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Heartless

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He who fights monsters should beware
lest he becomes a monster himself.

_

 

1.

There are fifty-three steps to the training grounds behind the lookout post at the sentry. Levi knows this, because every step forward on his crutches are agonizing ones. One step, dragging his bum leg behind him, the bulk of his weight settling heavily on his other leg.

Hanji scolds him, because she is the closest thing to a doctor and Levi is in dire need of rehab. "Keep going!" Hanji says. Levi grits his teeth, sweat beading at his brow as Hanji runs in front of him, clapping her hands with energy: "You can do it! You're almost there!"

Levi grits his teeth, dragging himself forward.

The miracles of modern medicine. The ancients had fiberglass casts and titanium plates, but now they're left with the most rudimentary of treatment, external splints in lieu of metal rods. Hanji had called it a simple long bone fracture ("It might be a few weeks...or it might be a few months!" she said, when Levi asked her point blank how long she thought it would take him to heal), and though it has only been a few days since the initial insult, Levi can already feel his muscle strength beginning to ebb. "Two more steps!" Hanji calls out, when there are clearly more than two fucking steps to take, and Levi all but drags himself on his bum leg, the crutches digging into his armpits and his knee ready to give way. "One more step! That's it! Almost there!"

And it takes all of Levi's willpower not to punch her, except that to do so would require a considerable amount of balance, the bulk of which Levi does not have. When he manages to reach the designated mark, Hanji congratulates him by clapping him hard against his back, knocking the crutch out from under Levi's arm and making him lose his balance, and it's all infuriating and awkward and flailing limbs in a desperate attempt not to fall flat on his ass, but Levi does so, anyway, smacking face forward with only his good arm to break his fall.

 

*****

 

The thing that irritates him the most, other than his bum leg making him completely fucking useless, is the fact that his days are now completely fucking boring.

He spends his days in listless inactivity. At bugle call, when soldiers are rousing from sleep and rushing from their barracks, Levi is slow to sit up, blinking slowly and taking stock of his surroundings. His old squad's barracks is oddly quiet - at one point it had housed Erd and Gunther and Auruo (and even at one point Petra, though Auruo loudly protested that she was a girl, she couldn't stay in here!), but now it's just Levi and four pairs of empty bunk beds, the silence punctuated only with the faint goings-on of the soldiers in the rooms above him.

He uses Gunther's old bed, mostly because Gunther was clean and he respected that, but also because it's the furthest cot from the door, shielded from the bustle and noise from the hallway outside.

"Hurry up, you maggots!" Squad leaders bellow in the hallways as new recruits rush around with frantic activity: they wash their faces and throw on their clothes, moving with such frenetic energy that Levi by comparison seems to move in slow motion. "Roll call in five, asswipes, or else!"

Levi frowns, then hitches himself up with his crutches, slowly navigating the difficult task of getting dressed. First there is the awkward manuevering to tug his pants over the wooden splints, which are flimsy and unstable and altogether ill-suited for stabilizing a broken leg. Balancing himself on his good hip, Levi grits his teeth as he pulls up one stubborn pantleg, the pain in his leg an electric shock spiraling up his spine.

Outside his room, soldiers are readying for morning rounds. They're jogging past, ready to run outside and line up in formation, and Levi has to pause, wait for them to finish rushing past his room, lest he accidentally gets in the way and falls flat on his ass. The recruits finish leaving and Levi closes his door, one crutch digging hard into his side. He has to be careful not to get the crutch caught on any cracks - cracks are dangerous, as are loose rugs and random bits of debris, which can trip him and make him lose his balance - and it's only when he reaches the long spiral staircase that he begins the difficult task of limping down.

"Ready for 3D maneuver gear?" Hanji says. She's holding a harness. Levi stares at her sourly.

Ordinarily, his gear was like an extension of his body - invisible arms and limbs, propelling him - but now his body is an impossible weight, a jumble of awkward arms and unsteady legs. Hanji hoists him up and his thigh screams in protest, and a sudden jolt of pain makes him spin and lose his balance.

"Maybe it was a bit too soon," Hanji says. Levi frowns.

