Everything began to unravel the night after Levi’s second major expedition. He stormed into Erwin’s office, teeth clenched and fists tight:
“They’re all dead! Your strategy got them killed.”
“There can be no triumph for humanity without taking risks,” Erwin said. “Risks mean casualties. It’s an unfortunate sacrifice we must all make.”
“They’re all dead.” Levi’s voice was frayed. “They weren’t just casualties, they were my fucking team!”
The words tasted of blood and smoke, and when Erwin closed his eyes, he saw flames devour the uneaten remains of Henrik’s torso, felt forgotten tears run down his face: Don’t you dare call him a ‘casualty’. He was a person, not a statistic.
He swallowed a lump in his throat and drew himself upright, reciting the words his Commander had given him that night, so many years ago: “When we enlist in the Survey Corps, we are asked if we are willing to give our lives for the sake of humanity. Your team fulfilled their vows and made the ultimate sacrifice, and we are all proud of them.” The words sounded emptier leaving his mouth than they did in his memory. Had they been just as empty then, too?
And Levi, brave Levi, who had risked his life on the streets for scraps of food, who could fell more titans in a single expedition than most soldiers in a lifetime, dropped to his knees and began to weep.
It was a scene that had replayed countless times and would replay countless more: every member of the Survey Corps had this breakdown at some point, even the strongest soldiers. If Erwin had steeled himself and let him mourn alone, their bond would have cemented at a distance, a bond of respect and professionalism and nothing more.
Instead, memories still fresh on his mind, he knelt beside the weeping man and draped an arm across his shoulders. Levi fell against him, a hand twisting into his shirt, body heaving with sobs. His form was small and warm, and Erwin instinctively curled around him, trying, for just a little longer, to shield him from the horrors of the career he had forced upon him.
Though the incident went unspoken between them in the months to come, a very different kind of bond began to take shape.
- 1 -
As Erwin stepped through the doorway, he was surprised to see Captain Anke sitting across from Commander Shadis. For Erwin to be called into his Commander’s office at eight o’clock at night wasn’t unheard of, as they had spent many late nights together working on strategies for expeditions. Anke’s presence, however, was unexpected; she preferred to execute plans, not help create them. She was plaiting damp red hair in a braid over her shoulder, and when her eyes locked with his, she gave him a little shrug, evidently as confused about her presence as he was. Shadis, meanwhile, was sorting a pile of files into two stacks on his desk, his brows heavy, his jaw set.
“You wanted to see me?” Erwin asked, saluting.
“Ah, Erwin.” Shadis finished sorting the files, then looked up at him with a polite smile. “Close the door and take a seat. Thank you for coming on such short notice. I apologize for taking both of you away from your leisure time.”
It wasn’t like him to be so formal, and Erwin immediately began to anticipate bad news. He strained his vision to read the files on the desk. Personnel; Mike’s file was at the top of one stack, Levi’s at the top of the other. Taking a seat beside Anke, he said, “I assume this is about the Squad Leader vacancy?”
“Partly.” Shadis leaned back in his chair, folding his hands on top of the desk. His gaze, deep-set and rimmed with dark hollows, intimidated most who met him, but Erwin saw the gaze for what it really was: fatigue. Lately, the hollows had been growing, so it was no surprise to hear the next words:
“I’m retiring from the Survey Corps. Effective the end of this week, I’ll be making the transition to training new recruits.”
Erwin had been dreading this day. The two of them worked well together; Shadis had identified his strategic abilities early on, and seemed to enjoy coaching him through strategies and proposals, giving Erwin more responsibility than a Squad Leader should rightfully have. It was a strong balance of mentorship and trust, one Erwin didn’t expect to find again.
“Anke, you’ll be promoted to Commander,” Shadis said. “Later this week, you’ll accompany me to a ceremony at the Capital to formally transfer leadership.”
The woman’s hands froze mid-braid, her eyes wide. “Thank you, sir,” she stammered, her tone conveying more fear than gratitude.
