Actions

Work Header

He Chose Titans

Chapter Text


 PART I

IGNITE


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 fucking strategy got them killed."

"There can be no triumph for humanity without taking risks," said Erwin. "Risks mean casualties. It's an unfortunate sacrifice we all must 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 -

Promotions

March 846

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?" asked Erwin, 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 felt a pang of disappointment. The two of them worked well together; the Commander 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. He had been dreading this day.

"Anke, you'll be promoted to Commander," said Shadis. "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 and 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 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." The man's face softened. "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 fuck 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 be 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 fuckers, aren't they?" said Mike, 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," said Mike, 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. The man 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 fuck 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," said Mike.

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," said Erwin.

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 the man's 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 with the taller man. In his periphery, he watched the man's face, which, usually neutral, was set in a definite frown.

"Everything okay?"

"Yes."

"Anke seemed nervous."

"She's being promoted to Commander," said Erwin 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."

"Three? Who died?"

Erwin glanced back at him, face unreadable. "No one. We have some big operations coming up, so we needed 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 Zoe, 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 shit. 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 the man 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," said Erwin after a moment, stepping out the way to let their candidate past. "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. Though he supposed he should be listening and learning, 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," said Erwin after what felt like hours, rising to shake Hange's hand over the desk. Levi eyed the contact, trying to imagine how that grip would feel.

"What was this about?" asked Hange. "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 at him for a moment. "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, giving a casual shrug.

Erwin began to walk toward a cabinet in the corner of the room, but slowed when 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 soon 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," said Erwin, as if to himself. "Do you think I've lost touch with my humanity?"

The question came out of nowhere, and Levi studied the man, 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." The man 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 the Commander's orders.

"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 as if 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," said Levi 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 fucking 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, if it's all the same. 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 quite 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, his lips curving into a warm smile instead. "I know we had a rocky start together, but I'm happy you choose 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 and planted his elbows on the table, hands folding in front of his mouth. "Then 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." He shrugged.

"Your Aunt?"

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 what its form. Erwin held his gaze, unflinching, and maybe it was just wishful thinking, but Levi swore he saw warmth there.

"Yeah," he said, giving 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 awhile. 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 in 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 of people in general." The man'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 the glow from his confession of trust, or the glow of alcohol, or both.

"You have it all backwards, Erwin," he added, numb lips fumbling 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 other people. You can't trust them, 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 that 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 fuck am I saying? Levi's eyes fixed on Erwin, slowly trailing down the man's body, fixing on the backside for a few inappropriate moments. Fuck, am I drunk. Such a fucking lightweight. I'm going to get thrown out on my first day as Squad Leader.

"Erwin-"

"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, setting it on the wooden surface. He sank into his chair, his fingers tracing the frame, his face grim. "As a gesture of trust, I want to share something with you, something that 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," began Erwin, "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; my resolve was far weaker than I hoped. I managed to keep focussed on my goal for the first few months, but a fellow recruit had become 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 the surge of hope he felt.

"The military has strict rules about relationships," continued Erwin, "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 awhile, 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," said Erwin. "This was my favourite drawing of his. 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 sun, hoping it 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 in a show of support.

For a moment, both of them stared, shocked, at the contact. Then Erwin's eyes lifted.

"I trust you, Levi."

"I know."

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." Erwin swept Hange's file off the desk and thrust it into Anke's hands in one exaggerated movement. 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, everyone. Meet in my office after breakfast." She turned and marched for the door.

"What did she expect?" muttered Levi. "We were already drinking when you two found us."

"And it all went to waste, because I'm completely sober now," said Mike. "Anyone up for a few more?"

"I'll meet you at our table in a few," said Levi, even though he wasn't sure he needed any more to drink. Mostly, he was hoping for a few more minutes together 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 the man 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. "Maybe next time we have a drink together, we'll talk about more uplifting topics."

Next time. "Sure." Levi waited for a moment, hoping the man 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 he kept staring at the frame, his back turned.

Levi turned and left the room. By the time he reached his seat in the mess hall, his jaw was tight. Mike's brows pinched.

"You okay?"

"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," said Mike. "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 now." He looked sombre, as if he were about to be swallowed by bad memories.

"Don't you fucking start, too," muttered Levi.

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.

Chapter Text

-2-

Touch 

Not again. Erwin struggled to free himself, clawing at the tightening cloak around his neck as the titan dragged him into the air. A howl sounded below. Twisting, he saw Henrik galloping toward him, fury written on his face, blades drawn.

Don't, he tried to yell, but the cloak strangled his voice. Don't, Henrik. I know how this ends-

.*.*.*.

Erwin awoke with a yell, sitting upright. His hands clawed into the sheets as he struggled to catch his breath.

Sharing his memories with Levi last week had been a mistake. Every night since, he had been reliving them in full colour in his dreams. Still breathing hard, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and closed his eyes, trying to steady himself. Once his pulse finally slowed, he stood and grabbed his toiletries bag. Better to wake up an hour early than try to sleep and end up repeating the dream.

The baths were empty, the one luxury of rising before reveille. He lit a lamp, then strode to the window and opened its slats, letting the crisp morning air flood the room. Settling in front of a basin and mirror, he pulled off his nightshirt and began to wash his armpits with soap and chilly water. Once he was satisfied they were clean, he dabbed on a light layer of cologne. When he did this step in his daily routine, he often thought of his mother admonishing him as a teenager: remember, Erwin, a gentleman favours true cleanliness over dowsing himself in cologne. I shouldn't be able to smell it unless I'm close enough to hug you. It was rare that he missed her, but he would have liked a hug right about now to help him compose himself after the nightmare.

He was just massaging shaving lotion into his face when the door swung open. Erwin turned to see Levi standing in the door, dressed only in a pair of pyjama bottoms, a towel slung over his shoulder and a bucket of toiletries in hand.

"You're up early," said Erwin, and Levi shrugged.

"Heard a yell from next door. Woke me up." A brow arched. "You shit the bed?"

"Nightmares."

"Sounds like you're having lots lately."

"You'll move to your new room soon enough, and then you won't have to overhear them any more." Erwin leaned closer to the mirror and pulled his upper lip tight, bringing his razor to the skin.

"You okay?"

"Fine, thank you." He began to shave, a bit annoyed to discover that the blade was dull. After the expedition, he would go into town to restock. Maybe he'd take a few days' leave and decompress for a bit, make a vacation out of it. The nightmares were probably a sign that he was pushing himself too hard.

Levi walked past him to stand by the edge of the bath and dipped a finger in, as if testing the temperature. The water was only heated twice a week for shared baths, and was freezing cold the rest of the time, especially during a winter as long as this one.

"You aren't going in there, are you?" asked Erwin.

"Why wouldn't I?"

"It's going to be cold."

"Always is." Levi turned his back to him and pulled off his pants and undergarments. Erwin tried not to watch, but the angle was such that he couldn't look at the mirror without seeing the man disrobe.

"Always? Sounds like you do this often."

"Waking up before reveille is the only way to get a bath without a herd of noisy assfucks ruining the peace." Levi slipped into the water, visibly shuddering from the cold.

Realizing he had forgotten about shaving, Erwin snapped his gaze back to his own reflection. He quickly finished the job and then washed away the cream, examining his face for missed spots or cuts. He could still see Levi reflected in the mirror, rubbing shampoo into his hair in a way that showcased his muscled upper back, and he found himself staring.

He forced his gaze back to his own reflection. Ogling a colleague was a bad idea, especially while standing around in his undergarments, which weren't really thick enough to conceal himself should he get too excited. He reached into his bag for his comb, focusing on placing a crisp side part above his temple.

It's not too late to join him in there, he thought to himself. It's been a few days since your last proper bath, and the company might be worth the cold. It was embarrassing how much the idea appealed to him. His imagination began to conjure images of the two of them soaping each other, and he quickly tried to distract himself with conversation.

"About the other night," he said.

In his periphery, he could see Levi turn to face him. "Yeah?"

"I got a bit dour at the end there."

A shrug. "I was saying things I shouldn't have."

"I'd like the opportunity to try for a happier conversation: join me for another drink. Tomorrow, after the expedition." The words left Erwin's lips before he could stop them. I'm just trying to get to know my colleague better to further my professional development, he said to himself, aware it was a lie, but unwilling to admit the truth.

Levi studied him, damp hair sticking out at odd angles. "A happy conversation? After an expedition?"

"If it goes well. If not, we both might need some company."

Levi continued to study him, expression unreadable. After a long pause, he said, "Yeah, sure."

An inappropriate warmth rushed through Erwin, and he quickly grabbed his toiletries bag, preparing to leave before his loss of composure showed on his face. "See you at the pre-expedition debrief tonight. I'll be leaving the strategy revisions on your desk by noon. Make sure you study them in advance in case you have any questions."

"You won't be at the gear check?" Maybe it was his imagination, but Levi looked a little disappointed.

"One of the perks of being Captain; my gear will be checked in my office at my convenience." Erwin nodded. "See you this evening." He stepped through the doorway.

From that point on, his day became a blur: dress, eat, make minor last-minute tweaks to the plans. Distribute new plans, have gear checked, meet with Anke to discuss the revisions, eat again. Planning, planning, dinner.

He ate alone in his office, needing some quiet time to himself before the debrief. Now that the planning stage was coming to a close, he had time to feel nervous about the upcoming mission. This would be his first strategy that didn't have Shadis' stamp of approval. While he was fairly confident that this expedition was low-risk, and that his plans minimized that risk even further, they couldn't afford a disaster. The last expeditions had been costly enough to raise a fuss among their superiors, and there would be extra eyes on them this time around, especially with the change in leadership. His constant nightmares certainly weren't giving him any confidence that things would go well.

When Anke knocked at his door for the debrief, he was sitting with his forehead pressed to the desk, taking deep breaths to steady himself. He called her in and lifted his head to greet her, and saw that her skin was so pale that she looked sickly.

"I guess this is it," she said. "One last debrief, then nothing's left between us and the expedition but a few hours of restless sleep."

"By tomorrow at this time, we won't have it looming over our heads any more," he said, trying to encourage her.

"If we still have heads." She raised a brow at him. "How the hell are you so calm?"

He thought about confessing his own trepidation, but decided his fake bravery might give her bravery of her own. "The lengthy winter has given us many more months of preparation than usual, so we have thought through every angle. Besides, I have confidence in our skills, and the skills of our team."

"Yeah, it's a good team." She didn't look convinced. "I guess we should go. They'll be waiting for us."

As they marched to the head of the meeting room, Erwin felt the eyes of the Squad Leaders and Team Leaders trail him, and without Shadis at his side, he felt exposed. He hung the charts on the wall and grabbed a pointer, then stood tall beside Anke.

As she began her speech, he let his eyes trail across their audience. Almost everyone in the room was watching her speak, but one pair of eyes met his gaze instead, silver-blue, hooded with disinterested lids and brows. Levi. Erwin had faked disinterest enough times to know the pain that could fester beneath it. We've all lost too much. Please, just this once, don't let any of us lose anything more.

"And now," said Anke, "Captain Erwin will walk you one final time through the formation and strategy. If you have any questions about the revisions he distributed earlier today, this is the time to ask."

Coming back to himself, Erwin smiled at her. "Thank you, Commander." He began to point at the charts, explaining their strategy. This formation was similar to their long-range scouting formation, except that Hange and Levi, as the Squad Leaders with the least field experience, would be responsible for guarding wagons at the rear. Their goal was an old military silo a couple hour's ride from Wall Rose. On paper, it was a safe expedition, with a short distance, a zone that was usually titan-free, and a large forest nearby in case they needed to switch to high ground. In Erwin's experience, however, sometimes the safest missions on paper could become the most dangerous in the field, so he had prepared several contingency plans.

A couple of the newer Team Leaders had questions about their roles, and then everything was ready. Erwin let out a slow breath. The planning phase, for now, was finally over.

"Thank you, Captain Erwin." Anke stepped forward again. "I think that's everything. Does anyone have any other questions?"

'I think that's everything?' That's how she's closing off this meeting? Erwin side-eyed her, gaze landing on the bolo tie around her neck, the symbol that marked her as a Commander. He still wasn't certain if he was envious or relieved that all their responsibility was now on her shoulders.

"Okay, good," said Anke. "Dismissed."

The team stood and saluted, and as they left, she let out a breath of air, deflating. "Fuck."

"Everything all right?" asked Erwin.

"Yeah, fine." Her eyes ticked across their departing colleagues, and he realized she didn't want to show weakness in front of them. He would have preferred to leave the conversation there, but their safety tomorrow depended on her. If she started second-guessing her decisions on the field, they would all be at risk.

"Anke, can you stay behind a minute? I'd like to discuss one last thing." He clapped a hand onto her shoulder and guided her to stand in front of one of the maps on the wall, pretending, to help her save face, that their discussion was going to be strictly mission-related. He waited for the others leave.

Levi was the last one to approach the door. Just before he left, he turned to look back at them. There was no emotion on his face, but something about his stance looked smaller than usual. Frightened. Erwin swallowed hard, reminded of how small Levi had seemed after the last expedition. Maybe once he was done speaking with Anke, he should give Levi some encouraging words.

The door closed.

"What's going on?" he asked her quietly.

"Fuck, Erwin, I am not ready for this." Her voice wavered.

"You'll be fine. You and I were practically leading the expeditions by the end there."

"I know, but it's different now." Her fingers twisted into the bolo tie around her neck. "This thing is going to strangle me. If I made a mistake when I was Captain, it was ultimately Shadis' fault, but now..."

"Anke." He squeezed her shoulders and crouched down so their eyes were level. "When I met you, you were a bossy little girl who couldn't wait to order the rest of our team around. That little girl is still inside you somewhere. Find her."

"That little girl grew up. Saw too many people die. Do you know the average life expectancy of a Commander of the Survey Corps?"

He didn't, but he could guess it wasn't very long. Shadis had been an anomaly, the first Commander in years to live to see retirement.

"Six years." Her voice cracked. "And that's with Shadis' long reign tugging up the average."

"That's better than every other position you were in before, and you survived this long."

"I guess. Just tell me it's going to be all right."

"Anke," he said, "it's going to be all right. Just stick to the strategy and keep a cool head."

"Thanks." She cleared her throat. "Get some sleep. I'll see you at reveille."

He saluted and left the room, knowing he wasn't going to sleep. Not yet.

His first stop was Levi's new room. The furniture wasn't fully set up yet, but it seemed likely that the man, being something of a neat freak, might be cleaning the walls or floors to alleviate stress. A mop and a bucket in the corner of the room showed his guess wasn't far off, but they were dry.

Next he tried Levi's bunk, but his bunkmates only shook their heads and said he hadn't returned after the meeting. The baths were empty, too, and he wasn't in the mess hall.

His last guess was that he was in Hange's room for a last-minute discussion about their role in the expedition. As he was about to knock, he heard Hange's voice behind him:

"Looking for me?"

He turned to give a polite smile. "I was wondering if you've seen Levi."

"I saw him heading toward the stables." Hange leaned closer, peering at him. "Is this about tomorrow? Anything I should know?"

"No, I just need to speak to him about a private matter. Did you have any questions?"

"Not really, no. I don't think. Maybe. I'm so excited that I can't think straight." The grin that spread across Hange's face was so unnerving that Erwin fought the urge to take a step back.

"Excited? Well, I'm glad someone is." It was a welcome change from all the fear he was noticing in everyone else. Even he was more nervous than usual, his stomach jumping. Was everyone nervous because of the change in leadership, or were these usual pre-expedition jitters he had never noticed before? There was something disconcerting about the latter. He had always assumed that his colleagues were calm and in control of their emotions. Humanity's bravest. Are we all just scared little children, barely keeping our fears in check?

Though he wasn't sure why Levi would be heading to the stables, he had run out of ideas, so he decided to follow Hange's information. The walk out there might help him clear his head, anyway.

Once he stepped through the stable door, he breathed in the scent of musty hay. The full moon streamed through holes in the roof and landed in silver-blue puddles on the ground. The same colour as Levi's eyes. The thought came out of nowhere, and for a moment he stood and stared, trying to convince himself the thought had never existed.

"Levi?" He strained his ears to listen for any human movement, but only heard the occasional flutter and pawing of the horses. He hadn't really expected to find him here, so he wasn't surprised, just disappointed. He moved quietly along the pathway to the far exit, taking a side door.

A cool blast of air greeted him as he stepped into the yard. Winter had overstayed its welcome by several weeks this year, and it seemed it wasn't quite ready to leave them yet. He folded his arms over his chest, wishing he had brought a thicker cloak with him. The green one he was wearing now was more suitable for spring.

The moon was low and full, lining the trees and grass with a dull edge of silver-blue light. The mountains on the horizon were capped with snow, and above them, a thick band of stars arced across the sky.

Erwin took in a long breath, feeling his throat and chest tingle. Whenever he stared at those distant mountains and that band of stars, he felt a strong connection to the world outside the walls, as if his body knew it was a tiny, insignificant part of something greater. We are so small, he thought, and so very fragile. We only stand a chance if all of us work toward a common goal.

A scuff sounded behind and above him, and as he spun to face it, Erwin's hands instinctively went for the hilts of his blades, but found only air instead. His stance relaxed when he saw a small form perched on the slant of the roof.

"Levi?" he called, loudly enough to be heard, but softly enough that the noise wouldn't disturb anyone in nearby rooms.

"Your fat head is ruining the view," said Levi, his voice muted by the breeze.

"How did you get up there without your gear?"

"The old-fashioned way." Levi pointed to a ladder alongside the stables. It was a sizeable jump between the stable roof and the section of roof where he sat.

"I'd be pretty upset if our best soldier broke his neck hopping between buildings while off-duty," said Erwin, though he was impressed by the man's agility.

"Maybe an old man like you would break his neck..." Despite the distance between them, he swore he saw Levi's eyes twinkle.

Though he was never one to let a dare provoke him, the snide remark allowed him to join Levi under the guise of proving himself. He climbed up the stable ladder and moved, swiftly and quietly, to the far end of the roof, then paused, sizing up the gap. Levi shifted closer to the edge, staring evenly down at him.

This would be a stupid way to die. Erwin felt a sudden rush. When was the last time he had made a risky decision without agonizing over it for days? When was the last time he had exchanged banter or tried to show off?

Somehow, acting under the guise of proving himself had led to him actually wanting to prove himself. "I can't believe I'm doing this," he muttered.

"Well, I'm sure the view's almost as good down on that roof," said Levi. "If you don't mind the smell of horse shit."

With a deep breath, Erwin took a couple steps back, then sprinted forward and jumped. He easily closed the gap, but as he was landing, his shin smacked into the side of the roof. He grunted and lost his footing, and for a panicked second, he thought he was going to roll off the steep roof.

A strong hand closed over his, stabilizing him. He looked up and saw Levi gripping his hand, his other arm wrapped around a pipe near the apex of the roof to anchor them both.

"Tsk. Careful." There was that twinkle again.

Erwin cleared his throat. "If it weren't so dark out-"

"Don't worry about it. I've seen you fight; I know you're good. Found your footing?"

"One moment." Using their joined hands to stabilize himself, Erwin hoisted himself upright and sat near Levi. With no excuse to keep holding hands, he let the grip drop, then instantly missed it. Levi settled to a seat next to him, close enough that body heat glowed between them.

"Didn't think you had it in you to be that reckless," said Levi, a hint of respect in his voice. "I warned you it was dangerous."

"No, you called me an old man." Erwin gave him a sidelong glance. "I can't be much older than you."

"You aren't. Maybe five years, tops." Almost to himself, Levi added, "I think."

"Our ages don't really come up often, do they? I'm thirty-one." The only response was silence, and Erwin decided not to press it. Everyone was entitled to their secrets. Instead, he gathered his lolling knees in the crooks of his elbows and let his eyes drift across the mountains. Beside him, he could hear Levi's soft breaths; his chest rose and fell in Erwin's peripheral vision, slow and even.

"So," said Levi. "Why are you here?"

"I thought you might have questions about the expedition."

"I do." Levi shifted, stretching his legs out and leaning back on his elbows. "What's this cargo worth?"

"Worth?"

"Say it's like last time, and my entire team dies." His tone was flat. "Is this cargo worth it?"

Erwin considered. "This expedition is considered low-risk, so we don't expect any encounters; our scouting teams haven't noted any titan activity in the area for the past year. As for the cargo itself, we don't know what we'll find. The silo is an old military cache, so it should have a stash of supplies that will be of great benefit - gas tanks, blades, rations. Its location was useful when the walls were standing, as it was central to several small village areas, but now it's useless where it is. We'll be taking in all the military supplies, and sending the rations into the city for civilian use."

Levi gave a low, displeased sigh. "Is that what we are now? Scrap collectors?"

"I know it seems like a small step, but every small step is important. Eventually, we will build a new trail of caches leading us toward the outer walls, and that's when we'll be prepared to make bigger moves. That's when we take back our freedom."

"And you're planning to be at the helm when we do, right?"

Erwin's gaze snapped to him. Levi stared straight ahead, eyes distant. His hair swayed in the breeze, and the moon highlighted his face in white: petite features, straight nose, narrow lips.

Without looking at him, Levi murmured, "You hate these fetch missions as much as I do - too much risk for too little payoff. When the big expeditions come around, that's when you'll truly be happy, right? You'd risk anything for freedom. Even your allies. Even yourself."

"I would."

"Good. Conserving lives is important for these shitty little expeditions, but we all know that eventually, we're going to have to put everything on the line. When that happens, I want someone like you leading us. Maybe that's why Shadis left Anke in charge: he's keeping you safe for the time that we really need you. She's good for the shit we're doing now, but she doesn't have the stomach to make big sacrifices. She'll never lead us to victory." Levi's eyes locked onto him. "You will."

Erwin's brows rose. "You believe that?"

"I would have left months ago if I didn't."

Swallowing hard, Erwin looked away, trying not to admit to his rising pulse, the warmth building in his abdomen.

For several minutes, they fell into a comfortable silence. Erwin pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders, shivering a bit, but the view was so beautiful, the company so welcome, that he didn't have the heart to go back inside. Beside him, Levi sat up and folded his arms over his chest, drawing in his knees.

"It still bothers me," said Erwin. "Shadis saying I had lost touch with my humanity."

"Maybe he just doesn't see it. You're always asking people if they're okay, giving them advice and little shoulder squeezes, things like that." A pause. "Unless that's just an act."

Sometimes it was. The reason the statement had stung so much was because it was something Erwin, himself, feared. The more friends he lost, the less he felt. Death no longer seemed real, and the only way he could feel loss any more was by thinking about Henrik. Maybe that's why it was so difficult to move on: maybe he kept reopening the wound not out of genuine respect for his memory, but out of desperation to feel human.

"Hey, Erwin?" said Levi.

"Yeah?"

"It's okay."

"What?"

"All of it. Fuck Shadis. You do what you need to. We're all just surviving the best we can out here."

The words felt like a release. Erwin took a deep breath, letting the negative thoughts drift away, focusing on the night sky instead. For now, he would cling to this bit of beauty and relaxation.

But Levi shifted, and when Erwin looked over, he saw a scowl on the man's face. "Are you all right?"

Levi drew in a breath as if to speak, but no words followed.

"Say it," said Erwin. "I won't judge. We're all just surviving out here, right?" Besides, how could he possibly judge, in this crisp air, in the face of the mountains and the sky full of stars? Their words were lighter up here, floating away on clouds of condensation.

"Look, this is a fucking stupid thing to be bothered by, so just-" Shivering, Levi tightened his arms around his body. "You're always touching people: gripping shoulders, touching arms, squeezing hands. But with me..." His voice trailed off.

Erwin's brain whirled through excuses: I thought you needed space. I didn't want to give the wrong impression. I haven't known you as long.

There was only one excuse that made sense: I can't touch you, because last time I did, I couldn't stop thinking about you. I'm afraid of what will happen to me if I touch you again.

In the silence that followed, Levi looked down, face twisting. "I told you, it's fucking stupid."

"No, it isn't. You're right." Finding all his excuses lacking, Erwin brashly decided to rectify the problem instead. His arm draped across the man's shoulders.

Levi tensed, but didn't pull away. "What the fuck are you-"

"You seemed cold." Panic made Erwin's head swim, but it was too late to retract his decision.

"You don't have to-"

"It's okay."

As the minutes passed, the tension faded from Levi's shoulders, and the panic faded from Erwin's mind. This wasn't so bad, just sitting next to each other, a little extra contact for body heat. Not as dangerous as he had expected. They were both still shivering, so Erwin drew him in a little closer.

"You're so small," he said, surprised by the narrowness of Levi's shoulders.

The shoulders stiffened again. "Fuck you."

"No, I mean that your personality is so large and your strength so immense that I sometimes forget you take up so little space in the world. You take up so much more in people's minds."

Levi looked up at him. "Was that supposed to be a compliment?"

"Yes."

"Kind of a shitty one."

Maybe so, but he meant it, every word. Levi took up far too much space in his mind, and that only seemed to augment when they were near each other, pushing reason aside. He subtly shifted his grip, feeling the muscled shoulder. You smell like lemons and soap, and I want to sit behind you, envelop you in my limbs and press my face into your hair. I want to run my hands down the front of your torso and trace those lean muscles I've seen so many times in the men's baths. His cheeks were warm, and he hoped his flush wasn't visible in the moonlight.

Levi edged closer to him and slowly, tentatively pressed a cheek to his shoulder.

Eyes squeezing shut, Erwin tried not to inhale the scent of his hair. "Levi."

"It's fucking cold."

"This isn't..." The word 'appropriate' died on his lips as he accidentally got a waft of hair. There was no reason left at this proximity, no logic, just a desire to press even closer. Eyes still closed, he laid a cheek atop the man's head and subtly, shyly breathed in. His head swam, dizzied by pheromones.

Levi's voice startled him: "Ever since I was a kid, rooftops were always my escape. Close to the stars, away from people. The higher, the better."

"Maybe that's why you're such a natural with the gear," said Erwin. "You were always meant to fly."

The words, like the embrace, were too intimate, but it was too late to retract them. He ached to rub his face in Levi's hair, or pull him onto his lap, or-

His eyes flew open as he remembered himself.

"This is a nice place to escape," he said, latching onto conversation to steady himself. "I tend to immerse myself in the city when I need a break. Hide away in plain sight. This feels more peaceful."

"Always wondered where you went," said Levi. "Lover in the city?"

"No, I have a small room near the market district, and it's a place of solitude. I'm not interested in love, not anymore." He forced the words out even though they hurt to say, here with warm shoulders beneath his arm, in this dizzying cloud of lemon scent.

There was a long pause; he lifted his head. Levi stared at the horizon, so still that he could have been carved from stone. Only the clouds of breath leaving his nose showed he was still alive.

Erwin had suspected for awhile now that Levi was developing feelings for him, but until tonight, he had written off the signs as his own wishful thinking. Maybe it still was - maybe the chemistry between them tonight was all in his head - but he couldn't take that chance. Levi was more valuable to humanity's fight than any single soldier, and Erwin would not become his weakness.

He cleared his throat. "Love is a luxury I can no longer have. I swore long ago to dedicate my life to titans. I lost sight of that once, and it cost my partner everything. It can never happen again: I must stay focused. Besides, it would be irresponsible to allow anyone to form a bond with me. I could die at any moment."

"So could anyone." A muscle in Levi's jaw twitched. "People bond during hard times. It's part of being human."

"Then maybe I do have to leave my humanity behind, at least in that respect."

"You do what you fucking want." Levi stood. "I'm going to bed."

Surprised by the abrupt mood change, Erwin looked up at him, brows raised, but the man was already moving across the rooftop toward the stable. "Levi."

The man turned, shoulders squared and chin high, the breeze ruffling his uniform, cravat and hair. Taken aback by the unexpectedly statuesque pose, Erwin only managed to say, "Good luck tomorrow."

Levi stared at him for a moment longer, then turned and leapt toward the stable roof, disappearing from view.

Erwin watched for a moment longer. It needed to be said.

Now the mountains and the empty sky, so accepting earlier, were judging him: he was small, naive, worthless. His trembling hands raked into his hair in an attempt to steady himself, but Levi's scent was still on his sleeve.

With a low sigh, he stood and began to climb down the roof. If he was going to wrestle with his own confusion, he might as well do it in the warmth of his bed.

.*.*.*.

Erwin's horse veered right. For a moment, he thought the titan's maws had missed him, but his cloak tightened around his throat so hard that it jerked him backwards. Stars swam before his eyes. Not again.

His body was hoisted into the air. His legs kicked as he fought for breath. He wrenched his body to the side, trying to twist around to face the attacking titan, but the fabric around his neck was too restrictive.

He heard a howl to his right, and his eyes jerked to the source.

This time it was Levi, not Henrik, who galloped toward him at full speed. The man's teeth were bared, brows low, tears streaming from his eyes. With an inhuman howl, he launched himself forward. A cable buried into the flesh somewhere above Erwin's head.

No, no, not again! Erwin writhed, desperately fighting to free himself. Above him, he heard the sound of a blade hitting bone. Titan blood spattered across his face. The teeth opened, and, freed, he dropped to the ground. He rolled onto his back, gasping for air.

That was when he saw Levi between the beast's jaws, the massive teeth framing either side of his head. Silver-blue eyes, wide and panicked, locked onto him.

"Erwi-" The cry ended in a piercing shriek.

Massive teeth closed, and blood misted upon Erwin like rain.

.*.*.*.

"Levi!"

He sat bolt upright, frantically reaching for his blades, but only found blankets. Eyes darting around the room, he saw the familiar shape of the window, the familiar patch of moonlight highlighting his wardrobe. Just a dream. He wiped the sweat off his forehead, his hand trembling.

The nightmare's grip was beginning to fade, but now memories were rushing in to take its place. He could smell rotting flesh and burning hair, see Henrik's hand jutting from the flames, clawed by rigor mortis, as if he were still reaching for Erwin, still pleading for rescue.

You won't have to relive any of it. You pushed Levi away. That will never happen to him, not because of you.

One last time, he lifted his wrist to his nose and breathed in, but Levi's scent had already faded.

Chapter Text

-3-

Expedition 

Levi sat upright, ears straining so hard he could hear them ring. Had he overheard Erwin call his name next door, or had he dreamed it? It had sounded panicked, as if it were part of another nightmare.

He glanced at the window. A bit of warmth was already creeping into the night sky; it was probably about an hour before reveille. Normally, he would head to the men's bath and get ready for his day, but that might mean running into Erwin again, and Levi was still angry and embarrassed about the rejection-that-wasn't-quite-a-rejection on the rooftop. Still, the idea of starting the day without a bath felt wrong, and he might as well get a relaxing clean in now, because the communal bath that night was bound to be depressing. Post-expedition baths always were: blood and sweat and grown men struggling to hide their tears. With a soft sigh, he stood and, careful not to wake his bunkmates, grabbed his bucket of bath supplies.

Unlike the previous morning, the baths were empty, and Levi was annoyed to discover that he was disappointed Erwin wasn't there. Even more annoying was the persistent bulge between his legs, the result of a couple days of neglect. He might as well have a quick jerk now, since the expedition was bound to sap his libido.

He stepped into a stall, careful not to let any part of his body touch the germ-coated walls. He tried his best not to think of Erwin, but the further along he got, the more his resolve faded. Soon he was picturing Erwin splayed across his desk, frantically tugging at himself, cheeks flushed, panting Levi's name-

There wasn't even time for the imaginary scenario to progress: he went under, a grunt escaping his clenched teeth before he could stop it.

Slowly, he came back to himself, to the toilet stall and the mess in his cupped palm. Shame seeped through him. Soon, he would have his own room, and he could have a more hygienic setting for his private time - though so long as he kept picturing Erwin in compromising positions, he doubted a clean environment would make him feel any less dirty.

Once he had wiped up, he plunged into the freezing bath water and dunked his head. His eyes closed and bubbles trailed slowly from his lips as he cherished a moment of stillness underwater.

Then it was time for his cleaning ritual to begin. After he had washed himself from head to toe, he left the bath, skin red and tingling. He combed his hair and patted himself down with deodorant powder, then returned to his room. His bunkmates were just starting to awaken, bleary-eyed and messy-haired. His nose wrinkled. Soon, he would be living in his private room, where he wouldn't have to deal with their snoring, night farts and random odours.

Turning to face the wall, he dressed in a clean winter uniform, carefully tucking his cravat under the fur collar. He retrieved his 3D manoeuvre gear case from under his bed. The gear was only a contingency plan for this expedition, but he was glad to have the excuse to wear it. He had worn it so frequently before he joined the Survey Corps that he still felt naked without it.

You were always meant to fly, said Erwin's voice in his mind, and he let out a huff, irritated that the man was still haunting his thoughts.

"You okay, Levi?" asked a bunkmate.

"We're about to head past the wall. What the fuck do you think?" He hoisted the case off the ground and lugged it from the room. He'd gear up in his new room, where he could fuss with the straps without disruption.

First, though, he needed some food. The mess hall was still empty, so he had a nice quiet meal to himself, washing it down with a cup of black tea. Others began to trickle in, grim expressions on their faces. There was none of the usual chatter and ruckus, and oddly, Levi found himself missing it. Silence was peaceful when he was alone, but among a big group, it was unnerving. He quickly finished his meal and stood to leave.

He was just about to exit the hall when Erwin stepped through the doorway, nearly colliding with him.

For a moment, their gaze held.

With an abrupt sigh, Levi began to move past, but a firm hand gripped his shoulder. He stopped, but didn't look up.

"Are we still having that post-expedition drink tonight?" asked Erwin.

Levi's jaw clenched. "Yeah, sure."

The hand didn't drop. He finally looked up and saw a crack in Erwin's neutral façade: a crease by one eyebrow. He couldn't decipher what it meant, but it looked like concern. Is he worried about me? Maybe he really was yelling my name in his sleep.

"Sounded like you were having nightmares again," he said, fishing for information.

The crease deepened. "Stay safe today, Levi." Erwin's hand gave a squeeze before withdrawing, and he continued on his way to the food service line. Levi ducked his head and left the hall, cursing his racing pulse.

.*.*.*.

As the troops gathered outside the stables, Levi mounted his horse, scratching her behind the ears. Survey Corps horses were worth a small fortune: they were strong, fast and almost impossible to spook. In his early days here, he had considered stealing one and selling it on the underground market, then living like a king for the rest of his days. The thought seemed infantile now that he knew how precariously humanity clung to survival. If he had gotten rich and sat around on his ass for the rest of his life, he would have been no better than the upper class he had always hated.

So much had changed since then. Back then, he had wanted to put Erwin down, thinking him another symbol of oppression, when in reality, the man had given him more freedom than he ever imagined. Not many people got to see the land outside the walls, and now that Wall Maria had fallen, even seeing the land outside Wall Rose was a rare privilege.

He heard a whoop behind him. Turning, he saw Hange on foot, bouncing up and down like a little kid, getting in the way of everyone who was trying to saddle up their horses. With a sigh, he rode closer.

"You all right?"

"Good morning, Squad Leader," said Hange. "What a beautiful day for a ride."

He dismounted. "You're excited?"

"Of course!"

"You're insane. Where's your fucking horse?"

"Back by the stables."

"Well, saddle it up bring it over, shitgoggles. You're going to hold up the entire expedition."

Hange looked surprised. "Shitgoggles?"

He looped a finger under the bridge of Hange's prescription goggles and pulled, letting them snap back into place.

"Ow!"

"Your file said you lacked discipline, but I vouched for you anyway. Don't make me regret it."

"I'll be in position in a moment." Hange hurried away, adjusting the goggles back into place.

Levi, meanwhile, approached the wagons. His squad was assembling, so he pulled a folded sheet of paper out of his pocket and did a quick roll call. There were several new recruits on his squad; some of them looked terrified, but others, chatting quietly between themselves, seemed oblivious to the danger they were about to face.

Luckily, he wouldn't have to micromanage them. Two Team Leaders had been assigned under him, a man and woman, Dita and Ameli. He conferred with the two of them, making sure they understood their positions and had enough cartridges for their flare guns. They called him "sir" and treated him with so much respect that he felt like a fraud. He had climbed the ranks so quickly that he had outpaced both of them; if anything, he should be deferring to them, not the other way around.

In his periphery, he saw Hange approach the other squad and begin the roll call. It looked as if everything was going to depart on time.

Sure enough, the tower bells rang right on schedule. The squads slowly left the base, filing through the front gates.

The path to the wall brought them through the town, and as usual, several townsfolk had gotten up early to see them off. Levi tried not to make eye contact with any of them. Seeing either hope or skepticism in their eyes would add extra pressure onto him, and he didn't need any more; his muscles were already tense, his stomach humming with adrenaline. As a Team Leader during the last expedition, he had failed to protect his team. He couldn't do the same now that he was a Squad Leader, with even more people looking up to him.

They filtered through outer gate, falling into formation on the other side. A strange, familiar sensation rippled through Levi: he was an outsider. The air outside the wall was the same air they breathed inside it, but it smelled more pure. The plant life was identical, but it seemed foreign and surreal. This was his third time on a major expedition, and, thanks to small scouting missions, his ninth time outside the wall, but he still felt as if he had no right to be here.

"This is creepy," whimpered one of the new recruits. "It feels wrong." A couple others murmured their agreement.

Levi turned to them. "Stop making yourselves nervous for no reason, idiots. This was our land until a year ago."

Their heads bowed. Levi turned away and tried to take his own advice.

The morning air was still chilly enough to see his breath, but it was a clear day, so the sun would warm them up soon enough. A thin layer of frost coated the ground, restricting them, at first, to a slow pace - the horses were sure-footed and stable, but there was no reason to take any risks so soon. Gradually, the frost melted, and their pace increased.

Levi's eyes wandered across the formation. Far at the head of the group, he could see Erwin's hair, golden in the sun. He rode next to Anke, ready to act as her tactician. Knowing that Erwin was partly in command helped the butterflies fade from Levi's stomach. There was no one else he trusted to keep them safe.

An hour passed, then two, and his mood shifted from relaxation, to boredom, to apprehension. A crisp layer of snow coated the ground here, and the crunching of the horse's hooves was the only sound around them. No birds, no breeze, no clouds. Levi felt as though he were travelling in a tomb.

Then, at last, Anke shot a single white flare into the air: they were nearing their objective. Ahead of them, Levi could see a large silo, flanked by a cluster of trees. He took a deep breath and held it for several seconds, preparing himself to execute their mission.

As they approached the silo, the formation fanned out, forming a defensive perimeter, while Levi and Hange led the wagons to their target. Levi scanned the perimeter. Everyone faced away from them, sitting tense and upright, clouds of breath puffing from their faces. It was like being surrounded by a fence of breathing statues, and he swallowed hard. Being fenced in made him nervous, even by allies.

"Okay, let's get this shit over with." He motioned at Ameli's team, who dismounted and began to inspect the silo's locked door.

Hange moved in next to Levi, voice low: "The troops should be concentrated near the trees in case of an ambush. We can easily see titans coming on the flat land, but not from the forest."

"You'll have to take that up with Erwin." Levi watched with anticipation as Ameli wrestled with the lock; the woman turned back to him and shook her head, and he sighed.

"Here." He handed his reins to Hange and dismounted. "What's the hold up?" he asked as he approached the door.

"Lock's rusted shut," said Ameli. "We can't get it open. Should we try to ram down the door?"

"Let's try a few things first." He bent to examine the lock, then reached into his boot and pulled out a small knife. The blade slid into the door jam and he experimentally wiggled the latch. In his experience, the military often cheaped out on bunker security; that was how he and his old friends had so easily stolen 3D manoeuvre gear back in the day, and how they consistently had access to the gas required to keep it moving. This lock, however, had a metal flap protecting the latch, so he couldn't get a good angle on it.

"Shit." He stepped back to examine the silo. Metal, a good twenty metres tall, no windows. Two cannon nozzles jutted over the very top: an anchor point for gear. Maybe there was a hatch on the roof.

"Everything all right?" asked Erwin's voice behind him. He turned to see the Captain sitting atop a white horse, the sun framing his head like a halo. No one has any business looking that fucking regal.

"Lock's rusted."

"Can you break in, Levi?"

Only Erwin would see his thug days as an asset rather than a liability, and Levi felt badly about letting him down. "Not without the proper tools. They've got it locked up tight." He studied the roof. "Think there's a hatch on top?"

"Maybe. Go ahead and check. If that doesn't pan out, we can always ram the door down."

Levi stepped back and engaged his gear, anchoring a cable to a cannon.

"Wait." Erwin dismounted and moved in close, leaning down until his mouth was by Levi's ear. "While you're up there, check our surroundings for titans. If you see any, and they've noticed us, follow standard procedure with a red flare. If they haven't, then wave instead to get my attention, and point in the direction. If it's all clear, fire a green flare."

Levi studied him for a moment, trying to figure out what was going on, but he couldn't find a single hint on the man's face. "What aren't you telling me?"

After a long pause, Erwin said, "Mike smells titans."

"Fuck."

"Our scouts in the trees can't get a clear line of sight. Maybe you can."

"Sure." Levi turned his attention back to the roof and pulled the trigger. The gear's mechanisms kicked into action, reeling him in, a blast of gas propelling him toward the roof. He landed on the rooftop, his boots giving a soft thud on the metallic surface. There was a hatch in the centre of the roof, a padlock holding it shut.

Even though he had direct orders, he didn't want to look for titans. He hadn't set eyes on them since the expedition that had wiped out his team, and he was afraid of how he would react, seeing them for the first time since the traumatic event. He had seen hardened soldiers sob and scream in the same situation, seen them wet themselves with fear.

Slowly, reluctantly, he raised his head.

The titans were everywhere except the forest: north, east, south. None of them seemed to have noticed the soldiers; they were too far away, shuffling aimlessly around like drunks. From this distance, they seemed small and stupid. Levi was surprised to find himself feeling not fear, but revulsion.

We're smarter than them, he thought. There's no reason we can't wipe them out.

But not today. This wasn't the right place to make their stand.

He lifted his arm to signal Erwin, who echoed the gesture. Levi pointed north, east and south, then drew a path between the points, signalling that they were nearly surrounded. There was a long pause, then Erwin waved back and leaned in to speak with Anke.

The titans were their problem now. Levi focused on his next task: the hatch. He crouched over top of it. The lock here was rusted, too, but so was the latch, and it looked fragile. He jammed his knife beneath it and gave an expert twist. The entire latch snapped off. What a piece of shit. There was that military cheapness he had been expecting earlier.

Leaving a cable affixed to the cannon, Levi lowered himself into the silo, using the gas to control his descent. As he neared the ground, he pulled out a small white flare and held it out. The room was nearly empty. In the corner, he could see a dozen or so boxes of cannon rounds: mostly pomegrenades, a few grapeshots. A handful of rations boxes sat in another corner, along with two gas tanks, a small team's supply of blades, and some unfamiliar red boxes stamped with the royal seal.

Levi's eyes narrowed. Erwin had been talking about this silo as if its supplies would greatly benefit them. Was this tiny cache really worth risking their lives?

His feet touched the ground and, leaving his cable attached to the roof, he walked over to the door. The interior lock was still in good shape, so he gave a bolt an experimental twist.

The door creaked open, revealing a surprised Ameli and her team.

He disengaged his gear and retracted the cable, stepping into the light. "Fill the carts," he said, "but be quick and quiet."

"Everything all right?" asked Hange.

"I need to talk to the assholes in charge. Make sure these idiots are careful - there are live cannon rounds in there." A single pomegrenade could blow open a titan's neck; he didn't want to think what a whole boxful of them could do.

Hands tightening into fists, he marched toward Anke and Erwin. The two dismounted as he approached.

"How many?" asked Anke.

"Lots." Levi glared at them. "There's less than a cart's worth of supplies in there."

She paled. "What do you mean, 'lots'?"

"There's barely enough in that silo to supply me, let alone this whole fucking division."

"Okay, Levi, but the titans-"

"Did you not hear me? We've been set up to fail. Whoever told you two this silo was stocked flat-out lied to you."

She gave an exaggerated groan and clawed her fingers into her crown braid. "For fuck's sake! Erwin, can you please get through to him?"

"Levi," said Erwin quietly. "You and I can discuss the silo's contents later. For now, we need to know more about what we're up against so we can minimize the risks. How many did you see?"

"Twenty, maybe thirty. Too far away to tell their heights, but not big ones. They haven't noticed us yet, but they might if Anke keeps screaming at me."

The two leaders exchanged a long glance.

"Grab the cargo," said Anke. "Then let's get the hell out of here."

When Levi returned to the silo, the carts were almost completely loaded, the sparse supplies divided evenly between them.

"We're almost done," said Hange.

"See what I mean? There's shit all in there," he said.

"We might as well take what's here." Hange leaned closer, voice lowering. "How many?"

"What?"

"Titans."

"Probably thirty."

Hange grinned. "Thirty! What did they look like?"

"What do you think? Naked, big, dumb expressions. Hopefully we don't see any of them close up." He folded his arms over his chest, watching the new recruits bring in the boxes of cannon ammo, and sighed. They had stacked four boxes on top of each another and were handling them as if they contained potatoes instead of live rounds. "Hey, one at a time with those boxes."

"So do you think these titans-" began Hange, but one of the recruits yelled, "Watch out!" followed by, "Shit!"

Levi's eyes locked onto them.

The top box of pomegrenades was falling toward the ground.

Instinctively, he shielded his head and spun on his heel, trying to distance himself from them, but there wasn't enough time. He saw a flash, heard a bang so loud that his head rang. The ground disappeared beneath his feet, and he felt himself twisting in the air.

Then he was lying on his back, and red flares were firing in every direction above him, and then everything faded.

.*.*.*.

Erwin stared at the site of the explosion. The smoke and dust began to settle, revealing an overturned cart and a smoking pit. Soldiers ran back and forth, mounting horses, moving the remaining carts. Levi. Where is Levi?

"Erwin," barked Anke, pointing up.

Red flares fired in every direction above them, and he cursed under his breath. The sound of the explosion had attracted the titans. He gauged the sky, looking for the direction with the least traffic.

"Southeast," he said a split second later.

Anke lifted her gun and fired a green canister southeast. "Let's move."

He was about to follow, but as he glanced at the explosion site, he saw team members frantically pulling the wounded onto the carts, scrambling to finish before the charging titans reached them. A few soldiers used the cannons atop the silo as grappling points, launching themselves in the air to take out the approaching enemies. There was still no sign of Levi.

"Erwin," yelled Anke, turning back to look at him. "Come on. Move it!"

He narrowed his eyes and circled back toward the silo instead. Keeping a good distance between himself and the titans, he galloped past the explosion site and scanned the rubble for Levi. The last cart was just pulling away, and there was no sign they had left anyone behind. With a low sigh of relief, he rode ahead, catching up to Anke.

The Commander glared at him. "Erwin, what the hell was that?"

"Just checking for survivors," he said, yelling to be heard over the hoof beats.

Her brows dropped. "Really? This is the time you choose to lose your head? It's fucking Henrik all over again."

Heat crept onto his cheeks, but he kept his focus on the horizon.

Red flares went up from their right flank: titans were approaching.

"Shit!" Anke shot a green flare to the east, directing their course away from the titans. "Shit. This isn't good."

"Just keep riding," he said. "Trust in the formation. This is no different than when you were Captain." His eyes ticked north, east and south, over and over, his mind alert.

More red flares went off to their right, a single black flare among them.

"Abnormal incoming," he said.

"Acknowledged." Anke's knuckles were white on the reins.

Another black flare, closer. Now Erwin could see the group of titans: two normal, one abnormal, seven-metre class. Several scouts were in pursuit. The two normal titans dropped, but the abnormal was cutting through the line, too swift for them to land an anchor point. It beelined for the head of the formation.

He readied his gear. "It's cutting through our defenses. We'll have to fight."

"Too dangerous on flat ground," yelled Anke. "Continue the retreat."

"We can't outrun this one. It's thirty metres away. Twenty-five. Twenty." He stood in his stirrups, jaw set, finger poised over the trigger.

One of the scouts landed a grapple on the abnormal's neck. She launched herself at it and swung low. The titan swiped at her, but she arced out of the way, narrowly avoiding its hand. Her blades sliced into the titan's knee.

The titan stumbled and fell, and for a moment, it looked as if the problem was solved. Then its hand lashed out, catching the rump of the Commander's horse. Anke and her horse rolled to the ground, and the titan crawled after them.

Erwin vaulted off his horse. Now that the titan was prone, he easily sank a grapple into its head. Twisting mid-air, he used his momentum to curve around the back of its neck. His blades dug deep into the flesh at its nape.

The titan fell slack, and its body began to dissolve into vapour.

"Anke!" Erwin pushed through the wall of steam, searching for the Commander. He found her lying a few feet in front of the titan in a pool of blood. One leg was severed at the knee.

"Shit." He sprinted back to his horse and pulled a first aid kit out of his saddlebag, then returned to her side.

"Oh fuck, it hurts so much," she whimpered.

"I know," he said, even though he didn't. "Stay with me." He jerked her tattered pants up her thigh, looping a tourniquet above her knee. His hands were so slippery with blood that it took a few tries to wind it tightly. A few soldiers slowed as they passed by, but seeing none of them were medics, he waved them on.

"I'm not going to make it," she said. "I'm losing too much blood."

"The tourniquet's on now. You'll be fine." In the corner of his eye, he could see a new group of titans approaching, three five-metre classes. Where was their right flank? Had they all been wiped out, or had everyone moved ahead without them?

"Erwin," said Anke. "Leave me."

Ignoring her, he hoisted her over his back, struggling to mount his horse. By the time he got her settled in place behind him, the titans were closing in. He gave the horse a small kick and leaned forward, urging it to gallop as fast as it could.

"I'm slowing you down," said Anke. "Let me go."

Her grip around his waist was loosening. He grabbed her wrist, locking her in place. She was shaking, and her skin was cold. Behind them, he could hear the titans' thudding footsteps over the hoof beats. They're closing in.

"Erwin, listen to me," she said, the words interrupted by gasping breaths at uneven cadences. "I'm fading. We don't both need to die."

His throat tightened.

She thrust her free hand into his view. Her Commander's pendant was in her palm, smeared with blood.

"Anke, don't do this," he said.

"Take it and let me go."

He gritted his teeth and leaned further forward. There was still a chance they could outrun the titans and get her to a medic.

"That was an order, Captain," she said.

He swallowed hard and released her captive arm, accepting the pendant. "Everyone will know about your bravery, Anke."

"That's what I like to hear." She gave him a quick hug. "Make humanity proud, Commander Smith."

He heard the sound of her gear engaging, and then she pulled away. He looked back to watch her arc toward the first titan, grappling its shoulder. Even with only one leg, with only one direction at her disposal, she still managed to land on its back and drop it. With a blood-curdling scream, she launched at the next titan.

She didn't make it. The titans descended on her, and Erwin turned away.

Now that his horse was carrying a lighter load, it effortlessly caught up to the group. He kept it running hard, aiming to find his place among the vanguard. Dozens of sets of frightened eyes locked onto him as he passed, but he set his jaw, gaze fixed forward.

When he had finally reclaimed his position at the head of the formation, he remembered the pendant. He had been gripping the reins tightly with the same hand; the shape of the pendant was indented in his palm like a brand. Not bothering to wipe off the blood, he draped it around his neck.

"Erwin." Mike's voice, to his left. Erwin turned to see the Squad Leader riding beside him, eyes wide.

"Get back in formation, Mike."

"Is she gone?"

Erwin paused to steady his nerves before answering, but he was surprised to find there were no nerves to steady. He felt nothing. Anke, passionate, bossy Anke, who he had known since she was a freckle-faced girl of twelve, had given her life for him, and he felt nothing.

"Erwin, answer me!" said Mike.

"Get back in formation." Loosing his flare gun from his belt, Erwin lifted his arm high and shot a green flare due south.

They rode hard for another quarter hour with no further sign of titans. Erwin slowed their pace to give the horses a break, but without the racing hoof beats and rushing wind in his ears, he could hear the wails and moans of the injured and the bereaved. He tried to ignore them, focusing on the speech he would give as they rallied outside the gates. So long as he kept himself executing a plan, he wouldn't have to consider his emotions - or rather, his startling lack of them.

Once the walls were in sight, he fired a white flare into the air, a signal for everyone to stop and assemble. The formation condensed into rows, the horses halting. Erwin studied the soldiers. Ashen, dirty faces, blood-stained clothes, stunned silence. At least there seemed to be a large number of survivors - that was good news. He scanned the crowd for Levi, but the rear guard was so densely packed that he could only see a sea of faces.

Focus, he told himself. He could be Levi's friend later; right now, he needed to be his Commander.

He sat tall in the saddle.

"Commander Anke is dead," he announced. "She died a hero, taking down pursuing titans even with a grave injury. She dedicated every last drop of her life to the pursuit of freedom, and her memory will be our inspiration." He gave a strong salute, his fists thudding into his body. "Commander Anke, we salute you!"

The soldiers saluted, the collective thump so loud that it reverberated through Erwin's bones.

"As we enter the gates, hold your heads high." His fists, still in the salute, were so tight that his knuckles ached. "Today, we have seen hell and come through the other side. We have lost a leader, and many of you have lost friends, but you made it through. Today, you proved that you are humanity's finest soldiers, and we shall rally stronger than before."

The soldiers roared. Turning, he began to lead them toward the gate. The bells rang, sounding their arrival.

A crowd gathered inside the gate, most of them obviously looking for loved ones among the returning soldiers. Erwin dismounted and held his chin high, not making eye contact with anyone as he lead his horse through the street. His numbness was his armour, and he didn't want anyone to pierce it. There were still a few more tasks he had to get through tonight: the Squad Leaders would give their casualty report, and he would have to submit the paperwork. That was something he had never done before, and he wondered if he, as interim Commander, had any right to do it. As soon as they arrived at the base, he would send a messenger to the Capital to advise his superiors of the situation. Maybe they could send an advisor out to help him.

Once all the necessary bureaucracy was taken care of, he was going to take a nice long bath, then have that drink with Levi and put all this horror out of his mind.

He left his horse with one of the new recruits, giving it an affectionate pat on the neck. He wouldn't have made it through without that horse, and he hoped it would be given the finest feed as a reward.

"Squad Leaders," he called, "report to my office. I'll be there shortly to join you." He pulled one of the Team Leaders aside and gave them instructions to hire a messenger in the city. The sooner they got word out, the sooner he would know what steps needed to be taken next.

When he arrived in his office to meet the Squad Leaders, he stopped in the doorway, staring.

Squad Leaders Mike and Berit stood at attention, but Team Leaders Dita and Eld stood beside them. There was no sign of Levi or Hange.

Erwin's breath froze. He had never considered that Levi might have died on the field. The man's skill and speed were so great that he seemed invincible.

Four pairs of eyes locked expectantly onto him, but he didn't want to acknowledge them. He wanted to stay here, in this moment before his fears were confirmed, where there was still hope. His numbness finally began to drain from him, leaving black spots swimming in his eyes, fear settling in his stomach like a boulder of ice.

"Erwin?" asked Mike hesitantly, the way one would speak to a person on the verge of a breakdown.

"Where are Squad Leaders Levi and Hange?" demanded Erwin.

"They didn't make it out, sir," said Eld.

"What do you mean?"

Eld and Dita exchanged a glance, and the latter stepped forward, clearing his throat. "They didn't make it out. They were at the centre of the blast, near the flank that was taken out by the titans. We recovered some bodies, but there was no sign of either of them. We presume they were eaten."

Impossible. Erwin's head spun. They're skilled soldiers. They must have taken refuge, then lagged behind on the ride home. They'll arrive at the gates in the next hour or two. He clenched his trembling hands into fists, saying nothing.

Now all four personnel exchanged glances.

"Erwin?" asked Mike. "Are you okay to do this right now?"

"Yes. Let's get started." Somehow, he found his way to his seat without sinking to the floor. He pulled out a sheet of paper, a pen, and an ink pot, then opened the next-of-kin file that sat on his desk. How carelessly he had set it out the night before; how far away death had seemed then.

The memory of lemon scent floated through his mind, but he shoved it under. He could break down later, if he needed to. Right now, he had work to do.

"You first, Berit," he murmured.

"Sir." The woman stepped forward and saluted. "Nine casualties in my squad, three bodies recovered." She began to list off names.

Erwin tried to note them down, but his hand was shaking so badly that his words were illegible. His vision began to blur. He cursed softly to himself, furious that his body would betray him.

"Here," said Mike quietly, taking the pen from his hand. "I'll take notes. You dictate the next of kin."

Clearing a knot from his throat, Erwin said, "Thank you."

They went through all the casualties one at a time, and even though the number was, as he had suspected, low for an expedition of this size, that was no longer a consolation. Erwin read the next-of-kin document mechanically, barely paying attention to the syllables. His ears were straining for the sound of bells, for the announcement that more Survey Corps members had arrived safely within the walls.

"And finally," said Dita, voice cracking, "Levi, last name unknown."

He isn't dead. He isn't dead! He isn't- Erwin drew in a deep breath and held it, then slowly let it out.

"Commander?"

"One moment." His finger found Levi's name and slid across it, feeling the indentation from the man's heavy hand. "Next of kin, Erwin Sm..." His voice died before he could finish pronouncing his own name. He stared at it, certain he must have misread.

A long, heavy silence filled the room.

"I suppose," said Mike, "you were the closest thing he had to a living friend."

Has, thought Erwin. The closest thing he has to a living friend.

He cleared his throat again. "Is that everyone, Dita?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then there's only one more person to note: Commander Anke Roth. Next of kin, a sister, Sara Roth, Stohess District." Standing, he added, "Everyone is dismissed."

Most of them seemed eager to leave, but Mike lingered. "Erwin, about Anke-"

"We'll talk later."

"No, listen-"

Erwin stood. "Dismissed, Mike."

The man's lip curled, but he turned and left the room, the door closing hard behind him.

Erwin paced toward the window and sagged against it, letting his forehead fall against the cool glass. Any moment now, Levi and Hange would ride into the yard, maybe with a few other soldiers in tow. They would share drinks as Levi recounted a wild story about their escape, and tomorrow, their lives would return to normal.

He had to be right. There was no other option. Beneath his numbness, beneath his denial, a dangerous pressure was beginning to build, and he wasn't sure what would happen if it erupted.

.*.*.*.

Levi groaned. His head throbbed, his stomach twisted, and he was cold. Something hard and knotted was digging into his back. Where the fuck am I?

He could make out Hange leaning over him, wide eyes magnified by the goggles. "Levi? Can you hear me?" The words rocketed through his skull.

"Not so loud. What happened?" He struggled to sit.

"Easy. I think you have a bad concussion." Hange helped him sit up, and his vision gradually came into focus. They sat on a thick tree branch in the middle of the forest. A group of five titans clawed at the tree trunk below them, all of them three- to seven-metre class.

"What the fuck?" he muttered. Had he ventured into the trees during the expedition? When he tried to recall what had happened, his mind felt sluggish.

"Beautiful specimens, aren't they?" said Hange.

"No, they're fucking hideous." Looking down was making his head throb, and he clutched at his temples.

"Easy," said Hange again. "You've been unconscious for awhile."

"How long?"

"Seven, eight hours."

"What?" He tried to stand, but his legs were too weak. "Why are we up a fucking tree?"

"Titans closed in on us while we were stunned from the explosion. The only safe place to go was up, so I grabbed you and pulled us into the trees. Some of them followed us, so I had to fight." Hange beamed. "Took down five without any assists."

"Five?" His brows rose, impressed, and a flush coloured Hange's cheeks.

"Well, it wasn't so difficult, because these titans are particularly stupid. I think that's why they didn't notice us until they heard the cannon rounds explode."

He tried to remember the explosion that kept coming up, but the impact must have rocked his skull, because his memories were jumbled.

"Are we alone out here?" he asked.

"As far as I can tell. We're about five hundred metres from the horses, if they're still waiting where we left them. I'd call them, but the undergrowth is too thick for them. I'm almost out of water, and I expended all my gas getting you here and then taking down those titans."

"Shit." Levi popped out a gas canister to check his levels: three-quarters full. He shouldn't have wasted so much gas getting into the silo. He closed his eyes, trying to force his uncooperative brain to concentrate. "So if we go for the horses from here and I carry you, how much gas will we need?"

"It doesn't matter." Hange's legs dangled off the branch, heels kicking. "Even assuming the horses are there and we make it to them, we're nearing sunset. We can't run the horses at full speed in the darkness, even if we lit our torches; they would outrun the torchlight. All we'd be doing is lighting ourselves up as defenseless targets."

Frustration welled within Levi. "So, what, we're stuck here until morning?"

"Yes."

"Fuck." Levi drummed his heels against the branch as he peered down at the titans. The light around them was orange and dimming. Soon, the temperature was going to drop even more. He didn't want to think about how cold it was going to get. The Survey Corps winter uniforms were made to withstand reasonably cool weather, but expeditions usually halted during the coldest part of the season, so they might not stand up well in freezing temperatures.

If there are other soldiers out here, maybe we can all huddle together to stay warm. "Are we alone out here?" he asked.

Hange was quiet for a moment. "You already asked that. Here, let me have a look at your eyes." A hand gripped his jaw; he tried to pull away, but the grip was too strong. "Well, at least your pupils are the same size. Hopefully your forgetfulness is just the concussion and not permanent brain damage. But don't sit so close to the edge. You could lose your balance."

"I'm fine." He wasn't. His head swam, and the only thing that kept him from vomiting was dignity. He also had the overpowering urge to fall asleep, but he had already lost seven hours of the day to unconsciousness, and he wasn't about to lose more.

"They're going to think we're fucking dead," he said. "Erwin and Anke are probably sending our death notices to the Capital right now."

"Probably."

"Might as well be dead. What do you think the odds are that we make it back?"

There was no response, and Levi glanced at Hange, who seemed lost in thought. At least if he had been stuck up here with Erwin, this might have been more tolerable: talking to pass the time, clinging to each other for warmth, working together to figure out a way home.

"This didn't need to happen," said Hange suddenly. "We shouldn't have formed a perimeter that thin. It left us vulnerable."

"Erwin said several scouting missions had been here before. There were never any titans."

"That didn't mean there were never going to be any. And here we are."

"Yeah," said Levi. "Here we are." He leaned forward, studying the titans. Their movements were slowing. Maybe they got tired at the end of the day, like animals. He hoped so. If that were the case, they could wait until the titans were asleep, then sneak away undetected.

His frustration began to build. The only thing he hated more than being trapped was waiting, and now he had to deal with both at the same time. He reacted by lashing out. "Why the fuck did you take me into the forest? If you had headed toward the group-"

Hange looked surprised. "We were penned in. I needed to get to high ground."

"At least if you took me to the top of the silo, we could have dropped into it for shelter tonight, instead of being stuck in a fucking tree."

For the first time since they met, he saw a flash of anger behind the goggles. "Like I said, we were penned in. Maybe I could have manoeuvred through the titans to get to the group or to the silo if I were alone, but I was carrying your dead weight."

"So now it's my fault."

Hange looked away. "Your concussion is amplifying your emotions and making you irrational. I'm sure you'll thank me for saving your life once you can think straight again."

Levi felt a wave of shame, but he was too proud to apologize. He closed his eyes, wishing fervently that he was back at the base, having that drink Erwin had promised him. He couldn't even remember the last words they had exchanged. If he had known how things would go, what would he have said? A confession? A playful insult? A thank you?

He recalled the way he had dreaded bumping into Erwin that morning, and that dread seemed foreign now. Maybe love and sex were off the table, but he was okay with being friends, if that was what the man wanted. They had bonded on that rooftop, and that bond was meaningful, no matter what the context.

"You know what, Hange?" he said. "When morning comes, we're going to get to the horses just fine. I don't care how little gas we have, or how hard it is to manoeuvre two people with one set of gear: I'll get us there."

"How can you be sure?" There was a waver to the words, and that uncertainty only gave Levi more resolve.

"Because a good man once told me I was always meant to fly," he said, "and I'm going to prove him right."

Chapter Text

-4-

Erupt

Erwin drifted through his post-expedition routine in a fog. He was trapped in a strange, surreal dream: the room he undressed in, the water he bathed in, the skin he soaped, none of it was real. The eyes, staring, the soft whispers of his colleagues, all fragments of a dream. He towelled off numb skin, dressed, found his way back to his room, and then lied down, staring at the ceiling.

Always, his ears were strained, carefully listening for the sound of bells.

When a knock sounded at the door, he wondered if it would be good news, or bad news, or none at all. "Come in."

The door opened to reveal Keith Shadis. The sympathy in the ex-Commander's eyes felt out of place; emotions did not belong in this numb dream world.

"I came as fast as I could." Shadis stepped into the room and closed the door. "I'm so sorry to hear about Anke."

Erwin's head rolled along the pillow as his gaze returned to the ceiling. "We lost two Squad Leaders as well. Hange Zoe and Levi." The man's name slid between his lips like burning liquid, left them blistering.

"Shit." Shadis' face fell. He crossed the room to stand by the bed, hands clasped behind his back. "I was already sweetening up the powers that be to lay a path for research funding for Hange. And Levi… Well, reputation of his skill was spreading. The new trainees all know his name. They were calling him Humanity's Strongest. I'm sorry. I know you had high hopes for them."

Erwin sat up. He dug into his pocket and pulled out the Commanders' pendant, then held it out. "Here."

"Keep it. You're next in line. We'll start the paperwork next week."

He hesitated. "My strategy led everyone to their deaths."

"Your survival numbers were higher than usual. You didn't cause deaths: you prevented them." Shadis dropped a heavy hand on his shoulder. "You might want to clean the blood off that thing before you start wearing it."

Erwin's thumb slid across the green gemstone, feeling the crusted texture, the only bit of Anke that remained. He swallowed hard. "I need you to show me the proper paperwork to file-"

"Later. We'll worry about the bureaucracy tomorrow. Take a night to collect yourself."

How could he collect himself when he hadn't yet fallen apart?

Shadis gave him a kind smile and turned to leave, but Erwin, suddenly remembering a question on his mind, caught his arm to stop him. "Keith. Among the supplies we recovered, we found locked red boxes stamped with the royal seal, and very little else of value. Do you know what they are?"

The man's expression was unreadable. "Tax collections. When Wall Maria fell, there wasn't enough time to transport all the wealth back to the King, so the Garrison stored lockboxes inside military silos for safekeeping."

"We risked our lives for that silo. We were led to believe that there were supplies of value in there." Erwin's jaw clenched as he remembered Levi's words: someone set us up to fail.

"Sometimes, it's difficult to know how many supplies remain in our caches. There can be looters and-"

"Outside the walls? Besides, the locks were rusted shut; no one has been in them for years." Erwin leaned closer, brows low. "Our informant duped us by exaggerating the supplies in this silo, knowing we'd find the King's gold instead and return it. This was always about money, under the guise of being for the sake of humanity."

His mentor looked uneasy. "That's a bit of a stretch. We have to assume that the information was given in good faith. All branches of the military are working toward the same goal."

Are they really? "Who provided us with the tip about the silo in the first place? It was someone close to the King, wasn't it?"

Now Shadis looked outright uncomfortable.

"Keith." Erwin gave him a friendly smile. "I won't do anything untoward. If I'm going to command the Survey Corps, I have to know which sources are reliable for accurate information, and clearly this one is either corrupt or being led astray from above."

Shadis sighed. "Very well. Captain Nile Dok of the Military Police."

"Nile?" That was a surprise. Nile had been his dearest friend, once upon a time, and while the man was a bit of a yes-man, he wasn't the type to become corrupt.

"I spoke with him last month. He was going through old files and discovered several stockpiles; this particular silo was the most promising on the list."

"I see." The next time Erwin was in the Capital, he would have to pay his old friend a visit. Perhaps he could take him for drinks, get him talking a bit.

"Erwin."

He looked up to see Shadis looking at him with concern.

"Yes?"

"Don't get obsessed with this, not when you're so raw. Take a night off to grieve. You can't bottle up emotions and expect them to go away. Trust me, I tried. They just end up venting themselves at the wrong times, in unhealthy ways."

Erwin focused on the pendant, using his thumbnail to flake off the dried blood. "With all due respect, Keith, people mourn in different ways. I am no stranger to death. I will be fine."

His mentor's face was drawn, the shadows under his eyes heavy. "I worry about you, son. You push yourself too hard. You're a brilliant mind, and humanity can't afford to have you burn out."

The term 'son' and the words that followed made Erwin's throat tighten, but he swallowed hard to clear it. "If it will put your mind at ease, I'll take the night off."

"Good. Please let me know if you need anything."

Shadis left the room, the door closing behind him.

Erwin finished cleaning the pendant, then put it on. The last thing he wanted right now was to take a night off. Pressure was still building from deep within him, and lying in bed thinking was only going to make it harder to maintain his denial. He considered joining others in the mess hall, but decided he needed to be alone - everyone kept giving him those unnerving sympathetic looks.

The bottle of whiskey was still in his office, waiting for Levi's return. Maybe he would help himself to a taste of it while he waited.

.*.*.*.

Darkness was rapidly descending on Levi and Hange, and the temperature was dropping with it. Levi wrapped his arms tightly around himself, trying not to show that he was shivering. Even worse than the cold, he had to take a piss, but he'd be damned if he was going to piss off a tree branch, especially with Hange sitting right beside him. This whole situation was annoying, and he couldn't wait until morning arrived and they could get the fuck out of there.

It wasn't all bad, at least. He couldn't see the base of the tree in the darkness, but the lack of thuds below them suggested the titans had given up, for now.

"Levi?" said Hange tentatively, as if afraid to flare up his anger. "I had to kill a few titans while you were out. There were some interesting findings."

He chewed the inside of his cheek. "I don't care about your fucking findings."

"Last expedition, I kicked a titan's severed head. It was feather-light. Isn't that odd? They're so massive that one would expect them to be heavy. So this time, I chopped off an arm of one of my victims and tried to move it-"

"I don't care." Nausea welled in Levi's chest, white hot, and this time, he couldn't will his way out of it. He leaned forward and wretched. There was nothing he hated more than losing control of his own body, and when it was finally over, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Disgusting."

Hange moved to sit beside him and peered down. "I bet you hit one of them."

"Good. I hope it landed right in its revolting mouth."

"You okay?"

He glared. "No, shitty four-eyes, I am not fucking okay."

Hange's legs swung, childlike. "It's always shit with you, isn't it? Shit and cleaning. You're the perfect definition of 'anal retentive.'"

"Don't analyze me, or I swear I'll fucking jump into a titan's maw right now."

"Leave me your gas before you jump."

He looked up, surprised, and saw Hange smirking at him.

"Fuck off," he muttered, gathering his knees to his chest. He wanted to fall back into a long silence, but his bladder was going to burst. Wetting himself would be even less dignified than pissing from a tree branch. He cursed to himself and stood. "Turn your back."

"You shouldn't be standing," said Hange with concern. "You might lose your balance."

"Better than pissing myself. Do not turn around, you hear me?" Levi shakily made his way toward the end of the tree branch, stopping before it got too thin. The thick jacket was awkward to push aside, and the cold and lack of light didn't make his task any easier. He hoped he wasn't accidentally urinating on his boots.

Once the disgusting task was complete, he carefully adjusted his uniform into place. His hands felt grimy and unclean, but there was nothing to wash them with unless he sacrificed some of their precious drinking water. Scowling, he returned to his spot and sat.

"Done?" asked Hange.

"Yeah, you can turn around again." He hugged his knees to his chest, shivering. He felt a hand tugging at his fur-lined hood, and he tried to duck away. "What are you doing?"

"Cover your head. You'll stay warmer that way."

"I know that," he muttered, jerking his hood into place. "I was shivering on the streets for years while you were tucked away in your warm little university."

There was a long pause. "I didn't go to university."

"What?" He glanced at Hange, who was staring absently at the ground below them.

"My resume is a lie. My family couldn't afford to send me to university. I spent all my spare time in libraries, teaching myself."

He considered. "Being self-taught is more impressive than having it all force-fed to you, really." Seeing that Hange's mouth was beginning to droop, he added, "You've been watching titans all day, right? You should write down everything you saw. Maybe something you observed will help us learn more about them. You could come out of this a hero."

There was no response except for a tiny smile, but that was enough to make him feel a little better. The two of them didn't know each other well yet, but as stoic as he pretended to be, he hated to see anyone down on themselves.

"It's getting cold," said Hange. "Would you mind if we sat back-to-back? That way, we can share body heat without it being too intimate."

He shrugged and turned his back, and Hange mirrored the motion. After a few minutes, he could feel heat building between them, and his shivering began to subside. Body heat in the cold reminded him of the rooftop again, and his teeth clenched. Can't you go two fucking minutes without thinking about Erwin?

He apparently wasn't the only one whose thoughts were back at the base. "What do you think the others are doing right now?" It was strange to hear an even tone coming from Hange; maybe that seemingly unlimited energy had a limit after all.

"Mike's drinking," he said. "Anke's doing paperwork. And Erwin..." He trailed off. "They all think we're dead, don't they?" Was Erwin mourning? It was difficult to picture the man showing any emotions. The grief he had shown over the framed drawing the week before was the first time Levi had seen any sadness on his face. How upset is he? Was I important to him, or just a project?

"You and Erwin," said Hange, as if it were the beginning of the sentence.

His muscles tensed. "Yeah?"

"I always wondered what you did to convince him to bring you into the Corps."

Levi shrugged. "I tried to go toe-to-toe with him, and almost got the better of him. He liked my skills and my attitude."

"That's it?"

"Look, if you're going to ask me what goes on in Erwin Smith's head, I can't answer you, because I have no fucking idea." He wished he knew. Maybe that was part of the reason this stupid crush had gotten out of control; he had always been drawn to a challenge. Erwin was more than a challenge. He was an impossibility.

Hange paused, then said softly, "I thought there might be more to it than that."

Panic fluttered in his chest, but he scoffed and said coolly, "Why would you think that?"

"Well, you've mentioned his name about five or six times since you woke up. And the way the two of you interact, like back at the silo, or when you were interviewing me - it's as if half the words don't get spoken aloud."

"We work together a lot."

Hange twisted to look back at him. "I saw the two of you on the rooftop last night."

His eyes narrowed. "What?"

"You seemed pretty upset, and we've got some time, so I thought you might like to talk through it."

"What the hell? You were spying on us?" He reached behind him to smack Hange's head.

"Ow! Not spying. I'm a scientist. I observe."

"I'm not a fucking test subject." He reached back for another smack, but this time, Hange ducked out of the way.

"Stop hitting me. I'm just making an effort to be your friend."

"Spying is a shitty thing to do." Levi rested his chin on his knees, brows low. "You want to be my friend? Don't fucking spy on me."

There was a long silence, and Hange's back began to quiver against his. He couldn't tell if it was from the cold or tears, but the latter possibility made him feel awful. He gave an exasperated sigh. Maybe it would feel good to get this off his chest.

"Say I do want to talk about it. It all stays between us, right?"

"Of course," said Hange. "I won't tell a single person."

Levi shifted his legs to get more comfortable. Talking about his feelings wasn't something that came naturally to him. Growing up in the gutters meant toughing through problems, not dwelling on them. He took a deep breath.

"So maybe I care about him a bit more than I'd like, yeah. Problem is, he lost someone once, and I think it hurt him more than he lets on. Says he's afraid of losing someone he cares about, or dying and leaving them behind. Or maybe he was just trying to let me down gently."

"No, he's definitely attracted to you," said Hange. "He behaves strangely around you sometimes, like he's afraid to touch you. Except last night, I guess."

Levi's cheeks warmed. "You watch him a lot?"

"I watch everyone a lot. Scientist, remember?"

"Creepy." He chipped at a piece of loose bark with his heel. "I keep wondering how he's reacting right now. Part of me hopes he's crying his fucking eyes out. The other part of me doesn't want him to suffer like that, and hopes he isn't really upset. Both options make me feel like shit."

"Assuming he made it back safely, of course," said Hange off-handedly.

Levi whirled. "Why the fuck would you say that?" He hadn't even considered the possibility that Erwin could have died in the attack. His head began to swim. "Dammit, I have a concussion here. You shouldn't be stressing me out."

"Sorry. I didn't think. I'm sure he's fine."

Levi tightened his arms around his body, shivering hard.

.*.*.*.

Erwin ran a finger around the rim of his glass, eyes fixed on the window. It was nearing ten o'clock, and it was taking considerable effort to maintain his veil of denial. Every passing hour just added to the evidence that Levi wouldn't return. He carefully meted out another small glass of whiskey, making sure to reserve enough for four drinks each for him and Levi. After tonight, he was certain, the man was going to need them.

A knock sounded at the door, and even though he was sure the return would cause an uproar that would have alerted him in advance, his hopes rose. "Come in."

The door swung open to reveal not Levi, but Dita, carrying a box. "Sorry to interrupt, sir, but since you're Levi's next of kin..."

Erwin stared numbly at the box. It was customary to empty the bunks of the deceased on the night of their passing, but Levi wasn't dead, he wasn't dead...

Without leaving his chair, he nodded. "Bring it here please, Dita."

"Sir." The man set the box on the desk, then saluted. "I'm sorry for your loss, sir. He was a good man."

Erwin nodded again. He stared at the box until Dita left the room, and then drained his drink. Careful to save three drinks' worth of whiskey for him and Levi, he poured another glass.

Levi is going to return. If I open this tonight, it will violate his privacy.

He took in a slow, shaky breath, then slung back the whiskey and stood. He knew, deep down, that Levi wasn't coming back. In all his expeditions with the Corps, he had never seen a soldier return after becoming separated from the main group, at least not after more than an hour or two. Soon, he was going to have to face the fact that Levi was...

Even the word was unthinkable.

He threw open the flaps. The box was nearly empty. He felt a pang of shame when he saw how few possessions Levi had to his name: a few pairs of old pants and shirts, immaculately pressed; some cleaning supplies; a few Survey Corps patches that looked as if they had been torn off old cloaks; a small, worn dog carved of wood. At the bottom of the box, he found a single envelope with "Erwin" written in Levi's heavy, childlike hand.

He pulled out the envelope and set it on the desk, then rifled through the cleaning supplies until he found a bottle of lemon soap. Feeling a bit embarrassed about it, he popped open the lid and breathed in the scent. It wasn't quite the same without Levi's scent underneath it, but it was still so familiar that tears sprang to his eyes.

Abruptly dropping the soap back into the box, he fell into his chair and helped himself to another drink.

Better hurry back, Levi. There won't be any whiskey left for you, at this rate.

He continued to drink, glancing occasionally out the window. His mind hovered in a neutral mode, concentrating on safe thoughts: the burn of the liquor, the sensation of the glass against his hand.

The town hall clock struck eleven, and Erwin realized the lamp was dimming. He moved to pour more oil into it, almost knocking the lamp over in the process.

Once it was safely refilled, he grabbed the bottle and, bracing his elbow against the table for balance, poured another drink. The last bit of whiskey spilled out of the bottle and into his glass.

With a low sigh, he picked up the envelope Levi had left for him. It took him two tries to slit the wax on the back flap. A letter was inside:

.

Erwin,

I'm no good at these things, so I'll just say thank you. You helped me get my head on straight when it was all mixed up. You were the first and only man I ever respected enough to take orders from. The only man I would ever consider dying for.

I hope I took a few titans down with me when I went.

-Levi

.

Erwin drained his glass, then set the letter down on the desk.

He tried to steady himself, but he felt as if he were eroding from the inside out. Levi hadn't died for him, he had died because of him. Erwin was the whole reason Levi had joined the Corps, the whole reason the man had stayed around when he could have slipped away. 'Thank you' was not the correct response after all Erwin had put him through.

The erosion was close to the surface. His hands began to shake, and his eyes watered. He stood and tried to focus on small tasks to keep himself together: move the empty liquor bottle into the cupboard. Put Levi's belongings neatly in the corner.

As he was moving the box, he stumbled. The lemon soap fell to the ground, and he realized, too late, that he had left the cap loose. Soap began to leak onto the floor. He dropped to his knees, frantically trying to right the bottle and screw the top on, but it was so slippery with soap that he kept dropping it. His breath came in heavy blasts. This was his last link to Levi's scent, his last visceral link to the times they had chatted in close quarters. The soap kept pouring out, draining from the bottle like blood.

A sob erupted from his lips, and he fell to all fours. For the first time since Henrik's death, Erwin began to weep.

.*.*.*.

"When I get back to the base," said Hange drowsily, "I'm going to make them heat the bath, and I'm not coming out until I'm as wrinkled as a raisin. And then I'm going into town and spending my life's savings on good books and mincemeat pies."

Levi grunted his acknowledgement. He was curled in a ball, his forehead resting against his arms, fighting to stay awake.

Hange nudged him with a shoulder. "Don't sleep so soon after a concussion."

"It's bad enough that I have to be stuck up here, but having to stay awake through every moment of it is even worse." He rubbed his face with his mittens, trying to scrub the fog from his mind.

"Keep talking. What are you going to do when you get back?"

Thinking about a nice, warm shelter was the last thing Levi wanted to do, but he heard a note of desperation in Hange's voice. If discussion would help both of them keep sane, then so be it.

"A hot bath would be nice," he said. "I'm going to scrub every inch of filth off my body. Then I'm going to have a bowl of oatmeal heaped with sugar and cream."

"Oatmeal? You can dream up anything, and you choose oatmeal?"

"Shut up. I'll dream up what I want." As a kid living in the streets, he had always dreamed of a hot breakfast, but he didn't owe that explanation to anyone. His head rolled back. Through the branches above him, he could see the clear night sky. The night before, under Erwin's arm, he had marvelled at the beauty of this same sky. Now it seemed empty and cruel.

"What about the Captain?" asked Hange, as if reading his mind.

"What about him?"

"What will you say to him when we get back?"

"I don't know. I guess it depends on how he reacts." He closed his eyes, trying to picture Erwin's reaction to his return, but he had no idea what to expect. It was difficult to imagine emotion on that face. Most likely, he would get a nod, maybe a shoulder squeeze.

A breeze wafted through the branches, carrying the scent of pine needles and snow. Levi shivered and pressed back against Hange.

"What about you?" he asked. "You have a special someone back home?"

There was a long pause. "I'm not interested in romance."

"Married to your work, just like the rest of us sorry bastards?" He pulled his hood further over his face, trying to shield it from the breeze. "I don't get why you're so obsessed with titans, but it's probably a good thing. No one knows a damned thing about them. I know they're quiet down there right now, but I don't know if they're dead or sleeping or what."

"Maybe each night, they go back to their little titan homes and tuck each other into titan beds," said Hange with a hint of mischief. "Papa titan reads baby titan a bedtime story-"

"Please don't do that," he interrupted, grimacing. "Last thing I need is to start putting a human face on those beasts." Killing big, dumb, murderous animals was easy: they were stupid meat sacks with no apparent thoughts of their own. Killing beasts that had communities was a whole different story.

"I was joking." Hange shifted behind him, and when he turned, he saw goggles glinting in the moonlight. "You're softer than I expected. Rumour has it you were quite the dangerous thug a couple years ago."

"Rumour? You mean, Mike?"

"He might have said a thing or two, yeah." Hange's smile glowed in the darkness, giving it a menacing air. "I only ever read about street gangs. Always wondered what they would be like in real life."

He shrugged. "You spend a lot of time hungry, stressed out and dirty. Nothing is ever permanent, not friends or lodgings or even money. You get in lots of fights, though most fights come down to posturing and yelling until one party gets intimidated and backs down, not true violence."

"But you had each other's backs, right?" Hange's hands clasped together. "Bonds thicker than blood, fighting to the death to defend each other's honour-"

"Are you kidding? Everyone was suspicious of everyone all the time. Most of us were together out of necessity, not honour. Although..." He trailed off.

"Although?"

"Sometimes..." He looked down at his mittens, curling and uncurling his fingers. "Sometimes violence is the only way to teach someone their place. Sometimes you do trust a few people, and you end up doing things for them you never thought imaginable." The breeze had been eroding his armour without him realizing it. He felt raw, exposed.

"I took it too far once," he said quietly. "I killed a man. He did something unspeakable to my friend, so I hunted him down. I didn't expect to feel so guilty afterwards. From that point on, I switched my tactics, learning to avoid confrontation instead of seek it. But there's a part of me that wonders..." He trailed off, not quite willing to admit the next words.

Hange had twisted around to lean closer, apparently hanging on to every word. "There's a part of you that liked it, isn't there? And you wonder at your delight in killing titans, if it's exposing a true nature you'd prefer to keep hidden."

His skin crawled. "What if that's what Erwin saw in me when we first met? He saw a psychopath who would delight in making a career of slaughtering things?"

There was a long pause. He felt Hange shift into position again, their backs pressing flat against each other. "Maybe he did. But then maybe he saw himself reflected in you: someone who was willing to go to absolutely any extreme to protect the things they loved."

Levi scoffed. "Killing a man and leading military strategy are two very different things."

"You don't think the two ever coincide?"

"Maybe, but Erwin?" Though the Survey Corps sometimes used violent discipline, he had never seen the man lay a finger on anyone. Not directly, anyway. Sometimes he gave the orders.

Hange's voice lowered. "I hear he used to pull strings for Shadis when it came to stubborn government officials, and no one knows how he did it. Mike thinks it was through blackmail and threats. Maybe even torture."

"Erwin?" The idea was unbelievable, but even if it were true, Levi couldn't decide if it was a deplorable approach or not. How far should a person be willing to go to ensure the survival of humanity?

He recalled that Erwin had mysteriously convinced the higher-ups to allow Levi and his friends into the Survey Corps, bypassing standard procedure. Had all that been through bureaucratic mastery, or had there been some underhanded dealings?

All of this was underscoring one painful fact: he knew almost nothing about Erwin. No one did. Levi's heart pounded. I want to be the one he confides in. I want to be the one person he can come to with anything, without fear of judgement.

"Levi?" asked Hange. "You aren't falling asleep back there, are you?"

His eyes flew open. He had begun to drift off, carried away by his thoughts.

"I'm exhausted," he said. "Can't we secure ourselves to the branches and nap until dawn?"

"Your concussion-"

"Fuck my concussion. If I slip into a coma and die, you can take my gas. You'd have a better chance of escaping without me, anyway."

"Okay." Hange stood and began to manually pull cables out of the gears.

Levi glared. "Thanks for agreeing so quickly. Not one protest about my possible death?"

"I'm tired as hell, and we won't be in any condition to go home tomorrow if we're falling asleep on our feet. I genuinely hope you don't die." Using the cable as a grappling hook, Hange secured it to the branch above them, then locked the cable length at her belt. "There. Need me to do yours, too?"

His reflex was to do it himself, but his head was spinning, and after a few seconds of fumbling with the cord, he gave in. "Yeah."

Once they were safely anchored, he curled on his side, shoving his mittens into the opposite sleeves and burying his face in his wrists.

"Hey Hange," he said.

"Yeah?"

"If I never wake up, and you make it back okay, tell Erwin he's an asshole for leaving us out here to die."

Hange peered at him, eyes twinkling. "I'll give him your cravat and tell him your love for him was so powerful that it transcended rank and social class, and thoughts of his visage were what gave you peace during your final moments."

"Cute. He'll never believe any of that came out of my mouth."

"Don't worry, I'll take some time to refine it during the ride back. I'll probably end up throwing in a couple curses and a shit reference or two."

"You've got me all figured out." He closed his eyes, drowsiness settling over him like a warm blanket. "Guess if I want it done right, I'll just have to survive the night and tell him myself."

"Sounds like a good plan." Hange yawned loudly. "Get some sleep. Don't die."

"You too," mumbled Levi, the words trailing off as sleep overcame him.

.*.*.*.

Erwin awoke with his cheek lying in a puddle of thick liquid. At first, he thought it was blood, but then he smelled lemon. Levi's soap.

The world tilted and spun around him as he struggled to push himself upright. His mouth was dry, and his stomach was heaving. Drank too much.

It took considerable effort to stand. He staggered to his desk and pulled open a drawer to find a clean handkerchief. As he clumsily wiped soap and old tears off his face, his eyes chanced onto Levi's letter, still open on his desk.

He's not back. He needs help.

His eyes narrowed. His horse was fast, and a single soldier could slip through the night undetected. I can be back before dawn.

He staggered to his bedroom. Even drunk, he managed to put on his gear with little effort, having done it so many times before. He grabbed a coin purse and filled it, ready to bribe the Garrison soldiers to let him through the external gate.

His winter jacket was still stained with Anke's blood. His fingers clumsily traced the border of one of the splotches. I'm sorry. I won't let the others die.

The severity of his drunkenness didn't hit him until he was working his way down the narrow stairs to the stables; his body lazily ricocheted between the handrails as he descended. He tried to straighten out his trajectory, but his legs had other ideas.Doesn't matter. Ride will sober me up.

Saddling up his horse was considerably more difficult than putting on his gear. His fingers felt as though they were twice their normal size as he fumbled with the buckles. He was swaying so badly that he had to stop several times to lean against the wall and reorient himself. Paranoid that he had forgotten important steps in his stupor, he triple-checked every buckle. Once he was convinced that everything was ready, he grabbed the horse's bridal and led her through the doors.

A man was standing in the courtyard, hands on his hips. Erwin squinted, but his vision doubled instead of clearing.

"Step aside," he said, and he winced when he heard how badly his voice was slurring. He shouldn't have had so much to drink.

"Erwin, what the fuck are you doing?" asked the man: Mike. His voice was gravelly with fatigue.

Carefully enunciating each word, Erwin replied, "I'm going to the city."

"Why are you wearing your gear?"

With a frown, Erwin began to lead the horse around their obstacle, but the man moved with him, staying in his way.

"Stand down, Mike," he said, trying to ignore the panic building in his stomach – keep it together, keep it together. "That's an order."

"You're not sober enough to pull rank on me." The man folded his arms over his chest, standing tall. "You've been acting crazy ever since we got back."

"I have to leave. They might be alive." He could feel pressure building near the surface now, the last few layers of his control beginning to crack.

"You've got it in your head that you're going to rescue them, right? Going to throw your life away on a stupid drunken hunch. You head out there alone in the dark, you're going to kill your yourself, or your horse, or both." The man stepped in closer, his stance challenging. "This isn't like you."

Erwin tried to push him aside, but Mike caught his wrist. "Please, Erwin. You already let Anke die. I can't lose both of you in one day."

"I let her die?"

"Well, you won't fucking talk to me about it no matter how many times I try. What am I supposed to think happened?"

Erwin could feel his sanity slipping, slipping, fiery rage coiling inside every muscle, ready to spring. "This is your last warning, Mike. Let go of me."

Mike's eyes narrowed. "No."

Adrenaline flooded Erwin's body.

The man standing before him was no longer just Mike Zacharias, but the embodiment every obstacle that had ever stood in Erwin's way - the corrupt government, every titan he had faced, the walls themselves. Nothing was going to stand in his way, not this time.

He drove his foot at the back of his attacker's knee, zeroing in on the exact point that would make the man buckle. Mike yelped and dropped. Erwin's rage told him to keep fighting, but he ignored it, instead snatching his arm free. He grabbed the reins and began to stumble toward the gate.

Running footsteps sounded behind him.

He turned in time to see Mike's fist driving for his face. His dulled reflexes didn't allow him to dodge and retain his footing at the same time; he spun out of the way, but fell. Mike dropped on top of him, pinning him to the ground.

"What the hell's going on?" asked a woman's voice nearby.

"Erwin's fucking lost it. Go get Shadis," said Mike, turning his head to address her.

Honing in on the opening, Erwin drove the heel of his palm into the man's jaw. Mike yelled and fell back, clutching at his face. Erwin scrambled to his feet. The world swayed, and he staggered, fighting to keep his balance.

The man bowled into him again, and they rolled, the metal boxes of the gear slamming painfully into Erwin's thighs. He landed on his back, his breath knocked from him in a yell. A fist drove for his face. He turned his head to avoid it, too slowly; knuckles connected with his eye socket. Stars sparked across his vision. He shielded his face with his forearms, blocking a second punch, then a third.

Above the ringing in his ears, he could hear his attacker yelling. "-you selfish bastard! How many people have to die-"

He grabbed Mike's collar and tried to throw him off, but that only provoked another flurry of punches. Waiting for an opening, he swung his elbow at the man's face. Bone connected with cartilage with a crack so strong that it vibrated through his arm and shoulder.

Mike rolled off him, clutching his nose and howling. Blood began to seep through the cracks between his fingers, dripping down his forearms.

Erwin took a moment to catch his breath, then shakily pushed himself to his feet. "I'm sorry it came to that, Mike."

"My fucking nose!"

"Don't follow me." He grabbed the reins and began to lead the horse around his defeated opponent.

"Smith!" barked Shadis behind him. "Take one more step, and I'll have you tried for desertion."

Erwin's stomach dropped. He turned to see his ex-Commander flanked by two wide-eyed soldiers.

"Moblit, take Zacharias to the sanatorium. Eld, you take care of the horse." Shadis strode forward to stand before Erwin, hands clasped behind his back, face grim. "Take off your gear."

Erwin held the man's gaze without flinching, even though he could barely stand. Aside from the effects of the alcohol, his left eye was swelling, his lip throbbed, and his legs and hips were battered from rolling around in the gear. He tried to think his way out of the conversation, but his mind was still feral.

"Captain Smith," said his mentor, the words laced with a quiet danger, "that was an order."

Without dropping his gaze, Erwin unbuckled his gear and lowered the entire apparatus to the ground, then clumsily stepped out of it. "Sir."

"Good. Come with me."

"Fuck you, Erwin," snarled Mike behind him.

"Knock it off, Zacharias," said Shadis, his voice weary. "Anke's old office, Smith. Now."

"Sir." Erwin fell into step behind him. Now that the adrenaline rush was fading, his body was remembering how intoxicated it was, and it was difficult to move in a straight line. His hands were quivering, and he felt as if he were going to vomit. Above it all, he couldn't shake the feeling that each step he took away from his horse was a betrayal of Levi.

The began to walk down the hallway toward the offices.

Without turning around, Shadis said, "Which one? Levi, Hange or Anke?"

"Sir?"

"Which one were you in love with?"

Erwin's jaw tightened and he didn't reply.

"It is one of them, isn't it? The only other time I've seen you pull bullshit like this was when Henrik Schermer died." The ex-Commander gave a low sigh. "When I said you needed to get in touch with your emotions a bit more, this wasn't what I had in mind." He opened the door to Anke's old office.

Erwin fell into a chair and raked a hand through his hair. His entire body was trembling now, and he felt as if he were going to collapse at any moment. Levi, Hange, Anke: he felt the pain of all their deaths, all at once. He would give anything to feel numb again.

Across from him, Shadis leaned back in his chair, his face softening. "How are you feeling?"

"Like hell."

"Here." Shadis pushed a plate toward him; it was covered in crumbs, but still held one lemon wafer. He filled a glass from a pitcher of water. "This will help."

Erwin's stomach was heaving too badly to eat anything, but he gratefully accepted the water. He took small sips, praying with each one that it would stay down.

His mentor poured a glass for himself. "I can relate to what you're going through more than you might think."

