They appeared mere days after Annie had been captured, or had escaped, depending on your definition. The Survey Corps were still within Wall Sina; Erwin was arguing their case, and Eren was being kept under close observation in the meantime. Erwin seemed to think they'd get to keep him for now at least, but Levi hadn't been convinced. Not until now, anyway. He was in the city observing the survivors picking through the rubble, and the Military Police scrambling to deal with the aftermath of the titan fight. There was always so much to do; dead to bury, buildings too damaged to be safe had to be destroyed, streets had to be cleared and the homeless housed and fed.
It wasn't something the Survey Corps had an official part to play in, but he could see the odd green cloak among the Military Police, lending a hand where it was needed.
He was technically on medical leave, which in reality meant only that Erwin could send him out to observe without having to explain his absence at the meetings. His ankle was still healing, and he wasn't stupid enough to pretend it didn't need a week or two of rest, so he was on horseback. At least until he saw the sheets of paper pasted to the filthy wall of an alleyway between two buildings. He dismounted, his ankle twinging in his boot when it hit the ground, and walked over to take a closer look.
Erwin would want to see this. Unfortunately.
The paper was pasted to the wall by some sort of glue, and trying to touch it as little as possible, Levi used a pocketknife to help scrape it off before folding it up neatly and putting it in his pocket.
“Have you seen these?” he asked Erwin later, during a recess. He'd caught his superior's eye and Erwin had led him to a random office and ordered out the underling who'd been filing paperwork inside.
Neither of them were at ease here; in its own way the capital was as dangerous as the world beyond Wall Rosa, only the threats were more subtle, and couldn't be dealt with by a blade to the neck. Erwin expected Levi to play the same role he always did; the superhuman soldier, loyal and obedient to the Survey Corps. Along with the pride and respect, Erwin cultivated fear as well, not overtly, but just enough. Levi is on my leash, he seemed to say, aren't you glad you're not the one trying to control him? And now Eren was added to his arsenal of tame monsters. It was no wonder he was disliked in the capital, but the Titans were more of a threat than he was.
Erwin stood with his back to the window and unfolded the sheet of paper. Crudely and hastily printed was a rough approximation of Eren's titan face, and underneath it four words.
He's On Our Side.
“This opinion is not uncontested,” Levi added. “Plenty of the posters have been defaced or torn down.” He knew better than to expect politics would wait for the clean-up effort to be completed.
“This was always to be expected,” Erwin said. “The debate over Eren's nature has only shifted from the courtroom to the streets.”
If the mass of public demanded Eren's head, Levi knew they'd get it in the end, but the posters on the wall suggested that Eren represented something other than fear; hope. Nothing had truly sunk in yet; the news would still be spreading, and people would still be making up their minds how to react.
“Let's not worry Eren with it for now,” Erwin said.
Of course, he found out anyway.
Everyone had been questioned and re-questioned, but in the end Eren was left in the hands of the Survey Corps, and they could finally return to HQ. Levi hesitated to think of anywhere as 'home' but he was looking forward to returning to a place where he was in charge of the cleaning schedules, and he wouldn't have people coming up to him and asking if he was who they thought he was. He'd still get stared at, but that was less bothersome.
Eren had bounced back physically; Hange had told him that was to be expected, but there was too much left undone, too many questions without answers and too many dead left rotting in the fields beyond Wall Rose for the young man to be anything approaching normal.
They'd given him a nice enough room, at least, in one of the governmental mansions set aside for visitors of importance. Eren was sitting on the edge of his bed, his elbows on his knees, staring blankly at the floor when Levi went to see him. Levi knew his friends visited him regularly, and it was probably they who'd given him the torn poster that was sitting on the side table.
“Corporal.” Eren got to his feet. He was clearly itching to get out of here, and Levi didn't blame him.
“We're moving out,” Levi said. “Within the hour.”
Tension visibly drained out of him, his shoulders lowering and his hands relaxing. “And Annie?”
Levi just shook his head. Hange had been requisitioning the most bizarre things, but had yet to find a way to free her.
“You're not a prisoner any more, you're a soldier,” Levi said. “So smarten up before someone sees you.”
“Sir!” He saluted as Levi turned to go. He really was keen to get out of here.
“And one more thing,” Levi said, indicating the poster. “Don't let that go to your head. There's a good chance any mobs you meet will be waving pitchforks, not tossing bouquets.”
“I wasn't-” Levi closed the door.
Any concerns that Eren might start thinking too much of himself were laid to rest on the trip home. Levi heard him muttering to himself as they rode out of the capital, anonymous in their uniforms and cloaks.
“I did that. I did that.” He couldn't sit still in the saddle, instead turning and staring at ruined buildings until they were out of sight.
Eren met his eyes once, looking for reassurance or absolution and Levi refused to give it to him. They all do what is necessary, and they all have to learn how to live with it. Levi couldn't just wave his hand and give Eren a perfect method of coping. Even if he could, he didn't really want to see Eren following in his footsteps; they were too different and that road would probably break him.