“And Erwin, you’ll be taking over as Captain. Since your position will need to be backfilled, that frees up room for both Mike and Levi to be promoted. In addition, we’ve received funding for yet another Squad Leader position.” He slid the two stacks of files across the desk. “Here are the short-listed candidates from the previous round of interviews, several Team Leaders, and a few more candidates I hand picked from the newer recruits. This is a good opportunity to start introducing our new Squad Leaders to the bureaucratic aspects of their roles. Erwin, you and Mike go through one set of candidates, and Anke, you and Levi do the other. Let’s identify the right candidate within the next two days.”
Erwin began to flip through a stack of files, scanning the names. “This is all happening quickly.”
“I’m an old man. I’ve been doing this a long time.” Shadis fell silent, but it was easy to fill in the blanks. They had neighbouring rooms, and Erwin regularly overheard yells from nightmares.
Shadis cleared his throat. “Anke, you’re dismissed. Erwin, stay behind for a moment.”
“Sir.” The woman saluted, then scurried from the room, her arms curled around her stack of files.
Once the door closed behind her, Erwin frowned. “She’s nervous.” He wasn’t certain how to feel about that. While her fear didn’t inspire confidence in her leadership abilities, it did, at least, make her more likely to listen to his counsel. He had worked hard to gain control of the strategic aspects of the Survey Corps, and he wasn’t prepared to give that up.
“She just needs time to get used to the idea. The two of you will do a fine job of leading this ragtag group, and I’m going to have a hell of a good time scaring the shit out of trainees.” There was a long pause, then Shadis’ voice softened. “I want you to understand why she was promoted ahead of you.”
“I assumed it was because she outranked me.”
“This conversation is long overdue. I’m supposed to be your mentor, Erwin, and there are a few things you need to learn before you can lead this group. You’re an excellent strategist, no question. Your drive to free humanity is unmatched, and your ability to separate your heart and your head makes you a brilliant tactician.” He paused. “But it makes you a shitty leader.”
Though Erwin managed to keep his face perfectly neutral, his pulse began to rise. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“Think about all the times I’ve had to suggest more caution to your strategies. If you see the people around you as chess pieces, you start to make risky sacrifices in order to win the game; you forget they’re people with fears, with morale. It’s not sustainable to cast them endlessly to their deaths. If you do, you’re going to end up with a company that despises you, a company so crippled by fear that it can’t even fight.”
For the first time since Erwin had joined the Corps, his ego smarted. “I take morale into account when—”
“You don’t understand it. You calculate it. You’ve separated yourself so far from your humanity that you’ve lost the ability to empathize.” The sympathetic look on Shadis’ face only made the insult more painful. “Anke has connected with the troops. She sees them as humans, and they know it. If she asks them to die for her, they will go to their deaths without suspicion, because they know she’ll only ask if it’s damned well necessary. That, Erwin, is why she is taking over as Commander.”
The tone suggested the conversation was over, but Erwin wasn’t accustomed to having his intentions questioned. He leaned forward. “Keith, you and I both know sacrifices are necessary if humanity is to advance.”
“They are, absolutely. And soldiers will climb into the maws of a titan for you if they believe you’re acting in their best interests.” Shadis stood. “It doesn’t take much. Grab a beer with the troops now and then, talk to them, get to know them. You’ll find that they begin to trust you more, which will serve your goals—and you’ll become more cautious about needlessly expending their lives, which will serve theirs. Dismissed.”
Rising, Erwin saluted, thumping his chest hard enough to bruise. He grabbed his share of the files and strode across the wooden floor, mind churning. That was about the last expedition , he thought as he stepped through the door. He wants me to understand that I sacrificed too many soldiers for too little gain, but I already knew that. His jaw tightened as he remembered Levi’s tears, felt the small form huddled against his body.
“Erwin.” Anke’s voice made him jump. She was leaning against the hallway wall, still clutching the files to her chest. “Can we talk?”
He stood tall. “Congratulations on your promotion.”
“Thanks.” Her voice wavered.
Shifting his files to one hand, he gripped her shoulder with the other. “You’ll be fine.”