"This discussion isn't necessary," said Erwin. He already knew he had been out of line.

"No? I have a Squad Leader out there with a broken nose who would probably say you deserve a good lecture. Hell, I have half a mind to repeatedly dunk your face in ice water until you sober up, so consider yourself lucky I'm just talking at you." Shadis took a sip of water. "When I was just a bit younger than you, I was in love with one of my fellow soldiers. I wasn't present when she died; she was on a routine scouting mission, not even a proper expedition. I went batshit insane when I found out. Pulled a blade on my Squad Leader in front of the entire dining hall. We all snap now and then, sometimes spectacularly, and nothing is more likely to push us over the edge than losing someone we love."

Erwin bowed his head, jaw clenching.

"You're still wishing Mike hadn't stopped you, aren't you?" said Shadis. "You're pissed at us for interfering. What were you planning to do, risk your life for a corpse or two?"

Swallowing hard, Erwin didn't reply.

"Well, when you're sober and you've had a night to distance yourself from this, you'll start to realize how badly you fucked up. But it's okay. Everyone fucks up, even Commanders. The important thing, the thing people will remember, is how you react after you fuck up. You still have a chance to set things right." Shadis leaned forward. "Tomorrow, address the entire Corps and own up to what you did: you lost someone you cared about, and you reacted by attacking Mike and trying to abscond with your gear and a horse. No excuses, just the facts and your apology. The soldiers will respect your honesty. Maybe consider a sincere apology to Mike, too. He was just trying to save you from yourself."

Every aspect of this was so degrading that Erwin's skin crawled. He hoped he was drunk enough that this entire situation would be an empty hole in his memory in the morning.

"Come with me." Shadis stood. "I'm walking you back to your room and posting a guard on you."

"A guard?"

"Just until you come to your senses. Can't have you sneaking off in the middle of the night and getting yourself killed."

It was humiliating to be treated like a disobedient child, and even more humiliating to admit that he deserved it. He closed his eyes.

"Levi."

"What?"

"You asked if it was Anke, Hange or Levi. It was Levi." His voice cracked, and he was tripping over the words, but it felt so good to say them aloud. "You were right: trying to repress feelings just makes them erupt at the wrong time. I broke formation to look for him after the explosion. If I hadn't, maybe Anke would have pushed the formation faster right out of the gates. Maybe we wouldn't have been in the path of the abnormal that killed her. My actions didn't save Levi, and they cost us Anke." His body was trembling uncontrollably. "How can I possibly undo all that with an apology?"

"That pendant you wear around your neck is heavier than the other Commanders' pendants," said Shadis. "The nature of the Survey Corps is such that there will be many deaths under your command, and if you think about them too much, you'll be able to find a way to pin every single one of them on yourself. Don't let them destroy you, but don't forget about them, either. This is the loss you need to consider when you're strategizing, the human element I had to keep reminding you of." He surprised Erwin by pulling him in for a stiff, formal hug, clapping him on the back. "And for what it's worth, I'm truly sorry about Levi."

He's not dead, thought Erwin, but the outburst had completely shattered his denial, and this time, he recognized the words as a lie.

Chapter Text

-5-

Return

Levi opened his eyes. Between the tree branches above him, the sky was just starting to glow pink with the sunrise. Remembering where he was, he took a moment to assess himself. His upper back throbbed, his head pounded, and he still felt off-balance. His mouth was so parched that he took a long swig from his water canteen, not worrying about rationing it; there would be more water with the horses.

He realized that his foot was numb. Further down the branch, Hange was using his ankle as a pillow. With a grimace, he retracted his leg. Hange snorted mid-snore and looked up, blinking.

He held out the canteen. "Finish what's left."

"Oh. Morning. Are you well enough to move?"

"No, but it's not like we have a choice." He leaned over to look for titans below them. "Looks like your friends are gone."

"Good. Let's hope they don't come back until we're in a position to outrun them." Hange drained the canteen, then handed it back and stood. "So: let's lock down our plan."

They spent a few minutes discussing how to best utilize the gas and, after a few quick exercises to test Levi's balance and coordination, they decided Hange would pilot, and he would keep an eye out for titans. As undignified as it was to ride piggy-back, he had to admit it made the most sense.

"Use as little gas as possible," he said as he climbed onto Hange's back.

"I know. Ready?"

He nodded. "Ready."

Hange began to run along the branch, waiting until the branch began to bow before sinking a grapple into the next tree trunk; the more time they spent on foot, the less gas they would use. At first, the trees were so close together that they were using barely any gas at all, but as they neared the fringes of the forest, the trees became more sparse. He did his best to scan the environment, but his eyes weren't tracking properly.

"Anything?" asked Hange.

"I can't tell. Hold up when you get to the edge of the trees."

They didn't even need to get that far - once the first glimpses of the silo came into view, he could already see that the area was crawling with titans.

"Shit," he muttered.

"Yeah, I see them." Hange settled on a tall tree to give them a good vantage point. To Levi's left, he could see the silo, and in front of it, an enormous crater and overturned cart. The size of the crater was so impressive that his brows rose.

"Must have been quite the blast," he said, still unable to remember the events that led up to it. He was suddenly grateful to have survived with just a concussion.

"Yeah, I imagine the pair handling the crates were blown apart, maybe a few others, too. We're lucky the cart gave us some cover, or we would have severe burns." Hange was grinning, and Levi sneered.

"Why the fuck are you smiling? People died." He dropped onto the branch and climbed forward to look across the valley.

"Happy to be alive, that's all. Any sign of the horses?"

"I only see one, you creep. Looks like yours." The horse was facing away from them, a good five-hundred metres away. Several titans wandered aimlessly in the snowy field, blocking their path. "How much gas do we have?"

Hange grimaced. "Not enough to close the distance from this angle, unless we want to risk a messy landing."

"So what if one of us goes alone, then brings the horse around for the other?"

"Still might not be enough to get that far. Think we risk bringing a swarm of titans on ourselves if we whistle for the horse?"

Levi dropped to all fours, crawling along the branch. Looking down gave him vertigo - fucking concussion - but his balance was decent so long as he looked at the horizon as he moved. Once he had reached a good vantage point, he paused.

"Two seven-metre classes, one five-metre, two three-metre are all in range. We whistle, we risk drawing them in." He slammed a palm into the tree branch. "Shit! We're so close."

The branch bowed as Hange crept closer; he inched over to give room.

"Well," said Hange, "None of them is tall enough to reach us up here, so we don't have much to lose by whistling. If they notice us, it might even gather them together and make it easier to kill them."

"Kill them. Without gas."

"I said easier, not easy. You have a better idea?"

Levi sighed. He stuck his finger and thumb into his mouth and blew a sharp whistle, realizing too late that he hadn't been able to wash his hands since the previous morning. He grimaced and spat off the branch several times, trying to clear the taste of sweat and leather from his mouth.

"Too quiet." Hange let out a shrill whistle that left his ear ringing, and he groaned.

"Right in my fucking ear."

"Damn, still not responding. It was right next to us during the explosion - I wonder if loud noises can damage a horse's ears?"

He rubbed his sore ear. "Wonder what that's like."

"Stop yapping. I'm trying to think." Hange stood and squinted at the titans. "They aren't responding, either. But look at how evenly spaced they are. What if..."

The length of the pause suggested they were about to try something truly stupid. "Fine, go on," he said. "Say it."

"If we leapfrog between the titans, we might be able to conserve gas."

He stared. "Leapfrog between them. The two of us, using one gear, and me almost completely useless."

"If we anchor ourselves onto their backs and move between them, we can down each one as we go." Hange's chin lifted in a look of superiority. "I killed five of them by myself yesterday, so we should have no trouble finishing off that many together. I'm telling you, these are even dumber than your average titan. They have frostbitten nervous systems or something."

Levi gave an irritated sigh. "This is insane."

"Better than waiting here to die, right? Hop on."

Insane or not, it was their best option, so he obeyed.

Not wasting any time, Hange leapt off the branch, giving a delighted noise that was somewhere between a howl and a laugh. The grapple sank between the first titan's shoulder blades, and they swooped toward it. The dumb beast barely had time to see them coming; Hange stood on its neck and drove the blades deep into its weak point, scissoring the flesh.

The titan began to fall, and they sank a grapple into the next one.

"My turn," said Levi, getting caught up in the rush. As they approached the next one, he readied his position, planting his feet on Hange's hips for leverage.

They landed on its back, and he pushed off, jumping high into the air. His mind was still playing tricks on him, trying to disorient him, so he closed his eyes, letting his muscles work by memory as he pulled into a spin. Even without the gear and the gas, he still had enough power to take out the titan's flesh.

"Sloppy cut," said Hange, running up the titan's neck to its head as it began to sink to the ground.

"No gear and a concussion." He tried to wipe the titan's blood from his skin, but it began to dissipate into steam, indicating that their platform was about to do the same. "Next one together. Jump. I'll grab your ankles."

"What?"

"Throw me."

Hange's eyes lit up with understanding.

Together, they arced toward the third titan. As they approached, Hange's body twisted away from the target, then spun toward it, whipping Levi forward. He dove for the weak spot head-first, his blades sinking into its neck like an arrow from a bow, and twisted, cutting a wedge out of the flesh.

Hange landed firmly beside him. "Holy shit, that felt good."

"You're telling me. Your turn next."

As they approached the next target, the gas sputtered.

"Dammit," said Levi.

"We're fine." Hange's gaze was focused on the fourth target. "How close are we to the horse?"

"Maybe a hundred metres." The fifth and final target was only about ten metres behind the fourth - it was still a hell of a jump to the horse. Not only that, but around them, other titans were beginning to take notice. It was only a matter of time before they swarmed. He gritted his teeth. We're going to run out of titans to leapfrog, and it's too dangerous to run on flat ground.

They landed and executed the fourth target and, without hesitation, Hange sank the grapple into the fifth. The fourth's hand fell as they passed, nearly knocking into them, and they barely managed to dodge with a burst of air.

Hange cackled. "Close one!"

The celebration was premature: the gas sputtered, then gave out entirely. They began to freefall toward the last titan.

Levi gritted his teeth. I'm not going to die here. "Steer us onto its back," he growled, "and then we climb."

"What?" As their speed increased, so did the wind around their ears, and he barely heard the word.

"Climb the cable," he yelled.

Without the control of the gas, they slammed hard into the titan's rump. The impact jarred Levi loose, and he frantically grabbed for Hange's ankle as he fell.

The titan twisted, trying to find them, and Levi grunted, struggling to maintain his precarious grasp. "Climb up."

"I can't grip the cable," yelled Hange. "It's iced over from the steam from the other titans."

His grip began to slip. "I'm going to fucking fall!"

"Shit!" Hange clicked two broken blades into place and drove them into the titan's flesh, using them as picks to scale its back. The titan began to swat at them with panicked motions, visibly distressed, and one of Hange's hands slipped.

"Levi, let go. You're too heavy."

"Fuck." With his free hand, Levi pulled out a blade and intentionally drove it at a bad angle against the titan's flesh; the blade snapped closer to the hilt. Stabbing it in as a new handhold, he released Hange's ankle, then pulled out a second blade. The titan's flailing arms nearly smacked him several times. His breath came in short blasts as he used all his energy to swing his body out of the way.

"Levi!"

"Yeah, one sec." He broke off the second blade, then began to climb. When he was almost at the top, he looked up to see Hange preparing to slice into the titan's vulnerable spot. "Wait."

"What? This thing is going to smash us or throw us off if we don't take it down."

"Look around you." They were still too far from the horse, and the surrounding titans were getting uncomfortably close. "We have to move it-"

The titan began to writhe, trying to shake them loose, and he stopped talking to put all his focus into holding on. "Move it forward," he managed to yell through clenched teeth. His hands ached.

"Levi-"

"Move it forward!" One hand slipped off the handle, and he frantically swung for it, trying to reclaim his handhold.

The thrashing stopped. The titan took a shaky step forward.

Levi found his grip and looked up. Hange stood atop the titan, grinning wildly, a fistful of hair in each hand, trying to jerk its head forward. "Come on, you bastard. Dance for me!"

He climbed up the titan's spine as quickly as he could, then paused on a shoulder for a better vantage point. The horse still had its back to them, unaware. He tried another whistle, but there was no response. Its hearing really is fucked.

"Levi, get up here and help!"

Climbing up the titan's hair - so coarse and oily that his stomach heaved - Levi braced himself against the beast's forehead and pulled at its hairline, trying to direct it toward the horse. The beast bent forward to try to shake him loose, and the motion made it stagger forward a few more paces.

"This is too slow," he yelled. He counted six other titans within range. His fear erupted as anger. "That shitty fucking horse! What the hell is the point of it if we can't get its fucking attention?"

"Unless..." Hange pulled out a flare gun and made an adjustment, then aimed at the horse.

"What are you-"

The flare canister met the ground a few metres in front of the horse, exploding in red smoke. It reared with surprise and began to back toward them.

Levi's eyes widened, and he pulled out his flare gun. "How did you-"

"Here. A Survey Corps horse won't spook, but it has the sense to avoid exploding things." Hange grabbed his gun and adjusted it. Together, they ejected flare after flare, quickly herding the horse toward them. The titan swayed and swatted, but they easily kept their balance, motivated. The end was within sight, and it was getting closer, closer...

"Now," barked Levi.

He heard Hange's war scream - so fearsome that he jumped - followed by the sound of slicing flesh. The dead titan began to drop toward the earth.

The instant the drop distance was safe, Levi jumped off the titan and rolled on the snow to break his fall. When he righted himself, the horse was only a metre to his left, and Hange was already mounting it. He put his foot in the stirrup, but between his disorientation and the horse's size, he couldn't make it up to the saddle.

"Come on!" Hange gripped him by the collar and hoisted him up.

The horse began to gallop.

Levi buried his face in the fabric of Hange's jacket, not looking back. His head throbbed and his mind hummed with adrenaline, and he had the overwhelming urge to vomit.

He felt Hange twist to look behind them, then heard a laugh. "We're losing them. Ha! We are fucking amazing, Levi."

His pulse raced. He was only a few more hours from a meal, and a bath, and his own bed. And Erwin. Maybe it was ridiculous to put one man on par with the rest of it, but he was too exhausted to care.

.*.*.*.

What the hell? Erwin blinked, barely awake. Eld was slumped in a chair across from him, head lolled back, snoring. What's he doing in my room?

Then the previous night's events slammed into him, left him reeling. Levi, Anke and Hange were dead, and he had drunk three-quarters of a litre of whiskey and then tried to stage a one-man rescue mission, and furthermore, something had happened with Mike, some sort of argument...

He gingerly sat up, bracing himself for the onslaught of what was sure to be the worst hangover of his life, but the room tilted instead. I'm still a bit drunk. He rubbed his face with his hands, and that was when he rediscovered the injuries that Mike had given him. Their fight came back to him in full detail. Wincing, he rose to his feet.

A small vomit bucket was by his bed, and he was grateful that, at the very least, the drink had erased this bucket's existence from his memories. That wasn't something he wanted to remember.

Poor Eld must have had a long night. He shook the man's shoulder to thank him and dismiss him.

He took it upon himself to empty the bucket. He braced one hand on the wall as he walked to the men's bath, his movements clumsy. Voices floated through doors and down the hallway: he must have slept through reveille. Fortunately, no one passed him in the hall. He didn't want anyone to see their soon-to-be Commander stumbling half-drunk down the hallway, carrying a pail of his own vomit.

A few soldiers were in the men's bathroom. He quickly moved to the stall and emptied a bucket, then rinsed it in the sink. Several pairs of eyes followed him, but he ignored them, focusing on washing his hands and face.

When he finally lifted his head to look at himself in the mirror, he frowned at his peaked reflection. His left eye was dark and swollen, and his lower lip was split. He wet his palms and tried to tame his hair, but a few strands kept falling into his face, and others stuck upright. No wonder everyone was staring.

A hand reached between him and the mirror, holding a bottle of mint mouthwash. Erwin turned to see Shadis.

"Thank you," he said, accepting the bottle. He opened it and took a swig, then began to swish it around his mouth.

His mentor clapped him on the back. "How are you feeling?"

Erwin finished rinsing his mouth, then spat. "I've had better mornings. Do you know where I can find Mike?"

"Last I heard, he was still in the san."

"Thanks." He handed back the mouthwash. "I'm deeply sorry about last night, Keith."

Shadis studied him. "Do you feel embarrassed?"

"Yes, sir."

"Regretful?"

"Sir."

"Good. Means you'll learn from it."

I learned a lot, thought Erwin. I learned that even if I don't act on my urges, they can still lead me astray. He felt as if his spirit had been scrubbed with a wire brush. Everything he thought he knew about his resolve was wrong. "I'm going to have some breakfast, then talk with Mike. After that, would you mind if we chatted about how I should address the troops tonight? Maybe we could start doing some of the casualty paperwork as well."

Shadis hesitated. "Are you sure you're up for it?"

"I need to keep busy." Even the thought of trying to read a document made his stomach heave, but if the alternative was sitting around sniffing empty shampoo bottles and weeping, he would gladly choose the paperwork.

"You're also going to want to start thinking about who you will groom to be the next Captain," said Shadis. "It'll be a year or two before anyone in this lot is ready, I believe, but it doesn't hurt to start training people early."

Erwin's heart sank. There was only one man he could picture as his Captain, one man who had the independence and skill required for the role, and he was dead.

.*.*.*.

"You okay back there?" asked Hange.

Levi groaned, his face still buried in the back of the jacket. About an hour into their ride, he had tried lifting his head, but the morning sun had spiked through his eyeballs and into his brain. "Is it at least getting cloudy?"

"No, still bright. We're close to the wall." There was a pause, then, "How are we going to get over the wall with no gas?"

"Do you have any flares left?" he mumbled into the fabric.

"What?"

He pulled his face free, wincing at the bright light. "Do you have any flare cartridges left?"

"I'm all out. Check the saddlebags - there might be some spares"

With a displeased sigh, he began to rifle through the bags. "Why the fuck did you bring books?"

"For observation. Would have been nice to have those in the tree. Might have helped us pass the time."

"There's only one canister in here. Black." He looked up. "We fire that, and the Garrison is going to think an abnormal is about to storm the gates."

Hange grinned. "That just ensures they're going to notice us, doesn't it? Would you do the honours?"

He used his teeth to pull off his mittens, then slotted the cartridge into his gun and fired. The canister ejected, then fell onto the grass. A plume of black smoke shot into the air, but began to dissipate before it reached the height of the wall.

"You adjusted our guns to herd the horse, remember?" he said, unimpressed.

"Oh, right."

"Now what? It's not high enough."

"Patience. It's close enough. The Garrison will have scouts stationed on the wall. We just need to wait for one of them to notice the smoke." Hange slowed the horse to a walk, guiding it toward the gate. "Just a few more minutes, and we'll be able to go home."

.*.*.*.

Mike looked up as Erwin entered the sanatorium, then quickly looked down again. He was sitting up in bed, gauze wrapped around his nose and head. A half-full bowl of broth was perched on a tray in his lap.

"Go away, Smith. I'm trying to eat." He paused. "Not that I can taste any of it."

"This won't take long." Erwin pulled up a chair and sat beside the bed. "I wanted to thank you for stopping me last night, and sincerely apologize for hurting you."

Mike eyed him. "My nose. Of all the things you could have smashed, you had to go for my fucking nose. The medics say it's going to be a couple weeks for the swelling to go down enough for me to smell anything."

I didn't do it intentionally; I was drunk, was the first phrase that rose in Erwin's mind, but he remembered Shadis' advice from the night before: no excuses. "I'm truly, deeply sorry, Mike. You were only trying to protect me, and I had no right to react the way I did."

There was a long pause, then the man sighed. "I was drunk, too, and I was taking Anke's death pretty hard. You weren't the only one who snapped. I was trying to pick a fight." He held out a hand. "Out of our class, it's just you, me and Nile now. We need to be on the same team."

Erwin accepted his hand and shook it. "Yes, we do." Let's hope Nile knows that.

Bells sounded from the Garrison post at the wall.

"What the hell?" muttered Mike, turning to look at the window. "Are we under attack?"

"No." Erwin slowly rose to his feet, gaze fixed on the window. "They'd be mobilizing us already if that were the case. I should go see what's going on."

Don't get your hopes up. What you want is impossible, he told himself, but his hopes were already soaring.

He left the room and marched down the hallway, then took the stairs to the yard two at a time, stumbling a couple times in the process. Other soldiers were gathering in the yard, too, puzzled looks on their faces.

"Sir-" said Moblit, but Erwin cut him off.

"Everyone, stand back. Open the gates." He strode forward, dizzy with hope, and stood in front of the wooden gates that closed off the Survey Corps compound.

The gates slowly parted. Erwin's breath caught.

At the end of the street was the impossible: Hange and Levi on horseback, alive.

He stepped forward to greet them, chin high, eyes filling with tears.

.*.*.*.

"We made it," cried Hange as they approached the compound gates. "I can't believe it, Levi - we actually made it! We are unstoppable."

He was silent, his gaze fixed on the only thing that mattered: Erwin.

Erwin looked like a shell of the man he had been when they had last met. His golden hair was dishevelled, and his face was bruised. All his usual control had been sapped from his face, leaving his brows pinched, his eyes glossy. Levi, he mouthed, as if testing out the word, as if he weren't sure he trusted his eyes.

Levi responded with a brief nod.

Erwin's mouth closed and his throat bobbed, and that was when Levi noticed the Commander's pendant around his neck.

The horse came to a halt. The pair dismounted, standing before their new Commander. Around them, dozens of their colleagues stared at them with wide eyes and slack jaws.

"Welcome back from the dead," said Erwin, his voice cracking. "I imagine you both have quite a tale to tell." He turned to Hange in acknowledgement, but then his gaze drifted back to Levi, who found he couldn't look away. The bruising and burst blood vessels in one eye made the blue of Erwin's iris glow in contrast. I forgot how blue they are, like the sky outside Wall Maria. And just as unreachable. He added the last part out of habit, but the way the man was looking at him now, he wasn't so sure.

"We're very happy to be here," said Hange. Levi opened his mouth to echo the sentiment, but he couldn't find his voice.

Erwin clasped his hands behind his back and stood tall. "Levi, come with me for a quick debrief on our situation. Hange, it will be your turn next."

"What?" said Hange. "Can't it wait? He needs medical attention, and food, and water-"

"It won't take long." The man spun on his heel and began to march away. Levi turned to follow.

"Levi, you need-" began Hange.

"I'll be fine. You go get what you need." The food and all the rest of it could wait: above all of it, he needed a moment with Erwin in private. He still didn't know what he was going to say, but he couldn't just shrug off their reunion.

As they walked down the hallway, he noticed that Erwin was shuffling a little, one hand trailing the wall. The scent of day-old alcohol wafted behind him, making Levi's nose wrinkle.

"You okay?" he asked. "You look a little roughed up."

"Had a bit of a difficult night. I imagine yours was worse, so I won't complain."

Levi hesitated, then said, "You're wearing the Commander's pendant."

"Dead," said Erwin before he even had the chance to ask the question.

"Shit."

"We'll talk more about that during your debrief." He opened the door of his office, ushering Levi through and closing it behind them.

The first thing Levi noticed was the empty soap bottle on the floor, surrounded by a caking pool of yellow liquid. "What the hell? My soap!" He hurried forward and dropped to one knee, picking up the bottle. "That shit was expensive. I'm gone one fucking night-"

"Levi."

He turned to see Erwin standing by the doorway, hands clenched in fists at his sides. He looked as if he were about to say something, but then he closed his mouth again, a pained expression on his face.

He's at a loss for words. Levi slowly stood and turned to face him, hoping to rescue him with words of his own, but his mouth was suddenly too dry to speak.

Erwin took a couple steps toward him, then stopped. "I thought..." He chest rose, then fell.

For a long moment, they watched each other, unmoving.

Slowly, Erwin paced up to him. He placed a trembling hand on each side of Levi's jaw, the motion far too intimate to be platonic. They were close enough that Levi could smell mint and alcohol on the breaths that puffed across his skin. He felt the warmth of the man's palms, the strength of his grip, and his eyelids began to droop.

Then Erwin lunged down, his mouth pressing against Levi's.

The angle was all wrong: their noses mashed together, their mouths didn't quite line up, teeth dug into his lips, and stubble scraped his skin. On top of that, Levi's head was throbbing, and he wasn't sure which of the two of them smelled worse. It was, technically speaking, the worst kiss he had ever experienced.

So why were his knees giving out? Why were his eyes fluttering closed? He felt a rush of adoration for this man and his clumsy, honest, face-mashing kiss.

Erwin began to pull away, but Levi caught his collar, tugging him back in. This time, their heads tilted, and their lips met at a better angle. Warmth rose to Levi's cheeks, settled between his legs, and he ran his tongue across the split lower lip, tasting the metallic tang of old blood. Their mouths parted, the tips of their tongues brushing. Erwin gave a low groan, and his hands released Levi's jaw to rake into his hair.

A knock sounded at the door.

Erwin broke the kiss and barely pulled away, their foreheads still touching. For a moment, they waited, frozen in position and breathing hard.

Go away, thought Levi. Don't give us time to second-guess this. Please, just go away.

Another knock.

"I'm so sorry, Levi," whispered Erwin.

"Wait-"

But the man had already pulled away, striding for the door.

Sorry for the kiss, or for the interruption? Levi angrily adjusted the front of his pants, swearing he was going to cut down the intruder.

"Sir," said Hange's voice when the door opened. "I really must insist you don't speak with Squad Leader Levi just yet. He has a severe concussion, so he should avoid stressful environments. He needs food and water. If you want someone to fill you in, I can take his place. He was unconscious for the majority of it, anyway, and it was my decision to go for the trees that caused us to be cut off from the group-"

"That's enough for now, Hange, thank you," said Erwin, "but you make a good point. I should let both of you settle in before we discuss any of this further. Please excuse my enthusiasm." He turned back. "Squad Leader Levi, you are dismissed." His face was back in its default neutral expression.

The least you could do is look disappointed, jackass. "Fine," said Levi, annoyed at both of them. He shoved his hands into his pockets, then marched through the door and down the hall, not looking back. He didn't want to try to scrutinize that unreadable face one moment longer.

Hange hurried to keep up. "You know, irritation can be a sign of a worsening concussion-"

Levi whirled. "Idiot. Next time, think about what you might be interrupting before you knock."

His words were met with a blank stare at first, but then Hange's eyes slowly widened. "Oh. Oh."

He whirled and continued his march down the hall. He heard Hange calling his name, but he was too frustrated to reply.

His footsteps finally slowed when he reached the sanatorium. Mike sat on a bed in the corner, his face heavily bandaged. The man looked up at them, and his mouth dropped.

"Holy hell, you guys are alive?"

"Takes more than an explosion, a night of exposure and a few titans to kill us." Levi sat beside the bed. "What happened to your face?"

Mike grimaced. "You'll have to ask Erwin."

"Right, during one of those personal, revealing discussions he's so famous for." The kiss began to replay in his mind, but he shoved it away. His pants were fitting poorly enough as it was, and he didn't want to frustrate himself even more.

"Hey," said Hange. "Enough talking. You need medical attention."

Levi sighed - the words were true enough, but he was still ticked off about the interruption. "Fine."

And so, he submitted to a long series of medical tests that told him exactly what he already knew: he had a concussion, and he needed to take it easy while he recovered, and other than that and a bit of dehydration, he was fine. The medic gave him some wafers and a salted lemonade to sip until dinner to help his body recover.

He thought about asking Mike for more information about his injuries, but the man had already been discharged. Hange sat on the bed instead, holding a jar of yellow liquid.

"You got this gross lemonade too, eh, Levi?"

He frowned and turned away.

"Aw, come on." He could hear guilt in Hange's voice. "I didn't mean to interrupt. At least now you know Erwin is interested in-"

He whirled to grab the other's collar. "You agreed that not one single soul would hear about what we discussed in that tree," he said, his voice low and dangerous, "so I suggest you stop that sentence right there."

Hange blinked. "You seem tense. Maybe you should go take a bath and relax."

As annoyed as he was, the suggestion was a good one. He had been planning to have a bath next, anyway.

When he went to change, he was surprised to discover he had been moved into his new room. His furniture had been set up - all wrong, but the thought was nice - and his belongings were neatly stacked on the bedside table. An unfamiliar bottle of soap sat on the bed, a note attached:

I'll buy you a new bottle of soap when I'm in town next; until then, borrow one of mine. -ES

With his free hand, Levi popped the cap and held it to his nose. It smelled like blond hair and thick eyebrows. Erwin couldn't be too regretful about the kiss if he was setting up Levi's room and giving him soap, could he?

When he entered the men's bath, he found another surprise: the water was heated, even though it wasn't a scheduled bath day. Had Erwin arranged this, too? A heated bath all to himself was the greatest reward he could have hoped for after his ordeal. He stripped and sank under the water. When he resurfaced, he already felt more relaxed. Normally, he would be in a rush to wash himself, but the bath was such a lovely contrast from the cold tree branch that he decided to take his time.

He had just started to soap his hair when the door opened, and Erwin stepped into the room. Their eyes locked.

"My apologies for interrupting," said Erwin, moving to step back through the door. "I expected you to still be in the san."

"No, come in. Unless you're here to take a giant shit."

"Just brushing my teeth." The Commander approached the sink, pulling a toothbrush and toothpaste out of his bag. "Is the bath heated to your liking?" He leaned forward to peer at his reflection in the mirror, touching his black eye.

"Not bad. You should join me." The words felt too forward, so Levi added, "You smell like shit. How much did you drink last night?"

"It's that obvious, is it?" Erwin frowned at his reflection, then began to ready his toothbrush. "I'm embarrassed to admit I finished off that entire bottle of whiskey. Our drink will have to wait for another day, I'm afraid."

Given how rarely the man drank, he must have had one hell of a night. Levi was beginning to understand where those mysterious injuries might have come from. "Well, I can smell it on you from here, and there's plenty of room in here."

Erwin finally looked at him. "I'm not sure if that's a good idea. Shadis is here to help with my transition to Commander, and there are a few duties we need to attend to before dinner." He seemed to be reaching for an excuse.

He regrets the kiss. Levi turned away, folding his arms over his chest. "I get it."

A sigh. "Levi..."

"No, I get it."

Erwin watched him for a moment longer, then started to brush his teeth.

Levi sank into the water until his bottom lip skimmed the surface. "We're just going to pretend it didn't happen, right?" he muttered, wondering how he ever expected anything more out of the closed and unreadable Erwin Smith.

The man cast him a sideways glance, but didn't reply.

Levi's instincts told him to sulk, but instead he returned to washing himself, trying to pretend nothing unusual had happened. A few minutes later, he heard movement to the corner of the room, then the sound of clothing being removed, but even though he was surprised, he didn't turn around. As Erwin slipped into the water beside him, Levi caught a glimpse of broad purple bruises in his periphery. He stared. The man's hips and thighs were thoroughly battered.

"Titan?" he asked.

"No."

"Mike?"

There was no reply. Levi couldn't shake the feeling that whatever happened between them was somehow connected to his disappearance.

Erwin sat on the bench across from him, his arms draping across the tub ledge in what was probably meant to be a casual pose, but ended up displaying his musculature. Levi subtly studied him. The man was so tall that the water only reached his breastbone, and his strong chest was lightly covered with coarse blond hair. His head lolled back against the wall. Even his throat was appealling, the lines of his neck swooping gracefully toward his jaw.

The urge to crawl onto his lap and start kissing that beautiful neck was strong, and Levi felt his cheeks darken. He gave a frustrated sigh. "Fucking talk to me, Erwin. We're two grown men, so let's discuss this like adults."

Slowly, the man lowered his chin to meet his gaze. "All right. Where did you want to start?"

"Where the hell do you think?" For a moment, Levi felt his bravery wavering, but he steeled himself. If you can face down a group of titans, you can face down this blond bastard. "I'm getting mixed messages. First you're holding me on the rooftop, then you're telling me you can't be with anyone, then you kiss me, then you try to play it off like nothing ever happened. Make up your fucking mind. Do you want me or not?"

"Of course I do," said Erwin quietly.

The direct answer was so unexpected that Levi's breath froze, and his chest ached, and even as exhausted as he was, he felt a surge of energy. The words replayed in his mind, and he scrutinized them, certain he must have misheard.

"You do," he repeated.

"Of course." The man's cheeks were darkening, but his expression stayed placid. "Someone like you draws admirers: agile, intelligent, feisty and pleasant to look at. My admiration for you has been evolving in ways it shouldn't."

Levi's heart pounded; he was having a difficult time processing everything he was hearing, and he wasn't sure if that was from the concussion or from shock. "What do you mean, 'shouldn't?"

"You want to discuss this like adults, so let's look at our situation objectively." Erwin leaned forward. "I'm your Commander now, Levi, and you're clearly the best candidate for a future Captain position. If word of favouritism were to get out, it could undermine our credibility. We are in a fight for survival above all else, and that fight must always come first. If we are to lead the Survey Corps, we must have unconditional respect." His gaze dropped. "And on a more subjective note, the last man I loved died. Love makes people make poor decisions. In our line of work, that's something we must avoid at all costs."

Love. The word made Levi's heart race, even though the context was less than ideal. "You think you're the only one who's lost someone they loved?" He felt himself getting angry the excuse kept coming up. "My first partner was killed in a fight with the Military Police. My second abandoned me and never resurfaced. You'll never see me using either of those as a reason to shut myself off." His eyes narrowed. "I know you had a pampered upbringing, so death might have been a shock to you when you finally had to face it, but for some of us, loss has always been a fact of life. You can't let one person's death completely change y-" He abruptly stopped himself.

The Commander's eyes were wide, his jaw clenched. Slowly, he leaned back against the wall of the bath, his face stony. Even though they were on opposite sides of the bath, Levi felt as though the man were looming over him.

Shit, I crossed a line. What was it about speaking with Erwin that made him aggressive? He seemed to bury his foot in his mouth every time they spoke. Not quite sure what to say to undo the damage, Levi waited for a response, his heart pounding.

Erwin's voice was very quiet. "Do not assume I knew nothing of death before I joined the Survey Corps. Last week, you guessed that my life was more interesting than I let on, and you were correct, but do not confuse 'interesting' with 'easy.' The two rarely coincide."

"The medics warned me that I might be more irritable than usual because of the concussion," said Levi quietly, the closest he could come to an apology.

There was an agonizing pause, then Erwin's face relaxed and his eyes came back into focus. "I suppose my refusal to disclose my past opens up my history for misinterpretation, doesn't it? You're correct that I have let the past impact the present more than I should. But I'm not quite ready to let go of what happened with Henrik, not yet, and I need you to understand that. Once I have an idea in my head, it's very difficult to dislodge."

"So that's it, then?" said Levi. "One shitty kiss, and we both move on with our lives like nothing happened?"

A brow cocked. "Shitty?"

"Yes, shitty. You stank, and I stank, and I ended up getting more nose than mouth."

Erwin looked a little offended, but only said, "I don't see any option other than denial." His fingers absently traced his bruised eye.

"Did your denial have anything to do with that bruise?"

A pause. "I will be making a public apology at dinner about the events that led to my injuries, so you'll learn more then."

"Public apology? It was that bad?"

Erwin looked down, visibly uncomfortable. "I did not take the news of your death with grace."

In all the scenarios Levi had imagined when he pictured the man's reaction to his death, nothing came close to whatever scuffle the bruises suggested. His face softened. "Well, I'm alive."

"You are." The man looked up, solemn. "I want you to understand, Levi, that no matter how much hesitation you might sense from me now, the moment when you appeared at the gates is one of the most emotional moments of my life."

A lump formed in Levi's throat, and he realized he didn't want to let his own feelings go unsaid. "When I was up in that tree, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to say when I saw you again. Never did figure it out. But before this conversation ends and we start pretending nothing happened, I want to get it out."

"Okay," said Erwin softly. "Go ahead."

Unable to meet his gaze, Levi kept his eyes fixed on the surface of the water, keeping his tone casual. "Look, I think a lot about working side-by-side with you, and killing titans with you, and fucking you, and sleeping next to you, and having stupid conversations about dumb shit, where you can tell me things you would never tell anyone else. I know there's a chance I'll never have most of that, but I need you to know how I..." He chanced a look up. Erwin's eyes were glassy, but he couldn't tell if that was just from the bath steam. "I'm no good at this sort of thing."

"No, that was..." The man's voice broke. "Levi, I don't know how to proceed from here. Not with you."

"What do you mean?"

"If you were anyone else, my priorities would be clear, but even while I'm sitting here trying to figure out how to put a permanent wall between us, all I can think about is how badly I want to pull you closer." The words trailed off as he spoke, the confidence draining from his tone.

Levi felt his breaths begin to accelerate; he smoothly pulled his knees to his chest. "This is exactly what I'm talking about, asshole. You can't say shit like that."

"I know, I..." Erwin bowed his head, rubbing his temples with one hand. "I know."

There was a long silence. Levi waited, but it quickly became apparent there would be no further explanation.

"You know where I stand, Erwin," he said. "Figure out what you want." He dunked his head back, rinsing the suds from his hair, then stood. "No kisses, or flirting, or any of that unless you're prepared to follow through. And don't expect me to wait around forever, either."

"That's fair." The man's voice was quiet. "I need a few days to think all this over. I won't make a single advance until I'm sure it's what I want. You have my word."

Feeling a lump rising in his throat again, Levi quickly stepped out of the bath, reaching for a towel with one hand, retrieving the soap with the other.

"And I want that new soap soon. This one smells too fancy." He suddenly wondered what had happened to the old one, but decided this wasn't the time to ask. Erwin already looked confused enough as it was, and it was unnerving to see that expression on the face of someone he admired. He wondered if he, himself, looked just as lost. His head was certainly spinning. On top of that, his limbs were shaky, and he felt as if he were going to vomit. Must be the concussion again, he told himself.

He was about to leave, but then he heard, "Levi."

When he turned, Erwin gave a small, forced smile. "For what it's worth, I'm glad you're back."

"Yeah, me too." Unsure of how to end the conversation, Levi turned and left the room.

Chapter Text

-6-

Hands

Erwin lifted his pen and dropped it, watching it roll down the file he had propped at a slant on his desk. His other hand cupped his chin, the only thing holding his head upright. His eyes were scratchy and drooping, and his mind paced circles around his conversation with Levi.

What do I want?

He caught the pen at the bottom of the makeshift ramp and dropped it back onto the top, watching it roll again.

The problem wasn't figuring out what he wanted: he already knew that. He thought he had lost Levi forever, and now that the man was back from the dead, all the reasons to hold back felt meaningless. Sitting in that bath, he had barely been able to resist the urge to grab Levi's wrist and pull him onto his lap. At least he had shown some restraint then; he was ashamed of how recklessly he had acted during their initial reunion. How far would things have gone if Hange hadn't interrupted that kiss?

He frowned. That "shitty" kiss. The word drove into his pride like a thorn, worming its way deeper each time he thought about it. Maybe he had been a little too enthusiastic, but he was normally an excellent kisser - or so others had told him - and he hated the idea of their only kiss being of inferior quality. Though, if he were honest, he couldn't tell if it was really a point of pride, or if he was just looking for an excuse to try again.

He dropped his head, fingers raking into his hair. Why was he spending his entire afternoon thinking about Levi? There was work to be done. Focus.

A knock sounded at the door, and he was embarrassed by how badly he wanted Levi to be standing on the other side of it. "Come in."

Shadis stepped into the room, a smile wrinkling his face. "This is an unprecedented day for the Survey Corps. You must be happy."

Erwin set the pen neatly beside the file, subtly flattening his ramp. "Indeed, I am. Happy is an understatement."

His mentor closed the door and took a seat opposite him. "Levi's return isn't going to cause any problems, is it?"

"No, sir," he replied. No more than it already had, anyway. He hoped.

"You'd better be telling the truth, Smith. I'd hate to see you throw your career away. It's good for a man to get laid once in awhile, but don't mix business and pleasure." He pulled an envelope out of his jacket and handed it across the desk. "Summons from the Capital."

Erwin opened it, discovering an invitation to a formal induction ceremony in five days. He swallowed hard. This was everything he had wanted, but not at the cost of losing Anke.

"After the induction ceremony," said Shadis, "there will be a gala."

"A gala?"

"Not on your behalf, I'm afraid. No one was expecting a handoff this soon after Anke's promotion, so they're rolling you in with the spring solstice festival, since you would be invited to that anyway. You'll probably want to identify your next in command before then, bring them along and show them the ropes, the way I did with you and Anke on occasion."

Erwin tried to picture Levi at a gala in the Capital. The concept was almost ludicrous. "Will you be in attendance, Keith?"

"No, the new trainees are having their first exam this weekend, so I need to shadow Instructor Marta. But the other military branches will be there." The man leaned back in his seat. "Be sure to introduce yourself to Commander Dot Pixis. He's a bit of an odd duck and likes the drink more than he should, but he's been around long enough to understand how the system works. He'll be a valuable ally if there's a crisis within the walls. Captain Kitts Woerman will be with him, but-" Shadis frowned. "He won't be of much use to you. Rumour has it they're going to promote another Squad Leader to Captain soon. The branch is big enough that one Captain isn't enough, anyway."

Erwin quietly began to take notes. "And the Military Police?"

"You've already met Commander Williams, but rumour has it he's taken quite ill and may not be in active duty for awhile. Likely Captain Nile Dok will be there instead."

"Good." There was still the matter of the empty military silo to discuss.

Shadis eyed him, evidently reading his mind. "Don't go getting obsessed with those tax chests, Erwin. You're going to find the Military Police has questionable motives on occasion, but pointing fingers at them will only bring you trouble. Don't give them any ammunition. The Survey Corps is hanging by a thread as it is - the Interior has been trying to shut us down for years. Each expedition is scrutinized and criticized behind our backs."

Erwin's brows rose. "Is that so?" He had known the Corps was at risk, but not as badly as that.

"Over the years, I have purposefully been shielding you and Anke from some of the messier politics. I know you've seen bits and pieces of it, but not the big picture." His mentor leaned across the desk. "Get in good with Supreme Commander Zackly; make him an ally, right from the start. He already likes you, so that shouldn't be hard. And make sure you have some expeditions that show demonstrable progress. The last one was good - having a high survival rate and bringing back something of value of the King will make people happy. If you can finally establish a base outside the walls and make progress toward reclaiming Wall Maria, that will make the Interior happy as well. The safer they feel, the happier they'll be, and the happier they are, the happier you are."

Erwin's heart beat in his throat. He had long been aware that the wealthy elite had different motivations than the rest of the populace, and this only heightened his suspicions. He nodded. "Thank you for this information."

"You'll figure out the rest yourself, probably in more detail than I ever did. You're a smart kid. Need a hand with that paperwork?"

"Please."

It was, thankfully, much easier to concentrate with his mentor present. They worked together on the paperwork until the dinner bell rang. Shadis stood and waited for him, but Erwin shook his head.

"You go ahead. I need a minute." He hadn't spent any time preparing a speech, so he would have to improvise. He needed a couple minutes to collect himself first.

He went to the men's bath and wet his comb, then carefully parted and combed his hair. Using a hand towel, he polished the Commander's pendant, then straightened his collars. The black eye and split lip were still ugly, but he didn't look nearly as peaked as earlier, though he certainly was feeling the hangover more. At least that meant he was finally sober.

With one last look in the mirror, he dampened his fingertips and smoothed his eyebrows, then took a deep breath.

When he entered the mess hall, he saw Shadis, the Squad Leaders and a few Team Leaders sitting at the longest table. As he walked past, Levi looked up at him. Their eyes held for a beat too long, but this time, it felt comfortable. Levi gave a small nod, and Erwin returned it.

We'll be okay, he decided, even if we make the logical choice and keep our relationship platonic. The thought of a platonic relationship was accompanied by a wave of loneliness, as if he were pre-emptively heartbroken, and that's when he realized logic wasn't going to save him. Not this time.

He moved to the head of the room and clasped his hands behind his back, waiting. Gradually, the murmuring died down, and dozens of eyes focused on him.

"Good evening, everyone," he said, his voice echoing. "I'm here for two very unusual reasons. The first is to welcome back Squad Leaders Levi and Hange Zoe for accomplishing the impossible: returning to base after a day's separation from the group. I'm certain they have quite a story to tell, but as they have had a trying day, I ask that you give them some space to allow them to reorient themselves. Please join me in giving them a salute out of respect for the trials they have endured."

The room rose to its feet. He thought he saw Levi's eyes roll, but Hange's lit up as their comrades saluted in unison.

Once everyone was seated again, Erwin continued. "The second reason I'm here is to address some rumours that are circulating about my behaviour last night. This will not be easy for me to admit; I have a longstanding reputation as a man who can separate reason from emotion. However, if I am to be your Commander, I want my relationship with each of you to be built on a foundation of honesty and trust. This includes admitting to mistakes when I make them."

He paused. His eyes scanned the room and landed on Levi. "In my many years with the Corps, I have lost countless people close to me, but last night's losses were a particular strain. I reached a breaking point and made the poor decision to drown my misery in alcohol, which led to another poor decision to mount a one-man rescue operation." He saw Levi's eyes slowly begin to widen. "It was a stupid, selfish decision, especially at a time when a good portion of our senior leadership was deceased or missing. If it hadn't been for decisive action by Squad Leader Mike Zacharias, I would have ridden to my death, and I'm ashamed to say I didn't react well to his intervention. The scuffle that ensued was no way for any member of the Survey Corps to behave, let alone a future Commander.

"I come to you now with a sincere apology. You trust me to make the best decisions for the sake of humanity, and I betrayed that trust. I am deeply sorry." He pulled into a salute.

He didn't expect what happened next: around the room, soldiers began to stand and return his salute. His heart pounded in his throat. Is this what Shadis meant when he said people would respect me if I were more in touch with my humanity?

Levi stood and saluted as well, and Erwin swallowed hard. The man rarely saluted, even when proper decorum required it.

"Thank you for your generous acceptance," he said to the room. "That is all I have for you today. Good evening."

His cheeks were warm as he walked to the service line to receive his tray of food. Public speaking was no trouble for him - he enjoyed attention and responsibility - but he was accustomed to showing strength in public, not weakness. The soldiers working in the service line gave him nods off approval and respectful murmurs of "Sir," which put him a bit more at ease. As strange as it was, it seemed his little breakdown last night had been a step forward with the troops, not a step back.

He had planned to take his tray back to his office, but as he passed the long table, Levi slid over, leaving room for him at the end of his bench. The invitation was appealing; perhaps taking a break from paperwork would refresh his mind. Erwin accepted the seat, the fit so tight that their thighs were almost touching.

"Erwin," said Hange with wonder, "you were going to come rescue us?"

He smiled kindly. "Both of you are valuable assets to this team, and between your disappearance and Anke's death, I'm afraid my head wasn't on straight. Thankfully, Mike put it back into alignment."

"Don't ever try to fight Erwin," said Mike to his comrades, his voice pinched by the bandaged nose. "He was the top of our class in hand-to-hand combat, and he's a lethal force, even drunk."

"I didn't know you could fight," said Levi.

"I try to avoid it." Erwin tapped his black eye. "Don't sell yourself short, Mike. This eye is going to get me a lot of questions when I go to the Capital next week."

"Tell them a titan did it," said Dita. "It's not like the brass would know what it's like to fight one."

"All right, enough banter," said Shadis. "I know we're not supposed to pester our Squad Leaders for information about their disappearance, but Hange looks ready to burst."

Hange's eyes lit up. "Levi, do you mind if I tell them all about it?"

"Yeah, sure." Levi began to eat with his left hand, casually laying his right on the bench. Erwin glanced down at it. They were sitting so closely that the little finger was almost touching his thigh. Was the proximity intentional? An invitation, even?

"When the blast struck, we were partially shielded by the cart," said Hange. "Levi got the worst of it; he was unconscious when the dust settled. Titans were closing in on us, and I panicked: I grabbed him and went for the trees. I should have gone for the silo, but-"

"There was no time to think," said Levi, and Erwin was surprised by the gentle tone. Apparently a night in the woods had done a great deal to forge a bond between the two. The thought of Levi unconscious and helpless made fear settle in a cold ball in his stomach. Even when I went back to check on him, I got there too late. If not for Hange, he really would be dead.

He glanced down at the bench again. The tabletop gave them cover; no one would see anything if he were to place his hand on top of Levi's. You're supposed to be taking time to think this through, he told himself, but he was a man who could see several steps ahead of every situation, and it was already clear where this one was going.

Without changing his posture or expression, he began to eat with his right hand, laying his left along the side of his thigh. His hand was less than an inch away from Levi's, leaving just enough of a gap to back out if he changed his mind. He had promised not to make any advances unless he was certain, after all.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Levi's throat bob.

"We were still being pursued by titans," continued Hange, "and several of them were tall enough that the trees wouldn't protect us. I left Levi on a branch and took out five titans unassisted."

"Five?" said Mike dubiously.

"Not as impressive as it sounds. These titans were strangely sluggish. I don't know if they were tired or the cold slowed them down or what. But I had some interesting findings when I tried to chop off the arm of one of them..."

The body heat building between their thighs was wearing away Erwin's resistance. He stretched out his fingers, crossing his little finger over Levi's. The man gave him a sharp glance, but didn't pull away. The gesture could still be explained away as an accident, if necessary, but in his heart, Erwin knew there was no going back now, not when that little centimetre of skin contact was making his stomach flutter. He sat stiffly upright, eyes locked on Hange, and in his periphery, he saw Levi mirror the pose.

"Okay, enough about your findings," said Eld, interrupting the rambling. "I want to hear how you got out of that mess."

"Oh," said Hange, "Well, the temperature kept dropping, and the remaining titans were still swarming the tree trunk. Levi didn't wake up for another eight hours or so-"

The severity of the concussion was much worse than Erwin had imagined, and his stomach plummetted. I came so close to losing you.

Decisively, he grabbed Levi's hand.

In his periphery, he could see the man's jaw tightening. He struggled to keep his own breaths even and controlled, waiting for a reaction. This hand grip was more terrifying than any move he had ever made. He could effortlessly seduce a stranger at a bar, deliver a passionate kiss to someone he barely knew, but something about Levi stripped away all his years of practice. In this moment, he was just a dumb kid in love, waiting anxiously to see if his crush would accept his hand or pull away. He tried to distract himself by listening to Hange speak, but he had lost the ability to comprehend words.

Then, finally, Levi reacted. His hand rotated, palm up, and their fingers intertwined.

A rush ran up and down Erwin's spine, and he bit the inside of his cheek. This was well past the point of no return, but he didn't feel trapped. He felt free.

He cast the man a sideways glance, and Levi did the same, their faces perfectly stoic as their thumbs slid together beneath the table.

.*.*.*.

The conversation continued after dinner ended, shifting naturally between new topics. Officers drifted from the table, until eventually it was Levi, Erwin, Mike and Eld. Mike had started telling tales about their trainee days. Normally, Erwin wasn't fond of discussing his youth. He had been a lot more headstrong then, idealistic to a fault, with a temper for anyone who questioned him. There was also the matter of their heavy drinking habits; it had been peacetime, after all, and so the military had been much more lax with its trainees back then. Tonight, however, Mike was painting it all in a rather flattering light, so Erwin didn't mind Levi listening.

Besides, their hands were still joined under the table, their shared little secret, and he didn't have the heart to break the contact.

"-so we've still got five stations left to complete, and Lars loses it. He tells Erwin he's not going to follow the plan, and we're all going to fail the exercise, and he calls him a shitty leader," said Mike. "Erwin's face goes purple. Not just red, purple. We all step back, expecting him to clock the guy. Instead, he snaps out a fist and stuns him. One jab to the head, boom, Lars is down before anyone knows what happened. Erwin drapes him over his shoulders and takes him with us. He did the rest of the course with Lars unconscious on his back. Told Instructor Marta some bullshit about an accident at the third station, and we passed with flying colours. We even got bonus points for rescuing a wounded teammate." He shook his head. "That was when I learned how far Erwin Smith will go to reach his goals, and I decided right then I would follow him anywhere."

Levi turned to him, raising a brow. "You going to knock me unconscious if I question your decisions, Erwin?"

"Since then, I've learned there are more subtle ways to convince people to one's side," he replied dryly.

Eld stood and stretched. "Well, it's getting late, and last night was a long night for all of us. I'm turning in."

"Yeah, me too." Mike stood as well.

They exchanged their goodnights, then it was just Erwin and Levi, sitting suspiciously close to each other on the bench, their hands still joined.

"You must be exhausted," said Erwin quietly.

Levi shrugged, but when he spoke, his voice was softer than usual: "Yeah, but I'm still feeling a bit screwed up from last night. Not sure I should be alone right now."

Finally releasing his hand, Erwin slowly rose to his feet, his knees creaking. "I could come check on you." It was strange to have his hand to himself again. He curled his fingers around the cold, hand-shaped echo of Levi's grip, already missing it.

"Okay. Give me about fifteen minutes."

For a moment, they were silent. As Levi stood, he lifted his abandoned hand and stared at it, as if he didn't believe his own memory.

"Levi." Erwin leaned in close. He kept his eyes on the few soldiers still lingering at their tables, watching them to make sure they wouldn't be overheard. "I know what I want, but I also know I have wounds that need to heal. A relationship with me would progress slowly. It would take great patience."

When he pulled away again, Levi's face had a gentleness to it he had never seen before. "It's okay."

"It's been a very long time..." he said, not quite sure how to admit that Henrik had been his last male partner. Gender shouldn't matter to him - it had never mattered before Henrik - but since the man's death, he had only had two partners, both of them women, and that wasn't by accident.

Stopping to consider his romantic life made him realize how lonely he was. His last encounter had been two years ago, before Levi had even been in the picture. If he was honest, he hadn't been interested in pursuing anyone else since Levi had first caught his attention, sobbing in his arms. Or had it started before that?

"Erwin," said Levi, reaching up to grip his arm. "It's okay. You lead, and I'll follow you. Anywhere."

The last word was delivered so earnestly that shivers ran down Erwin's spine. "Then I'll come by in fifteen minutes and we can talk about this more." With a little nod, he turned, intending to return to his room to change.

His path brought him past the office, and he slowed, realizing there was one more thing he needed to do first.

I need to let go.

He shut the door behind him and lit the lamp, then picked up Henrik's frame. He held it to his chest. His eyes closed as he tried to visualize Henrik standing in front of him for one last farewell.

No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't picture the man. He could see bits and pieces with perfect detail, but when he tried to put them together, the pieces swam in and out of focus, never binding together. Panicking, he realized that he couldn't quite remember the man's voice, or even the boisterous laugh that had first drawn his attention. Five years was a long time, especially with so much else on his mind.

His eyelids parted.

The memory has decayed, and I'm desperately holding on to the husk it left behind. I was so intent on grieving that I let the natural grieving process slip me by. How can he be at peace if I won't let him fade away? Is he still a man to me, or have I reduced him to a concept, an excuse to feel sad?

Erwin took a deep, shaky breath, then opened the bottom drawer of his desk and set the frame inside it. The drawer closed. He felt a small wave of peace - not closure yet, but it was a start.

Once he got back to his room, he pulled on a pair of pyjama bottoms and an old cotton shirt, then brushed his teeth and combed his hair. By the time he was ready, his hands were shaking, the enormity of what he was about to do finally dawning on him.

Before he could talk himself out of it, he left the room and marched three doors down the hall to Levi's new room.

He knocked.

The door opened, and Levi stared up at him, wearing loose-fitting pyjama pants. The only pair of pyjamas he owns, thought Erwin, remembering that paltry box of possessions. The dim lamplight cast the muscles and grooves of Levi's torso into strong contrast: lean muscle, very little body fat. A perfect weapon of a man.

The door had barely closed behind them when Erwin caught Levi's shoulders and pulled him in, arms wrapping around him in a hug. Once again, he marvelled at how small the man was - he only came up to chest height, and his shoulders and hips were narrow.

After a moment, Levi's arms wrapped around him, so tightly that it was hard to breathe. Erwin hadn't expected him to be too interested in hugs. Really, it was difficult to picture Levi enjoying any form of intimacy; he was so particular and easily disgusted that it seemed like the baser aspects of being human would be too messy or irritating for him.

Their bodies were flush, and the close contact was starting to arouse Erwin. He wondered if he should pull away before it became noticeable. All his previous romances had happened rather explosively, and he wasn't certain about the proper etiquette for one that was supposed to move at a slow pace, even when he was the one who had requested it.

"It's a good thing you had that bath," said Levi. "I would have had a noseful of smelly, shitty armpit right now."

"I suppose it is," said Erwin, amused by the man's crassness. Closing his eyes, he bowed down to bury his nose into the top of the dark hair, breathing in. Smelling his own soap there felt wrong; he would have to replace the lemon soap soon.

"You...feel good," said Levi, sounding a bit awkward.

"So do you. I've wanted to hold you like this ever since I found out you were missing. I didn't think I'd have the chance."

There was a long pause.

"You'd better not be screwing with my head again." Levi's arms tightened. "If you start spewing some crap about how we can't be together..."

Erwin gently gripped the man's chin and tilted it until their eyes met. "I made you a promise, Levi." His thumb ran across the narrow bottom lip. "I wasn't going to act until I was sure."

Slowly, carefully, he leaned down. Their lips grazed once, twice, then he pressed in closer. This time, their lips parted, but he kept the kiss shallow, softly inhaling the taste of Levi's breath. Levi gave something close to a growl, and his hands curled into Erwin's collar, fighting to pull him closer, but Erwin wasn't ready to relinquish control just yet. Their tongues barely grazed, then he gradually, slowly began deepening the kiss.

His plan was to orchestrate every move, to keep the pace slow and controlled, but their tongues brushed again, and it felt so good that he began to lose himself. Their bodies pressed together, jaws widening, and Erwin's tongue slid deep into Levi's mouth. He felt Levi's hands run down his back to his ass, where they massaged the muscle, urging him in closer. Hiding his arousal was impossible now, and it no longer seemed like a priority, anyway, so Erwin mirrored the motion, pulling Levi flat against him. The urge to grind was getting overwhelming, and he wasn't sure he could fight it much longer. He was the one who had asked them to take it slowly, after all, but he couldn't remember why.

He finally broke the kiss and pulled away, panting for air. Levi's eyes were heavily lidded, his lips parted.

"Was that a better kiss than before, or still shitty?" asked Erwin.

"Fuck..." Levi tugged on his neck, drawing him down again.

This kiss was deep from the beginning, and this time, Erwin couldn't hold back. He tilted his hips forward and back, just once, and warmth flooded his groin. He heard the man's breath catch, felt hands tighten into his ass.

Then Levi walked him backwards to the bed and shoved him onto the mattress, crawling over top of him, their lips sloppily finding each other again. Erwin's palms slid up and down that bare, muscled back. They were both grinding now, and this was probably advancing far faster than it should, but he didn't care, he just needed to feel that hard evidence that he was wanted, needed to feel it rubbing against his own.

Levi broke the kiss and began to lick down his chin, then throat, then across his neck. It felt so good, so good, it was almost too much. Overcome, Erwin suddenly rolled, pinning the small man beneath him, burying his face into the slender neck, paying him back with the same intensity. He found one particularly sensitive spot about an inch below the left jaw, and he buried himself into it, letting the damp skin slide between his teeth. Levi's gasps started as curses, then devolved into incoherent noises, growing loud enough that Erwin finally pulled away. There were empty rooms on either side of them, but they shouldn't take any chances.

They took a moment to steady themselves, both panting hard. Erwin pulled off his shirt and swiftly folded it into quarters, tossing it onto the desk beside them.

"Fuck." Levi's palm slid up his stomach and chest. "Fuck, look at you." His lips were swollen, his dark hair was mussed, and his face, normally so emotionless, was twisted into an expression somewhere between helplessness and pain.

Erwin leaned down to kiss the man's forehead. A faint layer of sweat was building on the pale skin, leaving his lips salty. "You all right?"

"Shit," breathed Levi.

"I want to get you off."

"Shit." Levi's eyes closed. "Okay, I... Shit."

Erwin went for an ear this time, his tongue tracing its grooves. His body rolled to one side as he began to run his palm down the man's chest, stomach... He slid over the top of the pants, feeling the rigid shape beneath, and Levi threw his head back with a gasp.

He's sensitive. He had always pictured Levi being wild in bed, but not in such a vulnerable and expressive way. Does he surrender this completely to everyone, or just to me? Admiration swelled within him as he found the man's lips again. His fingers gently tugged at the fabric, and Levi gave a low groan into his mouth.

Not content to have the cloth barrier between them, Erwin slipped his hand under the waistband.

Skin met skin, and Levi gasped and tugged the waistband down his hips, out of the way. For a moment, Erwin lost composure, his eyes fluttering shut. He had forgotten how intimate this contact felt, how well it allowed him to read his partner.

"Wait." Levi reached out to stay his wrist. "I want to jerk you off at the same time."

Erwin froze. Why was it that the thought of touching Levi was comfortable, but the other way around felt too fast? Was it that he was too afraid to lose himself in front of anyone? Perhaps his grief was manifesting as control issues. He scoured his emotions, trying to make sense of them.

"Levi..." He trailed off, not sure what to say.

"Too much, too soon, huh?"

Frustration washed over him. "It doesn't make sense. I don't understand my own logic. I don't understand these arbitrary borders I'm using to divide up intimacy."

Levi studied him for a moment, then said quietly, "Look, Erwin, whatever you're feeling is what's right, okay? It doesn't have to make sense."

"It's not fair to you if I'm putting arbitrary timelines on things."

"It's okay." Levi reached up to grip his shoulder. "Don't over-think this. I'll speak up if I feel anything's unfair."

Taking a slow breath, Erwin let the words sink in. "Thank you for your generous understanding."

"Don't be so formal. You're grabbing my dick, not giving a speech to the brass." Levi pulled him down for another kiss. Already, the man's mouth was feeling familiar: narrow lips and tongue, small teeth with a couple gaps near the back. A groan rumbled between them.

Erwin's hand began to move, setting into a gentle rhythm, and soon Levi fell back to the pillow. He was wearing that pained expression again, his hands clawing into the blanket. "Fuck. I'm not going to last."

"Good." Erwin kissed across to his ear, increasing the cadence of his hand. "Let yourself go. I want you to come for me, Levi."

"Holy shit."

He felt as if he were rising with him. "Come on, Levi: come for me."

"Fuck!" Levi arched, and Erwin pulled away to watch his face, contorted and strained and beautiful.

Then, slowly, the man sank back to the bed, breathing hard, his face perfectly relaxed. Erwin stretched out beside him, delivering slow kisses to his jaw.

"Fuck," said Levi with a puff of air, as if he had been holding his breath. His eyes opened, and he propped himself onto an elbow. "Think you could grab me a handkerchief? Not sure where your moving crew put them."

Erwin looked down. He had tried to catch everything in his free hand, but some of it had spilled onto Levi's stomach. It would have been tidier if he had just used his mouth. His groin throbbed at the idea.

He retrieved a handkerchief for each of them from the top dresser drawer. They were silent as they cleaned themselves; he tried not to be offended by the disgusted expression on Levi's face. He had expected it, to some degree.

Clearing his throat, he stood, not sure how this exchange should end. "You probably need your rest."

Levi's eyes were fixed between his legs. "You sure you don't want to get off? What if you jerked yourself off while I made out with you?"

Erwin's knees weakened, and he was surprised by how badly he wanted that. "I suppose that arrangement could be a good intermediary step."

"Stop being so formal. Don't you ever forget your manners?"

Suddenly bashful, Erwin's cheeks glowed. He wasn't accustomed to anyone speaking to him so bluntly, at least not in this context.

They shifted to lie side by side on the bed, studying each other. This was surreal, Levi's eyes locked onto him, their hands slowly trailing across each other's arms. Even his own shyness was foreign. Maybe I was mortally wounded out in that field with Anke, and everything since has been a dying man's dream.

Dream or not, he wanted it to continue. Trying to push past his shyness, he slipped his hand into his pants.

Levi watched him for a moment, as if sizing him up, then leaned forward to kiss his ear. Erwin felt his breath escape in a rush. He's a natural hunter, instinctively identifying his prey's weak spot. His muscles tensed.

"You like that?" murmured Levi, using his tongue to trace the ridges.

Realizing he was holding his breath, Erwin sharply exhaled, but then a hand began to caress his chest, and he gasped.

Levi sat up, eyes trailing down his body. "Look at you," he murmured. "Look how fucking hot you are. But still so quiet and polite." He bent in again, kissing across his neck to his throat, then down. Erwin closed his eyes, his fist moving faster as he felt Levi's hands massage his chest and shoulders.

One particular spot felt so good that a short cry slipped from his lips, and the hands paused.

"I see."

Then he felt damp warmth on a nipple, and for a split second, he was bewildered, but then heat flooded his body. His mind went white. He couldn't tell if he was saying the words aloud, or just thinking them: oh fuck, Levi, that feels so good, oh fuck, oh fuck...

"That's more like it," said Levi, his voice so low that it was almost a growl.

Erwin felt himself cresting, but he wasn't ready to end this yet. He subtly slowed his pace, fighting to hang on.

Then he realized that Levi's finger was tracing his bottom lip. Frenzied, he pulled it into his mouth. He heard Levi take in a sharp breath.

"Erwin-"

"Don't stop," he pleaded, his voice lisping around the finger.

Levi returned to licking his nipple, and Erwin pulled the finger deep into his throat, suckling it, wrapping his tongue around it. Levi gave a soft moan. The sound, combined with the stimulation on his tongue and his chest and between his legs, was too much to handle, and he was rising, he couldn't fight it anymore. The finger fell from his mouth.

"Levi," he warned. "Oh fuck..."

He went under so hard that his back lifted off the bed, every muscle shuddering.

Slowly, he came back to himself.

He opened his eyes to see Levi hovering over him. The man's expression couldn't quite be called a smirk, but one corner of his lips had lifted, just slightly. He reached down to smooth the hair off Erwin's forehead.

"I don't think I've ever heard you say 'fuck' before today, then you drop it about thirty times in the space of a minute." There was a twinkle in his eyes, as if he were proud.

Erwin pulled him in for a soft kiss. He was surprised by how natural this felt, basking in the afterglow with Levi at his side.

"Here." The man handed him a clean handkerchief. "Erwin..." The not-quite-a-smirk faded from his lips.

"Something on your mind, Levi?" he asked, mopping up.

"Would you...stay?"

"Stay?"

"Here. Tonight. With me." Levi's cheeks darkened, and he shrugged, looking away. "If you want."

In this post-orgasm haze, Erwin felt like he would agree to anything the man asked of him, but he tried to think about it logically. "You don't think it might be suspicious if I came out of your room in the morning?"

"It wouldn't be hard to sneak you out without anyone seeing. But it's just an idea." He shrugged again, the display of uncaring so exaggerated that Erwin understood how much it really meant to him.

"You've convinced me. I'll stay." He stole another kiss, then stood, pulling on his shirt. "I should probably go wash my hands first. I'll be back in a minute or two." He normally wouldn't bother washing up until morning, but he felt the need to be cleaner than usual for the sake of his fastidious partner.

When he reached the men's bath, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror: flushed cheeks, mussed hair, and an enormous grin.

"Subtle," he told his reflection, but the grin wouldn't go away; instead, his blush deepened. He quickly washed his hands and face, then took a minute to rinse off his stomach while he was at it.

When he returned to the room, Levi was already in bed; he shifted over, leaving room. Erwin slipped under the covers. They laid on their backs, side-by-side.

"What the fuck just happened?" asked Levi, and Erwin gave a soft chuckle.

"I agree. This is...surreal."

"You still okay with this?" The words were laced with insecurity.

The urge to smile finally faded from Erwin's lips. He rolled onto his side so they could look each other in the eye. "Levi, it won't be easy to be with me. There will be a lot I won't be able to tell you, and plans that must take priority over either of us. If our work ever comes into direct conflict with our personal relationship, the work will always win. Always. The titans must come first."

"I know that," said Levi.

"I need to know one thing before we proceed." Erwin searched his eyes. "Does this change anything? Are you going to be able to die if I order you to, or let me die if it's necessary?"

The man gave an irritated huff. "This is the worst pillow talk I've ever heard."

"This is important, Levi. I need your answer."

"Fine. But before I answer, I have a question for you: can you still order me to die?"

Erwin hesitated. He didn't want to consider giving the order, but one day, he might have to. "I would be reluctant, but my personal feelings won't cloud my judgement. At the end of the day, we all must serve humanity above our own interests. Yes, I could order you to die, Levi, but I want you to understand: your death would haunt me more than any I have ever caused." Even though he said the words for Levi, there was no one who could possibly understand their true impact. No one knew just how deeply ghosts of the past had shaped him, how they had forged his life's work. The words were the greatest compliment Erwin could give.

Maybe Levi didn't know the specifics, but he seemed to register the importance of it: his eyes widened a little, then settled again. "Yes, I'll go to my death for you."

"Even if things go badly between us? Even if I break your heart?"

"Fucking hell, Erwin." Levi huddled into the blanket. "Yes, of course. Now would you shut up? This is a shitty way to cap off the evening."

"I'm sorry to be so dour," said Erwin, touched by the man's loyalty. "I had to be sure."

"Next time you're going to talk about breaking my heart or asking me to die, can you at least wait until..." Levi paused. "Never."

"It won't come up again." It began to dawn on him that he had potentially ruined the night with his poor timing. "I'm sorry, Levi. If you want me to leave-"

"It's fine." Levi rolled onto his side, turning his back. Erwin spooned up behind him, wrapping an arm around him, his hand flat against the centre of the muscular chest. He could feel the man's racing heartbeat in his palm. So strong, so lively. I came so close to losing this forever. His throat tightened.

"Can I ask one more thing of you, Levi?"

The man sighed. "What?"

His voice cracked: "Make sure this heart keeps beating."

There was a pause, then a hand covered his, their fingers intertwining.

Chapter Text

-7-

Morning After

Lips pressed against Levi's forehead. He stirred and tried to speak, but he was so exhausted that his voice came out in a groan instead.

"Go back to sleep. You need your rest," murmured Erwin's voice, and then a knuckle grazed his cheek.

As Levi drifted back to sleep, he heard the door click.

.*.*.*.

"Erwin?" Levi sat upright. The room was empty. He swore he had only closed his eyes for an instant longer, but the pillow beside him was cold.

At first, he thought he had dreamed the whole encounter, but then he saw the used handkerchiefs on the floor. He wrinkled his nose as he dropped them in the laundry basket, but he was glad they were there. As unhygienic as the rags were, at least they were real.

It was still dark outside, but through the window, he could see a crack of light on the horizon. Even exhausted as he was, he had still managed to awaken before reveille.

He gathered his toiletries and headed into the hallway. As he passed Erwin's room, he wondered if the Commander would have any regrets. The gentle kiss to the forehead – if that hadn't been a dream – suggested no regret, but he was still insecure. It wasn't that he doubted Erwin's interest. Uninterested men didn't hold a hand in secret for more than an hour, or watch an orgasm with parted lips and pinched brows, as if drinking in their pleasure. Erwin was interested, no question.

What he doubted was the longevity of that interest. Ever since the turning point of their relationship, when they had left their rocky beginnings behind and Levi's admiration had begun to grow, he had built Erwin into someone completely unattainable, someone who could have any person he chose. Aside from his unparalleled brilliance, he was tall, classically handsome, and excelled at everything he did. Why would he choose a perpetually sour, uneducated, scrawny rat of a man? Once the initial rush of hormones died down, Erwin was sure to see right through him.

Or maybe Levi's mind was just playing tricks on him. It wouldn't be the first time he had started to overthink everything at the start of a new relationship. It was a defense mechanism cultivated after years of heartbreak: everyone always left him or died, in the end.

He slipped into the icy bath. The scent of Erwin's soap made his mind begin to retrace the events of the night before. The memories had disproportionate power over him. It had just been a hand job, the most innocent form of sex he could imagine, but the intensity of it made it the most memorable sexual encounter he'd had in years. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, thinking about Erwin's hand: its size and strength, the knotted knuckles, the deep-set fingernails. It looked and felt so good no matter what it was touching.

His eyes opened. Was thinking about a hand enough to turn him on now? He shook his head. Pathetic.

The dizzying rise and fall of his mood was wearing at his nerves. By the time reveille sounded, his stomach had twisted into knots. He retrieved a clean uniform from his closet and pulled it on, then carefully tied his cravat. If he left now, he could reach the mess hall before any of his comrades and drink warm tea until his stomach settled.

He stepped into the hallway.

"Levi."

His heart skipped a beat. Turning, he saw Erwin standing in the hall, a towel slung over his shoulder, apparently on the way to the baths. His face was as inscrutable as always, his stance rigid. Levi's eyes drifted down the furry chest. Now I'm never going to be able to see him topless without remembering how sensitive those nipples are.

"Good Morning," said Erwin. "I know you'll probably need a few days to recover from your concussion, but we still need to do a proper debrief while the incidents are fresh on our minds. Bring Squad Leader Hange by my office after breakfast."

"Yes, Erwin." He hesitated, thrown off by the man's formality. "We're okay, right?"

The Commander paused to glance up and down the hall, then stepped in closer, his stance relaxing. "I'd say better than okay. Wouldn't you?" Was that a flicker of insecurity in that placid blue gaze? Maybe Levi wasn't the only one overthinking things.

"Of course. This is all just a bit weird."

"That's to be expected while we readjust our perceptions of each other. It will take time." Erwin reached out to rest a hand on his shoulder, the gesture forced and awkward, but not unwelcome. "I have some business to discuss with you, and it's looking like it'll be a beautiful day outside. After our debrief, why don't we take our lunches outside and find somewhere private to talk?"

"Yeah, sure."

Erwin's face returned to neutral as other soldiers appeared at the end of the hall, and he retracted his hand. "That will be all for now, Levi. Dismissed."

With a frown, Levi moved past him. Even though it was just for show, he didn't like being dismissed. I'm not your damned dog.

In spite of his annoyance, even that small conversation was enough to leave its mark. His cheeks were still burning when he arrived at the mess hall, and he was glad that neither Hange nor Mike was around to notice.

This was the exact opposite of how his previous relationships had started. Usually, there was one really good drunken fuck, then a few more casual fucks, then an awkward are-we-dating phase, and then he ended up in love without realizing it had crept up on him. He had never thought himself the type to blush after a simple conversation.

Lost in thought, he stayed at the table sipping tea long after his food was finished. Slowly, other soldiers began to trickle in, but there was no sign of Hange. Growing impatient, he stood.

The office that had been assigned to Hange was still empty, so he tried the bunks instead. A soldier with short blond hair answered the door, and he struggled with the name for a moment - he was pretty sure it was Nanaba, but they had never really interacted.

"I'm looking for Hange," he said, avoiding the name entirely.

"Is that Levi?" came a gravelly voice from inside the room. He heard a book slam, then Hange appeared at the door, hair mussed and eyes sunken. "Morning."

He leaned against the door frame and folded his arms over his chest. "You look like shit."

"I've been up all night writing out my findings."

"All night? Really?" He stared. "Aren't you exhausted?"

"No, too busy."

"Well, you just got even busier. Erwin wants us to come by his office for debriefing."

"Oh, good. I wanted to talk to him anyway. Let's go." Hange stumbled past him, bumping into the door so hard that Levi winced.

"You need to sleep," he said. "You can't even walk straight."

"I can sleep later."

Levi glanced at Nanaba, who was staring after the Squad Leader with a worried expression. "You're scaring your roommates."

"Bah, they're used to me by now. Hurry up!"

With a low sigh, he hurried to catch up.

When they arrived at Erwin's office, they found him seated at his desk, working his way through a stack of paperwork. He looked up as they entered and gave them a polite smile. "Please be seated."

As Levi sat, his gaze drifted across the surface of the desk. It was cluttered: papers, a few ink bottles, files, even a dismantled flare gun. This office gets messier every time I see it.

His gaze moved to the shelf on the window, and he froze.

The one chaotic frame, Henrik's drawing, was gone.

He felt as if he were sinking into himself, spiralling into his core. Had Erwin taken it down already, after just one hand job? His stomach twisted. I thought we were supposed to be taking this slowly. Did Erwin see him as Henrik's replacement?

"Levi?" asked the Commander. "Are you okay?"

He snapped his focus away from the shelf. "Fine."

"You look a little pale," said Hange, peering in uncomfortably close. "More than usual."

"So what? You do, too. Can we get this over with?" He folded his arms over his chest, slumping in his chair. He could feel them watching him, and it was making him claustrophobic.

After a moment, Erwin held out a flare gun. "Hange, last night you mentioned something about altering the flare guns to eject their canisters. Can you show me what you did?"

"Oh, that's easy. You see this spring here?" Hange leaned forward to poke the gun.

Levi's head dropped back against the chair, and he let out a long, quiet sigh. He wasn't sure what he was going to be able to contribute to the discussion; he couldn't remember anything from the blast, and even the details of what had happened on that tree branch were a bit hazy. Besides, now his mind was humming with thoughts of that missing frame, even though he tried to block them out. He was sick of introspection, and sick of guessing where he stood.

Erwin asked several questions, making notes in a file. Trying to preoccupy himself, Levi eyed the pen as it glided across the paper with the man's graceful handwriting. Several of the words were indecipherable. He could read printed words just fine, but sometimes struggled with the loopy, flowing script that educated men like Erwin used.

"Hey Erwin, why are you writing all this down?" he asked, interrupting Hange.

"Any parts of a mission that deviate from the plan must be noted," said the Commander without looking up. "Any time soldiers are separated from the main body, the question of desertion or even treason must be addressed."

"Treason?" repeated Hange, voice faint.

"Don't worry. I'm documenting the event in enough detail to ensure treason is never a consideration." Erwin dotted the paper, then looked up at them. "As you two get familiar with the higher ranks of the military, you'll come to realize that a good deal about Survey Corps leadership is making sure the Interior is comfortable with us. Every time we come back with fewer troops, they begin to question us."

"We didn't need to lose that many people this time," blurted Hange.

Levi's eyes snapped to the Squad Leader. Are you really going to do this now?

The Commander set down the pen and lifted his chin. "Something on your mind, Hange?"

"The perimeter was spread too thinly, and there weren't enough scouts on high ground. If we had settled in the forest first and then sent a team down to ground level to retrieve the silo supplies, we could have minimized the loss of life..." The confidence faded from Hange's voice as Erwin's face hardened.

"These things are always more apparent in retrospect," he said quietly. "We will learn from this and-"

"But I knew we weren't positioned well before the attack happened." Hange turned to Levi. "Remember?"

He shrugged, the memory a bit fuzzy. "I told you to take it up with Erwin."

There was a long pause.

The Commander folded his hands on the desk and leaned forward. "Hange, I'm sorry if I led you to believe that you didn't have the right to question me. I am just one man, and my strategies are subject to human error. If you ever find yourself questioning any of my decisions, it's your duty to notify me immediately. We may have a hierarchy, but every member of our team has a responsibility to minimize casualties. Ignoring your doubts could mean endangering your comrades, and that is something you must never, ever, do. That goes for you too, Levi. Ultimately, the weakness in our strategy was my mistake, and I take full responsibility, but one or both of you should have raised your concerns. Understood?"

Levi sank deeper into his chair. Beside him, Hange's head was bowed.

After a pause, Erwin lifted his pen again. "Let's continue. Please explain to me in detail how you took out that last group of titans."

As Hange tentatively began to speak, Levi's eyes drifted back to the shelf, to that missing gap where the frame had once stood. Was it realistic to try to build a relationship that was equal in private, but imbalanced in public? Or was Erwin just desperate to fill the space Henrik had left behind?

He clenched his teeth, doubts crowding his mind.

.*.*.*.

It took more than an hour, but at last, Erwin was satisfied that his report was complete. Just in time, too: Levi looked bored out of his mind, and even Hange was getting antsy. Erwin felt a pang of sympathy. It couldn't be easy to relive such a difficult night in great detail.

Now it was his turn to debrief them. Keeping his update short, he gave them a few details about Anke's death, then updated them on the other casualties.

"I'll be heading to the Capital in four days for my induction ceremony," he continued. "Once the paperwork is finalized and I've formally been promoted, I'll be meeting with you and the other Squad Leaders to talk about how we're going to structure ourselves, and what our next goals will entail. Given that we've had a change in leadership and a great deal of personnel loss over the past several expeditions, we'll be rebuilding the squads from the ground up. Give some thought to what type of squad will fit your leadership style best, and which soldiers will help you achieve our goals.

"That about covers everything I wanted to tell you. Does either of you have any questions for me?"

"Actually, sir, I'd like to talk to you alone for a few minutes," said Hange.

"Of course." He nodded at Levi and said to him, "You're free to leave. I'll see you at lunchtime for our meeting; please close the door behind you."

The man stood and left the room without so much as a word or a glance back. Erwin's brow furrowed. Did I say something to upset him?

As much was he wanted to chase after him and make sure everything was okay, that discussion would have to wait until lunch. He turned his attention back to Hange, who was leaning forward in the chair, legs bouncing.

"Now then," he said. "What did you want to speak to me about?"

"Research," said Hange. "I've been writing down my observations from the past couple expeditions, and it's all pointing at one fact: we know absolutely nothing about the titans. For example, the ones we met during the last expedition were sluggish. Was it the cold? Were they abnormals? I have some theories, but for now, they're all baseless conjecture."

This level of interest was exactly why Levi had suggested they promote Hange in the first place, and Erwin leaned back in his chair, intrigued. "What do you propose?"

"Research expeditions. Small teams. I'd like some time to study titans in the wild. Maybe we could even capture one and study it in detail. Oh, and weapons - we need to develop better weapons and research tools. The current-"

Erwin held up a hand, recognizing the growing light of obsession in the bespectacled eyes. "Your goals are lofty, and your imagination is admirable, but the timing isn't right to launch large-scale research operations, so let's take small steps. I'll allow you to stay in the sidelines and make observations during our next few expeditions. We'll make sure your Team Leaders support-"

"No."

He blinked. "Pardon?"

"Observations aren't good enough." Hange looked up, brows low. "The time for large-scale research operations is now. You're a man of reason, Erwin, so you must see that until we understand what we're fighting, we're just throwing away lives. If we figure out what the titans are, we can build better weapons, attack them more efficiently. Lives could be saved."

Erwin could indeed see it, and moreover, he was motivated to learn more about the titans, perhaps more than anyone else in the Corps; it was the reason he had joined up in the first place.

Even so, he knew they had to time their research carefully. For one thing, Shadis' warning about the Survey Corps' shaky future made him suspect that throwing resources onto a new project would only give the Interior more reasons to shut them down. Furthermore, he had deep suspicions that uncovering the nature of the titans would cause a whole host of new problems, and they weren't ready to handle those problems. Not yet.

"The timing isn't right," he said.

Hange's eyes flashed. "People are dying. If we drag our feet-"

"The timing isn't right," he said again. "We'll revisit this in one year's time."

"A year!"

He closed his report and opened a drawer to file it away, but he heard a slam. When he looked up, Hange was leaning forward on the desk, palms planted on its surface.

"Erwin, I didn't come here to watch people die while I sit in the sidelines." The brown eyes narrowed. "I didn't want to do this, but you leave me no choice. I demand a dedicated research team and permission to perform research expeditions. I also demand resources to begin prototyping and testing new weapons."

He raised his brows, more confused than intimidated. "And if I refuse to meet your demands?"

"I go to your superiors with some unsavoury information about you."

"You're going to blackmail me?" He struggled to keep a smirk off his face; instead, he leaned back in his chair, folding his arms over his chest. "What information do you have?"

"I know about you and Levi."

"What about us, exactly?" he asked without missing a beat, even though his chest tightened.

"I know the real reason you were going to mount a rescue operation, and it wasn't for me." Hange leaned closer. "I know about the affair."

"Affair," he repeated. So that's what we're calling it. "Do I strike you as someone who would risk his career for an affair?"

"Not intentionally, but people can't think straight when sex is involved. Relationships between superiors and their subordinates are heavily frowned upon, are they not? You will meet my demands, or I will begin to spread my information."

Hange's bravery and resolve were so admirable that Erwin almost regretted what he was about to do, but he couldn't leave this end loose.

"Say you were correct," he said. "Say I foolishly succumbed to my lust and put my career in jeopardy. What proof do you have?"

"I saw you on the rooftop, the night before the expedition."

"You saw? Your word against mine? A newly-promoted Squad Leader with noted discipline issues speaking out against a Commander with more than a decade of good service – whose word do you think holds more weight?"

Hange's eyes widened just a little, a flicker of awareness that he had plucked a loose thread and was about to unravel the entire plan. Erwin tilted his jaw to look down his nose.

"Well?" he asked, secretly hoping that there was more to the threat. He enjoyed a challenge.

"Levi admitted there was something between you," said Hange, sounding less confident.

That surprised him, but he kept his face neutral. "If Levi was a willing participant in an affair, do you think he would be willing to testify against his supposed lover?"

Hange's mouth flattened into a straight line. "Oh."

"Whatever strange air there was between Levi and me has been resolved and is no longer in play, so your threats hold no sway over me. What's more..." He gave a polite smile, letting a hint of a threat shine through. "Blackmail only works if your information outweighs your opponent's. If they have information to use against you, they might turn the tables on you, and your attempt to control them might end up indebting you to them instead."

Hange's head tilted, eyes narrow, as if trying to size him up. "Are you saying you have information about me?"

"The official military background checks are too lax for my tastes. I always dig deeper when someone is about to be promoted. Much deeper." He leaned forward, his voice low. "I know you were born Zoe Kerr, the illegitimate child of high-ranking weapons scientist Hange Lise and a soldier by the name of Calvin Kerr. Your father died in combat before you were born, and your mother was too heartbroken to raise you, so you were adopted by your paternal grandmother. The two of you lived in abject poverty in a small village inside Wall Rose, subsisting on the small stipends your estranged mother infrequently sent your way. In spite of the distance between you, you idolized her and patterned your life after her, going so far as to lift her name and, when university wasn't a possibility, her academic credentials. Your attempts to follow in her footsteps by working in research were cut short when your negligence caused a tragic accident-"

"Stop," said Hange, voice tight. "Please... Stop."

He waited. Slowly, Hange sank back to the chair, head slumped.

"Your personal history will stay with me and me alone," said Erwin quietly. "Everyone has their secrets, but I need you to understand: if you plan to reveal my secrets - if you even pretend to reveal my secrets and spread falsehoods instead - I will not hesitate to reveal yours. Fair is fair, right?"

In response, Hange gave him an uneasy smile. "Mike warned me you were ruthless."

He returned the smile. "I had a feeling you were, too. For what it's worth, I admire your nerve. Threatening your Commander during your first week as Squad Leader..." He shook his head. "That's commitment to your cause. I can already tell you're going to be a valuable asset to the team."

Standing, he straightened the papers on his desk. "You're correct that we need to pursue research: the sooner, the better. Unfortunately, we are bound to a delicate balancing act: if we push too hard or do anything too radical, we could lose our right to leave the walls entirely, particularly now that our leadership is in flux. The Interior is easily spooked. We have to give them time to grow accustomed to us."

Hange frowned. "So we just let people die in the meantime?"

"Any deaths that result from playing their game are on their heads, not ours." He clasped his hands behind his back, ready to close off the conversation. "Start preparing for the future now: as you plan to build your squad, choose soldiers who can eventually move into research roles. You might want to identify a candidate as a research assistant and start training them, too. As for weapons research, we might be able to arrange a room for you to do so on your own time, but you must provide the funds and source the resources yourself. We'll revisit this in one year's time. Understood?"

Hange still looked uneasy, but only said, "Sir."

"Good. Dismissed."

As the Squad Leader left the room, Erwin sat back in his chair, smiling to himself. In some ways, Hange reminded him of himself as a Squad Leader.

Though the prospect of paperwork was dull in comparison to matching wits with Hange, there was still a mountain of it to get through, so he returned to work. It seemed that for every paper he filled out, two more resurfaced. He was going to have to figure out how to streamline the bureaucratic aspects of being Commander; otherwise, he wasn't going to have any time to strategize. Perhaps the restructure should include a Commander's assistant.

He was so engrossed in his work that he didn't realize it was lunchtime until a knock sounded at the door. "Come in."

Levi entered, holding two bagged lunches and a thermos of tea. He dropped a bag on the desk. "Here."

"Thanks." Erwin rose. "Are you still interested in eating outside? I have a spot in mind."

"Sure, whatever." The man's gaze drifted to the window.

"Levi, are you okay?"

A shrug. "Yeah, fine."

It's going to be like pulling teeth to get him to talk. Erwin frowned and grabbed his lunch. "Follow me."

He led them down the hallway and took a sharp right, toward the maintenance store rooms. This hallway didn't get much traffic, and when it did, it was usually with muddy equipment and booted feet. He glanced back and saw Levi looking around, nose wrinkled. "Filthy," the man muttered.

"You're welcome to organize a cleaning crew, if you like. Might be a good way to teach the new recruits some discipline." Erwin turned down a dark hallway and approached an old wooden door. A latch held it closed, the padlock rusted.

"I thought we were going to eat outside," said Levi, sounding a bit wary.

"I have a particular spot in mind. Did you know this was a Garrison outpost before the Survey Corps was formed? There are several old areas of the barracks we don't make use of anymore, and this is one of them." He tugged on the doorknob. A screw had been removed from one side of the latch, invisible to anyone who was unaware; the padlock was only for show. The door creaked open, revealing a dark, musty-smelling room on the other side.

"Erwin?" asked Levi nervously.

"This way."

They stepped into the room, and Erwin closed the door, immersing them in darkness.

"Shit," muttered Levi. "If there are fucking rats or bats in here, I swear-"

"There aren't." He gripped Levi's arm and led him toward the far wall. "If you feel along the wall, you'll find a series of metal rungs embedded in the brick." He gripped his lunch bag between his teeth and began to climb.

The makeshift ladder was longer than he remembered, and his forearms were aching by the time he reached the top. He felt for the hatch and, finding it, threw it open. He emerged into sunlight, Levi on his heels.

They let the hatch fall closed as they took in their surroundings. The ladder had taken them to the top of a small platform overlooking the city. A small wall, about mid-thigh height on Erwin, encircled the platform, giving them some privacy. A sea of clay roofs sprawled before them, and above them, the sky was wide and blue.

Levi's eyes widened. "You can see the whole city from here."

"This was a guard tower, back in the time when the walls were new and the military kept a vigilant watch on the citizens at all hours. It hasn't been used in decades. Since it's one of the highest vantage points in this area, not counting the walls, I thought it might appeal to you."

Levi did a slow spin. "Not bad. Not bad at all."

"No one else seems to know this spot exists, so it's private." Erwin sat down, leaning back against the wall. "The view's nice at night, too."

"You come up here a lot?"

"I used to, years ago."

Levi's face twisted. "With Henrik."

Erwin fell silent.

The man's brows dropped. "It's barely been a full fucking day since we first kissed, and you're already pulling down his picture frame and taking me to your secret spot? I'm not just a replacement. You can't force me into the hole he left behind."

For a moment, Erwin stared, taken aback by the outburst. Levi leaned against the wall and tightened his arms around his chest, his brows low. A breeze drifted between them, ruffling his dark hair and his cravat.

"Levi," said Erwin quietly, "while it's true I used to come here with Henrik, I continued to come here alone long after he was gone. My only thought was that you would enjoy the height and the view. As for the picture, I took it down last night before I came to see you. Through your words, I came to realize that I was hanging on to a ghost of a memory, mourning him out of habit. I promise you, Levi, it never once occurred to me to replace him. You're so unlike him that I couldn't possibly compare the two of you."

The man stared at his feet, his jaw clenching. "Unalike how?"

Erwin hesitated. He considered it rude to talk about a past partner, but Levi seemed to be waiting, so he gave in. "My relationship was Henrik was strange. I disliked him when we first met - he was a clown, a man who had no qualms throwing his dignity aside for a cheap laugh. I found him obnoxious. Over the years, and after countless drunken nights that I usually regretted the next morning, he finally wore away my resistance and began to win my heart. It was hardly a traditional love story, and the only reason we were so close in the end was because we had years for our relationship to grow."

"So what about me?"

"Completely unlike that. The moment I first..." Erwin trailed off, cheeks warming. If Levi was feeling skittish, he shouldn't dump this on him.

As if sensing his hesitation, the other said, "I need to hear this."

"Well, obviously your skills piqued my interest immediately. I enjoy a worthy opponent, and your resistance was attractive. I'd be lying if I said I didn't find you physically attractive then, too."

"While you were having Mike kick the shit out of me? You fucking sadist."

"Not exactly at that moment, but when I first saw you, yes. When I saw you take down your first titan, my admiration began to grow, but you were still so hostile that I swallowed everything back. Even as we interacted more, even as you began to warm up to me, I was still able to deny my feelings. Then came the day you broke down in my office. I don't know what possessed me to hold you, but..." He shook his head. "Whatever this is between us, Levi, it's completely unlike what happened with Henrik. With him, I needed time to appreciate him. With you, I've been trying to suppress my feelings since we first locked eyes."

There was a long pause. Levi still wasn't looking at him, but his stance was more relaxed now.

"Are we okay?" asked Erwin, carefully selecting the same words Levi had given him in the morning.

"Yeah." Finally, the grey eyes locked onto him. "Yeah, we're okay."

For a beat, their eyes held, then Erwin smiled. "Why don't we have some lunch now, and then we can move on to the business I need to discuss with you?" He cocked his head to his right, inviting Levi to sit next to him.

The man's nose wrinkled. "There's bird shit everywhere."

"I can bring some old sheets or a tarp next time, if we decide to come here again. For now, use this." He took off his jacket and set it beside him as a makeshift seat.

Levi eyed him for a moment, then sat. Without warning, he lunged to grab the Commander's pendant, pulling himself in for a kiss. The force of it slammed Erwin's back against the wall, knocking a grunt from him.

Levi barely pulled away to murmur, "That's for offering your jacket." He kissed him a second time, hard, then released the pendant. "That's for looking so fucking hot without it."

A bit dazed, Erwin looked down at his plain dress shirt and 3DMG straps. "It's all standard issue."

"Take the damned compliment." Levi flopped to a seat beside him and pulled a sandwich out of his bag. The small mouth was still in its standard frown, the expression bored, but somehow, Erwin could tell that his spirit was lighter. He was learning to read Levi on a level he couldn't quite identify.

They began to eat. Erwin watched Levi out of the corner of his eye, fascinated by his eating habits: small bites, delicate chewing, a dab with the cloth napkin after every bite. Where did a boy growing up on the streets learn those manners? He already had a suspicion that the abridged personal history Levi had given him the week before was missing a few key chapters, and small details like this only made his suspicions grow.

Swallowing his last bite, Erwin wiped his mouth, then poured them each a mug of tea from the thermos. "I want you to come to the Capital with me."

Levi's gaze slid toward him. "When?"

