Boots already covered in mud, jackets crumpled: one of them was sporting a nice bruise on his cheek. As Shira approached, all three snapped into perfect salutes.
“Wow. Look at that. Seems like half your work is already done, Shira- oop! I mean, Captain Lark.” Hanji leaned over Shira’s shoulder, thumping her on the back. She frowned, shoving Hanji away and clearing her throat.
“Well you three. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She hoped that her voice wouldn’t betray how nervous she was. “I’m Captain Shira Lark, but please, call me Shira. Starting today, I’ll be in charge of your training!”
“Nice to meet you, Captain Lark, Ma’am!” The boy with the bruise shouted. He had a wild mop of black hair and grey eyes that were locked on some invisible point in the air right above her head.
“You would be Nicholas, correct?” Shira asked. He nodded, and she offered him a hand. “Ease up, soldier. This isn’t boot camp.” He blinked at her, surprised, but shook her hand and even smiled a bit. “So that means you two must be Micha and Misha.” The twins were tall, brown-haired and blue-eyed. Micha, the girl, stood a few inches shorter than her brother, but she was still taller than Shira. She felt very, very short. ‘At least I’m taller than Levi.’ She thought with a slight smirk.
“Yes! Please to meet you, Captain!” Micha piped. Misha also nodded along- he didn’t seem to speak very much.
“Oh, please. Call me Shira. Saying Captain Lark will just take up too much time.” Shira said with a grin. “We’ve got a lot to cover. The next Expedition’s in just a few weeks.” There was an instant change in the vibe- the cadets shuddered visibly.
“How long do we have, exactly?” Nicholas queried, and she could see the twins edge a bit closer together.
“Don’t worry.” Shira said, trying to reassure them. “We have plenty of time to prepare. There’s a lot of training to do- what do you say we get to it?”
An initial test run confirmed what Shira had read in the recruit’s field reports. All three were nimble and excelled in the use of 3DMG. Nicholas seemed especially fond of his blades, and he made quick work of the targets. Out of the three, Micha was the slowest, but he also hit the hardest, carving perfect slices from the wooden target’s padded necks. Misha, to Shira’s delight, moved very quickly- perhaps almost as fast as Levi, if she had plenty of training. She swung from her wires like a bola spider, making quick work of the targets- though her aim did leave something to be desired. Shira was watching them swing about with enthusiasm when someone cleared their throat and startled her.
“Promising group you have here, Lark.” Levi had crept up on her, and was watching her squad. “A bit rough around the edges, for sure, but I’m sure you can polish them up just fine.” Shira huffed.
“Oh, come on Levi.” She said, glancing at him. “We were all a bit unsteady when we first started.” He cocked an eyebrow in her direction.
“I wasn’t.” he replied, with the slightest hint of a smirk in his steely eyes. “I was just as good as I am now.” Micha skidded to a halt, interrupting their conversation. Clearly, he needed some work on his landings. Levi gave him a derisive sort of look.
“Oh, I’m sure you were. You being a great genius and all.” Shira retorted, waving Micha back up into the trees with a reassuring kind of smile. “Not everyone can be like you, Levi. I wasn’t that good when I first started.” He coughed- or it might have been a laugh, and she frowned at him. “I’ve got to get these kids in the best shape they can be.” Misha had rejoined her brother, and Nicholas was buzzing around in the canopy, wires slicing through the air. She laced and unlaced her fingers together as she watched him.
“You’re doing fine, Shira.” Levi said, resting a hand on her arm for a moment. “They seem very taken with you already.” She grinned- compliments from Levi were rare, and she had been getting a lot of them lately. “Also, I want you in my office after dinner for paperwork. We have a lot to get through.” Her smile was gone- she should have known that he was only that nice when he wanted something.
“Way to spring that one me… Should have seen it coming.” She muttered.
“Yes, you should have.” He said, turning on his heel and starting towards another group. “Make sure you’re on time tonight, Lark!” he shouted back over his shoulder. She groaned, but didn’t have too much time to agonize. Nicholas landed in front of her with a spray of dirt, panting hard.