“You’ll still be doing all our strategy. I can barely even read a map.” She shook her head. “This is ridiculous. Why didn’t he give us any advance notice? It’s all so fast. I wasn’t even done washing my hair! And why the hell didn’t he promote you instead?”
“He said I’ve distanced myself too far from my humanity.”
She squinted, looking just as confused as he was. “I don’t really know how relevant humanity is out on the field, anyway. I’d rather follow someone who could distance himself, keep his wits about him.”
He smiled, grateful for her confidence.
“Well,” she said, “it is what it is, so let’s deal with it one step at a time.” She held up her stack of files. “What do you think —start this tonight? That way we can get all three of the new Squad Leaders training together, save us some time. Maybe even get them working in their roles for next week’s expedition.”
“I’m willing to do this now if you are, but we’d better be quick if we want to catch anyone sober.” He could already hear the chaotic rumble of discussion and laughter from the end of the hallway.
“Then let’s get to it. Just one thing.” She pulled off the top file and held it out. “Take Levi and give me Mike.”
His eyes snapped to the file, his pulse doubling. “Why?”
“Because the little shit actually respects you. How much flak do you think he’ll give me if I try to force him into a night of bureaucracy?” She nodded dismissively at the file in her hand. “I don’t have the patience for his crap right now. There’s enough on my mind already.”
He reached out a hand and delicately clasped the file. “Very well. I’ll work with Levi,” he said, taking the excuse to say the name, because lately he had come to enjoy the sensation of it sliding between his lips.
“Here.” Mike dropped into the seat across from Levi and slid a fresh bottle of ale across the table. “We have some heavy drinking to do if we’re going to catch up to everyone else.” Around them, the new recruits seemed more focused on drink and gossip than their upcoming responsibilities; they had stampeded in three weeks ago to take over the barracks, tracking in shit attitudes and mud. Their noise was a constant reminder of how silent things had become before their arrival.
Maybe Levi should have been taking the opportunity to get to know them better, but most of them were going to die during their first expedition, anyway. The more attachments he formed, the more pain he would have when they were severed. No, he was better limiting himself to the few attachments he had already. He could count Mike among those, even if things were getting a bit weird now that they were up for the same promotion. Erwin was among them, too, but things were getting a bit weird there, too, for an entirely different reason.
“Noisy little brats, aren’t they?” Mike said, his nose wrinkling. “They reek of the city.”
“They reek of bullshit. All talk, no experience. Little pukes.” Levi pushed his other bottles aside and lifted the new one for a swig, but paused.
Erwin stepped into the doorway, Captain Anke at his side, both of them clutching stacks of documents. They seemed to be looking for someone, their eyes scanning the crowded mess hall. It wasn’t like Erwin to show his face on a night like this—he usually spent his free evenings holed up in his office with a stack of paperwork.
Placid blue eyes locked onto Levi. His breath froze, but he only responded with a casual nod, because he’d be damned if anyone noticed him get flustered over a little eye contact. Erwin nodded back, and that should have been the end of it, but lately, every glance between them lasted for a beat too long, and this was no exception. Levi’s heart began to pound. It was a relief when Erwin finally looked away; he gripped Anke’s shoulder and pointed, then the two began to approach.
“They must have decided who got the promotion,” Mike said, leaning forward in his chair with anticipation.
Levi’s eyes traced the approaching pair, and he felt a flicker of disappointment as Anke began to beeline for Mike. “Congratulations,” he said dully. Mike had been a member of the Survey Corps for years, and he was overdue for a promotion, so their choice made sense. So long as I get to kill titans, who the hell cares what my rank is?
But instead of stopping at Mike, Anke stepped to the head of the table, Erwin settling into place beside her.
“Hey guys,” she said, her tone too casual, too forced. “We have some good news. You’re both being promoted.”
“That’s great,” Mike said.
Instead of responding, Levi slumped in his chair. “Telling us in the mess hall, this late at night—why all the pageantry?”
“We have some critical work to get through tonight,” Erwin said.
With a short, displeased sigh, Levi stood. “Please tell me I get to beat some sense into all these screaming brats.”