"This week. When I was a Squad Leader, Shadis often brought me along to acquaint me with the duties of high-ranking positions. I have an eye on you as our future Captain, so I think it's important to start exposing you to the bigger picture. You'll accompany me to the inauguration and gala. I'll introduce you to others of your ranking, and..." He leaned forward. "You'll be helping me with some research."

Finishing his meal, Levi set his bag aside. "What do you mean by research?"

"What I'm about to say is highly classified: do not repeat this to anyone." Even though there was no way they could be overheard, Erwin's voice dropped. "You were right about the supply silo. Those red chests we found contained gold belonging to the King. Someone led us to believe we were retrieving vital supplies, knowing we would find the King's money instead. We need to root out the source of the lie."

"Good," said Levi. "So we'll be doing an interrogation?"

"Before we do anything drastic, I want to politely question an old friend and see if we can dig a little deeper." He paused. "I'm also thinking we might be able to find out what happened to your aunt." He studied the other, watching for a reaction.

"I know what happened to my aunt," said Levi flatly, and the defensiveness only heightened Erwin's suspicions that the story he had been given was incomplete.

"You said she was arrested, but that was years ago," he said carefully. "If she's still imprisoned, I may be able to pull some strings to free her. I can be very persuasive."

With a sigh, Levi gathered his legs, his knees casually lolling against his elbows. "Look, Erwin, you told me last night there'll be things you can't tell me, right? The same goes for me. Don't dig into things that should stay buried. I swear you can trust me."

Erwin realized he had been trying to manipulate the man instead of treating him like an equal, and his stomach sank. It's been so long since I've had a partner - or even a friend - that I've forgotten how to interact with people. "Okay, Levi."

After a pause, Levi moved closer, casually draping an arm across Erwin's upper back. "So the inauguration and then a gala, huh?"

"Yes. I'm planning to head into town tomorrow to buy your soap, and I thought you might like to come along and purchase a suit for the gala. I know a good tailor."

"I can't afford a suit."

"Your salary should more than cover it, shouldn't it?" Their pay was modest, but they had almost no expenses.

Levi sighed. "Don't tell anyone this, okay? You remember my friend Farlan? His sister had a bad head injury about ten years ago and never recovered; she gets confused easily and doesn't know where she is. Farlan found a home for her that has nurses who keep her happy and healthy. Before we joined up, we used to do odd jobs to raise the cash, and then we pooled parts of our military salary for awhile. I decided to take over the entire payments after Farlan…" He trailed off. "It's my fault he can't provide for her anymore."

Every time Erwin thought he had Levi figured out, the man handed him a new piece that didn't fit the puzzle. "Are you saying you give away your entire salary?"

"Most of it. What do I need money for?"

"A suit, for one thing." He did a quick calculation of his own finances: he had been amassing pay for several years, and he had come to the military with a sizeable sum of money to begin with. "One could argue that ultimately, your friend joined the Survey Corps because I forced you to join. Paying for his sister should be my responsibility."

Levi looked at him, eyes wide. "That's stupid."

"I can easily afford it. If that seems like too much, then at least let me cover half. That will allow you to have some money of your own."

"Look, just stop. I'm not going to accept your help. I'll wear my fucking uniform to this thing."

"The King and several Lords and Ladies are going to be present, Levi. Our uniforms aren't appropriate." Other branches had formal dress uniforms, but Survey Corps soldiers had such a low life expectancy and so little reason to wear fancy dress that the Interior had deemed them an unnecessary expenditure.

"Would my uniform be too much of a reminder that people are out there dying for them?" Levi scoffed. "They have a problem with it, they can buy me a suit themselves."

Erwin leaned back into the other's arm and closed his eyes; the sun lit up his vision in red. As was traditional in the Survey Corps, he had mostly let Levi's lack of discipline slide on matters of formality. The world outside the wall was so chaotic that it seemed petty to focus on minutiae like proper salutes and titles. While all the soldiers had a healthy respect for command and strong discipline on the field, that was due to necessity more than training. Those who stepped out of line got eaten.

It wasn't like that in the Interior, where people were safe enough to hold themselves to arbitrary rules and customs rather than the rule of life or death. Very few soldiers in the Corps had the training to adapt to that lifestyle, and Levi seemed the type to outright rebel against it.

"You will wear a suit, Levi," he said without opening his eyes. "I'll buy it for you myself, if I have to. It's important that the Survey Corps shows a secure and united front, and that may mean following social customs that seem pointless. Like it or not, we have to play by their rules if we want to advance our goals. I promise you, it's not forever. Just for now."

In the pause that followed, the scent of warm tile and baking earth rose on the breeze. It smelled like spring. He found himself reluctant to open his eyes. Would anyone care if he took a nap here in the sunlight with Levi's arm across his back?

"Okay, Erwin," said Levi quietly. "I'll get a fucking suit."

Opening one eye, Erwin peered at him. "I'll make sure you're rewarded for it."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning suits are attractive, and I'll be sure to appreciate you wearing one."

Levi's cheeks darkened, but he looked away. "More vague bullshit."

"I promise it will be worth your patience." Now he had relayed all the information he had intended, and he should end the meeting, but the thought of Levi in a well-tailored suit was more exciting than it had any right to be. He glanced at the man, fighting the urge to pull him onto his lap. There was still a mountain of paperwork to get through; this meeting was taking up too much time as it was.

"When are you comfortable meeting next?" he asked. "To spend the night together. How soon is too soon?"

Levi's brow furrowed. "Do we have to plan it? Can't it just be spontaneous?"

"If we leave it to whim, I'll be back in your room tonight, and we're supposed to be taking things slowly. Besides, we're starting to arouse suspicions."

He felt Levi's arm tense across his back. "Is that what shitty four-eyes was talking to you about?"

"It is. Between you and me: Hange tried to blackmail me."

"Blackmail you?" Levi's scoff was the closest thing to a laugh that Erwin had heard from him. "Talk about picking the wrong target."

"It was a mistake, but a revealing one: Hange's determination and drive will make for a formidable ally, with a bit of coaching."

"That fucking idiot," muttered Levi. "It's my fault. When we were stuck in that tree, I talked about you a bit."

"Really?"

"A lot."

Erwin's brows rose. He hadn't expected to be so prevalent on Levi's mind. The thought of the man shivering on a tree branch and thinking of him made his throat tighten, and he suddenly turned and gathered him in a tight hug, the angle awkward.

"Fuck," breathed Levi as the air was squeezed out of him. "What the hell, Erwin?"

"I appreciate you thinking about me, that's all." He loosened his grip a little, but didn't let go.

"Are you going to get this sappy anytime I say anything remotely sentimental?"

"Possibly."

In the distance, the city clock struck one.

Embarrassed by his loss of control, Erwin released him, then stood, straightening his uniform. "I didn't realize we'd been up here so long. I have a one o'clock meeting with Shadis. Come by my office tomorrow after breakfast, and we'll go into town together. Civilian garb, please." If Levi's celebrity was growing as quickly as Shadis suggested, then going out in uniform might get them lots of unwanted attention.

"Sure." Levi stood on his toes and grabbed Erwin's neck in a futile attempt to reach his mouth for a kiss. "Fuck, you're too tall."

Erwin leaned down and gave him a long, soft kiss. When he pulled away, he took a moment to run his knuckle along the narrow jaw line. It was still so strange seeing that gentle expression in Levi's eyes; he felt so relaxed that he imagined his own face looked the same.

"Don't forget this." Levi retrieved the jacket he had been using as a seat, then shook it out and handed it over. "Wash that before you wear it again. It's covered in bird shit." He bent down and lifted the trap door. "You go first. I'll wait a minute or two, in case anyone's at the bottom."

"Good plan." Stepping down onto the ladder brought Erwin to Levi's eye level, and he couldn't resist stealing one more kiss before he descended.

.*.*.*.

Levi lingered on the rooftop for a minute longer, waiting for the heat to leave his cheeks. It annoyed him that a couple kisses were enough to leave him this flustered. If he was this bad now, how was he going to react when they finally had sex?

Once he had given Erwin enough of a head start, he began to climb down the ladder, letting the trap door fall closed above him. He exited through the dark room and the door with the faulty lock, closing it firmly into place behind him. His nose wrinkled again at the dirty hallway. Perhaps he would take Erwin's suggestion and round up some of the new recruits as a cleaning crew.

He rounded the corner, and his eyes narrowed as he saw a familiar face at the end of the hall. Silently, he closed the distance, then smacked the ponytailed head hard. Hange's glasses fell to the floor.

"Oof, what the hell?" Hange dropped to all fours, feeling around.

"You know what that was for, shit-for-brains."

"Levi?"

He kicked the glasses out of the way, then squatted down and gripped Hange's collar. "Do you understand what a fucking secret is?"

Hange winced. "I had no choice. I needed leverage, and that was the only thing I could use against him."

"And how did that turn out for you, asshole?" His voice dropped. "You betrayed my trust for nothing. Erwin and I talked last night, and nothing's going to happen. We're done."

"Oh." Hange's mouth drooped into a frown. "I'm sorry, Levi. I know you like him, and the way you two were looking at each other all the time, I thought for sure-"

"Shut up." He reached for the glasses and handed them over. "You're going to help me clean until I decide to tolerate you again, and you're going to find recruits to help us."

"There's no need to be so bossy," muttered Hange, adjusting the glasses into place.

"You're lucky I'm letting you off this easy. Get going."

And so Levi threw himself into his work, and time began to fly. It wasn't that he enjoyed cleaning, necessarily; it was grueling, tedious work. The feeling of peace when he brought order to chaos, however, was worth all the effort. His peace was somewhat interrupted by Hange's constant chatter with some of the new recruits. He half-listened, aware that he was supposed to be thinking about rebuilding his squad. A few of them caught his eye with their obedience and attention to detail, particularly a dark-haired man by the name of Gunther. He made a mental note to speak with the man's Team Leader to find out how he performed on the field.

They broke for dinner, and neither Erwin nor Shadis made an appearance in the mess hall. Apparently Shadis was heading back to the training camp the next morning, so he imagined the two were in for a long night as they finalized all of Erwin's training.

That night, Levi rearranged the furniture in his room to his liking, then washed up and crawled into bed. He expected sleep to come easily after a night in a tree then another up late with Erwin, but he found himself tossing and turning. His head still felt strange from the concussion, and he couldn't get warm. It had been such a clear day that the temperature must have dropped radically when the sun went down. He burrowed into his blankets, shivering.

Would seeing Erwin two nights in a row really be too much, too soon? He couldn't stop thinking about how warm those broad hands would feel on his skin.

Pulling on his pyjama bottoms, he slipped through his door and padded down the hallway. A crack of light shone from the bottom of Erwin's door, so he knocked once. Twice. "Erwin?"

When there was no response, he turned the knob and peered into the room.

Erwin was slumped across a small desk in the corner, a mountain of papers beside him. Though his head was facing the other way, Levi could see his back rising and falling with even breaths.

I bet Shadis sent him to bed, but he kept working in here anyway. Levi stepped into the room and silently closed the door behind him, then locked it. The floor creaked as he moved closer, but Erwin didn't stir. A pen sat loosely in his hand, its point bleeding a massive pool of ink onto a piece of paper.

"Erwin," whispered Levi.

"Hm?" The man lifted his head, his eyelids heavy and his hair ruffled. "Levi?"

Levi felt a wave of fondness. "You need to go to bed, you idiot."

Erwin blinked, running a hand through his hair. "The paperwork-"

"Can wait. Here." He leaned in and loosened the Commander's pendant, then pulled it over the man's head and set it on the desk. His free hand began to work at Erwin's buttons, subtly admiring the man's physique as it was revealed. He briefly considered tracing the lines of the muscled abdomen with his tongue, then decided Erwin was likely to fall asleep on him before it led anywhere. Maybe in the morning.

"Stand up," he said. "You're going to bed."

Erwin lurched to his feet, then plodded to the bed and sagged onto it. "You aren't supposed to be here," he mumbled.

"And you aren't supposed to fall asleep on a desk, you fucking workaholic. Move over. It's too cold to sleep alone."

Erwin shifted, leaving room.

Once he had extinguished the lamp, Levi crawled into bed next to his exhausted Commander and pulled the covers overtop of them. He rolled onto his side and pressed closer, laying a hand on the centre of Erwin's chest. Heat rolled between them in waves, and he finally began to feel warm.

"This isn't going to be a nightly thing," he said. "Don't get used to it. I was just cold."

After a moment of silence, he realized Erwin was already unconscious. Snuggling closer, he buried his face in the man's shoulder, and a moment later, he began to drift to sleep.

Chapter Text

Erwin awoke the next morning to discover he was spooning behind Levi, his arms wrapped around the man's narrow ribcage. It took him a moment to remember being ordered to bed the night before, but when he did, he smiled to himself. Levi acted tough, but beneath it all, he was caring.

The room was bright, sun lighting up the curtains; they must have slept through reveille. There was still a mountain of paperwork to do, and his bladder was full, but he couldn't bring himself to move away from Levi just yet. He stroked the man's chest with his fingertips, acquainting himself with the soft smattering of chest hair. Levi stirred, shifting back against him, and he was so warm that Erwin's hips rocked against his will.

"You awake back there?" asked Levi, voice groggy. "Or just dry-humping me in your sleep?"

Erwin cleared his throat. "I'm awake. It looks like we slept through reveille."

"Screw reveille. We were both going on leave today, anyway - unless you decided to do more paperwork instead."

"I should probably take a break. I've been told I'm a workaholic." He nuzzled the back of the narrow neck, then began to trace a slow figure-eight with his tongue.

Levi gave a shuddering breath and edged back against him. "If you want something, Erwin..."

He did want something: he wanted to sink his teeth into Levi's neck, pull down the thin layer of cloth between them and thrust into him. The mental image was so powerful that his eyes squeezed shut. You promised yourself you would move slowly.

Well, maybe sex was off the table for now, but there were other options.

He slid his palm down the muscled abdomen, then lower, overtop of the waistband. As he rubbed the strained fabric between Levi's legs, he heard a soft groan. This was something he had forgotten about having a male partner: thanks to physiological responses after sleep, morning lent itself well to intimacy.

"Fuck," whispered Levi, tilting his hips into the grip. Erwin felt a sympathy wave of arousal so strong that his eyes rolled back into his head. He firmly slid his hand back up to the waistband, preparing to plunge beneath it this time.

A knock sounded at the door. "Erwin? Are you in there?" called Shadis' voice.

"Fuck," muttered Levi, and Erwin marvelled at his ability to get so many different meanings out of a single word. Fuck, indeed.

It was tempting to pretend he wasn't in, but Shadis was scheduled to return to his post with the trainees, so this would likely be their last opportunity to speak for several months. Retracting his hand, Erwin threw off the covers and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

"Ignore him," whispered Levi.

"I can't. He's leaving." Louder, he said, "One moment please, Keith."

Levi muttered a slew of curses as he sat up. "Fine, I'll hide," he whispered. "But you'd better worry about hiding that."

Erwin looked down and saw the size of the bulge in his pants. Gritting his teeth, he strode to the closet. He stripped off his pyjama bottoms, then pulled on a pale blue dress shirt and his uniform pants, struggling to close the fly. He fastened the brown skirt of his uniform as well, letting it fall loosely in front of his groin to try to disguise the bulge. He turned to see Levi staring at him, wide-eyed, and realized he had just given the man a show. It's not as if he's never seen me change before, he thought, but changing in a roomful of colleagues was different than changing after spending the night in each other's arms.

He strode to the door. In his periphery, he saw Levi step into the closet.

"Sorry for the wait, sir," said Erwin as he opened the door, then saluted.

"At ease." Shadis was wearing a long jacket, a travelling bag in his hand. "You weren't at breakfast, so I thought you'd left early for your leave. Glad I managed to catch you."

Erwin could feel Levi's presence in the closet, burning a hole in his mind; his eyes kept trying to dart in that direction, even though the motion would probably make him look suspicious. "My apologies; I had a bit of a long night."

"Understandable. Care to walk me to my carriage?"

Heading outside was probably a good idea. The further he was from Levi, the less suspicious he would act.

As they began to walk down the hallway, Erwin said, "The next-of-kin documentation went out in the post this morning, and I'll have my formal reports ready in time for my arrival at the Capital. Thank you again for all your help."

"Of course. Do you have everything you need from me?"

"I believe so, yes. If I have any questions, I'll send a messenger to the training barracks." He hesitated. "I started drafting up the documentation for my incident with Mike."

"What?" Shadis shook his head. "Leave that off the books."

"Sir?"

"I won't breathe a word of it, and I doubt any of your troops will, either. Better that the brass doesn't have anything to hold against you later." Shadis smiled at him. "You're going to be one hell of a Commander, Erwin. Just remember what I said about your humanity. Keep your head, but keep your heart, too. Find that balance point."

"I'll do my best." Erwin absently touched his wounded eye. It didn't hurt as much now that a couple of days had passed, but he could still feel it: a reminder that he was capable of tipping the balance too far in either direction.

They arrived in the courtyard. An elegant carriage waited for Shadis, far nicer than the ones that usually transported the Survey Corps, and Erwin raised an eyebrow. Apparently the Trainee Corps had money to spare.

Shadis clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Take care, son."

"You too, Keith." He gave one last salute, then Shadis stepped into the carriage.

Erwin watched as the carriage left the gates. Now he was formally in control of the Survey Corps, with no mentor watching over him, no one to keep him in check if he pushed too far. Any restraint would have to come from within. Like his personal life, pushing too quickly could cause complications: he had to take it slowly. There were plans to be executed, but not until he had all the pieces aligned, and that could take years of careful arrangement.

Sometimes, he envied people like Hange, who lived their lives with a reckless disregard for self-control. Ever since Erwin had been a little boy, he had lived a life that was deliberate and planned.

What had Levi said during their drink together? That Erwin couldn't trust people, so he controlled them instead? He had hit the nail on the head with that one. And I trust myself least of all.

When he returned to his room, he found the closet door wide open. Levi was nowhere in sight. He frowned, disappointed, but decided it was just as well: they had errands to run. His stomach was growling, anyway, and he had his heart set on breakfast at his favourite pastry shop in town.

He pulled off his shirt and grabbed a towel and toiletries, heading to wash up.

Levi was in the bath, washing himself; his hand paused when he saw Erwin enter, but then he continued washing, acting as if there was nothing between them. Other soldiers were milling around, so Erwin did his best not to ogle. Selecting the sink nearest the bath, he began to lather his shaving cream.

"'Morning," said Levi, his tone disinterested.

"'Morning." Erwin studied himself in the mirror as he applied the cream. His split lip was already healing, but the black eye was turning a brilliant shade of red-violet. There was no way he was going to be able to hide it for the gala. He'd need to create an interesting story about how he had earned it. And a short one, because he'd likely be telling it many times.

Levi dunked under the water to rinse himself off, then stepped out of the bath. Erwin's eyes briefly slid sideways, taking in the man's dripping naked form. Visions of tracing that body with his palms, his tongue, were so vivid that he closed his eyes for a moment to steady himself. Take it slowly, take it slowly...

With exaggerated focus, he leaned closer to the mirror and began to shave.

"Hey. Erwin."

Levi stood beside him, wearing only a towel.

"Yes, Levi?" He carefully kept his eyes on his reflection.

"You eat breakfast yet?"

"Actually, I was thinking of stopping by a pastry shop for something a bit nicer than our usual fare." He rinsed the blade. "You're on leave today too, right? Would you care to join me before you head out? My treat."

Levi's eyes darted to the side, as if he were gauging the distance to the other soldiers cleaning up around them. "There was a thing or two I wanted to take care of before I left."

"Nothing that can't wait, I'm sure. It's a beautiful day outside, and I'd like to get out before the crowds start to clog the sidewalks. I'll meet you by the gates in ten minutes?"

The man's eyes narrowed. "Fine," he muttered, then he turned and left.

Erwin finished shaving, then returned to his room to change his clothes. He swapped out the military pants and skirt for a pair of brown pants and black boots. As he walked toward the main exit, he rubbed a hand along his bare neck. He wasn't even formally a Commander yet and he already felt naked without the pendant.

Levi was leaning against the gate post outside, his arms folded over his chest. He wore a simple grey collared shirt and black pants, his cravat tied at his throat.

"For a man so brilliant, you really are stupid," said Levi, pulling away from the gate to greet him.

"What do you mean?" Erwin unlatched the gate and let Levi through, then closed it behind them.

As they began to walk along the cobblestone, Levi's voice dropped so that no one would overhear: "When I said there were a few things I wanted to take care of, I was hinting I was horny."

"Ah." Erwin felt his cheeks warm. "I'm only human, Levi. I have a few blind spots. You may find you have to be rather aggressive to get through to me."

"So I'm supposed to take it slow, but be aggressive."

"I'm not making a lot of sense right now, am I?"

"No." Levi edged closer, walking so closely next to him that their arms were touching. Erwin found himself deliriously weighing the risks of holding hands - were they far away enough from the base to have anonymity in the crowd? - then realized it didn't matter. Risks aside, the height difference between them was so great that holding hands would require awkward contortion.

He found himself wondering how that height difference would translate into other contexts. It will certainly make sex against a wall a viable possibility, he thought, and the vision took root in his mind. He caught himself glancing down a dark alleyway as they passed, envisioning them secretively fucking against a shadowed wall. His teeth clenched. He really should have taken a private moment to take the edge off before they met up, because he was still worked up from the unexpected interruption earlier .

"I want you to understand, Levi," he said quietly, "my failure to pick up on your hint wasn't for lack of wanting you."

Levi glanced up at him. "I know. I felt how hard you were grinding against my ass this morning."

Erwin's mouth went dry. Enough. There was one place in town private enough for them to hide away and blow off some steam, and they would have a few hours to kill while their suits were being tailored. He silently added the new destination to his mental list of the day's errands, hoping they had the willpower to wait until then.

He led them to the pastry shop, a quaint stone building on a corner with large stained-glass windows. Blooming flowers hung at even intervals from its roof, lovingly tended by one of the owners. Inside the shop, protected by glass cases, were trays of flaky pastries prepared with fruit and cream. Levi's eyes widened as he looked over the assortment.

"You could feed an entire family dinner for the cost of one of these," he said.

"Look at this as a celebration for our promotions. The tea assortment is excellent as well." Erwin selected a flat pastry with sliced apples spread on its surface and ordered a pot of floral tea. After a few more minutes, Levi chose a butter tart with a thick crust. Erwin paid, and they settled into a small table in the corner. Levi sat with his back against the wall, his eyes darting to the door each time someone entered, as if sizing up the newcomers. I wonder if he knows he's doing that, thought Erwin, flattered that a man so instinctively guarded had chosen to trust him.

"I didn't realize we were going on a date," said Levi dryly. "I would have brought flowers."

Erwin smiled and poured him a cup of tea. "Not necessarily a date. I've brought others here before with no romantic intent. I enjoy the opportunity to have a little treat now and then."

"Is this what your life would be like if there were no titans? Getting fat on sweets and tea?" Levi carefully cut a chunk out of his tart with a knife and fork.

"I can't even begin to imagine what life would be like if there were no titans. Every choice I've made in my life has been contingent on their existence. No, more than that: every choice I've ever made for others, and every choice that has ever been made for me."

Levi swallowed, then washed down the bite with a sip of tea. "So what will you do when they're gone?"

The question made Erwin pause. He took a careful bite of his pastry, chewing it as he considered. "I don't expect that to happen during our lifetimes," he said finally. "We're laying the foundations for future generations to win the war."

"I think we'll be the ones to destroy them. You're fighting with purpose to get to the bottom of the titans, not just scrambling to survive; once we know what they are, we can exterminate them. So what will you do when that happens?"

Erwin was flattered by Levi's confidence. He knew the words were oversimplification, and more than that, he didn't expect either of them to live to the end of the battle. They were too important to the cause, too front-and-centre; men in their roles did not survive war. His heart twisted. I wonder which of us will die first.

"If the war is won," he said aloud, "the Survey Corps' objective will shift to establishing new colonies outside the walls and maintaining peace. I would be honoured to help oversee that process."

"That's it?" asked Levi. "Politics and peacekeeping? No settling down in a little house in the country?"

"Well, maybe a bit of that, too. If I had someone to settle down with."

Their eyes held for a moment, then Levi looked down and took another sip of tea. For a few minutes, they ate in silence. The crisp pastry melted on Erwin's tongue in a gradient of flavours: fruit, then butter, then honey. Food of this caliber was a rarity this far from the Interior, and he savoured every bite of it.

Across from him, Levi dragged his fork across his empty plate to collect the remainder of the filling. "That was pretty good."

"I'm glad you enjoyed it." Erwin settled back in his seat, clasping his tea cup with both hands. "So what about you, Levi? What will you do when all this is over?"

"I don't know anymore." The man mirrored his posture and took a sip. "I guess if you're going to oversee settlement or anything like that, I'd help out if I could."

"You wouldn't prefer to find a nice girl, settle down and start a family?"

"Never been interested in girls, and I've got all the family I need." Levi looked into his teacup, swirling the liquid. "I told you, Erwin: where you go, I'll follow."

A lump was forming in Erwin's throat. He cleared it. "I'm not sure what I did to earn your loyalty, but I'm grateful for it."

"You were smarter than me," said Levi bluntly, looking up at him. "You've proven again and again that you see an inhuman number of steps ahead of every situation. I bet you've already figured out exactly how and when this war will end."

Erwin gave a small, humourless smile. "I have my theories."

"But you aren't going to share them."

"It's better that you don't know."

Levi stared at him for a moment, then shook his head and drained the rest of his tea. "Where to next?"

"The general store is on the way to the tailor." Erwin stood. "I believe I owe you some soap."

"All right, but let me pick it out, okay? You'll probably get the wrong one."

"I thought you said I was smarter than you."

"About strategy, not cleanliness. I've seen your fucking office." Levi's eyes twinkled, and the corner of Erwin's lips lifted. Fair enough.

The general store was just down the street; it was a frequent destination for Survey Corps soldiers due to its proximity to the base. As they stepped into the store, Levi turned toward the soap aisle. Erwin followed, picking out his shaving cream, razors and other toiletries. He hesitated for a moment at the erotic lubricants section, then glanced at Levi, who was busy squinting at a shaving cream label.

It's going to happen sooner or later. Might as well be prepared. Erwin reached out and grabbed a bottle of erotic oil, hiding it in his palm.

"I just need to grab one more thing," he said to Levi. "I'll meet you up front when you're ready." The only response was a distracted nod.

Erwin made one last stop at the tool case at the back of the store and spoke to the man at the counter. The man eyed him for a moment and then, recognizing him, surreptitiously handed over a small bundle from beneath the counter. Lock picking tools. They would have come in handy during the last mission; it was a waste for someone with Levi's talents to travel unequipped.

Levi was waiting for him at the cashier, a bottle of soap in hand. The cashier began to slide their purchases across the counter as she tallied the total. As she slid the erotic oil into view, Levi turned to Erwin with a raised brow.

"It's good for dry skin," said Erwin, deadpan.

"Your skin doesn't look dry."

"Well, I'd hate to be caught without it if I ever needed it."

"Hm." Levi turned away, his cheeks reddening.

They left the store in silence, making their way down the street to the tailor. Erwin's face was burning, his mind swimming with images of all the ways they could play with the oil. He tried to calm himself down as they approached the tailor's shop, letting his mind fill with boring thoughts like fabric types and suit cuts.

The tailor was a husky man by the name of Olivier with dark curly hair and a handsome grin.

"Mr. Smith," he cried, striding forward. He clasped Erwin's hand and shook it with great enthusiasm. "It's good to see you. And you've brought a friend."

"This is Levi." Erwin glanced down at his companion, who had his arms folded over his chest, an uncomfortable scowl on his face. "We're in need of suits for a gala in the Interior."

"Oh, wonderful." Olivier paced around them, looking them up and down. "I have a suit that will look great on you, Mr. Smith. As for your friend, he's so tiny that we may have to dig into the children's collections, but I believe-"

"What?" growled Levi.

Erwin dropped a hand on the man's shoulder to steady him. "Olivier, we don't need to know what collections the suits are from. Just brings us something that will fit. Levi is a great hero to humanity, so please make sure he looks the part."

"Of course, Mr. Smith," said the tailor with a broad grin.

"Asshole," muttered Levi as the man departed. "Erwin, how much is this bullshit going to cost me?"

"It's an extension of your uniform. It will be covered for you." Erwin didn't mention that he planned to pay for it out of his own pocket, but by the suspicious look Levi gave him, he was certain the man saw straight through him.

Olivier returned with a suit for each of them, rambling about their fashionable attributes. Once they tried them on, he pinned the fabric in several places to demonstrate how they'd fit once they were tailored. Levi looked handsome in his tight-fitting dark grey suit, but he looked down at the price tag on the sleeve and scowled.

"Don't worry about the price," said Erwin.

"We could feed an entire family for a month with this much cash," growled Levi, "and we're going to spend it on shitty suits to impress the fat bastards who're living off the backs of the starving? Fuck this." He pulled off his jacket and dropped it on the floor. Olivier gave a shocked cry and hurried to retrieve it.

Erwin studied Levi for a moment, gauging his size. He had access to an old suit that might fit him with a little alteration.

Turning to the tailor, he gave a polite smile. "I'll take my suit with its alterations please, Olivier. We'll explore other options for Levi for now."

"Of course." The tailor's smile was strained. "I can have that ready for you by four o'clock."

They changed back into their regular clothes and Erwin settled the fees, then cocked his head at the door, signaling that it was time to leave.

When they stepped outside, he said, "I wasn't aware you were so opposed to spending money on fashionable clothing."

Levi smoothed his cravat. "Only when it's for the wrong reasons."

"Are you going to be okay at this gala?"

"I'll be good, if that's what you're asking." Levi looked up. "Where are we going now?"

"A few more blocks down the road," said Erwin. "I know where we can find you a suit, but I'm going to need your help getting in."

The man gave him a blank look.

Reaching into his bag, Erwin pulled out the bundle that contained the lock picking tools. "A gift for you." He hadn't expected them to be useful so soon.

Levi unrolled the bundle. His pace slowed as he stared at the tools. "Erwin," he said suspiciously.

"Don't worry, the home you'll be breaking into is my own. I didn't think to bring along the key. The neighbours don't really know me, so I'd recommend discretion while you work." He was looking forward to seeing the man's skills in action – mostly because he wanted to size them up for a future plan, but partly because, as much as he hated to admit it, the idea of Levi breaking the law was a bit of a turn on.

"So you're taking me home on the first date?" Levi shook his head. "I thought we were taking it slow."

"I have an old suit that might fit you. I wore it when I graduated from the Trainee Corps." Erwin watched him, waiting for a reaction, and he wasn't disappointed; Levi cast him a withering glare.

"No fucking way you were my size when you were fifteen."

"Seventeen – I joined up a couple years later than most. And yes, I was a late bloomer; I didn't hit my growth spurt until I was almost eighteen."

"I'm still waiting for mine," muttered Levi. It was the closest he had ever come to joking about his height, and Erwin glanced at him, surprised. Height had always seemed like a sore spot for him.

There was a long silence as they shifted into single file, winding their way down a particularly busy street. When they fell into step together again, Levi said quietly, "Does it bother you?"

"What?"

"My height."

"No. Truth be told, I find it attractive," said Erwin. "Why? Does my height bother you?"

Levi shrugged. "It's going to make some things difficult."

"Like holding hands."

The grey eyes narrowed at him. "I meant in the bedroom."

Erwin cleared his throat, realizing how naïve he must have sounded. "Nothing a few pillows can't overcome. Besides, we can get creative. There are several positions that only work with a sizeable height difference. I have a few in mind we can try."

Their gaze held, and he realized they were discussing sex as casually as if they'd been together for years. His face burned; he was certain it must be beet red.

"This is fucked up," muttered Levi, blushing as well. "You won't even let me touch your dick, and we're already planning how we're going to fuck. It's like a business contract."

"It's good to plan ahead," said Erwin.

"Of course you'd say that. You probably have our whole timeline mapped out on paper." Levi shook his head. "It's okay to be spontaneous once in awhile, you know. A relationship isn't a battlefield; acting on an impulse won't kill you."

The words sparked something to life within Erwin, a playfulness he had long ago suppressed. Very well.

His eyes did a quick sweep of the area. Seeing they were in the clear, he grabbed Levi's arm and yanked him several paces sideways into an empty, narrow alley.

"What-" began Levi, but Erwin dropped his bag, grabbed the man's shoulders and threw him against the wall. Their mouths met in a long, deep kiss. He felt Levi's groan rumble through his jaw, felt strong hands claw into his ass.

He tore his mouth from Levi's and moved to whisper in his ear: "I'd like to remind you that it was my spontaneous kiss that started this madness, and my spontaneous hand-hold that continued it, and I promise you, neither of those were planned."

Then, his point proven, he pulled away entirely and bent to retrieve his bag.

For a moment, Levi stayed flat against the wall as if stunned; his eyes were wide, his lips still parted.

"Shall we proceed?" asked Erwin, secretly proud to have thrown him off.

"Shit," said Levi, and he finally pulled away from the wall, brushing at his shirt. "You've got a bit of an ego on you, don't you?"

"What do you mean?"

"Every time I insult you about something, like jumping onto the roof or being spontaneous, you have to try to prove me wrong. I wonder..." Levi cocked his head at him. "Bet you're too chicken-shit to jerk me off right here in this alleyway."

Erwin smiled, enjoying the man's deadpan humour. "Subtle, but I'm wise to your wily ploys, Levi. Besides, I can think of nicer venues than a dirty alleyway."

"Fine," said the man with a sigh. "Then lead on."

"Not much further now." After that kiss, Erwin was glad they were getting closer to refuge. He had only meant to catch Levi off guard, but his plan had backfired; now his thoughts were running away on him again, too.

They rounded a corner into a residential district, and Erwin slowed.

"There." He pointed at a single-story rowhome, its entrance barely visible in the shadows. "The brown door. Do not allow anyone to see you enter."

"No problem." Levi began to approach the house from the sidewalk, his hands in his pockets. He gave a glance up and down the street, then walked straight for the door and pulled a tool from his pocket; a glint of silver, and the door opened. He stepped inside.

Erwin scanned the area to make sure no eyes were on him, then casually strode to the door and opened it. Levi stood in the room, arms folded over his chest.

"That's it?" asked Erwin.

"You'd be amazed to learn how easy it is to break through any door. Locks are more of an honour system than actual protection."

"That's disconcerting." He closed the door behind him and locked it. "What about doors in a military building? Similarly easy?"

Levi squinted, as if trying to read him. "Maybe a bit trickier, but not by much. We used to break into Military Police bunkers all the time."

"Good." Before any questions could come up, he changed the topic: "Welcome to my home. This is where I come when I need to hide from the world."

Levi did a slow spin, and Erwin took it in through his eyes. The wooden room was large enough to contain a bed, a desk, a wardrobe for his belongings, a small stove and an icebox, with very little room to navigate between each of them. A door on the left wall, closed, led to a small bathroom. Inside the bathroom was his one luxury: a hand-pump shower. It took a good deal more work than a bath, but left him feeling cleaner, and sometimes, especially after expeditions with high body counts, he desperately needed to feel clean.

The shower was sure to impress his cleanliness-obsessed guest, but as he was about to give a tour, he caught sight of an unmarked envelope on the floor. Someone must have slid it beneath the door. He bit the inside of his cheek, knowing there was only one person who could have delivered it. I told her not to contact me here.

As he bent down to retrieve it, Levi stepped into the room and ran a finger along the surface of the desk. "This place is small." He rubbed his fingers together. "And dusty."

"It meets my needs," said Erwin absently. He retrieved his letter opener from the desk, then slit the envelope open. "There's a feature in the bathroom you might like. Feel free to take a look." He pulled out the letter and unfolded it, scanning the elegant script:

'Erwin,

'The city is abuzz with news of your upcoming promotion. Commander of the Survey Corps? Disgraceful. I always prayed for you to come home, but not under such distressing circumstances. Your mother weeps for you every night - she pretends she doesn't, but I hear her, and it breaks my heart; it should break yours, too, if you have any feelings left at all. If you won't abandon your sacrilegious path, at least be man enough to tell her why you betray us.'

He felt a throbbing twitch in his eye. As casually as if the letter was an unwanted advertisement, he tore the paper down its centre and dropped it in the garbage bin.

"Bad news?" asked Levi. Erwin looked up to see the man frozen with one hand on the bathroom doorknob, watching him.

He gave a polite smile. "No, just annoying clutter. Sometimes shopkeepers drop flyers in my mail slot."

One of Levi's brows furrowed. "It looked like there was a Wallist crest on it."

"The butcher down the street is rather devout." It wasn't a lie, exactly, just an unrelated truth. Erwin moved to the wardrobe and pulled open the door. "Here we are." He pulled out a black suit. The collar was a little too high for current fashions, and the fabric was a bit cheap, but it was serviceable.

Levi accepted the hanger, his fingertips sliding along the collar as he held it up against his body to compare. "You're shitting me, right? This has to belong to an ex-boyfriend or something. There's no fucking way you were this small when you were seventeen."

"Ask Mike. He was a full foot taller than me for most of our training; used to use my head as an elbow-rest." Erwin shook his head. "You wouldn't have recognized me back then. I was an awkward teenager - nose too big for my face, enormous feet, cracking voice."

"Couldn't have been that awkward. You said you were with a woman while you were training." Levi pulled the jacket over his shirt. He sniffed. "You wore the same cologne."

"I did, and yes, I was with someone - I can't tell you what she saw in me. Half the trainees were in love with her. She ended up marrying a friend of mine, and they've done quite well for themselves." Erwin stepped forward to straighten Levi's collar. "The sleeves are a bit long on you, but the fit across the shoulders is good. Try on the pants, too."

Levi pulled off his boots, setting them neatly by the entrance, then undid his belt. He dropped his pants and stepped out of them, and Erwin's eyes trailed the muscular thighs and calves. He wanted to rub his palms along them, feel the wiry hair, kneel between them-

Focus. He glanced at the wall, waiting.

"They actually fit pretty well." Levi took a couple steps in place, tugging at the fabric to test its give. "Bit tight in the crotch."

"They were a bit short on me, so I thought they might work." Erwin looked him up and down. The suit accentuated the taper between Levi's upper and lower torso, and hugged his muscular thighs.

"Well?" Levi did a slow spin. The fabric was tight against his ass. Erwin took a long, deep breath. They were locked away from sight, they had a few hours to kill, and he couldn't be the only one slowly going mad from lack of contact. Surely it would be okay to give in to his lust for a little while.

Stepping in, he caught the slender jaw, bending down for a deep kiss. Levi pulled away to give him a withering look.

"You creep, I'm dressed like your kid self."

"I never saw myself in it." Erwin went for his neck instead. "All I see is an athletic man in a tight suit." He nipped at the skin beneath Levi's ear; his palms slid aggressively down the man's sides, then his hips.

"You're going to wrinkle it if you keep that up."

"It needs to be pressed anyway." He felt dizzy, high on their proximity. His tongue traced a meandering line up to the man's earlobe, where he rumbled, "I've spent the whole morning thinking about what I want to do to you."

"Fuck," breathed Levi, his hip muscles tensing.

The unconscious reaction gave Erwin bravery. He pulled back to look the man in the eye. "I'm going to undress you and lay you down on the bed, and then I'm going to explore your entire body with my mouth." He hadn't intended to push things so far this soon, but his body's ache was once again drowning out his logic. He waited for Levi's reaction, heart pounding in his throat.

The man paled, staring at him with wide eyes. "Okay."

They kissed again, and Erwin unbuttoned the suit jacket; he tossed it over the desk chair, then began to unbutton the dress shirt beneath it. Levi groaned into his mouth and reached for Erwin's collar.

Erwin caught his wrist. "Just you."

"I don't want to be naked by myself." Levi leaned in again, nipping his lower lip. "I won't try anything unless you ask. I just want to see you."

The fog of hormones and damp panting breaths and racing heartbeats made it difficult to think straight. Erwin released his wrist, and they began to unbutton each other's shirts.

When they were both topless, he crushed Levi against his body, feeling the warmth of skin against skin. Levi's hands curled into his back, clawed into his flesh, and he felt his eyelids flutter shut. He needed to be closer, needed to be closer - he walked Levi back to the bed and pushed him onto it, then dropped on top of him, grinding him into the mattress. Levi rolled him over with surprising strength, and their mouths locked, their hips rocking.

This is too fast, thought Erwin, and it wasn't at all what he had planned, but he didn't want it to stop. He raked down Levi's back, and the man grabbed his hair in response, pulling hard.

"Fuck," growled Erwin, the word breaking their kiss. Levi jerked his hair, tugging his head back, opening up his throat; he felt a warm tongue trace either side of his trachea. Their legs intertwined, and Levi's foot slid along the shin of his pants, stroking him with his toes. The sensation was oddly familiar...

Erwin froze as a memory crashed over him: he and Henrik on this very bed, rolling and laughing on its surface, their feet rubbing playfully together, Henrik's toe trailing down his shin-

"Hey." Levi released his hair. "You okay?"

"I..." It took several blinks to clear the intrusive memory from his mind. "My apologies. I'm okay."

The man watched him for a moment, then rolled off him. "Here. You lead."

Touched by his consideration, Erwin nodded his thanks. "Sit at the end of the bed."

Levi obeyed, and together they pulled off his pants and undergarments. Erwin untied the cravat last and set it aside, and then it was just Levi sitting in front of him, nude and beautiful. Erwin knelt between his legs and slowly rubbed his hands along the man's arms. This was a position of worship, and he intended to pay homage to this contradiction of a man, to the surprising strength in the small body, to the caring nature beneath the crass exterior.

Their eyes locked. Levi's jaw was quivering, his chest rising and falling with quick breaths. Erwin leaned forward to press a soft kiss into the centre of that chest. He could feel the pounding heartbeat beneath his lips, could smell Levi's raw scent. He felt himself throb in response and decided this would be a good time to take off the rest of his clothes, before his pants became too uncomfortable.

He stood and unbuttoned his pants, then slid them off his bruised hips. There was nothing between them now - no clothes, no ranks, no politics. They had been naked together before, but never in such an intimate context. The honesty of it was humbling.

His groin was at Levi's eye level, less than half a metre from his face, and Erwin could feel the faint breeze of breath on his skin. Levi stared, then slowly his eyes rose to meet Erwin's, as if asking permission. Erwin swallowed hard. He wanted to step forward into that mouth, so badly that he ached, but he forced himself to kneel down instead.

He had promised to explore Levi's entire body, but he could already tell that the man was struggling to restrain himself, so it seemed cruel to tease him much longer. He began to kiss along a thigh instead. Levi's hands tightened into the quilt, and he was so quiet that Erwin wondered if he was holding his breath.

Slowly, his kisses moved closer to the centre, the hair getting thicker, the scent getting stronger, heat wafting from the skin in a layer so thick that it was almost tangible. He nuzzled soft, wrinkled flesh, and Levi let out a low curse. Here, he could taste Levi's scent, amplified and warm; it mingled with the familiar scent of a man's groin, and also a third element that was completely new, completely unique to this area of this man's body. Shivers ran down Erwin's spine and settled in his tailbone, and he let out a quiet moan.

Levi shifted. "Stop sniffing my crotch, you pervert," he said, voice strained.

"I can't stop. You smell so good." Erwin's voice cracked. He began to trail his lips higher, barely skimming the skin, breathing in. As he approached the tip, his tongue made contact, then began to drag.

The groan that sounded in Levi's throat was so unchecked, so vulnerable, that Erwin's eyes fluttered closed. He ran his tongue in a slow circle, teasing.

"Fuck," gasped Levi, and he tilted his pelvis, trying to thrust deeper.

Erwin gripped his hips, locking him firmly in place. Not yet. Still shallow, he released a long, hot breath, then inhaled deeply, playing with air currents.

"Fuck! Erwin, please..."

He delivered a soft kiss to the tip and then looked up, delighting in the man's desperate expression: brows pinched, jaw loose, eyes closed. "Please what?"

"Please...your mouth..."

He felt Levi's hands rake into his hair, twisting, pulling, but not pushing down. It shouldn't have been a surprise that Levi would be respectful even in such an intimate situation, but Erwin still found himself noting it anyway. He has good manners. His tongue traced another circle, and the hands in his hair tightened.

Gradually, working up and down, he began to take Levi into his mouth, then throat. With each movement, he listened to the man's catching breath, felt the hip muscles twitch wildly beneath his fingertips. Each hint of appreciation made his head swim. He felt as if he were the one receiving the attention, not giving it. When he finally pushed all the way to the base, Levi cried out, and Erwin echoed him with a muffled cry of his own.

Part of him wanted to enjoy this first exploration for hours, discovering every taste and scent and texture, but instinct began to drive him forward. His hand rose to join his mouth, and he fell into a steady rhythm. His ears strained for aural cues, using them to adjust his tempo.

Levi's gripped his hair hard enough to hurt, goosebumps erupting across his skin. His legs wrapped around Erwin's body, his toes curling into Erwin's calves.

He's close. Not quite ready to end things, Erwin slowed his pace, then released him to nuzzle and explore with his tongue again. His partner's cries were starting to blur together, curses and begging, and it was so hot, so hot, Erwin's groin ached. He was tempted to push things further, to stand up and thrust into Henrik's mouth, just once-

Henrik?

His stomach dropped. The room began to tilt.

He looked up and saw Levi's face, felt the man's toes in his calf, Henrik's toe sliding along his calf as they rolled on the bed, Henrik's toes black and stiff and flames licking along them, the scent of burning flesh still in Erwin's hair no matter how many times he washed it, Henrik's- Levi's dead hand clawing for him from the funeral pyre, Levi's head cracking between the titan's teeth...

The world heaved; he stumbled backwards, gasping for air.

Levi's eyes snapped open. "Erwin?"

The word echoed, distorted, wrapped around Erwin's lungs. "Excuse me," he rasped, and he staggered to the bathroom, closing the door behind him. The reflection in the mirror was wide-eyed and white. A corpse, he looked like a corpse. Darkness began to tighten around him like a noose.

What the hell is this? he demanded of himself, feeling as if he were outside his body, watching the scene play out. You were done mourning him. You were hanging on to a ghost of a memory. You've moved on.

He breathed slowly in and out, trying to regain control of his renegade lungs, but they betrayed him, his breath escaping in a quiet sob.

With shaking hands, he filled the basin and splashed cold water on his face. He rubbed his eyes hard, the wounded one smarting, and he welcomed the pain, using it to try to ground himself.

There is a trusting, beautiful, aroused firebrand of a man waiting out there for you, and you're fucking it up.

Get out there and fix this.

He took a deep breath and held it, willing his racing heart to slow.

.*.*.*.

Levi shoved a hand through his hair, eyes on the closed bathroom door. He wasn't sure what to do. Knock on the door? Wait for him to come back? Dress and leave?

Erwin's expression was frozen in his mind: he had looked up in him in utter fear, as if he had been a stranger - no, worse than that. As if Levi had been the face of death. He tried not to take it personally. After all, he had promised patience, and setbacks were to be expected. He tried to remember how hard it had been to start being intimate again after his first boyfriend had died.

But he was taking it personally. That one terrified look seemed to bring to life all his fears about being insufficient: He saw through meHe regrets me.

"Dammit." He rubbed the bridge of his nose. Most likely, the best thing to do was give Erwin some space. He would pull on his clothes, and slip out the door, and they could talk about this later, when they had both had time to process everything.

Before he could move, the bathroom door opened, and Erwin stepped into the room. His eyes were dull, his skin pale, and a damp swath of hair was plastered to his forehead.

He looks like shit. Levi's hurt feelings dissipated, concern taking their place. "You okay?"

"This isn't fair to you, Levi. I can't ask you to put up with my bullshit." Erwin sounded tired, his voice cracking.

Levi cocked his head to the side, an invitation to sit beside him. The man swallowed hard, then joined him, the bed shifting with his weight. Their thighs were almost touching, their hands close, almost identical to their postures the night they had held hands for the first time. If I reach across and hold his hand right now, will it be comforting, or pressuring?

He erred on the side of caution, folding his arms over his chest instead. "You haven't been with anyone since Henrik died, have you?"

"I have," said Erwin, but the word ended on the wrong tone, as if there were more to it, and Levi read between the lines: I'm the first dick he's had in his mouth since then.

It all made sense now. Erwin still associated giving head with Henrik, and nothing since then had given him any reason not to, so he had inadvertently stirred up forgotten memories. Levi felt a pang of compassion. Once, when he was much younger, he had been in a similar situation, only he had handled it with far less grace. His partner at the time had patiently helped him heal. Now it was his turn. He wasn't sure how to help, exactly, but he would try. Trying to comfort Erwin was probably a good start.

He turned and pulled the covers down, then crawled into the bed and held out a hand. Erwin hesitated.

"Trust me," said Levi. "I won't try anything."

After a moment, Erwin clasped his hand.

Levi pulled him into the bed, then guided him to curl up on his side, pulling his head down to rest on Levi's chest. Once they were settled, he pulled the covers over them and wrapped his arms around his Commander in a gentle hug - not too tight. He didn't want him to feel trapped.

"I can hear your heartbeat," said Erwin, sounding more like a frightened boy than the mastermind of humanity's future. He shifted his cheek against Levi's chest, as if settling in. "My memories are blurring. I keep superimposing your face onto Henrik's death."

"You hear my heart, right?" said Levi. "It's still beating."

"I can't trust my own mind."

For someone who was constantly analyzing everything around him, being unable to trust his own mind must be hellish. Feeling protective, Levi tightened his embrace.

"You asked me if I was replacing Henrik with you," continued Erwin. "How can I say I'm not if I'm confusing the two of you in my mind like this? If I reach for your name and get his, or if I reach for his memories and get you..." He trailed off.

The statement surprised Levi, because it indicated a lack of experience with serious relationships; otherwise, the man would understand that memories, faces and names sometimes blurred when one relationship ended and another began. He had expected Erwin to be a confident lover with dozens of long-term love affairs under his belt - a handsome man with such a dominant air would have no trouble finding a partner. It's by choice, he realized, remembering the man's admission to putting his mission above all else. He chose titans over love, every single time. Except Henrik. Except me.

He gently combed the blond hair, trying to soothe him. "It's normal to mix up faces and names at first. It's not the same thing as replacing someone. People get used to patterns, and it takes awhile to adapt to a new one. That's all it is."

"So you're saying this is going to happen again," said Erwin quietly. "I'm going to keep getting confused and flash back to worse times."

Levi wasn't sure how to answer. More than that: he wasn't sure how that made him feel. He had always thought of Erwin as someone above him, someone who had mastered his mind and body. It was disconcerting to see him so undone, especially knowing their intimacy was what had triggered it.

They lay there in silence, Erwin's head on Levi's chest, Levi smoothing his hair. After several minutes, in unspoken unison, their free hands drifted toward each other and intertwined. It felt natural, one large hand and one small, their fingers so easily fitting into the spaces between the others'. That's how we work, thought Levi. We fit together. We're both screwed up in some ways, strong in others, and our strengths fit each other's weaknesses. He wasn't sure if that was love, or just the fondness that came with a close professional partnership, or both, but whatever ran between them, it was deep enough that it would take more than one panicked incident to shake Levi's confidence.

Decisively, he pressed a kiss into the golden hair. "How are you feeling?"

There was a pause. "Ashamed."

"You still have my patience and my respect, Erwin. I want you to know that."

The Commander rolled onto his stomach to study him, settling his hands and chin on Levi's chest. "Thank you," he said solemnly.

Neither of them looked away, and Levi found himself drawn into the blue irises: dark perimeters, pale blue fibres that darkened again toward the pupils. He felt as if he were standing by the edge of a lake on a sunny day, staring into the bottom, the textures accentuated by rippling beams of light.

Tentatively, he reached out a hand and smoothed a blond eyebrow with his thumb. The brow was taller than his thumbnail, so thick that it felt more like wiry dog fur than a human brow; it tapered to a sharp point too soon. The abrupt sharpness complemented the strong curve of his nose and the severe cheekbones. When Levi had first spotted the man swooping through the city with his gear, he had likened him to a bird of prey.

The blue eyes searched his. "Levi, am I pushing my luck if I try to kiss you after everything I've put you through today?"

"Go ahead."

Erwin shifted up the bed to close the gap between their faces. The motion brought his body onto Levi's, and Levi suddenly remembered they were both naked under the covers. Blood began to rush to his cheeks and his groin, and he cursed himself. Getting turned on now was inappropriate.

Erwin, however, seemed oblivious. Their lips pressed innocently together. When he pulled away, his eyelids were low, and there was colour on his cheeks. A lock of blond hair was still loose on his forehead; Levi reached up to smooth it back into place. All this eye contact was giving him an idea.

"You know, Erwin," he said, "if you're ever worried about getting confused about who you're in bed with, you just have to keep your eyes on me the whole time. It's not like you can get mixed up if you're watching me."

"That's a good idea," said Erwin, sounding intrigued.

Levi shrugged it off, but he was already picturing the man between his legs, sharp gaze boring through him, unrelenting, and he was shocked by how much the idea turned him on. His breaths began to accelerate; he had been close to orgasm twice already that morning without getting off, and his body wasn't letting him forget it.

Knock it off, he told himself. Do you want him to have another panic attack? Don't even think about pushing too fast. He stretched his legs, hoping the motion would release some of the restless energy building in his muscles.

Erwin studied him. "When I was first learning to ride a horse as a boy, I had a bad fall. As soon as I was well enough, my father tried to encourage me to start riding again. He told me that the longer I waited, the more my mind would exaggerate the risks, making it into an insurmountable ordeal. I wish I had listened. After that, I couldn't so much as look at a horse without panicking, until I joined the Trainee Corps and was forced to learn to ride."

Levi tried to read him and, as usual, failed. "Why are you telling me this?"

"I feel like leaving things on a sour note now would encourage a needless rift to build between us, one that would be harder to overcome if we waited."

"You want to try again?" asked Levi, not sure he was understanding.

"You must be quite pent up by now. I'd like to try a little something with the oil I bought, if you're comfortable giving me another chance." There was a vulnerable crack in Erwin's expression, a little crease by one eyebrow.

"Okay," said Levi casually, as if his heart wasn't thudding in his chest. "Keep your eyes on me the whole time."

The vulnerable crease smoothed, and Erwin forward for another kiss, deeper this time. Then he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and bent down, digging through the shopping bag on the ground. When he returned, he had the small bottle in his hand. He lay on his side, and Levi did the same, facing him. He watched as Erwin pooled oil in his broad palm.

"You'll be okay," said Levi, half statement, half question.

The sharp eyes locked onto him. "While I'm doing this, Levi, I want you to look at me. I want to see your face." His gaze was intense, almost intimidating.

Fuck, that's hot. Levi bit the inside of his cheek, meeting his gaze head-on.

A slick hand caught him off guard, gripping him between the legs. He tilted his head back and cried out.

"Levi, look at me," said Erwin.

Stunned by the authority in his voice, Levi obeyed. When he had suggested eye contact, he hadn't meant to tip the control completely in his partner's favour. He felt a surge of rebellion: no one ordered him around, especially in bed.

...but he should play along for now. Control was comforting for Erwin, and under the circumstances, he certainly needed to feel safe.

Besides, Levi didn't want to admit it, but it felt curiously good to hand control to his partner, better than he could have guessed. As Erwin began to stroke him, he felt his eyes flutter, and he struggled to keep them open. The struggle was worth it just to see the hard light in those blue irises. He looks determined, like he's trying to conquer mePower-tripping asshole.

Then Erwin shifted, pressing flat against his body. His grip changed; heat blistered between them, and it took Levi a moment to realize what was happening: he's jerking off both of us with one hand. He lifted the covers to look, vaguely aware that a string of curses were slipping from his lips, but too euphoric to care.

"Levi, look at me."

Ignoring the command, he tilted his hips to get a deeper angle, enthralled by the sight of the two of them moving together. Fucking shit, that's hot.

"Levi," said Erwin sharply.

"Fuck you." The words slipped out before Levi could stop them. Embarrassed, he looked up, expecting disapproval, but he found a smirk instead. He didn't have time to interpret it; Erwin lunged in for a deep, rough kiss. Levi bit into his tongue, wrapping a leg around him, raking a hand down his chest. He wanted to be as close to him as possible, closer, he wanted to be inside him.

Erwin broke the kiss, gasping, "Touch me."

That was a command Levi was happy to obey. He drove his hand between them, closing over Erwin's, feeling the two of them slide together through their joint grip.

"Fuck!" burst Erwin. Now he was watching their hands too, his face flushed and strained.

Panic began to rise in Levi's chest. He wasn't going to be able to hang on, not with this frenzy of oiled hands and tangled limbs and thrusting hips. He lunged forward and kissed Erwin hard, and their moans began to rise together.

He felt Erwin cry his name into his mouth. A spasm rippled through his body, and his toes curled, and waves of white light flooded his groin, his mind.

Then there was perfect stillness, his ears ringing.

When he finally remembered to breathe, he opened his eyes. Erwin's cheek was on the pillow beside him, eyes closed, expression soft. Levi studied him, his entire body glowing. In a strange way, he was proud of the man.

"Is there a handkerchief somewhere around here?" He sat up to examine the damage, then grimaced. "Disgusting. You're going to need to wash these sheets."

A blue eye opened. "You can use the hand towel in the bathroom." The eye closed again. A moment later, Erwin's breaths were slow and even, as if he had fallen asleep. Levi was tempted to join him. They still had a few hours to kill, and it might be nice to nap together, even if the sheets were filthy.

He carefully climbed over top of him. Once he was standing, he paused for a moment, watching Erwin sleep. His face looked even more handsome with mussed hair and flushed cheeks, though maybe the afterglow was tainting Levi's opinion. The fondness building in his chest was so warm that it was almost nauseating.

Standing, he began to move toward to the bathroom.

As he passed the desk, his eyes locked onto the garbage bin, where Erwin had thrown the torn letter. The warmth drained from Levi's body. From here, he could clearly see the Wallist letterhead, and it certainly didn't look like a business flyer.

He glanced back at Erwin and, judging that he was still unconscious, bent over and plucked the papers from the bin. The looping script was difficult to read, and as he struggled through it, his eyes widened. He glanced back at the sleeping man.

Is he a Wallist? Has he cut ties, or is he in league with them somehow? He thought of the fanatical worshippers, of their protests against scouting missions and staunch opposition to upgrading the walls. They were one of the biggest thorns in humanity's side.

It wasn't his place to judge - if anyone understood that good people could come from bad places, it was Levi - but he felt his heart pounding anyway.

Stop it, he told himself. This is fucking Erwin Smith, the man who'll be humanity's key to freedom. He doesn't have any shady motives.

Determined not to have his confidence shaken, he set the papers back in the bin, then continued to the bathroom.

His eyes went immediately to the pump shower by the tub. He had heard of the contraptions, but never seen one in person: a way to clean oneself without sitting around in one's own filth. He was tempted to try it out, but he couldn't figure out how it worked. Maybe another time.

After he had cleaned up, he brought a hand towel back for Erwin. Rolling the slumbering man onto his back, he mopped up his abdomen. "There, it's better than nothing."

"Thank you," mumbled Erwin, barely conscious.

Levi crawled into the other side of the bed, then grimaced as the man tried to spoon behind him. "Stop that. You're all sticky."

"Hm. Hold me, then." Erwin lazily rolled onto his other side.

Feeling a bit ridiculous, Levi pressed against the man's back, reaching up and over the broad rib cage. He kept forgetting about their size difference until moments like this brought them into sharp contrast. He thought back to their earlier conversation about size differences, still concerned. If I try to fuck him, I'll look like a dog humping a horse.

Well, they'd worry about that when they got to it. At this rate, there was plenty of time to figure it out.

Once he had settled in, he laid a soft kiss at the base of Erwin's neck, and his eyelids began to grow heavier.

As drowsiness settled over him, everything began to seem simpler. His worries were petty. This warmth, this closeness, was what mattered.

I don't care where you came from, Erwin, he thought, his eyes closing. I don't care if anything we do looks ridiculous, or if we have to wait a year before you're okay with fucking, or if you need me to coax you through everything we do together, one step at a time. I will follow you.

He snuggled closer, and his lips lifted into a smile.

Chapter Text

"You should dance with him," said Hange. "At the gala."

Levi was tempted to drop his end of the heavy trunk and force the other to carry it alone. Instead, he affected his best glare. "Think about how would that look."

"It wouldn't be that unusual. I've seen men dancing with other men before."

"Use your brain, idiot. I meant because he's my Commander. I told you-"

"Stairs coming up behind you."

He turned his head so that he could navigate. "I told you, nothing's going to happen between him and me, and I'm fine with it, so fucking drop it." His voice strained as he struggled down the steps toward the main gate, where a carriage - and Erwin - would be awaiting him. He wasn't sure what his Commander had packed to make the trunk so heavy, but he was beginning to regret offering to move it.

"You aren't fine with it," insisted Hange, discussing the sensitive topic far too loudly. "You two barely look at each other anymore. How can you carry on a professional relationship if you're both pining, pent-up and lonely?"

With an exaggerated sigh, Levi jerked the trunk forward.

Hange stumbled. "That wasn't nice. I'm helping you carry this thing out of the kindness of my heart, even though it's way too heavy for me. You should've asked Mike for help if you were too grumpy to chat."

"Mike's getting last-minute orders from Erwin." While they were at the Capital, Squad Leaders Mike and Berit would be in charge. Levi predicted there would be a lot of drinking and slacking off; he hoped they wouldn't return to find the barracks coated in vomit and filth.

"You have an overnight ride in a very private carriage-" began Hange.

"Look, just shut up, all right? It's not going to happen. We'll figure out our professional relationship and all that. Just give us time." He made a mental note that their attempts to act normally around each other weren't convincing. Maybe we were overcompensating and came off too cold.

They approached the carriage and dropped the trunk into the luggage hold. Levi had to admit that, just as Hange had said, the carriage would be private. It had proper doors, and curtains hung in the windows.

He shifted his stance, trying to vent nervous energy without betraying just how excited he was. He and Erwin hadn't had the occasion to be together in private since the trip into town two days ago. He had tried to visit Erwin late the previous night, but found him working with Berit to revise the training schedule for the new recruits. Though he tried his best to stay up and check again a few hours later, he had fallen into a dead sleep until morning.

At least this morning, they had managed to sneak in a few quick kisses after the weekly Squad Leader meeting. That's when Erwin had informed him they were staying at a hotel near the ballroom instead of the Military Police barracks, sharing a single room.

"Won't that make people suspicious?" Levi had asked, confused.

"No," Erwin had replied. "Shadis did the same on occasion with me and Anke. Everyone will just assume it's for convenience reasons."

"So is it?"

"Partly." His Commander had bent down to nibble his ear, making Levi's pulse rise. "Also, I promised you I would reward you for wearing a suit."

"Oh. Didn't you already do that the other day?"

"I didn't get a chance to finish what I started. Not the way I wanted to, at least."

"Still ended pretty fucking well."

Erwin had given a low hum of agreement in his ear, then they had exchanged one last kiss and parted ways.

"Levi," said Hange, trying to attract his attention. "You alright?"

He blinked, remembering where he was. "Yeah. Go bug Mike or something. And tell Erwin to hurry his ass up."

"You're welcome for the help with the trunk. I'm telling you, dance with him at least once. And watch your mouth around the nobles, shorty." Reaching over, Hange ruffled his hair.

"'Shorty?' What the hell?" He ducked away, smoothing his hair back into place.

As Hange was leaving, Erwin entered the courtyard, flanked by Mike and Berit. He was still explaining something to them, a hand on each of their shoulders. Levi shifted his stance again, pulse rising at the sight of him.

Once the conversation ended, the Commander approached him. His smile was bright, gleaming in the late evening sun. "Sorry to keep you waiting, Levi. Everything's packed and ready to go?"

"Yeah. What the hell did you pack in that trunk?"

"Ammunition."

Levi scrutinized him and, finding no tell on his face, said, "Literally, or...?"

The Commander only smiled and began to walk toward the driver, but Levi wasn't letting him off that easily. "No, don't be a mysterious asshole about this. I've had bad luck with live rounds lately."

"It's not literally ammunition. You go ahead and get seated." Erwin nodded at him, then leaned closer to the driver and began to give instructions.

Warily, Levi opened the door and stepped into the carriage. His hair just barely skimmed the roof, and he struggled against a squeeze of claustrophobia. He wasn't a good traveller - not by carriage, at least. Memories lurked just below the surface, carefully repressed for more than a decade, and being boxed inside a carriage was too familiar, too confining...

He took a long breath and slowly released it. The grip around him lessened, and the memory sank into the depths of his mind where it belonged.

Feeling a bit more at ease, he inspected the interior. The benches were padded. Flaps on the doors flipped out between them to create two makeshift beds lengthwise along the carriage. The beds would be easily long enough for him, but Erwin might be a little cramped.

He dropped onto a bench and waited. A minute later, his Commander stepped into the carriage, closed the door and locked it. Levi felt a wave of panic, but took several slow breaths. It's okay. You're in here with Erwin. You're safe.

"The driver has orders to travel straight through until morning." Erwin lit the lamp that jutted from the wall, then drew the curtains. "If you need any rest stops, tug on the bell cord to alert him. I tucked some water canisters under the benches, as well as some dried fruit." He took off his jacket and hung it from a hook on the door.

Two days apart had sharpened Levi's libido. He eyed the man's uniform; he had seen the leather straps on hundreds of soldiers, but Erwin wore them better than anyone. His high-collared white shirt was neatly pressed, and it must have been tailored, because it fit his body perfectly, just tight enough to show the muscles of his chest and arms.

Levi pulled off his jacket, too, and hung it on a second hook. Erwin pulled the cord to ring the driver's bell, and the carriage rumbled as it began to move. They sat on opposite benches, watching each other.

"So are you going to tell me about this heavy-as-shit 'ammunition' you had me lug downstairs?" he asked.

Erwin pulled off his boots. The leather had a tendency to develop peculiar odours, but to Levi's relief, Erwin's feet didn't seem to smell. He takes good care of his uniform.

"Erwin?" he prodded.

"One of the King's tax chests."

"What?" The chests they had retrieved from the silo had all been sent to the King in a shipment two days prior, or so Levi thought. "Are you keeping it?"

"I'm just hanging on to it for now, waiting to see who kicks up a fuss about it. Someone knew that money was there, and that someone will notice it missing. I have plans for it once we reach the Capital."

"So you're pissing someone off until they get angry enough to come after you."

Erwin smiled. "It isn't elegant, I admit. It's only one facet of the plan. According to Shadis, the suggestion to visit this particular silo came from Captain Nile Dok of the Military Police. I expect to see him at this gala, and I'm going to question him."

"You mean interrogate him?" asked Levi, remembering his conversation with Hange when they were stuck in the tree: I hear he used to pull strings for Shadis... Mike thinks it was through blackmail and threats. Maybe even torture.

"No, I plan to ply him with liquor and get him talking. We were good friends once. I'm sure it won't take much persuasion to reconnect." Erwin's eyes lost focus, his face distant, and Levi was surprised to feel jealousy burning in his chest.

"How close were you two, exactly?"

The blue eyes fixed on him. "Once upon a time, we were like brothers, but it must have been a friendship of convenience, because when we went our separate ways, we lost touch."

Levi wondered if he and Erwin qualified as a friendship of convenience, or if this connection between them ran deeper than that. They certainly had different personalities and backgrounds, and he wasn't sure they would have become friends in any other context. If they were separated for a long period of time, would their connection persist? He didn't want to find out.

Casually, he stood, made his way across the swaying carriage, and flopped to a seat next to his Commander. He removed his boots, then stood them neatly in the corner, getting comfortable.

Erwin draped a hand across his shoulders and pulled him in close. "There are other aspects of this business with Nile, as well as the gala itself, that I'd like to discuss with you, but we have another twelve hours of travel to go over the details, and there's more pressing business to attend to."

"Like what?" asked Levi, turning to look at him.

"Like the fact that it's been two full days since we had some privacy." Erwin trailed his fingertips along Levi's jaw, and then, without warning, lunged, his mouth covering Levi's.

Levi let out a low groan, his eyes fluttering closed. A persistent tongue slid between his lips until they parted, then plunged deep into his mouth as a hand began to move up his thigh.

This level of aggression was unexpected, especially after Erwin's breakdown last time they were alone. Gasping for air, Levi pulled back. "You're grabby today."

"Is it too much?" The man's eyelids were heavy. "I can't stop thinking about how you felt in my mouth. I came to your room last night intending to service you, but you were already asleep, and it was too late to wake you."

Levi's brain froze somewhere between the titillation of the image and the awkwardness of the term 'service', and the hand advancing up his leg wasn't helping him focus. Struggling for words, he said, "Wake me next time. Screw sleep. Your mouth is better."

"Noted for the future." Erwin's roving hand settled firmly between his legs, thumb running circles over the fabric.

Trying to keep pace, Levi's hand went straight for Erwin's groin, and his breath caught when he discovered how aroused the man was. "Holy fuck, Erwin."

"I haven't had time to take care of myself since we met last." He grabbed Levi's arm and half-pulled, half-lifted him toward his lap.

Happy to oblige, Levi straddled him. "No time? It takes a minute or two, doesn't it?"

"I've been distracted." Erwin grabbed Levi's hips and clamped him down, grinding hard.

Levi tossed his head back. Even fully-clothed, it felt good to rub against each other like this. He felt lips on his neck, then by his ear.

"What about you, Levi?"

The friction building between his legs, at once pleasurable and chafing, was so distracting that it was difficult to form words. "What about me?"

"How many times since we last met?" There was a desperate edge to the deep voice.

"None of your business, you fucking pervert," said Levi, testing him. Erwin's fingers curled into his hips, so hard that Levi expected them to leave bruises. "Ah, so you do like it when I insult you, don't you, you creep? Four. Four times."

"Four times," repeated Erwin. His grip still strong, he swapped places with Levi, pushing him to a seat on the bench and kneeling between his legs. When he looked up, his blue eyes had the same sharpness Levi remembered from their last encounter. "Were you thinking about me?"

"Yeah. I almost always do."

Erwin lifted the skirt of Levi's uniform, unbuckled the straps in his way, then began to undo the fly. "What was I doing in this fantasy?"

Levi hesitated. "Erwin..."

"If you're willing. I want to learn more about what you like, and..." The blue eyes fixed on him again, showing a hint of vulnerability this time. "Hearing your voice will remind me that you're you."

"Oh." That made sense. It was important to stave off any accidental flashbacks to Henrik, and it wasn't like the man could keep eye contact the entire time from that position - not easily, at least. 

Erwin tugged his underwear out of the way, then carefully wrapped his fingers around him. Levi took a breath through clenched teeth, startled by the contrast of warm skin and the cool evening air. Their eyes locked as his Commander took him into his mouth.

"Oh shit," whispered Levi, transfixed by the sight. He could feel Erwin's tongue working around him.

The man pulled back to say, "Keep talking," then reclaimed him.

"Shit." Levi tenderly ran his knuckles along one of the man's angular cheekbones, impressed by his skill. His mind was swimming, and he struggled to bring it into focus. Recalling fantasies wasn't difficult, because they were almost always the same. "I picture me walking in on you touching yourself, sometimes in your office-"

The man trailed his tongue to the tip, then pulled away to say, "Pick a specific fantasy and tell me in detail."

"Okay- Ah, fuck!" His eyes squeezed shut and he bent forward, his fingers clawing into Erwin's hair. "Your mouth is so fucking warm."

The man hummed his approval, the sound reverberating through Levi and sitting in his abdomen, glowing with heat.

"I..." He forced his eyes open and saw Erwin looking up at him, mouth and hands still working. "Fuck, that's hot. That's how you looked at me, right there. When I came into your office. You were wearing your harness, your boots, your pendant and nothing else, and..." He shuddered as he felt the man take him deep into his throat. The rattle of the carriage vibrated through him, adding texture to the stimulation. "Oh shit, Erwin, I can't-"

The man pulled away again. "What did we do?" He reached out to grab Levi's wrist and kissed the back of his hand, and then Levi's finger was inside his mouth, a hot tongue swirling around it.

"You fucking tease." Levi gave a low, frustrated groan. "You were lying on the desk jerking off, your ass hanging over the end, and your legs spread when you saw that I was there." His sentence ended in a sharp breath as Erwin bent down and engulfed him again, but this time, Levi's finger was still in his mouth. Now he could feel everything with his fingertip as it happened: the thrusting motion, the slippery skin, the tongue working with so much enthusiasm. It was too much stimulation, too much information to process. Levi's eyes closed, his breaths coming hard and quick.

"I started fucking you," he managed. "I started fucking you so hard, and you were yelling my name."

The tongue stopped moving for a moment, the mouth still.

Levi cried out and began to thrust, desperate for the stimulation to continue. A moment later, Erwin began to move again, and Levi yanked his hand free of the man's mouth.

"Erwin," he warned. "I'm..." He couldn't finish the sentence. He vaguely heard himself yell, felt the vibration of Erwin's encouraging moans, and he doubled over, overcome. When he at last was able to open his eyes, sparks dancing in his vision.

Erwin tucked him carefully back into his underwear and did up his fly, tugging the skirt back into place. He was carefully avoiding looking up, and Levi's glow dimmed. Is he having bad memories again? His mind paced through the past few minutes, trying to figure out what could have upset him. His heart sank as he remembered the exact moment when Erwin had hesitated. Shit.

"You okay?" he asked.

The man sat on the bench beside him. "Of course." There was an intake of breath, as if he were about to speak, but nothing followed.

"You didn't think I'd want to fuck you," said Levi flatly. "Right? You thought I'd want to be fucked by you."

There was a pause. "It doesn't change anything."

"You and Henrik, who did the-"

"Usually me. Not always, but usually. It doesn't matter." Erwin glanced at him. "It's fine, just unexpected."

Defensiveness rose in Levi's throat, pinching his voice: "Unexpected because I'm small, right? Everyone expects the short man to take it."

"No, because you're obsessed with cleanliness. I didn't think you would be interested in putting a part of yourself into a potentially unclean area of the body." Erwin's cheeks were dark, and he shifted, looking uncomfortable.

"No, I'm obsessed with being clean, so I don't want someone else to be inside my- Look, it doesn't matter." Levi twisted to look up at the man and searched his eyes, looking for a hint of discomfort. He didn't find any, but that didn't mean it wasn't there. "Does this fuck things up?"

"No," said Erwin earnestly. "It's fine. All I care about is that I can physically express the way I feel about you - the method doesn't matter."

"The way you feel about me?" asked Levi, curious how, exactly, he would define it.

The man's face turned an even darker shade of red; he cleared his throat and looked away.

Say it, thought Levi, but it was probably too soon. This was all too new. He wasn't sure how to put it into words yet, himself, but he could put it into action. He could show his gratitude that the man was so considerate, so flexible.

He dropped to the floor, kneeling between Erwin's legs.

"I'm going to touch you," he announced, looking up for any hint of hesitation on Erwin's face. "Stop me if you need to. Remember to keep your eyes on me." He lifted the skirt and undid the straps and buttons. For a moment, he grazed the hard length with his fingertips. He had never had the opportunity to look at him before, not this close.

"See what you do to me?" asked Erwin quietly.

He did, and the sight of it was making his feral side rise. He licked his palm to dampen it in preparation, holding eye contact, playing up the lewdness of the gesture.

Erwin's throat bobbed. "You're much more vulgar in bed than I imagined." It was delivered as a compliment, and Levi felt his ears warm.

"So what did you imagine?" he asked, reaching forward to grip him.

"I don't know, exactly-" The words disintegrated into a low groan as Levi began to tease him with an exaggerated milking motion.

"Not easy to talk while this is happening, is it?" Levi leaned closer, letting his breath slide across the tip, but not touching it with his mouth. Not without permission. "Tell me one of your fantasies, Erwin."

"Levi-"

"Be specific." His grip began to move with purpose.

"Fucking you in an alleyway," gasped Erwin. "The other day, I wanted to fuck you in the alleyway."

It was still strange to hear his Commander swear so openly, and Levi was tempted to press it by teasing him some more. He released him, his fingertips slowly trailing the length. "Do you like to fuck hard, Erwin? Or slow?"

"Slowly at first, then..." He let out a groan as Levi's fingertip traced circles around him, and his head began to loll.

"Hey, none of that." Levi gripped his chin and tilted it, forcing Erwin to look down at him. "You have to look at me, remember?"

The blue eyes were glazed. "Use your mouth."

A pleasant shock spiked through Levi's body. "You're sure?"

"I need your mouth."

Eagerly, Levi leaned forward, closing the distance between them. The second his tongue touched, he forgot about keeping the man talking, or making him swear, or everything except that taste, that glowing heat of skin against his tongue. He knew he should be putting in effort to make this moment special - this was probably the first mouth around him since Henrik died - but Levi felt hurried, like lingering would give Erwin time to second-guess everything. He moved aggressively, using his hand, encouraged by the rumbling groans he heard above him.

Then Erwin gasped his name, and blood rushed to Levi's head. That's it. Let go, he thought, dizzy. The name repeated, then again, then began to alternate with oh fuck, a rhythmic chant that matched his breaths, rising in pitch.

Levi chanced a look up, and the strain he saw on the face was so beautiful, the skin glowing pink, the sharp angles smoothed by the squinted eyes and clenched jaw. Their eyes locked.

Erwin cried out, his head tossing back to expose his beautiful throat.

This is where Levi would usually pull away, but he forced himself to ignore his revulsion, because if Erwin was going to make sexual compromises to be together, then so would he. He was surprised by how easy it was to stay with him until the end, by how close to Erwin it made him feel, as if he were carrying him through it instead of just being a passive observer.

The last cry faded from Erwin's lips, and his head fell forward, eyes closed.

So beautiful, thought Levi, overwhelmed, as he finally broke away.

The blond eyelashes parted, and a hand reached for Levi's jaw, tracing it with a feather-light touch. Feeling a little emotional, Levi swallowed hard; he saw the other do the same.

"I need to kiss you," said Erwin, hoarse.

"My breath-"

"I don't care."

Levi stood and leaned forward, their lips touching. There was no hunger in this kiss, just softness. He could taste himself on Erwin, and surely the reverse was true, but that didn't matter, nothing mattered but this man and his gentle lips.

When Levi pulled away, their gaze held. Erwin was looking at him with wonder, his eyes glassy.

I've fallen too hard, thought Levi. I'm lost. I knew you would show me freedom, but not like this. It had never hit him this early, never this hard.

He leaned forward for another kiss, his heart soaring. I love you.

.*.*.*.

Erwin sat on the makeshift bed with his legs extended in front of him. Levi's head was on his lap, stretched out perpendicular to him along the bench. Erwin combed the dark hair, enjoying the comfortable silence between them. There were still plans to discuss, but the post-orgasm haze was taking awhile to leave his body. He wasn't sure what had left him the most dazed: the feeling of Levi's mouth, or the way he had looked up at him when it was all over. Smiling, he trailed his knuckles behind the man's ear.

"What are you grinning about?" asked Levi.

"Just enjoying this shared moment of peace."

"Speaking of things you enjoy..." The man's eyes fixed on him. "Why do you like it so much when I insult you?"

"What?"

"When we're fooling around. You get turned on by me insulting you."

"I don't know that I necessarily-" Heat rose to Erwin's cheeks as he reconsidered his own words. Levi's observation wasn't wrong. "There's a certain coarseness to your character that I find appealing, and maybe a degree of challenge." Too embarrassed to analyse himself any further, he cleared his throat. "We have some business to discuss."

Levi's brows dropped. "Really? Now?"

"It can wait a little while if you'd like to lay here for a bit longer."

"If I do, I'll fall asleep." Levi gave an abrupt sigh and sat up. "Feels like I've done nothing but work since I got promoted."

"I hope that doesn't include the last half hour or so," said Erwin lightly. "I'm afraid it's all part of being a Squad Leader. Work will be even more time-consuming when you're a Captain."

"Can't you just give me a team and point me at things that need killing?"

"That's not how the system works," said Erwin.

"Well, maybe instead of trying to make me fit the system, you should make the system fit me."

Erwin knew he was just being difficult, but on some level, the words made sense. Everything about Levi was unconventional, from his training to his history with the Corps. Was forcing him into a conventional role really the best way to utilize him?

"Let's put that aside for now," he said, making a mental note to think about it some more later. "I want to talk to you about how our time in the Capital is going to play out."

He began to narrate their timetable. The carriage would pull up to their hotel around eight in the morning, giving them time to settle in and unwind after their journey. At noon, they would take their lunch at a restaurant opposite the Military Police barracks.

"Why so far out of the way?" asked Levi. "Aren't there restaurants by the hotel?"

"There are," said Erwin, "but we will have another task while we're there. I'll get to that in a moment."

After lunch, they would return to the room and dress in their uniforms. Supreme Commander Zackly would swear in Erwin at the courthouse. After that, they would return to the hotel to change into their formal wear, then head to the ballroom for the dinner and gala.

Levi gave a loud "tsk" and slumped into the corner, arms folding over his chest. "How long do I have to stay at the gala?"

"Long enough to be noticed."

"Meaning...?"

"Meaning I may have a mission for you." Erwin shifted to face him. "While we're at lunch, we're going to scope out the exterior of the Military Police barracks. If my discussions with Nile at the gala make me suspicious that he had ulterior motives when he gave us the information about the silo, I'm going to ask you to retrieve the documents he used to determine which silo we should target."

Levi's eyes widened. "You want me to break into the office of the Captain of the Military Police?"

"A tall order, I know. I can show you which window is his, and give you information about the layout of the building. I may be able to obtain blueprints-"

"I don't need blueprints," said Levi flatly. "What happens if I'm caught?"

Why wouldn't he need blueprints? thought Erwin, but he decided not to press it. "This can't be traced back to me, or it would reflect poorly on the entire Corps. You can't get caught."

They eyed each other for a moment.

"I get it," said Levi, looking away. "If I get caught, we play it off like I returned to my underhanded, criminal ways, and it had nothing to do with you. Would you like me to steal some silver while I'm at it to add to my cover?"

Erwin sighed, the snarky tone not lost on him. "I wouldn't ask this of you if I had options, Levi, but you're the only person I trust to do this task, should it be required. You've thwarted the Military Police hundreds of times before, and your speed and specific skill set are assets for this mission. The Military Police are going to become increasingly useful to our operations, and we need to know if Nile will be an ally. Will you do it?"

"Fuck." The man shook his head. "Yes, of course I'll do it. But if they catch me and execute me, I'm going to haunt you for the rest of your shitty life."

"I won't let them execute you. Believe me, Levi: so long as I'm still breathing, you will never be executed." The words were a little too strong, too honest, so he buried them: "We'll be paying a visit to Nile the next morning to put my 'ammunition' into play, so you can slip the file back into place then. He'll never know it was gone."

For a few minutes, the only sound was the rattle of the carriage. Levi looked up at him. "Aren't you and Nile close friends? Can't you just be up-front with him about all this?"

Erwin shrugged. "I need to verify that he's still trustworthy."

"Is this how you 'trust' people? Testing them? Sneaking around behind their backs?"

Their gaze held. Levi looked almost insulted, and Erwin, for all his ability to read people and situations, couldn't fathom what was on his mind. "I trust when evidence supports it. The fate of humanity can't rely on sentiment alone."

"I hear you have a file on Hange."

"I have a file on everyone."

"Even me?" asked Levi, the insult deepening on his face: creased brows, pinched mouth.

Erwin hesitated.

"Be honest with me." Levi leaned forward. "Have you been testing me? Are you researching me behind my back?"

"No. Your file is nearly empty, Levi." He took a slow breath, trying to word his feelings in a way that was at once sincere, but not too imposing so early in their relationship. "I trust you unequivocally."

"Why?"

"Because you've already tried to betray me, once upon a time, and you couldn't go through with it. And..." He slid a hand along the bench, palm up: an offering. "I see the way you look at me with absolute trust in your eyes. I see the way you follow me into battle, the way you accept missions and requests with a combination of careful questioning and faith in my reasoning. I believe you would follow me into hell if I asked you, but only if you, yourself, agreed that was necessary. Blind trust can be turned, but your brand of trust, deep and considerate, is unmovable."

Levi stared at his hand for a moment, then reached out, his hand closing over it. "You'd better not ask me to follow you into hell."

"One day, I might have to. I may even have to send you ahead of me, if the situation requires it."

"You're fucking morbid," said Levi. "You know that?"

"So I've heard." Erwin's thumb slid across the back of the slender hand. "Our war is never far from my mind."

"I guess that's a good thing for the rest of us." Their hands rotated, fingers interlacing, and Levi visibly shivered. "This is stupid."

"What?"

"The way I get goosebumps from just touching your big dumb hand."

"'Big dumb hand,'" repeated Erwin, amused by the man's insistence on sounding tough even when they had privacy. "I don't think that's how you would have described it about fifteen minutes ago."

Levi's cheeks turned crimson, and he pulled away. "Big dumb sticky hand."

Erwin tried not to be offended, but his body was still sensitive, inside and out, from his orgasm. "Why is my hand the sticky one? You were licking your hand and grabbing me."

Now the man lifted his own hand to examine it, nose wrinkled. He rummaged through his pocket and pulled out a folded white handkerchief, then proceeded to rub his palms with it.

Erwin watched, face grim. This was the fastidious, paranoid behaviour he had expected when they had first started becoming intimate, and he wondered why it had taken so many days to surface. Why now? Something must be bothering him. Was it the new mission, or the gala itself, or the morbid discussion? His stomach twisted with guilt.

"You okay?" he asked quietly.

Levi shrugged, still scrubbing at his hand. "I just want it to be this time tomorrow, so this bullshit will be over with."

"I'm sorry to drag you to this gala, Levi. I will spend some time rethinking what your role as Captain will entail, but you should know that some level of formality and socializing will be a requirement."

"I know. I understood that climbing the ranks would involve bullshit." The man shook his handkerchief over the ground, as if shaking out imaginary dirt, then folded it and put it neatly in his pocket. "And speaking of bullshit, I asked Mike about what you were like when you were trainee."

"Oh?" The change of topic was so abrupt that Erwin's brows rose. He wasn't about to force the uncomfortable conversation to continue, however, so he followed Levi's train of thought. "And what did he have to say?"

"He said you were short for awhile, yeah, but he laughed at the idea of you being awkward like you claim. Said you were charismatic and well-spoken."

"Sounds like he's remembering incorrectly," said Erwin.

Levi leaned back against the wall, loosely gathering his knees in his elbows. "He said you used to piss off him, Nile and Anke by attracting all the ladies whenever you went out to the bar in a group."

"It wasn't intentional. I was usually in the corner with a book until I got drunk enough to have any interest in socializing." He smiled to himself, his training days far enough behind him now that they were cloaked with nostalgia. "It's a good thing you didn't know me back then, Levi, or you would have loathed me. Once I got a bit of drink in me, I was an arrogant little bastard. Used to calmly provoke arguments and watch the chaos unfold, that sort of thing. Sometimes I would subtly pit Nile and Mike against each other so I could play myself off as the calm mediator type and impress their dates. Usually got away with it, but not always. This isn't the first black eye Mike has given me."

Levi shook his head, something approaching a smirk playing on his lips. "So by 'awkward', you meant you were an asshole."

Erwin chuckled. "Perhaps." His smile faded and, deciding to take a risk, he said, "What about you, Levi?"

"What about me?"

"What were you like when you were younger?"

Levi looked down and shrugged. "Short and miserable. So, pretty much the same."

"Are you miserable?" asked Erwin, his stomach dropping. He had suspected Levi wasn't a happy person, but 'miserable' was a strong word.

"Maybe." The man folded his arms over his chest. "Humanity's trapped in a festering hell-hole, and it feels like we lose more ground every day. Most of my friends are dead, and my colleagues are dying left and right. Aren't we all miserable?"

Erwin didn't respond. Now that he took a minute to consider his feelings, he realized that misery wasn't among them. As sick of it was, part of him liked the challenge of fighting against the titans: it gave his life meaning. People are dying, and I have the nerve to enjoy the struggle? Maybe I'm still an arrogant bastard after all.

"It's not always bad," continued Levi. "I feel hope when I'm cutting through titan flesh. And..." His gaze drifted up to meet Erwin's. "When I'm with you."

Swallowing hard, Erwin shifted along the bench, reached over and pulled him into an embrace. He closed his eyes, burying his nose in the dark hair.

Levi leaned into him. "Are you smelling me again? Fuck, it's like I'm cuddling with Mike."

"You smell clean." Erwin breathed in again, not caring how odd it might seem. "Forgive my sentimentality, Levi. It hurts me to think of you being miserable, and to hear that I can help stave that off, even a little..." His arms tightened. "I feel considerable guilt about dragging you into this miserable lifestyle. I never thought I might be helping you endure it."

"Don't feel guilty. My life was even worse before. I didn't even realize how miserable it was, how important petty things had become." Levi nuzzled under his chin. "I was always angry, but I didn't understand why. I had no purpose, no meaning except to try to escape my shitty past."

This was the closest he had come to acknowledging whatever had come after his aunt and before his rise to a position of power in the underground, and Erwin didn't dare move, afraid that even the slightest muscle twitch would frighten Levi away like a startled bird. He held his breath, waiting.

"When I first got to the streets," continued Levi, his voice low and cracking, "I kept trying to cram happiness into my life however I could. I slept around, drank too much, tried anything that would give me a bit of a rush. I was a fucking wreck, a filthy, sad little wreck, and none of it helped. Took me a few years to wake up and start straightening out my shit, but even when I started taking better care of myself, I still had no purpose.

"That got better after I met you. The Survey Corps gives me purpose. Order. And..." There was a pause. "Erwin, I spent most of my life starved for respect, and you're the first person who gave it to me freely. I had no idea how good that would feel, after being looked down on my whole life." His eyes narrowed. "Some people went so far as to try to strip my own self-respect, tried to whittle me down to nothing."

There was a long pause. Erwin said quietly, "I can't have been the first who respected you. What about your friends who joined the Corps with you?"

"They respected me because they had to. I was older than them, and more established than them when we met-" The words halted, and Levi was silent.

"I'm sorry," said Erwin, understanding that their deaths were still fresh on his mind. Sometimes he was so wrapped up in his own traumas that he forgot just how much Levi had endured. The man had impressive resilience, weathering tragedies that would have broken anyone else. Humanity's Strongest, indeed.

The thought reminded him of another topic to discuss. "Levi, there's something I should warn you about before we get to the Capital: it seems you're becoming something of a celebrity."

There was a long pause. "What?"

"Shadis said many of the new trainees knew your name, and they're calling you Humanity's Strongest. You're becoming a hero: a man who came from nothing, who's as strong as an entire squad. You're giving people hope."

Levi let out a dismissive scoff and pulled away. "Those brats don't know a thing about me. I'm not a fucking hero." His eyes were glassy. "I need to go to sleep."

"Very well." Erwin studied him, sensing an abrupt mood shift. "Do you need the carriage to make a stop before we rest?"

"No, I'm good. Never been a fan of shitting in the woods anyway." Levi stood and, bracing himself against the ceiling, dimmed the lamp. He pulled a blanket and pillow out of a compartment near the back of the carriage, then sniffed them. Satisfied, he tossed them to Erwin. "A bit musty, but I can still smell soap on them, so they should be clean."

"Good." Erwin laid out the pillow and blanket, then stretched out, rolling onto his side. "I think there's enough room here if you want to sleep on this side with me."

Levi eyed the panel, wary. "Can that thing support both of us?"

"It's sturdy." He lifted up the covers as an invitation.

Levi crawled into place. The fit was tight, but so long as they spooned, they had enough room. Erwin pulled the smaller man tightly against him, then kissed his temple.

"Comfortable enough?" he asked.

"It'll do." Levi yawned.

"We just need to weather it for tonight. We'll share a real bed tomorrow night." Erwin settled into the pillow, debating whether or not he should ask the question on his mind. He didn't want to push Levi too hard when his mood was shifting, but the question seemed inoffensive enough. "Can I ask you a question, Levi?"

"Sure."

"When did you list me as your next of kin?"

"Oh." Levi shrugged, as if it were no big deal. "When we got back to the base after my friends died."

"That soon?" He had expected it would have been after the next expedition, the one that had made Levi break down in his office. "I thought you still hated me at that point."

"I didn't have anyone else to name. And like I said, you were the first person who ever freely gave me their respect, so I respected you back. Besides, it's not like I had anything important to my name. I've left everything behind, so many times..." His voice trailed off.

Erwin thought of the little box of possessions, of the way the man gave away most of his salary to help a friend's sister. His fingers curled into the fabric over Levi's chest. I'll make him my next of kin when we get home. He can put my possessions to better use than anyone else.

"I'm sorry, Levi," he said quietly. "You've endured so much in your life, and received so little in return."

The man was silent for so long that Erwin thought he had fallen asleep, but then Levi's hand tightened around his. "Tell me everything's going to be okay."

His voice sounded so frail that Erwin's stomach twisted. "I don't understand."

"Tell me everything's going to be okay. I'll believe you. Just tell me."

"Levi, what's wrong? You're shaking."

"I shouldn't have started thinking about the person I used to be. Now I can't stop remembering." Levi's voice was small and tight. "Look, I'm not good with being boxed into a carriage like this."

"Do you need to step outside? Would it help to talk through it?"

"No, just...tell me."

Erwin wasn't sure how to respond. He couldn't say everything was going to be okay, not truthfully. He had best guesses about how the future would play out, insight based on patterns, information and human nature. What lay ahead for them was only strife. Change could not happen without great sacrifice.

But that wasn't what the man needed to hear. He nuzzled the back of the man's neck. "Your past can't hurt you here, Levi, and whatever our future holds, we'll face it together." It was the best he could promise.

Levi snuggled back against him and was quiet, but he was still trembling. Concerned, Erwin held him close, hoping his presence would make the man feel safe until he fell asleep.

.*.*.*.

A sharp moan startled Erwin awake.

Levi was twitching violently in front of him, whimpering under his breath. Nightmares. Such things were commonplace in the Corps, but Erwin had never been sure of the best way to deal with them.

If he woke Levi now, it might disorient him. He tried to hold off, but each whimper and cry jolted through him, and eventually, he couldn't stand it anymore. This is my fault. I started him talking about his past, and now he's suffering.

He sat up and smoothed hair from the man's damp forehead. "Levi. It's just a dream."

Silver-blue eyes snapped open.

Then Erwin was hurtling toward the floor; his back hit hard enough to knock the air from his lungs. He gasped, stars swimming in his vision.

Levi barrelled at him, pinned him down, eyes and lips flared, tears streaming down his cheeks.

"Levi," wheezed Erwin, too scattered to process what was happening. Cold steel pressed against his throat.

"Fuck you," screamed Levi. "Tell me why I shouldn't slit your throat right now, you fucking psychopath!"

"Levi." He struggled to regain his breath. "Levi, it's me, Erwin."

Slowly, the man's face shifted to recognition, then to horror. He staggered back. His knife clattered to the floor.

Erwin sat up and hunched forward, trying to suck air into his lungs.

"Stop the carriage," said Levi, his voice shaking.

