“We only seek purity to contaminate it with ourselves.” - proverb
By the time Levi gets out of Irwin's and Pixis' bullshit morning meeting all the others are taken.
Hanji is dragging Bertholdt away by the elbow, the good elbow not the one she broke last month testing transport weight limits. Levi feels remarkably little sympathy - resource distribution efficiency has improved 67%. Even if he still finds the idea of a fleshless Goliath loaded with shipping containers a little revolting border towns can't afford to be picky. Reiner is walking stoically behind them. Hanji has them broken to her rein, and no surprise - both provide excellent leverage against the other. Artlett and Ackerman have apparently tapped Jaeger in what is officially recorded to be a session improving the Eren-Titan's verbal comprehension and hand-sign communication skills and what Levi suspects will degenerate into the playground game 'He Heard, She Heard' adjusted for two teenagers and a five-story unnatural abomination. Well, the brats do deserve some rest - just this once he'll let it go.
Recon Corps Bonded Resource Annie Leonhart is lounging alone on the bench, chewing a stalk of grass between her teeth almost like any lazy country girl. Her hands hang limp from her manacles, her emergency detonation shock-collar shines bright, pale gold in the morning sun. The color of her hair is dull in comparison. Little movements of the grass stalk - up and down, back and forth is the only way you'd know she's alive.
His shadow crosses her feet.
"Get up. We've got some garbage to deal with."
A storage facility was overrun a while back, just a little after Trost. No hope of saving the original garrison but they’ll need the supplies. Another unsavory little detail is how instead of moving on the Titans have stayed - localized, like a battalion assembled and ready to be moved by someone’s invisible hand. It’s their duty to disrupt the plans of the enemy, which means that Levi’s job today is to ensure that somewhere down the line someone’s invisible hand is going to be really fucking disappointed.
When they reach the last bit of trees before the town wall he cuts a shallow groove into her shoulder to make her stop, no different than putting spurs to a horse. It steams closed in the blink of an eye and something about that irritates him.
A sweep with his looking glass confirms it: nine total, all in the three to fourteen meter ranges, with blank faces and blood-clotted rotting teeth. Old-made and, as Hanji assures them, non-retrievable. Whatever people they might have been died long ago. That suits him fine.
He grabs a firm fistful of her hair and taps her neck, a little more gently, with the flat of his blade.
Under him, Annie comes alive.
She's consistent when she fights, more graceful than Jaeger and a fraction faster. With the kind of intuitive understanding of efficiency, of economy of destructive motion that Levi knows comes easiest from a hungry childhood and a hard life.
He's not especially careful, sinking grapples into her whenever it's convenient. There's no helping it with Eren, Reiner is mostly plate and Bertholdt doesn't even feel it. This one has localized hardening ability anyway, he remembers it quite clearly from the last time but today every time he slingshots himself around her torso and into another target his hooks hit and sink into ordinary flesh.
She's a soldier. She was a soldier on a mission when she killed his people, she ought to know there are no apologies in war. These little weaknesses of hers make him want to puke.
A Titan, - spry, seven-meters and lean - spidering along the side of the building takes a swipe at him and there is no room for useless thoughts in his head anymore. That feeling drifts away in the fight. That feeling and every other and he’s alive too, a whistling, spinning dervish of death, taller than the crumbling bell towers, a step ahead of the falling arcs of blood he creates. Even the air smells clean if he moves quickly enough.
The air is clean like it was when he was a cadet, hopping rooftops surrounded by hopeful faces he can’t even faintly remember. Or with his first squad with the Corps, culled quickly in the fragrant black woods. His first command squad, to see if a gutter brat could hammer the weak links - the shaken, the mutterers back into line. He’d done it, and then he’d covered their backs when he could and sent them out when he had to. Then his second command squad that he’d corrected and moulded and coached and kept mostly alive for three years. Then his third. His last.
And now these fucking child-monsters they have...
Annie-as-Titan’s face pulls into a satisfied snarl as she kicks out another 10 meter class’ knee. It falls into the town square crushing a fountain and howling impotently as it tries to stand.