“Much more mundane than that, I’m afraid.” Anke cocked her head. “Let’s pair off. Mike, come with me. We’ll reconvene at ten in my office.”
As Mike rose to join her, Erwin grabbed his shoulder and leaned in, murmuring his congratulations. Levi’s hands curled. It was a typical sight—Erwin was a close-talker, constantly making physical contact with the people around him. Everyone, that was, except Levi. Ever since the embarrassing emotional breakdown several months back, whenever the occasion arose for an encouraging pat or a friendly shoulder grip, he only got a nod. It was just a touch, just a stupid little bit of physical contact, but it was one more part of Erwin Smith that he didn’t have.
He pushed out his chair and stood.
Erwin turned to him and gave a formal nod. “Congratulations, Squad Leader Levi.”
Levi pushed past him. “Let’s get this over with.”
They walked down the hall in unison, Levi subtly stretching his strides to keep up. In his periphery, he watched Erwin’s face, which, usually neutral, was set in a definite frown.
“Anke seemed nervous.”
“She’s being promoted to Commander,” Erwin said without looking at him.
Levi’s steps slowed. “What?” She was a good fighter, and an earnest and genuine leader, but not someone he could see as a Commander. “What about you?”
“I’ll be replacing her as Captain.”
“I guess that explains why two Squad Leader positions were suddenly available.”
“Three? Who died?”
Erwin glanced back at him, face unreadable. “No one. We have some big operations coming up, so we need more senior officers. You’re going to help me interview candidates for the third vacancy.” He opened the door to his office and let Levi through, closing it behind them. The stack of files dropped onto the desk as he took a seat.
Levi fell into the empty chair across from him, then flipped through the files until he found the one he wanted. “This is who we need.” He tossed the file onto the desk: Hange Zoë, one of the newer Team Leaders.
Erwin opened it, scanning the pages. “Difficulty working with others. Disobeys direct orders.”
“My file probably says the same thing.” Levi leaned back in his chair. “The Survey Corps has a big gaping hole, and Hange can fill it. Anke’s good at motivating people; you have brains; Mike smells titans; I’m good at putting them down; and so on. Between us, we can hunt and evade titans fine, but no one actually gives a shit about what they are. We need someone eager to learn more about them, figuring out all their weaknesses, where they come from, all that crap. Hange won’t shut up about them.”
“What do you propose?”
“Interview shitglasses first, save ourselves some time if the fit is right. Unless you have a better idea.”
“No, that’s very close to what I was going to propose. Good analysis.” Erwin raised a thick brow. “Though since I’m supposed to be training you, I suggest you refrain from using the term ‘shitglasses.’”
Levi sighed. “So, what, should I go get Hange so we can do the interview right now?”
“I interrupted your downtime for this. I’ll go.”
As Erwin walked past, Levi caught himself slowly inhaling, breathing in the faint scent of cologne. Now I’m smelling people, too. I’ve been spending too much time around Mike.
He wasn’t sure when, exactly, his feelings had evolved from raw hatred to this embarrassing mess of hyper-awareness and racing heartbeats. His theory was that crying in Erwin’s arms had fucked him up a bit, crossed a wire or two in his brain. Crying in front of others was not something Levi did, ever, and maybe that moment of vulnerability had left him open to imprint on Erwin like a chick on its mother.
Regardless of the source, the little crush was becoming distracting, more and more so as the months passed. If things got any worse, he was no longer going to be able to look Erwin in the eye. He was already treading on uncomfortable ground, with sordid thoughts creeping into his mind whenever he had a moment to himself, and vivid imagery during dreams. He was supposed to be killing titans, not trying to get laid.
Trying to distract himself, Levi rose to his feet and began to pace around the office. Did becoming a Squad Leader mean he would get his own office, too? He would certainly keep it cleaner than this. The desk was tidy enough, but the shelf along the back window was covered with tattered books, fading stacks of paper, and dust.
Near one end of the shelf, a metal frame sat facing backwards; it had been there since Levi had first set foot in this office, driving him mad with its chaos. Taking the opportunity to address the errant frame head-on, he lifted it, wondering if Erwin would notice if he set it facing the right way. Inside the frame was a small, fading drawing of a bird in flight, and written in ink below it was a short message: Together, we will always soar. —H.