"Levi-"

"Stop the carriage!"

Erwin struggled to his feet and pulled the cord to ring the driver's bell. When he turned back to Levi, he saw the man scrabbling at the door. The carriage slowed, then stopped. Levi tore open the door and staggered into the darkness, then dropped to his knees.

The driver stepped into view, staring at Levi for a moment before he poked his head through the doorway. "Everything okay, Commander?"

"A little motion sickness, that's all," said Erwin. "He'll be fine in a minute. I'll let you know when we're ready to depart."

"Sir." The driver bobbed his hat, gave one last wary glance at Levi, then left.

Erwin rubbed his trachea with one hand and picked up the fallen knife with the other. When he tilted the knife, using it as a mirror, he saw that the skin on his neck was intact. He let out a small sigh of relief.

Levi's boots were scattered in the corner; he must have flown at them to retrieve his knife and then tackled him. He moved so fast that I didn't stand a chance. Erwin returned the knife to the secret compartment in the right boot, then set them neatly upright. On his way to the door, he grabbed a blanket and pulled on his boots.

When he stepped outside, Levi was still on his knees, facing away, his back shaking. The night air was chilly, the sky above them clear and speckled with stars. They were between towns, overlooking a meadow, and the view could have been romantic under different circumstances. Erwin stepped into the brush, and a twig snapped under his feet.

Levi sniffled. "Go away."

"I shouldn't have gotten you talking about your past," said Erwin quietly. "Especially when you were already under so much stress. I should have known it would kick up bad memories."

He heard another sniffle.

"Come back to the carriage, Levi." Erwin stood behind him and draped the blanket over his hunched form.

"I attacked you."

"You were just disoriented because I woke you up in the middle of a nightmare. It's okay." It wasn't as okay as he was pretending. His hands were shaking. Seeing that much raw hatred on the face of someone he trusted had been the most terrifying situation he had faced in years.

"Don't look at me," said Levi without turning around. "Please, just... I need a minute."

"I'll be waiting for you when you're ready." Erwin returned to the carriage and sat on the bed. With nothing left to do but wait, no actions to distract him, his emotions finally crashed down on him. He leaned over the side of the bed, raking his hands into his hair. He didn't mean to attack you. He was dreaming, he told himself, over and over. To keep himself occupied, he tried to analyse the words Levi had screamed, tried to deduce information about his mysterious past, but he was too shaken.

A good ten or fifteen minutes passed before Levi returned. His eyes were downcast, his skin pale and sweaty. Without looking up, he closed the door, locked the second bed into place, and dropped onto it.

"Did I hurt you?" His voice was hollow.

"I'm fine. You just knocked the wind out of me a bit, that's all." Erwin pulled the cord to signal the driver to continue on his route. "Are you okay?"

Levi shrugged, still not looking up. His shins were coated with mud, but he didn't seem to care, and the uncharacteristic disregard for his cleanliness broke Erwin's heart.

"Do you still need space?" he asked gently.

Levi shrugged again, and Erwin interpreted it as a request. He sat beside the man and gently rested a hand on his knee.

"You still have my patience and my respect, Levi," he said, using the same words the man had given him during his breakdown a few days prior. "This doesn't change anything."

Levi didn't reply, at first, but after a moment, he sagged sideways until his cheek rested on Erwin's chest. "Erwin?"

"Yes?"

"I would never hurt you. Not on purpose." His voice wavered.

"I know." Erwin closed his eyes. "It's okay, Levi. Everything's going to be okay."

Levi's arms tightened around him.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

History

Levi awoke next morning to a cacophony of city sounds: merchants yelling, the murmur of a crowd, the clattering wheels of nearby carriages. The curtains glowed with daylight, and the air inside the carriage was warm and stuffy.

He had fallen asleep sitting up, slumped against Erwin. He pulled away and saw he had left a little splotch of drool on the man's shirt. Disgusting, he thought, wiping his damp cheek.

Erwin was still asleep, his head angled back against the wall. He's going to have one hell of a neck-ache if he's been like that all night. Carefully, Levi pushed the sleeping man sideways until his ear rested against the wall, aiming to give his poor neck a rest. The man stirred, but didn't awaken. Levi draped the blanked over him. He lingered for a moment, ashamed that he had attacked the only man he had ever truly trusted. Erwin deserved to get a bit more rest after being so rudely awakened in the night.

Levi lifted the corner of a curtain and peered out the window. The Capital. His eyes traced the familiar landmarks as they passed, his stomach hollow. This city was the unattainable ideal he had loathed and aspired to all at once for most of his life. He hadn't been back since he had joined the Corps, and he hoped that didn't mean more memories, more nightmares.

The carriage approached the hotel, a building five stories tall, with ornate pillars lining its front and colourful flower gardens along its borders. Levi's eyes trailed up its floors, wondering how many people from the Underground had ever stayed in accommodations this fancy.

The carriage stopped. Levi reached for his boots to pull them on, and his hand froze when he felt the knife in the hidden pocket. He put it away for me after I tried to hurt him? Swallowing hard, he pulled the boots on, covering the mud stains on his white pants and socks. As he put on his jacket, he used his toe to gently tap the underside of Erwin's foot. "Hey."

The Commander's eyelids parted. "Good morning" He seemed so calm and alert that Levi wondered if he had been faking sleep. Was he studying me, or avoiding me?

"We're here." Locking the padded bed flap back into place, Levi opened the carriage door. The city sounds instantly amplified, and the stench of garbage, mud, perfumes and sweat slammed his nostrils. Had the city always been this disgusting? The Underground, his true home, had to be even worse. If not for Erwin, he would still be there, completely ignorant of the clean scent of forests and open skies.

The driver greeted Levi, then began to lift the baggage out of the back compartment. He strained with the trunk for a moment before Levi brushed him aside and lifted it out himself.

"Need help with that?" asked Erwin, stepping out of the carriage. His hair was fluffier than usual, but other than that, he looked chipper and smart in his uniform, as if nothing either violent or sexual had happened during the night.

"Sirs, I can take your things," said a voice behind them. They turned to see a hotel employee wheeling in a cart for the baggage. It was the first time any member of the public had ever called Levi 'sir'. It sounded wrong. Phony.

While Erwin checked in with the front desk, Levi glanced around the lobby. The floor was tile, most of it covered by ornate carpets. Planters around the room overflowed with lush ferns, backed by drapery, and an enormous, tacky chandelier hung over the lobby. Even the people around them were gaudily over-decorated, with thick necklaces and clothing made from rich fabrics. He hadn't realized anyone could afford to dress in such ludicrous ways for something as simple as walking through a hotel lobby.

One woman, however, stood out from the crowd. She leaned against a corner of the room, by one of the ferns, and instead of the fashionable clothing, she wore a simple grey cloak with a hood over a dark grey smock. He couldn't see her face, but she was looking fixedly at the counter, her stance rigid. Was it his imagination, or was she watching Erwin?

As if she had somehow overheard his suspicions, she glanced in Levi's direction. Turning away, she strolled to the exit. He watched her leave, trying to decide if he was just being paranoid. She didn't seem to be in any particular rush.

Erwin approached him, holding out a key. "This one's yours, Levi. Our bags are waiting for us upstairs. Follow me."

As they began to climb the stairs together, he added quietly, "How are you?"

Levi shrugged, unable to look him in the eye.

"We have a few hours before we have to be anywhere." Erwin glanced at him. "We have time to try to take your mind off everything that happened last night, if you're interested."

"What did you have in mind?"

"Our room has a heated bath. Maybe a soak and a massage?"

The idea of Erwin's soapy hands all over his body did sound appealing. "Couldn't hurt." His stomach sank, heavy with guilt. Why is he being so nice to me? Given their history, shouldn't Levi's attack have shaken his trust?

The turned down a hallway on the top floor, then stopped in front of their room. As Erwin put they key into the lock, he looked down at Levi, and his face softened. "It's okay, Levi."

"What?"

"Here." Erwin opened the door, pulled him inside, then closed it behind him.

Before Levi could react, he found himself in a tight hug. His first instinct was to push away, but Erwin was holding him with just the right amount of tension - firmly enough to be secure, but not suffocating.

"Does this help a bit?" Erwin was looking down at him with kindness in his eyes, a look Levi rarely saw on that face in public, but was beginning to become accustomed to in private.

"Hm." His eyes slipped closed as he pressed his cheek into Erwin's chest. "How the hell do you smell so good after travelling all night?"

"Do I? I feel like I'm drenched with sweat."

Levi breathed in, savouring the faint spice of cologne. Below it was a musky smell that he recognized as sweat, but it smelled good to him, almost like the scent of baking onion bread or pretzels. The scent stirred his feral side, and he had a sudden longing to bury his face in the man's armpit, between his legs, and inhale. Disgusted by his own urges, he stepped back.

"Maybe we should have that bath," he said.

They lit the fire beneath the water tank. While they waited for it to warm, Levi unpacked his belongings, arranging them neatly in the hotel drawers.

Erwin, meanwhile, pulled out a file and sat on one of the two beds. He began to spread the papers on the bed's surface, setting them at random angles and intervals.

Levi stood over him, folding his arms tightly to stop himself from reaching out and straightening the papers. "There's a desk in the other room."

"I'm more comfortable here." Erwin looked up, brows raised. "Is this bothering you?"

"You should unpack first. Your drawers are on the right, and the top half of the middle row is yours as well."

Erwin's brows pinched with confusion. "We're only here for two nights. Besides, I wanted to go over the attendee list for the gala one last time."

Levi sighed. "Fine. I'll unpack for you." He popped open the trunk and, ignoring the tax chest, which took up most of the space, began to pull out his Commander's clothes, placing them neatly in drawers. After a few minutes, he realized he was being watched.

"What?" he muttered, looking over his shoulder.

Erwin sat with his head cocked back a little, as if studying him. "Do you enjoy cleaning?"

"I enjoy tidiness." Levi tucked the man's underwear into the bottom drawer and slid it shut.

"I think I understand. It gives you control. Makes you feel like you can bring some order to this chaotic world. You clean because you have to, not because you enjoy it."

"Remember when we had that drink together, and I told you not to start analyzing me?" Levi rifled through the trunk. "You brought seven non-matching socks. How did you even get non-matching socks? Aren't they standard issue?"

"I'll be wearing boots most of the time. No one will know."

"I'll know, and I'm the one you have to worry about impressing."

"Good thing I have other means of impressing you." Erwin slid off the end of the bed and strode towards him.

Levi turned away, cranky. He felt hands moving up and down his biceps. "Don't tell me," he muttered. "Me getting pissed off turns you on."

He felt lips on his neck, then teeth gently closing over his earlobe. "I'm afraid everything you do turns me on."

A little spark of excitement rocketed up Levi's spine, but he continued unpacking. "Everything? What if I pulled down my pants and took a giant dump right here on the floor?"

There was a pause. "Almost everything you do turns me on. You're a difficult man to compliment, Levi."

"Just when I'm busy." He jerked away from the man's grasp and rifled through the trunk, pulling out a dress shirt. "This will need to be hung up in the closet."

"Why don't you take a break? The water is probably ready by now. There's a bottle of soap in the trunk that should foam up nicely."

"Okay," said Levi, hoping the looming threat of unpacked clothes wouldn't keep him from relaxing.

Erwin pulled off his jacket and threw it on the bed, but then seemed to think better of it; he retrieved the jacket and hung it neatly in the closet instead. He loosened and removed the bolo tie, hanging it with the jacket, then his hands began to work at the buckles of his gear straps.

Not bothering to hide the fact that he was watching him, Levi began to undress. He had spent so long trying to pretend he wasn't looking at Erwin that it felt strange to openly study him. Now he could finally begin to memorize the small details: the constellation of tiny moles across his skin, the blond fuzz on his lower back and ass, the bulging leg muscles that were almost disproportionate to his sleek upper body.

Erwin finished hanging his clothes in the closet, then, fully nude, turned to Levi. He cocked a brow. "Were you watching me?"

Levi had been so distracted that he hadn't even finished unbuckling his straps. His cheeks burned, and he searched for an excuse. His eyes fixed on the mottled bruises across the man's hips. "Does that still hurt?"

"A bit."

All that talk about sending me to my death, but he was still willing to throw everything away to save my life. Levi was beginning to think Commander Erwin Smith, the ruthless, driven man who would stop at nothing to stop the titans, was a persona, a stone mask, one he wore because humanity required it.

The mask was off now, the face relaxed and soft. Erwin stepped forward to help him undress. Once they were both naked, he took Levi's hand and wordlessly led him to the bath.

They worked together to pour the hot water into the basin, balancing it with cold water until it was tolerable. The soap was so foamy that once they were both in the water, the bubbles rose above the ledge of the tub. Levi sat with his back against Erwin's chest, enveloped by his arms. He heard a low sigh of contentment leave his own lips.

"I thought it might be nice to have a calm moment before the day's activities begin," said Erwin. "Would you care for a massage?"

"Sure," said Levi, using a casual tone to cover his sudden awkwardness. He was beginning to realize this bath wasn't just intimate, it was downright romantic. Romance required acting a little flirty, a little cute, and he had never been interested in dropping his guard to let that side of himself show. After the aggression of the night before, however, he probably owed Erwin a bit of romance, so he'd give it a try.

"You're tense," said Erwin, working Levi's upper back. His pressure was strong, but controlled. "Take slow breaths."

"Mm." Levi bowed his head, closing his eyes.

"How's the pressure?"

"It's all right." He felt his body begin to relax without his permission, and he tensed again.

"Everything okay?"

He needed a response other than 'I'm too uptight to let myself relax,' so he reached for his most recent source of tension: "I thought I saw someone watching you in the lobby. A woman."

The hands paused for a moment, then drifted lower, working knots out of his shoulder blades. "Was she dressed in colourless robes?"

"Yes," said Levi, surprised at the accurate guess.

"What did she look like?"

"I couldn't tell. She had a hood." Levi turned to look back at him, hoping to catch a hint of what he was thinking, but even in private, Erwin's face defaulted to neutral. "Friend of yours?"

"My sister."

Levi studied him for a moment longer and, finding nothing on his face, settled back into position again. "I didn't know you had any living family."

"I have a mother, a stepfather, and a sister. Possibly two older brothers, too, though they left the family when I was small and didn't keep contact, so I'm not sure they're still alive."

"You don't talk about any of them."

"No, I don't." Erwin cupped warm water in his hands and drizzled it down Levi's back in a warm cascade. "As callous as it may sound, I would rather forget they exist."

"I can understand that." Levi's eyes closed as he let the warmth soak into his skin.

There was a long pause, and he realized he had said the words aloud, but thankfully, Erwin didn't press him. The heels of his hands began to work Levi's mid-back.

"At any rate," continued Erwin, "my sister has been trying to contact me for several years, and I've been returning her letters and asking her to stop, but persistence is a trait we share."

"What does she want?"

There was another long pause, and Levi finally worked up the courage to ask about the letter he had found in the garbage can.

"Erwin, are you a Wallist?"

His Commander gave a low sigh. "You read the letter."

There was no point hiding the truth from a man who would see right through him. "Yeah. I could tell you were lying about what it was." He probably owed him an apology, but he was still a bit shaken by the lie.

Erwin's hands moved up to his neck, and Levi's head lolled forward. Not like I can be angry with this asshole when he's touching me like this.

When Erwin finally spoke, his voice was low. "It's difficult to know how much of my past is safe to share with you."

"You can trust me," said Levi, not letting his voice betray how wounded he was.

"Absolutely, yes, and if there were no external factors, I would be happy to share all of myself with you, the good and the bad. The problem, in our times, is that some knowledge is dangerous to possess." He was quiet for a moment. "I will say this: my father died when I was young, and that was when everything changed. My brothers left, my sister and I were confused and heartbroken, and my mother became paranoid. She moved us to the city and changed our family name. Your observation that 'Smith' was a pseudonym was an astute one." There was a hint of admiration in his voice, and Levi shrugged it off.

"Every Smith I ever knew lives in the Underground." He paused, all too aware that the next question was a sensitive one: "So what is your real name?"

"I'll keep that to myself, if you don't mind," said Erwin quietly. "I would be proud to bear my father's name and carry on his legacy, but I've been Smith for so long that I didn't remember what preceded it, not at first. By the time I found it again, it no longer felt like my name - and more than that, if my mother went to such lengths to hide it, she must have had a reason."

Levi could tell the subject troubled him. "You can still carry on your father's legacy as Erwin Smith. Having a different family name doesn't change who you are."

"Or having none at all?"

Levi bit the inside of his cheek, not ready to discuss that yet. "So what does your family have to do with the Wall cult?"

"My mother was increasingly protective as I grew up," said Erwin. "She worked hard to put us through school and provide a secure environment for us. By the time I reached my teens, I wasn't allowed outside without her supervision except to go to school. I spent a lot of time reading, playing chess with my sister, and thinking about the titans, about how humanity could defeat them. My mother always grew agitated if I mentioned them, however, so I learned to keep my thoughts to myself.

"Regardless, for the most part, it was a comfortable childhood - until my mother got it into her head that we needed to join the Wall Cult. I still don't know where the idea came from, or why she clung to it so desperately, but she turned to it with an almost fanatical devotion. First it was weekly services, then twice a week, then she began to bring us to the church every other day. Her fanaticism only worsened when she fell in love with a fellow Wallist. The day she announced their engagement, she told us we were going to move into one of the Wall Cult devotion facilities as full-time members."

He was so wrapped up in his memories that his hands had stopped moving, but Levi decided the end of the story was more important than the end of the massage. "So did you go?"

"No. I had an argument with my mother, the first we'd ever had, and it was..." He paused. "We said horrible things to each other, but it doesn't matter. Even if we had tempered our words, the end result would have been the same: I wanted to free humanity from the walls, and she thought that was sacrilege. There was no way for us to reconcile those differences. I was nearly fifteen by that point, more than old enough to sign up for military training, so I left a note saying I was joining up, took my share of my father's inheritance and departed that night."

Levi tried to picture a young Erwin leaving home without saying goodbye. It was surprisingly easy to imagine. Even back then, he would have sacrificed absolutely anything to attain his goals.

Erwin's arms settled around him, hugging him close. "I loved my mother and my sister, and I was so naive and sheltered that I didn't fit in with the other soldiers at first. If it wasn't for Nile's friendship, I might have given up. Who knows where I would have ended up? Maybe I would have been in the Underground myself."

Jealousy flickered in Levi's chest again at the mention of Nile, and he tried to smother it. When he was fourteen, you were still a kid, he reminded himself, although he wasn't too sure about that. His exact age was a bit of a mystery to him; too many difficult years had blended together in his mind.

"So why's your sister trying to contact you now?" he asked.

"She'll claim it's to save me," said Erwin, "but I suspect it's because I'm gaining influence. She always thought highly of my intelligence, so she's probably afraid I'll succeed in my evil plots to free humanity from this sacred prison." He rested his chin on top of Levi's head, and his voice faded: "And yet, if I'm perfectly honest, a part of me wants to see her. We were so close, once."

Levi reached up to grip the forearms that were crossed over his chest, showing his support.

"It's almost a shame I didn't weather it for a year or two," said Erwin after a few minutes. "We know almost nothing of the Wall Cult faith, and they're gaining influence. If I had more than a cursory knowledge of the faith, I might be able to use that to our advantage, but I never penetrated deeply enough into the organization to gather any useful information."

"Would your sister give you information?"

"Given the tone of her letters, I doubt it. Besides, I don't want her to get involved, for her own safety. If there's one thing I learned about the Wall Cult during my brief interactions with them, it's that they'll put their beliefs ahead of anything, even the well-being of their members. They're willing to sacrifice everything."

His voice sounded like he was smiling, and, disturbed, Levi craned his neck to see a full grin on Erwin's face. The expression made his skin crawl.

"That's funny to you?"

"No, it's something I respect." Cold blue eyes fixed on him. "If we ever have to face the Wall Cult head-on, Levi, they will make for formidable opponents. I haven't yet learned their weak points, but with my mother and sister among their ranks, they may know mine. It would be interesting to see if they could break me before I broke them."

Levi's stomach dropped. The mask of stone isn't a mask at all, he realized. How was it that the warm, caring man he loved was also so cold and pragmatic?

"You're not just morbid," he said aloud, "you're fucking creepy."

"Ah, my apologies." Erwin's smile warmed. "I should be enjoying your company in this warm bath, not getting carried away by the past or the future."

"Not such a warm bath any more. The water's getting cold." Levi stood, careful to keep his balance in the slippery tub, and reached for the bucket. He bent forward to fetch a bucketful of hot water from the tank, then froze as he felt a hand sliding up the back of his thigh, then his ass, then closer to the centre. He turned to face Erwin, who was staring fixedly at his rear. "Don't get any ideas."

"The view was too pleasant to ignore."

"Fine, grab my ass if you want. Just don't touch my asshole." Levi poured hot water into the bath and then filled the bucket again to repeat the process.

"No?"

His heart sank at the disappointment in Erwin's voice. "I shit from there," he said as an explanation.

"I see," said Erwin quietly.

Levi gave a low sigh. This was his only hang-up in the bedroom, and it had never been a problem before. His past partners had all been happy to receive without giving, and there were plenty of other parts of the body for them to touch and kiss if they wanted to explore. Erwin was different. Already, it was becoming obvious that he took great satisfaction in giving, in exploring.

It all came back to one bad experience he had when he had first started having sex, when he and his partner had pushed forward with too much zeal, not understanding the potentially painful consequences. He knew he had let the incident cloud his judgement, had conflated it with other obsessions and blown it out of proportion. Maybe it was time to try to let go, see if old truths still held true. Hadn't he been the one saying a person shouldn't let the past interfere with his present?

He sat down facing Erwin. "It's been a long time since I experimented a bit," he said awkwardly. "I might be willing to give some things another try."

"There's no pressure." Maybe it was Levi's imagination, but he thought he heard a note of hope in the deep voice. "And no rush. We're taking things slowly, after all."

Levi hesitated.

Erwin must have read his hesitation as annoyance, because he said, "I know I'm asking a lot in terms of patience-"

"No, it isn't that," said Levi. "I don't mind waiting, but come on, this isn't slow. You first kissed me what, four or five days ago? Then suddenly we're sucking each other off on our way to share a hotel room together. Sure, we didn't fuck on the first date, but when you said slow, I thought we'd be giving each other hand jobs for a month, not...this." He stared at the foamy surface of the water, not wanting to look up at Erwin in case he saw regret or fear in his eyes.

Finally, Erwin spoke: "I suppose we haven't been taking it slowly at all, have we?"

"If you want to slow things right down again," began Levi, but he couldn't finish the sentence. The idea of taking a few steps back was physically painful, twisting in his chest like a knife. Sex between them wasn't just sex; it was opening up their vulnerabilities to each other: panic attacks, neurotic tics, masks falling away, old hangups tossed aside. Already, Levi was pushing his own boundaries - hell, he had even swallowed for the first time, something he never imagined would interest him. Now that I've opened myself up to him, I don't want to close that door again.

"I don't want to slow things down," said Erwin, unknowingly echoing his thoughts. "It's like I said before, Levi: I don't know how to proceed with you. I'm trying to balance this affair with whatever is best for my mind, for our careers, for humanity, and it feels like every time we touch, the balance tips further away from logic." He found Levi's hand and lifted it, wiping the suds off, then kissing a knuckle. "I wonder if I really need as much time as I think."

As his lips found the knuckles a second time, Levi felt his eyelids begin to droop. "Are you treating this like a chess game you can win if you position us in the right places, then move us forward at the right times?"

"Maybe. Maybe I'm trying to apply logic to something completely illogical." Erwin pulled the hand forward, gripping Levi's elbow with his other hand, drawing him closer.

Following his lead, Levi settled on his lap. They saw eye-to-eye in this position, and even though the context was innocent enough, Levi's mind drifted back to sex. Our bodies align so perfectly when I'm on his lap, or when he spoons behind me. If he started riding my lap like this, he'd tower over me..

His heart sank. What if sex between them just wasn't going to work? They connected so well on every other level; it would be a shame if this was what drove a wedge between them. If Levi was unwilling to compromise, and Erwin ended up trapped in one role where he was accustomed to having a choice, eventually the resentment would build.

Erwin bent forward and kissed the tip of his nose; his hands slid down Levi's back. "I'm sorry, this was supposed to be a romantic bath, and I spent the whole time in a monologue about my life, then analysing the pace of our sex life." He gently nipped at the nose this time, and Levi's eyelids fluttered closed. He could feel their slick skin pressed together, and even with all the hot water sapping his libido, his body began to stir.

In a hormone-fuelled moment of bravery, he blurted, "Touch my asshole."

Erwin pulled back to look at him, brows raised, and Levi felt his cheeks warm.

"Levi?"

"Just...touch it. There's no cleaner place than a bath, right? So if there's a time to try it..." He shrugged and looked down, ears burning.

"You don't have to do anything you aren't comfortable with," said Erwin.

"Yes I do, because I told you I would never let my past interfere with my present, and I'm not a fucking hypocrite. So do it before I change my mind."

A pause. "Very well."

Erwin gently tilted Levi's pelvis back, pulling the cheeks apart underwater; their foreheads rested against each other, breath mingling between their lips. Unsure of what to expect, Levi closed his eyes, bracing himself.

Then he felt Erwin's finger lightly graze him, and he was almost disappointed at how innocent it felt, the same as any touch anywhere else on his body. Shouldn't an area so taboo feel either amazing or horrible?

"How's that?" asked Erwin softly.

"It's all right."

The finger began to trace a gentle circular motion, and Levi's breath caught. "Fuck."

"Want me to stop?"

"No." He swallowed hard. The entire surface of his skin was becoming sensitized, something between an itch and a tickle, and his groin was beginning to throb. His eyes fluttered closed as he felt a tiny increase of pressure, the finger pressing just a millimetre deeper.

"Still okay?" asked Erwin, kissing the top of his hair.

Levi opened his mouth to reply, but a small moan slipped out instead. I've lost control. Panic rippled through him, and he pushed away.

Erwin released him. For a moment, they stared at each other, Levi breathing hard.

"Are you all right?" asked Erwin gently.

Levi wasn't sure how to articulate his panic. Letting go of control during sex wasn't usually something that bothered him, but this... This was an unknown. He felt as if his body had betrayed him, giving in so thoroughly to such a tiny, unfamiliar gesture, especially one he had resisted for so many years.

"It's just new," he said aloud. "I'm fine."

"Okay." Erwin planted a gentle kiss on his forehead. "Then let's give you time to decide if you want try it again sometime or not. We should get washed up and get out of the tub, anyway. We need to head out for lunch."

They soaped down and washed their hair - a bit awkwardly, sharing such a small space - and then towelled off.

Levi wrapped his towel around his waist and stepped into the main room to change, but his eyes were drawn to an envelope on the floor. His brow furrowed. Someone must have slid it under the door while they were bathing. "E.S." was written on its surface, and he recognized the distinctively styled "E" from the letter he had seen a couple days ago – an extra loop on the first stroke, identical to the way Erwin wrote it.

"I think your sister left you another letter," he called.

Erwin strode into the room, his wet hair spiked out from his head at odd angles. He accepted the envelope and opened it, and as his eyes scanned the letter, his mouth fell into a frown. "She wants to meet with me tomorrow."

"Maybe I should do it for you," said Levi. "Tell her I'm there on your behalf. Maybe I can intimidate her, get her to back off."

Erwin looked thoughtful. "Let me think about it a bit more. There may be a better way to approach it." Stuffing the letter back into the envelope, he set it in his trunk. "Dress casually. We don't want to attract attention."

Levi pulled on an old green long-sleeved shirt, black dress pants and the black dress shoes he had planned to wear with his suit. They were uncomfortable, and he winced, hoping the walk would break them in a bit.

Erwin, meanwhile, wore a pale brown collared shirt. He stood in front of the mirror with a comb, carefully parting his hair.

"Do you own any shirts that aren't collared?" asked Levi.

"I didn't think to bring any. Does it look too formal?"

"No, it's fine." He reached up and straightened one end of the man's collar. "There."

Erwin looked down at him for a moment, then caught his jaw and bent down to give him a kiss. Not ready for the force of it, Levi took a half-step back to maintain his balance. He tasted mint; it mingled with the fresh scents of shampoo and cologne to form a dizzying scent that was distinctly Erwin. By the time the kiss broke, he was light-headed.

"Ready?" asked Erwin.

Too flustered to speak, Levi gave him a brief nod.

They made their way downstairs, then onto the street. The city was bustling with morning traffic, people wearing fashionable clothes as they meandered down the cobblestone sidewalks. Levi remembered the Capital being pristine and tidy, so he was surprised to notice signs of wear: the buildings were dirty, the flowerpots empty. Several stores were shut down, their windows boarded up. Even the people looked worn - the padded stomachs of the rich were rare now, and the well-dressed had gaunt cheeks. The fall of Wall Maria had put pressure on everyone, even this far in. Levi wasn't sure how that made him feel. Everyone suffering together should, theoretically, encourage them to band together in the same fight, but he had a feeling the old class struggles he remembered were still in play.

As they walked, he found himself glancing down alleyways, remembering forgotten moments that had seemed so important once upon a time.

"Everything okay?" asked Erwin.

Levi shrugged and glanced up at him. "Lots of memories."

"I would have expected your memories to be confined to the Underground."

"Between you and me, I spent time above ground whenever I could." He cocked his head at one street lined with small, trendy shops. "You see that street there? I pretended to be a lost child – I'd wear my one good set of clothes and cry for taxi fare. And over there." He nodded at a clock tower rising above a post office. "I sometimes scaled that tower during the night to look at the stars."

"I wonder if we ever crossed paths without realizing it," said Erwin thoughtfully, studying the tower.

"Maybe. It doesn't matter." Levi glanced up at him. "You would have dismissed me as street trash, and I would have dismissed you as a spoiled rich kid."

"Perhaps," said Erwin quietly.

Their destination was a large cafe across the street from the main Military Police branch, a bustling shop with a fenced-in area that contained several outdoor tables. They ordered their lunch and a pot of tea and sat at a table in an isolated corner. Levi sat with his back against the stone fence, staring across the street. The majority of the Military Police headquarters consisted of the barracks, two enormous stone wings that housed nearly a thousand soldiers. Directly across from them was the square building that held the offices and records.

"Do you have a good view?" asked Erwin.

"Yeah." Levi took a sip of tea and subtly glanced around them, ensuring they were out of earshot from the other patrons. "Which office is Captain Dok's? Probably on the fourth floor, right? And it must be on this side, or you would have sat us at a restaurant on the other side of the building."

Erwin leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest, looking at him as if sizing him up. "I know I said I wouldn't pry, Levi, but you seem familiar with this building. It can't be from legal encounters, because criminal processing is done at the north-west branch."

"I wouldn't know. They never managed to catch me." Levi swirled his tea, then watched the leaves settle into the bottom of the mug. "You've shared a lot of your past with me today, so I guess I owe you a bit, huh?"

"You don't owe me a thing, but if you have some sort of history with this building, and if you're comfortable sharing it, it could be useful for strategic purposes."

Levi shifted, getting more comfortable, and took a sip of tea. It would be nice to get these particular memories off his chest; he had been carrying them for too many years.

"So, I told you my first boyfriend was killed in a fight with the Military Police, right?" he said. "Matthias. He wasn't even supposed to be there. It was a dumb scuffle in the Underground, a dispute between rival gangs. I left him sleeping and didn't tell him where I was going, because he was sort of our moral compass, and I knew he wouldn't approve. But things got out of hand. We fucked up. The Military Police got involved, and we ended up in a 3-way standoff.

"Matthias came running in - I still have no idea how he figured out where we were, but he was a smart kid, a thinker like you, Erwin. He gave some heartfelt speech and managed to talk sense into us. We were all standing down, stepping back, and it should have been fine, but some prick in the Police decided to order his squad to fire. Fucking asshole." His fists tightened at the memory. "Matthias was in the middle, so he was the first to drop."

"I'm sorry," said Erwin quietly.

"It's fine. I've had a long time to come to terms with it, but at the time, I was hell-bent on revenge." His eyes flicked up to the Military Police building. "I broke into that records building. I wanted to find the name of the Squad Leader so I could personally execute him. I spent a lot of time planning it all, getting all the information I could in preparation."

He paused for another long sip of tea. Erwin was watching him attentively, a forkful of food resting, forgotten, against his plate.

"I made it to the records room and was rifling through the files, trying to figure out their filing system - I wasn't very good at reading back then, and the room was a mess. The door opened and a recruit stepped into the room. His name was Niklaus - he was a couple years younger than me, and he had been assigned to maintain the records room. He was keen to prove himself useful so that he could climb the ranks, and he thought I'd be his prize. We fought, and I was a better fighter, but my knife was no match for his swords. We ended up in a draw. So we made a deal: he'd let me go in exchange for information from me."

"About rival gangs?" asked Erwin, and Levi's lip curled.

"Fuck no. Would have loved to get those assholes taken out, but I'm not a snitch. No, we're talking about the really evil folks who hide in the Underground. People who do vile things to innocent people and try to hide from punishment. Monsters. I traded him the rumoured location of one of them for my freedom.

"But I still needed to find out who killed Matthias. So I came back for another information trade. That began a working relationship, where he fed me information about rival gangs and police movements, and I gave him rumours about monsters who would help him build his reputation. He began to climb the ranks of his organization, and I climbed the ranks of mine."

Erwin was studying him, gaze intense. "It wasn't just a business relationship, was it?"

Levi's cheeks darkened and he busied his hands with pouring another cup of tea. "Why the hell would you think that?"

"Because you wouldn't trust anyone that quickly, especially a member of the same group who had killed someone you loved. The information exchange was just an excuse."

With a shrug, Levi said, "There is a certain type of officer of the law who gets turned on by the thought of being fucked by a dirty criminal, and if that officer is a handsome blond with broad shoulders, the criminal might be happy to oblige." He was certain his entire face must be glowing red.

"I imagine that comes with all sorts of built-in perks," said Erwin, a twinkle in his eye. "The taboo nature of it, for one. Handcuffs, for another."

"Shut up. The point I'm making is that I got to know the building well."

"Did you ever find the Squad Leader you were looking for?"

"Yeah." Levi's jaw tensed. "Yeah, I did." He couldn't look him in the eye, because he was sure his inner monster was showing, and he didn't want to see disapproval on his Commander's face - or, even worse, understanding.

After a long silence, Erwin said, "Is Niklaus still stationed in the building?"

"I don't think so," said Levi. "One day, he disappeared, and I never did figure out where he went. I assumed he got promoted and didn't bother to tell me, and I went through a bit of a crisis thinking he had abandoned me. Now I wonder if someone found out about our arrangement and something more sinister happened."

He glanced at the building again, his eyes fixing on the windows of the records room. While I'm in the building, maybe I can drop into the records room and find out what happened to Niklaus. It's only a few rooms down from Dok's office. He frowned, considering. Did he want to know? He had already accepted a scenario and mourned it, had already recovered. Would re-opening that wound be worth the potential closure?

"Levi," said Erwin, "is your history going to cause any problems during your mission?"

"No," said Levi, shifting his gaze back to his Commander. "It'll give me an advantage. I know how to move easily between rooms, and how to scale the side of the building without gear. I know the flow of the rooms and the best places to station guards. I'll be in and out like a ghost."

He felt a booted foot press against his under the table, a private offering of support. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry to hear about the heartbreak you had to go through, twice in a row."

"It's okay. It was a long time ago. I don't regret how anything played out - it all brought me here."

A corner of Erwin's lips lifted into a small smile. "I admire your resilience, Levi. I'm not sure most people would have come out the other side of everything you've been through."

"I'm not special. People are stronger than they think." Levi drummed his fingernails against his mug. "Can we drop this for a bit?" All the focus on his past was making him uncomfortable. He didn't want to accidentally tap into the wrong memory.

"Of course. I need to start briefing you on all the people I'll be introducing you to at the gala, anyway." Erwin leaned forward, folding his hands on the table. "There are a few people in particular I want you to watch out for - I'd like to hear how you read them, see if your instincts tell you anything I might have missed."

Levi gave a long, drawn-out sigh. "My instincts are telling me that's going to be boring as shit."

"Your instincts are reliable," said Erwin with a smile, "but it's necessary."

"Okay, then let's get this over with." He sat tall, trying to push his memories out of his mind.

.*.*.*.

Even though Erwin could tell the debrief was making Levi's eyes glaze over, it had to be done. He kept it as brief as he could, naming key players and their relationships. Once they finished their lunches, they began to make their way back to the hotel. Erwin continued going through names in his head, visualizing the complex web of relationships. He needed to play the room tonight if he wanted to make a strong first impression as Commander, and he wanted to start getting a feel for potential allies and opponents. While he was familiar with many of the nobles thanks to trips to the Capital with Shadis over the years, he hadn't had the occasion to put most of them into play. Some of them might be useful one day.

They made it back to the hotel room with just enough time to change before they headed across the street for the ceremony. Erwin pulled on his uniform. As he tightened the Commander's pendant around his neck, he studied himself in the mirror. That black eye was going to put a damper on his charisma, making him memorable for all the wrong reasons. He leaned closer and tilted his head to examine his split lip, and noticed a love bite on his neck, right below his ear. "Levi."

"Yeah?" The man stood beside him, sharing the mirror so that he could part his hair.

"Can I see your neck?" He hunched to Levi's level, pulling down the man's collar.

Levi swatted at him. "What the hell are you doing?"

"Looking for something." There was a large love bite at the base of his throat. Erwin didn't even remember when he had kissed him there, at least not hard enough to leave a mark. I lose so much control around him.

"My cravat will cover that," said Levi, pulling away.

"I'm afraid there's no covering mine." Erwin frowned, leaned toward the mirror again, and touched the mark with two fingertips.

"No one will notice. It just looks like another bruise."

"I hope you're right." The last thing he needed were rumours of some sort of affair. Though, given the propensity for the noble class to gossip, maybe salacious rumours would help him more than hurt him. His head spun. He was already fatigued from trying to step into different thought processes, and the ceremonies hadn't even begun. After this trip was complete, he was going to need a day or two off to rest his mind.

A few minutes later, they made their way to the courthouse across the street. The main courtroom was already packed, the audience arranged along three borders of the room. The central rows held the the Military Police, Captain Nile Dok standing at their helm. The rows along the left wall held the Garrison, headed by a bald man with a moustache: Commander Dot Pixis. The right wall seating had been opened to members of the public, and Erwin scanned their faces, looking for his sister. She wasn't present, and he felt conflicting waves of relief and disappointment.

At the far end of the room, seated at a table overlooking the crowd, were three of the King's representatives, but, as Erwin has expected, the King himself was absent. He didn't expect him to show up at the gala, either. In all his years in the military, he had never once laid eyes on the King. He was beginning to wonder if the figurehead was not actually a man, but merely a concept.

As they stepped into the room, he glanced down at Levi. The Squad Leader's eyes scanned the room, and his stance was a little too upright, a little too tense. This was his first time in a formal military setting outside the Survey Corps, and Erwin wondered what thoughts were running through his mind, especially given his history with the Military Police. He gave the man's shoulder a quick, friendly squeeze, wishing he could give him a long hug instead, but that would have to wait.

The centre of the courtroom was empty, save for a desk that would be the Supreme Commander's seat. Erwin led Levi onto the floor. They came to a stop at the back, directly in front of Nile. Erwin glanced behind them and gave him a nod, and Nile returned it, but there was no time to exchange greetings. At the head of the room, a guard stepped forward:

"Announcing Supreme Commander Darius Zackly."

The military members of the audience saluted, even Levi, who was evidently on his best behaviour. The Supreme Commander took a seat at a table at the head of the room. He looked older than Erwin remembered, his skin wizened, his hair white. Who will take over when he retires? he wondered. Pixis seemed a likely bet, but the chain of command wasn't always clear when it came to promotions at a high level.

The room fell silent.

"Captain Erwin Smith," announced Zackly, "please step forward."

"Sir." Erwin approached the table and stopped a few paces in front of it, pulling into a salute.

The Supreme Commander opened a file and pulled out some papers, perching reading glasses on the end of his nose. "I'm sorry to be doing this so soon. Commander Anke Roth was full of promise, and we didn't even have a chance to see what she was capable of."

"We didn't, sir."

Zackly looked up at him over his glasses. "I've been following your career for a long time, Erwin, and you've continually impressed me with your strategic advances for the Survey Corps. You have the rare ability to approach familiar problems in unconventional ways. I foresee great things for you - I hope this appointment won't be such a short one."

"I will do my best to carry on Commander Shadis and Roth's legacy, sir."

"I'm sure you will. Shall we get started?" The man adjusted his glasses, then began to read through the Commander's creed. Erwin had studied it inside and out so often that he could recite every word of it. He stood tall, following along in his mind.

"-in service to humanity, and in service to the King," finished Zackly. "Do you, in front of this crowd of superiors, colleagues, subordinates, and the general public, accept this responsibility and all it shall entail?"

"Yes, sir, I do." Erwin's shoulders were starting to ache from holding such a tight salute.

"Then by the authority granted to me by His Majesty the King, I declare you Commander of the Survey Corps." He scrawled his signature on a scroll, then rolled it and stood. "Congratulations, Commander Smith."

Erwin accepted the scroll, the audience applauded, and then it was over: the moment Erwin had been aiming for every day for fifteen years had come and gone. He had always looked forward to this promotion with anticipation, imagining a wave of satisfaction and pride, but this felt like any other day, any other meeting.

Dazed, he moved to stand by Levi as Zackly dismissed the court.

Levi cocked a brow at him. "Congratulations."

"Thanks."

"You okay?"

"It was over so fast." Erwin pasted on a polite smile, nodding at the sea of people who streamed past him with hollow congratulations, accepting the occasional handshake.

"Zackly had some high praise for you," said Levi.

"Let's hope I'll live up to his expectations."

"You will."

As he looked down at the Squad Leader, Erwin's natural smile overcame the fake one. "Thank you, Levi."

The stream of well-wishers began to dwindle, and at the very end of the line was Captain Nile Dok. As the man stepped forward, he grinned and shook his head. "I can't believe you beat me to Commander, you bastard." He held out his hand.

Erwin pushed aside the hand and went for a hug instead, clapping the man's back a couple times before releasing him. "Good to see you, Nile."

"You, too. What the hell happened to your eye?"

"Mike."

Nile's brows rose. "Fighting over girls like old times?"

"Not exactly," said Erwin, but he didn't offer an alternate explanation. Instead, he turned to Levi, who was staring at the Captain with a curled upper lip. "Nile, I'd like you to meet my next in command, Squad Leader Levi."

"The man from the Underground, right?" Nile held out a hand. "I've heard a lot about you. You're getting quite the reputation around these parts."

"Yeah." Levi shook his hand, the expression of disgust still on his face.

"Well," said Nile, obviously uncomfortable. He turned back to Erwin. "Marie would have sent her congratulations, but she'll see you tonight, so she can pass them along herself."

Surprise turned Erwin's blood to ice, squeezed the air from his lungs. He took a careful breath and defaulted to his polite smile. "Is that so?"

"We hired a sitter for Jasper. It's been awhile since I took her out on the town, so she's excited. Won't stop talking about it." Nile studied him, his grin fading. "It's been a long time. You haven't been by since before Jasper was born."

"I suppose I haven't."

"He's almost five years old."

"Social pleasantries are a luxury those of us on the battlefront cannot afford." Erwin glanced down at Levi, who was caving in on himself, arms folded tightly around his chest. "Please excuse us, Nile. We have a few preparations to make before the gala begins, so we'll have to catch up with you at the gala."

"Of course." Nile bobbed his head at each of them, then departed.

Once they were alone in the hall, Levi glanced up at Erwin. "What the fuck was all that?"

"All what?" asked Erwin, still staring after Nile.

"The way you went from hugs to posturing within about three sentences."

"We have a complicated history."

Levi scowled. "His facial hair is disgusting. It looks like pubic hair."

"His wife likes facial hair, so I suppose he does the best he can with what he has," said Erwin, secretly amused by the comparison. "We should go back to the hotel and get changed into our suits. I'm thinking I might like to stop at the hotel bar before the gala begins." Between the anticlimactic promotion ceremony and the idea of seeing Marie again, he needed a drink.

Levi eyed him warily. "You okay?"

"I'm fine," said Erwin, but his heart was still pounding.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

Dance

Levi slicked the last strand of hair into place, then straightened his cravat and stood to his full height. He had always suspected that slicking back his hair would make him look like a little kid, but he had to admit it looked polished. The suit was a bit long in the arms, but otherwise it made his legs look long, his body toned. Not bad.

He glanced sideways at his Commander, who was fussing with his eyebrows and a pair of tweezers. "Almost ready, Erwin?"

"You're lucky, Levi, with your slender eyebrows."

"Skinny eyebrows would look dumb on your face. How do I look?"

"The amount of grooming these beasts take..." Erwin grimaced, leaning closer to the mirror.

"Erwin," said Levi, losing patience with his unusual distraction. "Your eyebrows look fine."

His Commander turned to address him, but the blue eyes widened, trailing up and down Levi's body.

A bit self-conscious, Levi said, "It looks all right?"

Erwin slowly circled him, then stopped in front of him and gripped his shoulders. His face was solemn. "You are the most handsome man I have ever laid eyes upon."

Cheeks burning, Levi looked away. "Shut up."

"I mean it." Two fingers pressed under Levi's chin, lifting it, and then Erwin's mouth closed over his. The kiss just barely broke, and he added, "I'm tempted to forego the gala and take you straight to bed."

"But you won't."

"We have business to attend to first." Erwin stood tall and straightened his Commander's pendant. "How do I look?"

"Like the kind of man I'd want to go straight to bed with." Levi caught the pendant and pulled him down for another kiss.

As they began to descend the stairs toward the hotel bar, Erwin began to get fidgety again, continuously adjusting his pendant. Levi watched with his periphery, dread pooling in his stomach.

"Okay," he said finally, "what the hell is going on with you?"

"What do you mean?" asked Erwin, straightening the tails of the bolo tie.

"You've been twitching like a druggie ever since we got back from the courthouse." With a sidelong glance he added, "Ever since you talked to Pubeface."

Erwin was silent.

"Pubeface is Nile," said Levi.

"Yes, I understood. I'll be fine after a drink."

Something about Nile threw him off, thought Levi. Maybe they used to fuck? That didn't seem right. Admittedly, he didn't always get the right read on people, but Nile came across as decidedly uninterested in men. Maybe it was just nerves about his first public appearance as Commander – but that didn't seem right, either. It was strange to imagine Erwin getting nervous about anything.

They settled at a table in the hotel bar, and Erwin excused himself to get their drinks. Levi watched, wary, as Erwin took a shot of liquor at the bar, then returned with two ales. What the hell?

"I'll start by introducing you to Pixis," said the Commander, taking a seat. He slid Levi's ale across the table. "I don't know him all that well myself, but Shadis strongly recommended making him an ally. He's fond of the drink, so sharing a glass of wine with him should gain us some ground."

"Sure." Levi focused on Erwin's drumming fingers. "Do you think maybe you're putting too much pressure on yourself? You don't need to meet everyone tonight, do you? There will be plenty more bullshit parties for you to attend after this one."

The fingers stilled. "I suppose you're right."

So it was just nerves about his new role after all, thought Levi, relieved. "You probably have some master plan you want to execute, and becoming Commander was the first step, right?" he said, because he was beginning to understand just how far Erwin looked into the future. "Take it easy. You don't have to do it all on the first night."

"You're absolutely right." The man smiled at him. "Thank you, Levi."

But a few minutes later, his fingers started drumming again.

They finished their ales in silence, then stood. Erwin's hand briefly pressed against the small of Levi's back as they left the bar, guiding him through the door. The contact was unexpected, and Levi felt a flush colour his cheeks. Affection in public -- is the alcohol already loosening him up?

Across the street, townsfolk in expensive outfits milled around the hall entrance. The large double doors were wide open, broadcasting a lively song played by a string instrument and a harpsichord. Men in dark suits stood at the entrance taking people's names, and Military Police members dotted the streets, surveying the crowds.

"This is fucked," muttered Levi, feeling completely out of his element.

"You'll be fine," said Erwin. "If you're in doubt about what to say, just smile politely and nod along." He glanced down at him. "Well, just nod along, I suppose."

They gave their names at the door, then stepped into the hallway. Levi felt dozens of eyes fix on him, as if people could tell he didn't belong. He returned a couple stares, his eyes narrow, and felt a flicker of satisfaction at the shocked looks he got in return.

Then they stepped into the main ballroom, and he forgot to be angry.

The room was enormous, several times the size of the dining hall back at headquarters, the ceiling at least three times as high. Lamps hung from the rafters, interspersed with crystal chandeliers that reflected the light in intricate patterns. A balcony ran along the border of the ceiling, and on it, he could see a few well-dressed couples kissing or staring down at the dance floor.

The dance floor itself was nearly empty, save for an elderly couple dancing off-beat and smiling, and a couple young girls spinning and giggling. The rest of the crowd was seated at small square tables, enjoying food and drink from the buffet. There had to be at least a hundred people seated, and others moving between tables, drinks in hand, the phony smiles on their faces so grotesque that they looked like little titans. Levi shrank against Erwin, fighting the urge to flee.

"Holy fuck! Erwin," cried a woman's voice.

Erwin turned just as someone barrelled into him, knocking him back a few paces. Levi jumped away, hand instinctively going for his knife before he remembered he wasn't wearing his boots.

A small woman had her arms around Erwin's neck, emitting high-pitched giggles. He spun her around once and then set her down, a broad grin on his face.

"You shaved your beard," she said with a pout, running her knuckle along the square jaw with a familiarity that made Levi's blood boil. He glared at the woman, sizing her up. She had dark, wavy hair, and freckled skin several shades darker than Erwin's. Her eyes were brown and bright. Her build was small and compact, about Levi's height, and she wore a flattering brown dress that accentuated her tiny waist.

"Go easy on him, Marie," said Captain Nile, hurrying to join them. "Sorry, she's had a bit to drink."

"I'm fine," said the woman, her eyes still locked with Erwin's. "Just excited. It's been too damned long."

"It certainly has," said Erwin, his voice warm.

Levi's eyes shifted to Nile, to Erwin, then back to the woman, and his heart sank as he remembered their discussions about his past. It all fell into place: the tension with Nile, the nervousness, this ridiculous display of familiarity. When he was young, he was in love with a woman, but he left her behind to join the Survey Corps, and she ended up marrying his friend. Fuck! He understood that Erwin had a past -- one didn't start a relationship at their age and expect a clean slate -- but he had never expected to come face-to-face with it.

 "Marie," said Erwin, standing tall, "I'd like you to meet Squad Leader Levi."

The brown eyes lit up, and the woman turned to Levi. "I've heard a lot about you. It's an honour." She curtsied.

"Levi," continued Erwin, "this is the effervescent Marie Dok."

Effervescent. Levi's skin crawled. "I need a drink."

"You've come to the right place," said Marie. "Open bar. Why don't the boys get us a drink while we get settled at the table?"

He panicked. "Some of us have work to do."

"It can wait." Erwin gripped his shoulder and squeezed. "You go ahead and get settled. Is ale okay?"

"Something stronger," said Levi.

And so he ended up stranded at a table with Erwin's ex-lover at a party full of the upper class he had always hated-yet-admired. Marie sat beside him, her elbows on the table, and smiled.

"It really is an honour," she said. "They're calling you Humanity's Strongest."

"I guess." His eyes darted around the room as he tried to think of a way to get out of this without completely ostracizing himself. "I'm supposed to be making rounds and meeting people."

"I'll save you some time." She leaned closer and pointed at a large man with a top hat. "That man there? He's a pompous asshole who thinks he's important. And that woman he's with? Pompous asshole. In fact..." Her hand swept the entire room. "Every single person you see is a pompous asshole."

He wanted so badly to hate her, but she was speaking his language. "Doesn't that make you a pompous asshole, too?"

"Fuck, yes. I'm the worst of the bunch." She pulled a flask out of her handbag. "Pre-drink drink?"

"What is it?"

"Potato vodka."

He gave in and slid an empty glass toward her. She poured him a generous helping, and he took a sip.

"Not bad." He eyed her. "Who brings a flask to a gala?"

"Do you have kids, Levi?"

"No."

"If you did, you'd understand." Her eyes twinkled, and she paused for a sip of alcohol. "By the way, I was so sorry to hear about Anke. There aren't many of the old gang left. How's Mike doing?"

"Same as always," he said with a shrug. He glanced around for Erwin, and found him chatting earnestly with Nile at the bar.

"So he's still quiet, still sniffing things a lot?"

"Quiet?" repeated Levi. "Mike? Sometimes I can't get him to shut up."

"He must trust you a lot," said Marie. "I barely ever heard him speak."

"Maybe he didn't like you." He took a long sip of his drink.

She stared at him for a moment, then shook her head with a small smile. "He wouldn't be the first, or the last." Her eyes trailed the crowd, landing on the chatting pair. "And Erwin?" Her voice softened. "Is he doing okay? That black eye seems a bit out of place."

Levi eyed her and finished off his drink.

Before the silence became too awkward, Erwin took a seat on Levi's other side and set a glass of amber liquid in front of him. "Not quite as good as that whiskey I had before, but it's close. We never did get that post-expedition drink." His hand brushed Levi's under the table, the motion too precise to be an accident.

"I hope my wife didn't say anything inappropriate while I was gone," said Nile, taking the last seat.

She frowned. "Thanks for your trust, Nile. You worried I'm going to start telling embarrassing stories? Like the time you got so drunk that you pissed yourself and passed out, and it took four of your friends to carry you back to the barracks?"

The man's teeth clenched. "Marie!"

"Or how about that time Anke and I convinced you and Erwin that we'd make out if you two did it first?"

Her husband let out a low groan and buried his face in his hands.

Levi glowered at Erwin; the Commander looked away, cheeks dark, and said, "That was a long time ago, Marie."

"I'm sure you remember it well," said Marie, grinning. "Nile wasn't into it so much, but you put on a good show."

"To be fair," said Erwin, his tone matter-of-fact, "Nile was a surprisingly good kisser."

"Screw you both," came the muffled reply.

Levi's lip curled as he fixed his gaze on his drink. The idea of it was nauseating: the man he admired kissing that weaselly, bearded face, all because of some horny urge to see women kiss. The Erwin he knew was a genius, a man of composure and sophistication, not a hormone-driven brat.

The startling revelations were bothering Levi, but even worse were Erwin's interactions with Marie. Just what was their current relationship? Why did he keep giving her little glances when he thought no one was looking?

Levi tossed back his drink and stood.

"Everything all right?" asked Erwin, but Levi pretended not to hear him and marched into the crowd. He needed to get away from the conversation as quickly as possible.

He had a brief thought that he might try to mingle -- at least one of us has to remember why we came here -- but the stench of perfume and phony laughter was choking him. His feet brought him to the buffet table, and his stomach growled. Maybe food would help his mood. He selected a plate, inspected it for cleanliness, and, satisfied, began to look over the thin cuts of meat.

"Levi," said Erwin's voice behind him.

"I'm busy."

A hand closed over his shoulder, and Erwin spun him around to face him. "May I speak with you for a moment?"

Levi was too angry, and too ashamed of the disproportionate scale of his anger, to engage in rational conversation. "Can't it wait? I'm fucking starving."

The blue eyes searched his. "Okay," said Erwin finally. He selected a plate and stepped into line next to Levi.

As the line moved and they selected their food, his Commander spoke, his voice low: "While we were getting drinks, I spoke with Nile about the last mission."

"And?"

"And he was as evasive as I feared."

Levi let out a low sigh. "Fine. I'll deal with it tonight." He wasn't in the right mindset for the break-in mission, but at least it would be an excuse to get out of this joke of a party.

"I'm sorry, Levi. I didn't realize how strongly this setting would disagree with you." Erwin's brows were pinched with concern, and that only made Levi angrier. He's completely oblivious to why I'm upset.

"I've taken shits with more character than anyone at this fucking party," he muttered.

Erwin didn't seem to hear him. "About Marie," he began.

Levi waited. Maybe I'll get an explanation after all.

"You may hear some tales from my past that seem rather...out of character." The Commander glanced back at the table. "Marie's family owned the bar we used to frequent during our training days, and she was often our bartender. I'm afraid it was in her best interest to get us as drunk as possible while staying sober herself, so she has catalogued away several embarrassing moments. I assure you, for most of my youth, I was even more serious than I am now. Anything you hear was the exception rather than the rule."

"Okay." It wasn't the explanation he wanted, but he was too angry to properly express how he was feeling. He preoccupied himself with selecting a few pickled vegetables from a tray. He could feel Erwin watching him, but he didn't turn to acknowledge him.

They returned to the table in silence.

.*.*.*.

As they ate, Nile and Marie began to reminisce about the old training days. While Erwin was happy to bask in nostalgia, his eyes kept drifting to Levi. The man's sour expression deepened more and more as the evening progressed. His earlier reluctance to say what was wrong worried Erwin. I thought we were better at honesty by now.

His eyes also kept drifting to the seats of honour at the head of the room, to the empty throne where the King should be seated. No one seemed to find it odd that he was yet again missing.

"I was hoping I might finally meet the King tonight," he said at one point, and Nile shrugged it off.

"Since the fall of Wall Maria, he's been busy ensuring our shrinking lands can support our population. I'd rather he be hard at work than mingling with the rest of us."

"Good point," said Erwin without conviction, wondering why there was always an excuse.

The drinks flowed, and his inhibitions began to melt away, his body warm and fuzzy. He knew he should be showing Levi around and introducing him to several distinguished guests, but it was so pleasant to dwell on these memories, the time when they had all been innocent and happy. Even he, with his goals and morbid visions of reality, had been more naive then -- the titans, and all the horrors that came with them, had been nothing but a concept.

Marie was in the middle of telling a story about the time Commander Pixis himself had been drinking in her bar, when several other musicians joined the violinist and harpsichordist on stage. A waltz began to play, and couples streamed onto the floor.

"Fucking finally," said Marie. "Come on, Nile, let's dance. Just this once."

"I don't dance," said Nile, as if the words were an addendum to an argument they had rehashed several times before.

"Fine." The brown eyes locked onto Erwin, and his blood ran cold. "Erwin? How about it?" She held out a hand. "Just like the old days?"

His eyes flicked up to Nile, who shrugged. "Go for it."

Levi wouldn't look at him.

"Very well," said Erwin, still watching Levi as he reached for her hand. "It looks like there aren't any objections." He had forgotten how tiny her hand was, how the narrow fingertips were always cold. One day, he had walked her home late after a snow storm, and they had broken into an impromptu snowball fight -- afterwards, he had breathed onto her fingers to warm them-

He blinked, pulling himself away from the memory. "Shall we?"

She smiled. "Lead. I'll follow."

The words reminded him of Levi, and he cast one last look at him, but the man still wouldn't meet his gaze. After this dance, decided Erwin, he would pull him aside for a chat.

He led Marie into the centre of the dance floor, then swooped her into position, and she gave a shriek, then covered her mouth, embarrassed.

"Marie," he chided. "Are you going to be able to keep up?"

"Shit, I wasn't expecting that speed. You're so much stronger than the last time we danced." One hand settled beside his neck, the other interlocking with his. "Taller, too. Much taller."

"It's been a long time." He led her through the gliding steps, the movements coming easily even after a decade and a half.

"You're all grown up now," she said, and he found he couldn't look away from her long-lashed eyes. "Commander of the fucking Survey Corps. I guess it was worth it."

"Worth it?" he repeated.

"Leaving me." She delivered the words matter-of-factly, but he could see hurt flicker in her eyes.

"Marie-"

"No, it's fine. I'm over it." She smiled. "Nile is a kind husband and a good father. I love him. It's just..." She trailed off.

"Just?" he prompted.

"Talking about the old days stirs up a few things."

"I suppose it does." Erwin broke their gaze to steer her through the crowd. He spun her out with as much strength as he could, then back in, and she laughed; he chuckled, too. He had forgotten how good it felt to be light on his feet, to use coordination for fun instead of life-or-death maneuvering.

"I'm curious how you got all those bruises," said Marie.

"I'll leave it to your imagination."

"Are you sure that's a good idea? Even that little love bite on your neck?" Her eyes sparkled.

He cleared his throat. "That's a bruise."

"Sure it is. You know, Erwin, I used to wonder why I couldn't convince you to stay," she said, her tone still light. "Why you found titans so much more interesting than me. But tonight, I think I finally figured it out."

"Did you?" He spun her again.

"Yeah." Her eyes narrowed with mischief, a smirk on her lips. "I didn't have the right parts."

"Parts?"

"Balls and a dick."

His chest tightened, but he didn't miss a beat: "Titans don't have genitalia."

"No, they don't, but that's not what I'm talking about, and you know it." Her gaze locked onto their table. "Levi's pretty cute."

"Is he? I hadn't noticed." He felt sweat bead on his temple. There were very few people in the world who could see through him, and Marie was one of them. If she guessed that he was involved with Levi, Nile would have full access to that information, and he wasn't sure Nile was trustworthy.

"He's feisty, too." She arched a brow at him. "Just how you like them."

"It does make him resilient on the field," said Erwin, intentionally misunderstanding. "He's already our strongest soldier, even stronger than Mike, and he's still improving. I imagine he'll leave the rest of us in the dust after a few more expeditions to hone his skills."

She pursed her lips, unimpressed. "Please don't embarrass yourself by playing dumb. I see the way you look at him, like he's the only person in the room who matters." A corner of her lips lifted. "Then again, it's not just him – you're looking at me that way, too."

"Everyone with eyes is looking at you that way," he said, trying to pull the conversation away from Levi. "You haven't aged a day, and that dress is elegantly tailored."

"Flattery to make me change the topic? Real nice, Erwin."

"It's sincere," he said. "You look stunning."

"Shut up," she muttered, cheeks darkening.

He wanted to look for Levi, to see if he could read anything on that angry, inscrutable face, but looking for him would only cement Marie's suspicions. He trained his focus on her instead, and their gaze held.

His mind, still hazy with alcohol and nostalgia, began to drift. How would his life have played out if he had given up his goals to start a family with her? She was certainly beautiful, and they had always had excellent chemistry, even before they had become romantically involved. Their life together would have been pleasant. He had to admit it was nice to look down at her and see the genuine smile of someone who, in spite of all that had happened in the past year, lived a comfortable life.

Then he thought of the struggle humanity faced. Any life they could have built together would have been based on denial. People weren't safe, any of them, even those cloistered within the deepest walls. So long as that was a fact, he was unable to settle. The titans had to be eradicated, and he didn't trust anyone else to do the job.

Besides... He thought of the camaraderie on the field, the scent of sweat and blood, and the utter faith in his team. The glide of pen against paper, the sensation of a wooden pointer sliding across a map. Shared drinks in quiet times with those who survived, their bonds stronger than blood.

He thought of Levi, of all their moments together so far: that first hug in his office, their discussions on the rooftop, on the guard tower, in his home. He thought of the way they fell into step so easily together, flowing together. Their whole life was a dance. This warm nostalgia, this gala and all its wrappings, they were all a farce in comparison.

"What's that?" asked Marie.

"What's what?" he asked, coming back to himself.

She touched his chin. "That smile. That's not for me, is it?"

"No, it's not," he said, trying to pretend it didn't hurt to see her face fall.

.*.*.*.

From the moment Erwin and Marie stepped onto the dance floor, Levi's stomach began to sink, and it sank further and further the longer he watched. Their eyes held, their bodies moving in perfect synchronization, flushed smiles on their faces. He finished off another drink, not caring any more if he was going to be too drunk to complete his mission. Anything to numb this hell.

He glanced over at Nile. The Captain downed his own drink, then Marie's, then reached over and finished off Erwin's.

"How fucking thirsty are you?" asked Levi. He didn't really care, but even awkward discussion was better than focusing on the couple and their perfect dance.

Nile stared at the dance floor, his face grim. "Does he ever talk about Marie?"

"Not really."

There was a long pause, long enough that Levi's eyes drifted back to the pair. Erwin was staring fixedly at Marie as they spun. Levi waited for him to look over, even for a moment, but the Commander seemed to have forgotten the rest of the world existed.

"Do you trust him, Levi?" asked Nile softly.

"Yes. Absolutely." Even if he was hurting, even if he was having doubts, he wasn't going to open up to a rat-faced man he barely knew.

"Let me tell you something about Erwin Smith." Nile leaned closer. "When he has a goal in mind, he will step over absolutely anyone, with no regard for how they might feel. He gets things done, sure, but he brings with him a wave of destruction that leaves hurt people in his wake. His family. Marie. Me. We've all seen it, all fallen victim to it. Be careful. You can trust him as long as your goals align, but the second they don't..." He trailed off, his eyes glassy.

Levi's jaw tightened. "What the fuck are you trying to say?"

"We were so close, once. Like brothers. I didn't even question that he would respect my relationship, but take a good look at my wife and me. We both have dark hair and dark eyes, right?"

"Yeah?"

The Captain's gaze bored through him. "So why does my child have blond hair and blue eyes?"

The floor began to tilt beneath Levi. He looked over at Erwin and Marie, saw them whispering together, their moves in perfect unison, Erwin's hand so delicately resting on her lower back. Fuck! He pushed away from the table and stood. The crowd, the music, it was all leaning in, touching him, filthy with the sweat of hundreds of stinking, corrupt nobles. He pushed through the crowd. Out. I need to get out.

.*.*.*.

As the dance continued, Marie's mouth began to droop, her steps less enthusiastic. Erwin trained his eyes on her, still not comfortable looking for Levi. Above all else, I have to pretend he means nothing to me. I have to maintain this lie; even if she doesn't believe it, Nile won't be able to use it against me if I just keep denying everything.

"Does he know?" she asked. "Levi."

He stepped beside her and twisted, the dance bringing her back against his front for a brief moment. "Know what?"

She tilted a little to look up at him, dark eyes rimmed with tears. "That you always choose titans, in the end."

His step faltered, and he forgot his lie. "Levi has the same goals I do."

She shook her head. "No, Erwin. Be careful with this one. He's more fragile than he pretends."

"Are we talking about the same man?" he asked, brow furrowing. He spun her back into position. "He's the strongest person I've ever met."

"Maybe so, but you're stronger than anyone, and you don't even realize it. You'll crush him if you aren't careful. You'll leave him shattered."

He studied her. "Is this about Levi, or about you?"

One of her tears spilled over. She looked down, lip curled, angrily swabbing at her face.

"Marie." He stood still and tried to wipe one of her tears, but she knocked his hand away.

"Fuck off, Erwin." Another tear spilled over, and he gave a low sigh.

"I thought we were long past this."

"We were. I just... Fuck. I drank too much. I don't know why I thought it'd be a good idea to dance with you. I'm going back to the table." She turned away.

"Marie," he said, dropping a hand on her shoulder. "Are you happy with the way your life played out?"

She stopped and looked up at him, her expression sullen, her eyes red.

"Do you like knowing that when your husband leaves for work, he'll come back to you at the end of the day?" he asked. "Are you happy that your child will grow up knowing both his mother and father? Do you enjoy living deep in the walls, far away from the threat of the titans?"

She wiped her cheek again. "Yes."

"Then it was worth it," he said, releasing her shoulder. "Think about how your life would have turned out if we stayed together, and you'll agree."

Her eyes dropped away, and she turned. His stomach twisted in knots, but he lifted his eyes to look past her, back to the table. Back to Levi.

Levi was gone.

He slowly turned and scanned the room, looking for him, but he was nowhere to be seen. Possibly he was hidden among the crowd, too short to be visible, but Erwin's instincts told him otherwise. This setting was too much for him.

Stepping into Levi's mindset, he scanned the room again, trying to determine where he would have gone. His eyes locked onto the staircase to the upper balcony. Whenever Levi was stressed, he went higher.

Without looking back at the table, he made his way to the stairs.

As he climbed, Marie's words echoed in his mind: you always choose titans, in the end. He had been perfectly clear with Levi, hadn't he? He hadn't left any room for doubt: the titans would always come first. If the situation arose where he had to choose between Levi and humanity's future, he would choose humanity in an instant. Levi would do the same.

Still, he found doubts licking at the back of his mind, and he tried to snuff them: We both understand the terms of our relationship. If anything, I've mentioned it too often.

The realization hit him so hard that he froze mid-step, his knuckles white on the banister: It's not that I doubt how clearly I've communicated it.

I doubt my ability to follow through.

He had failed that before they had even kissed: when Levi had been missing, Erwin had been ready to throw his life away, betting everything on an unlikely outcome. All his logic, all his strategy, they all disappeared around Levi – he had already realized that was the case in the bedroom, but it went beyond that. This was far deeper, far more insidious.

If I have to choose between Levi and my goals, will I be able to make the right choice?

He kept moving up the stairs, one at a time, legs heavy. Walking away from his family, from Marie, had been surprisingly easy. Even moving on from Henrik, as devastating as his death had been, hadn't deterred him from his duties for long. Somehow, his feelings for Levi had wormed their way into his resolve from the very beginning. It didn't matter when they consummated it, how fast they moved: he was already in over his head.

I should push away now, he thought. But as he considered it, he realized that was impossible. Everything about Levi held him captive. His capability in the field, his speed, his power. His crass nature and volatile temper. His obedience and respect, absolute, but not blind. His powerful physique, his smile that only showed in his eyes. Even his tics, his weaknesses, his obsessions. They had all woven around Erwin's heart like vines, digging in, taking hold.

Can I still order him to die?

He scoured the balcony and found no sign of him, but his eyes were drawn to a curtain along the wall, slightly out of place. Behind it was a metal door, open a crack. He slipped through it and pulled it back into place behind him.

A metal staircase at the back of the room led to an open hatch on the roof. His heart pounded, certain now that he was getting close, as he climbed up to the hatch and peered through it.

Levi sat on a ledge along the border of the flat roof, knees drawn to his chest, looking up at the evening sky. Erwin paused to watch him, taking in the way the orange light and violet shadows played across his skin.

A moment later, the silver-blue eyes locked onto him. Levi's face twisted, and he turned away. "Fuck off."

Ignoring the inappropriate comment, Erwin stepped onto the roof and stood a few feet back. The sky was a brilliant orange, the sun just dipping behind the horizon. Music rose up from the hall, slightly muted, but still beautiful. Under happier circumstances, it could have been a romantic setting.

"I'm sorry, Levi," he said. "I sometimes forget how difficult parties are for more introverted people than me."

"I didn't expect to have to watch you grope your ex on the dance floor," muttered Levi, his arms tightening around his chest.

Erwin looked at him, surprised. He's jealous?

"You could have warned me," the man continued, sullen. "I couldn't figure out why you were so damned nervous. Thought it was something important."

"Levi-"

"No, I get it. It's not like we've been together long. And I don't have tits, or a perky personality, or charisma. I can't give you a child. We can't even dance together without making those rich assholes down there suspicious. I get it." He curled tighter into himself. "But this mission I'm going on tonight: is it really about Nile, or is it because he's Marie's husband? Are you checking up to make sure she's safe with him?"

"I would never put you in danger for something so petty," said Erwin.

"Do you still love her?" Levi's tone was so dull that it had to be faked.

He paused. "You knew from the beginning that I carry love with me long after relationships end. My residual love for Henrik is why I wanted to proceed with caution-"

"No bullshit, Erwin. Answer the fucking question."

He gave a low sigh, trying to word it in the most delicate way possible. "She was my first love. I will always care for her. That is not a threat to you in any way."

Levi's brows dropped, eyes fixed on empty air in front of him. "Sure looked like a threat, the way you were dancing."

"We spent the whole dance talking about you," said Erwin evenly. "She guessed I had fallen for you. I denied it as best I could, but she saw right through me." His voice dropped. "I failed to protect our relationship, Levi, and I hurt you while I was doing it. I really let you down tonight."

The silver-blue eyes finally fixed on him, and maybe it was Erwin's imagination, but they looked glassy.

"May I join you, Levi?" he asked softly.

The man shrugged.

Erwin sat beside him, hanging his feet over the edge of the rooftop. The street was several stories below them, and he suddenly realized he didn't have his gear, and this height was an actual threat. The street dipped away from him, a wave of vertigo threatening to overcome him, but he steeled himself.

"I shouldn't have told you to fuck off," said Levi. "That was out of line."

"It's fine." Erwin tore his gaze from the street, forcing himself to look at Levi instead. "You were the second person in a row to do so tonight, so that took some of the sting out of it."

A narrow brow cocked in his direction. "Marie?"

"Yes. It caught me off guard. I had forgotten how blunt she can be."

Levi shook his head. "Starting to get a feel for your type. Short, crass and blunt."

"You aren't wrong." He glanced sideways. "Feel like I was just approximating my type until now, though. Everyone else pales in comparison to the real thing."

There was a long pause, and his heart pounded as he waited to see if Levi would accept the compliment.

Instead, the man's heels drummed the brick. "Did you fuck Marie when Henrik died?"

Erwin stared at him, surprised. "Did Nile tell you that?"

"In a way."

There didn't seem to be any point in lying. "It's a mistake we both regret." He gave a low sigh, ashamed to be dwelling on a moment he would sooner forget. "I was heartbroken, grieving and looking for an escape. She didn't give me any indication that she and Nile were still together, and I should have asked, but I didn't. Denial was more convenient."

Levi's face twisted and he looked away. "What the fuck, Erwin? You're supposed to be a better man than me. It's the whole reason I followed you in the first place. Now I keep hearing more and more bullshit about you, and it doesn't make sense. It's screwing with my head. I've spent months thinking I wasn't good enough for you – I can't adjust to you being as stupid as the rest of us."

Erwin shifted to face him. "I appreciate you thinking so highly of me, Levi, but I'm human. I've made more than my share of mistakes. I'm certainly not above you. When the uniforms come off, the hierarchy between us disappears."

 There was no response. Erwin searched the narrow eyes, feeling like a piece of the puzzle was still missing. "What did Nile tell you, exactly?"

Levi held his gaze for a moment, then looked away. "His kid looks like you."

"What?"

"Blond hair, blue eyes. If you fucked her when Henrik died, the timing lines up."

Erwin tried to decide how the information made him feel. He had never met the boy, and the idea of having a son was so far removed from his reality that he couldn't even imagine it. He felt nothing.

"Nile's father is fair-haired, and that can skip a generation," he said, finding it easiest to dismiss the notion entirely. "And one night is statistically unlikely to result in a pregnancy. Too many factors would have to align. Besides, Marie would have mentioned something by now."

Levi's mouth pulled into a deep frown. "Making a kid together is supposed to be the deepest bond two people can share."

Erwin cast him a sidelong glance, suddenly understanding where his insecurity was coming from. He thinks that when I'm with a man, I'll miss the things only a woman can bring to a relationship.

"Which do you think would hold more weight with me, Levi?" he asked gently. "The bond, through a child I never met, with a woman I willfully abandoned? Or the bond with a man who has followed me into hell and come out the other side, because we relied on each other in mind, body and spirit?"

Levi's throat bobbed, their gaze holding.

The last sliver of the sun dipped beneath the horizon. In the background, the music shifted to a slow, melancholy song. Emotion flooded Erwin's chest.

He stood and held out his hand. "Let me show you my real dance. I want you to see, by comparison, that I was just going through the motions when I was dancing with Marie."

The man turned away. "I'm not done being pissed off."

Even though Erwin's heart ached from the rejection, he didn't withdraw his hand. "I need you to understand something, Levi. I hurt Marie terribly when I left to join the Survey Corps. She warned me not to do the same to you, to make sure you understood that my goals will always come before love. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized something."

Levi's eyes shifted toward him, waiting.

Erwin spoke clearly, his voice strong: "If it had been you instead of Marie, I wouldn't have been able to leave you behind."

In the silence that followed, he reached for the man's arm and lifted it, then trailed to the end, intertwining their fingers. "Do you understand how much that terrifies me, Levi? I'm grateful beyond words that we share the same goals. I'm not strong enough to leave you behind. I tried, last week, and it broke me."

Levi slowly rose to his feet. His hand twisted; their palms met. "I think you could leave me behind, if you had to. But I'd never force you to make that choice. I'll be by your side."

The music downstairs began to crescendo, and Erwin's skin erupted into goosebumps.

"May I have this dance?" he asked, and Levi shrugged.

"I only know how to lead, but I can't lead you. You're too tall."

"Then how about a dance where neither of us leads?" Erwin held a hand in front of his chest. "Press your palm to mine."

Levi looked up at him quizzically, but obeyed.

"Now the other hand, then back again."

"What is this?" asked Levi, following the motions.

"Winter's Kiss, a dance that was popular among youths when I was a boy. Next we spin around each other in three steps. Watch my feet."

Levi easily picked up the steps, and they began to move properly with the music: one, two, three, spin, always rotating around each other like snowflakes on a breeze. It was a simple dance, almost childish, with no body contact except for their hands, but somehow, the limited contact only made it more exhilarating.

The music began to pick up speed and swell, rising and falling, and their dance followed. As they whirled, Erwin's head began to spin, the dizziness combining with the wine and his feelings for Levi to give him a potent high. Heat blistered between their palms, the sensation heightened by the contrasting lack of touch. Levi's grace was beautiful, his timing impeccable, their shared gaze their only anchor as the world around them whirled.

Erwin's heart soared. No logic, no strategy. No past, no future, just you, Levi. You and me.

The song rang its final chords, and his throat ached. He didn't want it to end, not yet, it was too soon...

Silence brought them to a standstill. He stared down at Levi, both of them breathing hard.

"Shit," said Levi. "That was pretty good."

Erwin gave a nod, assigning it the gravity of a bow. "I suppose all good things must end."

"Only if we let them." The man held out his hand. "Lead. I'll try my best to follow."

With a smile, Erwin pulled him into position as the next song began. This was a softer song, with a waltzing lilt and a major key, but his throat was still tight from the drama of the song before it. He forced Levi against his body, his grip too tight. Levi kept trying to fight him, pulling in different directions, and they stumbled.

"Let me lead," said Erwin quietly.

"Loosen your grip," replied Levi.

The exchange seemed to speak to a deeper truth about their relationship, but Erwin was too drunk with wine and dance to give it much thought. He loosened his grip, and their dance began to flow. They glided across the rooftop, effortlessly reading each other's bodies. He was surprised that Levi was such a good dancer -- yet another facet of the man that contradicted everything Erwin knew about him. Confident they were reading each other well, he spun Levi out and brought him back in. They fell back into step with the precision of a couple that had been dancing together for years.

"You dance well."

"Better than this." Levi's eyes twinkled. "Give me a challenge."

Erwin smirked. "If you insist." He twirled him and spun on his heel, his steps broad and complex. He could tell Levi didn't know the proper steps, but he improvised, easily keeping pace. Admiration swelled in Erwin's chest, warm and comfortable, and he felt his lips widen into a grin. That adaptability and dexterity were impressive, both on the battlefield and off it.

As the music began to wind down, he dipped Levi low, their faces so close that he could feel harsh breaths on his face.

Levi was smiling.

Perhaps 'smile' wasn't the right word for it -- the top row of teeth was showing, and there was a faint curve to the lips, but there was no crease below the eyes, no movement of the cheeks. On anyone else, it would be a grimace, at best. On this face, however, it was a sign of bliss.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" asked Levi.

Erwin bent down to taste the not-quite-a-smile, tracing it with his tongue. Levi leaned into it, their tongues meeting, his hands raking Erwin's hair. It was the wildest kiss since their first, bordering on frenzied, and Erwin reluctantly tore himself away to gasp for breath.

Light-headed, he stood tall, lifted Levi upright, then smoothed back a strand of hair that had fallen loose, marring Levi's perfect coif. The new hairstyle was forcing him to look at the man with fresh eyes, re-discovering his handsome features: high forehead; fine, straight nose; thick black eyelashes and slender eyebrows; that small mouth that so rarely revealed those small teeth, slightly crooked, but surprisingly white.

A flush coloured the pale cheeks. "You're doing it again."

"Doing what?" asked Erwin, tracing the lean jaw with a knuckle.

"Looking at me that way. I don't know what it means."

It means I love you. The thought spontaneously burst into Erwin's mind, and his breath caught. So soon? He repeated the words in his mind -- I love you, Levi -- his heart racing. They were as freeing as his first trip outside the walls, and just as terrifying, but they made one thing abundantly clear: he was ready to give all of himself. The weight of the past slid off his shoulders; he felt as if he were finally standing tall.

"We should get back downstairs. I'll introduce you to a few people to establish your alibi, and then you can head out on your mission." He gripped Levi's shoulders and stared him squarely in the eye. "And when we meet again at the hotel, I want you to have sex with me."

Levi's eyes widened. "You mean oral sex? Or sex sex?"

Erwin leaned close to his ear. "I want you inside me."

He felt a shiver ripple through Levi, but then the man stepped back to eye him. "Erwin, how drunk are you?"

He was quite drunk, true, but this decision was a culmination of thoughts he had been having all day. "You were right: we haven't been moving slowly at all. Whether we have sex tonight or a month from now won't matter, not after it's been so long. What will matter is your patience, your willingness to coax me through it, something you have been doing admirably." He felt his cheeks darken, and he was glad the dimming light would mask his blush.

"Don't offer it unless you mean it," said Levi, his face strained. "Do you understand how badly I want you? If this is all drunken bullshit-"

"No bullshit. I want to feel close to you. I want to feel your pleasure and mine at the same time, as one." Erwin cupped the man's cheeks and bent down, pressing a soft kiss into his forehead.

A low, shuddering groan sounded in Levi's throat, and the man stepped closer, wrapping his arms around Erwin's waist and pulling him in for a tight hug.

"As soon as you give me permission," murmured Levi, "I'm going to be on you so fucking fast."

Erwin's eyes fluttered closed. Between the enthusiastic words and the lingering intensity of the dance, his pants were uncomfortably tight. He clutched Levi to his chest and buried his face in the dark hair. I love you, he mouthed there, where it was safe, where only he would know the words existed. His head was swimming now, and he wasn't sure anymore if it was wine or love or lack of blood flow.

Levi pulled away. "Okay, stop holding me like that, or I'm going to end up fucking you right here, and this mission isn't going to happen."

Stepping back, Erwin said, "I need a moment to cool off before we head back downstairs."

"Yeah, me too." The man adjusted the front of his pants.

They sat on the ledge of the roof again, a different type of tension burning between them this time. The moon was low on the horizon, glowing yellow, and a couple stars were already shining in the darkening sky.

"Maybe sober up a bit while I'm gone," said Levi. "You're no good to me drunk."

"I'm not that drunk."

"You sure as hell aren't sober. You didn't even look around to make sure the area was secure before you started dancing with me and begging me for sex." Levi cocked a brow at him. "You don't hold your drink well, do you?"

"I haven't had much occasion to practice."

They sat silently for a few minutes, listening to the music and the muted crowds from below. A cool breeze wafted past them, sending a shiver through Erwin's body.

"Erwin," said Levi quietly, "what if it doesn't work?"

"What?"

"Sex."

Erwin turned to look at him, and was surprised to see the man hunched over, shrinking into the ledge. "It will work."

"We both came into this expecting to top, and-"

"We'll make it work. I promise you, Levi. Don't overthink it. Everything else has come naturally so far. This will, too." He rose to his feet and held out his hand. "We should get downstairs and make our rounds."

Levi accepted his hand and stood. "Fine. Let me know when it's safe for me to slip out. The whole mission should take about an hour."

"Okay," said Erwin, and he hesitated. "Be careful, Levi. If at any point you feel you're in danger, please retreat. I'm only sending you on this mission because I think the risk is low enough to be worth the potential benefits, so if I've gauged the situation wrong and you need to withdraw, trust your instincts." The last time he had assessed a mission to be low risk, he had almost lost him.

"I'll be fine. Wait." Levi reached up and smoothed stray hair off Erwin's forehead, tucking it behind his ear. "There."

They exchanged one last kiss, then walked toward the hatch, Erwin leading, Levi following closely behind.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

Infiltration

As they stepped away from the roof and back through the curtain, Levi felt Erwin's hand at his lower back, guiding him through, just as he had when they left the hotel bar.  Does he know he's doing that?  It might attract suspicion - Erwin was touchy-feely, sure, but the gesture was a little too intimate, a little too noticeable. At some point, Levi would have to bring it to his attention, but for now, he would stay silent and enjoy it. After the intensity of the dance and kiss, he was ravenous for contact.

I want you to have sex with me, whispered Erwin's voice in his mind, and he shivered. How the hell was he supposed to concentrate on his mission knowing what awaited him when he returned?

They approached the railing along the balcony overlooking the dance floor. Levi leaned against it, looking down. The party was growing chaotic, strains of obnoxious laughter and yells rising above the music. His upper lip curled into a sneer. Even a conversation or two, just enough to establish his alibi, was going to be difficult to endure. He wished for some liquid courage to help him cope, but if he kept drinking, he wasn't going to be sober enough to complete his mission. He was already a bit too drunk as it was.

"There." Erwin leaned in so close that their cheeks were almost touching; he pointed to a balding man with a moustache near the centre of the room. "That's Commander Pixis. He'll be our first stop."

Their target was beet red, leaning heavily on a woman beside him. "He's pissed out of his gourd," said Levi.

"That's not unusual." Shifting his finger toward a tall, lanky man with brown hair, Erwin continued, "Next will be that man, Reinhold Schultz - he and the people flanking him are prominent members of the merchant's guild. I'd like to introduce you to them, show you off a little, if you don't mind. We need to position ourselves to be attractive investments if military funds dry up."

"Why would they dry up?" asked Levi. "Your formation increased our survival rates, didn't it? I thought these assholes liked it when we survived."

"Let's just say a good Commander always has a contingency plan, and leave the rest of that discussion for another time and venue. Our final stop will be the man and woman standing to the right of the throne."

Levi's eyes fixed on the targets. They were clearly of the noble class, with gaudy finery trimmed with fur and precious metals. "What the fuck are they wearing?"

"They'd look right at home in our hotel lobby, wouldn't they?" said Erwin. "Maybe hanging on the wall like the tacky, useless artwork they are. Shall we?"

He really is drunk, thought Levi as they walked toward the staircase. This was the first time he had ever heard his Commander openly insult someone.

As they descended, his eyes drifted back to their table. Nile and Marie were still seated; Nile was speaking with another couple, but Marie's eyes were on Erwin. As if sensing she was being watched, her eyes shifted to Levi. For a moment, they stared at each other, and then she gave him a sad little smile and a nod, something between no hard feelings and good luck. Unsure how to respond, Levi looked away.

"This way," said Erwin, oblivious. He plucked two glasses of wine off the bar, then handed one to Levi as he led him across the floor. Pixis was speaking with a pretty young woman, his speech and movements so laboured that Levi swore he could smell his alcohol-soaked breath from ten metres away.

"Commander Pixis," said Erwin, stopping in front of the man to give a full salute. "I wondered if we might have a word with you."

Pixis looked up, eyes bloodshot and twinkling. "Put that salute away, Smith. We're peers now, and you'll spill your wine." He leaned forward, squinting. "Who's the little fellow?"

Levi's brows dropped, and he opened his mouth to reply, but Erwin spoke up first:

"Please allow me to introduce Squad Leader Levi, sir."

"Ah, the man from the Underground. Shorter than I expected. Smaller." The elderly man peered at him. "Are you really as strong as they say, lad?"

"Stronger than you, old man," growled Levi.

"Levi," said Erwin, a note of warning in his voice.

"What? He's too drunk to remember any of this, anyway."

A deep guffaw erupted from Pixis' mouth. "You'd be surprised. This old man is sharper than he seems. Now Smith, Shadis tells me you are something of a strategist. I'd like your opinion on the situation in Karanese District."

As the Commanders spoke, Levi's interest faded, and his eyes wandered. After the intensity of his rooftop dance with Erwin, this party no longer seemed intimidating - now it just seemed sad. All these people were connecting in meaningless ways, their shared moments amplified by alcohol instead of love. It was all hollow, right down to the excess food, no doubt procured from reserves that were about to spoil; given the state of the food industry, there wasn't much left to replace it. One last binge before they began to starve with the rest of the population. It was only going to be coughed up later that night, anyway, their guts poisoned by excess drink. What a waste.

To think I used to want to be one of these pigs.

Erwin said his farewell to Pixis, and Levi followed wordlessly as they moved to the merchant circle. If this meeting was as strategic as Erwin said, then he didn't want to fuck anything up by opening his mouth. He nodded his greeting, sipped his wine, nodded along when Erwin praised his attributes, then gave firm handshakes as they left.

Once they were a safe distance away, Erwin smiled down at him. "You did a good job back there."

"I wasn't even paying attention."

"Well, you came off as polite and attentive." His eyes fixed on the gaudily-dressed pair, their third target, and his mouth set in a straight line. "I'm not sure I can do this one."

"Too drunk?" asked Levi, unable to fathom any other reason.

"The man is Lord Sahlo, one of the nobles who pushed for that slaughter of an expedition after Wall Maria fell."

Levi's jaw clenched, remembering the innocent, untrained citizens falling around him. It had been a cull, a way to trim the population under the guise of an attempt to reclaim the wall. His second major expedition, the one that had lost him his entire team - the one that left him sobbing in Erwin's office upon their return. There had been so much death...

"Why the fuck are you sucking up to him?" he growled.

"He's a dangerous man," said Erwin quietly. "I need to monitor him. I need to learn how to control him. His move wasn't just a callous way to thin humanity's numbers - it was also a ploy to turn public opinion against the Survey Corps. In spite of the whole expedition being the government's decision, the Wings of Freedom were stained that day with the blood of innocents, and it was our command that left with many and returned with none. I'm certain he's filing that away for the future, waiting for an opportunity to manipulate the populace against us." His eyes had deadened, his tone flat.

Levi's skin crawled. He sounds paranoid. He hated the government's decision, hated it with every fibre of his being, but he was certain it was all a matter of numbers to them, not some obscure conspiracy to disparage the Survey Corps. They simply weren't that important.

"Is that really what you think?" he asked. "Or are you just drunk?"

Erwin's eyes fixed on him, and light came back into the blue irises. "I've overdone it, haven't I?"

"The drink or the paranoia?" Levi folded his arms over his chest. "Look, can I just go on my mission? Now that I know that Lord Asshole over there-"

"Sahlo."

"-is responsible for all those deaths, all I want to do is kick his face in."

"Very well. I think you've made enough of an impression that no one will suspect your absence." Erwin's face softened, and he leaned close to whisper, "Be careful, Levi. Don't forget what I told you."

"That I'm going to fuck you tonight?"

"That you must back out immediately if you're in danger. Come back safely."

"I'll be fine." Levi nodded and, desperate for contact, gripped the man's bicep as a farewell. He immediately wished he hadn't - the gesture seemed so forced and melodramatic that even Erwin looked down at him with amusement. "Uh." He let go, turned and slipped through the hall, his ears burning.

He fought his way between drunken couples near the exit, then walked briskly toward the hotel. Once he stepped into the hotel room, his eyes drifted toward the bed. He really shouldn't allow his mind to wander - he had to focus on his mission - but for just a moment, he let himself entertain the near future. Tonight, Erwin and I will have sex on that bed. A shiver rippled down his spine as he remembered the power of their dance, the way the heat from Erwin's palms had seared his skin. Whatever intensity they had tapped into on that rooftop, it was going to blister between them when their naked bodies were pressed together.

He bit the inside of his cheek.

Sex was something he was good at; he had more than a decade of practice, and insecurities about his height and size had encouraged him to perfect his skills. He knew how to read another man's body better than his own. All their encounters until now suggested Erwin would be no different.

But he was different. This was the first time Levi had come into a relationship feeling inferior to his partner. Maybe he shouldn't feel that way after all he had learned about Erwin tonight, but a part of him still did. And the height difference, and all the complications that came with that, didn't help anything.

He took a deep breath. Stop freaking out about it and focus on your mission instead.

Opening a drawer, he found the old clothes he had brought along for the mission: black cotton pants, a long-sleeved dark brown shirt. Once he had changed, he pulled on his military-issue boots, dropping the loose pants over top of them to disguise them. The last touch was to tuck a black scarf into one pocket, and a pair of dark leather gloves into another. The scarf would serve as a face mask once he was in position: it would protect his identity, and also shield him from dust. His route into the building wasn't well tended by the janitorial staff.

He took a few steps forward, and then grimaced - the thin pants were getting caught on the knee flaps of the boots, hindering his movement. In retrospect, he should have tested out the combination before he finished packing. He cast a glance back at his dress shoes, but immediately discarded the idea. They had stiff soles, too noisy, too difficult to climb with. His military boots were soft-soled and broken in. He'd just have to bear with the awkward catching sensation until he was away from the crowds, and then he could safely tuck them in without worrying about drawing attention.

On his way out of the room, he grabbed the lock picking set Erwin had given him, tucking it into the back of his pants.

The streets were busy with townsfolk out for late dinners or drinks, but the alleys were almost empty, so he stuck to them instead. The scent of rotting garbage was at once revolting and familiar, flooding him with contradicting sensations: nostalgia, shame, claustrophobia, loneliness.

At the next intersection, he switched back to using the main streets.

Old memories would just cloud his focus.

.*.*.*.

Erwin's resolve was fading.

He had intended to play the entire room, but the crowd was getting drunker, louder and less coherent. Faking interest in a conversation with nobles was exhausting enough, let alone when they were rambling and slurring.

Distraction was also sapping his energy; his thoughts were growing heavy with the realization that he had screwed up his relationship with Nile. He had come here with the intention to judge whether or not Nile was trustworthy, but had come off as the untrustworthy one instead. He shouldn't have flirted so openly with Marie, especially with Nile already suspicious about Jasper's parentage. Reopening Marie's wounds hadn't done him any favours, either. He should find them and apologize, try to smooth things over.

When he looked over, however, their table was empty.

He glanced back at the drunken masses, then turned away. The Doks lived nearby. A walk might sober him up a little.

As he stepped outside, the din quieted and the chilly night air settled over him, leaving his skin tingling. He had always found a strange peace in observing a big event from a distance, and he paused to watch the entrance for a moment, enjoying the self-imposed isolation. This felt more natural than trying to work the crowd.

Though, one part of his evening had felt more natural than either. His eyes trailed up to the roof, and he smiled, taking a moment mentally retrace every step he and Levi had taken together.

He turned on his heel and set out, his step light.

As he walked, he began to plan his evening. After he spoke with Nile and Marie, he would stop at a shop and buy a nice bottle of wine, maybe a couple candles. Nothing too fancy - romance would probably make Levi uncomfortable.

Then, he would draw himself a bath and clean as carefully as he could, inside and out. He wasn't sure what to expect when it came to sex with Levi, but being as clean as possible was certain to be a requirement.

Finally, he would settle in a chair with a book and wait for his return. Hopefully, the mission wouldn't take too long. After the way the last expedition had ended, Erwin was skittish about putting Levi in harm's way, more skittish than he was willing to admit.

He turned onto the street where the Doks lived. Their house was a small single-story home, a tidy rock garden along its front. Erwin approached the doorway, took a deep breath, stood tall, and then knocked.