He remembers a time when Auruo got injured. Auruo was a rookie then - hand-picked by Levi for the Special Operations Squad, but brash and untested and slamming the weight of his body into a titan's fist. At the time, Auruo was angry and humiliated, stretched out on the gurney and clutching his leg, and it was only through Petra's comforting words and Gunther's repeated reassurances that Auruo managed to plaster that smug, self-satisfied grin on his face and declare that only warriors get injured on their first outing, after which Petra declared he was an idiot and Gunther just rolled his eyes.

All of them, at one point or another, had gotten sidelined. There was the time Gunther sustained a concussion after his gear malfunctioned fifty feet in the air. Petra had caught him, slicing through two titans before swinging under him to catch him; Petra dislocated her shoulder and Erd had broken a hand, but neither of them had ever shown Levi any weakness. "We'll try harder, Heichou!" they said, because no one wanted to let him down.

 

*****

 

He sits at the head of the table and mulls over his losses. Eight men under his command. There was Harold the blond one, only a year out from training camp and full of potential. There was Martha who hated baking and Samuel who ate like a horse. Slowly the faces and names fall into focus before starting to fade, a series of photographs falling in slow motion.

He doesn't even notice Mikasa standing at the door.

"What?" Levi says. Mikasa doesn't flinch, just stands there. Her jaw tightens, mouth pressed into a thin line, before speaking.

"I'll pick up your slack," Mikasa says. Levi's eyes narrow.

"Your leg," Mikasa says. "It's my fault that you got injured. So I will pick up the slack, as I promised."

"What makes you think you can?" Levi says. Both her gaze and his fall on his bum leg, stretched uncomfortably under the table.

"I'm the best one on this team. I'm the only one who can."

He stands, pushing the chair back. The legs of the chair scratch against the wooden floor.

"It was my fault," Mikasa says again. Robotic. Insistent. "Allow me to take responsibility for my mistake."

Levi looks at her. She is wearing the standard issue uniform, brown flak jacket and brown riding boots, and the scarf she wears is tucked neatly around her neck. He's heard about the scarf - from what he understands, it's a sort of good luck charm, a sentimental talisman. The men of Levi's squadron also kept good luck charms, and Levi could recite them as if by rote: there was Gunther's good luck penny and Auruo's dirty socks, and Petra's embroidered handkerchief, which she kept tucked carefully in her back pocket.

But Levi didn't believe in luck. He believed in his skill and he believed in his comrades, but he sure as hell knew that a lucky penny or a wad of balled up socks had nothing to do with whether a blood-hungry titan would come barreling their way.

"Responsibility, huh?" Levi says. "And what makes you think I'd let you take that responsibility?"

He looks at her pointedly. Mikasa blinks, as if suddenly unsure.

"Because," and she hesitates, then squares her jaw. "Because it was my fault."

And suddenly the conversation, like so many other things in his life, tires him, and Levi sags, unable to bear the sheer stupidity of it all. Of course it was her fault, but he knows an honest mistake when he sees it. She was still a rookie, wet behind the ears, nevermind the fact that her insubordination cost him a leg, or that the rest of his men died because of her would-be boyfriend.

But it wasn't anybody's fault. Nothing was their fault. The sorry excuse for a shit stain world was not their fault.

 

*****

 

2.

Once, Petra wrote a letter. Normally, Levi had little interest in the personal goings-on of his men - privacy and space were things he personally cherished - but Petra had fallen asleep by the light of a candle, and the letter had remained half-written, the ink seeping through the paper as the wax dripped on the string of words.

Dear Father, it said. Levi didn't intend to read it, but the wax was dripping and he couldn't stand the thought of the table getting dirty, and it wasn't until he reached forward to pinch out the flame that he read the rest:

I intend to devote myself to him. He is a kind man, even if no one else knows it...

And Petra stirred, murmuring in her sleep and shifting the side of her face on top of the rest of the letter.

Levi didn't think anything of it. He too had great admiration for Commander Erwin, so it didn't surprise him that Petra shared that opinion.

Quietly he brushed back a strand of hair that was stuck to Petra's face, then pinched the light of the candle to keep the wax from dripping. In the dark, smoke wafted upwards like an arabesque, and Levi stood for a moment, unsure if he should wake her and urge her to bed, or if he should leave her be and let her continue to sleep.