Footsteps sounded in the hallway. He hurried to set the frame back in place, but even with all his speed, the warning was too short. The frame clunked onto the shelf face-down just as the door swung open. Erwin’s gaze locked onto him, then drifted down to the frame.
As if nothing had happened, Levi sauntered to the desk and slumped against its side, leaving the chair free for Hange.
“Please come in,” Erwin said after a moment, stepping out the way to let their candidate pass. “Have a seat. I believe you’ve already met Squad Leader Levi.”
Hange hurried to the chair, auburn ponytail, sharp nose, eyes wide behind thick glasses. “Yes, I have. What’s this about?’
Folding his arms over his chest, Levi said, “You like titans.”
“Yes. They’re fascinating.”
Erwin settled into his chair and opened the file. “You have a background in the sciences.”
“Specifically human biology, but I have a good amount of experience with chemistry, too.” Hange’s eyes darted between them.
Levi studied their candidate, seeing none of the obsession he had overheard in the mess hall a few days ago, when the entire table had been subjected to an hour-long lecture on titan behaviour. Nervousness? Or maybe we aren’t asking the right questions.
Erwin must have picked up on the same thing, because he closed the file and folded his hands on the desk, leaning forward. “You know, Hange, I’ve heard rumours that titans are mechanical contraptions powered by steam. Do you have any thoughts?”
It was as if a light switched on. Hange gave a short laugh and sat up straighter, cheeks flushing, gestures animated, speech rapid and erratic. “Well, I know we associate steam with the titans, but anyone who says they’re some sort of contraption is ignoring a few of the titan’s basic properties—”
This was the excited lecture Levi had been expecting. His gaze slid toward Erwin, who gave him a hint of a smile.
After about ten minutes of prattling, Erwin raised a hand to interrupt, and began to go through a standardized list of questions that Levi himself had answered only a few weeks earlier. Levi felt his interest waning. This had better be the only interview we have to do tonight. I don’t think I can sit through something this dull again.
“ Thank you for your time,” Erwin said after what felt like hours, rising to shake Hange’s hand over the desk. Levi eyed the contact, trying to imagine how that grip felt.
“What was this about?” Hange asked. “Are you hoping to set up some sort of study? Because I have some ideas about—”
Erwin held up a hand. “There will be plenty of opportunities to discuss those ideas later; it’s getting late, and I’m sure you’d like to rejoin your colleagues for a drink. You are dismissed.”
Once the door closed, Levi fell into the vacant chair. “Well?”
“What I expected: the passion is there, but the discipline isn’t. You and I both know that discipline can be trained, but I’m not sure Anke will agree.” Erwin stacked the files, aligning their edges. “Still, your instinct was good: we need a titan expert among our ranks, and there’s no doubt that Hange can fill that role. No other candidates in our set of files piqued my interest, and I already interviewed most of them last month anyway, so I think our work for tonight is done.” He looked up, giving a warm smile. “We have a lot of time to kill until we reconvene with the others. Levi, would you care to join me for a drink?”
The invitation was so unexpected that Levi stared. “A drink?”
“To celebrate our promotions. I have a bottle of fine whiskey I’ve been saving for an occasion like this. It’s nicer than anything they’d serve us in the hall.”
“Might as well.” Levi willed his pounding heart to slow and gave a casual shrug.
Erwin began to walk toward a cabinet in the corner of the room, but slowed as he walked past the shelf that held the frames. He lifted the fallen frame and studied it for a moment, then set it back into the position it had been before, facing the window.
Levi cleared his throat. “Look—”
“It’s okay.” Erwin moved to the cabinet. He returned with two glasses and a bottle in hand; filling one glass, he passed it across the desk. “Congratulations.”
For several minutes, they sat on opposite sides of the desk, taking small sips of whiskey. It was far nicer than any drink Levi had ever tasted, and he let the liquid slide around his mouth, enjoying the gradient of flavours.