On the other side of the door, he heard pounding footsteps and a cry of, "They're home!"

The door flew open. A small boy stood in the doorway.

"Jasper!" A girl fell into place behind him, presumably his sitter. She stared for a moment, then blurted, "Commander Erwin?"

Erwin was so focussed on the boy that he barely heard her. The boy blinked up at him. He had wheat-blond hair and lashes, his nose long and sharp. Even at his young age, his cheekbones were already high and prominent.

"You must be Jasper Dok," said Erwin, his voice cracking.

The boy nodded.

"Are your parents home yet, Jasper?"

The only response was a long stare, and Erwin stared back. Many boys have blond hair in their youth that darkens as they age, he told himself. And that could be Nile's nose.

"Captain and Mrs. Dok aren't due back for a little while yet, sir," said the sitter. "I can get you some paper, if you'd like to leave a message?"

"Yes, please," he replied, and the girl ducked into the house.

"You're Erwin?" asked Jasper, half hiding behind the door.

"I am." He slowly sank to a crouch, lowering himself to the child's eye level. The blue eyes were large, and they turned up in the corners. Like mine.

"Mommy and Daddy said you kill lots of titans," said the boy, his face filled with wonder. "They said you're very brave."

Erwin swallowed against the lump forming in his throat. He has Marie's brows and lips.

"Sir," said the sitter, appearing in the doorway. She handed him a stick of graphite and a sheet of paper.

"Thank you." Erwin pressed the paper against the brick wall, then paused. The two of them watched him expectantly, as if he were about to compose some great speech, but he couldn't find any words. He looked down at Jasper again, his heart twisting.

My dear Nile and Marie, he wrote, I'm sorry. Erwin.

He folded the paper in half and handed it to the girl.

"That's it?" she asked, looking disappointed.

"What'd you write?" asked Jasper.

"An apology," he replied.

"Why?"

"They'll understand." He had come here intending to apologize for his behaviour at the gala, but he owed them too many apologies to count. For hurting Marie by leaving her. For hiding his initial relationship with Marie from Nile, and later, for having an affair with her. For refusing to attend their wedding, for cutting them out of his life, using the excuse that Nile had betrayed him by choosing the Military Police, when the truth was that he couldn't bear to see them live out the life he could never have.

Even after all that, Erwin was important enough to them that their child knew his name. In return, he had scarcely let Nile or Marie cross his mind since he had joined the Corps. Yes, that was ultimately what it came down to: he was apologizing for being a bad friend.

And more than that... He looked solemnly down at the child. He felt a sudden urge to hold him close, to protect him from all the evils in the world, both inside and outside the walls.

"Jasper," he said instead, "you are a very lucky boy. Your mother is one of the strongest women I have ever met, and your father works hard to provide a good life for your family. Even before you were born, you were his number one priority. You are very lucky to be a Dok."

The child blinked at him, and Erwin hesitated. How much comprehension does a four-year-old have? He hadn't spent much time around children, even when he had been one himself.

Clearing his throat, he stood tall. "Goodnight," he said to the boy and his sitter.

As he strode down the street, his fists tightened.

He had always told himself that Nile had taken the easy way out, that he had been too lazy to make any sacrifices. Now, Erwin realized he had misjudged. At the end of the day, they had both chosen their sacrifices: Nile had put aside all his ideals to build his family and keep it safe. It was a choice Erwin was unable - unwilling - to make.

It didn't matter who had provided the seed: Nile was the child's father. Erwin had forfeited that option years ago.

.*.*.*.

Seeing the Military Barracks by night stirred up memories, and Levi steeled himself. Focus.

He was pleased to see the night patrol concentrated near the entrance: three guards, one male, two female, chatting idly. A quick scan of the roof revealed no guards, and there were only a few lights on in the windows. Levi felt a swell of admiration for Erwin's timing: with the gala distracting the main police force, this was the perfect night for the mission.

His lips settled into a frown as he looked at Nile's window. The light was on. He would aim for the storeroom next door, then use the rafters to work his way toward the office. Hopefully the office was empty, and Nile had just left the lamp on by mistake, but he would approach it as if it were occupied just to be safe.

Using his peripheral vision to survey everyone around him, he arced his path toward the close end of the building, where an overhang created deep shadows. This was the route he had always used to visit Niklaus; he could follow the shadows along the wall to a dark corner where the building jutted out at a ninety-degree angle. A brick chimney in the corner gave him cover; instead of being built into the corner, it was offset by about a metre, forming a little alcove that shielded him from prying eyes.

Standing inside the alcove, he tucked his pant legs into his boots, tied the scarf over his nose and mouth, and then pulled on the gloves. He looked up for jutting bricks along the wall and chimney, planning his ascent.

As he began to climb, he subconsciously kept his hips tight and his leg movements small, as if trying not to jostle his non-existent gear. Once he realized he was doing it, he snorted softly to himself. The gear truly had become an extension of his body. He had to admit it was liberating trying to manoeuvre without being hampered by the blade boxes, but this entire climb would have been over in about two seconds with the grapple on his side.

By the time he reached the fourth floor, his fingers and forearms ached. He forced himself to endure the ache for one moment longer, pausing to scan the area for any sign that he had attracted attention. Seeing none, he swung toward a small ledge above the fourth floor windows. The ledge just barely wide enough for him to skulk along, one foot in front of the other. He wobbled at first, still drunk, but then found his balance. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he turned his body to edge past a small overhang. His shoulders were much wider now than the last time he had done this, though the leg muscles from gear manoeuvring had thankfully lowered his centre of gravity, making it easier to balance.

He passed over Nile's office and stopped above the storeroom. Gripping the ledge, he lowered his feet to the tiny lip around the storeroom window, and then gingerly released one gloved hand. Careful to maintain his balance, he reached for the window and pushed. Locked.

"Shit," he muttered under his breath. With his one free hand, he reached under the back of his shirt and pinched the head of each of the lock picking tools. The one he wanted was in the middle: a long, flat tool with a small hook at the top. He withdrew it and slipped it between the window and the brick, looking for the latch.

His movements were too clumsy, too imprecise. His other hand, the one clawed into the ledge to anchor him, was beginning to ache, and fatigue rippled through his shoulder muscles in waves. He had grown accustomed to broad, circular movements, not stationary exertion like this. By the time he found the latch, sweat was beading on his upper lip.

The window opened. He swung through it and dropped to the floor. As he waited for his eyes to adjust, he strained his ears. He could vaguely hear conversation a few rooms away, a male and a female voice, but he couldn't make out any words. A few minutes later, the voices stopped.

The room around him slowly began to take shape in the dim light from the window: shelves, stacked boxes, cleaning supplies. He set his jaw before nostalgia could overtake him. He wasn't here to remember; he was here to follow Erwin's orders. He eased the window shut, then climbed the nearest set of shelves.

The Military Police building, like everything in the military, had security flaws that were easy for an enterprising thief to exploit. One of the biggest flaws was the ceiling system: some genius architect must have decided that the typical military wooden rafters were too gaudy, because they had designed a false ceiling of square wooden panels below the rafters. Levi squatted on the top shelf, slid a wooden panel aside, hoisted himself onto a rafter, and then slid the panel back into place below him. Now he could freely crawl from rafter to rafter, perfectly hidden from view by the panels. The rafters were coated with dust, and his nose wrinkled. At least his mask would prevent him from inhaling too much of it. The last thing he needed was to give away his position with a sneeze.

Another major security flaw was the wall system between offices. They must have been added as an afterthought long after the building was constructed, because they didn't properly align with the ceiling. The result was a gap above each wall, just large enough for a small man like Levi to climb into the next room. The fit was tighter than he remembered – he had bulked up a lot since the days when he had been courting Niklaus – but still manageable. He squeezed through and continued along the rafters, shielded by the false ceiling.

The next room over was Nile's office. Levi squeezed through the gap above the wall, then settled onto a rafter to take in his surroundings. Light shone between the wooden panels of the faux ceiling, projecting a grid-like outline on the ceiling above him. He listened, cautious. Hearing nothing, he reached down, intending to slide a panel aside, just a crack, so he could scope out the office.

At the sound of footsteps, he froze, his fingertips just barely brushing the panel. He heard an exasperated sigh below him:

"Aren't you done yet?"

Marie's voice. Levi's jaw clenched. What the fuck is she doing here?

"Just a few more minutes," replied Nile, irritated.

Shit. Levi shifted his weight back onto the rafter and focused on keeping his breaths quiet.

He heard the sound of shuffling papers, then Marie's voice: "This isn't really the romantic night I had in mind."

"Yeah, well me neither." More papers shuffling. "This really can't wait. I'm sorry."

"Will you at least tell me what's so damned important?"

A sigh, then Nile said, "Erwin was asking some strange questions."

Levi's heart beat in his throat. What papers is he moving around? Is he destroying evidence?

"Do you have something to hide?" asked Marie.

"Of course not! But you know Erwin - he's fucking paranoid. I bet you anything he's going to come nosing around here the first chance he gets, and he'll start misinterpreting everything and making wild theories-"

"Nile," interrupted Marie. "You're the one who's fucking paranoid."

Once again, Levi found himself liking the woman.

"Yeah, well," said Nile, "doubt me all you want, but I guarantee you we're about ten minutes away from a knock on that door, and Erwin will come waltzing in with a false smile, spinning his words, trying to trap me in his delusions."

"Tonight?" asked Marie, surprised. "Don't you think he's all over Levi by now?"

Shit! Levi slunk against the rafter.

There was a long pause, then Nile said, "'All over' as in some sort of physical altercation?"

"'All over' as in having sex," she said. "You didn't notice the way they were looking at each other?"

Another pause. "Erwin isn't gay."

"No, but he isn't straight, either. Trust me, I know that look in his eye. Those two are going to duck out the first chance they get and spend the whole night-"

"I don't want to know," said Nile, his voice rising in pitch. "For fuck's sake, Marie, we were roommates. I used to change in front of him!"

"Calm down."

"Did you know he was gay back when you and Anke made me kiss him?"

"He's not-" A sharp sigh. "Can we drop this? I'm sorry I brought it up."

For a minute, the only sound was the scratching of a pen. Levi closed his eyes, cursing Erwin. Here he was risking his neck to determine if Nile could be trusted, and before they had come to any conclusions, Erwin had effectively handed the man's wife the one secret they had. This bastard had better end up being trustworthy.

"Come on, Nile." Marie's voice took on a warm tone. "You don't need to finish this tonight. If we leave now, we can stop at the old alley on the way home and spend a bit of time recreating some memories. Then you can get up early tomorrow and finish up here. Okay?"

"What kind of memories?" asked Nile quietly.

"Remember when we got stranded after the winter dance of '42?"

The man gave a low hum, and there was the sound of kissing. Levi let his head loll back against a support beam, biting the inside of his cheek. In theory, overhearing this conversation was helping him gather intelligence, but in practice, his feet were growing numb from his awkward crouch. Keep talking or get a move on, you assholes.

A few minutes later, Nile murmured something too quiet to overhear. There was the sound of a drawer closing, then locking. The door opened, the lamp went out, footsteps sounded, and the door closed.

Levi sat in the dark, tense, waiting to make sure they weren't going to return. After several minutes, he let out a long, soft breath.

Sliding a panel aside, he dropped into the room. He felt around the surface of the desk for the lamp, then lit it, keeping the light dim.

Nile's office was the messiest he had ever seen. The walls were lined with bookshelves, but instead of being neatly alphabetized like the ones in Erwin's room, the books were stacked at odd angles, some jutting out from the rest. A few had been hastily shoved spine-side in. How does he find what he's looking for? Has he even read these books, or are they just for show?

Papers littered the desk, and by the window, a filing cabinet's drawers were all open, folders poking out of it haphazardly. Crumpled papers overflowed the garbage bin.

"Disgusting," muttered Levi to himself as he knelt by the bin. He gingerly began to flatten the crumpled papers to read them. A few were receipts that didn't seem relevant - expensive restaurants, bar tabs. Maybe Nile was frittering away military money on personal expenses, but that didn't make him untrustworthy, just typical of his branch. I'll let Erwin know just in case.

After a few papers, he chanced upon the information he was looking for. A simple order: Direct the Survey Corps to silo 5214B. At the bottom of the page, Levi saw a stamped insignia he didn't recognize. He traced it with his gloved finger, committing it to memory. It looked like a stylized "S," with curling tails that coiled around the main body of the letter.

He had overheard the desk drawer lock before the couple left. Maybe there was more communication from this S person there.

Levi paused as he heard faint footsteps echoing down the hallway. He snuffed the lamp and waited, his hand dropping to the knife hidden in his boot. The footsteps drew closer...

...then continued down the hall.

Once they had disappeared completely, he re-lit the lamp.

The lock on the desk drawer was so small that he couldn't get a good look at its interior mechanism in the dim light. He pulled out the smallest lock pick and gingerly inserted it, feeling around. It took a few tries and a couple more tools, but eventually, it gave. The drawer slid open.

Several files lay inside, and the top one was labelled Erwin Smith.

Levi's eyes widened. He lifted the file and settled on the floor behind the desk, bringing the lamp down beside him.

The first page was a standard military sketch portrait from Erwin's training days. His face was narrow, and his nose really was too big for his face, but everything else was unmistakably Erwin, from the hairstyle down to the cold eyes. His expression was hard, and familiar: this was the expression he had worn around Levi during their early days. When did it soften for me? Was it a gradual thing, or did it happen all at once?

Inside the file, Nile had been compiling notes about Erwin's character. The elaborate writing was difficult to read, and Levi was conscious that he was short on time, so he did his best to skim. Many details were familiar: his Wallist family members, his prowess with hand-to-hand combat, his weakness at horse-handling. Not that you'd know that now.

Some details were surprising: Erwin had finished first in his class, in spite of a noted tendency to question and defy authority. Looks like Hange and I aren't the only ones with obedience issues. He had sustained a severe leg injury in combat training that the doctors called career-ending, but he had fully recovered after only a few months.

Most surprising of all was a half-written letter at the end of the file, the ink still fresh:

.*.*.*.

Attention: Supreme Commander Zackly .

Re: Commander Erwin Smith.

Further to our discussion last night, I have gathered some of my thoughts, and I submit them to you now so you have the full context.

When I first met Erwin Smith, I judged him to be sheltered, weak and scared. I pitied him and became his confidante and, later, closest friend. The more he opened up to me over time, however, the more I realized my initial impression was completely backwards. As you well know, "weak" is the last word anyone should use to describe Erwin. His conviction is frightening, especially when it's misplaced.

I saw it for myself one night when, hysteria in his eyes, he confessed to me his true reasons for joining the military.

When he was a boy, Erwin had a series of recurring nightmares about the origins of the titans and governmental conspiracies. These left a mark on him. As he grew older, he became convinced that they were not dreams, but rather repressed memories. He began to form several theories about the titans based on these dreams, and he was dead set on joining the Survey Corps, thinking he could prove those delusional theories to the rest of the world. These delusions always worried me, as they only seemed to grow stronger with time. He would frequently "remember" lost details and describe them to me with an eerie smile and a bizarre light in his eyes. I began to fear for his sanity.

It seems his time in the Corps has only hardened his resolve and entrenched these delusions deeper in his mind. He alluded to them again during our discussions at the gala.

While Erwin is clearly a capable Commander, this commitment to his imagination is worrying. At present, I do not doubt his ability to carry out his job. He has always excelled at putting his personal needs aside while focusing on the greater good.

I am, however, concerned that these delusions might grow and engulf him. I fear there may be a day when his paranoia will outweigh his rationale. I would recommend a full psych evaluation, but he is a good actor, the best I've ever seen, and he would easily convince the examiners that nothing was wrong .

Instead, I ask you to keep a watchful eye on him. I can commit to

.*.*.*.

The letter ended there; Marie must have interrupted him before he could finish.

Levi's teeth clenched so hard that his jaw ached. His gloved hands gripped the top of the page, preparing to rip it, but he hesitated. Nile probably wouldn't notice a few crumpled papers moving around his garbage bin, but he would certainly notice this letter disappearing from a locked drawer.

He closed the file, set it back in the drawer, and locked it. He would tell Erwin about it in detail.

Seeing no further clues as to who the stylized S represented, he set the lamp back in place and snuffed it. Feeling his way up a bookshelf, he worked his way back up to the rafters. Maybe the records room would have some answers for him.

As he felt his way along the rafters in the dark, his mind circled around Erwin. As much as he distrusted Nile, his questions at the gala about trusting Erwin had planted seeds of doubt in Levi's mind, and the letter wasn't helping anything. He had seen the creepy smile and hints of paranoia for himself.

Still, Erwin needed to be paranoid to prepare his soldiers for worst-case scenarios. Maybe it wasn't even paranoia at all - maybe he was seeing so far into the future that logical measures would seem mad to those who weren't as far-sighted.

Besides, it was difficult to believe that the smartest man Levi had ever met would mistake dreams for memories. If he believed they were memories, then they were memories.

In spite of Erwin's insistence that he was just a man, Levi knew better. Erwin Smith was a visionary. Erwin Smith would be humanity's saviour. If he ever seemed paranoid or creepy while he did it, that didn't matter. All that mattered was his vision, because that would set humanity free.

And Levi would do everything he could to help him.

He clenched his jaw and doubled his speed in the darkness, eager to find helpful information. He knew the records room better than his own room back at headquarters, assuming it hadn't changed much since he had last visited. If there was information on Nile's superior, he would find it.

The first sense to disorient him was scent.

It slammed into him the instant he reached the wall to the records room, before he had even squeezed through the crack above it. Musty papers, dry wood, oil, dust. That smell had always been strongest on the carpet, where he would pin Niklaus face down, gripping the officer's hands until his knuckles cracked, whispering "filthy pig" into the man's ear...

He clenched his teeth and eased over the wall. Dropping down through a panel, he landed hard on the desk, nearly knocking over a lamp with his foot. He listened for a moment and, gauging that he hadn't attracted any attention with his blunder, lit the lamp.

The second sense to disorient him was sight. The records room was nearly unchanged from his last visit: rows of filing cabinets, tightly-packed bookshelves, the in and out piles on the counter top.

Even the chair behind the counter was the same, Niklaus' bite still embedded in the top from one particularly vigorous session in the early days of their relationship. He reached out a shaking hand to trace the mark, and that was when the third sense hit him: the grain of the wood digging into his palms, the squish of the carpet beneath his feet - he could feel the rug burn on his knees, feel the strong body feigning a struggle beneath him, feel the hostility draining from each of them as hormones flooded their bodies, their chemistry overcoming their hatred of each other's lifestyles...

A shaky sound slid from his lips before he could stop it, something between a sigh and a wail.

Shit. His body snapped into a crouch and he held his breath, listening in case the sound had attracted any attention.

Nothing.

Slowly, he stood upright. Pull yourself together, you drunken fuck. You have a mission to complete.

At least with the filing system unchanged, he knew where to find his target. As he carried the lamp toward the back corner of the room, he began to see memories in his periphery: the patch of carpet where Niklaus had first propositioned him. The table where they had first made love instead of just fucking. The window they had stared out together, where Niklaus had reached over to put an arm on his shoulders and whispered the words that had changed everything: I'm falling in love with you.

Each step, each memory, stripped away another year, and by the time he reached the filing cabinet he was looking for, he was seventeen years old again, his gloved hands shaking, his vision blurred.

Focus. He held out the lamp, reading the drawer labels, until he found the range he was looking for, labelled Do-Dz. This lock was easy to pick, and he slid the drawer open. His shaking fingers rifled through the folders, then paused on one labelled Dok, Nile.

Not far behind it, he could see the files beginning with 'Dr.'

His past warred with his present.

"Fuck it," he whispered. It was right there; he would never have a better opportunity to find out what had happened. He moved past Nile's folder, zeroing in on one labelled Dreher, Niklaus. Before he could change his mind, he yanked it out.

A red stamp on its surface glowed in the lamplight: 'DECEASED.'

His vision blurred again, and he blinked to clear it, violently opening the file and flipping to the end.

Tried and convicted for treason for leaking military secrets to gangsters. Execution carried out by firing squad. Requested no blindfold.

Levi slowly sank to his knees, rereading the sentence several times, hoping he had misread. Treason. Known gangsters. Execution. He flipped to the previous page for the details of the trial.

Niklaus hadn't named Levi in the trial: he had named two of Levi's biggest rivals instead, two gang leaders who had disappeared off the streets around the same time. Even when everything had fallen apart for him, he had used his death to help Levi, keeping him safe, attacking his rivals instead.

And in return, I assumed he had abandoned me. I cursed him. I hated him.

"Shit," he growled, furious with himself. "You fucking asshole. Fucking shit!" He slammed his fists into the metal drawers.

Two loud clangs echoed through the room.

He tensed.

Footsteps began to sound down the hallway.

You fucking dipshit. He snuffed the lamp and waited, ears straining until they rang. This is why you don't come on a mission drunk, and you don't start looking up personal information.If this blew the whole mission, he was never going to forgive himself.

The door creaked open, and lamplight flooded the room. Levi slipped behind a bookshelf, resting his hand on the hilt of the knife hidden in his boot.

The footsteps were soft and tentative. They moved to the centre of the room and stopped; the shifting lamplight suggested their owner was peering around the room.

"Hello?" A girl's voice spoke, loud but shaky. "I know you're in here. If you surrender now, I promise you won't get hurt."

If she stepped far enough into the room, Levi might be able to slip past her and out the door behind her. He eyed the next bookshelf, planning his escape route. The gap between the shelves was small, but fully lit, so she must be looking in his direction.

A few more footsteps, then silence. A shadow fell across the gap. Levi darted to the next bookshelf, crouching behind it.

"I should warn you," said the girl, "I'm armed."

Military-issue rifle, thought Levi. No gear. The rifles were quick and deadly, but the quiver in the girl's voice suggested inexperience. Even if she caught him, she might be too terrified to pull the trigger. He took several deep breaths, eyeing the gap to the next bookcase, waiting for an opportunity to move.

The light swung around again, and he darted across the gap. One more bookcase to go, and then he could sneak to the door.

"What in the world?" muttered the girl, and he saw the light swing toward the ceiling, presumably to the shifted wooden panel. Not wasting the opportunity, he moved into place against the final bookcase. The door was a good seven metres or so from his position, with no cover. He needed to make sure she was looking away.

He pulled a tool free from his lock picking set - the most useless one, with a thick loop at the end - and tossed it toward the back wall. The instant he heard it clatter, he bolted for the door.

Six metres, five, four...

Wood splinters showered his body as a 3DMG anchor buried into the wall in front of him, the wire blocking his path.

He whirled.

A woman stood by the desk, the lamp behind her forcing her body into silhouette. Her face was shadowed, but he could clearly see the gear boxes at her sides.

Dammit. Levi darted back the way he had come, pressing flat against the bookcase. Since when did the Military Police use 3DMG while on building patrol? His chest heaved, and his eyes darted around the room. They fixed on the ceiling. Up. Go up.

"Hey!" yelled the woman, and booted footsteps rushed toward him. He scurried up the bookshelf, aiming for the wooden panels of the ceiling.

He heard a puff of gas, then a hand gripped his ankle and yanked. As he fell, he twisted his body so that he landed on his attacker. She hit the ground hard, the air escaping her chest with an "Oof!" Without even looking down, he pushed off and sprinted for the door, sliding deftly under the 3DMG wire.

"Wait!" called the girl, voice hoarse.

Another anchor sank into the door frame ahead of him, and he heard a burst of gas. The girl slammed into him from behind. They rolled; Levi landed face-down, his forehead knocking the carpet. The scent of the carpet was so familiar that his head spun. Niklaus...

The girl rolled him over. She holstered her gear triggers and pulled a rifle off her back, shoving the muzzle in his face. Levi blinked, his vision blurred from the impact. So much had happened since the expedition that he had forgotten he was still recovering from his concussion. Blood trickled into his mouth beneath his mask, and he sputtered. Did she break my fucking nose?

"Put your hands where I can see them," barked the girl.

He blinked, and she came into view: red hair, large eyes, stubborn youthful expression...

"Isabel," he croaked.

"What?" said the girl, taken aback.

He blinked, coming back to his senses in time to capitalize on her shock. Get the gun out of your face. He grabbed the muzzle and tugged, pressing it into the carpet beside him.

She pulled the trigger.

The floor beside him exploded, knocking him sideways. His ear rang, and he clutched at it, eyes filling with tears. "Fuck!"

The blow had knocked her backwards, too, and she was clawing at her ears, curled into a ball. Shakily, Levi stood. He stared down at her, his heart pounding. She looks so much like Isabel. So much... He could almost hear the girl's voice, singsong and childish. His eyes flooded with tears again, these ones not from the explosion.

Then he turned to climb the bookshelf, eager to escape.

A 3DMG wire narrowly missed him, embedding into the ceiling. He gave a low sigh, frustrated by her persistence, and turned. The girl was hunched, but she stared at him defiantly. "Not on my watch."

"You shouldn't use those things indoors," he said. "It's dangerous." He stepped on the wire and pressed down, expecting it would make her stumble forward and lose her balance.

Instead, the anchor point pulled down several panels of the false roof. He shielded his head just in time; the panels slammed into his arms with so much force that he sagged to his knees.

When the panels fell away, the girl was standing over him, one of her blades pointed at his throat.

"Shit," he muttered, rubbing his ear. It was still ringing, but not as badly as he expected given the proximity of the blast.

"Who are you?" she demanded. "Why are you here?"

His eyes scanned the environment, looking for a way out. Gear wasn't particularly effective indoors, but it allowed her to slingshot herself after him, so running wasn't going to be helpful. He needed to find a way to overpower her.

The blade pressed against the skin of his throat, below the scarf. "I asked you a question, so please be kind enough to answer it. What's your name?"

He met her glare with one of his own. "Nile Dok."

She sighed. "Right. Please get on your feet."

He stood slowly, sizing her up. There was a tremble in her blade hand. Her earlier reaction to his confused 'Isabel' suggested she was easily distracted, but he would have to be careful, because she also had an itchy trigger finger.

"Those boots are military issue," she said.

"I stole them."

Her lips flattened. "If you're not going to cooperate, then can you at least take off your mask?"

"Why?"

"Because I have a blade at your throat."

He gave an exasperated sigh and lifted his hands towards his mask, subtly shifting his stance...

...and hooked the back of her heel with his foot. She shrieked and fell backwards, hitting hard; he kicked her blade away, then stepped on her chest and loomed over her.

"You fight well," he said. "Very well. But you're easily distracted." Blood trickled into his mouth again, behind the mask, and he grimaced as he accidentally swallowed some.

She glared. "You have about a minute before the other officers get here. They'll have heard my gunshot."

"What officers?" he asked, leaning over her face. "There were only three out front when I came in."

"We were out patrolling," she said, eyes glistening. "Our shift is just ending, so we're meeting back here. The place is crawling with officers."

Levi would have assumed she was bluffing, but the gear was unusual. The Military Police were only authorized to wear gear on special occasions, and patrolling the city during a gala might be such an occasion. "How many of you?"

"Dozens."

He eyed her, then pulled his knife out of his boot and pressed it to her throat. "Get up," he said, removing his foot from her chest. "Drop the gear."

Her eyes filled with tears, and he tried to pretend it didn't hurt him. Isabel had tried to pull the same shit, too, when she knew she was in trouble. She had known tears were the easiest way to erode his resolve.

"You have cuffs on you?" he asked.

"No."

That left him with four options: bind her with the gear wires, knock her out, kill her, or bring her with him. Given her prowess, binding her with the wires might be too dangerous. Never put a prisoner within easy reach of her weapon.

Also, he wasn't sure his planned escape route was the safest one. If a patrol was returning, there would, by default, be dozens of eyes on the outside of the building.

"Does this building connect with the barracks?" he asked.

Her jaw wobbled, but she stared at him, wordless.

With a sigh, he used the flat of the blade to trace a line across her throat from ear to ear. "You'll be dead within seconds," he said, his stomach churning as he tapped into a part of himself he had tried so hard to forget. "I'll cut deep enough that you won't be able to cry for help."

"My name is Sofi Lalonde," she blurted, tears spilling onto her cheeks. "I have two sisters and three brothers. I'm the oldest."

"Why are you-"

"My mother died when I was young, and I helped raise my family. The youngest is only three years old. My father didn't want me joining the military-"

"Enough," said Levi, smacking her trachea with the flat of the knife. She whimpered, but fell silent. "I know what you're doing. It won't work." She was trying to humanize herself in his eyes, make him grow attached to her so that he couldn't kill her. "I'll ask one more time: does this building connect with the barracks?"

"Yes." She sniffled.

"All right, Sofi Lalonde. You help me get there undetected, you get to go free. Let's go."

Booted footsteps sounded at the end of the hallway.

"Shit." Levi dragged her toward the door. "Make them go away."

"What?"

"Stick your head out the doorway and tell them your gun went off by accident. Make it convincing, or you die."He shoved her forward, forcing her head through the doorway.

The footsteps stopped. "Recruit," yelled a male voice from down the hall. "We heard gunshots."

At first, the girl didn't say anything, but Levi traced her kidney with the tip of his knife, and she swallowed hard.

"Sorry," she said. "I got spooked by a rat. Really spooked. I shot at it."

A pause. "Using your gun in an enclosed area without reason is a punishable offense." The voice sounded bewildered.

"I know," she said. "I'm sorry. I'm new. I'm still learning." Her body was shaking, and sweat rolled down Levi's temple. They're going to notice her crying.

After a moment, the male voice said, "You okay, recruit? Need any help in there?"

"No, just cleaning up my mess. I feel horrible about it."

"Well, hurry up. The Commander ordered a code eighty-two."

Levi bared his teeth at the familiar phrase; the man was using code to ask if she was in distress. "Tell him area three-six-two is secure," he hissed.

The girl looked back at him, eyes wide, and he tightened his grip on the scruff of her neck. "Do it," he growled.

Defeated, the girl turned down the hall again. "Area three-six-two is secure, sir. I'm sorry for the trouble. I'll explain everything to Squad Leader Mann tomorrow."

There was another pause, long enough that Levi began to shake. Believe her. Believe her...

"Very well, recruit. Don't let this happen again. And if you get spooked again, sound the alarm next time. Don't play the hero." The booted feet turned and walked down the hall as the man bellowed, "All clear!"

Once the footsteps had faded, the girl turned back to Levi, her eyes wide. "You know the military distress codes."

"Is the hallway empty?" he demanded, his knife finding her throat again.

"You know the military distress codes, and you're wearing our boots, and you're a good fighter. I finished top in my class, and you took me out with no effort at all-"

"Shut up." He shoved her into the hallway. "Use the back routes, the ones no one guards. The only way you get out of this safely is if I do."

As they hurried down the hallway, he felt a little quiver of excitement in the pit of his stomach, a little reminder that he was a monster who got joy out of exerting his dominance over another living being. A voice echoed in his mind, gruff and familiar: Embrace who you are, Levi. Your body is a weapon, and you have the cold heart of a killer.

His throat filled with bile. No. I'm better than that. I'm not going to kill her, not unless I have to. And if I do, I'm not going to enjoy it.

The girl stopped at a door at the end of the hallway. "It's unlocked. Only the cleaning staff use this staircase, and they're not on shift yet. It goes all the way to the basement, and from there, you can take a tunnel to the barracks."

"You're coming with me," he said. "Open it."

She obeyed, throwing the door open with too much force. He reflexively caught it before it could slam against the wall. It was just one moment of distraction, one moment where his focus was on the door instead of the knife, and she took advantage of it. Her hand reached for his face and tugged. He clamped onto her wrist before she could tear the mask away entirely, but the damage was already done: it had loosened. The scarf slipped down his face and settled around his throat.

He spun her away and shoved her toward the stairs. "Move," he growled, fixing the knife on her throat again. For a moment, he thought he had been fast enough, that she hadn't seen his face, but she refused to step forward.

"I said, move."

When she spoke, her voice was sombre: "You're Levi. From the Survey Corps."

Shit. He softly pulled the door closed behind them. "Who the fuck is Levi?"

"It really is you. Right?" She twisted to look at him, her face drawn. "I'd never forget your face. I saw you when I was a Trainee."

Levi's heart sank. I have to kill her now. There's no way around it. She knows who I am. If they trace this back to Erwin, everything falls apart.

"You were my hero," she said, her voice wobbling. "Humanity's Strongest, ascending from nothing to become one of humanity's most promising heroes. You were the reason I wanted to join the Survey Corps, but my father made me promise to spend a couple years in the Military Police and then re-evaluate how I felt. He doesn't understand people like you and me, people who would give their lives to help free humanity." She paused. "Or that's what I thought you were like, at any rate. You aren't the hero I imagined you to be."

Between the guilt, the stress, and the blood he had swallowed from his injured nose, his stomach twisted so violently that he was afraid he would wretch.

Maybe there was another way. Maybe he didn't have to kill her. What would Erwin do, if he were in this situation? Probably try to convince her to their viewpoint.

"Someone with your fighting skill doesn't belong in the MP," he said, pushing her toward the stairs. "It's a waste of your talent."

"That's what I told my father."

They turned a corner, then continued down the stairwell. "Look, Sofi," he said quietly, "I'm no hero, but I'm not just a criminal, either. I'm investigating corruption within the Military Police. I was supposed to slip in, gather information, then slip out. No one can know I was here."

After a long pause, she said, "What kind of corruption?"

"Endangering lives for the sake of money. Distracting the Survey Corps from its main objectives, for selfish gain. Someone is working against us, and the longer we're distracted from our goals, the longer humanity will be forced to suffer. We have to weed out the corruption before it spreads, before it takes over the entire organization." He was surprised how easily the words slid from his mouth, as if he were channelling Erwin. "Have you noticed anything of that sort around here?"

"I've only been a member for a month, so I haven't noticed anything yet," she said. "Lots of laziness, and that's about it. But maybe I can help you." She turned to eye him. "...if you let me live."

"Are you just offering that because you're desperate to save your life? How do I know you won't run to your Squad Leader the second I release you?"

Her jaw set. "What good would that do? I already let slip I finished first in my class, so you can easily identify me and find my family if I betray you - even after you leave here, you've still got a knife pressed to my throat."

"Smart girl."

They reached the bottom of the stairwell, and the girl threw open a door. "I know it's none of my business, but... Who's Isabel?"

"You're right, it's none of your business," said Levi. "Stop and hold up the lamp."

She obeyed, and he studied the stone hallway. A metal grate was embedded along the left side, large enough to step through. He recognized the style of the grate; they connected the Underground to the surface world. This vent must tie into the network of tunnels he had used to sneak in and visit Niklaus.

"I know my way home from here," he said.

"Home?" she repeated.

The word had slipped out; the familiar environment was messing with his head. Still, he thought of Erwin, waiting for him back at the hotel room. "Yeah, home." He turned to study her. "Remember, Sofi Lalonde, if the MP hears a single word about my involvement in this incident, you and your family will die. I will not show them the same mercy I've shown you. I suggest you start by cleaning the evidence of our fight from the records room, before your superiors start asking questions."

"Are you really here for the reasons you said?" asked the girl. "You promise you aren't trying to take down the whole military from the inside, or anything like that?"

"I am on humanity's side," he said with as much conviction as he could muster.

Her lips spread into a smile. "I knew you were a hero."

Grimacing, he plucked the lamp from her hand, then shoved her back toward the stairs. "Get out of here."

"Wait." She recovered her balance and stood tall. "I want to join the Survey Corps."

He stared. "So put in an application."

"I can't betray my father like that. I promised him two years here, at least." Her eyes sparkled in the lamplight. "Please, sir, ask Commander Erwin to put in a request to recruit me. It'll take a year or two for the paperwork to go through, anyway, and that way I can tell my father it wasn't my idea, that I've been called to action."

"I don't have time to deal with your daddy issues."

"You saw me fight," she said, her brows dropping. "And the Survey Corps needs all the help it can get. I'll keep your secret and prove my loyalty, you'll see. I will fight by your side, sir, and you won't regret it." She pulled into a salute.

Levi rubbed his forehead, embarrassed by her enthusiasm. "Okay, settle down. I'll talk to Erwin."

"One last thing," she said, bowing her head. "Make sure you put in the transfer for the correct name. My name isn't Sofi Lalonde. That was a lie to protect my family."

"Oh? Then what is it?"

"Petra Ral," she said.

He eyed her, and she held his gaze.

"Very well," he said. "I'll talk to Erwin about putting in a transfer request for you, Petra Ral. Just remember: if anyone - and I mean anyone - hears word of my involvement in what happened tonight, your family will suffer for your mistakes."

"Of course." She bobbed her head, then turned and hurried through the door.

He stared after her for a minute, then, certain she was gone, sank slowly to his knees as his willpower finally gave out. He was dizzy, and blood was still trickling down his face, down the back of his throat. His chest was heavy with the guilt of the mistakes he had made, past and present.

Worst of all, he had let his personal issues interfere with the mission - exactly what he had promised Erwin wouldn't happen. His Commander had placed all his trust in him, and Levi had failed him. All he had to offer was a stylized "S" and a single enthusiastic recruit who might or might not unravel everything.

Shaking, he sheathed his knife, then pulled open the grate, his spirits low, his heart heavy.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

Expression

 

A knock sounded at the window.

Erwin slowly set his book on the side table and leaned forward in the chair. The room was several stories up -- were his ears playing tricks on him?

"Erwin!" came a muffled yell. "Open the fucking window."

Levi?

He strode to the window and tore open the curtain. Through the glass, he could see Levi's face, his nose and mouth coated in blood.

Heart pounding, Erwin threw open the window and thrust out a hand to help him in. "Were you followed?"

"That's your first fucking question?" Levi struggled through the window frame and dropped to his knees on the carpet, breathing hard. "No, I wasn't followed, and I wouldn't have led anyone here even if I had been. I only came through the window because I would've terrified the lobby staff."

"Is this your blood?" demanded Erwin.

"Yeah."

Erwin dropped to one knee and gingerly touched Levi's jaw, his chin, his nose -- the man cursed and pulled away.

"Do you need a doctor?"

"I don't think it's broken. My mask smeared the blood around, made it seem worse than it is." Levi touched his chin, then grimaced. "It's all caked on. I can feel it cracking and flaking when I move my mouth. Fuck." He looked down. "I fucked up, Erwin. I fucked up so badly."

Erwin bit the inside of his cheek and grabbed Levi's hand, pulling him toward the bathroom. Along the way, not breaking his stride, he snatched a wooden chair from the desk. Once they were in the bathroom, he set the chair by the sink.

"Sit," he said, his voice gentle.

As Levi obeyed, Erwin filled the basin with water. He pulled a handful of wash cloths off the shelf, then soaked one of them.

When he turned back to Levi, he found the man staring absently at the tiles between his feet.

"Levi." Erwin knelt in front of him and gently lifted his chin. "It's okay." He began to wash the dried blood. It really was caked on in a few spots, and he had to scrub to remove it. "Am I hurting you?"

The man shook his head, still not looking him in the eye.

"Good. Let me know if I do."

As Erwin continued scrubbing, neither of them spoke. After several rinses of the cloth, the water became too bloody, so Erwin drained the basin, then refilled it.

When he moved from the jaw to the bloodied nose, Levi winced. Erwin frowned and gently traced the bridge with his fingertip. It was still straight, with no lumps in the bone, but the flesh was swelling. Not a break; possibly a hairline fracture, or maybe just a bruise. Tears glistened in Levi's eyes, and Erwin couldn't tell if they were emotional, or, more likely, reflexive tears from the nasal injury. His heart ached anyway.

"Levi, look at me."

The eyes rose to meet his, the bloodshot backdrop making the irises glow turquoise by contrast.

"It's okay," said Erwin. "Whatever happened, we'll fix it."

Levi nodded, looking down again.

"This part is going to hurt. I'm sorry." The cloth made contact with the bulb of the bloodied nose. Levi closed his eyes, a muscle jumping in his jaw, but didn't flinch. As the blood washed away, Erwin assed the skin for damage. No open wounds.

"I can't remember the last time someone made me bleed," said Levi quietly.

He finally seemed composed enough to talk, so Erwin sat back on his heels, taking a moment to study him. "What happened?"

"Nile was in his office. Marie, too. They didn't see me." Levi's eyes flicked up. "She told him about us."

Erwin looked down, folding the cloth to hide the blood. "I see."

"He was trying to hide documents because he thought you'd come snooping around, but she talked him into leaving. I found the orders to direct us to that silo -- it was signed with a stamp, but no name. I can draw it for you, if you want. Then I found your file in his desk. Nile's talking about you with Zackly. He thinks you're dangerous and delusional."

"I see." Nile was the one person he had fully confided in, and even though it hurt to have him dismiss his memories as delusions, Erwin wasn't surprised. Maybe that disbelief wasn't such a bad thing; Jasper and Marie needed Nile around. His theories were dangerous.

Levi looked away again. "Then I went to the records room to get more information. Except..." He trailed off.

His silence said everything. Even though Erwin had expected this mission outcome, disappointment sank in his chest like stone. "You looked up your ex instead."

Levi's head bowed.

"What did you learn?"

"Dead. Executed for treason, because they found out he was feeding me information. But he gave them my rival's names instead. That fucking idiot went out protecting me, and I assumed..." His teeth clenched, an edge sharpening his voice: "I smeared shit all over his memory because I assumed the worst of him. That's two lovers dead in a row because they tried to protect me, because I had to pick that one goddamned fight with rival gangs. I am fucking scum."

Not sure what to say, Erwin reached out and clasped Levi's knee. He knew this thought process all too well. His mind had retreaded it every day since Henrik had died.

For a moment, neither of them spoke.

"I lost control," said Levi, breaking the silence. "Swore and punched the filing cabinet. A guard was nearby, returning from patrol, and she overheard. She was a good fighter, and sharp. I got the upper hand – after she knocked me around a bit – but she figured out who I was."

Their eyes locked.

"Is that so," said Erwin, his mind already whirring, planning ways out of the potential diplomatic nightmare.

"I couldn't bring myself to kill her. I figured it would be too much of a mess to clean up politically, and I didn't want to be a monster. Besides..." His voice shrank. "She looked too much like Isabel."

"So what did you do?"

A shrug. "Tried to talk my way out of it. She seemed eager to help us, and she agreed to keep my secret if we'd pull her into the Corps. A slow transfer, a year or two. I want her on my squad, Erwin. She's fearless and a good fighter, and she uses her environment to her advantage." As he spoke, his sadness seemed to fade, giving way to admiration.

"Do you trust her to cover for what happened tonight?"

"I'm not sure, but I threatened her family, and she knows we can track them down at any time. If her desire to help isn't genuine, then her fear will be."

Erwin watched him. "All this has some aspects in common with the way I first recruited you."

"Except I never landed a clean hit on you."

"I'm just glad the damage isn't worse." He leaned up to brush his lips against Levi's, but after only a brief kiss, the man jerked away.

"My face is still covered in blood."

"I'm doing my best to rectify that." Erwin stood to rinse the cloth again, running his tongue along his lips, tasting iron. You taste alive.

This had been too close, just one more mission that was supposed to be low-risk that had gone awry. Had the girl been less cooperative, Levi would have been imprisoned or labelled a wanted man. I have to stop taking such big risks with him, at least for now. The stakes aren't all that high yet, and he'll be an important player when the game escalates.

"You're disappointed," said Levi. "Right? I fucked up."

Erwin turned and saw that the man's head was low, his shoulders stooped.

"Levi." He knelt down and rested his palm on a muscular thigh. "You did well. I'm impressed you got out of such a dangerous situation, and you made a new ally on the inside. Besides, if you can remember that stamp you saw with Nile's orders, it won't take long to track down its source. You did well indeed."

When there was no response, he slid his hand along the man's jaw, tilting his head up. "Listen to me: you made a mistake because you're human. Never see humanity as a weakness -- it is a strength, one you excel at, one I lack. It's just one of the many reasons I need you by my side."

"Yeah?" said Levi, his brows pinching.

Erwin's throat tightened. "I need you." He leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Levi's waist, pressing his cheek against his chest. He could hear the man's heartbeat, loud and quick, and the sound ricocheted through his bones, left him hollow. It's my fault you're in pain right now.

A hand settled in his hair. "You sure as hell don't act like someone who lacks humanity, Erwin. Not around me, anyway."

He looked up, giving a small smile.

Levi's face softened, and he smoothed hair from Erwin's forehead. "Don't look at me like that."

"Like what?"

"Like that. The same way you looked at me when we were dancing. Like you're looking right through me." His thumb swept the crease below Erwin's eye. "You're going to get me all horny again."

"I did promise to reward you for everything you endured on my behalf tonight," said Erwin. "When you're ready."

With no hesitation, Levi lunged down, and their lips met. A low rumble sounded in Erwin's throat, and blood rushed to his groin. He slid his tongue deeper. He wanted to be inside Levi, so badly that he ached -- he carefully pushed the thought below the surface, replacing it with the one that made sense: I don't care how we do it; I just want to use our bodies to express how we feel.

His hands curled into Levi's hips, and he pulled him off the chair and down onto his lap. The weight of the small body felt so good that he thrust against it, every nerve in his body alight and glowing. The rooftop dance, the taste of blood, the thought of Levi skillfully infiltrating the building, the warm body in his arms, it was all too much. His resolve was slipping. He thrust again and again, losing himself in the burning friction.

Levi shoved him down against the tile floor, forcing his arms above his head, hands smoothing his forearms to pin him down. Their hands found each other, intertwining so tightly that it hurt. The kiss finally broke.

"I want you," gasped Erwin as he felt Levi's teeth pinch the skin of his neck.

"Fuck." Levi dragged his tongue along his jaw line, then sank his teeth into Erwin's earlobe. "Fuck, wait. We can't yet. I need to bathe, and I've still got blood on my face, and-"

"I don't care." He wrapped his legs around one of Levi's thighs, grinding. "I don't care; I need you. Right now."

"Oh shit, that's hot." Levi pulled away, his brows pinched, gasping for breath. "But you'll have to wait. I'm fucking gross."

"I don't care."

"I'm so sweaty that my balls are sticking to my leg."

The unpleasant mental image surprised Erwin; he stopped grinding.

Levi released him and rose to his feet, breathing hard. "Our first time isn't going to be on a bathroom floor with me covered in my own filth. Not with you, Erwin. It needs..." His voice softened. "It needs to be better than that."

Sitting up, Erwin pressed his palms into his thighs. He closed his eyes, trying to regain control of his breaths.

"Okay?" asked Levi, uncertain.

"Okay." Erwin shoved a hand through his hair. "Water tank should still be warm. I didn't finish my bath too long ago."

"Thanks." Levi began to peel off his clothes, and Erwin turned away, but not before he saw the man's bare ass, so muscled and pert. He wanted to nuzzle his face between the cheeks -- but that was another desire he would need to bury, too. With Levi's feelings about cleanliness, that was one activity that was certainly off the table.

"I'm going to go sit down for a minute," he said, his head spinning. When he got to the bedroom door, he took a moment to lean his forehead against it, taking slow breaths. His groin ached -- part of that was probably because the skin was chafed from his frantic thrusting, true, but most of it was from blood flow. He couldn't remember the last time he had wanted anyone this badly.

He gripped the doorknob and turned. As he passed by the mirror on the dresser, he paused to study himself. His mouth was set in a frown, a little crease by one eyebrow. He traced the crease with his fingertip, searching himself for its source. Was he still hung up on Henrik? Worried about Levi? Concerned about how the logistics of this would play out? That's not the face of a man about to get laid.

Am I ready for this?

He busied himself with setting a pair of candles on each bedside table, putting the erotic oils in a drawer. After he lit the candles and turned down the lamps, he poured two glasses of white wine. He spent a few minutes deciding how he should be dressed, then decided leaving his suit on would suffice. A part of him wanted to fulfill Levi's fantasy and wear his harnesses and boots, but there was no need to complicate things yet. Instead, he tightened the Commander's pendant neatly at his throat and straightened his collars.

A few minutes later, Levi stepped into the room wearing only his pants, drying his hair with a towel. His face was completely clean now, but the bridge of his nose was noticeably red and swollen.

Erwin stood to greet him and, at a loss for words, held out the second wine glass.

"Thanks." Levi hung the towel on the back of a chair and finger-combed his hair into place. "Have you been drinking this whole time?"

"No, I've sobered up a bit."

"Good."

Levi accepted the wineglass. His jaw shifted, as if he were slowly gritting his teeth, trying to decide what to say.

Erwin wanted to fill the silence, but words were still failing him. He turned to look at the bed. "We can just sit for a bit first, enjoy a little wine and each other's company."

"Okay," said Levi, sounding relieved.

They settled on the bed facing each other, wine glasses in hand. Levi glanced around the room.

"Candles?"

"I thought they might add a bit of ambience." Erwin hesitated. "If they're too tacky-"

"No, they're fine."

They stared at each other, then each took a sip of wine. Levi's fingertips drummed the glass, and Erwin watched them, fascinated: he held his wine glass by the bowl rather than the stem.

"What the hell is this bullshit?" said Levi after a moment. "A few minutes ago, we were all over each other, and now I'm terrified to touch you."

Erwin relaxed a little, glad they were admitting to their fear. "I think we've accidentally put too much pressure on ourselves."

"Are you waiting for me to make the first move?"

"You had a difficult night. I want to make sure you're all right before we proceed."

Levi stared into his wineglass. "I've been through so many emotions in the past twenty-four hours that I feel like I'm going to puke."

Erwin understood. The carriage ride, the nightmare, meeting Marie, the rooftop dance, the mission, finding out Niklaus was dead... "There's no rule saying we have to do anything tonight. I'd be just as happy sharing drinks and quiet conversation."

"Bullshit," said Levi. "After the way you were rutting against me? I think you gave my thigh rug burn."

Warmth flooded Erwin's cheeks. "I mean it. There's no pressure."

"Believe me, I'm going to fuck you tonight. Just give me a minute." The man grabbed the bottle and refilled his glass. "You want me to top up your wine?"

"Thanks, but I should stop here." He was already feeling a buzz; maybe he hadn't sobered up as much as he thought. Swallowing the rest of the liquid, he set his glass on the side table.

Levi took a sip, then said resolutely, "Okay." He rose to his feet and set his glass on the table, too, then stood in front of Erwin, between his legs. It was a perspective Erwin wasn't accustomed to yet, looking up at the man's face, and he was surprised by how square his jaw was from this angle.

Levi stared down his nose at him, but his expression was soft. The candle flames gave his irises a honeyed tint. "Do you know how fucking beautiful you are in this light? Your skin looks so damned smooth." He slid a palm against Erwin's cheek; Erwin turned into it, breathing in. The hand slid across his cheekbones, then traced the bridge of his nose.

"So fucking pretty. You're just..." Levi's voice faded: "So fucking pretty."

Erwin ached to touch him. His fingertips found Levi's biceps, tracing all the way down his forearms, then back up again.

A shiver rippled through Levi's body. "How do you do that?"

"Do what?" He retraced the movements, and the man let out a low groan.

"Make your hands glow like that. You were doing it on the rooftop, too, when we were dancing."

Erwin understood exactly what he meant. Energy flared at the points of contact, coursing through him, the sensation so strong that it was akin to those last few lazy contractions after an orgasm: comfortable, warm pleasure; a need being satisfied.

"What you and I have, Levi, defies explanation." He leaned closer, deliberately letting his breath hit the inside of the muscular forearm, and he delighted in the goosebumps that formed in response. "Our time together in the field has taught us to read each other's bodies in ways most couples cannot." He pressed a kiss into the milky skin. "And this is still so new: as we grow together, as we learn to read each other both on and off the battlefield, this warmth, this energy between us, will only strengthen."

For a moment, the only sound was their breaths, loud and ragged.

"I'm supposed to be the one seducing you," said Levi.

Erwin met his gaze. "You already have. I've been anticipating this moment since you left my side tonight, and I've thoroughly prepared. So tell me what you want tonight, Levi, because it's yours."

"Oh, really?" The man looked down at him with slit eyes, a look somewhere between desire and superiority that made Erwin's groin ache. "First, I'm going to kiss you until we're both good and hard. Then I'm going to undress you, and you're going to suck me. Then I'm going to eat you out until you feel like you're going to explode, and that's when I'm finally going to fuck you so hard that you won't be able to walk straight tomorrow."

Erwin's mouth was almost too dry to form the words: "I see." He must have misheard the middle part; there was no way a man like Levi would be interested in putting his mouth anywhere near someone's anus. In fact, Erwin fully expected a good portion of their night would involve Levi trying to ignore the anatomical reality of what they were doing.

"'I see?'" repeated the man, folding his arms over his chest. "That's all you have to say?"

"What's wrong?"

"I thought that description would be enough to get that surprisingly filthy mouth of yours running again." He bent down, and their lips met.

Erwin felt a hum sound in his throat. The kiss was deep, but slow; Levi was carefully controlling the depth and speed of his tongue, a change from his usual wild, frantic kisses. He's determined to control every bit of this, thought Erwin, and he was surprised to feel a wave of frustration. He had never thought of himself as a dominant partner, but Levi was so strong-willed that he was inadvertently highlighting all the little ways Erwin was accustomed to leading. He remembered Marie's words: he didn't realize how strong he was. If we truly are equals, then I need to be comfortable letting him take the reins.

Levi broke the kiss and eyed him. "You okay? You seem distracted."

"I'm overanalyzing everything," said Erwin.

"Well, stop thinking."

"I'm trying." His gaze shifted to the wine. Maybe another drink would help.

"Hmm." As if reading his mind, Levi reached over and picked up his wine glass. He held it to Erwin's lips and gently tilted.

Erwin took a mouthful, but before he could swallow, Levi lunged in and kissed him, tongue sliding deep into his mouth. Wine dribbled between their chins, and Levi pulled back to gently suck it off Erwin's skin.

For a moment, their gaze held, lids low, then Levi took more wine into his mouth and leaned in again. It trickled down Erwin's throat, as powerful and sweet as the kiss itself.

"More?" rumbled Levi, his lips slick against Erwin's.

Erwin tried to respond, but all that came out was a small moan of agreement. Wine flooded his mouth once more, and he felt himself begin to tilt toward the bed. Then his back was against the mattress, Levi crouching over top of him.

Using one hand, Levi undid the buttons of Erwin's suit jacket and then the shirt beneath it, pushing them aside to reveal his bare chest. Levi's expression was as dispassionate as always, but his lips were parted a crack, his eyes fixed on Erwin's chest. He drizzled wine along the exposed collarbone, then bent down to drag his tongue along the liquid.

Erwin's hands clawed into the bed and he tilted his head back, giving Levi access to his throat. His mind was buzzing, and he couldn't tell if it was the fault of the alcohol, or love, or hormones. When he had imagined sex with Levi, he had never pictured anything this slow and tender. He's constantly surprising me.

The man set the glass aside, then kissed down his chest, aiming for a nipple. When he began to circle it with his tongue, Erwin heard himself curse.

"There's that filthy mouth." Levi's murmur vibrated the sensitive skin, and warmth flooded Erwin's body. He regretted neglecting this part of his body for so many years. It's as if he knows my own body better than I do.

As Levi's mouth worked at the nipple, his hand smoothed down Erwin's abdomen, then over the fabric of his pants, rubbing between his legs. Another curse slipped from Erwin's lips. The friction between his legs began to pull him away from himself; his back arched, his hips rocking.

Then Levi pulled back, and the absence of his weight made Erwin feel as if he were floating. He watched the narrow fingers run along his belt.

"I want you naked, but you look so fucking good like this that I also want to leave you half-dressed." Levi gripped the bolo tie and pulled it taut, leaning down to give him a slow, shallow kiss. When he tried to pull away, Erwin caught the back of his neck, staring intently into his eyes.

"Then don't undress me yet. I'll suck you off like this."

Levi's face was inscrutable. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. Tell me how you want me."

The narrow hand slid down his chest, his abdomen, as Levi considered. "Kneel on the floor." He swung his legs off the edge of the bed and stood.

Erwin knelt in front of him. He let his gaze drift up the muscular abdomen to the shapely pectoral muscles, finally landing on Levi's face. The man was looking down at him, his eyes and lips flat. Is he guarding himself? His expressions were so unchecked before tonight.

They worked together to remove Levi's pants. Erwin quickly folded them and lobbed them onto the dresser. He sat back on his heels to examine Levi, grazing him with his fingertips. The wine gave him courage to voice his thought aloud: "You have such beautiful colouring, such a perfect shape."

He chanced a look up and saw that Levi's cheeks were dark, his face beginning to relax.

Aiming lower, Erwin leaned in to nuzzle between Levi's legs, enjoying the texture of wiry hair and wrinkled skin. He knew he should be maintaining eye contact -- the last thing he wanted to do was ruin another intimate moment with a flashback to Henrik -- so he kept his focus in the present by repeating Levi's name in his mind: Levi, Levi, Levi. He traced a slow figure-eight with his tongue, then took a testicle into his mouth, gently sucking. A gasp sounded above him, and he felt a hand settle in his hair.

"Harder," rasped Levi.

Erwin looked up and saw the mask of indifference finally fall away, the slender brows pinching. He gave a questioning hum as he sucked harder, making sure he understood correctly.

"Yeah, like that. Fuck." Levi's eyes closed. "Rougher."

Energy rippled through Erwin, prickly and hot. He applied firm pressure with his tongue, carefully gauging Levi's reaction. He was accustomed to men who were extremely sensitive to pain -- Henrik flashed into his mind for a split second before he shoved the thought aside -- but Levi seemed to relish the pressure. His hand tightened in Erwin's hair, half-formed obscenities falling from his lips.

Unable to resist anymore, Erwin dragged his tongue all the way up to the tip, then enthusiastically took it into his mouth. He pressed all the way to the base, pausing for a moment to feel a throb in response. Sucking a little harder than he normally would, he began to move.

Levi groaned, raking a hand into his own hair. "Use your teeth."

The concept was so foreign that Erwin pulled away, surprised. "What?"

"Use your teeth. You've got me all worked up; I need it rough tonight."

The request went against everything Erwin had ever been told, everything he had ever experienced, and he began to feel self-conscious. He picked up where he had left off, but this time, cringing at the thought of it, he lightly dragged his front teeth across the flesh. Levi moaned and thrust closer. The response was encouraging, and Erwin's self-consciousness began to fade. He worked in a little scrape of teeth here and there, using Levi's sounds and physical response as his guide. After a few minutes, he gripped him, using his hand and mouth together, swirling his tongue. Levi's eyes were glazed as he stared at nothing, his mouth hanging open, one hand clawing into Erwin's hair, the other tangled in his own.

Erwin tasted salt. He's close. I should hold back. Even as he thought it, instinct drove him forward; he tightened his grip, increasing his pace.

"Oh, fuck," said Levi. "Wait, I can't..."

Erwin stroked as fast and as hard as he could, his mind dizzy, as if he, too, were about to climax.

"Oh, fuck!" said Levi, panicked this time, as his entire body tensed.

Erwin froze in place, refusing to let him finish.

After a moment, the man slowly relaxed. "That was close. Shit." His eyes opened and he lowered his hand from his forehead. "Shit. How do you... You're so fucking good."

Erwin reluctantly released him. Levi held out a hand and tugged him to his feet. Their mouths pressed together, their kiss sloppy as they worked together to pull off Erwin's shirt and jacket.

Then, Levi pulled down the suit pants and dropped to his knees. His warm mouth was so unexpected that the phrase "Fucking Sina!" slipped from Erwin's lips. He froze, mortified. Did I say that out loud?

Levi paused, then slowly leaned back to look up, brows raised. "Did you just use Wall Sina as a curse?"

Heat flooded Erwin's face. "You must have misheard."

"Interesting." The brows slowly lowered back into position. "So you can take the boy out of the Wallists, but you can't take the Wallist out of the boy. If I do a really good job tonight, will you curse all three walls at once?"

Erwin stared him down. "You misheard. Drop it."

Levi studied him for a moment, then rose to his feet. "I need more wine." He retrieved his wine glass from the bedside table, taking a few sips.

Erwin let out a low sigh, annoyed at himself for putting a damper on the evening's momentum. He took the opportunity to step out of his pants and fold them, then tossed them on the dresser. Then he stood behind Levi, resting his hands on the man's flanks, and bent down to kiss his shoulder. The muscle tensed.

"I wasn't trying to embarrass you," said Levi.

"I know. I'd rather pretend I never had any association with the Wall Church, if it's all the same." This time, the shoulder relaxed under his kiss. He ran one hand down the man's spine to his lower back. Trying to change the subject, he said, "I like this, right here."

"What?"

"This whole area. The indents here." He traced the dimples on either side of Levi's spine. "This layer of fuzz." He smoothed his palm across the soft layer of hair lining the very bottom of Levi's lower back. "This curve." He slid down to the jutting gluteal muscles.

"Hm." Levi drained his glass and set it down, then turned to face him, hands settling on Erwin's hips. The skin contact was warm and glowing, a sharp contrast to the cool air of the room. "While we're talking about asses, here's the thing: I need you to get on all fours on the bed."

"But?"

"But you still need to keep eye contact, right? To make sure you don't forget who I am. I have an idea, but it might not..." Levi gave a nonchalant shrug. "We could move the dresser mirror to the bed so you could see me in the reflection."

Erwin considered. "Let's try it."

Together, they lifted the large mirror off the dresser. Levi ran a finger along the top of the frame to check for dust, then rubbed his fingertips together and nodded. They leaned the mirror against the head of the bed. Erwin sank to all fours in front of it. He would unfortunately have a clear view of his own face, which might be distracting, but he was willing to put up with that if the mirror reduced his chances of having a flashback. "That should work."

"Good." Levi knelt behind him, hands smoothing his hips. "Holy fuck, Erwin."

Erwin felt a shiver ripple through his body as the hands slid down the muscles of his ass. "What?"

"I always wondered how you'd look bent over in front of me." Levi's fingers curled into the muscle. "That is way fucking hotter than anything I imagined."

Erwin felt his face redden. Having such a cleanliness-obsessed man scrutinizing the most vulgar area of his body made him feel exposed, and he half-expected to hear a 'tsk' of disgust. He felt vulnerable, as if he were half his age again, clumsily engaging in experimentation with an older soldier -- wanting to impress, but paralyzed by fear.

"You cleaned yourself, right?" asked Levi.

"Yes. Thoroughly."

He expected a visual inspection, or, at most, a tentative touch.

Instead, he felt Levi's tongue.

He yelped, slumping forward into the pillow.

The tongue pulled away. "You okay?"

Erwin's head spun, and he lifted his head. "I didn't expect..."

In the mirror's reflection, he saw Levi watching him, face neutral. "You didn't think I'd eat ass because I hate dirt and shit?"

It was more crass than they way he would have phrased it, but accurate. "I don't want you to feel obligated to do anything you aren't comfortable with."

"Obligated? I told you, I'm only uptight about my own body. When there's an ass this beautiful in front of me, none of my bullshit matters." Levi leaned forward again, running his tongue along the crack. "Does it feel like I'm doing this because I'm obligated to?" he asked, voice partially muffled by flesh.

Erwin's eyelids fluttered closed. "No."

"Good. Then shut up and enjoy it."

He found it difficult to shed his self-consciousness, at first. His instincts were to squeeze his eyes shut and bury his face in the pillow, but he fought to keep his eyes open, training his gaze on Levi's reflection. The sensations began to build, slowly at first, then faster. Tension built deep inside him, and he vented it with gasps and moans, all louder than he had intended. When Levi probed deeper, he heard himself yell.

"Mm." Levi lifted his head, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Look at you, all squirming and loud. Look at that beautiful fucking expression on your face."

Erwin's eyes flicked to his own reflection. It was the first time he had ever seen his own face in any sort of sexual situation -- mirrors had never played into his sex life before -- and he was surprised by the raw honesty: flushed cheeks, wild eyes, raised brows, open mouth, flared lips. It was a vulnerable expression. Human. Why did I ever worry about my humanity?

His eyes drifted back to Levi. You bring out my humanity. He felt a swell of love, so strong that it was almost an ache.

"I can't wait," he said aloud, his voice cracking, "I need you."

Levi ran a finger down his tailbone. "I've barely gotten started back here."

The magnitude of his desire was difficult to express. There was a vacuum inside of him, an emptiness that only Levi could fill. "I need you."

"Well, you'll just have to wait." The man bent forward again, and Erwin cried out.

Time began to distort. His world narrowed to the sensation of Levi's tongue, the blasts of breath against damp skin, the little hums and throaty groans that escaped from that heated mouth. His hands kneaded into the pillow, the cotton surface impossibly soft against his skin. Every bit of his body was sensitized, every hair standing on end.

Eventually, Levi pulled away, his voice quiet: "Where's the lube?"

It took Erwin a moment to remember how to speak. "Beside table. Left. Top drawer."

The mattress shifted behind him. Struggling to catch his breath, he lifted his head and saw his own reflection. He had moved beyond looking human now; there was a desperate light in his eyes, a snarl on his lips. He looked feral.

Levi settled into place behind him, smoothing a hand along his spine. "You still doing okay?"

There were no words to express the strength of the bond he was feeling, the unfamiliar sensation of surrender. "Fuck," breathed Erwin.

A kiss pressed into his tailbone. "I need your help with this part. Tell me if I go too fast or too slow."

Erwin felt a drizzle of oil, then a slick finger, just barely pressing into him.

"Is this okay?" asked Levi, his voice still low and soothing.

"Yes." His fingers were so slender that his presence was more comfortable than Erwin had anticipated. Foreign -- it had been a long time since another person's finger had been inside him -- but not uncomfortable.

"Deeper?"

"Please."

"Let's see." Levi gently pressed deeper, feeling around inside him. "Right about here?"

Electricity shot through Erwin's lower body, and he winced. "A bit softer."

Levi eased the pressure, and the electricity faded into a pleasant, warm hum. "Like that?"

"Yeah." A bit shy, Erwin said, "What about you?"

"What about me?"

"All this attention focused on me, but none on you..."

"After having my face buried in that gorgeous ass, I need time to cool off, or I'm going to blow before I'm even inside you." Levi's free hand slipped between Erwin's legs, gripping him. "Are you really concerned about my needs? Or do you just want to shift the attention away from yourself for a bit because you have problems giving up control?"

Erwin gasped, his eyes slipping closed, as both of Levi's hands began to move.

"That's it, isn't it?" said Levi. "You can't let anyone else take the lead, in the bedroom, on the dance floor, in the field." A kiss pressed into Erwin's tailbone. "I saw your file. Tendency to question and defy orders. You fucking control freak."

Erwin's mind was too frenzied to form a counter-argument. He felt a second finger gently stroke him, a question, and he thrust his hips back against it in answer. When it slipped inside, he felt the first stretch, the first flicker of pain, but Levi was patient, holding back until he relaxed, then carefully proceeding. The pain faded, and his body began to glow.

"Fuck, that's hot," said Levi, staring intently at him through the mirror, and Erwin realized a string of curses had been pouring from his lips. He bit the pillow, but the words kept coming, muffled by the fabric.

"I have half a mind to fuck you like this." Levi bent down to kiss along his spine, down to his tailbone. "But I want to see your face, and not just in a mirror."

I can't wait. "More," said Erwin, impatient.

"Already? Are you sure you're ready?"

"Yes." He lifted his head to make eye contact. "More."

Levi held his gaze for a moment, then looked down to focus on his hand, gently introducing a third finger. Discomfort spiked through Erwin; he bore down and breathed through it, teeth clenching, eyes squeezing shut.

"You okay?" Levi's voice was uncertain.

"Keep going," said Erwin, strained.

"Don't get greedy, you idiot. You need to take this slowly."

"I'm fine. Keep going." He took several slow breaths, and his body finally relaxed. Now he could focus on the fullness, on the feeling of Levi gently massaging him inside and out. "Oh fuck."

"Does that feel okay?" asked Levi, his voice still uncertain.

Erwin's eyes slowly opened, and in the mirror, he saw the man watching him, one brow slightly pinched. "Yes, it's good, it's good, it's so good..." His eyes fluttered shut as warmth waved through him. Oh fuck, I'm not going to last. "Levi!" he said, the word rising in pitch.

The man stilled both hands. Erwin breathed hard, feeling his body hover dangerously near the edge, then fall safely back. He let out a long, low groan, his muscles relaxing again.

Levi gently withdrew his hand and, as if it had been propping him up, Erwin's legs gave out. He dropped to the mattress, rolling onto his side. His hair was plastered to his forehead, his breaths ragged.

Levi carefully wiped his hands on a handkerchief, then set it on the side table. He circled around to finish off the last of his wine, then lifted the mirror off the bed and set it against the wall.

Erwin watched him through slit eyes, taking in his movements. Such grace and efficiency in his build, his actions. Clumsily, he sat up.

Levi settled to a seat beside him, holding out the bottle of lubrication. His mouth opened, but before he could speak, Erwin caught his jaw, lunging forward for a deep kiss. Levi leaned into it with a long, low moan.

After several smaller kisses, their foreheads pressed together, their breath hot and damp on Erwin's lips. Wordlessly, he tugged the lube from Levi's hand and opened the cap, pouring a generous pool into his hand. He reached down to grip Levi and was surprised to find him hard.

"Feel what you do to me?" whispered Levi.

Erwin was still having trouble reconciling the man he knew with the acts he had performed, and the evidence that he had not only tolerated the acts, but outright enjoyed them, made warmth rise in his chest. He leaned forward for another kiss, still rubbing him with oil.

Then the kiss broke, and they paused, searching each other's eyes.

"Ready?" asked Erwin quietly.

Levi swallowed hard. "Yeah."

Erwin lay on his back, and together they tucked a folded pillow under his hips, tilting his pelvis up. Levi looked smaller than usual as he knelt between Erwin's legs, his petite form barely wider than the thick thighs. His mouth was set in a firm line, eyes narrow with concentration, as he gripped himself and eased forward.

The first push was too hard.

"Slower," said Erwin politely, managing to keep his voice calm.

Pulling back a bit, Levi leaned forward. He began to kiss and stroke Erwin's thighs, distracting him, relaxing him. After a minute or two, he pushed a little deeper, gently working himself in and out.

It won't always be this complicated, Erwin reminded himself, trying not to let the effort dissuade him. And in a few minutes, you're going to be writhing with pleasure. Be patient.

"Doing okay, Erwin?" murmured Levi into his thigh, one eye fixed on him.

The show of concern resonated disproportionately with Erwin, tightening his throat. He reached out a shaky hand, the fingertips just barely brushing Levi's jaw. "Go deeper."

He had forgotten how strange it felt, at first, the crawling sensation that his anatomy wasn't meant to be used this way. It felt good, it felt really good, but it was still strange. Be patient. You're almost there.

"Still okay?"

"Deeper." He could feel his body relaxing, feel the pressure building a little more with each thrust.

Then, without warning, warmth radiated through his body. He tossed his head back. No, he had been wrong before: this was natural, it was perfect, their anatomy combining in exactly the way it was supposed to. He heard himself vocalize, felt Levi's name shape his lips.

"Erwin, look at me."

He lifted his head, and saw Levi staring at him with wonder, as if he, too, was feeling that perfect bond. Erwin's heart beat faster. He's inside me. He's inside me... The concept was surreal. He ran his hand down the front of the man's body, feeling the abdominal muscles ripple in rhythm with their movements.

Levi shifted his position, leaning forward, but then he looked frustrated. "I'm too short to kiss you."

"Here." Erwin twisted to grab a couple pillows, propping them behind his upper body.

Levi slowed. "Your back-"

"I'm flexible." The pillows forced his spine into a U-shape, bringing his head between his knees, closer to Levi. He strained forward until his ears rang and his hamstrings screamed. Their lips touched, and Levi began to thrust again. They pressed closer, tongues and moans intertwining, bodies rocking together.

He's inside me, he's inside me. Fuck! Erwin wrapped his legs around Levi's torso, pulling him deeper, hands clawing into his back.

The kiss broke, and Levi pulled back to look down at him, his expression pained. "You feel so good."

"Yeah?" Erwin clenched around him, and Levi gasped, his eyelids fluttering.

"So good, so fucking good." His palms ran roughly down Erwin's thighs, across his abdomen, between his legs. "Fuck, I can't....I..." His eyes were slit and losing focus.

Erwin gripped his jaw, staring intently at him. "Levi, I want you to fuck me hard."

A strangled cry left the man's lips, and he began to pick up speed. Even as his control slipped, his movements stayed precise, driving along the most sensitive areas. Erwin stared up at Levi, filled with awe, as he was overcome once again with a familiar thought: he's a natural hunter, honing in on my weak spots.

But no, that was wrong. This wasn't weakness. Levi was reading his body and unleashing its strength, lifting him, giving him flight. Energy built inside him, condensing between his legs, radiating to his limbs.

Levi's eyes rolled back, his fingers digging into Erwin's hamstrings. A curse slid between his clenched teeth, then another. Erwin ran his thumb along the man's lower lip, feeling the damp flesh, the hot blasts of each curse. His head was light, his body soaring. I love this man, I love him, I love him...

"I'm not- Erwin, I can't-" Levi's eyes opened, a hard light in the silver-blue irises. The muscles of his torso and shoulders were tense. He's close.

Maybe Erwin should have slowed him down, made it last, but he wanted to see how far they could fly together. He strained even closer, their mouths almost touching again. "Come on, Levi. Harder." He dropped one hand between his legs to touch himself.

"Fuck!" Levi closed the distance to kiss him, thrusting into him so hard that the bed frame began to creak.

"Come on," said Erwin into his mouth, his body beginning to shake from the strain of holding his head up. He grabbed Levi's shoulder to hold himself up, his legs tightening around the man's torso. His back was contorted, but he was beginning to drift from his body, slipping into a world where there was no discomfort. There was only Levi here, the rigid slamming, the gasps and moans that were slipping from their lips.

"I'm going to come," gasped Levi.

Erwin's grip sped up as he tried to keep pace. His lips were almost too numb to form the words: "Stay inside me."

"Oh shit, Erwin, I'm-" Levi let out a wail, his last few strokes violent.

The warm contractions deep inside him were too much for Erwin. His mouth split in a silent scream, his entire body coiling, tighter than he expected, tighter, tighter... And then the tension released, his entire body shaking, his mind and groin glowing white-hot.

Even after the last contraction faded, he was still soaring, his body light, his mind at peace.

.*.*.*.

 

"Hey. Wake up."

Erwin opened his eyes.

Levi leaned over him, holding out a handkerchief. "I mopped up your stomach, but I'm not wiping your ass for you."

"Mm." Erwin accepted the handkerchief, his hand clumsy. "Did I fall asleep?"

"Passed out for a good twenty, thirty minutes." Levi's eyes twinkled. "Do you always fall asleep after you come? Because I'm starting to notice a pattern."

Erwin's cheeks burned. "I'm prone to it, yes. Especially if the sex is really good." He awkwardly began to wipe up.

"So..." Levi sat on the bed beside him. "That counted as 'really good?'"

"My limbs are still tingling."

 A hint of a smile showed on Levi's face, and he edged closer. "You going to be up for round two in a bit?"

Feeling a bit self-conscious, Erwin said, "I'm afraid my body doesn't bounce back very quickly."

"Oh. How much time do you need?"

"A few hours, at least. Probably until morning, after coming that hard." He rose to his knees to do one final wipe. "If you can't wait that long, I'd be happy to take care of you."

Levi shrugged. "I'll wait until morning. It's more fun when we're both going to come."

Erwin drew him close and pressed a kiss into his temple. He smelled of lemon soap, candle wax and sweat. "You smell good."

"So do you. Every part of you. Fuck, Erwin." The man's eyelids fluttered closed. "If you had told me two weeks ago that this was where I'd be..." He let the sentence hang unfinished.

"Any regrets?"

"Maybe that we didn't do this sooner." He turned to run his fingertips along Erwin's jaw line. "I never would have guessed you'd be that fucking good in the sack."

"Likewise. We work well together."

Levi hesitated. "Except for my height. Your back-"

"I told you, I'm flexible. It worked just fine." Erwin leaned forward to kiss the high forehead, then lingered, tasting the salt on his skin.

For a moment, they were silent, content to breathe together. Erwin's mind began to drift back through the evening, and, startled, he remembered the blood.

"How's your nose?"

"Oh. I forgot about it until now." Levi nestled under his chin. "I guess this would be a good time to tell you about the mission in detail. I only gave you the short version before."

"If you like. It can wait until morning." He didn't want to stir up unpleasant memories so soon after such a powerful shared moment.

"No, I'd rather get it out of the way." Levi idly drew a swirl in the centre of Erwin's chest as he began to walk through the mission, in thorough detail this time. When he came to the point where Marie and Nile were talking, he paused. "Nile nearly shat himself when she told him you were interested in men."

"Did he, now?" said Erwin, not really surprised.

"He never noticed?"

"No, I kept all my relationships private, and my crushes as well. He probably thought I was completely uninterested in sex -- that's why he never suspected Marie and I were together."

"He was upset that he had changed his clothes so many times in front of you." Levi glanced up at him, disdain in his voice: "Please tell me you never had feelings for that rat-faced weasel."

"No." Erwin smiled. "Maybe a fleeting curiosity here or there, but nothing important. Of our close group of friends, I was more enamoured with Mike."

"Mike?" repeated Levi, grimacing.

"I'm afraid I pined after him for the better part of my first year," said Erwin, amused by the memory; the concept seemed bizarre now. "I thought everyone was like me, so his constant crushes on girls didn't deter me -- I had no concept of people being straight or gay." Still don't, he added to himself, still mystified by the gender divisions others imposed on their love lives. "I finally tried to make a move at our first Christmas party. He let me down gently, but things were always a bit awkward between us after that." He chuckled and shook his head, embarrassed for his kid self. "It was so long ago -- I wonder if he even remembers?"

"Mike," said Levi again. "Zacharius."

"Yes. Or- No, was that... I think it was Mike." Erwin considered, his memories hazy. "I haven't thought about this for a long time."

Levi rolled onto his stomach, studying him. "You don't remember?"

The intensity of his tone surprised Erwin. "Does it matter that much?"

"Yes, because your mind is supposed to be the one thing in this world I can trust. That's the whole reason I'm following you."

"I keep telling you, Levi, you shouldn't elevate me above anyone else. I'm human. I'm subject to the same confabulation and forgetfulness as any other person."

Levi looked disappointed. "But you've built your entire career around memories, right? Memories that Nile thinks are delusions? What happens if your memory is wrong?"

"Well..." Erwin combed hair off the man's forehead. "I've questioned their legitimacy myself, on occasion. They feel more like dreams than memories, as if they exist on the periphery of my consciousness. But they're so detailed, so consistent with the details we keep uncovering about our world and the titans, that I'm convinced they're real. That belief is so strong that I'm willing to bet my entire life on them. I'm a bit of a gambler, Levi: when the outcome is important enough, I'm not afraid to play my entire hand."

"Are you ever going to tell me what these memories are?" asked Levi, his face unreadable.

Erwin shook his head. "Only Nile knows, and it's better that he doesn't believe me. Like I told you, knowledge is dangerous to possess. One day, I'll prove my theories to the world. When you see the proof for yourself, you'll understand exactly why I joined the Survey Corps, why I've built my life around securing humanity's freedom. But until then, I can only ask for your trust and your loyalty." He raised a brow. "What about you, Levi?"

"What about me?"

"Are you a gambler? Are you willing to bet that my hidden hand is the winning one, without ever seeing it for yourself?"

"You already know the answer, asshole," muttered Levi, chucking him under the chin. "Stop making me say it."

"I like hearing it."

"Fine: I'll follow you, Erwin. Anywhere. And if all this leading up to yet another comment about eventually sending me to my death, I swear to-"

"It's not." Erwin smiled. "We're getting off topic. Perhaps you should continue with the mission details."

"Sure." Levi folded his hands on Erwin's chest and his chin on his hands, getting comfortable. He spoke of the papers he had found in the garbage bin. The extravagant expenses didn't surprise Erwin, but he carefully filed them away in case he needed to pressure Nile later. When Levi described the stamp that had accompanied the orders to direct the Survey Corps to the silo, Erwin's jaw clenched. He didn't even need to see it drawn: he remembered Shadis looking at an envelope bearing the two-tailed S, face white, mouth tight.

"Sahlo," he said aloud.

"Sahlo? That asshole who pushed for the sacrifice expedition?" Levi's brows furrowed. "What the fuck is he doing giving orders to Nile?"

"He's an advisor to the Council; it's not unheard of for them to make power plays within the MP. Don't worry, I have some ideas about how to address this tomorrow. Keep going -- what happened next?"

"Well, I found the letter Nile was writing to Zackly." As Levi relayed the contents of the letter, Erwin's mind began to churn. He had to think of some way to convince Nile to drop that conversation, while also convincing him to stay quiet about his relationship with Levi. He could almost see the puzzle pieces coming together, but not quite -- he'd let his mind continue working on that problem tonight while he slept. He often found solutions came more easily after a good night's sleep.

"Then I went to the records room," said Levi, his tone softening. "Niklaus' file was in the same drawer as Nile's. I thought I'd just take one peek, but..." His eyes dropped. Erwin subtly hugged him a little tighter.

"It's okay."

"No, it's fucked up," said Levi quietly. "I don't feel as upset as I should."

Erwin slowly stroked his hair. "You already grieved his loss years ago, even if you thought it was for a different reason. Don't hang onto guilt or sadness because you feel like it's necessary. That's what I've done with Henrik's death, and it only made me corrupt his memory with arbitrary rules and rituals. Do what your emotions are telling you, even if they aren't what you expect."

Levi's eyes rose to meet his. "No, it has to bother me, at least a bit. What if all this exposure to death has been warping me? I barely even blinked when you told me Anke died."

"You didn't like Anke."

"No, and she didn't like me, either. But she was human; I respected her, and I spent a lot of time working with her. What if I'm losing my ability to feel guilt and loss? What if they're the only things keeping my inner monster at bay, and going numb means I won't be able to control it anymore?"

"Your inner monster?" repeated Erwin, surprised.

Levi scoffed. "Come on, you've seen it in me, from the moment you first threw me into the mud. It's always there, trying to take control: it wants to drench my hands in blood. I felt it again tonight, when I had my weapon on the girl. A part of me wanted to slit her throat and watch her bleed."

The words made Erwin's blood run cold.

Levi sat up, frantically rubbing the back of one of his hands as if scrubbing it. "If I don't feel guilt about what happened with Klaus-"

"You do," said Erwin, confused. "Your reaction is what drew the guard."

Levi switched to rubbing the other hand, mirroring the spot he had rubbed on the first one. "What if I'm just a weapon? What if I'm just in denial, if my heart really is the cold heart of a killer?" He seemed to be shrinking, his shoulders hunched, and Erwin recognized the twisted expression on his face.

He's withdrawing into the memories that took over last night.

Erwin pushed himself upright and sat behind the trembling man, pulling him back against his chest. "Levi, you have the warmest heart of anyone I've ever met. If you ever feel you're lacking emotion, it's because your body is doing what it has to do in order to survive. Sometimes, we aren't capable of processing every emotion we should, so the mind skims over a few. It doesn't make you a monster."

Levi's body was still shaking.

"Listen to me," said Erwin gently, pressing his mouth to the man's ear. "You found a way to keep that girl alive, even though it was the riskiest option. A cold-hearted killer would have chosen efficiency without a second thought."

"Yeah," said Levi quietly. "Yeah, you're right."

Erwin reached around him and gripped his wrists, stilling the rubbing. "You chose to let her live. Your hands are clean."

Levi turned his palms up, as if examining them. "Yeah, I guess they are." His body finally relaxed; he slumped back against Erwin.

They were silent for a moment.

"I've killed before," said Levi, his voice barely audible.

The confession didn't surprise Erwin. From the first time they had locked eyes, he had seen in Levi the desire to survive at any cost. He could still feel the kiss of steel against his neck as Levi stared down at him during their first expedition together, ready to end his life. "It's okay," he said quietly, hugging him tighter.

"It's not okay, Erwin."

"It is okay. Everything you ever did brought you to this moment, to a role where you save the lives of countless people every time you head onto the field, eliminating the titans that would have been their doom. If you really are a weapon, Levi, then you are humanity's weapon. It doesn't matter how many lives you took before you found your true path: it ultimately led you to save far, far more."

"It doesn't work that way," said Levi. "You can't just weigh lives ended against lives saved and decide you're a good person if you've saved more than you've ended."

Erwin fell silent. That was the exact calculation he made every single time he planned an expedition.

"Fuck, I'll shut up about this." Levi rubbed his forehead, the tension vanishing from his body. "To think I was complaining about your pillow talk. We're both fucking morbid."

Erwin hesitated. "Are you sure you don't want to-"

"Let's just drop it. I'm fine."

After a long pause, Erwin said, "Okay. Keep talking about your mission. What happened after you drew the guard's attention?"

As Levi relayed the rest of his mission, his speech was dull, as if he were guarding his emotions. He explained the guard's skills in detail, and Erwin was impressed by her resourcefulness. If she was from the Ral family he was familiar with, then it was a family trait; his first Squad Leader had been a man by the name of Ral, an excellent fighter with a solid head and kind heart.

"And that's everything." Levi pushed away and stood. "I need a drink. You?"

"Maybe one more." Erwin rose to his feet as well. He took a moment to stretch as Levi emptied the bottle into the glasses.

"What about you, Erwin?" asked Levi, handing him a glass. "Was your night any less shitty?"

"Yes, though not as productive as I had hoped. I managed to speak with a few potential investors, but then everyone got too drunk for rational discussion. I gave up and went looking for Nile and Marie to try to patch things up, but of course they weren't home." He thought again of Jasper's eyes, and his mouth set in a straight line.

Levi cast him a sidelong glance. "What aren't you telling me?"

"I met their child."

Levi said nothing, waiting.

Erwin took a long swallow of the wine, then said, "I would be a terrible father. Nile is far more suited to the task."

Levi's gaze flickered. "You've got an entire Corps to raise."

"I suppose I do."

There was a long pause as they sipped the wine. After a few minutes, Levi wandered to the window and knelt in front of it, opening the curtain. Erwin settled into place beside him. The moon was bright, but the stars were barely visible here, drowned by the city lights. He idly dragged his finger across the glass. Cool air cushioned the window; it felt good on his glowing skin.

He breathed on the glass, then doodled Sahlo's seal in the condensation. "Is this the stamp you saw?"

"Yeah."

Erwin pressed his palm into the glass, erasing the seal. He was struck with a childish urge to draw Levi's profile on the glass, or perhaps their initials with a heart around them. He smiled to himself, imagining the repugnance he'd see on Levi's face if he did something so sickeningly cute.

He glanced at the man and saw him staring at the moon, his frown deep. Is he thinking about his past again?

"Levi?" he asked gently.

"If I were to tell you right now that we'd only be having sex the way we did tonight," said Levi, "would you leave?"

Erwin studied him. "What do you mean?"

"My size puts so many limitations on the ways I can fuck you. And I know you like to be in control and do things to your partner, maybe even more than receiving." Levi looked small and boyish; he folded his arms over his chest. "Are you going to get bored, or feel like you're being neglected?"

"I would consider myself lucky to experience tonight's pleasure over and over." Erwin breathed on the glass again and idly drew a spiral, starting from the outside and working inwards. "Sexuality is so nuanced and complicated that no two people will ever align exactly. We can work past it. Just look at how amazing tonight was, and that was only our first time -- we'll only get more skilled from here."

For a moment, they were silent.

"What does it feel like?" asked Levi quietly.

"What?"

"Having me inside you."

"Like this, I suppose." Erwin finished the spiral, then drew rays bursting from its centre. "Coiling inwards, then erupting from the centre."

Levi sighed. "Can you give me a less bullshit answer?"

Erwin smiled. "I'm not sure I can put it into words. I can feel you inside me, separate but joined, and every time you move past the sensitive spot, I feel a throb of warmth inside me. It feels strange, at first -- like a full bladder, or like things are moving in the wrong direction -- but as the body relaxes, it evolves into a satisfying fullness, and beyond, into a deep connection. It feels..." He trailed off, at a loss for words.

"Good?"

"Incredible."

Levi stared at the patch of fading condensation. "So why do you prefer to top if it feels so good to be fucked?"

"Well, partly because no one had ever taken me with such skill, so I didn't realize it could be that good," said Erwin, matter-of-fact. "Partly because I enjoy controlling the depth and rhythm, which is easier to do, in most positions, from the top." He glanced at Levi. "When you called me a control freak, you weren't wrong."

Levi didn't seem to hear him. His brows were low, his eyes hard, as if he were focused on something far outside the window. "What if I told you I wanted to try it?"

Erwin's heart beat in his throat. "I'd be honoured by your trust, but I wouldn't want you to feel pressured. I can tell you were uncomfortable with being touched there, let alone pushing any further."

"Look, it's just... You're not the only control freak here." Levi shrugged. "What happened in the bathtub felt too good. It scared me. I have some issues with control, and not just in the bedroom."

This wasn't news to Erwin, but he gently put his arm around the man in a show of support. "Then I'm flattered you give yourself to me with such abandon."

"It took a lot of practice to learn to let go. At first, I was always silent during sex, and I had so many rules: always from behind, no touching, kissing only before or after." Levi shook his head. "I must have been a boring lay."

"I can't imagine."

Levi looked down. "The thing is, I can control my voice, my muscles, all that. I can't control my asshole, not completely. I've fucked enough of them to know that sometimes things get filthy. I'll be damned if I'm going to get my filth on anyone." His brows dropped. "Or that's what I always thought. But maybe I'm just hanging onto that thought because I'm scared to let go."

Erwin thought of his own anxiety when he had been on all fours. "I understand. There's a certain vulnerability to revealing a part of yourself that you can't control. Such vulnerability requires an astronomical level of trust."

"Yeah." Levi shrugged. "So I thought maybe we could try it again. Not sex, just what we did in the bathtub. Maybe tomorrow, so I can make sure I'm clean."

"You don't have to do this for me."

"Well, what if I want to try it for my own sake?" He chanced a look up, and their gaze held.

"Levi," said Erwin solemnly, "I will try whatever you want, whenever you want. I promise you I will never judge you no matter what happens, and you will always have the right to pull away from any activity you don't enjoy. I will never betray your trust."

"I know." The man's voice was a whisper, his face soft.

Emotion swelled in Erwin's chest, so strong that he felt tears forming in his eyes. He quickly blinked them back, scolding himself for being so sentimental. It was too soon to make the confession he wanted, so he settled on vagueness instead: "You know, Levi, a man could fall in love with someone like you."

Levi's jaw clenched. "Bad things happen to people who fall in love with me."

"I'll take that gamble. I'm Commander of the Survey Corps; I've dedicated my life to having bad things happen to me, anyway." He drew in the smaller man, resting his cheek on the dark hair. "Remember, Levi: when the outcome is important enough, I'm not afraid to play my entire hand."

After a moment, Levi leaned against his shoulder, his body relaxed.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

Gamble

 

Levi awoke to find Erwin half-sprawled on top of him, snoring in his ear. Each noisy breath reeked so strongly of old alcohol that Levi grimaced.

"Get off me," he muttered, pushing. Erwin mumbled in his sleep and rolled onto his other side, taking most of the blankets with him.

Levi considered wrestling for his share of the covers and spooning up behind him, but the curtains were already glowing with the orange light of sunrise, and the room was in disarray. He slipped out of bed.

His first task was to isolate the handkerchief they'd used the night before; he tossed it into an empty laundry sack. Next, he set the wine glasses and bottle neatly next to the door for housekeeping to take away. He hung their suits in the closet, taking a moment to appreciate that Erwin had folded them when he had tossed them on the dresser. He placed the dresser mirror back where it belonged. Once the mirror was in place, he wiped their greasy fingerprints off the glass, then paused to check the damage from Petra Ral's attack. The bridge of his nose was bruised, and the hollows around his eyes were darker than usual, but the damage wasn't nearly as noticeable as Erwin's black eye.

When the room was suitably tidy, he went into the other bedroom and messed up the bed a little, as if it had been slept in. The last thing they needed was a nosy housekeeper discovering their sleeping arrangement.

Content that everything was in its right place, he gave himself a minute to kneel by the bed to study Erwin. The man's face was so slack that it was difficult to imagine it twisted with pleasure. Their encounter was bathed in warm haze in Levi's mind, as if it had all been a pleasant dream. He kissed the tip of the sharp nose, then stood.

When he arrived in the bathroom, his eyes were drawn to the basin; it was streaked with old blood, the washcloth stained with rusty splotches. His nose wrinkled. He scrubbed the basin clean, then tossed the soiled cloth into the sack with the handkerchief.

Now, finally, their hotel room was in satisfactory condition. He drew a bath, not bothering to heat the water first. He intended to take his usual speedy bath, but his groin was unusually sensitive from their activities the night before, so he lingered. Memories drifted through his mind, and a shiver ran down his spine.

He would never have imagined the strength of the fires that burned behind those icy blue eyes. Even when Erwin was yelling curses into the pillow, with his body at the whim of Levi's fingers, Levi had felt as if they were moving in unison as equals. It had been reminiscent of the palm-to-palm dance they had shared on the rooftop: the important part not the steps themselves, not who was leading or following, but the fact that they were doing them together.

He couldn't wrap his head around it. He was accustomed to dominating, to his partner offering himself up, to everything being strictly under his control -- but on a level he couldn't explain, the whole time he had been inside Erwin, the man had been inside him as well.

Maybe my control issues aren't as deep-rooted as I thought.

He carefully washed his rear. He still wasn't sure if he was ready to expand his horizons just yet, but if the occasion presented itself, he was damned well going to be as clean as possible. He spent some time working at his entrance, using all the coaxing techniques he had used so many times on partners. When his finger finally slipped in a little, he winced at the stretching sensation; it was a burning feeling, almost prickly. I should have grabbed the lube before I did this.

 The thought of missing any lingering bit of filth pushed him past the discomfort. He took it slowly, and after several minutes, he was surprised to find he had eased his entire finger inside.

What's the big deal about this? It didn't feel special; it just felt like he had to take a shit. He felt around a little, playing with his prostate a bit. Now I feel like I have to shit and piss at the same time.

His lip curled as he slowly withdrew his finger, then scrutinized it. It was surprisingly clean, but now he couldn't shake the feeling that the water was contaminated. He pulled the plug, hurried out of the tub and washed his hands several times in the basin.

Once he had brushed his teeth, patted on deodorant powder and combed his hair, he returned to the main bedroom.

Erwin hadn't moved. The sunlight coming through the curtains was yellow now, and Levi frowned. At this point, they were burning daylight.

"Hey." He kicked the bed.

Erwin muttered non-words, shifting.

"Erwin. Get your lazy ass out of bed." At the mention of the man's ass, a memory flashed through his mind -- Erwin on all fours in front of him, ass high in the air -- and another shiver rippled through him.

"Hm?" The blond eyelashes parted, then Erwin clutched his face. "Oh fuck, my head."

"You're hung over?" Levi folded his arms over his chest. "You fucking lightweight."

"A little quieter, please." Erwin's words were muffled by his hands. "Can I ask a favour? My coin purse is in the top drawer. I could really use a strong coffee and something soft and bread-like."

