He doesn’t know how this happened.
He’s normally quite adept at keeping track of events.
The Ape Titan had taken them all by surprise.
He’s not entirely certain where it came from in the first place- it had appeared out of the morning mist like a nightmare, bringing a slew of smaller titans with it. He remembers watching the foul things run towards them, watching them weave between the Ape Titan’s slower-stepping legs as it had spoken, voice a booming whisper, face dull but eyes sharp.
He’d sprung into action at almost the same moment he’d heard Eren’s distinctive bellow and had known to be careful of which titans he slew.
He’d anchored his grapples, sprung from his horse, and flown.
Everything that followed was a blur of vertigo, mist and blades and blood and snapping teeth, no sky and no ground.
There had been no time to think, no time to hesitate, no time to fear.
He remembers running out of gas and he remembers falling, but he doesn’t remember landing.
When he’d fallen, grapples failing to anchor, gear whining on his hips as it had whipped the cables back through empty air towards him, body slipping from the sky in a graceful arc of forward momentum he was losing to the crisp white air, of height he was losing to the pull of the ground, he’d hadn’t been afraid.
He’d been very calm.
‘Today is the day I die,’ he’d thought, ‘Finally, it’s today.’
He’d die in the open air, smelling pine and cedar and rain, not cisterns or sewers or the rotted breath of a titan, and he’d die having done absolutely everything he could.
It was enough.
When he awoke, though, he wasn’t dead.
He knows he’s not dead, but he’s not sure if he’s broken.
He doesn’t know how long it’s been. The sky is blue and cloudless above him. The sun is warm on his face.
The air is silent, still except for a cool breeze.
He’s dimly aware of a low ache that stretches from his shoulders to his fingertips and toes, and he’s aware that this is a good sign.
His back is probably not broken.
It’s possible that it is, possible that, by some miracle of chance, his spinal cord simply hasn’t been severed yet, but it probably isn’t.
He curls his fingers against the ground beneath him experimentally. Thick, wet soil drags against his fingertips. His arms ache.
There’s a shooting pain in his left bicep, but it doesn’t feel like a broken bone. He bends his elbows.
His shoulders ache when he lifts them.
His knees ache when he bends them.
His back aches when he arches it.
He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and turns his head to the side.
His neck aches.
He exhales gustily.
‘Bruised, but not broken.’
He’s not entirely sure how to feel about that.
He doesn’t want to die, but the death his fall should have given him was more merciful by far than any other he can obtain out here, injured in the wild lands between Wall Rose and the shattered Wall Maria.
It takes him a moment to sit up- the ground is wet and soft, dampened by a night of rain and churned up by a morning of turmoil.
Rather ironically, he supposes he owes his safe landing to the titans.
Of which there are none to be seen, nor are there any signs of his squad or their horses.
No titans, no corpses, and no people.
He assesses his arm and discovers a thick but shallow gash running from his inner elbow to his shoulder. He doesn’t know where it came from. It’s bleeding, but not heavily.
He’s unsteady on his feet when he rises, back and thighs and calves and arms all bruised from the shock of landing, and he’s less aware of the mud coating his back than he is of the fact that if he lives long enough to shake off the stupor of fresh trauma, it will madden him.
He begins to walk towards the trees, careful to fold the severed cloth of his uniform sleeve over his wound before pressing his hand over it to slow the bleeding.
A dull, repetitive voice in his mind tells him that he needs to get out of the open, that he can’t see the titans but they will come if he lingers here any longer.
He hears a steady thunder that he hopes is his heartbeat but knows isn’t. The treeline doesn’t seem to grow any closer.
The dimmed fire of indignation smokes and reignites in his chest. ‘Not like this. Not here. Not like this.’
He quickens his pace, ignoring the sluggish groaning of his body. ‘Not like this.’
It’s a mantra more than it is a prayer to gods he believes in less than he believes in the hell he’ll go to if he dies before his work is done. ‘Not here. Not like this.’
The thunder rises, becomes irregular and ever-closer, and he closes his eyes and grits his teeth and pushes himself harder. ‘Not like this. Not to a titan.’ The trees are growing.
They are not growing fast enough.
He can smell it coming, and he stops, grasping at the blades at his sides, because he will not die with his back turned.
He will not die running from his reaper.
He has them raised, ready for the hand it extends towards him, when he hears a sound like an animal screaming and something flies over his head, a bright familiar flash that sweeps in and over the bending titan before it falls.
The soldier screams, still anchored to its shoulder as it topples, and he throws himself out of the way, rolling just far enough to avoid its falling weight but not enough to avoid feeling the whumph of putrid air it produces upon impact.