“I wonder,” Erwin said, as if to himself. “Do you think I’ve lost touch with my humanity?”
The question came out of nowhere, and Levi studied him, trying to figure out his motivation for asking.
Focus returned to Erwin’s gaze. “Please excuse the strange question. I suppose you haven’t known me long enough to judge.”
“Well, you seem human to me. Look how quickly you were able to reach through Hange’s nervousness.”
“I suppose.” Erwin swirled his glass, staring into the bottom of it. “Shadis thinks I see people as chess pieces, not humans, and it caught me off guard. He wants me to reconnect with my humanity: drink with the troops, get to know them.”
“Huh.” Levi lifted the whiskey to his lips, insulted that this shared drink was under orders.
Erwin must have noticed, because he added quickly, “No, that came out wrong. This isn’t an empty gesture. His statement reminded me that I know very little about my colleagues, you least of all.” The last words were delivered quietly, almost an afterthought.
“So what, you want to ply me with liquor until I tell you my life story?”
Erwin gave a soft chuckle. “Something like that.”
“Huh,” Levi said again. It seemed that Erwin Smith socialized with all the intensity and focus he brought to every other aspect of his life. Holding out his glass for a refill, he said, “Shouldn’t we start with you? At least you know where I come from. I don’t know one damned thing about you.”
Erwin poured them each a fresh glass. “I’m not very interesting.”
“I think you’re more interesting than you let on.”
Looking relaxed, and maybe a bit amused, Erwin leaned back in his chair. “And what makes you think that?”
Between the ale with Mike, the potency of the whiskey, and the faint scent of cologne, Levi’s head was starting to swim. Propping his elbows on the desk, he leaned forward. “Your name. Smith. Doesn’t make sense that a man of your size and obvious education would have such a working-class family name.”
“Is it really that odd? Smith is one of the most common names within the walls.”
“In the gutters and factories, yes, but factory families don’t grow men to your size. They can’t afford the food.” Eyes narrowing with focus, Levi took another sip. “So Smith is probably an alias. And if you’re using an alias, then your real name must be well known. I’m guessing you’re from a high-class family, maybe even lapdogs of the King, but you don’t want to be associated with them. Either they kicked you out, or you hate everything they stand for. Maybe both.”
For a moment, their gaze held, then Erwin cleared his throat. “At this point, Levi, I’d prefer not to comment on your theories, and I’d appreciate you keeping them to yourself. I will say this: the greatest threat to humanity is not outside the walls.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the titans may be a symptom, not the disease.” The intensity of his gaze was so strong that Levi’s head spun, and he had to look down.
“I’m too drunk for your vague shit, Erwin,” he muttered, already regretting that he had said anything at all.
There was a pause. “Levi, do you know why I asked you to join the Survey Corps?”
“Because you saw my combat skills and decided to go on a power trip?”
A blond brow cocked, just for an instant, then returned to neutral. “Your skill was an immediate draw, true, but so was your willingness to break the rules to survive. You were flying under the noses of the Military Police, using their own equipment to circumvent them. We need people like you in the Survey Corps, because we can’t always play by the rules, not if we’re to do what’s best for humanity. But I always wondered … ” His fingers drummed his glass. “Is this what you want?”
The question surprised Levi. “What?”
“All of this. Being a Squad Leader. You’ve paid your legal debt, and you’ve lost as much as the rest of us, more than some. Why don’t you just walk away? I’m sure it would be easy enough for you to disappear.” There was a twist to Erwin’s expression that Levi couldn’t read.
“The titans killed my friends, and they keep us penned in here. I don’t care if they are the symptom or the disease or any of that: we need to kill them.” Levi’s hand tightened around the glass. “I need to make sure all these deaths mean something.”
The twist faded from Erwin’s face, a smile taking its place. “I know we had a rocky start together, but I’m happy you chose to stay. You have a great future here, Levi.”
The fond admission made Levi’s head spin even faster. The world felt as if it were tilting beneath him, as if he were slowly losing his balance. “Sentimental bullshit,” he muttered, trying to regain his footing.
