parting before him. He stopped at Levi’s table, pulled out a chair and sat down, brown hands palm up on the table. Levi kept his left hand on his knee, the easier to pull a dagger from his boots.
“I want to welcome you to the Eighty Fifth Trainee Group,” Sadis said in a voice like crushed rocks.
“You have a wonderful home,” Levi said, a touch sardonically. “Though your food could use a little more salt.”
“I’ll be sure to notify the cooks.”
Levi set his spoon down, in the same movement checking that the sheaths up his sleeves were loaded. “So, what did a lowly cadet like me do to merit a visit from the Head Instructor?”
“You came with a letter,” Sadis said slowly, reaching inside his jacket. Levi tensed, the hilt of a dagger hitting his palm. Keith Sadis drew out a roll of parchment wrapped in green ribbon and bearing a broken wax seal-- Levi recognized the wings and crossed swords of the Scouting Legion Commander.
“Ah,” Levi said.
“Your case is rather unprecedented in the history of the School.” Sadis waved the roll in the air, ribbons flying in the air. “Not in the least of the case of heightened security around the barracks.”
“Didn’t you hear?” Levi asked. “My life isn’t my own.”
The silence between them stretched on and in the background, the cadets watched with wide eyes, the mess hall totally quiet for the first time since its construction.
“Cadet Levi, every bit of cooperation would be appreciated,” Sadis said firmly and set down the letter on the table. “I can only help you if I know all the facts.”
Levi leaned forward across the table, reaching out with a hand to clasp Sadis’s shoulder in a display of mock camaraderie. Sadis tensed, no doubt feeling the blade press against soft flesh.
“You’re playing a game that you don’t understand, Keith,” Levi whispered, keeping his expression neutral for the sake of appearances. “You thought I wouldn’t try anything in a room full of witnesses?” Levi smiled and pressed the blade deeper. “Wrong.”
“For all that you pretend to be so tough, you’re nothing but Irvin’s pet dog,” Sadis rumbled, the shadows under his eyes growing deeper. “Watch yourself, boy.”
Levi drew his hand back, wiping blood on his rough brown breeches. “It’s been lovely chatting with you, Instructor,” Levi nodded in a clear dismissal. Sadis left just as quickly as he’d arrived but the room stayed quiet long after his departure, every single pair of eyes watching Levi at his table.
He picked up his spoon and finished his soup, though it had long gone cold.
The Walls dominate his entire field of vision, cutting off the horizon that he’s grown used to seeing for the past three weeks. After the mission debriefing, he deliberately ignores Irvin’s hand signal to stay behind and slinks off to a tavern, green cloak hood pulled low over his eyes. A silver crown pays for a foaming tankard of ice-cold beer and a sausage that he forces himself to eat slowly, hot grease coating his fingers. For once, he doesn’t mind the mess.
“Can you believe it? I saw it with my own eyes and even I can’t believe that they came back with more than half their members.”
Levi sinks deeper into the shadows and checks to make sure that his hood is safely secured.
“--some new strong hero, right?”
A snort and the muffled protests of a barmaid being groped. “Some fucker named Rivaille or something like that. Hope he gutted them monsters good.”
Levi drains his drink in one go and stands up, sliding a half-penny under the chipped plate. He’s halfway across the room when a hand lands on his shoulder, fingers as thick as the sausage he just ate. Levi refrains from breaking it in three places. Irvin would probably have very stern words with him about harming civilians and Zoe would never let him live it down that he got involved in a bar fight the night he got back.
“Scouting wings, eh?”
Levi tenses. Perhaps just a bruised throat?
“Let me buy you a drink, mate.”
Levi blinks. The hand drags him over to a table filled with red-faced, broad-shouldered men clutching tankards of ale in one hand and women in the other.
“Look,” shouts the man who belongs to the hand clutching Levi’s shoulder. “I found one of the soldiers!”
The groups thumps the table wildly and cheer loud enough for one of Levi’s eardrums to start throbbing uncomfortably. He suspects that they would have cheered regardless of what the man actually said. He’s forced into a seat and handed a pint glass of deep yellow beer, with an inch of foam crowning the top.
“To Wall Maria!” toasts one of the red-faced men.
“To killing those monsters!”
They drink some more.
“To the SCOUTING LEGION!”
They finish their drinks and bang on the table for more. Levi blinks owlishly, cheeks slowly starting to flush a dark red. A barmaid comes bustling around and hands off refills to everyone, giving Levi a coy wink along with his new pint.
“A toast from our scout!” A hand thumps the space between his shoulders and Levi just barely stops his face from crashing onto the table. Bright, drunken faces leer at him expectantly and Levi tries his best.
“To clean underwear,” he says solemnly and downs his drink.
When Levi finally manages to pry his eyes open, he finds Irvin sitting on his bed in plain clothes with a disapproving look on his face. Levi groans, rolls over in bed and tries not to die.
“Two weeks,” Irvin says, prodding Levi’s foot with a finger. “Two weeks with the Garrison fixing the Wall for dereliction of duty and getting spectacularly drunk.”
Levi opens an eye and shoots Irvin the most nasty glare he can muster at the moment which, admittedly, is not very nasty at all. “Not my fault,” he croaks.
Irvin ignores this and continues talking, arms crossed over his chest. “You can share the punishment detail with Squad Leader Hanji. They tried to sneak out on an unsupervised expedition when a Titan sighting just outside the wall was called in.”
Only Zoe would be so stupid as to go out Titan chasing for blood samples after they’d just come back from a mission. “I hate you,” Levi enunciates, the effort to speak clearly causing his head to throb alarmingly.
“Should I make it three?” He’s sure that he’s just imagining the twitch in Irvin’s mouth.
Levi gives Irvin a baleful glare and shoves his head under a pillow. He stays like that until a warrant officer dumps a bucket of water on his bed and carts him away to the Wall, still soaking wet and in last night’s uniform.
“Levi!” Zoe says, very loudly, thumping his shoulder harder than usual. They look remarkably cheerful and enviably un-hungover. Levi fervently wishes Irvin a pox-shriveled dick and sinks onto the ground, clutching his damp cloak around him.
“How much did you even drink?”
Levi closes his eyes and tries to remember. His memory stays unhelpfully dark. “Damned four eyes,” he mutters. “Lower your voice.”
Another resounding thump on his back. “All grown up and getting punished for getting drunk on duty,” Zoe says, voice fond. “Think of it like a rite of passage-- you’re a real soldier now.”
Levi’s cotton wrapped brain is too tired to process Zoe’s words properly. “I am a real soldier,” he says thickly, burrowing deeper into his cloak. He fingers the hem of it, slightly bemused, and wonders why it only comes down to his waist.
“Because we can’t fly around with two pounds of wet wool dragging us down, idiot.” Zoe sits down on the ground next to him, shoulders casually brushing his. “The history behind the uniform of the Scouting Legion is actually really interesting. It all began with the inception of the insignia, the crossed silver and black wings, credited to...”
Levi falls asleep to the sound of Zoe’s voice, head pillowed on their shoulders. He dreams of floating in a lake so vast that there is no shore, only water stretching on into eternity. It laps peacefully over his limbs, cradling him in a warm embrace that rocks him into oblivion.