“Nice work up there! I like what I see.” She said, with her hands on her hips. “Just watch your blades, Nicholas. You’ll need to be more conservative with them.” He nodded in agreement as the twins joined them, Misha stumbling as she hit the ground. “Impressive you two. Misha, we need to get you moving a bit faster- speed is your best friend when you’re dealing with Titans. Micha- you’ve got the speed part down, but I need to see you improving on your aim.” All of them made sounds of acknowledgment, looking a bit downhearted. “Hey.” Shira smiled. “You’re all doing excellent- better than I expected. But I can’t stress this enough- you need to be your very best out there. It’s going to get tougher, but I’m confident that you can handle it.” The bell tolled, calling in everyone for dinner, and she watched her squad sigh with relief. “That’s all for today. But I want you all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed tomorrow morning.”
“Of course, Captain.” Nicholas said, with a feeble salute. They were clearly exhausted, which didn’t surprise her. Shira remembered her first few days training with the Corps- she had never been so sore in her life. As they made their way from the training fields, a shout drew their attention.
“Hurry up! And Lark- be on TIME tonight!” It was Levi, already at the doors. Shira jogged a bit faster, and her squad followed.
“Captain? Who is that?” Misha asked, one of his rare contributions. She blinked at him, not used to people being unfamiliar with Levi, and chuckled. He probably wasn’t what they expected.
“That is Corporal Levi.” She said, stifling a laugh as Nicholas made an astonished sort of snorting sound.
“That’s Corporal Levi? Humanity’s Strongest Soldier?” Shira nodded. “But… He’s so… Short.” Misha was peering over the crowd forming at the door, searching for any sign of him, but he was already gone.
“Short, he may be.” Shira conceded- there was no denying that. “But he’s fast, and very skilled with those blades. I’m sure you’ll get to see him in action soon enough.”
“He’s terrible with paperwork, though!” Hanji appeared from the gaggle of people, her hair messed from practicing all day. She latched onto Shira’s arm. “Hey kids! The name’s Zoe Hanji- Shira’s best friend!” Shira raised an eyebrow at her. “Well, one of her best friends.” The squad introduced themselves, and Hanji shook each of their hands before turning her attention back to Shira. “So., You volunteered to help Short Stuff with his paperwork again tonight?’
“I didn’t volunteer- he walked up to me and told me to be in his office.” She retorted, aware that her squad was snickering at Levi’s nickname. “You don’t say no when the Corporal tells you to do something, you know. Besides, it’s just paperwork. I’m used to it by now.” She sped up, not wanting to talk about this in front of her squad.
“Are you and the Corporal a couple?” Micha asked. Hanji let out a bark of laughter and jerked forward so hard that her glasses flew from her face. The poor girl looked terrified, and sputtered for a moment, trying to backtrack.
“No, not at all.” Shira replied calmly, resisting the urge to give Hanji a good punch in the arm. “I just help him with his paperwork. It’s too much for one person to handle alone.” Micha seemed satisfied with the answer, but Hanji was still laughing and Shira could feel a knot forming in her stomach. When the cadets wandered off to find their friends in the mess hall, she did punch Hanji in the shoulder, rather hard.
“Oh, come on Shira!” she said. “We both know Levi is practically married to his work. Besides- You know you could do a lot worse. Humanity’s Strongest. Not too bad.”
“That isn’t the point!’ Shira grumbled, grabbing the plate provided by the kitchen staff and slinking over to their usual table. Petra saw them pass and jogged to catch up. “I don’t need people spreading rumors.”
“Hanji, have you been picking on her?” Petra scolded. “You shouldn’t do that, not in front of the kids.” Hanji snickered, and Shira crunched loudly into her bread and stared into her soup. She hadn’t done much training herself today, but she was still exhausted. And she had paperwork later- who knows how long that would take? But despite this, she was looking forward to it. She needed to talk to Levi- there was something comforting in being able to talk to someone else who commanded a squad. And she could use a laugh.
“Shira?” Petra was looking at her, concerned. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine… A bit lost in thought.” She admitted. “I think I need to just unwind. It was… weird overseeing those kids today. And I’m going to be from now on.” Petra nodded, finishing off her soup. “I think… Maybe I could talk to the Corporal about it.”
“Why not talk to me?” Hanji asked, looking a little indignant.