He opted for the latter. Quietly he draped a blanket over her shoulders, straightened her papers, then moved the candle further down the table.

He isn't sure why he picked Petra. Unsure and unranked, Petra was as quiet and unassuming as they come, and though Levi was sure there was something raw and powerful in Petra's movements, even Commander Erwin was somewhat baffled by his choice. "I trust you," Erwin said, when Levi had given him a list of potential recruits, and Levi could see the doubt that was edging the corners of his eyes. "I trust you, but I have to ask...why that girl, Levi? What do you see in her?"

"A fighting spirit," Levi had said, but that was so much bullshit. But Erwin nodded and handed him the paper and seemed content to let that go.

"Me?" Petra said. Levi stood in front of her, silent and imposing, as Petra stuttered and looked behind her at the other recruits. "But--but Levi-heichou! I don't....I'm not sure if I am ready."

"Are you suggesting that I don't know any better?" Levi said, and Petra jumped, terrified.

"No! Of course not!" Petra said. Levi's eyes narrowed.

It took some doing. Petra was average, clumsy, and altogether unspectacular. "The hell are you doing, Petra?" Levi asked, and Petra yelped, pulling her pack against her body like a shield.

"...Heichou?"

"You can do better," Levi said.

And not too long after that, she did.

 

*****

 

If one were to ask Levi how he selected the members of his squad, Levi would just give them a cold, long stare, a silent rebuke for asking him such a stupid question.

Hanji had a theory: "It's in the eyes. Levi just looks at them and he can tell - he just knows - that they'll be a perfect fit!" and she's so loudly convincing that the others in the Survey Corps nod with hushed admiration, because Hanji is the closest one of any of them to work with the Special Ops Squad, she definitely knew better than the rest of them.

Intuition. If Levi had to use a word, it would be that. Intuition is what helped him size up new recruits, what led him to picking Petra when bigger, stronger candidates were available to him. It was what ultimately made him trust Eren, nevermind that the kid was probably a bigger threat than the goddamn titans, the (indirect) reason why his men got killed. By all accounts Levi should be furious with him, should be staring at him with a cold, blistering rage. But Levi understands. It wasn't the kid's fault, not any more than it was Levi's fault for not being there.

If anyone had intuition, it was Commander Erwin.

"I have a good feeling about you," Erwin had said, the first time they met. At the time, Levi was locked up, waiting to be executed. The trial, like pretty much everything else in his life, was a pointless fucking waste, and if Levi was supposed to die, he just wished everyone would just get on with it. "You're supposed to be executed at dawn tomorrow," Erwin said. And then, "Do you know why I'm here?"

Levi looked up at him through the bangs hanging over his eyes before moving, angling his body away from the stripes of orange torchlight and scooting deeper into the shadows. The shackles chaining his hands and legs clinked loudly with the movement, and soon that filthy patch of orange light framed nothing but emptiness, the stripes of shadows from the bars falling on the links of chains.

He had been arrested for murder. Originally, he had planned to kidnap a merchant's kid, holding the kid for ransom and waiting to get paid. For three days and nights the kid was docile, quiet, and it wasn't until Levi let down his guard that the kid somehow slipped through his bonds and attacked him, brandishing a table knife Levi had accidentally left him in his carelessness. The kid attacked, and it wasn't until Levi managed to dodge and dart out of the way that he realized the knife was buried deep into the kid's side, warm spurts of blood bubbling over Levi's hand.

"Do you know why I'm here?" Erwin asked again, and Levi watched him with a predatory stillness, watching as Erwin sat on his haunches into a more comfortable seated position, as if prepared to talk to him for a very long time. "I'm commander of the Survey Corps. Something I'm sure you already know of."

"What about it?" Levi said.

"We're short on recruits," Erwin said. "And I think we could use you."

It took a moment. Levi stared at him, coldly. "Well that's too bad," Levi said. "They're planning to execute me tomorrow."

"I could waive that," Erwin said. "You could serve out the rest of your term with me."

"Tch."

Levi stared. Commander Erwin, leader of the Survey Corps and arguably one of the strongest soldiers for mankind, was squatting pleasantly as if ready to take a nice long dump, resting his elbows on his knees and looking at him with a placid sort of stupid expression, like he was just waiting for Levi to regale him with why-mes and thank-yous and all sorts of stupid other crap that Levi didn't have the time for. He turned on his side, chains clinking, and stared at the wall, a silent but pointed answer.