"Go get it yourself."

Erwin squinted at him. "It looks like it's really bright outside."

Levi gave a tch and rifled through the drawer until he found the coin purse. "Fine. But I'm not going to spend our last full day out here babysitting you. Have a bath and pull yourself together."

He dressed in his uniform, taking a moment to neatly tie his cravat. As he stormed downstairs, he tried to tell himself he was annoyed, but he felt guilty instead. You were the one feeding him wine. What did you think was going to happen?

The streets were nearly empty save for shopkeepers setting up for the day. The sun was already warm against Levi's skin, the sky blue. Once upon a time, this crisp morning air would have tasted like freedom, but in comparison to the air outside the walls, it tasted of dust and rotting fruit. His nose wrinkling, Levi strolled to the nearest bakery and pushed through the door.

A young couple stood by the back shelves, setting out bags of bread. At the sound of the door closing, they turned. Their eyes lit up with recognition, then clouded with confusion. Levi could almost see their thought process: Humanity's Strongest! But why's he so short? He wasn't sure what bothered him more: that flicker of disappointment, or the fact that he was already so recognizable.

He strode forward and pulled a loaf of bread off the shelf. The strong scent of yeast made his stomach growl. "Hey," he said to the couple. "Do you sell coffee?"

"I'll brew a pot!" said the man, hurrying to the back of the store. The woman was still staring at him with round eyes.

"What?" asked Levi.

"I'm sorry, it's just..." Her cheeks rouged. "Thank you for visiting our humble shop, Squad Leader Levi, sir."

"How the hell do you know who I am?" he asked, skin crawling.

"We were at Commander Erwin's induction ceremony yesterday. The whole neighbourhood was there, really." She stared fixedly at the floor. "We've all heard about you: the man who came from nothing, who fights as well as a thousand men, who'll keep us all safe from the titans. Thank you for everything you do for humanity."

Levi's lip curled. I used to steal bread from shops like this. He turned to study the pastries in a display case near the cash register.

A few minutes later, the man returned, carrying a thermos. He thrust it at Levi. "It's not very good quality, but I hope it will suffice."

Skin still crawling, Levi accepted it. "How much?"

"It's all complimentary," said the man. "Consider it our thanks for all you do for humanity."

"This thermos looks expensive."

"No, no, it's fine." The man bowed. "Thanks for visiting our bakery."

"Yes, thank you," said the woman.

Levi eyed them, then strode for the exit.

When he returned to the hotel room, Erwin was in the bathroom brushing his teeth; his hair was damp, and he wore a towel around his waist.

"Here's your fucking coffee." Levi flung the thermos and bread onto the bed, then pulled off his boots.

"Everything okay?" asked Erwin, the words barely understandable around his toothbrush.

"Why the hell are people treating me like a hero?" Levi set his boots neatly against the wall, then flopped backwards onto the bed. "I thought the Interior hated the Corps."

Erwin spat and rinsed his mouth, then said, "Many do -- the wealthy, in particular. They think our expeditions are an unnecessary risk to their cushy lifestyles. But you, Levi, know this best: not all residents here are wealthy. Even above ground, there are those who scrape by on struggling family-owned businesses. To them, you are a man who rose from nothing to become important, something they all dream of doing themselves."

"Well, then they can fucking enlist. I'm not here to be an example." Levi dropped his forearm over his eyes.

He heard padding footsteps; the bed shifted with Erwin's weight. "I'm sorry to say this, Levi, but you'd better get used to it. As time passes, your reputation is only going to grow."

"You're the hero here, not me."

"No. I'm the leader of the military regiment that will cost them the lives of their friends and family. I'll be the one to blame for their deaths, for any missteps we make. My name will be the one they curse and sob. They need a hero, someone who gives them hope, and it won't be me."

"Fuck," said Levi, because knew Erwin was right. He lifted his arm. "The couple at the bakery gave us free coffee and bread."

"That was kind of them." Erwin opened the thermos and took a deep breath. "Ah. I've missed having coffee this fine. Would you like to share?"

"I don't drink coffee." Levi sat up and opened the bread bag, peering inside it. "We're going to get crumbs everywhere if we eat this here."

"Then I'll get dressed and we can find a nice park bench to eat at, maybe stop to buy you some tea along the way. There's a park on the other side of the barracks that will be quiet this time of morning, and we can go straight up to Nile's office once we're finished."

"Nile's office?"

"If I'm remembering correctly, you said Marie told him to go back early this morning. I owe him an apology." Erwin took a sip of the coffee, then let out a contended sigh. "I needed this. Thank you."

"How's your head?" asked Levi, still feeling a bit guilty.

"Pounding, but manageable. I can still manoeuvre around Nile with ease."

"Manoeuvre around him?" repeated Levi. "You aren't just going there to apologize, are you?"

Erwin smiled. He took another sip of coffee, then stood and began to dress.

They walked in silence toward the barracks, side-by-side. Erwin stopped at a small tea shop. As they stood at the counter, Levi saw two young children in his periphery, pointing and whispering, admiration on their faces. Somehow, being admired while he was with Erwin wasn't as annoying as it had been when he was alone. On some level, deep down, he liked being seen with Erwin -- he liked the idea of people seeing how important they were to each other.

"You drink it black, right?" asked Erwin, passing him a thermos.

"They gave you a thermos, too?"

"No, I bought it. You can use it to bring tea with you on expeditions." Erwin gripped his shoulder. "Let's move on."

They walked around to the back side of the barracks, coming upon a park built around a small man-made pond. Trees lined the property at even intervals, a small gravel path lining its borders. Once upon a time, Levi had looked at parks like this as wild expanses of green space. If only I'd known what was outside the city.

They settled on a bench. A dozen or so soldiers were jogging on the path, sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone. As each of them passed by, they paused to shout, "Good morning, Commander," always with the exact same intonation.

"Creepy," muttered Levi. He glanced up at Erwin. "Did you sit us here just so you could feed your bloated ego?"

Erwin smiled. "No, but I must admit, it's an unexpected perk. It still doesn't seem real that I'm a Commander." He pulled the loaf of bread out of its bag, then produced a small jar of preserves and a knife. "I saw this at the tea shop, and I couldn't resist. I hope you like apple butter."

"Sure," said Levi, even though he had never had the occasion to try it.

Together, they polished off the bread and preserves, sipping the drinks from their thermoses. The shadows shortened as the sun rose higher in the sky, and members of the public began to trickle into the park. A few of them walked dogs on leashes. Levi's nose wrinkled.

"How can they spare the food for those filthy beasts, when the humans beneath their feet are starving?"

"They're the last generation of pets," said Erwin. "When Wall Maria fell, the government mandated that people were only allowed to keep food animals from then on." He leaned closer to Levi. "I'm surprised to hear you call them filthy beasts. I had you pegged as a dog lover -- when I took possession of your belongings, I saw a small wooden dog among them."

"Oh." Levi shrugged. "Yeah, a friend whittled that for me." He took a long sip of tea, planning to leave it there, but then decided he was feeling chatty. "There was this old stray dog that used to follow me around when I was a teenager, some sort of shepherd mix with one eye. She kept me warm and safe while I was sleeping, and I kept her fed and clean. I bawled like a baby when she died, so my friend gave me the carving. I carried it everywhere for a few years." He shrugged. "She really was a filthy beast, though. Used to eat garbage and roll around in puddles, shit like that."

Erwin smiled. "You really do have a kind heart, Levi."

Levi shrugged, embarrassed, and stood. "Let's go get this visit with shitbeard over with."

A guard greeted them at the entrance and, upon learning their destination, insisted on escorting them to Nile's office. As they approached, Levi could see a cleaning cart set up outside the records room. The staff must be cleaning up the mess left by the battle he and Petra had fought the night before. His heart pounded in this throat. I hope she was true to her word and kept our secret.

Nile sat at his desk, hurriedly sorting through papers; he didn't even look up as they entered.

"Commander Erwin Smith and Squad Leader Levi, sir," said the guard.

The Captain looked up, his eyes widening. "Erwin? What the hell are you doing here?" In spite of the words, there was no surprise in his voice.

"That's no way to greet a friend," said Erwin, helping himself to a seat. Levi slumped into the chair next to him and folded his arms over his chest. The office was even messier than the night before, and the morning light revealed cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling.

"I'm busy, so whatever you want, make it quick." Nile shoved a stack of papers into a folder, not even bothering to align the edges of the paper first, and Levi felt his temples throb. He visualized himself reaching over and tapping the papers across the desk to tidy them, and that soothed his irritation a little.

"I wanted to stop in and apologize," said Erwin quietly.

Nile's jaw set. "Apologize?"

"For my behaviour last night. It should have been a lovely evening of reminiscing, and instead I tried to drag you into my delusions yet again, and I upset Marie." The Commander bowed his head. "I'm sorry. You're both dear friends, and I shouldn't have treated you with such disrespect."

Levi eyed him, surprised by the word choice.

Nile leaned back in his chair, evidently thrown off by the same word: "Delusions?"

"The dreams I used to refer to as memories." Erwin looked down, a sad smile on his face. "I'm more firmly entrenched in reality these days than I once was, but something about the familiar air renewed my old zeal, and I began to lose myself again.  I wanted so badly to believe that the dreams were real, that I had some great insight or knowledge others lacked, but it simply isn't true. It wasn't just you who had to hear my old ramblings -- last night, after the gala, I spoke with Levi about them in length. Thankfully, he was able to pick them apart and open my eyes to just how delusional I really was. It's a great weight off my shoulders. I owe him more than I convey." He reached over to Levi and gently squeezed his shoulder, a tender smile on his lips.

Levi stared at him, confused. Erwin, what the fuck are you doing?

"At any rate," said Erwin, turning back to Nile, "I owe you an apology, face-to-face, for all the time I spent trying to convince you those delusions were real. I drove a wedge between us over the years, Nile. I am deeply sorry."

The Captain cleared his throat and shifted in his chair. "Oh." After a long pause, he added, "You and Levi…uh… Marie seems to think you two..." He cleared his throat again, then folded his arms over his chest. "You know, never mind. I'm glad someone finally knocked some sense into you."

Erwin smiled. "Indeed. We should all be so lucky to have such a devoted second-in-command."

"I guess." Nile's face was crimson, and Levi felt his cheeks burn, too.

"At any rate, now that I have delivered my apology, I suppose we should head downstairs," said Erwin. "Lord Sahlo will be waiting for us."

Though the words were a surprise, Levi sat perfectly still, his face impassive, not wanting to interfere with whatever scheme Erwin was hatching.

"Sahlo?" Nile gave the Commander a blank look. "He's working in his parliament office today."

"Are you sure?" asked Erwin. "He specifically said to come to this office."

"He's only here Tuesday through Thursday."

"Ah," said Erwin. "I suppose I shouldn't have made this appointment last night. I'm afraid he was rather drunk at the time."

"I can ask someone to hire you a cab," said Nile, apparently eager to get them out of his office. "Or send a messenger to alert him-"

"No, no, we've wasted enough of your time. Let's go, Levi."

Finally, thought Levi, standing.

"Wait," said Nile. "Before you go -- you came by my house last night."

Shit. Levi sat back down again, folding his arms over his chest.

"Yes, to deliver my apology," said Erwin.

"Yeah, we got your note." Nile hesitated. "You should visit more often. I know Marie misses you, and Jasper won't stop talking about you. You made quite the impression on him."

"He's a good lad," said Erwin. "Sharp for his age." He stared evenly at Nile. "He has your nose."

Their gaze held for a moment, then Nile looked away. "Yeah, I guess he does."

This is so fucking awkward. Unable to tolerate the tension any longer, Levi let out a loud sigh. "You said your apology, Erwin. Can we go?"

"Yes, I think that's everything," said his Commander. "Thanks for your time, Nile. I hope we'll see you again soon."

Levi stood and began to walk to the door. He was surprised to feel Erwin's hand yet again on his lower back, guiding him forward. In front of Nile?

As they reachedthe door, Erwin stopped. "Oh, and Nile, one last thing: I'm going to be sending you a request for a few transfers."

The Captain sighed and set his pen down. "Why?"

"I'm working with Sahlo on some special operations, and we need three skilled fighters to round out our optimal squad makeup. I've taken a look at this year's rankings, and I'd like to request Petra Ral, Oluo Bozado, and Luba Lehtonen. All three expressed interest in the Survey Corps early on, so they are likely going to be easily swayed with an onboarding bonus. I'd be willing to make some budgetary concessions to make this happen, ones that could benefit the Military Police."

"Ral?" Nile's eyes darted to Levi, and for one dizzying moment, Levi thought his botched mission had been exposed, but then the gaze darted back to Erwin, unchanged. "Why do you want Ral? She might look good on paper, but she's an airhead. Last night she caused a fuss by shooting up our records room. Thought she saw a mouse or some nonsense."

"Is that so?" asked Erwin with a small chuckle. "Well, her uncle was my first Squad Leader, and I believe excellence is in her bloodline. Her combat scores were phenomenal. Besides…" His eyes twinkled. "We house all sorts of quirks under our roof. She'd fit right in with the rest of the Corps."

"I suppose she would." Nile leaned forward, contemplating. "I'll talk to the Commander when he's back from leave. We can probably spare Ral and Bozado, but Lehtonen is pregnant, so I doubt she'll accept."

"Then I'll leave it in your hands to choose a suitable third candidate." Erwin smiled. "Take care, Nile, and please pass along our regards to Marie and Jasper."

As they began to march side-by-side down the hallway, Levi's head spun. "What the hell was all that about?"

"I'll tell you when we get back to the hotel." Erwin stood tall, nodding respectfully at soldiers they passed. "You did well."

"I didn't do anything."

"That was exactly what I needed. At our next destination, however, you'll have a role to play."

"So what's next? Are you going to meet with your sister?"

Erwin grimaced. "That's right, she asked to meet today, didn't she? No, we have other tasks to attend to. I'll explain our plans to you shortly."

They crossed the cobblestone street and returned to their hotel room. Once they were safely inside, Levi leaned against the dresser, folding his arms over his chest.

"Okay, fill me in. You tricked Sahlo's location out of him, and you were trying to convince him you no longer believed your dreams, so he wouldn't send that letter to Zackly about your 'delusions'. I got that much. But why the hell were you all over me? Don't we want to convince him we aren't fucking?"

Erwin leaned against the dresser beside him, slumping a little, legs crossed at the ankle. He reached for Levi's hand, pulling it into his lap. "Your observations are astute. However, there was no point in pretending there was nothing between us. Marie is already certain we're partners. If she believes it, Nile will believe it."

"Partners," repeated Levi, his heart pounding. "Is that what we are?"

"Lovers? Boyfriends? Beaus? What term would you use?"

Levi realized his fingers were curling; he relaxed them. "Let's not label it yet."

Erwin's fingers traced the lines of Levi's palm, and warmth trickled up his forearm, slow and lazy. "Regardless, Nile has one characteristic I can use to my advantage: he truly wants what's best for me. So long as he believes my relationship with you is in my best interest, he'll stay quiet. All I had to do was convince him that you were the key element 'curing' me of my delusions. As far as he's concerned, you're neutralizing my risky ambitions, while also keeping me grounded and happy. From both a personal and professional perspective, this will seem like the perfect arrangement. He won't dare risk destroying that."

"Hm." Levi felt a swell of admiration. "So what about the transfers? You had those names all ready to go. Why three?"

"I always have an eye on the list of top graduates. It's good information to have in one's back pocket, and we really can use as many good soldiers as we can get. Your friend Petra Ral's request to transfer put us in a good position: it allows Nile to plant an informant in our ranks."

Levi eyed him. "That's a good thing?"

"It is. Once we've identified an informant, they can be selectively exposed to information, which allows us to manipulate the person on the receiving end. Even if I've eased Nile's suspicions a bit, this opportunity will seem too perfect to pass up; by asking for a pregnant soldier who was unlikely to transfer, I've 'accidentally' left a slot open for him to hand-pick his own candidate. If he has any lingering doubts about my intentions -- and I'm certain he does, especially after I mentioned Sahlo -- he'll start to wonder, do I trust Erwin? Should I use this opportunity plant a spy in the Corps, just in case?"

Levi raised a brow. "So he thinks he's outsmarting you by sending in a soldier who'll monitor you. Instead, you get a way to feed him any information you want, and maybe misdirect him if you need to."

"Precisely."

"You shifty bastard," said Levi, impressed. He slid his thumb across the back of Erwin's hand, feeling the soft blond hair. His body began to stir. "How's your hangover?"

"Quite a bit better, which is fortuitous. I'll need to be sharp to go head-to-head with Sahlo."

"What? What are you planning?"

The blue eyes twinkled. "We're going to gather our ammunition and pay Sahlo a visit."

"Oh," said Levi, a little disappointed that they were heading right to another business meeting instead of having sex. Erwin had told him he'd have to be aggressive to get through to him, true, but he wasn't sure if this current plan was time-sensitive. He wasn't about to screw up Erwin's plans just for the sake of a quick fuck. "And by ammunition, you mean?"

"The lockbox of the King's tax money." Erwin pushed himself away from the dresser, then lazily stepped around Levi to face him. "I want you to come armed. He may try to threaten me, and he needs to understand I'm well-protected. Don't hurt him -- just make him understand how dangerous you are."

"Okay."

"And Levi," said Erwin, gripping his shoulder, "I may act as if I'm upset with you for acting out of line. I apologize in advance. I need to sell the idea that you're willing to do anything to protect me, without permission."

"Okay," said Levi again. "You've got this all planned out, don't you? You're already six steps ahead of that asshole."

Erwin smiled. "It will be a gamble. Last night was my first time talking with him directly, and he was too drunk to partake in a coherent discussion, so I didn't get a chance to size him up -- I'm not sure what I'm facing. But I believe my bet will work out in a way that benefits us all." He looked regal, his chin high, the window's light glowing behind him, and Levi felt a swell of heat deep inside his abdomen.

Their gaze held.

"Do we have to leave right away?" asked Levi.

"The parliament office doesn't open until ten on Saturdays. We have a bit of time before we have to leave." Erwin's eyelids drooped, his pupils softening. "Did you have something in mind?"

"Well," said Levi, "you're fucking hot when you're scheming, and we never did have that round two."

"Hm, I see." Erwin bent down, forcing their mouths together so hard that the dresser creaked under their weight.

Lust spread through Levi like flames through tinder. He tasted bitter coffee on Erwin's breath, but he ignored it, pushing his tongue past Erwin's, into his mouth. Their heads tilted, the kiss deepening, and his Commander let out a rumbling groan that vibrated their mouths.

Then Erwin pulled away, their lips still skimming. "One thing first." He sank to his knees, pushed the uniform skirt aside, and expertly unhooked Levi's lower harness from his belt.

"Shit," whispered Levi, slumping back against the dresser as he watched.

Once the buttons were undone, Erwin pulled Levi out of his pants. He lunged forward, his mouth so soft and wet that Levi threw his head back. Blood rushed between his legs as he hardened.

"Fuck," breathed Erwin, frantically rubbing his lips, his nose, his face along him.

"Oh shit." Levi tilted his hips toward him. "What the hell's gotten into you?"

"I couldn't stop thinking about you during my bath." He sucked hard, and Levi winced, still sensitive.

"Softer."

Erwin eased up, but his movements were still frantic. Levi watched him, jaw hanging slack, eyes half-shut. That eager mouth felt so good that he didn't want to interrupt, but he had put a lot of effort into washing his ass.

"Use your finger, if you want."

Erwin pulled back, lips sliding along him again. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. I cleaned up, so it should be fine." Levi swallowed hard and folded his arms over his chest. "So do what you want."

"Levi." The Commander kissed the inside of his thigh. "This shouldn't be something I'm doing to you, but something I'm doing with you."

"What?"

"What do you want, Levi?"

The blue gaze was so intense that Levi looked away. "I want you to try it."

Erwin nodded. He stood and held out his hand. "You'll be more comfortable on the bed."

Follow his lead, Levi pulled off his boots and lay back on the bed. Erwin retrieved the bottle of lubricant from the drawer, then knelt between his legs and tugged the pants and harnesses off his legs.

"You won't be able to see me if you blow me like that," said Levi, self-conscious. "Not easily."

"I can lift my head if I need to. I'll be fine." Erwin kissed along the inside of his thigh, then bent forward to take him into his mouth.

Levi stared up at the ceiling, feeling as if he were about to submit to an unfamiliar medical examination. Would it feel as unimpressive as the exploration he had done during his bath? Would it feel so amazing that he'd regret waiting this long to try it? His fingers clawed into the blanket. He was so on edge that even Erwin's mouth around him began to feel peculiar, as if his body were breaking down the pleasure into its components instead of experiencing it as a whole. When he felt the first stroke of Erwin's finger, he jumped. The finger eased off.

"No, it's okay," said Levi. "Keep going." I didn't go to all this trouble to try for half a second.

Erwin's touch was feather-light, moving in slow circles. He must have been distracted, because his mouth stilled, as if he had forgotten about it. Levi gave a little thrust, and the man hummed, then began to use his mouth as well.

After a few minutes, Erwin pulled away to look up at him. "How does that feel?"

Levi shrugged, uncertain. It wasn't as shockingly pleasant as it had been in the bathtub yesterday. "Go in a bit."

The lubricant seemed to help with the raw chafing feeling Levi had felt during his own explorations, but Erwin's finger was substantially thicker than his, so the stretch was tighter. His breath caught, and he remembered the advice he had given to lovers before: bear down. Take deep breaths. Slowly, his body began to relax.

"How does it feel?" asked Erwin, his voice quiet.

Levi couldn't decide. "Go deeper."

He felt fuller now, and a bit of that stretch again, but still no pleasure. He could feel Erwin's eyes on him.

"Maybe I'm just not very sensitive," said Levi. The sensation was so unimpressive that he was going soft, even with the attention of Erwin's mouth. "It just feels like I'm taking a backwards shit."

A grimace flickered across Erwin's face before it settled into neutral. "There's still a little distance to go before I reach your prostate."

"Really? It feels like you're all the way in already." Levi felt himself begin to tighten, and he focused on relaxing again. "Keep going."

"Are you sure?"

"I didn't come this far to back out halfway."

"Okay," said Erwin. "Just let me take a moment to focus on this first." Using his mouth and free hand he tried to coax Levi back to life. At first, it seemed his efforts would be in vain -- Levi was so distracted that his body wasn't responding the way it should -- but the swirling tongue was persistent. He also used an unexpected technique in his grip, a little twist and squeeze at the top of each stroke that made Levi's head sink back to the pillow, his eyes rolling toward the back of his head. I need to give that a try sometime.

"Now, let's see," said Erwin a few minutes later, and his finger pushed deeper. This time, Levi was so relaxed that there was almost no resistance.

"Fuck," said Levi, lifting his head. Now he was starting to get that strange half-tickle, half-glow he had felt the day before in the bathtub.

Erwin dragged his tongue along the shaft. "Still okay?"

"Deeper."

Heat spiked through the pit of Levi's stomach and the inside of his cock. He grunted, and his abdomen seized involuntarily. "What the hell?"

Erwin began to use his hand and mouth in unison again. Levi felt his spine arch.

"Oh fuck, what-" He let out a cry. The sensation inside him was strange, and he still couldn't decide if he liked it; it was that same urge to urinate from before, but mixed with a powerful glow. Pressure was building, and building, and he writhed and heard himself cry out again. "Erwin, what the hell!"

"Do you want me to-"

"Don't stop!" He groaned as he felt the warm mouth again, external pressure that matched the pressure mounting inside him. "What the- Oh fuck!" There was no warning. His stomach contracted in waves, he felt himself empty, and that was it.

He stared blankly at Erwin, more bewildered than satisfied. The Commander released him and delivered a soft kiss to the tip.

"What the fuck just happened?" asked Levi, panting. Sweat trailed down his temple.

Blue eyes fixed on him, as if waiting for his assessment.

"That was fucking weird," said Levi, too disoriented to phrase it more politely.

Erwin's mouth set in a straight line. He gently withdrew his finger, then moved to the dresser, pulling out a clean handkerchief.

Levi fell back to the pillow and draped an arm across his forehead. "It wasn't bad. Just weird."

After a long silence, he rolled his head along the pillow to look at Erwin. The man was fussing with the handkerchief, not looking up.

Levi raised a brow. "You're disappointed."

"A bit." Erwin sat on the edge of the bed, facing away. "I know it's unrealistic to expect you to immediately love something you've been nervous about for so many years, but..." He trailed off.

"You wanted to blow my mind, right?" said Levi, sitting up. "Show me what I'd been missing, make me beg for it next time?" Even though he usually liked a bit of space after orgasm, he kissed Erwin's shoulder.

"It feels like a missed opportunity."

"Look, Erwin." Levi kissed along the ridge of his shoulder, toward his neck, and spoke between kisses. "You can't put that kind of pressure on me." He nuzzled an earlobe. "It was over so fast I can't tell if I liked it or not. We'll try again sometime."

A pause. "Very well."

Levi inhaled the scent behind his ear, getting a strong whiff of cologne, and his groin stirred. "Besides, I came so fast that I'll be good to go again in a second, so stop sulking. I want to take you over the dresser."

Erwin barely turned his head, one eye fixing on him. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. I can't stop thinking about your ass."  Levi brought a hand to his jaw. He was surprised to feel sharp stubble; it was so blond that it was barely visible. You beautiful bastard, with your golden hair.

"I see."

"Maybe wash your hands first."

"Of course." Erwin kissed the tip of his nose, then retreated to the bathroom.

Levi stood and found the handkerchief, experimentally wiping himself. The cloth came back clean. How about that? All those years of worry for nothing. He moved over to the dresser, rocking it to test its strength. It seemed sturdy enough to hold the weight of a ninety kilo man getting fucked. The mirror knocked against the wall a bit, but it should hold.

Erwin returned and crossed the room in four large strides, catching Levi's jaw and forcing him against the wall with his kiss. Levi's breath escaped through his nose in a moan. A hard lump dug into his thigh; he pushed back on the man's chest, just enough to break the kiss, and looked down. Erwin was half-squatting and leaning into him to bring them to eye level, his limbs shaking from the strain of the awkward position.

"Is this bulge your dick?" asked Levi, rubbing against it with his thigh.

Erwin looked down at him, lids heavy. "Yes." He bent forward for another kiss, but Levi stopped him.

"Is that from...what we just did?"

"Yes."

"You're still this hard from it?"

"Do you know what it does to me to be inside you, Levi? To feel you clenching around me, to see you placing your trust in me above your own discomfort?" Erwin bent to kiss his neck. His teeth pinched the skin.

Levi stared straight ahead, his eyes slowly widening. That's why he's so disappointed -- it meant this much to him, and I dismissed it as "weird." He remembered the man's words: This shouldn't be something I'm doing to you, but something I'm doing with you. He had been so focused on his own feelings that he hadn't even bothered to consider what the actions might be doing to Erwin. Looking back with this new information in mind, the whole experience seemed hotter. He loved the idea of Erwin getting this excited.

He turned to kiss Erwin's ear. "I get it now," he said. "It's not just about control, is it? You really do want to make me feel good. You're so fucking giving, you noble bastard."

"It might be a bit about control, too," admitted Erwin, running his hands down Levi's chest.

 Levi released a soft puff of air, the closest he ever came to chuckling. He ran his tongue along the cartilage, then bit the lobe. "It's my turn. Bend over the dresser. Make sure you can see me in the mirror."

Erwin grazed his lips against Levi's, then pulled away. He settled in place in front of the dresser, planting his forearms firmly on top of it, his hips jutting out behind him. Levi let out a low groan. He grabbed the lubricant, then stepped into place behind him, his hands smoothing the clothed rear. He grabbed the man's hips and gave an experimental thrust against him; he felt Erwin subtly lower his hips so they aligned better.

Levi glanced up at the mirror, making eye contact. Erwin's face was even, and Levi felt a surge of rebellion. I want to make him flushed and sweaty. I want him panting my name. He flipped the uniform skirt up and unclipped the lower harnesses, then yanked Erwin's clothes down to mid-thigh. He didn't bother asking if he had cleaned; he knew Erwin would never present himself like this if he hadn't. He uncapped the oil.

"You don't need to use your fingers this time," said Erwin. "I'm still ready from last night."

Levi held his gaze, remembering how much guilt he had felt when that third finger had been too much the night before. "Are you sure?"

The man's eyes were so intense that he almost had to look away. "I want it hard."

Levi's groin throbbed. "Okay." He coated himself in the lubricant, then slowly began to work his way into him.

The blond head dropped, breaths harsh, and Levi felt a pang of concern.

"Erwin?"

The Commander's hips pushed back against him. "I'm fine. I'm fine. Keep going."

Levi worked himself all the way in, and they both gasped. He had already been sensitive that morning, and the recent orgasm made him even more so; he felt numb and raw and aroused all at once. His ass tingled, the ghost of Erwin's finger still leaving its impression inside him. He pulled most of the way out, then pushed in again. The sensation was so strong that he cried out, unmoving.

Erwin bucked against him. "Keep going."

Levi found he had to move hard and fast to overpower the faint numbness. The stimulation was half pleasure, half irritation, as if he were scratching an itch and aggravating it at the same time.

"You're so fucking tight," he heard himself say.

Erwin's head tossed back, his gasp audible, and the sound drowned all conscious thought in Levi's mind. The slap of skin on skin spurred him instinctively forward, his harsh breaths matching the same cadence, increasing as the minutes passed. Red fogged the periphery of his vision. He reached forward to grab Erwin's hair, yanking his head back; his other hand clasped the back of the man's harness, using it to pull him in with each thrust, making that slapping sound as loud as possible.

Their motion pounded Erwin's word into two breathy beats: "Harder." Blue eyes fixed on him in the mirror, wide and wild. "Harder."

Levi cried out and drove into him, staring down at their union, transfixed by the sight of their bodies joined and moving together. Aggression was rising in his throat, prickly and hot, and he wanted to smack the fuzzy, pale skin of Erwin's cheeks until they turned red -- but at the same time, he wanted to hold the man close, kiss him, make gentle love to him. Violence and tenderness warred within him, and he knew he couldn't have both at once. He let out a yell of frustration.

"Harder," gasped Erwin, his voice barely audible above his harsh breaths. His entire face was red, his hair plastered to his forehead.

This wasn't enough. Levi wanted to be closer, wanted to be further inside, wanted to reach into him with his hands and tongue and every part of his body. He wanted Erwin to do the same to him -- the thought surprised him, but it was so hot that he let his mind run with it -- the two of them twisting together, bodies linking in every way they could, merging into each other.

"Levi!" Erwin's teeth were bared, his jaw clenched. His frustration was so obvious that Levi didn't even need to ask what he wanted. He released the blond hair and reached around Erwin's waist instead, grabbing him between the legs, squeezing harder than he should have.

"Fuck my hand," he ordered, and he felt the man rock back against his hips, then forward into his hand, his movements unchecked. Levi's eyes closed and he heard himself sob. He wanted to be kneeling in front of him at the same time, feeling him drive into his mouth. He needed to be closer, closer... He leaned into him; the dresser creaked.

Erwin's hand closed over his, helping his fist move, curses slipping unchecked from his lips. He's lost control, thought Levi. We've both lost control. The thought terrified him so much that it almost snapped him out of the moment, but no, he couldn't stop, he couldn't stop, not when they were both so close.

"Erwin!" he heard himself yell, and he heard a wail, but he couldn't tell whose it was. He came so forcefully that stars sparked in his vision and his legs gave out. He clung to Erwin's waist, barely holding himself upright.

Erwin took over, thrusting back against him, jerking their joined hands with surprising violence. "Oh fuck," he gasped.

"Come on, Erwin," gasped Levi, struggling to find his breath and his footing.

"Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck-" Erwin hollered and tightened around him with so much force that Levi grunted, and then his legs must have given out, too, because they fell to the floor.

Levi clumsily crawled onto the man's chest to watch him, still breathing hard. He stared at that flushed, sweaty face, still feeling that spark of irritation, that itch: I want to be closer. That wasn't enough. I need to be closer. He reached out a shaking hand and grabbed Erwin's neck, his thumb tracing the thick trachea.

The man's eyes parted a crack, fixing on him. "Levi?"

Levi tried to speak, but his throat was tight. Hot liquid streaked down his cheek, but no, that couldn't be a tear; he wasn't a sentimental man. None of this was him, this vulnerability, this desire to merge, this loss of control.

"Levi," said Erwin softly. He tucked a strand of hair behind Levi's ear. "It's okay."

The words dropped out from under Levi, and he felt as if he were falling backwards, falling, falling... His head dropped, a tear dripping off the end of his nose.

"Levi?"

"Fuck, I don't know why-" A third tear dropped, and he wiped his cheek. "Dammit!"

"It's okay." Erwin's voice was soft and low. A hand slid across his hair, slow and gentle. "Come here." The hand drew him closer, and Levi felt his ear press to Erwin's chest, the fabric of his shirt glowing with heat. Beneath it, he could hear a heartbeat, loud and strong.

 

.*.*.*.

 

Erwin smoothed the back of Levi's hair, breathing in the lemon scent. His limbs were tingling, his ass throbbing, and he still felt the occasional jolt of electricity in his groin. He understood Levi's stray tears; his throat was tight, too, and he felt as if his heart were swelling. Even though drowsiness was descending on him, he refused to fall asleep. Not this time.

After a few minutes, he saw Levi's eyelids part.

"How are you feeling?" Erwin tucked a strand of dark hair behind his ear.

A pause. "Overwhelmed." 

Erwin slid his fingers along the back of his head, feeling the velvety texture of shaved hair. "Understandable. That was rather intense."

Levi shifted to look up at him, cheek still pressed to Erwin's chest. "I'm surprised you're still awake."

"I could tell you needed me to be present."

"Hm." Levi's brow furrowed, and his gaze fixed above Erwin's head. At first, it seemed he was preparing for a deep statement or confession, but he only said, "Your jizz is dripping down the dresser."

"Well, it had to go somewhere," said Erwin. He eased himself out from under Levi and sat up. "Sahlo will be in his office shortly."

They cleaned up in silence, reassembling their uniforms and getting the room back in order. When they were ready to leave, they stood a few paces apart, watching each other.

Levi swallowed hard, his hands balling into fists. "You do weird things to my head, Erwin. You make me feel shit I don't understand yet. It's confusing as fuck."

"Confusing in a bad way?" asked Erwin, even though he already knew the answer.

"No." Levi shrugged. "It's just weird. I've never cried after sex before."

"I wouldn't call that crying. It was only a couple tears.'"

"Well, it was still fucking embarrassing."

"I considered it a great compliment," said Erwin with a gentle smile. "I know how strong you are, Levi. I know how well you hide your emotions. To see you so vulnerable... That's the biggest compliment anyone has ever given me."

"Stop with the sentimental bullshit," muttered Levi, but his face softened.

Erwin closed the distance and bent down to kiss him. Levi looped his arms around his neck, holding the kiss for a few beats longer, then finally released him.

"Shall we go pay Sahlo a visit?" asked Erwin.

"Sure," said Levi. "I need to rough someone up to feel like myself again."

Together, they wrapped the King's lockbox in a towel and carried it downstairs. Erwin hailed a cab. He watched Levi carefully, aware now that carriages made the man uncomfortable. The mid-travel nightmare seemed so long ago now -- and so did that first sensation of Levi's mouth. He smiled, his cheeks warming.

"What are you smirking about?" asked Levi.

"Just remembering how beautiful you looked with your mouth around me the last time we rode in a carriage together."

"You insatiable bastard, how can you even think about sex right now? If you aren't as bruised as I am, then I clearly didn't do something right." Levi shifted in his seat and stared fixedly out the window. "You know, that was my first time swallowing."

Erwin studied him. "Really?"

"The idea always grossed me the fuck out." Levi's eyes shifted to him, the rest of his body unmoving. "I don't know what it is about you that makes me feel this way, like I want to try everything I never did before."

Though the words gave Erwin the urge to kiss him, this carriage didn't have curtains in the window, so he settled on a warm smile. "Is that so?"

"Yeah. I want to do everything to you. With you." Levi winced and adjusted his pants. "Oh, for fuck's sakes."

Erwin's pants were getting tight, too, and he was supposed to be the one who needed several hours to recover. "Our chemistry is getting overwhelming."

"No shit. How the hell am I supposed to spend time around you back at the base without anyone noticing I'm pitching a tent?"

"Things will settle down a bit once we're out of this initial burst. It's all still new, and we're both coming out of lengthy dry spells. Our libidos will dull as time passes."

"Part of me hopes you're right," said Levi. "The other part is enjoying this too much."

Erwin smiled.

The carriage stopped, and the driver hurried to open their door.

"Shall we?" asked Erwin, and Levi shrugged.

"Lead on."

As they lifted the towel-wrapped lockbox and stepped out of the carriage, Erwin drew himself tall, his face settling into neutral. The next few minutes would determine the future of the Survey Corps. If he played his cards well, he would secure their expeditions for the next year or two.

The guards nodded and let them pass, none of them showing any interest in their cargo. Erwin filed away the information for future reference: I could walk in here with explosive devices or weapons, and no one would bat an eye. He stopped at the front desk, where a concierge was scrutinizing a list.

"Excuse me," he said. "I have an appointment with Lord Sahlo, but I'm afraid I don't know where his office is."

"Lord Sahlo doesn't have any appointments today," said the concierge without looking up.

"I'm afraid we were both rather inebriated last night when I set it up. If I could just have a few minutes of his time, I'm sure he would remember. It won't take long."

She finally looked up, and her eyes widened. "Oh, Commander Erwin! Welcome to your first official day in your role. Normally, all appointments have to go through Administration -- Lord Sahlo should have directed you to one of my associates."

"Ah, my apologies." He smiled. "I'm afraid I'm still learning all the proper procedures."

"Of course, of course. Just remember for next time. Lord Sahlo is on the second floor, third door on your left. I can escort you there, if you like."

"No, we'll be fine." He gave her a warm smile. "Thank you."

They lugged the lockbox up the curving staircase, then approached Sahlo's office.

"Ready?" asked Erwin quietly.

"Sure."

They stepped into the doorway.

Sahlo sat at his desk, his black suit much tamer than his garish get-up the night before. A glass of amber liquid sat atop his desk near his left hand, the right holding a quill pen. He looked up, his brows rising almost to the rim of his hat.

"Commander Erwin? To what do I owe this pleasure?"

Erwin nodded at Levi, who closed the door. They approached the desk and lowered the lockbox onto it.

"We neglected to send this in our shipment," said Erwin as he removed the towel.

Sahlo stared at it. "I don't understand," he said, but a muscle above his lip began to quiver.

Erwin's pulse rose. Let the game begin. He sat in a chair opposite Sahlo, casually folding his hands in his lap. "When we recovered the King's tax money from the old military silo, our directions were to ship it all to your shipping and receiving company, but the new recruits neglected to include this box. Since I was coming to the Capital anyway, I figured I'd deliver it in person and take a moment to get acquainted with you."

The Lord squinted at him. "I don't have the foggiest idea what you're talking about, Commander."

"Your shipping and receiving company," said Erwin. "HDB Shipping. I was surprised when we traced the company back to you rather than the King, seeing as this tax money is rightfully his."

"What the hell are you driving at?" growled Sahlo.

"There's no need for that tone. I'm here in your best interests." Erwin leaned forward. "I could have gone directly to the King's accountants to return this, but I had a suspicion that would only make them aware of a larger sum they never received. I am correct in assuming they don't know we successfully retrieved any of this money, aren't I?"

Sahlo's eyes flashed. "Are you accusing me of using His Majesty's military resources to steal his money?"

Erwin lifted his chin, staring down his nose at the man. "Yes."

For a moment, their gaze held. In his periphery, he could see Levi sitting bolt upright, muscles coiled and ready to spring.

"You're full of bullshit," said Sahlo. "I don't know what lies you're trying to weave, but they're all bullshit."

"I see. Then I apologize for wasting your time." Erwin stood. "We'll return this lockbox to the King's accountants directly." He reached out a hand to grab the box.

Sahlo's hand slammed onto the box, his jaw clenched. "Say, for one minute, that you're correct. What's to stop me from taking possession of this box right now, and having the guards haul you away for attempted blackmail?"

Erwin smiled. "If you check the shipping manifest, you'll notice not one, but two boxes unaccounted for. The other one is in a location only I know, set to ship out to the Supreme Commander in a few day's time with explicit notes about its origins and your involvement -- unless I personally cancel the shipment. I brought this one to you as an act of good will."

"Good will!" spat the Lord. "Lobov warned me about you, you fucking snake. If you try to take me down, I swear you'll go down first, so hard that-"

There was a blur to Erwin's right, and then Sahlo's hat was pinned to the wall. The hilt of Levi's knife jutted from it, still quivering.

"Watch your fucking mouth," growled Levi, advancing on him. Sahlo stared up at him, dumbly patting his bare head as if just noticing the hat was missing.

"Levi," barked Erwin.

"You're wasting your time, Erwin." Levi pulled the knife out of the wall, letting the hat fall to the ground. He stomped it flat. "The only message rich assholes like him understand is pain." He grabbed the man's greying hair and jerked his head back. "Isn't that right?"

Sahlo was breathing hard, his nostrils flaring, the whites of his eyes showing all the way around his irises. "Call off your dog, Erwin," he said, his voice rising in pitch.

"Levi," said Erwin, "sit down."

"Look at his eyes," said Levi. "Not a drop of decency, just cowardice. You can't reason with this fucker. He's going to stab you in the back if we don't send him a message now."

Erwin rose. "Sit. Down. That's an order."

Levi's eyes narrowed, but he roughly released Sahlo and returned to their side of the desk, flopping into his seat.

The Lord's face was red and slick with sweat, his eyes continually darting toward Levi. "What do you want?"

"The Survey Corps has a constant need for supplies and funding, two things the old military silos can provide." Erwin leaned forward. "You're going to give me the full itemized list of silos. In exchange for your generous aid, I'm willing to doctor the numbers on our reports, delivering only half the tax gold back to the King, while secretly delivering the other half to your shipping and receiving company. As thanks for our kindness and for not exposing your blatant theft, you'll freely donate the equivalent of eighty percent of that money to Survey Corps research and weapons development. As well, you'll be pledging full support for all our expedition requests for the next two years."

"Eighty percent!" said Sahlo.

"Consider it carefully. That works out to ten percent of every haul, straight to your pocket." Erwin's voice dropped, his tone deep and solemn. "The alternative is zero percent, and a thorough investigation into your shipping and receiving company and your business dealings. I wonder what other untoward behaviour they'd find if they started digging?"

Sahlo's eyes narrowed. "You're playing a dangerous game, boy."

"Humanity is nearing extinction. I don't have time to play it safe." Erwin stood. "I'll expect the full list of silos and their contents on my desk by the end of the week. Our next expedition proposal will reach you shortly thereafter, and I will look forward to your full support." He turned to Levi and cocked his head. The two began to walk toward the exit.

"Erwin," growled Sahlo.

He turned to see the Lord glaring at him, lips flared. "Yes?"

"I'm not Lobov. I'm not some dumb rube you can play like a fiddle. I have contacts, a network that goes far deeper than you can imagine. You have just made a very powerful enemy, and I promise you: one day, this is going to come back to you a hundred times worse."

"Just try and touch him, pig," snarled Levi, starting forward, but Erwin caught his shoulder.

"It's okay, Levi. Once Lord Sahlo has had some time to think this over, he'll realize our alliance will benefit us both." He bobbed his head at the lord. "Thank you for your time."

He let the door close softly behind him, and he heard a loud curse from the other side.

Adrenaline coursing through his veins, he began to walk down the hallway, Levi keeping pace beside him. He side-eyed the man, giving him the tiniest hint of a smile, and Levi shook his head.

"You slick bastard."

Once they were on the street, Erwin took a deep breath, his muscles uncoiling.

"When did you find out he owned that shipping and receiving company?" asked Levi.

"I didn't. It was an educated guess. He took great care to hide himself through Nile, and the orders were to send all reports with the shipment. He was probably hoping to take advantage of Anke's inexperience, slip this one past her before she learned proper procedure." Erwin gripped Levi's shoulder. "Thank you for your intimidation. That will encourage him to think twice before he comes after me."

"You think he will?"

"Eventually. First, he'll pressure Nile to plant a spy in our ranks, so Nile will take advantage of that third transfer spot we left open. When that doesn't yield any useful information, he'll either give up and accept his ten percent kickback, or he'll start digging harder for a way to manipulate me. By that point, I plan to have more dirt on him, ready to deploy as needed." He smiled. "But in the meantime, we've secured new funding, access to extra supplies, and two years of support for our expeditions."

"Not bad," said Levi.

"Not bad at all. May I buy you an early dinner to celebrate? We can wander around town for a few hours, then find a place to settle and eat." He was going to suggest drinks, but his stomach was still queasy from the night before.

"Sure." Levi glanced at him. "One last thing. That second lockbox you're keeping hidden-"

"I'm not. I changed the numbers on the reports to make it look as if we found an extra one that doesn't exist. As I'm sure you have learned by now, it's easier to keep key evidence out of your opponent's reach if said evidence doesn't actually exist."

Levi raised a brow. "I'm glad you're on my side."

"Likewise," said Erwin, remembering the inhuman speed of his knife.

 

.*.*.*.

 

They stayed at the restaurant into the night, talking about nothing, comparing memories of the Capital, discussing the future of humanity. Erwin had always thought of Levi as a man of few words, but the more they interacted, the more he realized the man was eloquent and thoughtful. He made a good conversation partner. I would have learned this earlier if I had taken the time to join him and Mike for drinks, all those times they asked me. He made a note to be more social once they returned.

They also spoke in hushed tones about how their relationship would proceed once they returned to the base.

"Two nights with no contact once we return," said Erwin. "At least. Gives us time to heal, and keeps suspicion low."

"Heal?" said Levi, his foot finding Erwin's under the table. "Have I been too rough on you?"

"I'd say you were exactly rough enough."

"Well, I'll be as gentle as you need tonight."

Their eyes held.

"Back to the room?" asked Erwin.

"Yeah."

The instant the hotel room door closed behind them, they fell against each other, kissing.

They made slow love, taking their time, arching against each other, breathing each other in. Part of it was necessity, both of them bruised and sore, but part of it was an unspoken need for a deep connection, an expression of the words they were both thinking, the words neither was ready to say. Erwin finished first; Levi's palms pressed to either side of his face, hanging on just long enough to watch him through it, before he, too, went under.

They lay together, flushed and sweaty, and Levi began to pull away to clean up, but Erwin caught his arm.

"Lie with me," he said. "Just for a few minutes."

Levi's nose wrinkled as he sank back down to the bed. "You're just going to fall asleep and everything's going to dry and get gummy."

"Please," said Erwin quietly. "I still want to feel close to you."

He saw Levi's throat bob. "Okay." He lay down and curled up next to Erwin.

Haze was descending on Erwin, warm and comfortable, and his eyelids were heavy, drooping, drooping...

 .*.*.*.

 This again?

The cloak tightened around Erwin's neck, and he jerked backwards off the horse, hoisted into the air. Even though he recognized the nightmare, even though he had been through it hundreds of times before, dread still gnawed at his veins like acid. He twisted, trying to free himself from the attacking titan. Maybe if I can free myself in time, I'll wake up, and I won't have to watch him die again.

He heard the howl of fury below him, saw Henrik -- no, he had morphed into Levi -- saw Levi draw his blades and launch at the titan that held him captive. The blades hit bone above Erwin, and he dropped to the ground and rolled.

Above him, Levi reached out from the beast's mouth, head pinched between the massive teeth. "Erwin!"

But this time, the beast wasn't a titan; it was Lord Sahlo, titan-sized, but still human. His teeth closed, and Levi's blood drenched Erwin as thickly as if it had sprayed from a faucet.

"You fucking monster!" roared Erwin.  He drew his blades to advance, but he was frozen, rooted to the ground. Sahlo loomed over him, face twisting into a malicious smile.

"You play a dangerous game, boy. You gamble wildly without considering how it will affect those around you. You think the titans will devour everything you love, but you're wrong."

His face morphed into Erwin's. "You will."

.*.*.*.

Erwin's eyes snapped open.

The candle was low, the room so dimly lit and warm that his panic felt out of place. Levi had burrowed into his chest, his snores softly fluttering against Erwin's skin.

"Levi," he whispered, burying his nose in the man's hair. He closed his eyes and breathed, "I love you."

The words had slipped out by accident, but he was disappointed when the man continued snoring. One of these days, I'll be brave enough to say it to him when he's awake.

His heart still pounded from the dream. It infuriated him that Sahlo held any sway over his subconscious. When he was awake, Erwin knew he had handled the negotiations flawlessly. Sahlo wouldn't dare touch him, at least not straight away.

It's airtight, he thought, but the imagery of Sahlo devouring Levi was still fresh in his mind.

Well, he'd just have to make sure Sahlo never found out how much Levi meant to him. He kissed the sleeping man's forehead. His one weakness. He knew he was foolish, embracing this hole in his armour. I must be certain to cover it at all times.

Now that he was awake, he was becoming aware that his body was sticky with sweat and fluids. Grimacing, he reached for the handkerchief, moving slowly so he didn't wake up Levi. It was too late to wipe up properly; the sheets were damp beneath him. He frowned. Levi deserved a cleaner sleeping space.

He eased out from under Levi. To his surprise, the man didn't awaken. Perhaps all their physical activities had taken a toll on him. He slid his arms under the sleeping man's body. He was heavier than he looked, but still small and slim. Erwin cradled him to his chest, feeling a strong urge to protect him.

Marie's words floated into his mind: Be careful with this one. He's more fragile than he pretends.

Erwin set his jaw. He must not hurt Levi. No matter what happened with Sahlo, or the titans, or anything else, Erwin must not be the one to devour him. Humanity needed their hero.

He set him on the bed in the other room, pulling the covers over him. Levi stirred, then settled again, breaths still even.

Once Erwin had put out the candles and taken a minute to clean himself up, he climbed into bed, spooning behind Levi.

"Erwin?" asked Levi, his voice groggy. "The hell?"

Erwin kissed the back of the man's neck. "It's okay. Go back to sleep."

Levi snuggled back against him, giving a contented hum, and Erwin felt his heart swell.

"A few days ago, you asked what I wanted after the war was won," he whispered. "This, Levi. All I want is this."

There was no reply; Levi's breaths were even. Erwin closed his eyes, arm tightening around him.

Chapter Text

 


PART II

ABLAZE


"Wake up," said Erwin. "We've reached Trost."

Levi sat up so quickly that the stack of paperwork began to slide off his lap. He clamped onto it before it could fall to the floor. "What the hell? When did I fall asleep?"

"About an hour ago. I suppose the paperwork did get rather tedious." Erwin stacked his own pile of papers on the bench beside him, then slipped the stack neatly into his file.

The carriage must have rolled over a rock, because a bump rattled the cabin, and Levi nearly lost his papers again. He frowned and carefully aligned the edges. "You should have woken me up. That was the last hour we had before everything has to go back to normal."

"You looked so relaxed that I didn't want to wake you."

They exchanged a long look.

"Levi," said Erwin quietly, "this trip was..." He couldn't find the word. "I feel like we've been away for years, not a few days."

"Yeah." Levi looked down. "How the hell are we going to pretend nothing's going on between us?"

"Well, I suppose we handle it by showing half the truth: that we've formed a strong bond, and we've become close friends."

"Close friends?" Levi's brow furrowed.

The concept seemed obvious to Erwin, and Levi's surprise made him wonder if he had been presuming too much. "I'd say we're forming a strong friendship, wouldn't you? Last night, we spent hours talking about nothing, and that wasn't for the first time. Besides..." He braced himself, fighting against the instinct to duck his eyes. "You already know me better than anyone alive."

"I do?" asked Levi.

"Of course you do."

"What about Nile or Marie?"

"Nile thinks he knows me, but his image of me is outdated, and based on several incorrect assumptions. And Marie..." Erwin paused. "She knows my emotions, but she never understood my passion to free humanity. You don't just understand it; you share it."

The grey-blue eyes searched his, a little too wide, and Erwin felt his throat tighten.

"Here." He sat upright and dropped his arms to either side, inviting him to come closer.

Levi studied him for a moment, then shifted across to the bench on Erwin's side of the cabin. Erwin closed his hands over the narrow hips and pulled him onto his lap.

"Hey, what-" began Levi, but Erwin cut him off with a kiss. There was only a moment's hesitation, then Levi leaned into it, wrapping his arms around him.

When the kiss broke, their foreheads rested together. Erwin's thumb ran across his bottom lip. "I suppose friends don't kiss like that."

"Mm." Levi stole another kiss. "Two days?"

"Two days. Until Tuesday night, we are colleagues and friends, and nothing more." He smoothed the dark hair, buried his nose in it, breathed in. "I don't know how I'm going to sleep without you. I should have scheduled an overnight ride home so I could have held you one last time."

"It's just a couple nights," said Levi dismissively, but he buried his face in Erwin's neck.

His form was small and warm, and Erwin instinctively curled around him.


-15-

Adjustment

Levi stepped out of the carriage and stretched an arm above his head. He wasn't sure what time it was, but the sky was already dark, stars just beginning to appear. He took a deep breath. The scent of Trost was already more familiar than the scent of the Capital. He was returning home.

He glanced over at Erwin, who had defaulted to his Commander armour: guarded smile, neutral face, rigid stance. He already missed seeing the true Erwin that hid beneath his role. Though, maybe he already looked the same, shifting back into Levi the Squad Leader instead of Levi the friend and lover.

"I may hold an informal Officer's gathering tonight," said Erwin. "I'll send for you if I do."

"Okay." Levi squinted as two silhouettes appeared in the doorway overlooking the courtyard. The larger silhouette had to be Mike - it was as tall as the door frame - and the other one appeared to be bouncing. That must be Hange. "Not a moment's peace."

"Levi," said Erwin quietly, "thank you."

"For what?"

"For everything." For a moment, the mask dropped, and his eyes were soft again. "We'll pick up again in a couple days."

Levi nodded.

"Welcome back," yelled Hange, bouncing closer. "We're here to help with your luggage."

"Thank you, both. It'll be much lighter this time around; we unloaded some cargo while we were away." Erwin stepped toward the back of the carriage. "Incidentally, Hange, we should take a moment tomorrow to discuss your ideas for weapons development. I may have secured some funding."

Hange's eyes lit up. "Sir."

Levi and Mike began to pull the trunk out of the carriage; without the lockbox of gold, it was, indeed, considerably lighter than it had been before.

"How's the nose?" asked Levi, noticing the man's face was still wrapped with bandages.

"Can't smell a damned thing." Mike raised a brow. "Looks like you took a blow or two yourself. Wasn't Erwin, was it?"

For one stomach-twisting moment, Levi misunderstood what he meant by 'blow', but then he remembered his own wounded nose. "No, I got in a scrap. Long story." He wasn't sure how much of his mission was meant to be common knowledge.

Leaving Hange to help Erwin, the two men began to haul the trunk up the stairs, then lugged it down the hallway. Their immense height difference made their task so awkward that Mike silently plucked the trunk out of Levi's hands and carried it alone. Levi would have protested, but he was sore from being cramped in a hot carriage all day.

"Have a good time?" asked Mike.

"Not really," said Levi. "And I heard more than I wanted about your trainee days."

The man snorted, the sound strangled by his bandages. "Yeah?"

"Yeah, Erwin's a chatty drunk." Levi glanced up at him. "Things got a bit personal. Heard he had a bit of a thing for you, back when you were kids." Though he said the words casually, his heart pounded in his chest. It seemed impossible that Erwin's brain could ever fail him. This would be a good test of whether or not his childhood memories could possibly be flawed.

"Oh." Mike shrugged. "I forgot about that. Yeah, he was a naive little thing back then. I had to be his first rejection. Felt like shit. Hope he's not still sore about it."

"No, he's fine." said Levi, and then he let out a silent breath of relief. If Erwin remembered that correctly, he's probably remembering everything else correctly as well. I can still trust his mind.

Mike deposited the trunk in Levi's room. "Want help unpacking?"

Levi thought of the bottle of lubricant, of all the soiled handkerchiefs. "I've got it. Thanks."

"Suit yourself. Drinks later?"

"Sure."

Then he was alone. He began to pull his belongings out of the trunk, leaving Erwin's untouched; he would drop the trunk off in the Commander's room later. He was almost finished when he heard a knock at the door. His pulse rose. Erwin? "Come in."

Hange stepped into the room. "So?"

He sighed. "What do you want?"

The door closed, and Hange approached, eyes a little too wide behind the oval lenses. "Did you dance with him?"

"Of course not." The memory of dancing on the rooftop under the setting sun was so overwhelming that he turned away. He fixedly pulled his soap out of the chest, setting it in his toiletries pail.

The hair on the back of his neck was crawling. He lifted his head, then jumped. Hange's face was inches from his.

"Your ears are pink."

"Your hair is greasy," he retorted. "Have you bathed at all since we got back from the expedition?"

They stared at each other, then Hange grinned and pulled away. "Welcome back."

"Uh, thanks," said Levi, feeling as if he had just been scrutinized and then judged.

"Erwin has invited us all to his office for drinks. Sort of an informal mission debrief."

"In a minute. I need to unpack."

"It can wait. Come on." Hange grabbed his arm and dragged him toward the door.

"Oh shit, put your arm down. You really need a fucking bath." Levi snatched his hand away. Truthfully, the scent of body odor didn't bother him as much as other smells - in some contexts, it was even pleasant, so long as it wasn't his own - but he needed an excuse to be annoyed.

They arrived at Erwin's office to find him seated behind the desk. Berit was perched uncomfortably on a wooden chair in front of him.

"Mike will join us shortly," said Erwin as he slid bottles of ale across the desk.

"I'm surprised you can still drink after how hard you hit the bottle in the Capital," said Levi. "And how hard it hit back."

Erwin's lips flattened. "I'll be fine, thank you, Levi."

"Speaking of hitting..." Berit tapped her nose. "What happened there?"

Levi shrugged. "Got in a scrap."

"The Commander got drunk, and you got in a scrap? So really, the two of you were just partying while the rest of us were hard at work back here?" Her arms folded over her chest.

Levi's eyes narrowed. "I just did eight fucking hours of paperwork in a stuffy buggy while your pasty ass was here playing house-"

"It's okay, Levi," said Erwin with his guarded smile, the one he pasted on to put others at ease. "There's more to it than that, I assure you, Berit. We'll discuss everything when Mike gets here."

"I'm here." Mike stepped into the room, closing the door behind him, and flopped onto a chair. He was so enormous that Levi cringed, expecting the chair to break, but it held.

"Good," said Erwin. "Then let's get started. We'll do a formal Officer's meeting tomorrow, but our activities in the Capital have cemented our focus, so I wanted to meet with you tonight and give you a quick overview first."

As they passed around the ale, Erwin sat tall in his desk, his voice taking on a deep, confident tone that made shivers ripple down Levi's spine. He spoke of building relationships with the Military Police and the Garrison, as well as several key investors.

"Of special note," he said, "thanks to some leg work by Levi, we've built a strong business relationship with one of the lords. He has agreed to fund our weapons research with sliding donations based on the results of our upcoming expeditions. I expect these donations to be large enough that we will be able to formally start a weapons research division, headed up by Hange."

Hange's hands clapped together. "Really?"

"There's an old storage room next to the dungeon cells downstairs. You can clean that up and use it as your research base, on one condition." He leaned forward across the desk. "You will not use any materials that could endanger the lives of anyone in this base. If you wish to build new explosive devices, for example, you must take that research offsite."

Hange gave a delighted whoop and stood to deliver a thumping salute. "Sir! I'll make the Corps proud."

Levi took a sip of ale, glad Erwin had added the stipulation about dangerous materials. Otherwise, Hange's reckless enthusiasm was bound to kill them all.

"I look forward to your results." The Commander turned to address all of them. "As I mentioned, we'll be having a formal meeting tomorrow to kick off our new squad selection. I trust each of you has given some thought as to what type of squad you want to lead?"

"Research," said Hange. "And support."

"Defense," said Berit.

"Offense." Mike tapped his bandaged nose. "With some tracking and scouting once this thing heals."

All eyes focused on Levi, who shrugged. He hadn't really thought about it. "Speed and strength." He hoped it was a good answer.

Erwin nodded. "You and Mike could form our right and left arms. I believe a combination of offense and scouting would suit your leadership style well."

I have a leadership style? Levi idly swirled the ale in his bottle.

"It looks as if we'll have a wide spread of skills," said Erwin with a kind smile. "That makes my job easier, and should make squad selection easier as well. Tomorrow, we'll discuss your initial squad selections and begin interviewing the remaining candidates. I expect the interview and squad assignment process to last until the end of next week.

"During this time, I'll be putting together a proposal for our next expedition. This will be a large-scale operation; we'll be sweeping through the old military silos, gathering supplies, while also scouting for a permanent base outside Wall Rose. After we've recovered everything we can from the silos, our overall mission will shift to securing that permanent base, while also building caches of supplies leading to Wall Maria. All of this will culminate in a wall reclamation effort three to five years in the future."

There was a long silence. Levi's skin erupted into goose bumps. We can do this. We can take back Wall Maria. With this man leading us, we can do anything.

"Commander," said Hange. "That silo we found was almost empty. Why would we try to track down any others?"

"I have secured access to the itemized list of contents for all silos within Wall Maria," said Erwin. "We'll be prioritizing silos based on what they contain. I promise you, Hange, I will weigh the benefits of each silo against the risks required to reach it. As an extra precaution, we'll be performing a small-scale scouting mission in advance of the expedition, so we know roughly what to expect in terms of titan traffic."

"Scouting missions?" Hange's eyes lit up. "I volunteer my squad. We can use the opportunity to research-"

"You don't even know who will be in your squad yet, shitty four-eyes," said Levi. "And your squad will be a support squad, anyway. It should be me or Mike."

Erwin's eyes locked onto him, and Levi saw a brief flicker of fear before the face returned to neutral. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves. There's no need to volunteer just yet. We'll discuss the details of the scouting mission once I have the itemized list of contents, and once the squads have been formed."

Levi stared at him, mind spinning around that flicker. Is he afraid to put me in danger? Certainly he had misinterpreted the look. Erwin had only agreed to move forward with a relationship on the principle that it wouldn't interfere with their work.

"So," said Erwin, "Now you know our objectives for the next few years. This may shift as necessary, of course, but we must always be moving toward the reclamation of Wall Maria. That is our next major goal.

"That's everything I wanted to cover tonight, but you're welcome to stay here and drink for a while, if you like. My time with Levi in the Capital showed me how little I know about each of you, except maybe Mike. If we are to proceed forward as a team, we need to know each other thoroughly. I think it will be valuable to spend time drinking and talking together like this on a regular basis."

Levi winced, feeling awkward on his behalf. "Did you just formally invite us to casual hang-outs?"

Mike shifted on the chair. "If we're going to hang out here, you're going to need to get a couple couches or something."

"That's a good idea," said Erwin.

"Okay." Berit leaned forward. "If we're being all buddy-buddy, can I ask what happened to Levi's nose? Because I'm really curious."

"Yeah, I'd like to know, too," said Hange.

Levi glanced at Erwin, not sure how much he was supposed to reveal.

The Commander sat tall. "Levi was on a reconnaissance mission somewhere off-bounds to the public. A member of the Military Police found him and tried to take him down before she realized who he was."

"She landed a blow on you?" asked Mike, impressed. "I can barely touch you when we're sparring, let alone when you're fighting for your life."

Levi shrugged. "She had gear on, and I didn't. And I was drunk."

"Her fighting skills were so impressive that we recruited her," said Erwin. "In fact, three members of the MP will be joining us within the next year. But enough about that - Berit and Mike, I'm curious to hear about what we missed while we were gone. How did everything go here? Did the new recruits behave?"

As Berit spoke, Levi's eyes drifted back to Erwin. His bottle was nearly full, his spine rigid. Was he always this stiff and formal? It was so unlike the man he had come to know in the Capital. Erwin had several conflicting sides: the ruthless strategist, the formal leader, the relaxed conversational partner, the intense lover. It was going to take time to reconcile all four into one. And yet, he already found himself loving and admiring each of them for a different reason.

"Levi's smiling," interrupted Hange, shocked.

Levi pulled his face into neutral, but not before every eye in the room locked onto him.

"That wasn't a smile," said Berit.

"Sure it was. Or as close as he gets." Hange leaned forward, squinting. "You know, both of you have been acting strangely since you got back. Levi keeps blushing, and Erwin keeps getting this little twinkle in his eye."

"Hange," said Erwin. "You're interrupting your colleague's update."

"Hange's right." Mike folded his arms over his chest. "You offered to have drinks with us. You don't normally socialize without at least five minutes of convincing."

Erwin's throat bobbed. Levi watched him, mouth dry, palms sweating. He could almost see the wheels turning in the man's head, but they weren't turning fast enough.

"You got laid," said Mike. "Both of you. Right?"

"What?" said Levi.

"That's not-" began Erwin, but the Squad Leader interrupted him.

"Brothel visit? Or did you just pull the Commander card and woo a couple women back to the hotel?"

"This isn't appropriate," said Erwin, irritation darkening his expression.

"If my nose wasn't busted up, I'd figure out the answer in a second."

"How?" asked Hange.

"Brothels have a very distinct smell of-"

"Shut up," snapped Levi. "It's none of your business. Fucking hell." Hange's eyes locked on him; he felt as if his body were slowly being turned inside out. Shit. We're going to be found out on our first night back.

Berit drained her bottle, then stood. "Look, this is intriguing, it really is. Mike's said more in the past five minutes than he did the entire time you were away, and I've never seen Levi make so many facial expressions. But I barely slept while you two were gone, and I'm exhausted, and I really don't want to know anything about my commanding officer's love life, so if it's all the same, I'm going to go pass out." She saluted. "Excuse me, Commander."

"Goodnight," said Erwin, nodding at her. "And my apologies. I let this conversation get out of control." He still looked as if he were struggling to regain his composure, a nervous crease showing beside one eyebrow.

The door closed behind her.

"You assholes scared her away," muttered Levi.

Mike shrugged, returning to his ale.

"At least you had a good time in the Capital," said Hange diplomatically.

"For the most part. The gala itself was enjoyable." The Commander's fingers drummed the top of his desk. "For me, anyway. I'm not sure Levi was as thrilled, particularly when I met up with old friends. We ended up reminiscing for far longer than I should have, and I'm sure the old tales got tiresome."

"Shit!" Mike leaned forward so quickly that his chair creaked. "Marie was there."

Levi's eyes narrowed, his gaze shifting to the Squad Leader. There was an accusatory tone to the words that made his hackles rise.

"Mike-" began Erwin.

"No, it all makes sense now." Mike cast him a disappointed look. "They're married, Erwin. With a kid."

"You're getting the wrong idea."

"Who's Marie?" asked Hange.

"A woman we knew as trainees." Mike shook his head. "Nile and Erwin both fell for her, and she kept dating both of them. It was constant drama."

"This isn't something we-" began Erwin, but the man was still going.

"Then we came out here and she moved to the Capital to settle down with Nile, but every time Erwin went to the Capital on business, he'd hook up with her all over again-"

"Mike, that's enough."

Levi's eyes narrowed. Every time? That was different from the version he had heard.

"Thought you'd be decent enough to knock it off once they married and had a kid," said Mike.

Hange took a long sip of ale, eyes darting between the three men.

For several seconds, the only sound was the tapping of Erwin's fingers on the desk top. Then, he leaned back in his chair, his arms folding over his chest. "Very well; I'll address your concerns, Mike, and then we will drop this topic. First of all, you're exaggerating. Our love triangle, such as it was, wasn't nearly as sordid as you make it sound. Marie genuinely loved us both, and no party of our triangle wanted to hurt any others, so yes, some secrets arose, but they were well-intentioned. Secondly, no, I did not sleep with her during this visit, nor have I since they wed. And thirdly, it wasn't 'constant drama.' There was even a period of nearly a year where she and I were exclusive."

"You weren't exclusive." Mike tapped his nose. "This thing doesn't lie."

The Commander's mouth twisted. "I see."

Levi almost felt badly for him, but he was still upset about this new version of events. After the conversation at the gala, he had understood their relationship as one indiscretion, not a chain of them. To his dismay, he could feel his respect for the man beginning to bleed away, drop by drop. He had a few strong moral codes, and one of them was that infidelity was betrayal, and betrayal was a filth that could never be washed from a relationship.

Maybe he should have let it slide, but he was beginning to fixate on that infidelity; it was burrowing into him, expanding, and the question spilled over: "I thought you and Marie only slept together once after she settled down with Nile?"

"This isn't an appropriate venue for this discussion," said Erwin, shifting in his seat. "I've humoured the topic long enough."

"No, this is important. Were you screwing around behind Henrik's back? Or was it after he died, and you were just betraying your best friend instead? Is that what you do to the people who trust you? Smile politely at them, then go stick your dick in their wives?" And then lie to me about it? How many half-truths have you told me?

"Wait, who's Henrik?" asked Hange, eyes still drifting between the three of them, but the question went ignored.

Erwin rubbed his temples. "Any poor decisions I made as a young man have no impact on my ability to command the Survey Corps, so we will not discuss them in this office. You two have probably convinced Hange I'm some irresponsible, sex-crazed maniac, which couldn't be further from the truth."

Hange took another sip of ale. "It's okay. This is interesting."

"No, it's not okay, and this is bullshit." Levi drained his bottle, then stood. "I'm going to bed."

"Levi," said Mike, "calm down. I was just giving him a hard time."

"Yeah, well you can fuck right off. All of you." Levi turned on his heel and marched from the room.

Too angry to return to his room, he kept walking. He ended up near the stables, and he decided some self-imposed isolation on the rooftop might be what he needed. He hadn't had a moment alone since they had left for the Capital, and he was starting to feel penned in.

He climbed to the stable roof and jumped carelessly across the dangerous gap to the higher perch, too upset to be cautious. He settled on the tile and let his knees loll in his elbows, fixing his gaze on the stars.

He couldn't pinpoint exactly why he was so angry, and that made him even angrier. This was the same useless emotion that had gripped him when Erwin, Nile and Marie had been reminiscing about their past. It wasn't jealousy. Jealousy would have been easier to dismiss - he knew Erwin's past wasn't a threat to whatever they shared now. No, this was a deep disappointment, an incongruity between his ideals and reality.

Logically, he knew everyone made relationship mistakes, especially when they were younger. When he looked back on his own past, he could point to countless examples of immature bullshit. There was the one relationship where he had tried to control his partner by emotionally manipulating him, constantly bullying him into staying together. In another relationship, he had swindled large sums of money from his partner under false pretenses. A lump of shame built in his throat, so large that he coughed to clear it. He shouldn't blame Erwin for sanitizing the truth in his version of events. If Levi had been asked about his past relationships, he might have tried to make himself sound less despicable, too.

Footfall sounded on the stable roof. He peered down, and was surprised to see not Erwin, but Hange.

"Leave me alone," he muttered.

"That's what people say when they need someone the most."

"It's also what people say when they want you to leave them the fuck alone."

"Now, now, don't be like that." Hange jumped across the gap, wobbling on the landing. "Wow! That was close."

He was impressed with the strong jump - even Erwin, with his height advantage and powerful legs, had been unable to land it cleanly - but only said, "If you fall, I'm not cleaning up your bloody, meaty mess."

Hange dropped to a seat beside him. "Want to talk about it?"

"No, I don't want to talk about it. That's why I told you to leave me the fuck alone." Levi rested his chin on his forearms, drawing his legs closer to his body.

"Then I'll have to guess. You idolize the ground he walks on, so it breaks your heart to hear about his imperfections, right? Makes you start second-guessing him?"

His muscles tensed. He didn't reply.

Hange's legs stretched out beside him. "You've got to relax your expectations, Levi. We've all done stupid things because of love. It doesn't make him any less admirable. He's a great man."

"I know that," he muttered. "While we were at the Capital, I got to see him outpace every noble and military officer we bumped into. He's a fucking genius." Deciding it wasn't giving away too much, he added, "We talked a lot while we were there, and I guess he figured out how much I admire him, because he kept reminding me he's human and he makes mistakes. But..." He trailed off.

"But you can't see him that way, right? Because you dedicated your life to following him, and if he's anything less than perfect, then it reflects poorly on you for trusting him?"

Levi glanced over. Hange's face was subdued, almost kind.

"Maybe," he said, his defenses dropping.

"Following Commander Erwin is a wise decision," said Hange solemnly. "Believe me, I know several geniuses, and Erwin could easily outpace them all. Even brilliant people make the wrong call sometimes - he did last week with the perimeter layout around the silo - but that doesn't mean you shouldn't trust them. Especially if the mistake was ages ago."

Levi was quiet. His eyes focused on the moon. It was barely visible, masked by wispy clouds, but their edges glowed, illuminated by its brilliance.

"Look." Hange leaned closer. "There's nothing more frustrating than having your professional skills brought into question because of mistakes you made in your personal life. Don't do that to him, okay?"

He studied the bespectacled face. "It sounds like there's a story behind that."

"It'll have to wait for another time." Hange's head cocked toward the stable. "Looks like someone else wants to talk to you."

He peered over the edge and saw Erwin standing on the stable roof. Even in the dim moonlight, Levi could tell he was wearing his soft face.

"Fuck," he muttered, because he was beginning to feel like a child coming down from a tantrum.

"It'll be okay." Hange's voice was almost too soft to hear. "You'll work this out. You two need each other more than you realize."

"We what?"

"You complement each other well. And even if you're too stubborn to get romantically involved, you both could use a friend. Work past this, okay?"

"Levi," said Erwin from the lower roof, his voice echoing through the courtyard. "When you have a moment, I'd like to talk to you."

Levi sighed. Eyes narrowing at Hange, he said, "If anyone - anyone - hears even a hint of what we just discussed, I will break your fucking glasses. While you're still wearing them."

Hange smiled. "Go talk to him."

Saying 'thanks' was too difficult, so he added, "And go back to being crazy and weird. It's creepy when you're nice."

He turned, jumped down to the stable roof and rolled the landing, then rose to his feet in front of the Commander. For a moment, they stared at each other.

"Care to join me for a walk?" asked Erwin.

"Isn't that going to make people suspicious?" replied Levi quietly.

"I think ignoring you after your outburst would be even more suspicious."

Levi's ears burned with shame. They all must think I'm so fucking childish.

They climbed down to the stable, then fell into pace side-by-side, strolling along the perimeter of the base. The city was so quiet that Levi could hear wind whistling through the tree branches. It was hard to stay angry in such a peaceful setting.

"What's on your mind?" asked Erwin.

Levi shrugged.

"You can tell me. I won't judge."

"Fine." He shrugged again. "These stories I keep hearing are so different from the man I know and respect, and it's hard to figure them out."

"Well, I'm not the same man I was ten years ago. We all must make mistakes and learn from them in order to grow." Erwin rested a hand on his shoulder as they walked. "I'll keep saying this as often as you need to hear it: if this relationship is going to work, you have to see me as a man, not as an ideal. There are going to be parts of my past that bother you, and parts of my present and future as well."

"I know," muttered Levi. "I just wasn't expecting Mike to say all that shit. It put me on edge."

"He was out of line, especially now that I'm his commanding officer. I told him as much once you left, and he'll be acting more professionally in a group setting from now on." Erwin glanced at him. "But there's more to it than that, isn't there?"

"Yeah."

Their wandering footsteps brought them to a pathway that cut through the park behind the base. Erwin sat on a low bench along the pathway, then cocked his head beside him. Levi slumped to a seat.

"I'm sorry you had to hear unflattering things about me, Levi," said Erwin. "I mentioned once that I'm not an easy person to be with - I meant that. I'm not good with relationships. I get caught up in my work and push my partner to the side. I withdraw and become cold when I'm under stress. I'm oblivious to my partner's needs, especially when my work requires my full attention. And yes, sometimes I make selfish decisions.

"But I've never been unfaithful to my partner. You already knew I left Marie to chase after my personal goals. What you may not know is that I tried to do the same to Henrik; in fact, we broke up a good five or six times during the course of our relationship. Sometimes when that happened, I did run back to Marie. I pretended I didn't know she was with Nile, but I knew, deep down, and I betrayed him anyway." He paused. "I'm no ideal."

Levi turned to study him. The moonlight barely illuminated his profile, accentuating the slight hook to his long nose, the sharp tip. He looked strong and beautiful. "Loyalty is important to me."

"I know. I can tell that by the way you're so loyal to those close to you, and I feel lucky to count myself among them. I won't ever betray that trust. I promise."

"I know. I don't feel threatened, just..." The emotions fell into place as he voiced them. "Look, everything is happening so quickly. Maybe I'm panicking a little after seeing how close they all came to guessing everything back there. There's a lot on the line if we're found out, or if we fuck this up and end up unable to get along, and I know it's going to be painful sometimes to pretend there's nothing going on between us..." He trailed off.

Erwin's voice softened: "When you consider my flaws, a part of you wonders if I'm worth the risk and the sacrifices?"

Levi winced. This was too much conflict, too much drama. He pulled away from the conversation for a moment, focusing on their surroundings instead. A bat fluttered between the trees in front of them. In the distance, he could hear the clattering of a horse and carriage. The wind ruffled his cravat, but he was so on edge that the uneven pull on his neck was magnified and irritating. Everything was. He took in a breath and held it.

A hand closed over his.

Levi glanced down at their joined hands resting on the bench between them. "Someone will see."

"It's too dark." Erwin paused, and uncertainty crept into his voice. "Unless you want me to let go?"

"It's fine."

The breeze was chilly, and their joined grip burned in comparison. He's doing that thing again, where his hand glows when it touches my skin.

"Levi." Erwin's voice was so soft and deep that Levi swore he could feel it vibrate through his body. "I'm going to tell you every sordid detail about my past - at least, everything that's safe to share. I want to cover every upsetting comment you might ever hear from Mike, Nile or Marie, so that you hear it from me first. Most of all, I want you to see all my flaws so you can decide if I'm worth the risk and the sacrifices, before it's too late to turn back."

It's already too late, thought Levi, staring at their hands, both grey-blue in the dim moonlight. "Why would you do that?"

"Because I've hurt you twice in as many days, and I don't want that to continue. We'll deal with it all now. I need you to understand the man I was, the man I am. If you don't like what you hear, then I want you to walk away."

Levi's eyes snapped to him, his chest so tight that he couldn't breathe. Erwin's face was gentle, but his jaw was quivering.

"You know I'm not going to walk away, Erwin."

"Please. Hear me out."

"Okay," said Levi, already worried about what he might hear.

Erwin's chin tilted up, his eyes fixing on the stars. "I'll begin by addressing the conversation we were having with Mike. You know Marie was my first mutual love. I fell hard. We dated informally at first, each of us seeing other people on the side, but as time passed, things grew more serious. Though Mike's revelation tonight has shed some light on my skewed perceptions at the time." A muscle in his jaw jumped. "Without thinking to ask Marie's opinion, I automatically assumed she and I were exclusive. I used to do that sometimes, Levi, back in my emotional youth; I would get a convenient idea in my head, and it would become my reality regardless of whether or not it was actually true."

"Is that why Nile's so convinced you're delusional?" asked Levi.

"Maybe. He knows the young, idealistic version of me, the one who hadn't yet fully embraced logic over emotion. But I'm getting off topic before I've even begun." Erwin's voice strengthened again. "After Marie and I parted ways, Henrik came into the picture. He had been trying to win my heart for a couple years, and…"

He paused. The length of the pause suggested something unpleasant was about to follow, and Levi braced himself.

"I took advantage of his feelings for me," said Erwin. "During my first year here, a bunch of us were drinking downtown, and I had been kissing a handsome civilian all night, but he left before things could escalate. I was stumbling drunk and painfully aroused, so I turned to Henrik. He thought I was finally returning his advances, and I let him believe it. The next day, I rejected him all over again - until a few months later, when I was yet again drunk and desperate." His face twisted. "I used him, Levi. For months. I strung him along so that I'd have someone to fuck if I got lonely."

"You fell in love eventually," said Levi, hoping to pardon him.

"Yes, but even when we formally became a couple, we weren't equals. I loved my career first and Henrik second, but he saw me as his top priority. He fought tooth and nail to keep me happy, to pull me closer when I was too caught up in my work. My emotional needs were always met, and his often went neglected." Erwin's eyes drifted up to the sky. "He deserved so much more energy than I was willing to give, but I was his first relationship, so he didn't know any better. And then he threw his life away for me, so he never will."

"But you loved him, right?" said Levi, shocked. The way Erwin had spoken about the man, he had imagined a deep, healthy relationship.

"I did." Erwin's eyes closed, his face still tilted upwards. "That only makes my mistreatment of him that much worse."

So that's why he feels so guilty about his death, after all these years, thought Levi. His grief and regret weren't just about the death itself, but about the relationship as a whole. His grip tightened around Erwin's hand, and the man looked down at it with widening eyes, as if surprised to remember they were clasped.

"When he died," said Erwin, "I took it poorly. I was too sick with guilt to eat, and I became delirious. They had to force-feed me broth in the san. Shadis came to visit me there - it was the first time we talked in depth. He told me I was too young and talented to throw my life away over a friend's death, and he'd take me to the Capital to sit in on a meeting with the Supreme Commander if I'd just eat a bowl of soup on my own. My ambitions proved more powerful than my emotions, and I ate, so he kept his word." He shook his head. "And on my first night of leave during that visit to the Capital..."

"You slept with Marie," said Levi.

"In spite of what Mike thinks, that's the last time anything happened between us." Erwin glanced at him. "Nile proposed four months later, and they got married right before Jasper was born. I was invited to the wedding, but I didn't go." His jaw tightened. "It was a reminder of everything I had sacrificed to join the Survey Corps. I rarely regret my sacrifices now, but at the time, I resented Nile. So that's another strike against my character, I suppose."

Levi shrugged. "I wouldn't have gone, either. Especially if you were still in love with her."

Erwin gave him a small smile, then sat upright. "So now you know the unpleasant history of my love life, such as it is. There is a smattering - less than a smattering, really - of one-night stands sprinkled in there, but nothing else of note. I suppose I should tell you about my unpleasant professional history as well, particularly my shadier methods of gathering information."

"I already know that you use blackmail," said Levi. "I don't really care."

Erwin studied him for a moment, then said, "You know I have an extensive network of contacts."

"Seems like it, yeah."

"I've worked hard to build them in person, sometimes at great potential risk to myself. Many of them are members of the nobles, government and military. Others are...less legitimate."

That was a surprise. "How much less?"

"I'm not opposed to tapping into gang networks if I have to." Erwin traced the back of his knuckle. "That's how I found out about you."

Levi's eyes snapped to him. "What?"

"One of my contacts mentioned you during idle conversation: the strongest man he had ever met, who flew around on gear like a soldier. My curiosity was piqued. One day, when I was doing a routine trip to the Underground to meet with one of my contacts, I happened to see you, and I was impressed. The next day, I put in a proposal to capture and recruit you."

"Wait," said Levi, because he couldn't figure out why the man was recounting familiar old events as if they were a character flaw. "Was this before or after you knew Lobov was going to hire me?"

"I already knew he would," said Erwin, "but he had no idea."

"What?"

"I wasn't just reacting to Lobov's moves. I played both sides. I used my contacts to subtly bring your skills to Lobov's attention, to plant a seed that you would be the perfect assassin. I had to make sure you were the one he hired; I couldn't leave it up to chance, or he might have tried to hire someone else." Erwin held his gaze. "And then I intentionally provoked him. Shadis gave me an opening, and I took it. Lobov was becoming problematic, and I knew pressuring him would make him consider assassinating me, so he'd turn to you. Two birds with one stone: you would join the Corps, and I would have the opportunity to track Lobov and take him down."

"What the fuck?" Levi jerked his hand free. "Are you saying it's your fault that asshole approached us in the first place?" His ribcage felt as if it were being squeezed. He had always partially blamed Lobov for the deaths of his friends - mostly himself, but partly Lobov. Did that mean that blame lay with Erwin instead?

Erwin studied his own palm, stroking it with his thumb, as if tracing the old wound from their physical altercation. "Here is yet another of my flaws: I didn't see you as a person back then. I saw you as a resource, one that humanity needed in order to win its war." His eyes lifted. "And in exchange, you saw me not as a person, but as a target. You wanted me dead. Things have changed since then, for both of us."

Even though he had a point, Levi's hands tightened into fists. "Okay, fine; keep going. What else do you have to tell me?" He thought back to his discussion with Hange in the tree, to the rumours of the man's brutality. "I've heard you've used torture to get information. Maybe even murder."

"No," said Erwin. "The stakes haven't been that high. Not yet. But you should know I will go to any length for the sake of humanity. I would give my life, or anyone else's. I'll even take lives, if I have to." His face was hard, full of resolve, and Levi's stomach dropped. He has no idea.

"You don't want to murder anyone, Erwin. Stick to manipulating humans and slaughtering titans."

"In some cases, murder may be the only viable option."

"No, listen. Human deaths are not something you ever recover from." He shifted, pulling one knee close to his chest. "It doesn't matter who they are, or how much you hate them: you'll never forget the look on their face right when they realize they're going to die. Ever. You'll see every single face every time you close your eyes." A shiver ran through his body.

Erwin glanced at him. "We don't have to follow this line of thought."

It was too late. Levi was already seeing greying skin, pools of blood, so much blood. Washing the floor, washing the inside of the carriage, washing that fucking psycho's clothes, scrubbing blood out of everything, always, and it never came out easily, it stained everything.

"Sometimes people look terrified," said Levi, his voice dropping in pitch. "They get this look of panic that spikes right through your stomach, this raw fear that everyone instinctively understands. Others have a look of hatred. That one's easiest to move past, because it's a look of power, so it's like they die with dignity. Others are almost peaceful. Accepting. That's tough to see, because they're accepting something you're about to do, as if they're better than you, on a more evolved level. But the worst..." He drew the other knee up to his chest to join the first. "The worst is when a person gives you the look of despair. A look so strong that you can hear their anguish in your mind: Why? That's the look that haunts you, because there's no good answer, not for most of them" Darkness was sifting into his vision, his muscles tensing, as expressions of the deceased shifted through his memory. So much blood... He scratched the back of his hand, shrinking into himself.

"Levi," said Erwin, his voice tentative, "how many people have you killed?"

"Does it only count if I'm holding the knife? Or does it count if I'm watching and I don't do anything to stop it?"

A pause. "It doesn't count unless you're holding the knife. Especially if you were too young to know how to react."

"I wasn't too young," said Levi. "I knew how to end it, end it all, but it meant I would have had to hold the knife, and I would have had to see one of those four looks on his face." He felt as if the wind were kicking up around them, whistling in his ears. "Was I too scared? Was I afraid of what he'd do to me if I wasn't strong enough to finish him? Or was I just lazy? Was it more convenient to keep doing what we were doing, so I wouldn't have to separate myself from it and question the morality of it?"

"Were you mercenaries?" asked Erwin. His tone was so cautious that Levi's imagination, already overactive with the faces of the dead, painted an image of a foot pressing into ice, trying to apply weight to it without making it crack.

"Mercenaries? Maybe. I don't know anymore. My memory isn't very good. Maybe I blocked a lot of it out. It's hazy. I don't know." His breaths were coming too quickly. The crack was spreading, deepening...

He felt a strong arm across his back, then Erwin pulled him in, embracing him.

"Someone will see," said Levi, his voice thin.

"It's okay. I'd do the same if we were just friends." Erwin pulled him tightly against his chest.

Why the fuck was I panicking about the morality of his sex life? Levi pressed close to his chest, listening for that strong heartbeat. Why does a monster like me think he has the right to judge? When he had first joined the Survey Corps, he had dreamed about the moment he would end this heartbeat; he had stared at the face he now loved, wondering which of those four expressions it would wear. Fantasizing about it.

Fuck. The imagery in his mind was so vivid that he shrank against his Commander. How could he have thought these things and delighted in them?

"I'm flawed, Erwin," he said quietly. "I'm beyond flawed. My past is shit-stained and I'm uneducated, and rude, and violent, and constantly sour. Maybe you should be the one asking yourself if I'm worth the sacrifices you're making."

"It's okay. I know you, Levi, flaws and all, and the more of you I uncover, the harder I fall." Erwin's chin rested on top of his head. "I love all of you, the good and the bad."

Ice water flooded Levi's veins, shocking him into the present. Love. His body felt as if it were floating, his mouth parched, his hands clawing into the back of the man's jacket. "What did you say?"

The pause was a little too long and unnatural.

"I love you, Levi."

Levi pulled away to look up at him. Erwin held his gaze, a muscle jumping in his jaw.

"Why?" was the only word Levi could find.

"Because of everything you just said. You're brave and driven, in spite of all you're endured. Your street smarts and sharp wit more than make up for any missing education. Your rudeness is amusing, and maybe even a little arousing. Your physical strength and violence make you potent in the field, and your happiness shows in subtle ways I'm learning to read. On top of that, you're kinder than you pretend, and you genuinely care about everyone around you." A shy smile wobbled across his lips. "And you already know how I feel about your looks and your skills in the bedroom. I've fallen harder than I ever meant to, harder than I ever have before."

Levi could only stare. In his mind, the last lingering power imbalance between the two of them began to dissipate. He loves me. He knows what I am, and he loves me anyway. He stared at that wobbling smile, seeing not humanity's hope, not his Commander, but a man, a man who was somehow socially awkward in spite of his brilliant diplomacy; a man who was sometimes a little too self-involved, a little too obsessive; a man who acted with decorum, but rutted like a dog in heat whenever he was horny; a man who blurted out morbid thoughts at inappropriate times, who fell asleep after sex, who sometimes used cologne to stretch his baths a day longer than he should, who couldn't handle his drink nearly as well as he thought. The more Levi thought about it, the more he understood what Erwin had been trying to say. I already know your flaws, Erwin, even better than you do, and I adore them.

His silence must have sent the wrong message, because Erwin's gaze dropped.

"I apologize. I shouldn't have said the words so soon, especially when you were upset."

"It's fine." Levi tried to swallow, but his mouth was still too dry. "I'm just trying to wrap my head around what we are now." Say it back, his mind screamed at him, but the moment had passed, and now it felt forced.

"It's all going to be a bit of an adjustment," said Erwin. "Our relationship has changed so dramatically since we first met, especially over the last week. Take some time to decide if this is what you want."

"What?" Levi's lip curled. "Of course it's what I want, dumbass."

Erwin's eyes searched his. "Even after everything I told you?"

"It's like you said: I know you, flaws and all, and..." Now he did have the perfect opportunity to say it back, but his throat caught.

When he finally dared to look up, Erwin was smiling. The man stood, holding out a hand. "If you're feeling better, we should probably get back to the base."

"Yeah." Levi accepted his hand and rose to his feet. He glanced around and, seeing no one in sight, climbed onto the bench. It was low enough that he was only a few centimeters taller than Erwin.

The man looked quizzically up at him.

"No one's around, and we just had our first fight." Levi gripped the back of his neck and pulled him in, pressing a kiss to his lips. Erwin hummed and stepped closer, their bodies flush. When the kiss ended, their gaze held.

"I wouldn't really call this a fight," said Erwin. "And if it was, it was technically at least our second."

"I can't wait until we're past all this early relationship bullshit," said Levi. "When we have a routine and there's none of this insecurity or second-guessing or anything."

"It'll come, in time." Erwin snuggled against his neck, arms wrapping around him. Levi rested his cheek against the man's forehead.

"I wish I was this tall." He closed his eyes, envisioning himself enveloping Erwin in a strong, protective embrace.

"Like I've said, I find your height attractive." Erwin kissed his neck. "We should get back to the base, because your body heat is alluring, and we promised ourselves we'd wait two days before we did any of this. All risks and suspicions aside, I'm still too chafed to take that back."

"Maybe if you stopped dry-humping everything all the time..."

Even in the moonlight, the man's cheeks were visibly dark. "Am I really that bad?"

"Bad? No, it's fucking hot." Levi pressed his lips to one of Erwin's brows; it tickled his lips. "It's like you can't control yourself around me." Blood was rushing between his legs just thinking about it.

Erwin shivered. "We have to stop talking about this." He stepped away, and Levi immediately felt too cold in his absence. He dropped to the ground, falling into place beside him.

They returned to the base in a silence so comfortable that Levi's heart glowed. He glanced up and saw a placid expression on Erwin's face. They'd have to take walks together more often; he didn't expect to feel so light after such a heavy discussion. Almost as if the heavy subjects are lighter when we share them between us.

As they rounded the corner to the bunks, they could see Mike down at the far end of the hallway - he was leaning against Levi's door, arms folded over his chest.

"You know," whispered Levi, "as soon as his nose heals, our secret is out."

"Yes," said Erwin. "We'll have to tell him before then."

"Tonight?"

Erwin shook his head. "Let's take some time to figure out how we'll word it. We can trust him to keep our secret, but he may take issue with our relationship - particularly since he's still injured from my ugly behaviour while you were missing."

As they approached, Mike pulled away from the door, his arms dropping to his sides.

"I'll let you two talk," said Erwin. "Goodnight, Levi. Mike."

"Wait," said Levi. "The trunk is still in my room."

"It's okay. I'll unpack tomorrow." With a smile, Erwin stepped into his room, then closed the door behind him.

For a moment, Mike and Levi eyed each other.

"Look," said Mike, "I'm sorry I upset you."

"It's fine," said Levi, searching for a believable excuse for his anger. "I'm just pissy. I haven't taken a shit in three days, so my asshole is all jammed up."

The man leaned forward, hair falling into his eyes; his voice was low. "Just tell me this: did Erwin sleep with Marie?"

"None of your business," said Levi, "but no."

"Good." Mike glanced at Erwin's door. "If you two just found some random women, that's fine-"

"How the fuck do you not know that I'm gay, after all this time?"

"Oh." Mike stood tall. "Okay, then: if you two just found some random people, that's fine, but romance fucks with his head a bit."

"Romance fucks with everyone's head." Levi turned to face his door, ready to open it. "Goodnight, Mike."

The man seemed surprised to be pushed aside mid-conversation, but he only nodded and said, "Goodnight."

Levi hoped the exhausting day would make it easy for him to fall asleep, but even after he had gone through the paces of his nighttime routine and crawled into bed, he tossed and turned. Romance fucks with my head, too. He couldn't stop replaying bits of his conversation with Erwin in his mind, sometimes with apprehension, sometimes with joy. Beneath it all, his darker memories were skirting the perimeter of his consciousness, and he fought to keep them at bay, focusing instead on the memory of that quivering jaw. I know you, flaws and all. I love you, Levi.

His bed felt too empty, too cold. Several times, he nearly gave up in favour of joining Erwin in his bed, but he set his jaw and pushed through. He had promised two days, and he wasn't about to break that promise.

Finally, too exhausted to feel embarrassed, he settled on a compromise. He slid out of bed and opened the trunk, then pulled out the dress shirt Erwin had worn under his suit at the gala. It smelled of his cologne, his natural scent, and a bit of alcohol. Sensations flooded Levi's mind: the feeling of Erwin's bare chest under his palm, the flushed ecstasy of his face when he came, the undulations of his hips when he ground into Levi's thigh.