“You told me the best way to deal with unruly recruits was to make them clean up after your Titan experiments.” Shira huffed. Hanji frowned. “No offense, Hanji, but I think Levi might have the kind of advice that I’m looking for right now. And I can’t see the twins or Nicholas needing your brand of discipline anytime soon. They all seem very eager to learn. Besides, I’m not letting my kids anywhere near your Titans. I don’t want them getting eaten before they even leave the Walls.” Petra laughed, and they lapsed into easy conversation. Hanji went on for a bit about her newest experiment, which she was having some trouble getting past Erwin. Petra was interested to know how Shira’s new team was, and Sasha stopped by to give Shira her congratulations for making it past her first day. Mid-sentence, Shira noticed Levi leaving the hall, and rapidly gathered up the remains of her dinner.
“Good luck tonight. Don’t let him keep you up too late.” Sasha shouted after her. Shira gave them a quick wave before slipping into the corridor. Levi was long gone, but she trotted down the corridor, rounding the corner just in time to see the door to his office snap closed. Taking a breath, she walked up and knocked.
“Come in.” Shira peered inside. Levi was standing by the stove, placing a kettle onto it and holding a lit match in hand. “This is a surprise.” He said. She smiled. “Of course- “Levi continued, throwing the match into the stove and closing the wrought-iron door. “You may have just wanted to get away from Hanji. Maybe I should tell her to bother you more often.”
“Is it that hard to believe that I was just on time?” Shira asked, rolling her eyes and taking her usual seat. Levi handed her a stack of paperwork and she groaned- there was even more than there had been last night.
“Yes, it is.” He scoffed. She looked down at the first form and cringed- another fatality report. If they kept losing soldiers at the rate they were, the Military Police would have another excuse to shut them down. “Those damn pigs.” Levi held up another letter, signed with the Police’s insignia. “They’ll really try anything, won’t they?” he crumped it up and threw it towards the fire, but Shira caught it in mid-air.
“I think this still has to go to Erwin… As much as you hate that.” She smoothed the paper out, and saw that it was an inquiry about their use- or rather, their waste- of valuable resources. “They’re really trying to make it sound like we’re using too much… salt?” she let out a bark of laughter. “Wow. Getting desperate, aren’t they?”
“I’d like to send all of them outside the Walls.” Levi said. “See if we’re such a waste of time when the Titans have them shitting their pants. Or better yet… Let those damn wolves have them.” Shira looked up at him. “They’re not even worthy Titan food- better to let the dogs pick at their bones.”
“They were pretty useless when the Wall fell.” She conceded, though she was frowning now. Levi leaned back in his chair, arms crossed and watching her.
“If the Military police had their way, we would hide in here until all of us died.” He said bitterly.
“They can keep their damn Walls.” Shira said, with sudden intensity. “I want out… I want freedom.” He sat up a little, pushing aside a stack of papers to look at her.
“Is that why you joined the Corps, then?” he asked. This took her by surprise- they had never discussed either of their reasons for joining. “I still remember the day you showed up, clinging to Hanji like a lost kitten. You were a mess- wearing clothes three sizes too large, shaking like the little brat you were. All four-eyes would tell me is that she found you, and that you wanted to join the Corps.” Shira nodded, but he was clearly looking for more.
“I didn’t have anywhere else to go.” She said quickly. She remembered that day too- how terrified she had been, how much her injuries had ached, how big and scary all the soldiers had been. “Hanji was all that I had… So, I took a chance. I’d say it went pretty well.” She smiled, but Levi just raised an eyebrow at her.
“Why the sudden interest?” she retorted, her heart starting to pound a little faster in her chest. He shrugged.
“I know how most of the other Captains ended up here, I even know why Erwin joined. But I don’t know anything about you. Call it simple curiosity.” Shira stared down at her papers, not really seeing them, and then shook her head.
“They’re all dead.” She said. “It happened a long time ago.” The kettle began to whistle, and Levi stood to quiet it, pouring the hot water into cups.
“Hanji certainly is the type to bring home strays.” He said. “Although, she does seem very attached to you.” Shira chuckled- she had followed Hanji like a duckling for the first month of her time in the Corps. “What was your family like?”