They'd given themselves no time. As soon as they'd returned from the doomed 57th expedition they'd barely had time to scrub off the blood and throw together a plan before heading in to the capital.
There had been no time to bury the dead, or even mourn them.
Eren returned to his dungeon.
Erwin had a complex method of promotion that swung into action after every expedition to fill the holes left by the dead, but this time even he struggled. The loss of the Special Squad was felt keenly by everyone and it would take time to find replacements. Levi found himself just stopping sometimes, just for a moment, startled by some new lack. Then he moved on.
There were two services, and Levi attended them both. The first was for the public, and he stood among the weeping families and friends of the deceased, less distressed by the occasional resentment that was directed towards him than by the compassion. Erwin attended as well, along with a few others who were closest to the deceased, and Levi stood stoically; he'd heard the funeral service so many times he knew it off by heart, and he let it wash over him.
He was not a believer, but he always appreciated the music.
The Survey Corps had their own memorial, that was shorter and less demonstrative. Levi remembered Eld saying once that they were held not only for the dead who had died, but those dead who were still alive as well. They were for everyone.
Eren wasn't there. Levi noticed Mikasa and Armin exchanging worried glances as they assembled for the service, and he narrowed his eyes and strode down to the dungeon.
Eren was standing in the middle of his room, in uniform, his hands clenched at his sides and his wide green eyes staring blankly ahead of him. Internally Levi braced himself for yet another thing that had to be done, one of an endless list.
“What are you waiting for?” Levi asked flatly.
“I can't,” he said quietly, still not meeting Levi's eyes. “I don't deserve to be up there, if I'd just-” He looked at him then, pleading once again for Levi to understand.
Of course he fucking understood, but Levi didn't blink. He stepped right up into Eren's personal space, looking down at him despite the hight difference. Eren flinched, as if expecting a punch, and Levi wasn't surprised.
“Listen, you arrogant little shit,” Levi intoned. “I don't care how you feel; this isn't about you, it's about them. Or didn't they earn your attendance? Is your indisposition more important?”
Eren inhaled sharply, and Levi half expected he'd start crying then and there, but he managed to hold it, just. Others might have accused Levi of being heartless; it happened quite regularly, but Eren was more aware than that, and he simply hung his head. Stop reaching out for me, Levi thought. He was tired.
“No, Corporal. I understand.” Eren set his jaw and marched out. Levi let him go. He wouldn't follow on his heels like he was a sheepdog, he'd let the others think Eren was merely late rather than make it obvious Levi himself had to fetch him. But fetch him he had to do, he had to be there; Levi knew he'd regret it far more later if he wasn't.
Levi stood through another service. He barely felt the weight of others' eyes on him. After the service, the group split up, some people to mourn alone and some looking for comfort in small groups. Sasha, tears still streaking her face, declared she was going to have a snack and no one was going to stop her. No one tried.
Levi heard quick footsteps behind him and he paused to let Eren catch up and say what he had to say.
“I don't care about being seen as some sort of hero,” he declared abruptly. Startled by the topic, Levi said nothing, even as he doubted the truth of his words. “It's enough that people think I'm human! So when I go back afterwards-” he trailed off when he saw the expression on Levi's face.
Oh. Oh, that's what he thought, was it? Of course he did.
Levi realised Eren thought it was going to end. He'd spent the first ten years of his life shielded by the walls, and for him war was an unnatural state of affairs. Something to survive and live through until you came out the other side. He thought he could win; he assumed he would win.
Levi didn't have to say anything, Eren could see the truth written on his face. Nearly twenty years of fighting had resigned Levi it its perpetual burden.
But Eren couldn't be anyone other than himself and he drew a deep breath. “No, it's different now. I have this power, and we have Annie, so. So.” He nodded, “I will kill the titans and it will end. I'll prove it to you!” And then he dashed off without waiting to be dismissed. Levi watched him go, feeling very tired and very old.
He didn't want Eren to waste his time trying to prove things to him, but he didn't want him to hollow out inside so much that he stopped trying, either.
The next morning they ate breakfast at a table that was far too big for the both of them, but none of the other recruits were quite game to join Eren while Levi was there. Next time, he decided, he'd eat somewhere else.
Something was missing. Every morning, Oluo had gallantly and specifically offered to make Petra a cup of tea, and every morning he ended up having to make one for everyone. It was an all but wordless team ritual to start the day. And he memorised everyone's preferences perfectly.
Today, no one was making them tea.
Levi heard a soft, stifled squeak and noticed Eren was getting salt water in his porridge, as the tears he'd seen building in his eyes finally overflowed.
“They're really gone,” he said through a jaw clenched so hard it was wonder he didn't crack a tooth. Nothing brought the truth of it home quite like an orderly routine disrupted.
Silently, Levi got up and made Eren a cup of tea, sweet, the way he liked it.