He crawled back into bed and lay on his side, hugging the shirt close. His body finally began to relax. He tried not to let that worry him; he wasn't dependent, he was indulging.

He could indulge a little more, if he chose. He had a two-day wait ahead of him, after all, and orgasm might help him sleep. He dropped a hand between his legs, burying his face in the fabric, letting Erwin's scent fill his nose and mouth. He finished a minute later, so hard that his spine curved and he let out a small yelp.

Now the whole situation felt ridiculous - how would he react if he knew you were huffing his scent and pawing at yourself? - but Levi was relaxed and glowing. He gave his stomach a few sloppy swipes with a handkerchief, too exhausted to do more. He knew he should go to the bath to wash his hands, but his eyelids were already heavy.

He curled up on his side, hugging the shirt tightly against his chest, and his eyes finally closed.

Chapter Text

-16-

Deprivation

Erwin awoke before dawn. His bed was cold, his underwear was tight, and drool coated his chin. He wiped his face and sat up. What a miserable contrast to the last few mornings.

The first thing he needed to do was take care of the bulge between his legs. Ever since his romantic life had heated up with Levi, his libido, normally a low smoulder, had erupted into flames, and the next two days were going to be unbearable if he didn't give himself release. Unfortunately, his bladder was full enough that it was sure to be distracting. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and waited; the hallways were usually quiet before reveille, but he didn't want to chance on anyone in this worked up state. Once his body had calmed down, he gathered his toiletries and pulled on a pair of pants.

He pushed open the bathroom door, and his breath caught. Levi leaned close to the mirror, shaving his jaw, a towel wrapped around his waist. Erwin's underwear began to feel too tight again.

"Morning, Levi," he said, keeping his tone casual.

Levi's eyes shifted to him. "Morning. Sleep okay?"

"Not quite as well as I did in the Capital."

"Yeah, me neither." Levi's eyes shifted back to the mirror. "We're alone, by the way."

"Good. Then I can do this." Erwin strode forward and pressed a kiss into the top of the man's head.

"Hey, watch it. I've got a razor here." In spite of the words, the man's cheeks flushed.

Erwin stepped into a stall and closed the door. "Your hair's dry. Not bathing this morning?"

"Don't talk to me while you're taking a shit."

"I'm not."

"Shit, piss, whatever, it's still nasty." He heard the razor swish through water. "It's a heated bath day. I'll join in at the regular time."

Erwin waited until he had left the stall to reply. "You know they're putting automatic showers into the Military Police barracks? They'll be heated, and they won't even require a hand pump."

Levi grimaced, then patted his face dry. "Maybe I should put in a transfer. Would be nicer than stewing in everyone else's juices any time I want a hot bath."

The door swung open, and Mike stepped through. He bobbed his head at them and then stepped into the stall.

"Looks like everyone's up early today." Erwin leaned close to the mirror and began to lather shaving cream on his face and neck. In his periphery, he could see Levi watching him; he subtly tilted his neck to expose his throat, then flexed his neck and chest muscles, hoping to give the man a flattering view. He could feel tension curling between their bodies like smoke.

"Gym, Levi?" came Mike's voice from the stall.

"Now you're talking at me from the toilet, too?" Levi shook his head. "It's basic manners: if your asshole is open, your mouth is closed."

Erwin mouthed, Even in bed?

Levi, unimpressed, flattened his lips at him.

"Can't sleep," said Mike, emerging from the stall. He began to wash his hands. "Want to spar a bit before breakfast?"

"Yeah, sure," said Levi. "Could use some action before we're stuck in meetings all day."

"Erwin?"

The Commander hesitated. He normally preferred to exercise in the evening, when the other soldiers were drinking or playing cards. He liked having the gym to himself. The idea of watching Levi in action, however, was tempting. Besides, who knew how busy he'd be that night, working on the proposal?

"I have been feeling a bit soft after indulging so much in the Capital," he said, rubbing his stomach. "Maybe I'll come lift some weights."

"Just weights?" Levi looked disappointed. "Now that I know you can fight hand-to-hand, I want to spar with you."

"I doubt I would provide much of a challenge." Erwin smiled. "We'll see how I feel. I'll meet you two down there."

Once he had shaved and changed, he descended the stone stairs that led to the gym. He paused at the bottom of the stairs, watching from the doorway. Mike and Levi didn't seem to notice him; they were locked in combat in the roped-off fighting ring near the back of the room. They wore thick gloves, padded helmets, chest pads, and pads on their shins and forearms, but Erwin doubted any of that did much good. Most of their attacks whiffed, and they redirected a few, but the ones that hit were loud enough that they echoed through the room.

The gym was a sparse room that had once been a spare weapons warehouse, back when the much larger Garrison force had inhabited the barracks. Aside from the makeshift fighting ring, it consisted of a few benches, a couple barbells and weights, a punching bag, and a few sets of dumbbells. Most soldiers seemed to prefer training in the yard, using their 3DMG or jogging. While stamina, speed and 3DMG handling were important, Erwin had always been careful to set aside time to train the basics: weights and hand-to-hand combat. His family had instilled that in him from a young age. Equilibrium inside the walls was bound to shift eventually, and when that happened and chaos arose, Erwin would be prepared to defend himself.

He settled on a weight bench, intending to start his workout, but found himself taking a few more minutes to watch the pair spar. This wasn't the first time the three of them had all been in the gym at the same time, but the details had never been this important to him before.

Mike's fighting style hadn't evolved much since they were young: graceless, but powerful. He had a bad habit of telegraphing his moves before he followed through, but his strength was so overpowering that his unpredictability seldom mattered. Most soldiers had similar fighting styles with gear and without, but Mike was an exception: with gear on, he became efficient, lethal and graceful, his skill second only to Levi.

Levi.

Erwin's gaze locked onto him. He had faced his combat style a couple times before, and he hadn't stood a chance against it. Levi's strength on its own would have posed a challenge, but it was his inhuman speed that elevated him to an impossible opponent. He sifted out of the way of punches like sand on the wind, the muscles of his bare chest and abdomen contracting in ripples. Even against Mike, the fight was one-sided. Mike couldn't land a clean hit on him.

Erwin's heart had begun to beat too quickly. He pulled his eyes away from Levi and began to load weights onto the barbell. He had a simple routine, three to four times a week: bench press, squats, bent-over rows and deadlifts, followed by a variety of abdominal exercises and pull-ups. Some days, when he had more time, he spent more time working the small muscles of his arms, shoulders, back and chest. He naturally tended toward a lanky upper body, his muscles concentrated below the waist; the 3DMG didn't help that, with its demands on the core and legs. It took concerted effort to keep his upper body filled out.

He was halfway through his third set of bench presses when Levi leaned over him, face damp and flushed. The silver-blue eyes were alight with such interest that Erwin felt a surge of strength. He finished the set cleanly and set the bar back into place, breathing hard.

"Not bad," said Levi, inspecting the weights. "Was that your first set?"

"Third."

"Third? You should go heavier. I bet you can press twenty kilos more than this, easy."

Erwin sat up, wiping his damp neck with a towel. "Maybe. Or maybe that would end up trapping me under the bar."

"That's why you shouldn't lift alone. You need someone to spot you." Levi glanced back at Mike, who was leaning against the wall by the fighting ring, nursing a water flask. "Why don't we lift together next time?"

"Oh?"

"Yeah. I'd like to spot you." Eyes still on Mike, Levi lowered his volume: "I like seeing you straining and sweaty."

Erwin was glad his face was already red. "Next time, then."

"Hey, Erwin," called Mike. He set his flask down and stood. "You're up next."

"I wasn't planning on sparring."

"I want a rematch from the other night."

"Some other time." Erwin stood and lowered the barbell to the floor, beginning to load it with weights for his deadlifts.

"Hm," said Levi.

"Hm what?"

"Now that I know you can fight, I want to see you in action." Levi folded his arms over his bare chest, looking down his nose at him. "You weren't much of a challenge last time we faced off."

He's just trying to provoke you, thought Erwin, but it was working.

"I can see I won't get any peace until I go through with this," he said, striding toward Mike. "Levi, give me your pads. I'll take on Mike first."

"Mine are all sweaty, and they'll be too small on you, anyway. Here." Levi dug through the equipment bin and pulled out a fresh set. He began to help Erwin strap them on - an unnecessary gesture, but appreciated, especially because their hands accidentally brushed against each other several times. Erwin subtly breathed in, enjoying the scent of the warm air radiating from Levi's skin.

Once he was fully outfitted, he stepped into the ring, squaring off with Mike. He held his fists high and relaxed into stance. Mike's eyes were partially hidden beneath a fringe of dark blond hair, but Erwin used them as an anchor anyway, taking in his whole form at once.

He took a deep breath, tapping into a side of himself he hadn't used for many years. After his father's death, his mother had insisted on hiring a self defense instructor for her children; they had trained several times a week right until Erwin had left for the military. The constant practice had been necessary; Erwin had been a slow pupil. For one thing, his sister was naturally the more bloodthirsty of the two of them, while he had considered physical conflict brutish. For another, he had a natural tendency to overthink his moves instead of trusting his instincts, making him slow to react. It had taken years of constant repetition to hone his skills and sharpen his speed. He had hated it at the time, but now he had no doubt the classes had prepared him for a successful career in the military.

"All right," he said. "Let's go."

Mike snapped out a few jabs, testing him, and Erwin's jaw set. The man's old tells had faded since the last time they had sparred. Training with Levi was paying off. That's going to make this matchup more difficult.

A hook barrelled toward Erwin's head. He sidestepped, delivering a soft punch to Mike's ribs as a rebuke. "Not to the face."

"Fine." The man circled him, eyes narrow, jaw set. Erwin kept pace, watching, waiting for an opening.

Then Mike stepped forward for a punch, leaving a small patch of his flank unguarded. Erwin ducked under his fist and drove for the opening, but before he could connect, Mike knocked his arm away.

"I've been sparring with Levi, you know. I'm used to short people tricks."

"Short," scoffed Erwin.

Their back and forth continued, each blocking the other's punches. Erwin felt lighter with each move, as if the contact between them was jarring loose years of grief and responsibility. The banter, the knowing smirks, the mindless violence: he was young again, cocky and spry. He dodged two punches and a kick, spinning to Mike's back, and gave a low laugh.

The man whipped around to face him, eyes narrow. "Stop holding back."

"I'm not holding back," lied Erwin. "I'm out of practice."

"Bullshit. Where are your kicks?"

"I'm an old man, Mike. My hips don't flex the way they used to." Truthfully, he was saving his legs, waiting until the man got fatigued enough to start falling back on his old tells. The wait shouldn't be too much longer; he was already beginning to telegraph his hooks, twitching his shoulder back for a brief instant before driving forward. A few more minutes, and every move would play across his face before his body had even initiated it.

He stared down his prey. Once that happens, you're mine. Fire beat through his heart, his limbs tingling.

"Don't wear yourselves out," said Levi. "I want a turn, too."

His voice was such a powerful distraction that Erwin momentarily dropped his focus. He snapped back to himself to see Mike's shin driving for his flank.

Shit! He instinctively dropped, and the shin grazed the top of his head. He used his momentum to sweep out Mike's support leg. The man gave an undignified yelp and plummetted to the floor.

"You're down," said Erwin. "Your turn, Levi."

"That wasn't a proper fight," said Mike, sitting up. "You were toying with me."

"We had a proper fight recently enough that I'm not ready to relive it," said Erwin. His pulse was audible in his ears, his lungs burning. He stood and held out a hand. "Maybe I'll be more aggressive when my guilt fades. Or maybe you should have applied more pressure until I was forced to fight back."

Mike grumbled, but clasped his hand and rose to his feet. He leaned against the wall and unclasped his flask.

"You need a minute?" asked Levi, climbing into the ring.

"Just one." Erwin studied him. Their height difference was going to drastically impact the balance of the fight. While his reach would be a clear advantage at a distance, Levi would have the advantage in close quarters. With his speed, it's going to be hard to keep him in my optimal range.

"You're trying to size me up, right?"

"Yes."

"It won't help." Levi shrugged. "You can't win this kind of fight with strategy. Thinking just slows you down."

Erwin smiled. "So I've heard."

"Ready?"

"Yes."

The word had barely left his lips when Levi was barrelling at him, so fast that his body was a blur. Erwin instinctively threw out a forearm, blocking a punch before he had fully registered what was happening. Levi's free hand drilled toward him, and Erwin's other arm snapped out to block that one, too.

For a moment, they stared at each other, their arms locked and straining, and he swore Levi smirked at him.

The contact broke. Levi ducked, and somehow he was already at Erwin's flank, driving a foot towards his shin. Erwin lifted his leg just in time to avoid it, trying to carry his motion forward to smack the back of the moving knee, but he his foot found only air. Levi's fist popped into his ribs with so much force that Erwin staggered, clutching his side. He's too fast. I can't read him.

Levi stood in front of him, chin angled so that he was looking down his nose at him. "You were the best in your class?"

Erwin grinned. "Told you I wouldn't be much of a challenge." Pride was tinting his vision red, but he blinked it back, refusing to let it take control. Every fighter has weaknesses. Find his.

He stood tall, lifting his arms. "Keep going."

"If you're sure."

Levi drove forward again, this time stopping short and snapping out a heel at gut-height. Erwin sidestepped it - right into Levi's backhand, which connected with the padding over his ear.

"Your ear would be ringing now," said Levi, eyes twinkling. "You would stagger backwards, stunned and defenseless, and I'd drop you."

Erwin's teeth clenched; he caught the man's arm and twisted, trying to force him to the ground, but Levi was short enough that he was able to spin out from under the hold to relieve the pressure on his arm. He reclaimed his arm, then his elbow swung at Erwin's gut.

Time slowed.

He always does multiple moves in a row, thought Erwin. Don't be distracted by his main movement. Be looking for the follow-up as you dodge. As he stepped back out of the elbow's way, he scanned the man's other limbs. There; Levi's heel was lifting.He's going to kick. His elbow is still extended.

Erwin shifted back out of his reach, then swung his back leg under the elbow, aiming for Levi's unprotected flank.

The kick connected.

Levi staggered back a step, then looked up, eyes wide. Taking advantage of his shock, Erwin followed up with a roundhouse kick, smacking the side of his arm.

Levi bared his teeth, brows dropping.

If Erwin had been able to keep him at that distance, he might have been able to press his advantage, but Levi was too fast. He closed the gap between them, throwing out a barrage of blows. Erwin frantically deflected them all, the bones of his forearm aching from the jarring force. A surprise punch caught him under the jaw.

I can't read him when he's this close. I need to get him out of range. He thrust his palms at Levi's shoulders, intending to shove him back. One connected, but Levi caught the other one with both hands.

The world flipped, then Erwin lay on his back, his breath coming in short blasts. He tried to sit up, but Levi sat on top of him.

"You're down."

Not yet. Erwin rolled, trying to manoeuvre himself into a position of superiority. Levi caught his arms and carried the movement further. When they settled, Levi was straddling Erwin's hips, leaning forward, his fist at Erwin's trachea.

"Try that again, blondie," dared Levi. His face and chest were flushed, his breaths ragged, sweat plastering his dark body hair to his chest and abdomen. A bead of sweat trailed off the end of his nose, landing on Erwin's chin.

Oh fuck, that's hot. Testosterone swam in Erwin's blood. He wanted to grab the man by the hair and pull him down, kiss him, bite him, drive against that muscled, clothed ass centered so perfectly over his groin. He wanted to wrestle with him, try to overpower each other, rolling over and over, until the friction between them made one of them go under.

His eyes searched Levi's. The man closed his mouth and swallowed hard.

"Well," said Mike, his tone so awkward that Erwin wondered if their sexual tension was obvious. "What next?"

Levi rose to his feet, his knees creaking. Erwin quickly rolled onto his front, pretending he was trying to catch his breath. The thin shorts were too revealing. He closed his eyes and tried to think of the least appealing imagery he could imagine - Nile fucking Marie, Nile fucking Levi, Levi fucking Sahlo.

He felt a foot nudge his flank, then Mike spoke: "Levi, I think you broke him."

"I'm fine." Erwin reached for his towel and sat up, subtly dropping the towel over his lap. He raked a hand through his hair, avoiding looking at Levi in case he got flustered all over again. "But I should probably head upstairs. The bath should be heated by now, and I have a few things to do before our meeting this morning."

"We should do this again sometime," said Levi, and even the slight ragged sound to his voice made Erwin's pulse rise.

"Indeed." Not sure what else to say, and still trying to avoid eye contact, Erwin marched from the gym.

He returned to his room, locked the door behind him, then whipped off his shorts. It took him seconds to harden again, and he lay on his back on the bed, fist tight and tugging hard, fixated on that tense moment after the fight. His back began to arch, and he felt a cry building in his throat. He clapped his free hand over his mouth in case the sound was about to escape.

A knock sounded at the door.

Erwin froze, and for a moment, the only sound was his shuddering breaths.

"Hey Erwin, you in there?" said Levi, his voice so warm and liquid that Erwin felt it drizzle over his skin.

Don't, he told himself, but he was already striding across the room. He opened the door, grabbed Levi by the wrist and yanked him into the room, closing and locking the door behind him.

Levi stared. "You're naked."

Erwin grabbed the man's hair and kissed him hard, the force of it knocking him against the wall. He kissed a line down the slender neck, using his teeth, then across to his armpit, and he breathed in.

"What the hell?" Levi tried to pull away, but his hair was caught in Erwin's fist. "Get your face out of my armpit, you pig."

"But you smell so good." Erwin released his hair and kissed the underside of his arm, then down his flank, his groin aching. The man's sweat didn't smell like sweat; it smelled like thick forest, rippling muscles, and flushed, panting faces.

"I'm disgusting," protested Levi. "And you said we had to wait at least two-"

"I know what I said." Erwin kissed down the salty, damp trail of hair of his abdomen, pulling down his waistband. He breathed hot air along Levi's length, then looked up, giving him a chance to back out.

He could tell by the pinched brows that Levi was torn. "Does it stink?"

"No."

"Fine, then – if you really want to, go ahead and-" His voice ended in a gasp as Erwin's mouth closed over him.

He tasted stronger than usual, and Erwin sucked hard, relishing the uncensored flavour. So good, you taste and smell so good. He used his hand alongside his mouth, taking him hard and fast, driven by the momentum of their fight. His other hand wrapped around himself again, stroking hard.

"Oh fuck," gasped Levi, beginning to counter-thrust.

Erwin glanced up and saw the man watching with slit eyes, his hair stringy with sweat, his red face streaked with drying salt. This man, so powerful, so beautiful. He tried to cry out, but the sound was muffled deep in his throat.

"Oh shit," breathed Levi, his head lolling back to rest against the wall. "I'm going to- Oh shit."

Erwin swallowed, savouring the taste and the warmth. He hung on long enough to carry Levi through, then let himself fall. The climax itself was small in comparison to the intensity of the buildup, more like a hiccup than an orgasm. He would have been disappointed, but then he looked up and saw wonder on Levi's face, and somehow, that was enough to satisfy him.

He gave one last stroke and swirl of his tongue to make sure Levi was dry, then tucked him back into his shorts and stood.

"You wanted something?"

Levi's eyes were wide. "What?"

"You knocked on my door."

The eyes fluttered closed. "Yeah. Bath. Heading to the bath."

"Let me just grab my towel." He opened a drawer to pull one out, then wrapped it around his waist. When he turned around again, Levi was still flat against the wall. "You okay?" he asked, a little smug.

Levi raked a hand through his hair; it fell in his face again. "Were you rubbing one out when I knocked or something?"

"Yes."

"After how hard you were at the gym, I had the feeling you might be."

"And yet," said Erwin, "you still knocked."

Levi shook his head. "Two days. Fucking pathetic. We can't even make it through one."

"This doesn't count," said Erwin. "There was no foreplay, no cuddling, no sharing a bed together afterwards. Besides, the whole thing barely lasted a minute - there was no risk that we would have been caught."

"Sounds to me like you're changing the rules of the game." Levi caught the back of his neck, pulling him down for a slow, gentle kiss. When they pulled apart, his face twisted. "Oh fuck, is that what I taste like right now? That's disgusting."

One last spasm rippled between Erwin's legs. "I like it," he said, his cheeks warming, and to cover up his sudden shyness, he cleared his throat. "We should bathe now if we want time for breakfast before the meeting."

As they walked side by side down the hallway, Levi glanced up at him. "You fight well."

"I could barely touch you."

"You landed two hits on me. It took Mike several sessions to get that far. We should spar together more. We'd probably learn a thing or two from each other."

"Even now that you know what it does to me?"

"Not just you." Levi looked straight ahead, his face blank. "We'll just have to make sure to shoot out a load or two first so we don't start going at each other in front of Mike."

"'Shoot out a load,'" repeated Erwin, amused.

They stepped into the bath and found Mike sitting near the back, away from the new recruits. He waved them over.

As they approached, Erwin's gaze fixed on his bandages. If he had his sense of smell back, he'd smell Levi and me all over each other. He still wasn't sure how Mike was going to react; he had a habit of being protective of Erwin's personal life. He had never liked Marie, and he had been watchful of Henrik, always taking Erwin's side when the two had a fight. Levi and Mike had been developing a strong friendship – was that going to be impacted? We're going to have to talk with him soon.

They slipped into the water next to Mike and sat. Levi immediately began to soap himself, but Erwin took a minute to lean back, letting the warm water soothe his muscles.

"I still want a proper rematch," said Mike.

"You'll get one. Just give my aching bones a day or two to heal." Erwin let his head loll back against the edge of the bath. "Are both of you ready for the interviews?" He noticed Levi staring at his throat, his hands frozen in place mid-scrub. He was becoming aware that Levi found his neck and throat attractive; he stretched his head a little, putting on a show.

"I don't like the idea of interviewing people without being to smell them," said Mike.

"What does smelling them tell you, anyway?" asked Levi, resuming his scrubbing.

"Their character. People's scents change depending what they're thinking and feeling."

Levi raised a brow at him. "Yeah? What did your nose tell you about me?"

"That you would make a strong enemy, but a stronger ally."

Levi looked unconvinced. "What about Erwin?"

"That he's worth following."

"I'm glad you feel that way," said Erwin. "I'm sorry again about your nose. If you take off the bandage, has the swelling gone down enough for you to at least get some scent off the soldiers you're interviewing?"

Mike shrugged, not looking him in the eye. Erwin felt a pang of regret. Of all the places to attack, why had he gone for the nose?

"Well, give it a try," he said. "If it doesn't work, then we'll leave your squad open to shuffling. You can sniff them out later."

"You're going to creep them out," muttered Levi, shaking his head. "The two of you are like damned dogs."

Erwin's cheeks burned, recalling the delicious scent of Levi's sweat; he glanced at Mike, who looked confused.

They washed, carefully not looking each other in the eye, as was typical during group baths. Erwin allowed himself a few seconds to take in Levi's shoulders and upper back, enjoy the way the water made his skin glisten, but he looked away before he could become too obvious.

Spending the morning in Levi's company was so enjoyable that he tried to drag out the bath as long as possible, but eventually, he ran out of body parts to wash. His heart ached as he tore himself away. There were tasks yet to complete before the recruiting started up. Besides, it wasn't like him to spend so much time socializing, and Mike was bound to grow suspicious.

He took his breakfast alone in his office, double-checking candidate files to ensure they were stacked in alphabetical order. While he had been in the Capital, Berit had personally pulled the files and compiled the roster, and his quick spot-check showed that she had done an excellent job of it.

The Squad Leaders arrived shortly before nine o'clock, and Erwin was surprised by the way his stomach flipped when he saw Levi, even though they had only been separated for a short time. He nodded cordially at him, and Levi nodded back, face stoic.

Once everyone was seated, Erwin greeted them. "Hange, would you mind keeping notes on the roster?" The task seemed most befitting someone with a research background.

"Sir." Hange accepted the stack of papers.

"Mike, how's your nose?" he asked, noting the man had taken off the bandages.

"Still can't smell a damned thing," said Mike.

"Hopefully that will change by the time we're finalizing the squads," said Erwin, feeling guilty. "All right, everyone, let's start by having the four of you call out the soldiers you would like to hand-pick for your squads. If there are any disputes, we can talk through them. Then, we can begin calling in the remaining candidates for interviews."

"I want Nanaba and Henning," said Mike. "And that new recruit Lynne seems strong – I'd still like to interview her, though."

"My squad is pretty good the way it is," said Berit, the only one of the four who was an experienced Squad Leader. "There are a few I think might be better fits on other squads. Moblit would make an excellent researcher, Hange, and Dita might suit you, too. There are five or six soldiers who are better suited to a scouting team, as well." As she began to rattle off names, Hange furiously scribbled notes on the roster.

"Give me Eld and Gunther," said Levi. "And I want those three new recruits Erwin's bringing across from the MP."

"Ral and Bozado will go to you when they eventually transfer," said Erwin, "but the third will go to Mike." If Sahlo was going to plant a spy, then he wanted that person far away from Levi. Even if they managed to keep their relationship a secret, someone watching them closely might notice suspicious glances or telling conversations. Besides, Mike was difficult to read, and his nose helped him excel at tracking spy movements.

"Oh, I guess that just leaves me," said Hange. "There's a new recruit, Nifa, who has training as a lawyer's aid. I think she might be helpful with the administration side of research."

"We should interview her regardless," said Erwin. "I may have use for her in an administrative setting as well, if you are willing to share her." He would have to keep one ear on the interviews in case any other administrative folks turned up. They might be able to help him streamline the paperwork required of the senior officers.

Once they had sorted out the names, the interviews began. They pulled in the soldiers one at a time, asking them questions. At first, the four Squad Leaders were a bit lost, so Erwin did most of the talking. Once they were on their third interview, however, Berit seemed to have caught on. By the fifth, even Levi was asking a few questions – not always in the most polite manner, but it was something.

Content that the four had everything under control, Erwin turned his attention to the expedition proposal. It was going to be difficult to build it without knowing where, exactly, the silos were, but he would build the backbone the best he could until Sahlo came through with the specifics. The two week timeline he had given himself for the proposal was going to be tight, so he wanted to get as much of a head start as he could. He needed to start getting results while Sahlo was still intimidated; time and distance had a way of dulling fear.

They broke for lunch, the five of them sitting at a table in the dining hall, comparing notes and thoughts. Erwin sat next to Levi, their thighs nearly touching, and he couldn't help remembering their secret hand-hold – it seemed so long ago now. He used his peripheral vision to watch Levi, sliding his foot closer until their boots pressed together. He felt a small nudge in return; taboo magnified the tiny hint of affection. Shivers ran down his spine.

The interviews continued until dinner, and this time, their meal break was less energetic. Hange kept shaking out the hand that had been taking notes, as if it were cramping. Mike and Berit seemed to be passing the same yawn back and forth, and Levi's eyes were dull. Though Erwin would have liked to push for a couple hours after dinner, he decided they had put in enough work for one day. He shouldn't push them too hard. Once they had eaten, he dismissed them.

He had no such restraint when it came to his own limits, however, and he settled at his desk, intent on working as long as his energy held out. He had, after all, already visited the gym, and there would be no romance with Levi, so he might as well use his momentum. Any hours spent now could be reclaimed the next night, when he and Levi would come to the end of their two-day pact.

He didn't realize he had fallen asleep until his name startled him awake.

He sat up, his breath coming in a snort. The lamp was low, nearly out of oil. Levi sat across from him, one leg crossed over the other, dressed only in pyjama bottoms and slippers.

"Did you fall asleep at your desk again?"

"I suppose I did." Erwin sat up and smoothed the paper in front of him, setting his pen aside. "What time is it?"

"Three. You do this a lot?"

"Reasonably often." He tilted his head, studying Levi. The man had dark circles under his eyes. "What are you doing up so late? Can't sleep?"

Levi shrugged. "Bad dreams again. Went for a walk to calm down, saw your light was still on."

"Do you need me to be there with you?"

He raised a brow. "I thought we were waiting until tomorrow night."

"We are, but your well-being is more important than that." Erwin watched him, trying to gauge his response. He was certain the man would refuse his invitation, but his inflection and posture would indicate whether or not the refusal was sincere.

"Nah, I'll be fine," said Levi. "I'd probably just attack you again, anyway." His face twisted.

"Levi-"

"No, we're not going to talk about it. I just..." The man shrugged, looking away. "I appreciate your concern. I'm fine." The words were jagged, as if he was forcing them out, but they seemed sincere.

Erwin nodded. "If you're certain. Let me know if I can do anything to help."

"Yeah. Thanks." Levi's arms folded over his chest, so tightly that his muscles flexed. "You still haven't unpacked your clothes out of the trunk."

"Ah, sorry, I had forgotten all about it."

"Well, come get it soon. It's stinking up my room with your smell." Was that a blush showing on the pale cheeks? It was difficult to tell in the dim light.

Erwin stood and circled the desk. "Come here," he said gently.

Levi gave an irritable sigh, but stood. "I told you, I'm fine."

"I know you are. I just want to give you a hug. As a friend." He wrapped his arms around the smaller man. As he drew him in, he caught a whiff of his own cologne coming off Levi's hair. Is he using my scent to calm himself somehow? Maybe my old clothes, or my cologne bottle? He wasn't certain if he was interpreting that correctly or not, and asking would probably just humiliate him, but it gave him an idea.

"Here." He stepped away and pulled off his jacket. "Sleep in this. It smells like me, so it'll be like I'm there holding you."

Levi's cheeks darkened. "What is it with you and smell?"

Erwin ignored him, draping the jacket around his shoulders. "You can return it to me in the morning, but no hurry. I have plenty of spares."

"Sentiment," muttered Levi, but his face softened. "You should get some sleep, too."

"In a little bit." He crouched down to kiss the man's forehead. "Until tomorrow night, Levi."

The man looked up at him, his pupils large and soft in the dim light. Erwin stepped away, feeling loneliness pre-emptively tighten around his heart. Clearing his throat, he circled back to his chair and eased into it.

By the time he looked up again, Levi was gone. He set his jaw and continued his work, determined not to be distracted by his emotions.

.*.*.*.

Erwin awoke to a knock at his office door. Sunlight streamed through the windows. He had slept through reveille. At least he had made good headway before passing out again; he was well on track to meeting his deadline.

"Sir?" called a light voice.

"Come in." He stood and stretched his head. His neck was aching; he must have slept with his head smashed to the desk at an odd angle. Long nights were getting considerably more and more difficult as he aged. Next time, I'll put on a pot of coffee.

Nanaba stepped into the room, holding a stack of envelopes. "Mail, sir."

"Just leave it on the desk. Thank you, Nanaba."

The door had barely closed when it swung open again. Levi marched into the room, using two hands to carry a mug on a saucer, Erwin's jacket tucked under his arm. "I thought I told you to go to bed, idiot."

"Good morning, Levi."

"Here." Levi whipped the jacket at him.

Erwin caught it one-handed, then lifted it to his nose and breathed in. "It smells like you," he said, partly to tease him.

"Shut up," said Levi, looking away, his cheeks red.

"Did it help?"

"I don't know. Probably." Levi set down the mug. Coffee. He slumped into a chair. "Mike's bringing you breakfast in a few minutes."

Erwin put on his jacket, then began to sort through his mail. "What time is it?" Several envelopes had come from potential investors he had spoken with during the gala. He set them in a separate pile on his desk.

"Ten to eight." Levi leaned forward and adjusted the pile of envelopes, squaring their edges.

"I see. I really overslept." Erwin's voice faded as he came upon an envelope addressed in familiar script. His brows lowered. "Dammit."

"What?"

"My sister sent mail here. She's getting bolder." He reached for his letter opener to slit the end of the envelope. He skimmed the letter, skipping over the guilt trips and religious rhetoric. "She wants to meet me at my apartment tomorrow at five o'clock. If I'm not there, she's going to come find me here." He let out a low sigh. He had gone to great lengths to ensure that his home life and his professional life never intersected, and she was threatening to destroy fifteen years of successful separation.

"Stubborn little shit, isn't she?" said Levi.

"Family trait." Erwin clenched his teeth and folded the letter, shoving it in a drawer. "I suppose I've let this go on long enough. I'll make time to meet with her."

"I'll come."

Erwin raised a brow. "This is a private family matter, Levi. There's no need."

"She seems desperate, and you have no idea what the hell she's like anymore, or what those Wall fuckers might ask her to do." Levi shrugged, but Erwin saw genuine worry ripple across his features. "I'd rest better knowing you had backup if this was all some sort of trap."

"Well, if it would put you at ease, it might be nice to have company." The concern was touching, and more than that, his logic was sound. For all he knew, the Wallists might have brainwashed his sister into some sort of assassin. She had always been passionate and volatile, so she would be easy to control - and as Commander of the Survey Corps, he was certainly a threat to their ideals.

The final envelope was large and thick, marked with Sahlo's seal. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. "I suppose now we'll see if my gamble paid off."

"Oh?" Levi leaned forward.

Erwin held up the envelope, tapping the seal with his fingertip. "Our friend Sahlo replied earlier than expected. It certainly feels thick enough to contain the information I requested."

"'Morning," said Berit from the doorway. She settled into a chair. "No couches yet?"

"I'm working on it," he replied, distracted. He felt Levi's eyes on him as he slit the wax, then pulled out the thick bundle of papers.

The first several pages were an itemized list of silos by coordinates, and he felt a wave of relief. "He came through. Thanks again for your help, Levi. This will shape the course of the Survey Corps in the months to come."

Levi's body relaxed, and he slumped into the chair again. "Glad that shit-for-brains was good for something."

"Morning," called Mike as he stepped into the room, Hange on his heels. He set a bowl of porridge on the desk.

"Morning. Thanks," said Erwin without looking up. He flipped through the pages, skimming the contents. Several silos held food supplies and weapons, far more than he had expected. They would be able to build a good dozen caches out of these supplies alone, if they were able to recover all of them. There were sizable tax caches here, too, and a quick mental calculation showed there'd be more than enough to support Hange's weapons research.

He flipped to the last page, and his good mood faded. He let out a low, humourless chuckle.

"What are you laughing about?" asked Levi, leaning closer.

Erwin lowered the paper so he could read it for himself:

My Dear Commander Erwin,

It's with the greatest of excitement that I join you on this business venture to aid the Survey Corps with future expeditions and weapons research. With you at the helm, I'm sure the public's long-unfulfilled expectations will at long last be realized, and you won't fritter away their tax revenues the way past Commanders have. I am delighted to supplement their hard-earned money with funds from my own pocket.

As we discussed, I have enclosed the fully itemized list of silos. I'm sure the food and alcohol stores, in particular, will help keep your soldiers fat and happy in the manner to which they're accustomed.

I was so excited about our arrangement that I couldn't contain myself! I pulled some strings and arranged the preliminary expedition presentation for Friday at noon. I understand this gives you a narrow timeframe for the preparations, but I'm confident a man of your brilliance won't let us down.

I'm a man with many connections, Commander Erwin, and I'm sure you'll come to appreciate, in time, how important it is to have me as an ally.

Eagerly and with great hope ,

[Sahlo's seal]

Levi squinted at the words. Erwin could tell he was struggling with the flowing script, but he didn't dare insult him by offering to help.

"Wait," said Levi. "It's Wednesday today, and the meeting is Friday? So you have to travel back to the Capital overnight tomorrow?"

"Yes."

"What?" said Hange, and he realized the other Squad Leaders had been listening in. "But you were going to take the next two weeks to work on the proposal."

"And that was already going to be a stretch. I'm afraid our new ally has made things very, very difficult for me." Erwin rubbed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "I ask that the four of you conduct the interviews somewhere else today, as I'll need a quiet environment to finish off this proposal. Berit and Mike, would you be so kind as to arrange transport to Mitras for tomorrow night at ten o'clock? And perhaps one of you could fetch me a pot of coffee. Hange, I'll need to meet with that young woman who has legal training, the one we interviewed yesterday."

"Nifa, sir?"

"Nifa, yes. I'll need her feedback on my proposal a few hours before I leave, to give me time to edit it. Could you ask her to come by my office tomorrow at five o'clock?"

"Erwin," said Levi, and he tapped the envelope on his desk, the one from his sister demanding a five o'clock appointment.

"Of course," muttered Erwin, his pulse rising. "Tell Nifa three o'clock, please, Hange."

"Sir." The ponytailed head bobbed as Hange ducked from the room.

Then he was alone with Levi, and he could drop his calm facade. He raked his hands into his hair. "Shit."

"That damned asshole," said Levi. "He's fucking with you on purpose, isn't he? Can't you just push back your meeting with the brass by a week or two?"

"Not without losing face, something I can't afford to do this early in my appointment as Commander. The King's men are difficult to book time with, and to get me in so quickly, Sahlo must have talked up this expedition. He's trying to knock me down by building me up too much, knowing that reality will never live up to their inflated expectations. If I lose credibility with them, then my word will mean nothing, and my threats will lose all power. He'll be free, and I'll be disgraced." He shook his head. "Levi, I'm afraid I may have bitten off more than I can chew with this one."

"No, you'll handle him. You just have to figure him out, and you will." Levi folded his arms over his chest. "Besides, you probably would have been disappointed if he hadn't put up a fight, right? I bet you're secretly getting a thrill out of this, you twisted bastard."

Erwin couldn't help chuckling. "Perhaps."

There was a pause. "Look, I know we were supposed to spend the night together, but we can just take a few minutes to get off together if it'll give you more time on your proposal."

Erwin's smile faded. "I'm sorry, Levi. If I'm leaving tomorrow night, we may not have that night together until after I get back."

The man shrugged, but his voice was small: "How long will you be there?"

"I imagine it will be a quick trip." Erwin gripped his shoulder. "Come find me after dinner and see how I'm doing. Maybe everything will fall into place faster than I expect. For now, only concern yourself with the interviews."

"Okay." Levi's brows pinched.

"Everything will be fine," said Erwin, but his chest tightened. He wasn't so sure of that himself.

"Okay." With one last worried look at him, Levi turned and left the room.

.*.*.*.

Thankfully, the outline Erwin had prepared the night before made his work flow smoothly. The most time-consuming part was cross-referencing the silo contents with the map locations to plan a route; there were too many moving parts to keep track of in his head. He took a few minutes to cut scraps of paper and stick notes to the map, then spent an hour shuffling a wooden figure along the board, trying to figure out the safest, most efficient route.

At lunchtime, Hange came into the room bearing a bowl of stew, a large chunk of bread, and a fresh pot of coffee. "Mike said you'd forget to eat if we didn't feed you."

Erwin smiled. "He knows me well. Thank you, Hange. Any word from Nifa?"

"She looked nervous, but she'll be happy to look over your proposal whenever you send for her. I can help out, too, if you like. I've read a lot of that sort of thing."

"Actually, if you have a moment, I'd like your opinion now. I'm trying to plan our expedition route." He slid the wooden figure from silo to silo. "Since you'll all have new squads, and many of the recruits are still green, the first few days will be spent practicing travelling in formation, so we'll stick to these known low-traffic routes. Here-" He pointed to a building marked on the map. "-is an abandoned checkpoint we can use as a base of operations. If we manage to hold it, we can radiate out to two silos a day from there, regrouping each night." He traced lines on the map. "Any thoughts?"

Hange leaned forward, brow furrowed. "Without any scouting intelligence, it's hard to say."

"I know. There will be some flexibility once we have that information, but I need to propose an overall strategy for now. What do you think? Is two per day too aggressive?"

Hange tapped the northeast segment of his route. "I'm concerned about this area here. The hills are going to wreak havoc with our carriages, and they'll also force our formation to tighten."

"True," he said. "That being said, look at the treasure trove of weapons that those two silos hold. There's an old checkpoint between them. Maybe split it into one per day, travel more cautiously through that region, and stay at that checkpoint overnight?"

"Sounds better than hitting both on one day. How many days is this expedition going to take?"

"Somewhere between eight and fourteen, depending how long it takes the squads to adjust to the formation."

"Okay." Hange glanced up. "When?"

There seemed to be a hidden motive behind the question, and he could already guess what it was. "I anticipate sending the scouting team out in two weeks, then launching the expedition two weeks after that. And no, I don't believe you'll have time before then to prepare new weapons to bring with us. Besides, we have enough new variables to work with; adding more would only put the mission at risk."

Hange's face fell. "I have an idea for a little weapon that-"

"Not this time," he said. "The funds are only going to start coming in once we've retrieved the silos' contents, and we'll want to test weapons on smaller-scale missions. Think longer term."

"Sir," said Hange, looking disappointed.

He smiled and reached across to squeeze Hange's shoulder. "You don't have to keep calling me 'sir' now that you're a Squad Leader - just Erwin will be fine. Thanks for the lunch and the feedback. I'll send for you and Nifa tomorrow. You're dismissed."

Confident now that he was on the right track, he began to flesh out the proposal. Route diagrams and charts were his favourite aspects of documentation, so he saved them for later, when he was bound to be too exhausted to concentrate well. Instead, he worked on getting the financial aspects out of the way.

The first step was to halve each of the silo's tax contents, as he had promised Sahlo. His strategy had a potential loose end here: if Sahlo felt like it, he could easily turn around and have Erwin tried for falsifying the numbers. The kickback and threats would hopefully be enough to keep him quiet, but just in case, Erwin planned to make another stop while he was in the Capital. One of his contacts did excellent document forgeries, and he'd easily be able to alter Sahlo's itemized list to match Erwin's falsified numbers, making it look as if the fake numbers were Sahlo's idea all along.

By the time the dinner bell rang, he had finished the financial planning and moved onto the specifics of the strategy. In an effort to stave off fatigue, he had consumed so much caffeine that he didn't have an appetite, and his hands were shaking. He had been up and down at least once an hour to use the toilet, his kidneys practically aching from the strain. His mind, at least, was alert, in spite of his fractured sleep the night before.

The four Squad Leaders entered his office a few minutes after the bell, all carrying trays of food.

"Erwin?" said Berit. "Do you have time for a quick debrief?"

His mind was racing so fast that he felt as if it were pushing on the underside of his skull; he didn't want to be interrupted. He knew, however, that he needed to devote some of his energy to his officers. Gone were the days when Shadis had shielded and isolated him while he was planning.

He forced himself to put down his pen. "I have a few minutes. Come in."

They filed in and settled into chairs with their trays.

Levi set a fifth one tray front of him. "How's it going?" Their eyes held, and Erwin could see the unasked question there: are we going to have time to be together tonight? He hoped so; he had been carefully washing himself clean after each of his bathroom visits, just in case.

"Things are shaping up quite well," said Erwin, leaning back in his chair. "I believe I should be able to make the deadline with time to spare."

Levi's face softened. "Good."

As they ate, the Squad Leaders updated Erwin on their interview progress. As he had suspected, it was still too early to have any real progress, but it sounded as if the four of them were amicably slotting soldiers into the correct squads with almost no bickering. They worked well together.

He found himself enjoying their company, but there was still work to be done. He dismissed them the instant his bowl was empty.

Levi lingered, waiting until the door closed behind the others, then approached the desk. "Well?"

"Come by at ten o'clock," said Erwin. "I should be able to take a short break then."

Levi picked up a stick of graphite and adjusted it so it was square to the edge of the desk, not looking him in the eye. "You going to want me to fuck you?" he asked quietly.

The words made a shiver run down Erwin's spine, but he said, "I'm not sure actual sex is a good idea; between the stress and the coffee, I don't quite trust my stomach right now. But I have another idea." He reached across the desk to trace the back of his hand. "How about we go up to the old guard tower - the one where we had lunch before - and use our mouths on each other under the stars?"

Levi looked up. "You mean, sucking each other off at the same time?"

"It might take a bit of maneouvring. If we lie on our sides and I curl forward, we can probably make it work. We'll bring up a few blankets to lie on." He traced circles around a knotted knuckle. "If it doesn't work, that's fine, but it would be nice to give it a try."

A shiver visibly ran through Levi's body. "I'll come back at ten."

Erwin stood and leaned forward across the desk, skimming the man's lips with his own. "I look forward to it."

And so he was crestfallen when, at nine thirty, he realized he had made a basic calculation error that meant he would have to redo a third of his proposal. When ten o'clock came, he was frantically rewriting a financial segment, a fresh pot of coffee at his side. His frustration must have shown on his face, because Levi stopped short in the doorway.

"What happened?"

Erwin shoved a hand through his hair, barely looking up. "For some reason, I was under the impression that twelve plus fourteen was twenty-five, and I carried that same impression through every one of my calculations."

Levi closed the door, then sauntered forward and leaned against the desk. "That was a dumb mistake. How much more time do you need?"

"Three, four hours?"

"From one mistake?"

"A critical one, I'm afraid, and the more I track it down, the more everything else unravels. This entire proposal is so hastily constructed that it didn't hold up to my scrutiny." He looked up and, seeing the disappointment on Levi's face, gave a low sigh. "I'm sorry, Levi."

"We could just do something quick," said Levi. "If we jerk each other off, it'll only take a few minutes."

"I don't think that's a good idea. You know how sleepy I get after orgasm." Erwin carefully corrected a number. "Believe me, I'm aching to spend time with you, but at this rate, I won't have time until one or two in the morning, at the earliest."

"Then I'll come back in a few hours."

Erwin hesitated, wanting more than anything to agree. "You shouldn't wait up for me."

"I won't. In the Underground, you learn to sleep for short, specific chunks of time, so I can get some sleep and still get here in time." Levi arched a brow. "Besides, you'll need the stress relief. You're going to give yourself a fucking heart attack if you keep pushing forward this hard all the time."

Erwin poured a fresh cup of coffee. "I don't mind. A part of me enjoys the pressure."

"That's the problem, and that's exactly why I'm going to make sure you take a break." Levi stood to his full height, shoulders thrown back. "I'll be back in a few hours."

.*.*.*.

True to his word, Levi returned at two o'clock, dressed in his pyjama bottoms and slippers. Erwin was beginning to feel edgy, the caffeine and lack of sleep taking their toll on him. He had corrected the errors and finished a large portion of the full work, but it wasn't enough - he was on a roll; he needed to keep going; he couldn't let Sahlo win...

"Hey." Levi closed the door behind him. "Take a break."

Erwin's jaw clenched. "I don't have time." Realizing he had snapped the words, he sighed and leaned back in his chair. "I'm sorry, Levi, I really, truly am, but we're going to have to postpone. Even if I had the time, I'm far too stressed for my body to respond. I promise I'll make this up to you tomorrow night." He wasn't sure how he'd stay awake then, but he'd find a way.

"You need a break," said Levi flatly. He sat across from him. "Look at you, all wound up on stress and coffee. I can see your teeth vibrating from here. Your asshole's probably puckered shut. You aren't going to be able to shit for a week if you don't take a moment to relax it."

In spite of his best efforts to control his emotions, an exasperated sigh slid from Erwin's lips. "Please, go back to bed and let me finish. Tomorrow we can-"

"I'm horny now," said Levi. His tone was demanding, but hurt flickered in his eyes.

I'm shutting him out, the way I used to shut out Henrik, thought Erwin, and he was so exhausted and furious with himself that he lashed out:

"Then masturbate. This proposal is more important than-" He caught himself, too late.

Levi flinched as if he had been kicked. "More important than me."

Erwin's stomach twisted. "I didn't mean that."

"No, I get it. Fine, have it your way." Slumping further in his chair, Levi reached a hand down the front of his pants.

Erwin stared. "What are you doing?"

"Following orders." Levi pulled himself out of his pants. "My Commander told me to masturbate."

"You can't do that here. If someone comes in-"

"What, someone's going to break down your door at two in the morning? You keep doing the important things and let me worry about this." He began to stroke himself, and gave an exaggerated sigh. "Fuck, that feels good."

He's being childish, and passive-aggressive, and I'm not going to play his game. Erwin's jaw tightened and he looked back down at his work. He tried to focus on the document, but he was too on edge, and the rhythmic sound of sliding skin was a constant reminder of what was going on in front of him. In spite of himself, blood began to pool between his legs, and he felt a flush rising to his cheeks.

Levi let out a low groan. "Good suggestion. I haven't even come yet, and I'm feeling better already."

Erwin calmly flipped a page, not looking up. "Is masturbation how you usually resolve conflict?"

"I think it might be from now on. Look how fucking hard I am."

"I don't have time to look," said Erwin, double-checking the labels on a diagram. "Almost done?"

"No, I'm having too much fun. Think I'm going to draw this out."

There was a strained rasp to his voice, and Erwin couldn't tell if the man was still angry, or if his anger had been drowned by hormones. Against his better judgement, he looked up. Levi leaned casually back in the chair, legs splayed, showcasing himself. When he noticed Erwin watching, he paused to touch the tip, a string of moisture following his finger as he pulled away.

Erwin swallowed hard. "If someone comes through that door-"

"They'll see my back and won't have a clue what's going on." Levi's eyes narrowed at him. "Why the hell are you looking at me like that? Do I seem more important now that my dick's out?"

The ache between his legs was becoming unbearable. "Maybe I do need a break."

"You should have thought of that before you decided to be an asshole." Levi's head rolled back along the chair, his hips thrusting slowly into his hand. A low, pleased hum sounded in his throat.

"Fuck," whispered Erwin before he could stop himself. His aching groin drowned his pride. Beneath his desk, he unbuckled his lower harnesses and opened the fly of his pants. The first blast of chilly air made him shiver. It felt so wrong, baring himself here, in this room that was only meant for business.

Levi eyed him, his lips parted, cheeks dark. "You jerking yourself under there?"

"Perhaps," said Erwin, the word catching in his throat.

"You clean enough to suck?"

The idea was so scandalous that his eyes fluttered closed, and he could only manage a throaty "Yeah."

Levi circled the desk. "Don't think this means I forgive you." He knelt between the Commander's legs. "You're already hard."

"I like watching you play with yourself." Erwin tried to stroke the man's jaw, but he was so jittery that the movement was clumsy. His eyes darted to the door. He was surprised to find himself wishing that someone would walk in on them like this, with his partner shielded carefully from view.

Levi looked up at him, a brow raised. "What was that throb for?"

"I'm nervous about being interrupted," he replied, cheeks burning.

"You sure nervous is the right word?" Levi ran his tongue along him, and Erwin shuddered, caught off guard by the heat of his mouth. "Because I'm getting the feeling you like the risk, you pervert." He ran his tongue along the length again, from a different angle this time. "Just think what it'd be like if someone walked in. You'd have to act like nothing was going on, but I'm still angry, so I'd make it as difficult for you as I could."

Erwin's breaths were coming in harsh blasts. "Show me how you'd make it difficult for me."

"Only if you show me how you'd act if someone else was here."

The fantasy was so taboo that heat flooded Erwin's body, as if he were already on the edge of climax. "Okay."

Levi took him all the way into his throat, his tongue tracing patterns as he went. Erwin's instincts told him to arch and cry out, but he sat perfectly still, his face stoic. The forced repression was tantalizing in ways he had never expected, his body extra sensitive now that he knew he wasn't allowed to react. Oh fuck. He glanced down, and Levi made eye contact, still holding him deep in his mouth.

Erwin tried to suppress a cry; it escaped as a whimper.

Levi slid him out of his mouth. "That would have given you away. You're terrible at this."

"Maybe you're just too good at that."

"Try harder." The man paused to run his tongue around the head. "You might need to do this for real one day."

"Oh fuck," gasped Erwin, dizzied by the thought. He planted his elbows on the desk and folded his hands against his mouth, trying to stay calm. He felt a hand wrap around him, felt Levi suck harder and begin to stroke him, and his breath escaped in a hiss. He buried his face in his hands, breathing hard.

Levi, too busy to speak, gave a disapproving hum.

"I can't," whispered Erwin. "I can't fake it. Fuck." His hands raked into his hair. If someone walked in on them now, it would all be over, everything he had worked so hard to achieve. His body began to shake, a combination of nerves, caffeine and over-stimulation.

It didn't matter how stealthy he was anymore, anyway; Levi was attacking him so zealously that each stroke was loud and wet. Erwin pushed the chair back so he could watch him. The man's eyes were wild, hair hanging in his face. His other hand worked between his own legs, so hard that the movement was audible.

Erwin couldn't hold back anymore. He bucked forward into the man's mouth, fighting to hold back his cries; his was mostly successful, but a single squeak escaped. When the last pulse faded and he opened his eyes again, stars swam in his vision, and he realized he had been holding his breath.

Levi pulled away, his nose wrinkling. "You taste like coffee."

Erwin was too relaxed to feel insulted. He slid off the chair and dropped to his knees on the floor in front of Levi, leaning forward for a kiss. He could taste himself, unpleasantly bitter, but more important than that was the gentleness of Levi's mouth, a warm contrast to their cold interactions a few minutes prior.

Levi gasped and pulled away, his breaths catching. Erwin stared at the clenching chest and arm muscles, as awed by the man's athletic motions as he had been at the gym the previous morning. He's close.

"Shit," whispered Levi, eyes closing, head tilting back.

"Let me help." Erwin bent onto all fours and placed his mouth above Levi's hand, sucking the tip. He felt a hand claw into his hair, heard gasps as they began to pick up speed, moving in unison.

Then Levi breathed his name, and Erwin tasted him. He lingered for a few moments longer than necessary, gently tracing him with his tongue. He felt safe and cozy here, tucked carefully away behind the desk, safe from potential prying eyes.

When he pulled away, they held each other's gaze.

"I did need a break," said Erwin, still angry with himself. "Levi, I didn't mean you were unimportant. I'm under a lot of stress right now, and-"

"I know. I was a dick, too. It's fine." Levi caught his jaw, drawing him in for a kiss.

They both fixed their clothes and stood. Once everything was in order, Levi leaned forward to pull him into an embrace, but Erwin stopped him.

"We're in full view of the door now."

"Yeah, but I locked it when I came in."

Erwin blinked. "You what?"

"Wait." Levi's head tilted. "You genuinely thought someone might walk in on us, and you went along with it? That wasn't just role-play?"

Heat crept across Erwin's cheeks.

"Holy shit, you really are a pervert." Levi folded his arms over his chest. "I'm not stupid. There's no way I'm going to start jerking off in your office unless the door's locked. I don't want to do anything to fuck this up."

"I got carried away."

"Well, good thing one of us had some sense about it. You going to get some sleep now?"

"No, not yet. I'm running low on time." Erwin glanced down at the proposal, his vision blurring, and let out a low sigh.

"You need company to help you stay awake?" asked Levi.

"I can't ask you stay up for me."

Levi shrugged. "You aren't. I'm offering. I should go over the new recruit roster, anyway, so I can prepare for tomorrow's interviews in advance. Everyone else already did, and it's getting harder to fake it as we go." He reached up and straightened Erwin's collars, then adjusted his bolo tie. "Just give me a minute to get some tea."

"Sounds good." Touched by his attentiveness, Erwin couldn't resist a final kiss before they got down to work. He tilted the man's jaw up with two fingers, closing his mouth over the slim lips.

Even if this isn't as time-sensitive as the proposal, he thought, it's every bit as important. Maybe even more so. He could already tell that Levi was going to help keep him grounded. Balanced. But only if I let him. His eyes were growing heavy, so he let them close. And his body is warm, and small, and smells like lemons.

Levi broke the kiss and nudged him. "Hey. Are you falling asleep up there?"

"No." Erwin pulled away, blinking. "But I think I'll grab another cup of coffee, just in case."

"I'll make some extra tea. Couldn't hurt for you to drink both." Levi began to walk for the door.

"Levi," said Erwin. "Wait."

The man paused and half-turned, waiting.

"I'll do my best to never shut you out. But if I do, I..." He looked down, so exhausted that he couldn't find the right words. "I told you before that you might have to be aggressive to get through to me, and I appreciate that you did so tonight. Don't ever hold that back." His throat tightened. "I want to give you the love you deserve, and you must never settle for anything less."

Levi eyed him for a moment longer, then nodded.

"I'm rambling," said Erwin, rubbing his forehead.

"Yeah, but I get it." The man turned to face him. "But don't always assume you're the only one in the wrong; I was a dick about the whole jerking off thing. I know you're paranoid about treating me like shit because you feel guilty about what went on with Henrik, but you treat me better than you think. And if you don't, I'll call you on it. That's how we've always worked, even before we hooked up – hell, even before we could tolerate being around each other – so stop overthinking it. We're fine."

"Okay." Erwin smiled. "Thank you."

"And stop thanking me all the time. I'm here for myself, you know. It's not like I'm doing you a favour." Levi began to move to the door. "I'll be back with some tea and my paperwork."

Erwin felt a swell of fondness. If only he could take the man to his bed and hold him close, drifting off to sleep together... He blinked, trying not to let the warm, tempting drowsiness overcome him. The sooner you finish this proposal, the sooner you can make that a reality.

Settling into his chair, he continued his work.

Chapter Text

-17-

Angles

"Morning! How's the proposal looking?" asked Hange, stepping into Erwin's office.

Erwin held a finger to his lips; he pointed at the chair across from him.

Hange tiptoed forward to look, then grinned. Levi lay sideways across the chair, cradled by its armrests like an infant being held by its mother. The roster still lay on his chest, and he was softly snoring.

"He fell asleep about an hour before reveille," whispered Erwin. "I didn't have the heart to wake him."

"He even looks grumpy in his sleep. I wonder if he's having grumpy little dreams." Hange's eyes lit up. "Can I play a prank on him?"

"What kind of prank, exactly?"

"If I clap really loudly behind his head-"

"That sounds like a good way to get punched in the throat. Let him sleep." Erwin motioned to an empty chair, keeping his voice to a whisper. "The first draft of the proposal is complete. If you and Nifa have a little time to give me feedback, I'd be grateful." He carefully straightened the stack of papers, his hands trembling.

"We'll handle it, sir," said Hange, eyes locked on his hands. "You should get some sleep."

"I think my heart is pumping pure coffee at this point. Besides, we have to continue the squad selection interviews."

"Or instead," said Hange, raising a finger, "we could postpone the interviews by a day so I could dedicate all my time to your revisions, and you could get some sleep to get your head on straight. It looks like Levi could use some sleep, too. He seems a bit sleep-deprived lately."

Erwin thought of the nightmares, the late-night talks, the physical exertion in the bedroom. "Very well. Tell Mike and Berit they have the day to work on personal training, or perhaps observe the new recruits in the training grounds. I'll meet you back here around three o'clock."

Hange was already flipping through the proposal. "Better make it two. I see a lot of spelling mistakes already."

His temples throbbed, and he swallowed back a wave of defensiveness, forcing humility in its place. "Given the speed with which it was written, I expect you'll find the occasional rambling off topic and logic flaws as well. Thank you, Hange." He stood and studied Levi.

"He seems pretty dead to the world," said Hange, nudging the man with a fingertip. Levi stirred, but didn't open his eyes. "You could probably carry him."

Erwin couldn't tell if the light tone was due to hope or mischief. His gaze slid to Hange's face. Is that an 'I want you to be a couple' expression, or 'I know exactly what's going on here'?

He knelt down and shook the man's shoulder. "Levi."

Levi's eyelids parted. "What time is it?" he asked, his voice groggy.

"About half an hour past reveille. Thank you for your company. You have the day off to recuperate."

Levi blinked, slowly swinging his legs around so his feet touched the floor. "Did you finish your proposal?"

"Yes. Hange will be scouring it with Nifa so they can give me some feedback."

"Already on it," said Hange, making a note on the page.

"Come on, I'll walk you to your room." Erwin rose to his feet.

Levi yawned and stretched, then stood. "I don't need to sleep any more."

"I want you to rest, Levi. That's an order. You've been pushing almost as hard as I have, and I need you fresh for your squad selection." He gripped the man's shoulder and began to steer him toward the door.

"Goodnight, Levi," called Hange in a sing-song tone, as if talking to an infant.

"Shut up, shitglasses," muttered Levi, not even looking back.

As the pair stepped into the hallway, Levi rubbed his eyes. "Why'd you let me fall asleep? I told you I was going to stay up with you."

"And you did, right up until the end, and that allowed me to stay focused. Thank you." They stepped into Levi's room; Erwin closed the door behind them.

"Closing the door?" said Levi. "Are you planning to throw me against the wall again? Because as hot as that is, my dick is still sleeping."

"I'm just here to drop you off." Now that Erwin was away from his desk, fatigue was starting to settle over him, so heavy that he slumped against the wall. The bed looked so soft, so inviting.

"I can't tell which of your eyes is the black eye anymore, they're so dark," said Levi, following his gaze. "You need to sleep, too."

"I suppose I should return to my own room in case I oversleep my appointment and Hange comes looking for me." He found himself unwilling to sleep alone. "Unless you're confident you can wake us up before two."

"I can, but is it a good idea to sleep together?"

Erwin stifled a yawn. Maybe it was the fatigue dulling his logic, but he didn't really care anymore if it was a good idea or not. "Your door has a lock." The words reminded him of their secret encounter in his office the night before, and his cheeks warmed. Levi's cheeks darkened, too, but he turned and locked the door without a word.

They crawled under the covers, Erwin spooning behind Levi. He ran a hand down the man's abdomen, enjoying the softness of his body hair, the grooves of his stomach muscles. He ran his fingers over the waistband of the man's pyjama bottoms. "You should take these off."

"I told you, I'm too tired for sex."

"I won't try anything. I just want to feel the warmth of your bare skin against mine." He buried his nose in the line that ran vertically down the back of Levi's neck muscles; he had seen this anatomical feature on others from time to time, but never this closely. He could feel the velvety hair of Levi's undercut rubbing against his brows and forehead. "How is it that a man so hard and tightly built feels so soft?"

Levi turned his head, as if trying to look back at him. "If I take off my pants, will you shut up and let me sleep?"

Erwin gave a soft chuckle. "I make no such promise."

"Ah well, they're too warm, anyway." Levi reached under the covers and pulled off his pants, folded them and set them on the side table. Erwin did the same, then spooned up behind him again. This time the man's skin, soft and surprisingly cool, pressed against his. Erwin let out a contented hum.

"You're glowing like a damned cook stove." Levi inched back against him.

"Must be from all the coffee." His body was responding to the naked warmth pressed against him, but his eyes had slipped closed, and he found himself unable to open them again. He pressed his palm to the centre of Levi's chest, and he felt a hand close over his, fingers interlacing.

"Okay, maybe this is nicer without all that fabric between us," said Levi.

Erwin tried to respond, but in spite of all the caffeine, he was fading. He let himself fall back into darkness, warm and content.

.*.*.*.

Levi awoke to the sound of the lunch bell. Erwin's embrace, which had been warm and silky before, was hot and damp with sweat. He winced and extracted himself from the strong grasp, then sat up.

"Levi?" mumbled Erwin, squinting up at him.

Levi smoothed the blond hair back from his forehead. "You've still got an hour or two. Go back to sleep."

Erwin blinked. "You'll wake me up?"

"Yeah." He traced a line down the sharp nose. By the time he reached the tip, the man was already asleep again.

For several minutes, Levi watched him, memorizing small details: the tiny flare of his upper lip, the slight puff of jowl above his jaw line, the gradient between the dark blond of his undercut and the pale blond top. Was the top naturally sun-bleached, or did he use something to help it along? At first, the idea seemed too vain, but then he remembered the way Erwin was fussing over his eyebrows before the gala. Can't say I blame him. If I were that pretty, I'd probably fuss over my appearance, too.

His eyes traced lower, finding a small scar under the man's jaw, another across his collarbone. Scars were an occupational hazard, and Levi had never really paid attention to Erwin's. Part of it was willful ignorance: he knew better than anyone that some scars had deep emotional components, so they shouldn't be acknowledged.

He would have loved to lift the covers and study every part of the Commander's body in detail, but his stomach was growling. Reluctantly, he tore himself away and pulled on his uniform. He paused by the door to look back at Erwin, his heart singing. I'm getting so fucking sentimental.

Berit was in line at the mess hall, holding two trays. He fell into place behind her, taking two trays as well.

"For the Commander?" she asked, nodding at his second tray.

"Yeah."

"How's he doing?"

Levi shrugged. "Dead to the world, hopefully."

"Hange's still looking through the proposal. Asked me to grab an extra lunch and come back to give my opinion on a few paragraphs." Berit accepted two bowls of stew, then reached for some bread. "Apparently, it's looking pretty good, all things considered."

I wonder if "all things considered" will be enough, thought Levi, but he didn't reply.

"So, what did you two do to get that Lord on our side, exactly?" asked Berit. "I read the letter. He seemed kind of bitter."

"Erwin is very convincing."

"Convincing enough that this new alliance won't backfire?"

Levi's eyes narrowed. "If you're trying to hint that Erwin isn't trustworthy, Bershit, I'm the wrong person to talk to."

"'Bershit?'" she repeated. "Come on, Levi, you can do better than that. And of course I trust him. I just worry that he might be pushing too hard, too soon. You know how ambitious he is. You saw how stressed he was yesterday; that's not sustainable. If he cracks or burns out, we all go under."

Levi studied her. "Why the hell are you telling me this?"

"Because someone needs to tell him that the proposal is too aggressive. Four weeks is too soon for an expedition with all-new squads, especially such a major expedition. We need at least six weeks to train for an expedition of this size, maybe even eight." She leaned closer. "Look, I see the way you two interact. You have a good rapport. Of any of us, you have the best chance of getting through to him about this. Hange would leave on an expedition tomorrow if given the chance, so that's no help. Mike's too passive, so he's just going to default to Erwin's judgement. But I've seen you openly question him before, and I've seen him take your words into account."

"Do it yourself." Realizing they were holding up the line, Levi gathered two lunches, then stepped to the side. "He's made it clear he wants anyone to question him if they think he's making a poor decision."

"Yeah, he'd probably listen to me, but this is too important for 'probably.'" Berit's eyes searched his. "Please. For the good of the Corps, at least mention it to him."

Levi knew Erwin had considered all angles. If they were setting out at four weeks, there was a good reason for it. Still, he had insisted that all concerns be brought directly to him, and Berit usually had reliable instincts. How would he want me to approach this?

"Fine, I'll mention it," he said. "But you're just wasting my time. He has a good reason. We just can't see it yet."

Berit smiled. "Thank you, Levi."

Without replying, he turned and marched from the hall.

Making sure the hallway was empty, he brought both trays to his bedroom. Erwin hadn't moved, so Levi set his tray on the bedside table, then settled into a chair and ate. After that, he took a chilly bath, then spent some time tidying up his room.

When the town clock struck one o'clock, he stopped his work. Erwin had shifted onto his other side, facing away from him. Levi couldn't resist crawling into bed behind the man, forcing an arm underneath him so he could wrap his arms around him.

Erwin shifted back against him. "Is it time?"

"You've got an hour."

"I should start preparing for my trip tonight." The Commander gave a long, low sigh. "...and my meeting with my sister."

Levi pressed closer against his back, gently biting his ear. "If you want, I can go alone and tell her to fuck off."

"No, I need to stop putting it off." Erwin pulled his ear free; Levi leaned even closer, biting it again. "Feeling a bit frisky, Levi?"

"Frisky? You make me sound like an animal."

"You're the one gnawing on me." Erwin rolled to face him, a hint of a smile on his lips. "Don't worry; I've set aside some personal time for the two of us a bit later this evening. Would you like to hear my schedule?"

"Your pillow talk gets sexier every day." Levi kissed down the man's nose, then grasped the tip between his teeth.

Erwin pulled away, pressing a hand to his chest to hold him at a distance. "First, I'll get ready-"

"And eat lunch. Might be a bit cold." Levi motioned to the tray on the side table, and the Commander smiled.

"Thank you for that. Once I'm finished preparing and eating, I'll meet with Hange and Nifa to go over the proposal. I'll work on revisions until nearly five o'clock; at that point, you and I will head to my private residence to meet with my sister. After we've dealt with her, you and I will stay there to share in some private time before I return here to finish any last-minute revisions."

Levi felt his body stir. "Have you planned out that private time in detail, too?"

"I have some ideas. We didn't get our climactic night together after abstaining - well, somewhat abstaining - for those two days, so I'd like to do something special for you." The man leaned forward for a kiss; Levi bit his bottom lip.

"Like what?" he asked, their mouths still touching.

"You'll see. If you're going to keep chewing on me, I can think of one activity that will definitely be off the table." Erwin tilted his head and slowly bit lengthwise along Levi's lips.

"I'll be good." Levi slid lower, closing his teeth over the strong chin, then pulled away as he remembered: "Berit thinks four weeks is too soon for the expedition."

Erwin gently pushed him away to look at him. "What was that?"

"Berit. She thinks it's too soon with new squads. I told her you had a good reason. Do you?"

"Of course. Think about how we handled Sahlo; I'm counting on his fear to hold him at bay until we start lining his pockets. What do you think will happen if he has time to sit around thinking about the deal I've offered him? We need to get moving while we still hold the power balance, and four weeks is the absolute soonest we can get our squads mobilized." He paused. "At any rate, we'll be spending the first part of the expedition training the new squads to follow formation, so it's not as if they'll head into dangerous territory untrained. Is that enough information?"

"Yeah, I'll tell Berit not to worry."

"Thank you. And please tell her she's welcome to raise these concerns with me directly." Erwin kissed his forehead, then lingered; Levi felt a long intake of breath across his skin. "I suppose I should start getting ready for my trip. The Capital won't be the same without you."

"It's just a day or two," said Levi, embarrassed by how anxious he was about their upcoming separation. "I'll be here when you get back."

"And I'm glad for it." Erwin pulled away and sat up. "Why don't I meet you at four-thirty in my office? Bring your gear, but don't bother putting it on yet. You have the day to do whatever you'd like until then. I recommend taking some time to scout some of the potential squad members - the new recruits will be training in the yard today."

"Sure." Levi slid out of bed and straightened his uniform. "Send for me if you need anything."

They exchanged a long kiss, then Levi turned to leave, his cheeks glowing.

A few minutes later, he settled to a seat in the yard next to Mike and Berit. The woman raised a brow at him. "Well?"

"I stand by Erwin's decision," Levi said. "You have a problem with it, talk to him."

"His logic is sound?" she asked.

"Yes."

Mike shot them a quizzical look, but Levi didn't bother to explain. Instead, he focused on the new recruits as they ran through their training exercises. Berit was carefully taking notes, and even Mike jotted a couple words here and there, but Levi committed the names to memory.

Watching the new recruits ended up passing the time far more quickly than he expected. When he finally remembered to look up at the clock tower, he saw that he only had fifteen minutes until his meeting with Erwin. He cursed and hurried to his room to retrieve his gear case.

When he arrived at Erwin's office, the Commander was focused on a document, flanked by Hange and a teenage girl with wide eyes. The three of them looked up as he approached.

"How's it going?" Levi fell into a chair, casually crossing his legs.

"It should be workable." Erwin didn't sound convinced.

"It's fine. You've just been looking at it too long," said Hange. "Another hour to polish the last few issues, and it'll be indistinguishable from one you spent two weeks on."

"I hope you're right." Erwin stood. "Is it about time for our meeting with the investors, Levi?"

The description surprised him, but he didn't miss a beat: "Yeah. Don't want to keep those assholes waiting."

"Certainly not. Let me stop by my room to get my coat. Thank you both for your help." Erwin nodded a goodbye to Hange and Nifa, then strode to the door. Levi fell into step behind him.

The Commander pulled his gear case out from under his bed, then dressed in a long, dark coat, the Survey Corps logo on its breast and shoulders. He paused in front of his mirror, dampening two fingers and running them along his eyebrows.

Reminded of his vanity, Levi said, "Your hair-" He cut himself off.

"Yes?" Erwin pulled away from the mirror, then they left his room.

"It's so much blonder on top."

The Commander cleared his throat. At first, it seemed like he wasn't going to answer, but once were outside the base, he said quietly, "I comb bleach into it every now and then, and I suppose the sun has the most effect on the top layer."

"Really?" asked Levi. "You bleach your hair?"

"I was very blond as a youth. Everyone around me constantly commented how I took after my father, and how I had such beautiful pale hair. I suppose I absorbed that into my personal identity. It darkened as I got older, so I tried to maintain it."

"Maybe I should do the same," said Levi dryly.

"It would probably go orange." Erwin glanced at him. "Besides, you have such lovely hair. I've never seen hair that dark. It always reflects the light."

The compliment caught Levi off guard, and his cheeks glowed. "Yeah, yours isn't bad, either."

As they approached the apartment, Levi began to scan their surroundings in case Erwin's sister's pleas were setting up an ambush. "I don't see anything suspicious."

"No, but then, we're early." Erwin glanced around, then moved to the door and pulled out a key. "Once we're inside," he said quietly, "put on your gear. I want you observing the door from a high vantage point, in case she brings anyone with her. Once she enters, drop down and join us."

"Okay."

The door creaked opened, letting a small strip of light into the dark room. Once they were both inside, Erwin closed the door and sparked the lamp to life.

A grey cloaked figure sat on the bed.

"Shit!" Levi pulled out a knife and dove at the figure; it blocked his knife-hand. His weapon clattered to the floor. Undeterred, he grabbed the figure in a choke hold.

"Release me," said a female voice from under the hood. She struggled, her movements clearly practiced, but Levi was stronger.

Erwin stepped forward. Backlit by the dim lamp, he seemed to loom over them, but in spite of his intimidating appearance, his voice was frail: "Helena?"

"Release me!"

"Levi," said Erwin quietly. An order.

"She broke in," he replied, but he released her and stepped back.

The woman stood tall in the centre of the room, lowering her hood with a slow, dignified movement. Erwin turned up the lamp at the same time, and the combined effect was intimidating, as if her visage were lighting up the room.

Eyes locked on her, Levi backed toward his knife and crouched to pick it up. She was tall, nearly as tall as her brother, broad-shouldered and busty. Her pale blond hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail. Her face was like Erwin's, but rounder, more feminine; the sharp nose was shorter, the cheekbones softer, the brows thin. Her eyes were every bit as intense, and fixated on her brother.

For a moment, her expression wavered. "Holy Sina, you look so much like Papa."

"I thought you didn't remember him," replied Erwin, his voice so unnaturally calm that Levi knew he was hiding his true emotions. His head tilted, almost imperceptibly. "Or have memories started returning, the way they did for me? Is that why you're so desperate to talk to me?"

She blinked, and then her eyes narrowed. She nodded in Levi's direction without actually looking at him. "Why did you bring a bodyguard? I told you to come alone."

"And I told you never to contact me here, and look how that turned out."

Levi felt as if hundreds of insect feet were crawling across his skin. He shrank back against the desk, regretting his offer to attend such a personal meeting.

As if sensing his discomfort, Erwin turned to him. "Levi, allow me to introduce my younger sister, Helena Smith."

"No." Her icy eyes fixed on Levi. "That's not my name, not anymore. I'm Tessa Kohl, and you, little man, have no place in this conversation."

His brows dropped, and he opened his mouth to reply, but Erwin spoke first:

"Anything you have to say to me will be heard by both of us. That's non-negotiable."

Tessa-not-Helena's eyes held Levi's for a moment longer, then she looked away. "Fine." She sat on the bed again. "I'm getting married. Mama wants you there."

The Commander's brows rose. "That's what was so urgent?"

"Maybe you didn't have the decency to invite me to your wedding, Erwin, but I'm more gracious than you. You're invited. Bring your wife."

"Wife?" repeated Levi, his eyes shifting to Erwin. For a moment, his stomach quivered, but then he saw the furrowed line above the man's brow. He's just as confused as I am.

Tessa's eyes darted between them, the same furrowed line appearing on her forehead. "When you were in Mitras, the room was registered to you and an L Smith."

After a long silence, a smile spread across Erwin's lips. "I see what happened. Levi has no surname, so the concierge must have recorded our names as 'L & E Smith.'" He cast an amused look at Levi. "Should we start picking out china patterns?"

The woman's eyes narrowed. "Don't mock me."

"I'm not married, Helena-"

"Tessa."

"-and I doubt you really want me at your wedding, so I'll save you the stress and the expense. I won't attend. If that's all you came for, you have your answer." He stood and reached for the doorknob, as if preparing to let her out.

Her arms folded over her chest, and she stared him down.

Levi felt anger rise within him, hot and prickly. He wasn't kidding when he said she was stubborn. He wondered how they would react if he grabbed her by the scruff of the collar and threw her out the door.

"Was there something else?" said Erwin, exasperation in his voice.

"It's not all I came for, and you know it." She gave an uneasy glance at Levi, then leaned closer to her brother, her voice lowering. "I came here to warn you. Right now, you're poised to be the biggest threat to the sanctity of these walls, and it's attracting attention. Your repeated attempts to break free from this holy sanctuary are pissing off the wrong people. We can keep you safe; you just have to come back to us."

"If I'm pissing off the wrong people from your perspective, then that only reinforces to me that I'm on the right path."

Her eyes glistened. "You don't understand what you're dealing with."

"So help me understand," said Erwin. "Explain it to me."

She looked down. "I can't. If you come back to us, maybe I can. Trust me, Erwin. Your Survey Corps can't save you from yourself. Only we can."

They were silent. Levi's heart beat in his throat as he tried to make sense of the conversation.

Erwin's hand gripped the doorknob. "I'm glad to hear you've changed your name again, Tessa Kohl, and I hope Ma did as well, because it severs my last link to you both. For your sake and for mine, it's best the world think I have no family. I will never change my path, and even if I did, it certainly wouldn't be to ally with the Wallists. You have no brother. I have no sister." He opened the door. "Do not contact me again."

Their eyes held, then she stood. Once she reached the door, she paused.

"I mostly came because Mama still loves you." She stared straight ahead. "She cries for you every night. I told her you had become too cold to care, that your manic ambition had crushed every drop of love from your heart, but she refused to acknowledge what you had become."

Rage welled within Levi, and he couldn't stay silent anymore. "You selfish little shit! I've seen this man work himself half to death out of love for humanity. The only reason he stopped caring about you-"

"Levi," warned Erwin, but anger was rushing out of him like water from a tap.

"-is because his love for humanity is so fucking huge that he's sacrificed everything he is so that he can fight for our freedom. You and your ilk huddle inside your little churches, doing your best to ensure we stay trapped and starving, protecting your own interests. So you were popped out of the same vagina, you shared a few chess games as kids - who fucking cares? People like Erwin think bigger than that. His love is on such an enormous scale that self-absorbed little Wall fuckers can't possibly comprehend it." His body was shaking.

Tessa's eyes shifted to him, ice blue. "You don't know a thing about me, little man, and it's clear you don't know a thing about my brother. I pity you."

Levi bared his teeth. "If I ever - ever - see you near him again-"

"Don't worry about it," she said. "The next time I see him, he'll have put himself in a coffin." For a moment, her mask cracked, and the look she gave her brother was one of anguish.

She turned away and strode through the door without looking back.

Erwin closed it behind her, then slumped, his forehead pressed against the wood.

Levi was still trembling. "That arrogant shit head! How dare she-"

"Levi." Erwin pulled away from the door, his face still impassive. "It ended the way it needed to end. We aren't going to discuss it any further."

His eyes were so distant that Levi's heart twisted. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine."

"You don't look fine."

"I said we weren't going to discuss it." There was that tone again, the one he had used when Levi had teased him for his religious curse a few days back - and there was that same feeling, that cold hollow in his chest, the one that had resonated when Nile had warned him of Erwin's selfishness, when Tessa had said those words: too cold to care.

His jaw quivered. Do I actually know this man? Will I ever?

After a moment, Erwin's face softened, and he gave a smile. "Are you hungry? I have an activity in mind that might take some time, but if you need to eat first..." He trailed off, and the smile faded. "If you're still interested in that sort of thing, after all you just witnessed."

Though Levi's chest was still hollow, he forced himself to step forward and wrap his arms around Erwin. After a moment, the man hugged him back, his too-tight grip more honest than his expression or his words.

"I can't breathe," complained Levi.

"I'm sorry. You're so protective of me, Levi, and I'm not sure I deserve it."

"We weren't going to talk about it." The ice between them was melting, and Levi nuzzled his cheek in the gap between the broad chest muscles. "What's this activity you have in mind?"

"It's a surprise. I just need a couple minutes in the bathroom to prepare." Erwin pulled back; he lightly traced Levi's cheekbone with his fingertips, the movement coming to a rest on his bottom lip. "Levi-"

"It's fine." He kissed the fingers. "We'll take your mind off everything. Go do whatever you need to do."

While Erwin was in the bathroom preparing, Levi began to wander around the room, exploring. The wardrobe was full of Erwin's old clothes; mostly collared shirts, a couple suits, and a few casual outfits. The majority of the clothing would fit Levi well, and he fingered a green hooded shirt, wondering if Erwin would let him take some of this. Or would Mike recognize it from their training days?

The bookshelves behind the desk were alphabetized by category, aside from a few books that had been pulled out and set aside. A thin layer of dust coated the shelves, and Levi looked around for a dusting rag. He found a feather duster in the corner of the wardrobe. It wasn't his preferred cleaning method, as it seemed to kick up the dust rather than actually wipe it away, but he gave the bookshelves a quick dusting anyway. Once that was done, he began to dust and tidy the desk.

The bathroom door opened. Levi looked up, and the feather duster began to slip from his fingers. He fumbled it a few times before it fell to the floor.

"Everything all right, Levi?" Erwin stood in the bathroom doorway, naked except for his 3DMG harnesses, his boots and his Commander's pendant. The harnesses fit a bit looser without his clothing underneath them, straining with the weight of his gear.

Levi opened his mouth to speak, but his mouth was too dry, and all that would come out was a squeak. He closed his mouth.

"Too much?" said Erwin, his face glowing pink. "I know you said you liked imagining me in this outfit, so I thought I'd try it out for you."

Levi's heart thudded in his ears. "No, it's- I..." He was floundering. No other words would come.

Erwin stepped into the room and closed the bathroom door. "I know you didn't picture the gear, but I had an idea. You can say no, if you aren't interested. Our weight and height difference makes it impossible for you to take me standing up, but if we use the gear..." He triggered the gear, slamming the anchors at diagonals into a wooden crossbeam of the ceiling. Slowly, he retracted the wires, until he was hanging from the ceiling as if on a swing. "We can adjust it so the height is perfect for you to stay on your feet."

Levi began to tremble.

"Is it too strange?" Erwin's face was deep red now, almost purple.

Still unable to speak, Levi shook his head. His eyes trailed the man's body, its perfect lines accented by the gear straps. So beautiful. So fucking beautiful. He shrank against the bookshelf.

Erwin's voice softened: "Why don't you come over here?"

Levi's hands balled into fists. He slowly crossed the room, then stood in front of the suspended man, staring at him. "I don't... I've forgotten what to do."

"Start with a kiss." Erwin leaned forward, the movement setting his body into a light swing. He lifted one of Levi's hands, placing it alongside his jaw, then waited.

Forcing himself past his shyness, Levi leaned forward. Their lips skimmed. He pulled back and stared at the placid gaze, the drooping eyelids. This beautiful man, he thought, leaning forward again. He's doing this for me. All for me. He groaned into another kiss, pressing more firmly this time.

Slowly, tentatively, Erwin's arms brushed the side of his body, then wrapped around him, pulling him in. Their kiss deepened, low moans passing between them. Levi's fingers skated down the man's back, feeling the leather harness, bare skin, the fuzz of his ass. It was unbelievable, months of fantasy come to life. The kiss broke as he rested his forehead against Erwin's, breathing in.

"This can't be real," he whispered, unaware the words were forming until they had already slipped from his mouth.

"This is real, just like the heat that's glowing between our bodies." Erwin laid his hands on either side of Levi's face. "Like that beautiful, tortured expression on your face. Like the fabric of your pants straining and twitching, before I've even touched you. This is real, and it's all for you, Levi. Whatever you want from me is yours."

"Fuck, look at you." Levi pulled away to look him up and down, lightheaded. "Holy shit, Erwin, look at you." He lunged forward, kissing him so hard that he felt teeth dig into his lips. All four limbs wrapped around him this time, and he could feel the weightlessness of the man's body, the twisting counter-motion of each movement. He ran his fingers down Erwin's back, feeling the subtly shifting core muscles that held him upright. His hand slid down to the tailbone, then lower.

He tore his mouth away. "Lube?"

"Inner jacket pocket," said Erwin, breathing hard.

Levi pushed away, leaving his Commander gently swinging, as he hurried to the bathroom. The jacket hung on the back of the door. His hands were so clumsy that it took several tries to unzip the inside pocket. At last, his fingers curled around the small bottle. He took a deep breath, then stepped toward the door.

Erwin's eyes met his. His arms were raised above his head, gripping the wires in a casual pose. Levi studied the muscled arms, his gaze tracing the triceps into his armpit, across his chest, down his abdomen.

"You're already hard," he said, trying to sound casual.

"Because I'm enjoying how you're reacting to this so far."

Levi set the lubricant on the floor next to Erwin, then walked over to far wall. He pulled off his jacket and laid it neatly on the dresser. His hands rose to his throat, and he began to untie his cravat - he didn't put much thought into it, at first, but then he noticed the Commander watching him. He slowly slid the cravat off his neck, letting his head loll a little. Erwin's lips parted a crack.

Levi slowly unbuckled his 3DMG, not bothering to disassemble it properly, and let the harnesses slide off his shoulders and hips. He set the entire apparatus neatly against the wall, his boots beside it, then turned his back and began to unbutton his shirt. When he lifted his half-buttoned shirt over his head, purposefully showcasing his back muscles, he heard a sharp intake of breath behind him. He looked back over his shoulder.

Erwin was still slowly swinging on the wires, arms over his head, but now his knuckles were white. His head was tilted, and he looked down his nose at Levi, as if scrutinizing him; it might have been insulting if he hadn't worn such an awed expression.

Fuck, that's hot. Somehow, he was managing to look seductive and seduced all at once. Levi studied him for several seconds, committing the image to memory.

Remembering himself, he removed his pants and everything beneath them in one movement. He dropped them sloppily on the dresser, too impatient to fold them.

Then, he marched up to Erwin, caught his face with both hands, and pulled him in for a kiss.

Once again, he found himself torn between violence and tenderness. A part of him wanted to take Erwin hard, but the other wanted to linger, to let his body communicate the words he was still too shy to say. After the aggression of their encounter in Erwin's office the night before, he was leaning more towards being gentle. He began to kiss along the man's neck, connecting each kiss with his tongue, and he heard a low hum in response.

Erwin's hand fell between their bodies, wrapping around both of them and slowly pumping. The heat, the intimacy and the motion were overwhelming, and Levi took a shuddering breath. It felt amazing, but he had something else in mind.

"Your ass is clean?"

"Of course." Erwin bent forward and gently nipped at his lower lip.

"Good." Levi eased Erwin's hand aside and began to kiss a line down his chest, then across his hip. The bulk of the 3DMG got in his way, so he paused his attention to walk around to the man's back. He had planned to kneel down behind him, but he paused.

"If you're strapped in," he said, "then I can do this." He grabbed the straps on the back of Erwin's thighs and lifted his ass to face level.

Erwin gave a surprised gasp as his front end tipped. His palms slapped against the floor, supporting his upper body.

"You okay?" Levi hoisted a thigh over each shoulder.

The only response was a whispered, "Shit."

Levi buried his face between the round muscles, taking a deep breath. The idea of doing this act creeped him out if he thought about it too much, but that first breath always changed his mind. There was a powerful concentration of pheromones here that tapped into a deep, animal side of himself, filling him with desire, leaving no room for hesitation. His hands curled into the muscled flesh, pulling it apart, his face pressing deeper.

At the first touch of his tongue, Erwin cried out, a powerful contraction waving through his muscles. Levi grunted and pushed closer. That's it. Be loud for me.

For several minutes, he let his ears guide him, listening for the little gasps and moans leaving Erwin's lips. When he began to hear whispered curses, he knew it was time to press deeper with his tongue. He leaned into it, feeling the man begin to writhe, but the suspension gave him no traction. Levi easily held him in place.

The realization dawned on Levi out of nowhere, his eyes snapping open: he can't see my face from this position.

He remembered the man's breakdown in this room, not too long ago. Was he better off interrupting their momentum to suggest they change position? Or should he wait until the man spoke up? It wasn't as if they had seen each other's faces the night before, when Levi had been under the desk. Maybe he doesn't need to anymore?

Erwin groaned and bucked up against his face, and Levi's eyes fluttered closed. He pulled back far enough to say,

"Say my name."

He meant it as a way to check in on Erwin, to make sure he wasn't confused, or falling into past memories, but when his strangled name left Erwin's lips, Levi's head spun.

"Again," he said, for selfish reasons this time.

"Oh fuck," gasped Erwin, his voice rising in pitch. "Levi."

He had heard his name thousands upon thousands of times in his life, and it had never sounded as good as it did in that moment. He buried his face into the warm flesh, probing aggressively with his tongue, swept away by the sound. The way he said my name, oh fuck. He's dressed only in his gear and his ass is in my face and he's crying my name.

"Fuck!" Levi tore his face away and squatted down, fumbling for the lubricant. I need to be inside him. His hand closed over the bottle.

He pulled Erwin's thighs off his shoulders, setting him upright. He coated two fingers with the liquid, then traced the same circle his tongue had been making moments earlier. Stepping in close, he began to kiss the back of Erwin's neck.

"Go in," breathed Erwin.

Levi slid one finger inside him, and he felt a shudder ripple through the broad back. He's sensitive today. His free arm wrapped around Erwin's waist, holding him in place.

The Commander's hips tilted back. "Another."

Levi complied, then pressed deeper. He knew he had found the right spot when Erwin's entire body went rigid, and he breathed, "Motherfucking Sina." This time, he didn't seem to notice the religious curse, and Levi didn't dare bring attention to it.

After a few minutes of teasing, Erwin seemed to have lost the ability to speak altogether, and Levi was confident he was ready. He pulled away and found a handkerchief from the drawer, using it to wipe his fingers. For good measure, he dumped some lubricant into his palm and began to coat himself with it, circling around to Erwin's front. The man's face was red, his eyes open a crack, his mouth slack and panting. Levi leaned in to press a kiss to the tip of his nose.

"Put your knees on my shoulders."

Erwin complied, his movements sluggish. Levi helped him into place, gauging the angle.

"Lengthen the wires by about two, three centimeters."

Erwin nodded, adjusting the gear. Once their heights were aligned, Levi began to press into him.

He was almost to the hilt, when Erwin suddenly cried out. His head tossed back, his spine arching. On reflex, Levi's hand snapped out and caught him by the strap across his chest, saving him from pitching right back into the floor.

"Erwin?"

"The angle," gasped Erwin.

"You mean this angle?" Levi slowly pulled out again, then pushed in, and received another cry in response. "Does that feel good?"

"Yes, it-" Erwin covered his face with his hands as Levi gave another slow thrust. "Fuck!"

Every hair on Levi's body stood on end, his skin burning. He ached to push harder, but these reactions were worth milking. He moved so slowly that he ached, relishing the cry near the end of each stroke.

"Faster," said Erwin, his voice strained.

"No, I think I'm going to keep it slow." Still holding him upright with one hand, Levi ran the other one down the man's body, carefully skirting any areas that might get him closer to release. His temples were tight, his ears ringing, as he struggled against his urge to pick up speed.

Erwin groaned, his hand reaching between his legs, but Levi knocked it away.

"I'm close." The tone was desperate, almost begging.

"I can see that." Levi slowed his thrusts even more. "Look at me, Erwin."

"I can't."

"I want to see your face."

"I can't, I..." The word was swallowed by a groan, his back arching even more.

Levi gripped the bolo tie, tugging on it. "Lift your head and I'll go faster."

With deep, shuddering groan, Erwin lifted his head. His brows formed a peak, his lips flared in an 'O', and his eyes were unfocused.

"Holy shit," whispered Levi, and he found himself thrusting faster.

"Oh fuck." The man reached for his groin again, but Levi, once again, knocked his hand away.

"Levi, please, I need to come." For all his size and muscle, he seemed small, helpless, and Levi felt his eyes roll toward the back of his head. He grunted, fighting to stay in control. Look how vulnerable he'll be for you. Look how much he trusts you, loves you.

"Levi!" Erwin began to counter-thrust against the air, his head tilting back again. "Oh shit, I'm going to come."

Levi's eyes flew open. "Really?"

"Oh fuck!" Erwin's body went rigid, his knees squeezing Levi's neck, his chest and abdomen tightening. A shudder rippled through him, his cries escalating, and for the first time, Levi watched his body orgasm unhindered, no hand or mouth in the way. The sight was so beautiful that the moment it ended, Levi fell forward, pressing his mouth to the damp flesh of the man's abdomen.

"Oh fuck, Erwin." He wasn't close to orgasm yet, but he felt a shiver ripple through him anyway, a single sympathy wave.

For a moment, they were still. Levi experimentally gave another thrust, and this time, the shudder that rippled through Erwin wasn't a pleasant one.

"Too sensitive?" Levi kissed a nipple.

"Shit." Erwin lifted his head, running a hand through his hair. "I'm sorry, I didn't think I could orgasm without being touched."

"You're apologizing? That was hot as hell. Fuck."

"But you didn't come," said Erwin, running a knuckle along his jaw.

"There are other ways to get me off. You could fuck me with your fingers."

Erwin looked up at him, eyes wide, and Levi didn't blame him. The words had surprised him, too. Where did that come from? He had cleaned himself carefully just in case, but he hadn't expected to want to act on it.

"Look," he said, shrugging it off, "you just made yourself completely vulnerable to me and let me do something I've always wanted to do, so I'll do the same to you. That's all there is to it." His mind was spinning around the idea: Erwin's fingers inside me, his gaze on me, teasing me, waiting. Why does that idea seem so hot right now?

But then again, a lot of things were hot right now that shouldn't be, like the mess on their abdomens, the sweat trailing down Erwin's temple. He felt as if he were drunk, all his inhibitions stripped away. Hell, it wasn't even bothering him that his pants were crumpled on the dresser. He pulled out.

"Where do you want to be?" asked Erwin.

"On the bed."

"Then I should disengage." Erwin pressed his feet to the ground and stood, then retracted the gear anchors. The instant he was no longer supported, his legs buckled.

"Easy there," said Levi, catching him and holding him up.

"Bit weak in the knees."

Was that just post-orgasm weakness, or a result of pushing too hard on the proposal? Levi felt a flicker of worry, and tried to cover it: "Guess I fucked you too hard."

"Just hard enough, I'd say." Erwin pulled away, still a bit unsteady, and removed the gear, leaving his harnesses on. He bent down to pick up the bottle, then paused on his way up to kiss Levi's forehead. "Let's move to the bed."

For a few minutes, they sat on the edge of the mattress, kissing each other's mouths and necks. Levi wondered if it was obvious that he was stalling. He found himself wishing Erwin would be more aggressive; otherwise, this might never happen.

Finally, his patience wore out. He nipped at the man's earlobe. "Are we going to do this, or what?"

Erwin pulled back to study him. "Tell me what you need, Levi."

"I need to not make any decisions."

After a moment, Erwin said, "Lie on your back."

