The hour was late. The lamps had burned low. And Levi could feel himself sobering up. In his opinion it about as annoying of a feeling as there ever was. The world had lost its fuzzy edge and a bitter taste was creeping into his mouth.
He looked up from the swill at the bottom of his glass to eye Erwin. The commander was sitting across the table from him, his face mostly lost in shadow, but his eyes shining ever so slightly in the weak lamplight. Levi couldn’t read the other man’s expression. He looked back at his empty glass and pushed back from the table, ready to head to his quarters.
“Tell me a story.”
Levi was caught half standing. “I don’t know any stories.”
“How many times have I told you to stop lying to me?”
Levi scrutinized the commander’s face, still set in a neutral mask despite the annoyance in his voice. He sighed and sat back down, pushing his glass across the table top. Erwin nodded and refilled both of their glasses with the ale the government sent by the barrel.
Once Erwin was reseated Levi took a long sip to buy some time. The beer was mostly head, and it left a thin strip of foam on his upper lip which he wiped away with a linen napkin. “I once heard a drunk man go on at great length about a ‘secret about the old world.’ He insisted that the crown could have him killed just for hinting at what he knew. He was clearly a crackpot, and everyone in the bar ignored him. I was intrigued. I don’t know why, that type of shit isn’t normally my thing. Maybe I was a special kind of drunk, or looking for trouble. So once everyone else in the bar had turned away I sat across from the man. He stank.”
Erwin smirked at this.
“I don’t see how that’s amusing, he was disgusting,” Levi snapped.
“It just figures that you would take note of his cleanliness,” Erwin said into his glass.
Levi narrowed his eyes but continued. “I sat down and asked him what he knew about the old world that was so shocking. He looked at me all suspicion and fear, but then he leaned in,” Levi spared a moment to grimace at the memory, “He leaned in and said, ‘humans used to fly.’”
Erwin snorted and took a long pull from his beer.
“My response exactly, but I had engaged and the stinking fool kept on talking. He insisted that humans once built machines the size of houses, and they would use these machines to fly over mountains and across water wider than you can see across in a matter of minutes.”
His beer was halfway gone now, and he could feel the buzz slinking back into his brain. He took another deep drink and continued. “And that wasn’t the craziest part. Because I asked why.”
“Oh well now that’s believable,” Erwin muttered.
“No, I wanted to hear why he thought people would go through that much effort, and he said, ‘Because they could.’ Which, fair enough, supposedly they would have had nothing to fear. But then he said, ‘Do you know what they would do while they were riding in their flying machines?’ And I shook my head no, because of course I fucking didn’t. And he said, ‘They sat and did nothing.’ Irritated that I had wasted my time, I got up, I paid my tab and I left.”
“I’m sure that’s all you did.”
“Are you going to question everything I say I did?”
“I just think you’re being rather selective.”
“I told you, I don’t know any stories.” He had to fight his tongue to get the words out clearly.
“Changing the subject I see,” Erwin said, before drinking the last of his beer. He didn’t seem drunk at all. This observation caused a small flare of anger in Levi’s chest.
“What do you want me to say? That I beat the shit out of a crazy old man because I was an angry, violent kid before you scraped me from the bottom of the barrel?”
Erwin only tilted his head to the side.
“Well I did, and if I saw that disgusting old man tomorrow and he told me his bullshit story I would leave him worse than the last time.”
“Why? You of all people have to ask me why?”
Levi thought for a moment, pushing the old spit and rage down as best he could. “He believed, and wanted to convince me that humans were once such masters of the world that we could climb inside of a machine and be a thousand miles away by the time the sun went down. That we could do all of that, and no one cared. That freedom was as simple as wanting to be free. And even with all of that we folded under the titans like tissue paper.”
Levi was beginning to feel a darkness pressing in on his mind. He stood and refilled his glass, drinking a quarter of it right there.
“This stupid old man claimed to know all of this because his father’s father told him. But there he was, in a filthy bar, in a filthy city claiming humanity was once great and noble and powerful. He claimed we could fly anywhere, and that if we tried hard enough maybe we could again.”
Erwin said nothing, he just sat back and watched Levi pace the width of the room.
“We cling to our scrap of land like a guttering flame clings to a wick and he wanted people to dream of flying.”
“We do fly.” Erwin’s words were quiet and without emotion.
Levi regarded him with a questioning look.
“You, me, the corps, we fly.”
Levi frowned and took a swig of his drink. “It’s not the same thing.”
“No. I think it’s better.”
This forced a small bitter laugh from the younger soldier. He topped off his drink and returned to his seat. “It’s your turn to elaborate.”
“That man’s flying machine, you said that when people rode in it they sat and did nothing.”
“Except eat and drink.”
“Right. So, when we fly, we feel the sun on our skin and the wind roars in our ears—”
“And we skirt around death,” Levi cut him off.
“Yes, that’s part of the job, of keeping others alive,” Erwin’s voice was still calm and even. “Let me ask you a question.”
Levi nodded, despite his mounting annoyance.
“If I were to sign the papers right now, retiring you from the Scout Regiment, and sending you back to the interior what would you do?”
Levi’s lips were pressed into a thin line. “It would be an order wouldn’t it.”
“Better phrasing: If I told you that you could leave, go somewhere safer, even pick back up where you were before we caught you, would you go.”
“And why not?”
Levi stared at him, why was he pushing this? He licked his lips and said, “This is the only thing that makes me feel like less of an animal in a cage.” He refused to make eye contact. “You and your ideal. Pay any cost to advance humanity. And I don’t get why you have to ask. You know.” Now he looked up, “You know I’d rather die fighting than curled up in false safety praying for one more day.”
Erwin nodded and without another word, stood and walked out of the room leaving Levi alone.