Erwin gave a soft chuckle, then his hands folded in front of his mouth. “Very well. Let’s leave the sentiment behind and go back to learning more about each other. I’m guessing ‘Levi’ is an alias?”
“Maybe. It’s all my aunt ever called me.”
Levi eyed him. He trusted Erwin more than anyone else in the Survey Corps—he had proven time and time again to have humanity’s best interest at heart, and their shared moment after the last expedition had only cemented that. Still, there was always a part of him that was suspicious of authority, no matter its form. Erwin held his gaze, unflinching, and maybe it was just wishful thinking, but Levi swore he saw warmth there. He gave in.
“My parents died when I was just a little kid, so she took me in. A few years later, the Military Police locked her up—turns out she had been selling illegal goods and stealing food to keep us alive, and they had been tracking her for a while. So I fell in with a small gang instead. They took care of me, at first, and when I got old enough, I started taking care of the younger ones. That’s the end of it.” Noticing the intensity of Erwin’s gaze, he added, “Don’t start trying to read between the lines or analyze me or any of that bullshit.”
“Well, it certainly explains your mistrust of authority and people in general.” Erwin’s words were beginning to slur. “I hope, in time, you’ll grow to trust me.”
“I already trust you.”
There was another long pause. Levi’s chest glowed, and he wondered if it was wondered if it was from the flickers of trust building between them, or the alcohol, or both.
“You have it all backwards, Erwin.” His numb lips fumbled the words. “I trust people—not many, but when I do, I trust completely. You’re the one who doesn’t trust. That’s why you like strategies so much, isn’t it? They’re the only things that make you feel safe when you work with others. You can’t trust people, so you control them instead.”
Erwin’s eyes slowly widened as he pulled away. He opened his mouth to reply, but no words followed.
Levi was vaguely aware he shouldn’t be saying all this, but he couldn’t seem to stop. “I’m right, aren’t I? You don’t trust anyone here, not even me. Maybe that’s what Shadis meant, that you need to trust your officers.”
Quietly, Erwin rose to his feet. He took a few paces toward the window, hands clasped behind his back.
What the hell am I saying? Levi’s eyes fixed on Erwin, slowly trailing down his body, fixing on his backside for a few inappropriate moments. Shit, am I drunk. Such a fucking lightweight. I’m going to get thrown out of the Survey Corps on my first day as Squad Leader.
“No, you’re right. I need to be more trusting if I want to become a good leader.” Erwin plucked the mysterious picture frame from the windowsill and returned to the desk. He sank into his chair and his fingers traced the frame, his face grim. “As a gesture of trust, I want to share something with you, something no one alive knows. The details of this conversation are not to leave this room.” He slid the frame across the surface of the desk.
Levi picked it up, studying it again. The frame was copper, most of it green with age, but the bottom half was polished and red. He handles this frame a lot, picks it up and holds it.
“ When I was first training for the military,” Erwin began, “I was in love with a good woman. She asked me to give up my life goals and stay with her, start a family. It was an agonizing decision, but in the end, the titans won out over her. I swore, as I left her, that love was never again going to interfere with my goals.”
Trying to contain his disappointment— of course he’s straight; they’re always straight— Levi’s eyes traced the handwritten text on the picture. “So this is from her?”
“No.” A low sigh. “I had the right idea then, but not the willpower. I managed to focus on my goals for the first few months, but a fellow recruit became fixated on me, persistently so. I resisted my feelings at first, remembering my oath to myself, but I found myself falling for him.” Erwin’s eyes flicked up as he said the last word.
Him. Levi’s breath caught, but he casually took another sip of his drink, trying to mask his surge of hope.
“The military has strict rules about relationships,” Erwin continued, “and neither Henrik nor I was interested in formalizing our affair with paperwork, hearings and everything else required to receive official approval. I think a few people figured it out—Mike, for one—but for the most part, we managed to keep it under wraps. Our relationship gave us certain advantages on the battlefield; we read each other well, and our presence highly motivated each other. We were an unstoppable team. For a while, it looked as if our relationship wasn’t going to interfere with our goals, that my anxieties about love had been unfounded.”