That’s why Pixis can fucking choke on his rotgut and his suspiciously convenient long morning meetings because he can’t un-see the similar shape of their eyes, can’t ignore the way the wind is whistling between his own bared, parted teeth. Or the way he goes still too, sometimes, too often lately, when there isn’t a battle, when there isn’t some godawful mess to straighten out.
Now it’s a mess - now it’s down to the smarter vermin. Part of the pack has been watching, circling while they took out the mindless moths that rushed in. More bad luck: the last two thirteen-meters are among them. They’re the only ones with mass enough to stand against her kicks, the fight had carried them into narrower streets with less breathing room and damnit Levi’s the superior officer here he’s should have kept an eye on that. He’s felt more like just another weapon than a commander lately. Not that that’s an acceptable excuse for fucking up.
Annie steps into a stance, watching, waiting. The two thirteen meters separate, one cuts left into an alleyway the other steps into her path. Levi sees its’ legs tensing for the charge. Annie takes off first. Levi curses and re-launches his grapples, swinging in her wake. The other titan falters, blinking at her, it’s mouth hanging open. As she passes an intersection a shape explodes through the wood of the abandoned house - the other thirteen meter, she’s flanked.
Levi swears again as he sees five and six meter classes squirm through the breach - in cross-Titan fights the smaller ones are dumbest but meanest, they go for the leg tendons, the eyes. If she goes down she could die.
Annie’s eyes narrow. Steam is drifting out of the nail-gouges along her ribs, it curls from her mouth too making the air in front of her shimmer with heat. Her skin crackles, hardening from the feet up. Slowly she raises her left hand and puts it on the back of her neck.
From his perch on the roof she looks like a tower of strength but he knows better.
A pincer is an effective strategy against someone who fights alone, who expects no reinforcements. With her hand on the back of her neck she’s off balance.
Without thinking Levi steps off the roof. Just as his boots touch her shoulder the two big Titans charge.
“Lift your hand!” he screams into her ear.
“Lift your hand, Cadet! I’m right behind you!”
The one in front dodges Annie’s kick and catches her right fist in a meaty paw but her left fist shears off most of its’ jaw.
At her back Levi takes off the hand that reaches for Annie’s shoulder, slingshots himself up and over the gaping mouth and cuts the other Titan’s neck before its’ teeth can sink into her cheek. He’s tired and saving his gas - no room for extra movement - and by the time the last six-meter falls his cravat is spotted like black-lung cougher’s and his hands are bloody to the shoulders.
Bodies smoke like campfires throughout the town, the ones from the start of the battle are already down to charred bones on the cobblestone. They break easily, ribs and spines cracking with a satisfying sound whenever they end up in the path of Annie’s feet.
Outside the south gate she suddenly stops, her nostrils flare her head turns slowly, chasing the caught scent.
The sound rumbles through her chest and up into his through the soles of his boots.
With flaking, bloody hands she points west, towards the river, softly keens “...eeehn..”
Hanji would be thrilled, they’ve never heard the Annie-Titan make a voluntary sound. It’s mournful and eerie, too deep for a woman’s throat and instead of the humanizing effect of Jaeger’s little chirps and barks it only makes her more frightening.
The worst of it is how easily he can understand her.
She wants to get clean - to spend time washing her temporary shell that will crumble and dissolve as soon as he cuts her out anyway. Then again who the hell is he fooling, every goddamn body is temporary. Humanity’s Strongest Soldier feels every year of his service, feels his joints stiffen with the cold a little more each winter. God Auruo would complain about that too, sometimes even Erd would join in about his runny nose and with everybody caterwauling like a pack of fishwives he could believe they’d all be shitty old pensioners together.
The memory twists and worms through him like a fever. He takes off his filthy glove, lays a red-crusted hand against her warm neck.
“Fine. Let’s go.”
A commander is responsible for his squad’s happiness.
- - -
He is floating in the shallows, buoyed up and down by the waves Annie makes as she washes her hair. Eventually her enormous cupped hands lift him out, rising under him slowly like a little girl trying to catch a leaf on the surface of the lake. Slowly, so as not to disturb his thoughts she walks them both back towards the walls.
The sun is bright, //Petra had wanted a daughter// the water on his face is curiously slow to dry.