A girl is scrambling off of it towards him. He knows her face.
“Braus?” he asks shakily, and she beams, darting towards him.
Under normal circumstances, her arms around his shoulders would’ve been unwelcome.
In these ones, they’re unwelcome and they hurt like hell against his bruised flesh.
He grunts out a strangled objection and she jumps back, jabbering apologetically and grabbing at his arm. “You’re bleeding,” she observes seriously, and he wants to snap at her for stating the obvious, but the adrenaline ebbing from his body leaves his muscles screaming in protest and his head swimming. He can’t seem to catch his breath.
“Braus,” he starts again, but she slaps a filthy hand over his mouth, eyes fixed on a distant point and chin raised attentively.
“There are more coming,” she whispers, darting towards the forest and then hesitating, looking back at him when he struggles to stand.
He can see the conflict in her eyes.
‘This is it,’ he thinks wryly, ‘this is how it ends.’
He’s always known that humans were far more heartless animals than titans, and her pragmatism doesn’t surprise or concern him. He’d probably do the same, were their positions reversed. He wonders if he should ask her to give him the mercy of a quick death- it’s no more than he’d offer another in his condition under these circumstances.
When she darts back towards him, he wonders if that’s what she’s doing after all- if she saw the look in his eyes and knew it.
Her pragmatism would not have surprised him.
Her loyalty does.
The arms that slip under his are strong but clumsy and he bites back a groan at the pain their pressure causes him.
The ground begins to slide beneath his boots and he realizes abruptly that she’s dragging him.
“Braus,” he grunts breathlessly, “go.” It comes out stern and short, like the order he means it to be, and he’s grateful.
“Go where, sir?” she pants in his ear, yanking him further up in her arms. He tries to get his feet under him, to shake her off, but his legs have surrendered and will not listen.
He can see the titans, now, but they haven’t been spotted.
“Don’t be a hero, Braus,” he barks at her, twisting feebly in her grasp.
She makes a weird, almost pathetic sound and grips him harder. “Please stop squirming, sir,” she whines before panting out a determined, “When we get back, I’m raiding your larder and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. Uh, sir. Nothing you can do to stop me, sir.”
He actually laughs. It’s something he thought impossible for anyone but Hanji under the circumstances, because to laugh when injured, exposed, and staring down three or four tenuously inattentive titans in the distance would mean insanity.
But he laughs, nonetheless, out of sheer incredulity.
“You’re thinking about food even now, you psychotic little turd?” he gasps, craning his head to look at her.
Shadow passes over his face and he realizes, with no small feeling of wonder, that they’ve made it to the treeline.
“I’d rather,” she wheezes, pulling him further under the cover of the shade, “think about things that make me happy than things that make me scared, sir!”
He really can’t fault her logic.
He realizes very quickly that of all people he could have been lost in the forest with, Sasha Braus is, without a doubt, the most preferable.
She’s not terrible company- distractible, animalistic, filthy, and utterly preoccupied with food, yes, but rather pleasant and genuine otherwise, like a poorly-trained dog- and she sets about securing a shelter for them with a promptness that assures him she knows exactly what she’s doing.
He doubts it for a moment when she drags him out of the broad spaces between large trunks into an uncomfortably densely patch of smaller ones and props him against the narrow trunk of a pale tree with odd, peeling bark, but she silences his wary questions with an urgent wave.
“This is the safest place,” she insists, looking around at the small uneven circle of undergrowth they linger in with visible satisfaction before she begins to tear up the squat bushes and stunted saplings littering the clearing. “It’s all new growth here,” she chatters easily, grunting as she pulls against the stubborn roots of a wiry-looking plant. “The trees haven’t gotten big enough to cut each other off and make sure no other trees grow between them, so they’re too dense for the titans to get between.”
The roots crack. She falls over with a small cry, tangling herself in the low branches of a pine before sinking into a patch of buoyant moss.
He runs his fingers over the moss he sits on, as well, before spotting a flash of insectile legs and snatching his hand back with a grimace.
The bark he’s leaning on itches against his back. He tries not to think about what might be skittering across its surface and fails, leaning forward with a pained grunt. “Shouldn’t we find a cave or something?” he asks, rather irritated by his own discomfort.
Braus sits up to stare at him. There are pine needles in her hair.
“Sir, do you know of a cave hereabouts?”
She sounds genuinely inquisitive, even a little excited, and he almost doesn’t notice her odd phrasing or the tiny unfamiliar lilt her voice does when she says it.