“What?” she asked. Levi repeated the question. “Will you tell me about yours?” Silence, and she knew that meant he would not. The both returned to their paperwork, signing forms and passing letters back and forth for a few minutes, but Shira could feel the words tugging at her throat. Surely there was no harm… “I had two brothers.” She said, catching Levi by surprise. “Eli was older than me… Always starting fights and getting into trouble. And- “she paused, closing her eyes and drawing in a breath. “I had a twin. His name was Rye.”
“I didn’t know you were a twin.” Levi said, a bit more softly than he usually would. He handed her a cup of tea, which she sipped at. “And now you have a set on your squad…”
“That’s something I wanted to talk to you about.” She blurted. He set down his pen.
“Did everything go alright today? It seemed like they were doing well when I was observing.” He asked.
“No, everything was fine… I just wanted to, get it off my chest, I suppose. It’s just a lot of responsibility. If one of those kids gets eaten by a Titan… It’ll be my fault. I’ll be the one who has to tell their family about it.” Levi nodded.
“I understand. It is a lot of handle. But I’m confident that you can do it.” He stood up, pacing around the desk to stand beside her. “Shira… You need to understand that you cannot control everything that happens out there. It may be your job to guide your squad, but they signed up for this knowing exactly what could happen to them. You can’t control the Titans- you can only fight them.” He placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “I need you to know that. Even if one of them dies- I know that you will do everything in your power to bring them home, but some things even us Captains cannot stop.” She nodded, hands folded in her lap.
“Thank you.” She said quietly. “I needed to hear that.” He sniffed and returned to his seat, shuffling through his papers.
“It’s getting even worse out there, you know.” He said. “I know you can handle Titans- all of us can. It’s those dogs that I’m concerned about.” He roughly signed another letter and tossed it aside. “They got three of us last time. Came out of nowhere… Like they were waiting. Disgusting things- they’re too smart.” Shira just nodded along, trying to ignore him as she scanned another supply request. “And now that we have a boy who can turn into a Titan… the idea of a wolf turning into a human doesn’t seem so far-fetched.” She nearly dropped her tea.
“Come on, Levi.” She said, leafing through her second stack of forms. “That’s just an old wives’ tale. Next you’ll be telling me that rabbits can turn into foxes.” He chuckled. “Now hurry up! Or I’ll be done before you again.” The glint in his eye told her that Levi was taking her challenge seriously, and he dropped the topic- much to her relief. She didn’t need anything else to worry about tonight.
“Loser has to help Hanji bring home her next Titan.” Levi muttered, pen scratching furiously at the paper. Shira groaned.
“Please tell me you’re not serious.” She said. Levi just chuckled, and hurriedly grabbed his next form. “Come on! Can’t it be something else? Besides, if I end up having to help her, she’ll just drag me into her lab and make me watch… Or even ask me to help.”
“She hasn’t asked you that already?” Levi glanced at her. Shira huffed.
“I’ve been too busy coming here every evening. You’ve actually saved my skin with all this paperwork.” At this, he actually laughed.
“She’s going to lose an arm to one of those things someday.” He mused. “And I think I like you having both your hands attached. You work faster that way.” Shira flung an envelope addressed to Erwin across the desk, and they lapsed into silence, both racing through their stacks of forms with renewed vigor. Shira signed away, mindlessly leafing through paper after paper, until she hit another fatality report and her stomach twisted into a knot.
“I hate these.” She said, giving it a quick once over, averting her eyes from the names and scrawling a hasty, half-signature on the bottom.
“No one really reads them.” Levi said. “Well, Erwin will.” Shira nodded. “And then he’ll go and tell their families that they never made it back.” His brow furrowed as she handed him the paper and he laid it in the ever-growing pile. The large clock in the corner began to chime- eleven, and he tapped his pen on the desk. “Shira, you can go.”
“Are you sure?” she asked. There were still piles to go. “It really isn’t any trouble.” But Levi shook his head.
“Tomorrow, I want you back out there and training those kids. You should be well-rested. I can handle this from here.” Shira hesitated, but Levi fixed her with a stern glare and she sighed, handing him the pen and her empty teacup.
“Alright, Levi. We’ll be out there bright and early.” Levi waved her away, watching as she slipped from the office and shut the door behind her. One glance at the stack still left on Shira’s side of the desk was enough to make his head ache. He was in for a long night.