He paused for a sip of whiskey, and when he began to speak again, his voice cracked. “One day, we were on a scouting mission that went horribly wrong. A group of titans surrounded our party. We tried to outrun them, but one caught my cape in its teeth and pulled me off the horse. Our Squad Leader ordered Henrik to continue the retreat, but he refused to leave me behind. He saved my life, but he died right in front of me. If he had just followed orders, if he hadn’t loved me enough to value my life above his … ” He trailed off.
Levi swallowed hard, trying not to relive similar memories of his own. “I’m sorry.”
“He was an artist. That was my favourite of his drawings. It’s so lifelike that I swear I can feel the wind under the bird’s wings when I look at it.” He delicately took the frame from Levi. “I can’t bear to get rid of it, but I can’t bear to look at it, either, so I keep it facing the window, hoping the sunlight will bleach it away. Maybe the guilt will fade with it.”
A lump was forming in Levi’s throat, and he swallowed hard to try to dislodge it. Slowly, he reached out a hand and, with alcohol-fuelled bravery, gripped Erwin’s wrist.
For a moment, both of them stared, shocked, at the contact. Then Erwin’s eyes lifted.
“I trust you, Levi.”
A knock sounded at the door. Levi jerked his hand away, and Erwin stood, straightening his uniform. “Come in.”
Anke and Mike walked in, and Mike sniffed the air, then sighed. “Dammit, I knew I should have been paired with you, Erwin. She wouldn’t let me drink.”
“What?” The woman’s eyes narrowed. “You’re drinking? You’re supposed to be finding a candidate.”
“We did.” In one exaggerated movement, Erwin swept Hange’s file off the desk and thrust it into Anke’s hands. She glanced down at it, then back up at him.
“You’re slurring and you smell like a still.”
“Maybe we should debrief tomorrow,” he conceded.
Anke gave an exasperated sigh. “Very professional. Get some sleep and sober up, all of you. Meet in my office after breakfast.” She turned and marched for the door.
“What did she expect?” Levi muttered. “We were already drinking when you two found us.”
“And it all went to waste, because I’m completely sober now,” Mike said. “Anyone up for a few more?”
“I’ll meet you at our table in a few.” Levi wasn’t sure he needed more to drink; mostly, he was hoping to stall for a few more minutes with Erwin.
“Alright, I’ll save you a seat.” Mike turned and left, and then it was just the two of them again.
Levi looked back at Erwin and found him placing the frame back on the windowsill.
“Look, I shouldn’t have said half that shit,” he said as an apology.
“If there is one person who will keep me honest, Levi, it’s you; you have an impeccable ability to read me.” Erwin stepped back from the windowsill, still looking at the frame. “Next time we have a drink together, we’ll talk about more uplifting topics.”
Next time . “Sure.” Before he left, Levi waited for a moment, hoping Erwin would turn around so they could exchange a smile, or an awkward gaze, or anything to acknowledge that this shared conversation had been an important advancement of their relationship, but instead Erwin kept staring at the frame, his back turned.
By the time Levi reached his seat in the mess hall, his jaw was tight. Mike’s brows pinched.
“Fine.” Levi dropped into his seat and took a long draught of the ale.
“Looked like Erwin was getting a bit moody.”
“The drink was turning on him.” Levi spun his bottle on its base, annoyed that the sound of it wobbling was barely audible over the new recruits. Didn’t they ever shut up?
“I’m glad you’re getting to know him, you know. You two are good for each other. He doesn’t have many friends left, and seems like you don’t, either.”
The observation stung. “Don’t you guys go way back?”
Mike shrugged. “Only because we had friends in common back in the day. The rest of them died, so we have camaraderie, I guess, but it’s not the same.” He looked sombre, as if he were about to be swallowed by bad memories.
“Don’t you start, too,” Levi muttered.
Blinking, Mike forced a smile. “Yeah. We were promoted. We should be celebrating, right?” He lifted his bottle. “Congratulations.”
Levi mirrored the motion, and downed the bottle’s contents, trying to put Erwin out of his mind.