“No,” he answers, startled at how quickly she droops. “I was speaking hypothetically.”
She stares at him for a moment, lips parted, and then her expression descends into the most frank display of despairing exasperation he has ever had the displeasure of finding directed towards himself.
“Yer a city boy,” she states, speech suddenly raw and unaffected. It is not a question. “O’ ‘course ya’d be a city boy.” He notes, torn between mild amusement and deep offense, that she says ‘city boy’ like it’s a single word. “Look ‘ere, city boy,” she sighs, crossing her legs and leaning her chin on a hand, “This is ‘ow she works: ye don’t go lookin’ fer a cave ye don’t know’s there, ‘less ye wanna get et by a titan afore ye find one. Ye make do with what the forest gives ye, an’ if ye find yerself a cave ‘longst the way, well, s’grand.” She fidgets for a moment, eyes flickering like she’s only just remembered who he is. “Cap’n Levi, sir,” she adds belatedly, saying ‘sir’ like ‘sahr’ and his name like nothing he’s ever heard before.
“What did you just call me?” he asks, thrown from deep irritation into bemusement.
“Captain Levi, sir?” she repeats, looking a little puzzled and then stiffening when he starts to snicker.
“Lay-vi?” he wheezes, “Braus, did you just call me lay-vi?”
“Lee-vi,” she corrects stiffly, face darkening as he groans at the ache his laughter is awakening in his back and sides. She points at him menacingly. “Listen a’me, city b- sir, if yer wantin’ to et past tonight I’d say ye should quit yer laffin’, ‘cause the rations won’t last an’ I’m thinking you’ll not be doin’ much huntin’, state yer in,” she scolds, and then slaps her palm to her forehead with an odd curse.
He shrinks back against the tree when scrambles across the clearing towards him, weed-pulling endeavor abandoned, and grabs at his arm. “Firs’ things first,” she starts brusquely, tearing sleeve away from his wound, “yer not much help as ye are, but you’ll be e’en less help havin’ died of the bubblies.”
“I’m sorry, the what?”
He’s very thoroughly bemused.
“Infection,” she explains, poking at his arm and glancing over at him. “Y’know, ‘cause it… bubbles up, all green an’ yellow, if ye don’t clean it proper… properly,” she adds, making a cursory attempt to sound more like the oddly-formal girl he’d vaguely registered as belonging to his new squad.
He grimaces at the vivid image her description summons up. “Gross,” he mutters, hissing as she prods at his wound again.
She looks up at the patchwork of sky shining through the branches above them, down at his arm, behind her at the patchy clearing, and then up at the sky again.
“S’too wide,” she murmurs to herself, furrowing her eyebrows. “Be better if it was jus’ deep.”
He looks at her inquisitively and she smiles brightly at him. It makes him a little suspicious. “I’m going to make a fire,” she tells him, enunciating each word very carefully in a way that suddenly sounds very strange. “We’ll boil some water, get you cleaned up-” he notices with a strange shock that she emphasizes the word ‘cleaned’ very particularly “-an’ then I’ll sees about makin’ sure we don’t get rained on,” she finishes, faltering back into a mild burr. “If that’s alright with you, Captain Lee-vi, sir.”
He doesn’t miss the petulance behind her pointedly corrected pronunciation of his name.
“Even if it’s not, you’re not really planning on letting a ‘city boy’ tell you otherwise, Braus,” he murmurs drily, eyebrows raised. “No matter what you do, we’re knee-deep in dog shit right now and at least one of us will probably be dead before the week is out. You’d be better off on your own.”
She hums thoughtfully. “Nah,” she say, remarkably confident, “I say we got a fortnight or so atween the two of us.” His blank stare must be obvious, because she follows a short pause with, “A couple o’ weeks, sir.”
“Ah.” He snorts. “How optimistic.”
She shuffles around the clearing for a few minutes, pulling up plants and gathering loose sticks and piling them all together in the middle.
“Sir?” she says suddenly, back turned.
He eyes her curiously. “I’m listening, Braus.”
She looks over her shoulder at him with a vaguely annoyed expression.
“Me name’s Sasha,” she tells him firmly. “If ye keep callin’ me Braus I might come to think yer callin’ for me father. S’not a name I answer to.”
He laughs quietly, wincing as he shifts his aching legs. “Well then, Sasha,” he allows, “if you’re not going to try to make the trip back to the walls alone and we’re going to be stuck out here for a while before you figure it is that we’re going to die, I’d rather not be buried by someone who calls me ‘sahr’,” he drawls, the corners of his lips turning up at the sour look she throws him.
“Just don’t call me Lay-vi.”