Erwin cleared his throat. "You'll probably die either way," Erwin said. "The mortality rate of our men is greater than ninety-percent. And that's just for the first mission."

"I could give a shit," Levi said. Erwin smiled.

He found himself in the training corps. Somehow, Erwin's confident manner had persuaded him - mostly because Levi didn't want to die, but also because how bad could their situation be that they had to go gutter diving to scrounge up enough recruits? - and ultimately it was Levi's morbid curiosity that allowed him to join.

And as it turned out, Levi was good at it. Better than the rest of them. He cut through the air as easily as newborn babes knew how to breathe.

 

*****

 

3.

The mess hall is quiet in the middle of the night, and Levi takes full advantage of this, sinking silently onto the wooden bench and drinking a cup of water. For some reason, the gaping mouth of the empty barracks made it difficult for Levi to fall asleep, so he resolved to get a drink of water and get his shit together, turning the cup in his hands and listening to the soft night sounds around him: groaning pipes, soft sounds of a building settling, and the soft chirp of crickets outside.

There is a sound, the door slowly being pushed open, and Levi looks up to see the rookie Armin peering inside, the light from his lamp cutting a swath of orange light from the darkness of the room.

"Where's your friends?" Levi says. He's looking at his cup, disinterested. "You're not following Eren like you usually do."

"I couldn't sleep," Armin says. "I was going to get a drink of water."

Levi doesn't say anything, already bored with the conversation. Behind him, he can hear Armin rustling in the kitchen before emerging back into the mess hall, sinking gingerly in a chair a few spots away from him.

"You couldn't sleep either?" Armin says, and Levi shrugs, a noncommittal gesture.

"It's the only time I have time to myself," Levi says.

They sit in silence for a moment, the rookie kid and Levi, and it's only after a while that Levi realizes the kid probably wants to talk, but he's too afraid to say anything.

"So what's bothering you, anyway?" Levi says, not because he cares, but because he's annoyed someone else is there, he just wants to end the conversation quickly and get it over with. Armin glances up at him, no doubt reading Levi's annoyance, but takes the invitation anyway.

"I'm worried about Eren," Armin says, and Levi leans forward, listening. "He takes too many risks. I'm afraid he's going to hurt himself."

"You guys baby him," Levi says. "And what's your deal, anyway? Both you and Ackerman, all you worry about is him."

"Mikasa is different," Armin says. He stares at his hands. "She loves him. He's the only family she has."

Levi watches him. Skinny kid, stringy blond bangs falling over his eyes, Armin oozes earnestness like body odor, and Levi frowns, slightly.

"He doesn't know it, though," Armin says, and Levi shifts uncomfortably, the contents of the conversation turning decidedly uninteresting and unhelpful. "You're not mad at her, right? About your leg...?"

"No," Levi says, and he moves his cup, thoughtfully. "She's undisciplined and she loses her focus around him. But she's not without potential," Levi says. He looks up at Armin steadily. "I was probably the same way."

"Really?" Armin says, and the kid's face lights up like Christmas. Levi bristles, frowning.

"Don't let it go to your head," Levi tells him, and Armin nods quickly, swallowing a mouthful of water.

In truth, Levi feels sorry for her. That singular devotion, one-sided and unrequited, it's sad and just a little pathetic, and it leaves a sour taste in his mouth just thinking of it. It's not that he doesn't relate - he too lost his family at a young age - but Ackerman's devotion hovers somewhere between overbearing and pathologic. "She doesn't even wash that scarf," Auruo said. "Heichou, don't you think that's gross?"

"I think it's romantic," Petra had said, and the other men all but rolled their eyes.

"Only you would think a stalker is romantic," Auruo told her, bluntly. "Following around Eren like a goddamn lunatic. Maybe you and Ackerman should swap some stalking tips together, geez."

"Are you calling me a stalker?" Petra said.

"Hell yeah I'm calling you a stalker! Look at the way you follow around Heichou!" Auruo said. Petra reddened.

"Oi, you two. Shut up and pay attention to the mission," Levi said. Gunther bit back a laugh. Auruo glared.

Later, Petra called out behind him, "Heichou!" and ran to catch up to him, the rest of the squad leaving after the mission briefing. "Heichou! Can I talk to you?"

"What is it?" Levi said. Petra reddened again, then glared.

"The guys are just kidding," Petra said. "They're just picking on me because I'm a girl. It isn't fair," Petra said. "I have nothing but the utmost respect for you."

"That's fine," Levi said, and he could see Petra visibly sag with relief. "I understand. Only an idiot would think about the two of us like that, anyway."

And then there was something - a flash of hurt or disbelief - before Petra smiled again, the rims of her eyes darkening. "You're right," Petra said, and she turned away before he could see her face, adding quickly, "I'm sorry to have bothered you, Heichou," and she quickly moved away, leaving Levi alone and somewhat confused by the whole encounter.

 

******

 

His first mission as squadron commander did not go very smoothly.

The mission was a simple one, a recon job outside the wall. It was the first Levi took part in where he had full command, and he looked back at the wide-eyed stares at the newbies trying to keep up with him, Gunther and Auruo and Petra.

And it all went to shit. The mission went to shit. Titans fucked up the job and everything fell to shit. Levi whirled, a sudden gyroscope of unimaginable speed and rotation, and with one clear slice managed to whack off a piece of the Titan's head. Another slash. A strike. One fiercely rotating move, and the coveted hunk of neck sliced off with incredible precision.

Later, as the townspeople descended on him and his troops, shouting obscenities and decrying the magnitude of so many losses, Levi just stood there, impassive and silent, until Petra ran in front of him, vigorously defending him.

"Petra! Enough!" Levi said, and Petra's head snapped back at him, shocked and surprised, before Levi yanked her backward. "I said know your place," Levi said, and he was surprised to see the hurt in her eyes.

"Heichou," Petra said, and her eyes filled with water.

He never apologized for it, and Petra didn't mention it later. And soon she bore the insults with the same stoic demeanor as everyone else, bright eyes a little dead inside as she slowly marched forward.

 

****

 

4.

They are planning another mission. Levi listens, arms crossed and leaning in the background, while Erwin and the others draw up battle plans and strategies, outlining the plan's objectives. It will be a simple recon mission, only a handful of soldiers, just enough to gather intelligence on the goings-on in the periphery and see if there are any more shifting titans nearby.

"Wow!" Hanji says. They're at the training grounds, Levi practicing with his 3D maneuver gear and leaping past her, slashing targets with consummate ease. "Look at you! Amazing! It's like you were never injured at all!"

"Tch." Levi all but rolls his eyes while Hanji buzzes around him, bubbling with a barely contained excitement. Behind her, Erwin stands with his arms crossed, taking stock of Levi's progress, while a small crowd of soldiers had gathered, watching him with utter awe.

"Look at Levi-heichou." They speak in awestruck whispers, watching as Levi leaps forward, weightless and formless, the arc of his body a perfect motion. "That's Captain Levi for you! Back on the horse so soon after he was injured!"

"He's not even human," another one says.

Levi dismounts, cartwheeling through the air and landing with catlike grace. All it took was the prospect of another mission to get him off his ass and start training seriously again, and in a few short weeks Levi is making strides. His bum leg heaves and strains with the effort, but Levi is tough enough to ignore it, shifting his weight on his good leg and leaning on the steel cables for balance. Hanji hands him his crutches, clapping her hands.

"You've made good progress," Erwin says as Levi undoes the clasps to his gear, stepping forward with one unsteady crutch. "A few more weeks and we may even be able to use you."

"Weeks?" Levi says, and the soldiers watching him turn, cow-eyed, their gaze volleying from Erwin back to Levi, who's pissed off but trying to keep his anger in check: "With all due respect, I believe I'm ready now."

"I'd like to speak to you for a moment," Erwin says. He throws a quick glance at the crowd behind him, then adds, "Privately, if possible."

"Fine," Levi says, and he glances back at the spectators, who are slowly starting to leave. "What is it you want to talk about?"

"Just come with me," Erwin says, and he motions for Levi to follow.

 

******

 

There is a slant of yellow light coming through the windows of Erwin's office, so much so that Levi can see the motes of dust floating in the air. It's disgusting and unhygienic, and Levi has half a mind to tell Erwin to for gods' sakes pick up a duster once in a while, when Erwin turns, hands behind his back and frowning, slightly.

"You've been sleeping in your old squad's barracks," Erwin says. "You have your own quarters. You never used to sleep there before."

"My quarters are far away from the main building," Levi says. "It's difficult to get around."

"You could stay in another room," Erwin says.

"The light is better there," Levi says. Erwin crosses his arms.

"Levi," Erwin says, and he hesitates, as if trying to choose his words. "You shouldn't push yourself. It's a huge adjustment. Everybody understands."

So fucking stupid. Everything is so fucking stupid. Levi stares back at him, dead-eyed and emotionless, and Erwin just sighs and frowns and rubs his neck, because Erwin is a soldier like him and is useless when it comes to stupid emotional shit. "I heard about what happened with Petra's father," Erwin says, and Levi straightens, glaring. "It isn't fair, what he said to you."

"Are we done?" Levi says. Erwin's jaw tightens.

"Yes, Levi, we are done."

And it's all he can do to keep from punching the wall.

 

*****

 

5.

"Heichou?" Petra said, and then she hesitated, shyly. "Do you ever get lonely?"

Levi looked at her. They were alone in his quarters, Levi behind a mountain of paperwork and Petra helping him sort through his files. The question had come out from nowhere and Levi paused, somewhat surprised by her candor. "It's just that I was thinking how hard it is, shouldering everyone's expectations. You're humanity's strongest soldier," Petra said. And then, more quietly, "They say that you're a hero."

Outside, moonlight had begun to filter in his room so that everything seemed backlit with a soft silvery halo, and Petra was looking up at him, a few loose strands of hair falling softly at her throat.

"I'm no hero, Petra," Levi said. "You wouldn't say those things if you knew me."

"But I do know you," Petra said.

And Levi was silent, not knowing what to say.

 

*****

 

"Please," her father says. His mouth twists. His body is wracked with quaking sobs. "Please. Tell me it isn't true."

"I'm sorry," Levi says, and the man howls, sobbing and falling on his knees.

 

*****

 

6.

It is a full two months before Levi can bring himself to pack up the rest of his squadron's things. First he tackles Gunther's rack, which is relatively easy because Gunther was as meticulous as he was clean, before going to work on Auruo's mess of a clothing cabinet. Rumpled dress shirts, unwashed undergarments, and oddly enough, a packet of unused condoms (pathetically optimistic in Levi's estimation), Levi tosses them all in a garbage pile, knowing their families wouldn't want the dirty laundry of their dead relatives. He goes through both men's things methodically, carefully separating out what the things to save and the things to incinerate. Photographs; books; old mementos: he packs them carefully into boxes addressed to their families before throwing out the rest of the garbage.

Petra's things are in the women's barracks, and it's only after he garners special permission that he slips inside with a box tucked under his arm. Like Gunther, Petra's things are immaculate. Her clothing is folded and pressed, and sheaths of unused paper are tucked quietly in the corner of her desk.

He empties out a drawer, a mess of scribbled notes and old used up pens, and he's about done with his work when a handkerchief falls onto the floor.

He could recognize it anywhere: Petra's lucky handkerchief, her initials stitched in delicate curving letters. Auruo had made fun of her when she initially kept it, saying it was too ladylike for the likes of Special Ops, and he remembers how she yelled at him to stuff it, yanking her handkerchief away from him and stuffing it in her back pocket. She must have stuffed it back in her drawer, probably too embarrassed to carry it again.

A drop of water, then another, falls on the lacy cloth, and Levi blinks, frowning. His throat is tight and there is a burning warmth behind his eyes, and he's tired and slightly annoyed, because the dust of the room is making his eyes start to water.

 

*****

 

7.

 

They are rebuilding the walls. Slowly, soldiers heft brick and mortar and carefully patch the hole that the Female Titan left, working under thick dark smocks to keep the dormant titans from coming awake.

Levi watches, walking without crutches and with only a slightly noticeable limp. "You look good," Hanji says, coming up behind him. "Looks like that wound of yours has finally started to heal."

"Almost," Levi says, and Hanji starts to smile.