He obeyed. Erwin settled between his legs; he ran a hand down the side of Levi's face, then trailed it down his neck, then his arm. He gripped the wrist and moved it, pressing Levi's hand and groin together, then wrapped the fingers into place.

"We overwhelmed you with too much stimulation last time, so let's keep this simple," he said. "I want you to touch yourself slowly. Let me know if you need me to slow down or stop." He kissed his navel, then pulled back to douse his finger in oil.

Now that Levi knew what to expect, the first touch wasn't as jarring as it had been the first couple times. He spread his legs further apart to make it easier on Erwin, pulling his knees a bit closer to his chest. This would probably be easiest if he was on all fours, but he wasn't ready to expose himself so brazenly just yet. Still, the mattress was soft and saggy, and he could tell the angle was awkward.

"Here." He grabbed a pillow and put it under his ass, tilting his hips up. He had only been thinking about making access easier for Erwin, but now he realized, too late, that the movement had put him on display. Erwin's gaze drifted to his finger and held, and Levi's face burned.

"Is it okay?" he asked, worried that something unsightly might be holding the Commander's attention.

"Yes." Erwin's finger traced a small circle; his other hand slid down Levi's hamstrings, then cupped his ass. His face was relaxed, the corners of his lips curled in a tiny hint of a smile. "How is it so far?"

"Not bad." Levi closed his eyes, focusing on the sensation. "Kind of tickles a bit." He idly began to tug at himself, just enough to keep himself hard.

"Shall I try going in?"

He shrugged. "Yeah."

His muscles relaxed more easily this time, at first, but then Levi began to panic. Is it easier because we stretched my asshole? What if we keep doing this regularly? Am I going to start shitting myself all the time? He knew the thoughts were ridiculous - he'd been doing this with partners for half his life, and they'd never had any problems like that - but his own body was different. It needed to be pristine, untouched, clean. His eyes flew open. "Erwin-"

The finger had already frozen in place; his tension must have been obvious. Placid blue eyes focused on him. "Need me to stop?"

"Just wait a moment." Levi took several deep breaths. He tried to focus on whatever had driven him to request this in the first place, and found himself remembering how excited Erwin had been after their last attempt. "Why do you like doing this?" he asked, latching onto the idea.

Erwin kissed his thigh. "The intimacy of it. I love knowing that you're letting me into an area of your body that's been relatively unexplored. And I must confess I love the sensations - the tightness, the warmth." His voice was gentle, almost soothing, and Levi felt his panic begin to fade.

"Does it turn you on?"

Instead of answering right away, Erwin shifted his position, showing that he was semi-erect. "You know how slowly I recover, and look at me. If I hadn't just come as hard as I did..."

Levi stared, head spinning. "Okay, keep going."

Erwin continued kissing his thigh, slowly pressing deeper. Levi held his gaze, focusing on the thought: this is turning him on, it's turning him on...

Lightning shot through his groin and the inside of his cock, and he gasped.

"There?" asked Erwin.

Levi nodded, holding his breath. It already felt so much different than last time.

"Breathe," reminded Erwin, his voice still gentle. "Would you like me to try a few things so we can see what you like?"

Remembering to take slow breaths, Levi nodded again.

"First, I'm going to try different amounts of pressure. Your body will probably tell me what you like, but don't be afraid to be vocal about it."

"Okay." Levi lay back, giving himself a few more strokes as he waited to feel something different. At first, he was getting that strange full-bladder-like sensation from before, but then there was the lightning sensation again, and it grew into a beautiful ache, almost a hunger. "Oh, shit."

"Like that?"

"Yeah. Fuck." He gave himself a few more strokes, letting his head roll along the pillow.

"You like heavy pressure. I suspected as much. Does it feel good?"

"Yeah, it's not bad." He looked down at Erwin. The man's jaw was rigid, his eyes sharp and focused. He's so fucking into it.

"I'd like to try out some different motions with my finger next," said Erwin, gaze boring through him.

"Sure."

The stimulation began to vary, and Levi felt himself begin to melt under the fiery gaze and the careful attention. His head sagged back to the pillow, and he felt a groan catch in his throat. He held it back, still a bit shy. To his surprise, he was beginning to miss the stretching sensation that had been present up until a minute or two ago.

"Everything okay?" asked Erwin.

"Yeah, why?"

"You're awfully quiet up there."

Levi lifted his head to look at him. Erwin's cheeks were red, his eyelids heavy. "It feels pretty good." I want more, he thought, but his mouth wouldn't form the words.

"Keep going?"

"Yeah."

Erwin kissed a line along his thigh again, his free hand smoothing Levi's abdomen. "I love that you're letting me do this. I love reaching into you like this, being inside you, a part of you."

Levi could relate - he enjoyed doing the same thing for the same reasons. His body was starting to ache for another finger, and he cloaked it in a safe thought: I love that moment when he begs me for more, so I bet he'll love it if I do the same.

"I need..." He was certain his face must be beet red. "Give me another finger."

Erwin's brows peaked. He pulled out and added more oil, then began to gently ease his way in again.

This time, Levi felt that stretch, that glorious stretch, and he couldn't hold back a groan. "Fuck!"

"Still okay?" asked Erwin, arousal gravelling his voice, and Levi felt a shiver run through his body. He's so fucking turned on by this, he's so fucking into it... He forced himself to lift his head again.

"Are you hard, Erwin?"

"Yeah." Even the man's gaze was hard, staring at him with the piercing intensity he wore when he was close to orgasm. He pushed the fingers to the same depth as before.

Levi's head fell back with a moan. His skin was sensitive and tingling, his muscles glowing. "Shit." I want more, he realized, and the thought shocked him.

"Don't forget about this." Erwin gripped his wrist and moved it in a jerking motion.

Levi's breath came in blasts as he followed the man's lead, moving his hand. Pressure was already beginning to build inside him; he let out a cry to vent it, but it built again immediately after, worse than before. He forced his eyes open a crack so he could see the fixation on Erwin's face.

"Shit! Erwin-"

"Come on." The fingers pressed harder, almost crossing the border into pain, and Levi felt his limbs begin to tense.

He had heard of full-body orgasms, had given many to others, but had never experienced one for himself until now. The pleasure rippled through his limbs and digits, then back to centre, his stomach muscles contracting in waves that lifted his upper body off the bed. He was vaguely aware that he was yelling, but he couldn't hear it over the blood rushing in his ears. When it finally began to ebb, he forced his eyes open and, seeing the awe on Erwin's face, found he still had a few contractions left.

Then it was over, and every muscle slackened at once. He fell back to the mattress, breathing hard.

"Levi," breathed Erwin, and he began to frantically kiss Levi's thigh, his knee, his abdomen.

Levi's eyes cracked open as he watched Erwin work his way up his body, and then the frantic mouth was mashing into his, the angle hurting his bruised nose, but he barely felt the pain. Erwin rolled him onto his side so they were facing each other, limbs wrapping around each other, tongues sliding together.

Then the Commander pulled away, breathing hard. Mussed blond hair hung in his face, his cheeks and lips were rosy, and his eyes were glassy.

"You aren't going to start crying, are you?" asked Levi.

Erwin laughed - not his usual reserved chuckle, but an honest, uncensored laugh. "Levi, you're smiling."

"I'm not," he retorted, but he could feel that he was.

Erwin's thumb ran across his lower lip. "I've never seen you smile like this."

"Yeah, well I've never heard you laugh like that. I guess that's what happens when we fuck each other's brains out." Levi ran a hand down the man's chest. The hair was damp, and he vaguely wondered if it was sweat or other bodily fluids.

"So, it was better this time around?" asked Erwin.

"You don't have to interview me every time we mess around, you know. It's creepy. Like you've got some Levi-fucking strategy you're fine-tuning."

"Maybe I am." Erwin kissed his forehead. "We're going to miss dinner if we don't get back to the base soon. I can show you how to use my shower - I'm sure you're anxious to get cleaned up."

"Thanks," said Levi, surprised to discover that he wasn't. He glanced at the crumpled clothes he had left on the dresser, but felt only mild annoyance, not his usual need to straighten them. The discarded feather duster was still bothering him, however, lying out of place on the floor. The dust was probably settling back into place on the bookshelves, too. He shivered."One of these days, I'm going to clean this place for you."

"If you like. Maybe we could do some sort of paperwork-for-cleaning labour trade." Erwin pulled him in for one last kiss, then stood. "Come on, we should get moving."

.*.*.*.

After a hastily eaten dinner, even hastier packing, and some careful revisions, Erwin was ready to leave for the Capital.

As the city clock tower rang ten o'clock, he knocked on Levi's door under the guise of seeking help with his luggage. Levi yanked him into the room and closed the door. They shared a long, deep kiss; Erwin slowly rubbed the man's biceps, memorizing the way he tasted and felt.

Then Levi leaned against his chest, wrapping his arms around him. "You going to jerk off a lot while you're gone?"

Erwin chuckled and kissed the top of his head. "I'm not sure I'll have the time or the privacy. If I do, I'll certainly be recalling the way you looked writhing on the bed this afternoon." His throat tightened. "I'm going to miss you, Levi."

"Shut up. It's only a couple days." Levi's arms tightened around him. "Don't let Sahlo push you around."

"I'll do what I can." He paused. "I'm afraid the driver is waiting for me, and our schedule is tight."

"Fine." Levi pulled away. "Where's your luggage?"

They loaded the carriage, and, with other eyes on them, exchanged a formal nod.

"Good luck with the squad selections," said Erwin stiffly.

Levi shrugged. "See you in a few days."

Their gaze held for a moment longer, then Erwin stepped into the carriage and closed the door.

Though the long carriage ride would have been more entertaining with Levi present, he still managed to make it productive: first, he was putting finishing touches on his proposal, then he was practicing his presentation, and finally, he slept. His body was still catching up on all the sleep he had missed; he didn't awaken until the carriage came to a full stop in front of the military barracks.

"We were a bit delayed in Stohess, sir," said the driver. "I'm afraid you don't have much time to spare before your appointment."

Erwin thanked him, but his stomach twisted. He hastily dropped off his luggage in the spare room he was borrowing, then took a minute to check his appearance in the mirror. Grabbing his files, he hurried to the door.

When he arrived at the parliament building, he was surprised to find Lord Sahlo waiting for him in the lobby.

"Commander Erwin," said the lord, the words accompanied by a surprisingly pleasant expression. They shook hands. "How was your trip?"

"Unexpectedly rushed," said Erwin.

"What an oddly specific response," said Sahlo, his grin showing that he knew full well what the response really alluded to. "As agreed, I am fully prepared to back your proposal today. I trust you were able to put something together, and you won't make both of us look like asses?"

"That remains to be seen. The timeframe was significantly shorter than usual."

"Then I suppose today will either make or break our business relationship." He clapped a hand to Erwin's shoulder. "I want you to join me for drinks once this meeting is over. We have much to discuss."

He's trying to show me that he's the one in control here. The more interactions they shared, the less confident Erwin became. He had to find a way to tip the balance back in his favour. "I'll see if I can make time in my schedule."

"I'd recommend that you do." Sahlo nodded at him. "Follow me. Everyone's waiting on you."

Did he just stall me to try to make it look as if I were running late? Erwin frowned, unimpressed.

As he entered the meeting room, he saluted Supreme Commander Zackly, who nodded at him. Four other lords were seated at the table, two of them new faces. One was presumably Lobov's new replacement, and the other was a middle-aged man with round features and dark hair. Erwin made a note to follow up with his contacts about these two later. He didn't like facing unknown entities.

Aloud, he said, "Thank you, all, for agreeing to meet with me on such short notice."

"Lord Sahlo was insistent that this expedition would change the future of the Survey Corps," said Zackly, raising a brow. Erwin had worked with him enough times to understand what that raised brow meant: Zackly understood that Sahlo was trying to pressure him. Erwin felt himself relax. It would be helpful to have an ally in this meeting.

"Indeed, sir, what I'm presenting to you today is the first phase of the new direction of the Survey Corps." He set two copies of his proposal in the centre of the table, then began to unfold maps and visual aids. "With Lord Sahlo's help, we've obtained a list of abandoned silos outside Wall Rose filled with medical supplies, food rations, weapons and ammunition. The expedition I'm proposing today has a single goal: we will recover as many of these supplies as we can. For some time, we've wanted to build supply bunkers leading up to Wall Maria for a future reclamation effort, but there was always the fear of draining the limited resources located within Wall Rose and Wall Sina. If we repurpose the contents of these silos, as I'm going to propose today, we will be able to make great headway with very little impact to the citizens within the walls."

The Lords stared blankly at him, but Zackly raised a brow. "Oh?"

Erwin smiled. "Why don't I walk you through it?"

.*.*.*.

The presentation went surprisingly smoothly. They broke for lunch, during which the lords gossiped at length about nobles Erwin had never even heard of. After lunch, Erwin fielded their questions, most of them from Zackly. He closed out the meeting with a promise to further humanity's cause and a resounding salute.

As the other lords departed, Zackly pulled him aside. "A bit sloppier than your usual proposals, Erwin, but still a fine job."

"I'm afraid some enthusiastic parties pushed this forward more quickly than I anticipated, sir."

Zackly leaned closer. "I figured as much. Don't worry, it was solid. I don't want to promise anything yet, but I'm confident we'll be able to push this through. Come by my office tomorrow afternoon and we'll discuss. I have a few more questions to consider when it comes to the actual execution of your plan."

Erwin nodded and saluted.

Sahlo was waiting for him in the lobby again. His smile was too broad, his eyes still dead and even. "I must say, I'm a little disappointed with the quality of your proposal, but you seem to have fooled the rest of those assholes. May I treat you to dinner? I have a location in mind that might suit your temperament."

He was still exuding arrogance. Erwin began to regret leaving Levi behind; a good threat might scare him back into place. Maybe dinner would present him with a subtle way to regain control.

Sahlo led him to a carriage, but Erwin shook his head. "We're walking."

"It's quite far."

"I'm sure I can handle it." He wasn't about to get into a carriage and leave himself open to be taken to a random location.

"Have it your way." Sahlo shrugged, and they began to walk. "You don't trust me, do you? You're reading this all wrong, Commander. I've taken a genuine interest in you, and I've come to realize it's in my best interests if you succeed."

Erwin glanced at him. "I see you're wearing a new hat."

The lord grimaced. "Your guard dog did a number on the old one - what's his name again? The thug from the Underground."

"Levi."

"Levi, that's it. He's loyal, I'll give him that. What does it take to turn a ruffian into a loyal dog in such a short period of time? Surely not blackmail - it's not as if a criminal values his reputation."

"I showed him the bigger world outside the walls," said Erwin, "and I treated him with respect."

"That's it?"

"That's it. Someone who has been kicked around his whole life will respond well to being treated like a human being." He refused to let his face betray even the slightest hint of emotion, even though his heart warmed. It was strange to think about how different their relationship had been back then.

"Hm," said Sahlo. He was silent for a few minutes, then said, "Here we are."

Erwin stepped into the restaurant, surveying the room. The restaurant was surprisingly quiet, and he quickly realized why: a chess board sat in the centre of each table.

"I overheard Commander Shadis speaking with Commander Pixis a couple years back, saying you were quite the chess player. Everyone was already talking about you then, saying you were going to be a Commander yourself one day." Sahlo slid into a table and wiped his damp brow, out of breath from the walk. "Care to indulge me in a game?"

Erwin sat at the table, eyes fixed on the board. He wants to size me up, determine how threatening my strategic skills are. Should he play for real and intimidate Sahlo, but potentially reveal information about how he operated? Or should he play sloppily and lull him into a false sense of security?

A server approached the table and set a box between them. "Lord Sahlo. Commander. What would you like?"

"Two glasses of red," said Sahlo to a server, "and two chicken pies." He opened the box to reveal chess pieces, then began to arrange them on the chess board. "They say you can learn more from a single game of chess with a man that you can in an entire week's worth of conversation. I thought this would be a good way to get acquainted with each other, Smith - may I call you Smith?"

"I'd prefer Commander or Erwin."

"Odd name, that. Smith. Your file says you spent some time in the City growing up, and yet no family named Smith has ever lived within the inner walls." Still bent over the pieces, Sahlo peered up at him from under the rim of his hat. "Almost. Records do indicate a family named Smith appearing briefly, only to disappear into the Wall Church, never to be seen again. I'm well acquainted with many high-ranking Wallists, and not a single one of them knew you had any ties to them at all. More than that, the name Smith is so common in the outer walls that it's impossible to trace. You're a man without a past, Erwin Smith. Does Supreme Commander Zackly know about the mystery that surrounds you?"

"I believe my years of loyal service speak more loudly for me than my humble roots ever could." Though recalling his sister's visit still made his chest ache, he silently thanked her and his mother for changing their names once they had formally entered the church. Perhaps all those years of his mother's paranoia had been more practical than he had assumed.

"Black or white?" asked the Lord, motioning to the pieces. The first test: did he want the first move?

"White," said Erwin, deciding to present himself as a man who seized every advantage. His goal would be to intimidate Sahlo while underrepresenting his own strategic prowess at the same time.

Sahlo turned the board. "Your move."

Erwin moved a pawn. "What about you, Lord Sahlo? Mitras, born and raised?"

"Ah, Smith, my history is well known. I'd rather talk about you some more." The wine arrived; he took a long sip of one glass, sliding the other across the table. "I know you and Nile go way back, but I get the feeling he has conflicted feelings about you. His words to describe your personality weren't exactly flattering."

"It's still your move."

"Ah, right." The man slid a pawn two squares forward. "How were you able to command the loyalty of Levi within less than a year, but not Nile after more than a decade? Couldn't you show him a bigger world and treat him with respect?"

"Nile has no interest in a bigger world. More than that: we were in love with the same woman long ago, and he never learned how to drop a grudge. A pity, as we were quite close, once." He took a sip of wine, then slid another pawn forward.

"Ah, so you're a ladies' man."

"A bit, at the time. No time for such things any more."

Sahlo held his gaze. "You know that transfer you requested, of three soldiers? Nile wants to make the third one an informant. He's convinced we need to keep an eye on you."

Erwin's blood ran cold. The whole point of the transfer had been to give them an opportunity to spoon-feed information back to Sahlo. Does he know that's what I was doing, or is he just trying to win my trust by backstabbing Nile? "That's unfortunate."

"I think I talked him out of it, but I'd keep an eye on those transfers, if I were you."

The lord's chatter began to fade as the chess game proceeded. Erwin played recklessly, sacrificing pawns and both his bishops to push his advantage. He could tell Sahlo was playing sloppily as well. They ate their food and started second glasses of wine, each turn slowing down as the game progressed.

Erwin had just offered up his second rook, when Sahlo cursed and picked up the board, dumping the pieces on the table. Erwin jumped.

"Stop jerking me around!" growled the lord. There was that temper Erwin had seen when he and Levi had first threatened him. The man's face was red, his teeth bared.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean you're throwing the game on purpose. I don't have time for bullshit." The Lord leaned across the table. "Do you know why I'm supporting you, Smith? It's not because your little show intimidated me. I know people who could end you and everything you've ever held dear, all in the blink of an eye. They can twist a knife into your weak spots and leave you broken and ruined."

Erwin held his face neutral, not even blinking. You don't know anything about me, and you have no way of finding out, so how will you find my weak spots?

For a brief instant, his mind replayed the dream he'd had of a titan-sized Sahlo killing Levi, its face morphing into his own: you play a dangerous game, boy...

He shoved it aside. Nightmares had no place in this strategic setting.

"No, I'm not afraid of you and your ragtag regiment of eager titan feed," continued Sahlo. "The reason I'm going along with your little show is because I see in you ruthlessness, a desire to go to great lengths to get exactly what you want. I also see a brilliant manipulator. You were absolutely right when you said our alliance could benefit each other, and I have big plans for both of us, but only if I can be sure you really are the genius everyone says. So stop holding back, and fucking show me how you play!"

Erwin studied him. "Only if you do the same."

Their gaze held, then Sahlo smiled. "You're sharp, boy. I'll give you that. Very well. I won't hold back, either."

From the opening moves of their new game, Erwin saw a change come over his opponent: his spine straightened, his jaw set, and the fake smile left his lips. There was a startling subtlety to the lord's strategy, a tendency to lay traps like a hunter carefully laying a snare. In spite of himself, Erwin felt his respect for the man begin to grow. He had greatly underestimated the man's intelligence.

Still, like fighting titans, like sparring, every opponent had a weakness, and Erwin excelled at finding them. Soon, Sahlo's became apparent: he showed a strange tendency to favour the right side of the board, using it for his traps whenever the pieces allowed it, and overlooking similar opportunities on the left. The board layout didn't allow Erwin to take advantage of that knowledge yet, but when it did, he would be ready to strike.

As they began their fourth glasses of wine, a crowd began to gather. Lord Sahlo was well known among the locals, and Erwin supposed his own strategic prowess must be becoming well known by now. He was completely immune to spectacle, but Sahlo seemed to be considering the crowd's expressions before he made each move. This, too, provided useful information. Public opinion matters to him. If I want to pressure him in the future, I need to threaten his reputation with the people.

As they entered the endgame, Erwin's body was glowing from the wine, but his mind was sharp. An opportunity began to form: Sahlo was trying to lure him into a checkmate, but in a few more moves, he would leave his own king exposed.

He was noticing another pattern: the Lord always took down strong pieces if given the opportunity. If I use my queen as bait, I can convince him to open up on the left, and then I can take him.

He slid a bishop into position, waiting. Two moves until he checks me.

Next, he positioned his knight. One.

"Check," said Sahlo, smirking. As was Erwin's design, the rook holding him in check was also perfectly positioned to take the queen. The crowd murmured, impressed.

Erwin raked a hand through his hair, faking stress. He took a long sip of wine, then stepped his king out of the way.

Two more moves, and Sahlo could have taken him down, but, as predicted, he went straight for the queen instead, leaving a hole in his defenses.

Erwin advanced with his bishop. "Check."

Sweat ran down Sahlo's temple. His only option was to move his king to the right or the left. Erwin held his breath, waiting. He would go to the right. He always favoured the right. The crowd was murmuring, and Sahlo's gaze darted to them, then back to the board.

The king shifted right.

Erwin moved his knight. "Checkmate."

The crowd began to clap, and Sahlo's crestfallen look told Erwin everything he needed to know: the lord had truly been playing to win. I got a perfect read on him, and he knows it.

The power balance was once again in his favour.

"Damn." Sahlo flicked his king onto its side. "I see the rumours about you weren't an exaggeration." For the first time all day, he looked uncomfortable. He held out his hand. "I look forward to working with you, Smith."

"Commander," corrected Erwin, shaking his hand.

Chapter Text

-18-

Doors

"Excited?" asked Hange.

Levi shrugged. "Not really."

"No? You're dancing in place."

Realizing he was shifting his weight from one leg to the other, Levi frowned and stood tall, folding his arms over his chest. "I just want to know if the proposal went through or not. That blond bastard's kept us waiting long enough." Erwin's one-or-two-day trip to the Capital had turned into five. A message on the second day had stated he was spending time meeting with investors, but Levi didn't believe that was the only delay. Was Sahlo giving him a hard time? Was the proposal encountering difficulties?

The carriage pulled into the yard and stopped. Hange greeted the driver, then rounded the back to start unloading the baggage, but Levi waited.

The door swung open, and his breath caught as Erwin stepped through it.

"Good morning, Levi," he said, the morning sun illuminating the border of his hair like a halo.

Levi scrutinized his face and found no hint of emotion, just his default polite, empty smile. "Been awhile."

"Yes, sorry for the delay - I hope my absence didn't hinder your work. Let's assemble the Squad Leaders after I've finished my breakfast." He squeezed a shoulder as he walked past, the movement so gentle that it was almost a caress, and Levi's blood stirred.

The three of them hauled several bags upstairs.

"Didn't you leave with a single bag?" asked Levi.

"Some of our investors were kind enough to give us supplies for the upcoming mission as gifts of good faith: dried meat, tea, coffee, blankets." They set the baggage against a wall in Erwin's office, and the Commander smiled. "Ah, I see the new couches arrived intact. Good. Hange, please tell Berit and Mike that we'll have an officer's meeting here in approximately twenty minutes. Levi, I'd like you to accompany me to breakfast. I have some information I want to run past you."

"Sir. I'll leave you two to talk." Hange saluted and left the room, giving a wink to Levi before the door closed.

Levi's cheeks burned. He folded his arms over his chest again, staring up at Erwin. He wanted to jump up and wrap all four limbs around the taller man, kissing his lips, chin and neck, but that empty smile was making him hesitate.

"Well?" he said. "You're gone five fucking days and I don't even get a kiss?"

"My apologies, Levi," said Erwin, the fake smile finally relaxing. "I'm desperately pent up. I don't trust myself to kiss you right now without getting carried away, and we have other duties to attend to first."

"Maybe a hug?" asked Levi, not wanting to admit how badly he needed contact.

"If it's brief."

They met in a chaste embrace, only their upper bodies making contact.

Erwin buried his face in the top of Levi's hair. "It's good to see you, Levi."

"Yeah. Good to see you, too." Hearing his name leave those thick, shapely lips made Levi's heart pound. He pressed his cheek to the man's chest, and found a heartbeat racing so fast that it rivaled his own. I guess I'm not the only one who's feeling sentimental.

"It feels as if it's been longer than five days." Erwin dropped his arms and stepped back, and this time, there was kindness in his smile. "The world doesn't stop when we're apart, but it certainly feels lonelier."

"That's a good way to put it."

Erwin straightened a strand of Levi's hair into place, his knuckle tracing down his cheek before pulling away. "Shall we head to breakfast?"

The mess hall was empty save for a cluster of stragglers talking animatedly over empty plates. Erwin helped himself to some oatmeal and Levi poured a cup of tea. They settled at a small table near the back of the room, out of earshot of the other soldiers.

Levi nursed the tea, his third cup that morning. "Did the proposal go through?"

"Yes, yesterday morning. Zackly was on board from the start, and Sahlo, to his credit, was pushing hard on the other representatives. There were a couple unknowns - two new Council members - who took some extra convincing. Sahlo offered to lean heavily on them if needed, but I decided to book extra meetings with them instead to walk them through their concerns. That seemed to do the trick." Erwin's jaw muscle tightened. "I don't want Sahlo doing us too many favours."

Levi studied the tensing jaw line. "Did something happen with that asshole?"

"Yes." Erwin paused to take a spoonful of oatmeal, then continued. "Traditionally, I keep my political schemes to myself, but because you're you, Levi, I'm going to keep you apprised of all my dealings. Anything I tell you is to remain between the two of us." He looked up, the blue eyes kind. "When you're eventually standing beside me as my Captain, I want us to be peers more often than we're superior-subordinate. You have a sharp eye for reading people, and strong short-term tactical instincts. I sometimes think too long-term and lose perspective on the immediate future, so I can benefit from your perspective. You also have an intimate knowledge of the Underground culture, while my understanding of it is only cursory. That's why I need your opinion on a few things I learned about Sahlo."

Levi's brows rose at the unexpected compliments. He had never thought of himself as a tactical person; if anything, he saw himself as a weapon to be aimed. "Okay, go ahead."

Erwin spoke about the meeting in detail, then a chess game at a cafe. "I was confident I had regained the upper hand. The next night, however, I was supposed to meet him at his office to detail future fund delivery. When I arrived in his office, he was accompanied by two escorts. One for him, one for me. A peace offering."

"Escorts," repeated Levi, his stomach dropping as his mind immediately went to the worst-case scenario. He didn't want to offend his new business partner, so he-

"Levi." The Commander leaned closer, his voice lowering. "You know I consider us to be exclusive, right? We haven't spoken about it formally, but I have no desire to be with anyone else - particularly someone who has been bought and traded as if they were a commodity."

"Of course I know that."

"You looked a little worried."

"Why the fuck would I be worried?" asked Levi, his brows dropping. "Keep going. What happened?"

"I politely declined, of course. I can't figure out his angle. Perhaps she was going to physically harm me, or he was setting up future blackmail material, or he was otherwise trying to test me. My concern is the latter - perhaps he was trying to dig up information on the current state of my sex life, or my sexual preferences, or-"

"Or," said Levi, "he's just a pervert who wanted to suck up to you after you defeated him at chess, and you're overthinking the whole thing."

"Ah." Erwin smiled. "I suppose that's possible. Regardless, I noticed a symbol tattooed on the women's ankles, one I've seen around the Underground: a diamond shape split into two triangles, a dot in the centre of the top one."

"Rage," said Levi. "All his affiliates get that tattoo."

"Rage?"

"Rage Klein, one of the Underground kingpins of the sex trade and black market goods."

"I see." Erwin paused. "I assume Rage is a nickname."

"Never thought to ask. Beat him up one time, got the shit kicked out of me by his henchmen another, and that's about all I know about him." Levi studied Erwin's face, trying to guess where the discussion was leading. "Are you thinking he has ties to Sahlo?"

"Maybe. Maybe he just wants me to think he does. Or maybe it's just coincidence that he hired those particular women." Erwin rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I've been trying so hard to think like him over the past few days that I don't know which way is up anymore. Regardless, I'm interested to investigate this a bit to see if there are any ties - the more information I have about him, the easier it will be to keep him in check in the future."

"And you want me to investigate it?" guessed Levi, his heart pounding in his throat. He hadn't been back to the Underground since he had joined the Survey Corps, and now that he was a high-profile soldier, he certainly wouldn't be well-received.

"I'm not sure that will be necessary. I re-established connection with an old contact in the Underground, and I'm thinking of asking her to pursue this lead for me." He side-eyed Levi, a faint smirk on his lips. "Her name is Leona Reid, and she asked me to pass along a hello. Apparently you two go way back?"

"Fuck," muttered Levi, knowing exactly what was coming next.

"She said you owe her a substantial amount of money."

"Of course she did. Did she mention that it was her stupid son's fault I borrowed it in the first place?"

Erwin's eyes twinkled. "The same son you used to date?"

Levi shook his head, lips flattening. "That was years ago."

"Apparently he's married with two adopted kids now, doing quite well for himself in the factories. She thought you might like to know."

"Yeah, great. Maybe she should ask him for her fucking money." Levi shook his head. "Why the hell is she one of your contacts? Do you fake a lot of documents?"

"I do."

The answer surprised him. "Like what?"

"Mostly receipts or invoices." Erwin paused, stirring his oatmeal, then added quietly, "My identification papers."

Levi took a long sip of tea, then set the cup on the table. "You don't have your original papers?"

"No, my mother destroyed them when we took the name Smith. Once I ran away from home, I needed identification to join the military, so I wandered into the Underground in my best suit, carrying a large sum of money, and started asking around." Erwin shook his head. "I was so sheltered, so naive."

"No kidding. How long did it take before you got mugged?"

"About ten minutes. A group of kids took all the money I had on me. I..." Erwin looked away. "I must have been visibly upset-"

"You were crying," guessed Levi.

Erwin cleared his throat. "I was visibly upset, and Leona happened to see me and take pity on me. She always said I reminded her of her son, something I find interesting now, given your history with him."

"Yeah, so maybe I have a type," muttered Levi.

"Then I'm fortunate I match it. At any rate, her help all those years ago started a working relationship that has continued to this day." He paused. "What's your take on her, Levi? Is she trustworthy?"

"Yeah, she's good."

"Glad to hear it. At some point, I should walk you through all my contacts and get your opinion on their reliability. At any rate, I'm thinking of getting her to trace Sahlo's movements around this Rage fellow. Not too soon, of course. We can't discard the possibility that Sahlo's trying to bait me so he can track my contacts."

He sounded fatigued. The black eye was almost unnoticeable now, but both his eyes were shadowed and sunken.

"You didn't get enough sleep while you were gone, did you?" asked Levi quietly.

"No, I probably didn't."

"Why are you so worried about him? He's just one lord. Isn't there a whole panel of them approving expeditions?"

Erwin lifted another spoonful of oatmeal to his lips, taking the time to chew it before continuing. "Remember Lobov? He was just one man, and a less crafty one than Sahlo, but he still managed to erode Survey Corps support. Sahlo has more connections and greater intelligence; if left unchecked, he could spell the end of our entire regiment. I have to control him now, before he manages to gain control of the entire government while our backs are turned."

His voice was so gravelly that Levi wished he could reach over and grip his hand. "You wanted my take on all this, right? I think you need to take a week to get your head on straight. You've been trying so hard to think like him, from every angle, that you're getting paranoid. So maybe he's smarter than you expected - he's still not smarter than you. Don't think too much and end up overestimating him. You'll tie yourself in knots."

Erwin smiled. "I suppose you're right. I'll take some time to let all this simmer in the back of my mind. I just have one last question for you: say Sahlo was involved with Rage Klein. What sort of dealings might that mean?"

Levi shrugged. "He might just be a regular solicitor of the sex workers, but it's possible he could be using his shipping business to ship Rage's goods. Drugs would be a good guess – when I was running drugs, most of the clients were nobles, so I wouldn't be surprised if Sahlo had his hands in them. Rage hates my guts, but I know a few people close to him who might be able to look into it from the dealing end." He noticed the Commander was staring at him. "What?"

"I didn't realize you were involved in the drug trade."

"Oh. Shit." Levi's stomach dropped; that was a detail about his past he hadn't ever wanted to reveal. "Look, I was young when I got to the Underground, and I only had the clothes on my back. I needed money fast, and my options were drugs or selling my body, and I was more than happy to give away my body for free, so that only left one option. I broke away as soon as I could afford it."

Erwin was looking at him with something close to pity, and Levi's jaw clenched. This was exactly why he hadn't ever wanted to bring it up. He didn't want to think of the look he'd see on that face if he revealed he had, for a short while, been in the habit of sampling his own merchandise. Or maybe Erwin already knew. It didn't take a genius to guess that a kid on the streets looking to forget his past might spend a few months dabbling in self-medication before he came to his senses.

He shrugged it off. "The point is, you can use my contacts, too, if you need to."

The pitying look faded. "Thank you, Levi. We don't need to follow up on this just yet, but it's good to know there are options for the future."

"Yeah." Levi frowned, lost in his memories. There had been one other option available to him when he had first arrived in the Underground: mercenary work. He would have been good at it, but it was also exactly what he was running from. No, he had wanted to escape his past, smothering it beneath every bit of pleasure he could cram into each day. Looking back now, it had been a dark period of his life, but maybe all that misbehaviour had kept him alive – maybe it had helped him through the worst days of his escape, giving him moment-to-moment reprieve until his feet found the ground again. He was glad he had come out of it sober, disease-free and relatively unscathed.

"Levi?"

He looked up. The blue eyes were still boring through him.

"I'm glad we met when we did," said Levi. "I was in a dark place for a few years there."

"I sometimes wonder," said Erwin quietly, "what would have happened if I had met you earlier, if you had entered the military at the usual age. Would it have saved you any pain? Or was that pain necessary in order to hone you into the man you are today?"

Isabel and Farlan would still be alive, thought Levi, but he shoved the thought aside. "There's no point second-guessing it. You're overthinking things again. What happened, happened, and things turned out okay." Under the table, his booted foot found Erwin's.

"I suppose it did."

Levi's voice lowered: "And by the way, of course we're exclusive, you idiot."

Erwin's boot slid against his. "I didn't want to presume."

"You think I let just anyone do the kind of stuff you do to me?"

"Well, last time we tried to define what we were, you seemed a bit hesitant," said Erwin.

"Only because the word 'boyfriend' is too childish, 'lover' is too dramatic, and 'partner' is too businesslike." Levi's cheeks darkened.

Erwin leaned in, a mischievous grin on his face. "How about soul mates?"

Levi's nose wrinkled. "No."

"Sweethearts?"

"Erwin-"

"Passionate life mates?"

"Knock it off." Levi kicked his ankle. "We're just us. We don't need a word for it. It's not like we need to define it for anyone, anyway."

"I suppose you're right." Erwin's smile softened, his look so loving that Levi looked down.

"Knock that off, too. You're going to give us away, looking at me like a fucking sap." Levi nodded his nose at him, pretending his heart wasn't pounding in his chest. "Finish your damned oatmeal."

While Erwin ate, Levi filled him in on the squad recruitment progress. Most of the recruits had been successfully assigned to squads, with only a few stragglers remaining. Mike still wanted a chance to sniff out each of the recruits once his nose healed - "I have no idea how we're going to convince them to let him do it, but he's insisting, so there's still a little shuffling that might go on."

The next step was going to be working with Erwin to break the new squads into teams and assign them to part of the overall formation. "You're back just in time. We should be ready to start that tomorrow."

"Good." Erwin scraped the bowl with his spoon, gathering the last bit of oatmeal, then lifted it to his lips. Once he had swallowed, he said, "It's about time for our debrief. Shall we return to my office?"

As they stood, Levi watched him. There was that cold expression again. It was still strange to him, the way the man switched between business and pleasure, as if there were two men living within the same body. When we win this war, will he be able to turn off that serious side, or will it always be there?

The other Squad Leaders were waiting for them when they arrived. The three new couches had been arranged to form a square with Erwin's desk. Hange and Berit shared one, and Mike's enormous frame was slung over the second. Levi sank onto the third, folding his arms over his chest.

The Commander pulled several papers out of his bags, then settled to a seat at his desk. "Thank you, all, for your patience during my absence. The good news is that the expedition has been approved. The bad is that we have only four weeks to prepare our new squads. I'll be working with you over the next few days to solidify our formation. In the meantime, I want to bring your attention to our route." He handed a stack of papers to Levi, who took one and passed it down. "Keep in mind that this is only a draft; our scouting party will come back with information about terrain and titan activity, at which point I'll be revisiting the route. They'll also be scouting out the two abandoned checkpoints we'll be using as bases."

Erwin leaned forward, folding his hands on the desk as he continued. "Because there's a lot of ground to cover, I want to send out two Squad Leaders and have them each part ways during the day to check out the silos, then rendezvous back at the checkpoints each night. I expect it will take you about a week to cover the entire route, so speed is of utmost importance. Because of this, I'll ask each of you to take only two teams with you - enough to have backup if you encounter strife, but small enough to be mobile."

Levi ran a hand through his hair, his body tensing. It was going to be difficult to scout with all-new squads, but he was ready for the challenge. He recalled how dull and slow the titans were, the ones he had seen from his vantage point on the tower last time around; they were just dumb, giant meat-sacks.

"Hange," said Erwin, "I know you've been wanting an excuse to start making observations, and your squad's defensive capabilities will be useful at the checkpoints. I want you to lead one of the scouting teams."

Hange sat upright, visibly vibrating. "Sir!"

Mike and Levi exchanged a look. We're the two scouting teams, thought Levi, his brow furrowing. Erwin, what are you doing?

"As for the other team," said Erwin, "Berit, I want you to bring your most skilled fighters."

Silence settled over the room, so thick it was almost suffocating.

Levi was the first to find his breath. "Berit?"

Erwin's eyes fixed on him. "You have a question, Levi?"

The gaze was powerful; Levi set his jaw, refusing to be intimidated. "Mike and I are your scouting squads."

"Mike is at a severe disadvantage until his nose heals, and your squad is still new. Berit's squad has, more or less, been intact since before you even joined the Survey Corps. She knows her soldiers' strengths and weaknesses better than anyone in this room, so she's in the best position to build suitable teams for this mission."

"Erwin." Berit's face was pale, her eyes wide. "I'm a defensive squad. I've always been a defensive squad. If Mike's not an option, then send Levi."

"Levi hasn't completed a single mission with a squad at his command."

"Neither has Hange. Besides, you know he's got good battle instincts."

The Commander eyed her, then the rest of them, one at a time. "Any other thoughts?"

Mike shrugged. "I'll trust your decision."

"I won't," said Levi. "Not this time. I should be doing this mission, Erwin, and you know it."

The icy gaze shifted to him, and Levi saw a familiar flicker of fear. He tried to remember where he had seen it before, then his eyes narrowed: Erwin had looked at him this way when they were first talking about their squad types. Was he trying to protect Levi? Hadn't the whole point of their relationship been that it wouldn't interfere with their fight against the titans? Anger began to rise in his chest. The whole reason I trust you is that you don't make stupid decisions like this.

"I want Levi with me," said Hange. "I'd want Berit with me on a full expedition, definitely, but if we're scouting, we don't need support; we need speed and offense. Especially if we get penned in at the checkpoint."

"Exactly." Berit folded her arms over her chest, leaning back into the couch. "You of all people should know this makes sense, Erwin. Didn't you start out on a scouting squad?"

The Commander stared at Levi again, and Levi steeled himself, refusing to duck his eyes. Listen to us, you asshole.

"Very well. Your reasons are sound." Erwin looked down and tapped his stack of papers against the desk to align them. "Hange and Levi will lead the scouting teams. Once the squad selections have been finalized, I'll touch base with the two of you with more details about what your tasks will entail. With that out of the way, shall we finish off the squad interviews? I understand you're nearly through the list of candidates."

As they began the interviews, Levi folded his arms tightly over his chest, seething. Erwin wouldn't look him in the eye, even when they broke for lunch, even when Levi tried to get his attention. By the time they wrapped up the last interviews, the dinner bell was about to ring, and Levi was fuming.

The other Squad Leaders stood.

"You going to come to dinner?" asked Hange.

Erwin became busy with aligning a stack of papers again. "I'm afraid my time in the Capital has shifted my appetites to a much later dinner time. I have some paperwork to take care of, anyway."

"Levi?"

"In a minute. Go ahead without me."

He waited until the others had left, then marched to the door and locked it for privacy. When he returned, he slammed his palms on the desk. "What the hell is going on with you?"

Erwin slid the papers inside a file. "We'll discuss it later."

"No, we'll discuss it now."

A thick brow rose as Erwin's gaze finally met his own. "Watch your tone, Levi. You're speaking to a commanding officer."

"No, I'm speaking to you, Erwin Smith - the man, not the Commander. First you make a shitty-ass decision, and now you won't even look me in the eye?"

There was a long pause, then Erwin said softly, "I'm embarrassed."

The answer was so unexpected that Levi pulled back. "Embarrassed?"

"I made you swear up and down that a relationship between us wouldn't interfere with our goals, and I'm the one who screwed that up, only a couple weeks in." His eyes searched Levi's. "I'm a Commander now - I can't put everything at risk for love the way I did when I was young and foolish. I thought my reasoning was sound, that I was keeping you out of harm's way for the good of humanity, but it's clear, in retrospect, that my bias was twisting my logic. That cannot happen. Ever."

A lump was forming in Levi's throat; he swallowed it and marched over to Erwin's side of the desk so he could loom over him. "Well, when you fuck up, don't take it out on me. You promised you'd try not to shut me out."

Erwin stood and drew him into an embrace.

Levi's eyes closed and he sank against the man's chest, holding him tightly. "Asshole."

"I'm sorry." A hand slowly rubbed up and down Levi's back, soothing him. "I know you're capable, but after what happened on the last mission, I'm more worried than I like to admit. Promise me you'll come back safely."

"You think I'm going to die on a shitty little scouting mission? When I go, it's going to be in a blaze of glory, not-" He stopped when he felt a lump forming in the front of the man's pants. "Really, Erwin? When I'm talking about my death?"

Erwin cleared his throat. "It's from our proximity, not your words. Like I said, I'm desperately pent up."

Levi's body began to stir. He'd been thinking about their reunion for days, planning to push his own comfort levels to give Erwin a 'welcome home' surprise. Still, feeling that lump pressing against his belly, he found himself too impatient. He needed something quick and familiar. The new, complex stuff could wait a few hours.

"Is your ass clean?" he asked.

"Should be, though I certainly wouldn't recommend using your mouth. If you want me to go bathe to be sure-"

"No, fuck it. Your room or mine?" He gripped Erwin's collars and drew him down for a long kiss. A groan slid between them, and he felt teeth gently close over his tongue.

Erwin tore his mouth away. "You locked the door, right?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"There's lubricant in the top left-hand drawer." Erwin bent in for another kiss, then whispered, "Take me over the desk."

He didn't need to ask twice. Levi rotated Erwin to face the desk, then pressed a hand to the man's back, shoving him face-down. He began to unhook the man's harnesses, then paused to find the lubricant. "When did you put this here?"

"After you went down on me, I couldn't stop thinking about having sex here." Erwin's voice was soft and ragged. "Don't bother with fingers first. Go right in."

"Yeah?" Levi pulled down the man's pants to mid-thigh, revealing his broad, muscular ass. He bit his lip and ran his hands over the fuzzy skin.

"Be rough with me, if you want. I'm still embarrassed from before." Erwin's voice took on a shy tone: "Maybe I need to be punished a little."

Levi felt the urge to groan, but he stifled himself, glancing up at the locked door across the room. There would be people wandering down the hallway at this time of day. That lock wouldn't do them any good if the noises they made could be heard on the other side.

He pulled himself out of his pants and coated himself with a thick layer of lubricant, then gently began to lean into Erwin.

"Fuck," whispered the Commander, his shoulders and neck rounding over the top of the desk.

"You okay?"

"Yes. Keep going. Be rougher, if you want."

"Shit," rasped Levi, working his way deeper. Once he was all the way in, his teeth clenched. He couldn't vent his arousal vocally, so he lightly clapped the man's ass to show his appreciation.

Erwin groaned. "Yes. Harder."

"My dick, or my hand?"

"Both."

"What, you want me to spank you?"

Erwin tightened around him, then paused, as if considering. "It would seem that I do."

"I can't spank you in your office in the middle of the day, dumbass. Someone's going to hear us." Levi began to thrust quickly, but kept the movements shallow and noiseless.

"Fuck," said Erwin, the word more of a whimper than a whisper.

"Be quiet."

"I can't, not when you're-" A groan interrupted the sentence, this one decidedly loud.

"Shit." Levi untied his cravat and looped it around the front of Erwin's face to cover his mouth, gripping either end to hold it taught. "There, bite down on that. If this doesn't work, we're going to have to stop, so you'd better shut up." He began to thrust again.

Erwin's groans were softer this time, the fabric of the cravat catching most of the noise. It was getting harder and harder to keep his movements shallow, but Levi kept his focus. If he started going deeper, the slapping sounds would echo around the room, and who knew how easily sound would carry through the door? One of them had to keep his wits about him.

Erwin gave a muffled cry, his head dropping again, straining the cravat tight in Levi's hands. Levi grunted, struggling to maintain control. Keep it shallow, keep it shallow...

Across the room, the doorknob began to twist.

Levi stared dumbly at it, not comprehending what he was seeing. It's locked. I locked it.

The door swung open, and Berit and Hange stepped into the doorway.

Levi's eyes locked onto them. Stunned, he dropped the ends of the cravat.

Erwin's head snapped up. Both ends of the cravat fell to the table, the middle part presumably still held between his teeth.

"I knew it!" yelled Hange, just as Berit clapped her hand to her mouth and shrieked.

"Fucking knock first," snapped Levi.

"Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck." Berit grabbed Hange, who had begun to laugh, and stepped back into the hallway.

The door closed behind them.

"Shit." Levi pulled free, fumbling to pull up his pants. "Shit!"

Erwin tore the cravat from his teeth and stood, dressing himself as well. "I thought you locked the door."

"I did." Levi strode across the room and opened the door, testing the lock. The knob twisted, but the deadbolt didn't move. "Your fucking lock is broken." He slammed the door.

"You didn't double-check it when you locked it?"

"No, I didn't double-check it, and don't pin this on me. A lock should fucking work!"

"Well." Erwin sank into his chair, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "At least we were mostly clothed and standing on this side of the desk. Do you think they might be convinced we were doing something else?"

"I was fucking riding you like you were a horse and my cravat was the bridle. I don't think they're going to mistake that for anything else."

"Shit."

"Yeah." Levi began to pace. "Now what do we do?"

"The only thing we can do." Erwin sat straighter in his chair. "This was bound to come up eventually. Let's face it head-on. Go find the two of them, and Mike as well, for a brief meeting here."

"What? Why do I have to do it?"

"Because." Erwin's cheeks darkened. "They just saw me gagged by your cravat, and I'm sure my bare rear was visible from the door. At least you were in a less compromising position. I'll do the talking when everyone's here."

Levi sighed. "Fine."

He stormed into the hallway and found Hange and Berit huddled in Berit's office. As he approached, Hange started laughing again.

"Shut up, shitglasses," said Levi. "Both of you, Erwin's office. Now."

Without waiting for them to respond, he turned on his heel. Mike was in the cafeteria, eating a bowl of stew.

"Erwin needs to see you in his office," said Levi.

"Now? I'm still eating."

"Now. Bring it with you."

When he returned to the office, Erwin was leaning against his desk, arms folded defensively over his chest. The cravat and lubricant were nowhere to be seen. Berit sat on the couch, staring fixedly at the floor; Hange sat next to her, gripping the woman's shoulder as if showing support.

Mike stepped into the room carrying his stew.

"Close the door behind you," said Erwin.

"Don't bother trying to lock it." Levi settled against the desk beside the Commander. Erwin cast him a sidelong glance, but said nothing.

Once Mike was seated, Erwin stood tall, his face solemn.

"Thank you, all, for coming. I've asked you here because of an unexpected situation. Two of you are here because you were exposed to something first hand; the other, because you'll become aware of it soon. We had hoped to discuss this on our own terms, but our own careless behaviour has forced us into full disclosure earlier than we would have liked." He paused.

Stop dragging this out, thought Levi. You're just making things worse. Berit was turning purple, presumably from embarrassment.

"We join the Survey Corps with a goal in our minds and in our hearts," said Erwin. "Sometimes, however, the human heart can breed other feelings, feelings that might drown out logic when-"

"Just get it over with," said Levi. He turned to the group. "We're fucking."

Berit buried her face in her hands, but Hange only smirked. Mike's expression didn't change.

Erwin cleared his throat. "What Levi is trying to say is that feelings have blossomed between us, and what you saw was us expressing-"

"Please stop. We get it." Berit finally lifted her head. "Is it even legal for a Commander to fuck one of his subordinates?"

"Well," said Hange with twinkling eyes, "technically, Levi was the one doing the fucking, right? The Commander himself seemed to be in the receptive position, some sort of gag-"

"Stop," said Berit, rocking in her seat. "I'm trying to forget that image." She suddenly stopped rocking, looking down at the couch cushion beside her. "Oh fuck, please tell me you haven't done it on the new couches."

"Are you kidding?" said Levi. "Do you know how hard it is to get semen out of upholstery?"

Berit let out a loud, pained groan and covered her face again, and Erwin dropped a hand on Levi's shoulder.

"Perhaps you should stop talking for now, Levi."

Levi shut his mouth and let his gaze trail across the three officers instead. Only Mike seemed to be quiet so far; his hair was hanging in his face, his arms folded over his chest. His meal sat on a side table, forgotten.

"I know we're asking a lot of you by requesting your silence on this matter," said Erwin. "You're correct, Berit: while not outright illegal, this relationship could be considered a conflict of interest, and neither of us is interested in having our feelings put under scrutiny by the courts, especially at this early stage. Furthermore, I have certain political opponents to juggle, and I have no desire to have Levi used against me. If that were to happen, we would all suffer the consequences." He stood tall and reached for Levi's hand, as if they were standing united. "You have my word that our relationship won't interfere with either of our duties. Over time, I hope to prove that to you through our actions."

The three were silent. Levi felt Erwin's palm sweating, but when he looked up, the man's face was as cool as if he were discussing expedition strategy.

"Do you have any questions or thoughts?" asked Erwin. "Hange?"

"I do. Why was Levi the one penetrating? Given your size difference, wouldn't it be more efficient if-"

"That's none of your fucking business," growled Levi, face hot.

Erwin squeezed his hand to silence him. "The way we choose to express our feelings is not up for discussion."

"Okay, then I just want to say I'm happy for you." Hange's face suddenly became solemn. "We live with heavy burdens. You most of all, Commander. People shouldn't have to live every moment in misery, focused on their duties, no matter what sort of strife they face - it's a miserable way to live. I'm glad you've found a bit of happiness in this mess. I've got research to keep me happy. Berit has her boyfriend in town. Mike has..." A pause. "Smelling things? I don't know what Mike has. But you two always seemed pretty lonely and serious, so I think it's good you found each other. And Levi's a lot less grumpy when he's getting laid, so that's a perk for the rest of us."

Levi's face burned. "For fuck's sakes-"

"Thank you, Hange. We appreciate your acceptance." Erwin's gaze shifted. "Berit?"

"Oh, fuck." Berit shrugged and shifted uncomfortably on the couch, not looking at them. "I just need time to get my head around this. The image is burnt into my brain. Just...please don't have sex on the couches, okay?"

Levi eyed the couches. The more she spoke about it, the better the idea seemed. Those cushions have good bounce to them. Maybe we could cover them in some sort of plastic to keep them clean.

The Commander studied her. "For what it's worth, I'm truly sorry you saw what you did. I hope time will erase the image from your memory. Are you comfortable keeping our secret?"

"Of course. Just be careful, all right?" Her eyes finally lifted. "I've known you for a few years now, Erwin, and I know your ambitions will always take priority, even if this gets messy. I don't know Levi quite as well, but he seems the same way. The thing is, not everyone here knows you two, especially the newer recruits, and if they'd been the ones walking in on you, they could have run straight to the brass with tales of you shirking your responsibilities. We can't afford to lose either of you over something that stupid."

"Yes," said Erwin quietly. "That's very true."

"And..." She looked down again. "That whole thing about this upcoming scouting mission - I want you to think good and hard about it, Erwin. If you chose me, at first, because you honestly thought I was a better fit, then that's fine, but if you were just trying to protect Levi, then..." she paused. "That can't happen again. I'm not going to die so that you can keep your fuck buddy safe."

"I know." Erwin's face was grim. "Anything more to say?"

"No."

Levi's arm was getting tired from the awkward angle required to hold Erwin's hand, and the sweaty palms were starting to bother him. He retracted his hand, wiping it on his pants, and looked up at Erwin. Are we almost done here?

Erwin gripped the edge of the desk, his stance relaxing even more, almost awkwardly so, as if he were trying too hard to seem casual. "How about you, Mike?"

The man stared at them through a curtain of hair. He shrugged.

The Commander tensed. Levi watched him in his periphery, wondering what was silently passing between them.

"Very well," said Erwin finally. "Hange and Berit, you're dismissed."

"Levi, too," said Mike. "I want to talk to you alone."

There was a tension in his voice that Levi had never heard before, an unexpected hardness in his eyes. "You okay?"

"Don't worry, I'll keep your secret." The hair-cloaked eyes shifted to him. "We'll talk later."

"Okay." Levi glanced at Erwin. The Commander's jaw was clenched, his eyes hard.

He left the room confused, his stomach churning.

.*.*.*.

The door clicked shut.

Erwin sank to a seat on the couch across from Mike. "I had a feeling you might be upset."

The man leaned forward, elbows on his thighs, his hands falling loosely between his knees. "Been trying to decide how I'd react when you finally came clean."

"You knew?"

"Ever since Levi didn't return from the mission. That's why I kept an eye on you that night, and good thing, too. After Henrik, I expected sulking, not a suicidal rescue attempt." Mike rubbed the bridge of his nose, grimacing. "Thought it was one-sided until I found out Levi was gay, then everything fell into place. Would have figured it out soon enough, anyway. You two couldn't be more obvious if you tried."

Erwin's stomach dropped; he had thought they were doing a good job of being discreet. "We seemed obvious because you know us so well?"

"No, because you're being idiots." Mike shook his head. "We've known each other a long time, Erwin, so I'm going to be blunt. I have three things to say to you. One: be careful with Levi."

The words were a surprise, given that the man had always sided with him in previous relationships. "Why does everyone think he's so delicate?" asked Erwin, irritated, remembering Marie: you're going to break him.

"I don't think he's delicate. But you're under his skin, and he's under yours, and that could fuck both of you up if things go wrong. I'm going to tell him the same thing. Be careful."

"Very well," said Erwin. "What's your second point?"

"Be honest: is Levi next in line as Captain because of his skills, or because of all this?"

"Ah." Erwin sat straighter, trying not to let his surprise show on his face. Mike had never seemed all that interested in his position on the military ladder. "That's independent from my feelings for him, I assure you. You're being kind enough to blunt with me, so I'll show you the same courtesy. Levi has shown leadership capabilities since before he even agreed to join the Survey Corps. He's a natural leader and he has good instincts. You're one of our strongest soldiers, Mike, and your instincts are good, too; you should have been promoted to Squad Leader much sooner than you were. Given a few more years of experience, you'll evolve into a fine leader. I can already envision a future where the two of you are my right and left hand men. In the near future, however, Levi's the stronger candidate for the role of Captain. You still have some leadership skills to learn." He paused, waiting to see how the man would react.

Mike grimaced, but he said, "Fair enough. I'm not really interested in being a Captain, anyway. I just needed to know."

Erwin studied him, trying to get a read on him. "And your third thought?"

"Don't throw everything away for this. I've seen you put yourself and others at risk for him already, and I bet I'm going to start seeing the opposite, too, if you two aren't careful." The man's eyes bored through him. "Humanity needs you to stay focused. I followed you because you use your head, always, no matter what happens. Or that's what I thought. Marie didn't manage to sway you, but Henrik was a distraction. Don't let Levi be the same."

Erwin's mouth twisted. "I promise you, I can separate my heart and my head."

"Can you?" asked Mike quietly.

The blood drained from Erwin's face. Those words, those two little words, spoke to all the insecurities he had earlier that day, when he had realized he was putting Berit's squad at risk just to keep Levi safe. And even after that realization, even after he had thought everything was under control, he had let himself get caught in a compromising position like a horny recruit.

All it would have taken was anyone else - anyone except his officers - walking through that door, and everything would be over. His dreams, his goals, his ambitions. He had come so close to throwing it all away.

"I'm aware of my own shortcomings in that area now. I swear to you, Mike, it won't happen again," he said clearly, but the words felt like a lie.

The man nodded, looking convinced. Fear bubbled in Erwin's stomach. Is that true? Do my goals still come first? During the gala, he had come to realize that he wouldn't have been able to leave Levi behind the way he had left Marie. Did that mean all his goals were disposable so long as he was in love with Levi?

What am I doing? How can I pretend I would sacrifice anything for the sake of humanity, when I already know that's no longer true?

"That's everything." Mike's voice startled him back to himself. "I'm going to go find Levi."

"Go easy on him."

"Sure. Just going to tell him what I told you."

The two men rose to their feet and stood tall. Though Erwin was still shaken, he kept his face placid, biting back the doubts that threatened to rise to his lips: I didn't mean for this to happen. I lost control. I don't know any more if I can separate my heart and my head. Instead, he said, "Do you believe I'm capable of successfully balancing love with my goals?"

Mike's head cocked a little, as if he were instinctively moving to get a better scent on him, even though his nose wasn't working properly. "If you say you can do it, then I believe you."

Erwin forced a smile and gave the man's arm a friendly clap. "Thanks, Mike. If you have any other concerns, please don't hesitate to talk to me about them."

The man nodded, then left the office.

Once the door had closed behind him, Erwin sank to a seat at his desk, clutching at his throbbing temples. His doubts were snowballing. Stupid; all of this was stupid. Fifteen years of good service, and in the past few weeks, he had risked everything in a series of asinine decisions. Staging a drunken rescue attempt, sneaking around the base for stolen kisses, dancing on gala rooftops, sex in his office - had he really thought none of it was going to catch up with him? Had his foresight really been so blinded?

He sat at his desk and pulled out the bottom drawer. His graveyard. The framed picture Henrik had drawn for him sat on top. Now, when he picked it up, he didn't remember Henrik - all he could think about was that first personal conversation he and Levi had shared over drinks. Levi wasn't just overpowering old dreams; he was overpowering old memories, too.

He shifted the frame aside. Below it was a handkerchief, monogrammed with an "E." He lifted it to his nose and breathed in. Marie's perfume was still detectable, albeit faint. Below that was an assortment of trinkets: a copy of the letter formally informing him of his promotion to Squad Leader. A coaster from the last time the 86th Trainees Squad had gone out for drinks before they left to their separate branches. The ring of a fellow graduate who had died during an early expedition, with no surviving family. In fact, there were several bits of jewelry here; he had carried each of them on several missions after their owners fell. Now he couldn't even remember who some of them had belonged to. Some had been friends. A few had even briefly been lovers, but he couldn't even remember which trinkets had been theirs. What had been so important in that moment was only useless junk to him now.

Is this Levi's future? Will he eventually be a cravat or a small wooden dog stuffed in this drawer, a new lover's memories gradually overpowering my memories of our time together?

He shifted the surface contents aside to reveal an old, worn book at the bottom of the drawer. His throat tightened as he opened the front cover, tracing the words elegantly written in ink.

Or has Levi marked me deeply enough that I will always remember the timbre of his voice, the light in his eyes, long after the passage of time should have dulled my memories? There's no question that he'll die for humanity, at my hand. Will the knowledge that I killed him haunt every waking moment for the rest of my life? Will it shape every decision I make from that day forward? Can I afford to let my life be shaped by yet another ghost?

He released the cover as if it had burned him, letting it fall closed, but he didn't even need to read the inked words to hear them in his mind. 'Erwin, may you never stop dreaming, and may your quest for knowledge always drive you forward. Love forever, Papa.'

A sharp breath left his lips. He leaned back and rubbed his face with his hand, closing the drawer with his foot.

What the fuck am I doing?

He grabbed a bottle of ale from the cold stores, then made his way to the abandoned part of the base and stepped through the hidden door with the false lock - at least this broken lock was useful for privacy, he thought bitterly. He found his way to the ladder and climbed to the hatch, then stepped onto the old guard tower. The sun had already dipped below the horizon, the western clouds a brilliant orange. The colour reminded him of the rooftop dance he had shared with Levi under the sunset. We could have easily been caught there, too. What is it about him that makes me ready to throw everything away for him?

As he sipped the ale and looked out over the city, he struggled to realign his priorities. Anything they shared together was fleeting light in a field of darkness; he was deluding himself if he tried to assign it any more importance than that. Love didn't matter, not in the grand scheme of things. All that mattered in this world were the titans, along with everything - everyone - that stood in his way.

The two of them were meaningless, he and Levi. Disposable. It was foolish to get so attached when both of them were sure to die.

It seemed unlikely the titans would ever be able to touch Levi, unless he got caught off guard by a teammate's blunder as he had during their last expedition. Would it be Erwin's political gambles sending both of them to the hangman's noose for treason? Would it be Wallist extremists, the one his sister had warned- no, he wasn't ready to think about his reunion with her yet. He was dealing with enough as it was.

He closed his eyes, but now he only saw his new recurring nightmare, the one where he, titan-sized, devoured Levi. That's how it will end. There's no way around it. Why are you risking everything for a soldier you're going to consume?

By the time he had finished his ale, the orange had faded from the evening sky and the temperature was beginning to drop. He set the bottle to the side and gathered his legs close to his body.

The hatch creaked behind him; he turned his head to see Levi step on to the roof. Erwin's pulse raced at the sight of him, and he silently cursed his own weakness.

"There you are," said Levi. "Couldn't figure out where you disappeared-" He stopped mid-sentence. "Are you crying?"

"No." Erwin turned to look across the city again, blinking a few times.

Levi's voice softened. "Look, it's not a big deal." He settled to a seat next to him, staring across the city as well. "They'll keep our secret, and now we don't have to feel like we're hiding from everyone all the time. They can even help us have some privacy now and then." He pressed a finger to the tip of the empty bottle, idly tilting it. "Besides, it's not like anyone expects you to stay celibate."

"What we were discussing earlier today," said Erwin. "About how I can't afford to put everything at risk for love now that I'm a Commander..."

The bottle froze in place. "Yeah?"

"Even after that discussion, I risked it all again for a quick thrill." His head dropped. "I've lost all perspective. I don't have any logic around you, Levi. No control. I have to be in control, above all else - it's my greatest strength, one I'll need to utilize if we are to defeat the titans."

After a few beats, Levi's hand curled around the bottle. He lifted it to his nose, his inhale creating a slight whistle across the bottle's mouth.

"I'm sober," said Erwin quietly.

The man set the bottle on his other side, then gathered his knees, mirroring Erwin's posture. His head tilted back, gaze fixing on the sky above them. "So. What do you want?"

"I don't know, and that terrifies me, because I know what I should want. I see now that I can't trust myself the way I thought. I should want clarity. I should want focus. I should be pushing away all distractions. All that happened today..." His voice faded. "It can't happen. The titans must come first. Always. I cannot let anything stand in my way, even my own emotions. I'm disposable. You're disposable. Why do I keep losing sight of that? Why do I keep taking risks to be with you, when we're supposed to be focusing all our energy on saving humanity from extinction?"

Levi was still for so long that Erwin's mind began to drift. He felt the heat curling off the man's body; his own flesh burst into goosebumps in response. The night air was surprisingly chilly - or maybe he was just more vulnerable than usual right now, more sensitive.

Finally, Levi spoke, his voice dull: "Stop dancing around it."

"Around what?"

"Are you breaking up with me or not?"

The words were a surprise, but at the same time, they made perfect sense. Erwin began to shiver.

"If that's where you're going with this, then just do it. I get it, and I'll still be loyal to your command," said Levi. "I just need to know before I get even more attached."

Marie's voice echoed in Erwin's mind: you always choose titans, in the end. He wrapped his hands more tightly around himself, drawing his legs closer to his body. "I know what my answer needs to be, so why can't I bring myself to say it?"

After a few minutes, Levi's palms pushed into the floor, and he stood. "I never intended to be a burden." There was no bitterness in his words, only sadness, and Erwin's heart twisted.

The hatch closed behind him.

Darkness crept across the city. Erwin's hand wrapped around the cold pendant at his throat as he shivered alone on his perch.

.*.*.*.

Late that night, he tossed and turned, the bed too hot with the blankets, too cold without. His mind wouldn't stop churning. He had gotten up twice already, once to jot down ideas about how to deal with the new Council members, another to record a weapon idea to discuss with Hange. Burying his mind in strategy was the only respite from the confusing emotions that swirled within him. Levi's last words echoed in his mind, their sad tone haunting him.

Footsteps sounded down the hallway, a faint glow of light appearing under the door crack. The sound stopped outside his door, the glow stilling.

Erwin sat up, ears strained.

The doorknob turned, and then Levi stood in the door frame, dark circles under his eyes, dressed in only his pyjama bottoms. Their gaze held.

Hope, sadness, relief, and worry swelled within Erwin like silt stirred by river currents, flooded through him. "Levi," he said, the word cracking.

The narrow mouth twisted. "I can't sleep."

"Neither can I."

"It's your fucking fault, you know."

"I know."

"All of it."

"I know."

After a moment, Levi closed the door behind him, then locked it and double-checked the door. He paced toward the bed, setting the candle on the desk as he moved past it, not breaking his stride until he reached the bed. He stared down his nose, his expression neutral.

Erwin shifted over, leaving room for him on the bed. An offer. His heart beat in his throat as he waited.

The silver-blue gaze bored through him.

Erwin lay on his side and placed his hand palm-up on the middle of the bed. "Please, Levi. Just for a few minutes. I want to explain what I'm feeling – rationally, this time."

Levi eyed it for a moment, then climbed under the covers. He lay on his side staring at the open hand.

"I'm sorry," whispered Erwin. "You aren't a burden."

Emotion rippled across Levi's face, almost too quickly to see - tensing lips, a crease between the brows. His hand reached out, curled with hesitation, then finally lay atop Erwin's. Heat swirled between their palms, and Erwin couldn't tell which of them was trembling. Maybe both.

"Did you figure out what you want?" whispered Levi.

"I want to rid this world of titans. I want to ferret out all humanity's enemies and destroy them so that future generations can be free. And I want you at my side." Erwin swallowed hard, intertwining his fingers with Levi's. "I must offer up our hearts, everyone's, but today I realized I can't offer yours. I'm not strong enough, Levi. I don't want to see you die, knowing it was my fault. I don't want you to become a half-forgotten trinket in a box, a fading memory." His thumb drifted across Levi's knuckle. "But that's my dilemma, because I can't afford to compromise my goals the way I have been. How can I uphold my role as Commander of the Survey Corps if love is going to make me this selfish?"

"Then don't offer up my heart. Let me do it instead."

Their gaze locked. "What do you mean?"

Levi shrugged. "Look, you asked me to think about my leadership style. The way I lead is by instinct: I look around me and make snap decisions. That's how I worked in the Underground, and it's how I've worked since I joined the Survey Corps." His fingers curled around Erwin's. "This morning, you said that as your Captain, I'll stand beside you as your peer, right? So put the burden of life or death on me. Let me decide how and when to risk myself. I'll still follow your orders - I always will - but let me operate independently within the greater plan. Let me move around the battlefield and make my own decisions about when to risk myself and my team, according to my instincts."

"You want me to give you your own autonomy on the battlefield?" asked Erwin.

"Yes. That way, if I die, it'll be because I made a bad judgement call, not because you gave the order. You won't have to carry the guilt. Besides, we both know I'm more useful if I'm allowed to break away and follow my instincts. It's been that way from the very first time I took down a titan. I'm not cut out to blindly follow orders all the time."

Erwin studied their joined hands, considering. He had already been aware that their ranks would be different than the usual positions of Commander and Captain. Levi excelled with minimal supervision; his initiative was one of his greatest strengths on the battlefield. They had the potential to be a formidable team: with his strategic acuity and foresight, and Levi's instincts and battle skills, they could complement each other's weaknesses and become greater than the sum of their parts.

More than that, the words were showing that finally, after so much struggle, Levi finally understood that they were equal, just two men, two dreamers with freedom in their hearts.

Maybe we can make this work.

"When we return from this expedition," said Erwin, "we'll discuss what your role of Captain will entail. I like the idea of you acting with greater freedom than the role would usually allow." His grip tightened. "We can lead the Corps together, side by side. Your heart is yours to offer."

"Good, then that's one less thing for you to worry about. And we're also going to calm the fuck down, all right?" Levi shifted closer. "No lovey-dovey shit in public, no sex unless we're sure we're behind locked doors, no dumb strategic decisions." His face fell. "If you want to stay together, I mean."

"I told you, Levi, I want you at my side." Erwin's throat ached. "If you'll still have me."

"I'm here, aren't I?" said Levi softly.

Erwin leaned closer, intending to kiss those narrow lips, but stopped. Did he have the right to kiss him, after all the hurt he had caused?

But Levi was already inching closer, his eyes on Erwin's mouth.

Together, they closed the gap. The kiss was brief and soft, once, twice.

"I'm sorry, Levi." Erwin shifted halfway onto him, flattening him against the bed, and kissed him again. For shutting him out, for not being strong enough, for breaking his own oath to separate his heart and his head: "I'm so sorry."

"It's fine." Levi's hands slid across the back of his neck, gently drawing him closer.

Erwin's body still ached from the interruption before, but these kisses were too important to rush, soft and apologetic, thick with emotion. He savoured Levi's taste - mint on the surface, rosemary and yeast on his breath below that, and that deeper taste that was uniquely Levi, the one that made his heart pound in his temples. How could I have considered giving his up? He heard himself gasp, heard Levi echo it, and he shifted more of his weight onto the smaller man's body. His head tilted to the side, the tip of his tongue skimming Levi's lips, then deeper, deeper. The man arched beneath him, a rumble sounding in his throat.

Starting to get caught up in the moment, Erwin shifted again, crouching over Levi on all fours. Their kisses slowed, then broke apart.

Levi reached up to grip Erwin's neck, a thumb running across his throat. "I want you."

"The door is locked for sure this time, right?"

"Yeah. I checked it."

"Then I'm yours." Erwin bent down and to drag his tongue along the underside of the man's jaw.

"No, I mean I want you." Levi wrapped his legs around Erwin's waist and drew him in, centering him between his legs.

Slowly, Erwin pulled away from his neck to look down at him, certain he was misunderstanding.

"Don't make me put it into words." Levi's cheeks were dark. "'Fuck me' is too raunchy for the mood, and 'make love to me' is too corny."

It was difficult to breathe. Erwin forced air in, and it shuddered on the way out. "Are you sure? There's no pressure-"

"I know that. But we're going to work together side-by-side, right? So maybe I should trust that you won't hurt me. Besides, I'm going away on a dangerous scouting mission, and if I do decide my heart needs offering, I don't want my last regrets to be about how I should have tried taking it up the ass from you." His gaze had drifted to the side as he spoke, showing his underlying discomfort in spite of his confident tone. "Maybe I'll like it. Maybe I won't. Only one way to find out."

Erwin cupped the narrow jaw. "Levi. Look at me. Is this something you truly want? Or are you offering out of obligation?"

"Look, maybe I'm a bit nervous, but..." The slim brows were pinched, his breath coming in small, quick puffs. "I want to try it."

Erwin's breath escaped in another shudder. He bent down for a series of kisses, speaking between them: "I'll be gentle. So gentle, Levi. I promise."

"I know."

He slid his palm down Levi's bare stomach, feeling the soft line of hair down its centre. As his palm slid over the fly of the man's pants, Levi closed his eyes and thrust up into it. "Shit," he whispered. "I guess we have to be quiet, huh?"

"Yes, it really wouldn't do for Mike to overhear us. We've put him through enough today." Erwin smoothed down to the inseam, then back up again, feeling the bulge harden. "I haven't taken over the Commander's room yet - it's against an outside wall, so it would give us some privacy. Maybe I'll rearrange the Officer's bedrooms, put you right next to me, so we have a buffer around us when you spend the night with me."

"One of these days, I'm going to teach you proper pillow talk." Levi squirmed as the hand slid beneath the waistband. "Oh fuck, your hand is burning hot."

Erwin leaned in to kiss him again, slowly stroking him. He kissed down the narrow neck, across his collarbone, down to a nipple. Even though he knew Levi wasn't responsive there, he lingered for a minute, enjoying the feeling of it on his tongue, between his lips. He likes heavy pressure, he thought, and he pinched it experimentally between his teeth. He heard a strangled gasp above him, felt a throb in his grip. Maybe I've just been too gentle with him.

As he worked his way down one side of the man's abdomen, kissing and nipping the skin, Levi began to squirm again. Erwin pulled down his waistband, closing his mouth over him. The harder he sucked, the more Levi's back arched, so he kept the suction strong. It felt so good to bring him pleasure after bringing him so much misery earlier that day; he poured all his effort into his actions as an apology. As he began to move up and down, he saw the man's hands curl into the blanket.

He slowed, taking a moment to lick the tip. "I wish I could hear you moan," he whispered, wondering if it was too late to spirit him away to his apartment in town.

Levi looked up, his cheeks dark, eyelids low. "No, this is better. I'm going to be self-conscious enough as it is, so I'd probably be too shy to be loud, anyway."

Erwin couldn't understand censoring one's moans - he had never been good at censoring himself - but he respected that everyone's comfort levels were different. "Then I'm glad you won't feel pressured to be noisy for me." He pulled the pants further down and began to drag his tongue lower, lower...

"Hey." Levi caught his hair. "Not there."

He never would have dared show it, but Erwin felt his stomach sink with disappointment. Don't push him. This is all new territory for him.

"My apologies," he said sincerely, kissing a line back up to the tip. He ran his tongue in a circle and breathed in, tasting him. Then, he pulled away and stood. "One moment."

"Where are you going?" asked Levi, a brow creasing.

"There's lubricant in my bag." His personal belongings were leaning against the wall; he had brought the bag here from his office before going to bed, but had been too upset to unpack. He knelt down and began to rustle through it.

"You brought it with you? I thought it was in your desk."

"I bought a second bottle while I was away."

"Yeah? Did you use it?"

Erwin turned to look over his shoulder; Levi lay on his back, his hand slowly stroking between his legs. "You really like the idea of me touching myself when you aren't around, don't you, Levi?"

"Maybe. Did you use it?"

"Yes, twice. I was planning on another session between those two times, but Sahlo's leer around his hired women was too off-putting." Erwin's hand closed over the bottle. Between Levi's interest in the topic and the scene that had played out between them in the office before he left, he was starting to get an idea.

He pulled the chair away from his desk and set it facing the bed.

"What are you doing?"

"Here." Erwin tossed him the bottle.

Levi caught it one-handed. "Erwin?"

"I'm going to touch myself for you. While I'm doing it, I want you to do whatever you need in order to get yourself relaxed and ready for me." He studied the man's face, hoping his suggestion would be agreeable.

"Shit. Yeah. Okay." Levi slid off his pants and tossed them on the floor, then knelt on the bed. He poured oil onto his hands, one hand dropping to his front, the other to his back.

Erwin sat in the chair. Holding eye contact, he slid his palms down his chest, his abdomen, then between his legs. He slouched down to get comfortable. At first, he felt self-conscious, but then he heard a sharp intake of breath from the bed. Encouraged, he grabbed himself through the fabric of his pants, letting his head roll along the back of the chair. He thrust into his hands a few times. It felt good to be watched like this, better than he had expected. It's like I'm offering myself to him as an apology.

Levi's back was arched and stiff, his hand still working behind his back. His other hand lazily stroked his front, the slick oil glinting in the candlelight.

Their eyes locked again, and Erwin pulled his pants off his hips, exposing himself. Levi's stare was so narrow and strong that Erwin felt self-consciousness trickle over him like ice water. Why was that so arousing? The intensity between them reminded him of sparring, as if their locked arms were straining against each other again, wrestling for control. He rolled his head to the side to expose his neck, letting his lips part a crack, and began to tug at himself.

On the bed in front of him, Levi was biting his lip, his abdominal muscles twitching. Erwin bit the inside of his cheek to stifle a groan, more turned on by the sight than he had expected. In a few minutes, I'm going to be inside that beautiful body. He shuddered, his muscles tightening.

"Fuck," he mouthed, not trusting himself to keep his voice down if he tried to whisper.

Levi's head was beginning to tilt back, his bottom lip white from the force of his teeth. Heat surged through Erwin's body, catching him off guard. Fuck! His hand froze and his eyes squeezed shut. For a moment, he thought he might tip over the edge, but after a few deep breaths, the danger faded.

"Don't tell me you're going to come already," whispered Levi, the words laboured.

"I need to touch you." Erwin pulled off his pants and slung them over the arm of the chair, then stood. He leaned on the mattress on one knee, lowering himself to Levi's level and drawing him in. Their bare chests pressed together. Levi's skin was so warm and fuzzy that Erwin shifted against him, enjoying the sensation of their chests rubbing together.

He reached behind Levi and gripped his wrist, coaxing him to pull out, replacing the man's finger with his own. He found him surprisingly relaxed. Levi's breath caught.

"Let's use a bit more oil than that," whispered Erwin in his ear. He pulled back to find the bottle of oil, then generously slicked two fingers. This time, he used both, pressing gently into him. "Is that okay?"

"Fuck," whispered Levi. "It feels so much better when you do it." His body was slack. Erwin felt hands claw into his back, as if the man were trying to hold himself upright.

"How are you feeling?" he whispered, kissing his neck. "We can keep doing this for awhile, if you want. Or would you like to try something else?"

"Yeah."

Erwin kissed his neck again, then stood. He passed a handkerchief to Levi, certain he'd appreciate the opportunity to wipe his hands. He did the same, then set the soiled handkerchiefs aside.

His heart pounded as he returned to the bed. Levi lay on his back, watching him.

It's really going to happen. Erwin crouched over top of him, smoothing dark hair off the creased forehead.

"Don't make a big deal out of this," whispered Levi. "Just do it."

"Okay." Erwin cupped the underside of the man's thighs and pushed them toward the bed, tilting his hips up. He would have liked to thrust a few times along the surface first, teasing him, but it sounded like Levi wouldn't appreciate the delay. Maybe another time.

Instead, he gripped himself and began to enter.

Levi's brows knotted together.

"You okay?"

"Yeah. Keep going."

Erwin slowly worked his way deeper, gently rocking. His teeth clenched, his mind reeling: I'm inside him. He was about halfway in now; he struggled to hold back a groan.

"Shit!" gasped Levi. He grabbed Erwin's biceps, his grip so strong that Erwin froze.

"Do you want me to slow down?"

"No. I don't know." Levi's eyes were barely open, his brows forming a peak. "It's too much, Erwin. It's too much."

"Do you want me stop?" asked Erwin, alarmed.

"No. No, it's good, it's just... It's too much. I don't know how to..." The man's voice trailed off and his grip tightened.

Erwin smoothed a hand along the wrinkled forehead. He couldn't understand what he was trying to say, but his discomfort was clear. "It's okay, Levi." He slowly began to pull out.

"Wait, I didn't mean-"

"It's okay. Here, sit up. We're going to switch positions." Erwin helped him sit up, then lay on his back instead. "Straddle me," he said, guiding Levi by the hips. "I'm sorry, I should have thought of this from the start. You're in control. Take it as slowly as you need."

The creased brow began to relax. Levi leaned down for a kiss; Erwin caught his jaw, tongue slipping deep into his mouth. When Levi pulled away, he looked more like himself again, less frightened. He gripped Erwin and centered himself, then began to work his way onto him.

Erwin let out a long breath, running his palms across the small, flexing chest. He had spent so many late nights imagining this moment, more than he would admit to himself, but his imagination hadn't been able to touch what he saw before him now: Levi's jaw barely cocked to the side with determination, his pupils large, lips parted to show clenched teeth. Oh fuck, Levi. Erwin ran a thumb to the hollow between Levi's collarbones, then up his trachea, up his chin, along that narrow bottom lip.

Levi barely seemed to notice; he stared at nothing, still working up and down, pushing a little further with each motion. The need to stay silent was increasingly frustrating. Erwin wanted to listen for those little noises he had become familiar with so he could tell if Levi was enjoying himself or not. His face didn't give any clues.

Then Levi surprised him: a soft grunt left his lips as he pushed down hard on the last few centimetres, taking him all the way in.

Erwin tensed, feeling muscle tighten around him. He gripped the narrow hips, fingers curling into the flesh.

"You feel that, Levi?" he whispered, delirious. "I'm inside you. Oh fuck, I'm inside you." He thrust up tighter against him, holding back a cry, venting it as a shuddering breath instead.

Levi ground into him, his breath harsh. "Holy fucking shit."

"Still doing okay?" asked Erwin, sweat beading on his temple from self-restraint.

"Look at you." Levi's breaths were coming too quickly. "Look how much you're enjoying this. Oh shit, I can actually reach your mouth when we do it like this." He bent forward so they could share a long kiss. His hips began to tilt to different angles with each thrust. Erwin could tell he was trying to figure out what felt best for him.

They fell into rhythm, taking it slowly at first. Their mouths pressed together, sometimes kissing, sometimes exchanging soft breaths and grunts in place of the moans and cries they'd usually use to communicate.

After a few minutes, Levi slowed and rested on one elbow. His face was red, sweat beading on his temples and upper lip. "I'm so clumsy and shitty at this."

"Clumsy?" whispered Erwin, surprised. He flexed a few times, pulsing inside him. "Can't you feel what you're doing to me?"

Levi's breath caught, and his eyes fluttered closed. "Yeah. Yeah, I can. This is just...different. I don't know what I'm doing."

"You're doing fine." Erwin gripped his hand and drew it in, delivering a slow kiss to his knuckles. "Would it make you more comfortable if I took charge again?"

"Yeah."

"Lie on your side facing away from me."

His brow furrowing a bit, Levi uncoupled from him and lay on his side. Erwin spooned up behind him. One hand clamped around Levi's chest; the other gripped his upper thigh, moving it forward to bend the leg at an angle.

"The good thing about this position," he breathed into Levi's ear, "is that I get to grope you from behind while I'm fucking you." He squeezed a pectoral muscle with his hand, thumb circling around the nipple. His other hand reached between them, guiding himself in. Levi gasped and bore down on him, taking him all the way in again.

Erwin let out a soft groan. He hadn't expected that much enthusiasm. "You're so warm."

Levi gasped again, melting back against him. "Grab me," he whispered.

Erwin reached down to grip him, and Levi's hand closed over his. They began to stroke him together in time with their thrusts.

"How's that?" Erwin nuzzled the back of his ear.

"Good." Levi's whisper was staccato, as if he were having trouble forming words. "Harder."

Erwin grunted and began moving with more force. He kissed along Levi's neck and upper back.

"Oh shit, you're so fucking hard," whispered Levi. His head began to roll back, his spine arching. Erwin caught him under the chin with his free hand, holding his head in place, and kissed the corner of his jaw, then down his neck, pinching the skin with his teeth.

"Erwin-" the word melted into a humming sound that rose in pitch.

"Stay quiet," whispered Erwin gently, even though the sound was making him glow. He wasn't going to last long, not at this rate. He closed his mouth over the ridge of muscle between Levi's shoulder and neck, trying to muffle the cries that were building beneath the surface. He could feel that Levi was getting closer, too, the muscles of his torso beginning to twitch and jerk.

"Faster," gasped Levi.

Erwin squeezed his eyes shut, his body tightening. "I can't. I'll lose control."

"Good." Levi's head barely turned, one eye fixing on him. "Fuck me hard."

Erwin didn't realize, until he heard those words, just how badly he needed them. A moan caught in his throat, and heat flooded his body. He began to move faster, harder.

Levi pushed Erwin's hand away from his groin, taking over. Erwin gripped his hip instead. His other hand grabbed Levi's jaw, palm resting on his throat, elbow on his chest, forcing the small body down on him over and over to counter each thrust.

"Come on, Erwin," breathed Levi. "Lose control."

Erwin's vision blurred. His world had narrowed to those words and the feeling of Levi's body sliding against his, tight around him. Stay quiet, he reminded himself, even though he couldn't remember why. He pressed down on Levi's hip, shoving him into the mattress, and then leaned on him, half-mounting him.

Levi blasted a voiceless cry into the pillow. "I'm going to come."

Erwin buried his face in the back of the slender neck and moved faster, gasping for air.

"Ah, fuck!" Levi whispered. His body stiffened, then began to shudder, his limbs vibrating at the crest of each wave.

The rhythmic clenching was too much for Erwin. He curled protectively around him and drove the last few strokes hard. A rush engulfed his groin and mind, a high so powerful that electricity danced across his skin and his mind glowed white.

When the last pulse faded, he was left with limp muscles, sweaty skin and an overwhelming desire to sleep. The silence was a stark contrast to the harsh breaths and chaos a moment before. His ears rang.

He was just beginning to succumb to the warm haze when Levi nudged him with his shoulder.

"If you're going to fall asleep, at least roll off me first, or you'll suffocate me."

"Sorry," mumbled Erwin, rolling onto his back, eyes still closed.

Levi leaned over him, presumably retrieving the handkerchief. "Fuck, what a mess. Is there a trick to cleaning this up?"

"Yeah." Erwin's lips curved into a smile. "Don't let me come inside you."

"Helpful." There was a long pause, then his voice jolted Erwin awake again: "You know, that...wasn't bad."

It was a struggle, but Erwin managed to crack one eye open. Levi was sitting beside him. His cheeks were dark, mussed hair hanging in his face. He looked surprisingly shy.

"Yeah?"

Levi shrugged. "Once we figured out how to make it work, anyway. Do you know how fucking hot it is when you lose control like that? It's almost like..." He stared fixedly at the handkerchief, folding it into quarters. "It's almost like, if you feel about someone the way I feel about you, you end up wanting to do stuff they enjoy, because the way they react makes it the hottest thing ever to you, even if you never would have thought of doing it if they hadn't wanted it."

Just say you love me, thought Erwin, but he understood his hesitation, especially after all the uncertainty of the day. That was his fault. Guilt trickled over him, ice cold.

Levi stood. He tugged the covers out from beneath Erwin and draped them over him, then pressed his lips to his forehead. "Get some sleep."

"Wait." Erwin caught his arm. "Stay."

"I thought we were going to try to be more careful?" said Levi, but he didn't pull away.

"It's fine." Erwin's thumb caressed the flushed skin. "We know the door is locked this time. There's no risk. Stay." The other officers would cover for them if they accidentally slept in. They had allies now – at least that benefit had come out of this mess of a day.

After a long pause, Levi crawled under the covers. "I made a giant wet spot on top of the blanket."

"Here." Erwin clumsily moved closer to centre, taking the spot himself - he couldn't feel it through the thick blanket, anyway. He spooned up behind Levi. Now that they were cuddling instead of having sex, it felt like a completely different position, a different dynamic. Safe. Cozy.

His eyes began to close, but he struggled to stay awake for a few more seconds. There was one more thing that needed to be said.

"Levi," he whispered, groggy. "I still don't know if I'm making the right decision, but I want you to understand: I may have doubted whether or not we should be together, but I never once, not for one single moment, doubted that I love you."

He tried to stay awake for the response, but sleep was relentless, and warm, and welcoming. Levi was silent for so long that he finally gave in.

As he was just drifting off, he heard the whispered words he was waiting for, though he couldn't tell if they were real or imagined:

"I love you, too."

Chapter Text

-19-

Conversations

"Knock it off," said Levi, directing Erwin's roving hand away from his bare bottom. "I have to get going."

"We could probably sneak in one more round, if we're quick." Erwin's kisses began to trail from his neck to his ear.

"You going to be able to get it up this soon?" A hot tongue ran along the inside border of Levi's ear, and he shivered.

"Probably not." Erwin's voice was a low rumble in his ear. "But my tongue and fingers work just fine." His hand trailed down to Levi's tailbone.

"I told you, nothing in my ass. I'm going to be sitting on a horse for a fucking week." Levi pulled away and sat up. "Why are you so clingy all the sudden? Don't trust me to stay alive?"

Erwin looked up at him, his features settling into flat lines. The solemn expression contrasted with his flushed face and mussed hair, which was sticking out in all directions. Levi shook his head and combed it back into place with his fingers.

"Don't look so serious. When I get back, you can play with my ass all you want, okay? Maybe I'll even try taking your dick again."

Erwin's brows perked, but he only said, "You might be saddle sore."

"Then you'll just have to be gentle." Levi bent down and kissed his lips.

"I'll do my best." Erwin pulled him back in for another kiss, this one longer. When he pulled away, he tucked a strand of hair behind Levi's ear; it promptly fell in his face again. "Maybe I'll even arrange for overnight leave for both of us, so we can go to my apartment. I want to hear you moan for me."

"Sure," said Levi, and although his heart raced at the idea, discomfort tightened his throat. Letting Erwin ride him had been a pleasant enough experience - hell, by the end there, it had felt pretty fucking amazing - but a part of him was still self-conscious about what he was supposed to do during the act. Clench his muscles? Counter-thrust? Swirl his hips? Until he figured that out, he would be too distracted to moan. Maybe these were questions he should be asking Erwin, but he didn't want to draw attention to his own deficiencies.

I need to relax about this stuff. He thought of Erwin needing more wine during their first time together, and suddenly understood. He smoothed a thumb along a thick blond eyebrow. I never would have thought it when we first met, but we really are a lot alike.

"Levi?"

He traced a line to the sharp cheekbone, crossing over the faint, barely visible lines that were beginning to form in the corner of the blue eyes. "Make sure you bring wine. I'm going to need a drink or six after spending a week with Hange."

The lines crinkled. "Of course. We'll have an evening of wine and romance. And since you're likely to be stiff and sore, I'll massage you. Everywhere. Outside..." He leaned up to brush another kiss against Levi's lips. "And inside." His hand tightened around Levi's ass.

"Stop it. I have to get going, and I'm not going to fit into my pants if you keep pawing at me." Levi batted his arm away and stood. "Comb your hair before you go out there. You look like you've just been fucked."

"Are you giving me orders?" Erwin swung his legs over the side of the bed and began to straighten his hair. "To think that a few minutes ago, you were speaking so nicely to me. Pleading, even."

"Shut up," said Levi, trying to pretend he wasn't amused. He wiped himself off with a damp cloth, then pulled on his uniform and his gear.

Once they were both fully dressed, Erwin handed him a comb and bent down. "Would you mind?"

"Sure." Levi parted his hair - most of it had naturally settled into the part already, anyway - and carefully combed it. "So if you bleach your hair, why don't you have any roots?"

"I wouldn't say I bleach it, per se. I just comb a bit of bleach through it once in a while, to help it lighten naturally in the sun."

"I see," said Levi, even though he didn't really understand the distinction. He combed the last few strands into place. "There. Your hair's getting a bit long."

"Yeah, it's about a week from becoming unmanageable. I've been too busy to see my barber. I'll go sometime before you return." Erwin stood tall, and now that he was perfectly coiffed, the faint flush on his cheeks was the only indication he'd been biting his pillow a few minutes earlier. "Oh, I almost forgot." He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a small envelope. "Read that sometime tonight. Make sure no one else sees it."

"Okay." Levi tucked it into his inside jacket pocket, wondering if it was orders for the mission or something more personal.

Erwin pressed a hand to either side of Levi's face and bent down for a kiss that left both of them gasping for air when he finally pulled away.

"Be careful," he said softly.

"Stop acting like I'm never coming back. I'll see you in a week," said Levi, his voice cracking around a lump in his throat. It's not going to be this difficult every time we're separated, is it? We're going to be spending a lot of time apart when he's in the Capital or I'm on patrol, so we'd better get used to it.

Steeling himself, he picked up his gear case, turned and marched for the door, Erwin on his heels.

When they arrived in the courtyard, their teams were already settling into formation: four teams of five people each. Two carts near the back of the formation carried their supplies.

"There you are." Hange dismounted and hurried over. "I wanted to send a search party out to find you, but I was worried about what they might stumble across."

Levi's face settled into a scowl.

Behind him, Erwin cleared his throat. "Our delay was my fault. Levi and I were going over some last minute orders. Do you have everything you need?"

"Yes, everything's ready. Thank you, Commander." Hange turned to Levi. "Eld saddled your horse and restocked your saddle bags. We should head out now if we want to reach the checkpoint by mid-afternoon."

"Be careful, both of you," said Erwin. "While your data will be valuable to the upcoming expedition, your lives - and the lives of your teammates - will be infinitely more so. Do not take any unnecessary risks. Be sure to protect your mental wellbeing as well - the two of you recently went through such an ordeal that you may be more vulnerable than you think. If you feel uncomfortable at any point, pull back."

"Stop worrying." Levi folded his arms over his chest. "We'll be fine."

"My apologies if I'm being a bit too thorough. What happened last time was a bit of an ordeal for me, as well." Erwin reached out to grip each of their shoulders. "Good luck."

Guilt flickered in Levi's stomach. He hadn't spent much time thinking about how traumatizing his supposed death had been for Erwin. No wonder he was being so weird and clingy. Levi reached up to awkwardly clap the man's shoulder. "We'll be fine."

Erwin held his gaze for a moment longer, then turned and walked away, back straight and stiff.

Hange leaned close. "Last minute orders, eh? Who was giving the orders to whom, I wonder?"

"Shut up."

"I meant that as a double entendre."

"I know what you meant, you fucking pervert." Levi tore his gaze from Erwin's departing back and began to move into position.

"Levi, wait." A hand closed over his shoulder.

He sighed and turned, ready to snap, What? Hange's pale face stopped him.

"What he said about being emotionally vulnerable..." The goggled eyes darted to the left, then the right, as if ascertaining they wouldn't be overheard.

"Oh." Levi's irritation waned. "You okay?"

"I think so, but I'm a little shakier than usual. And I have this heavy feeling in my chest and stomach."

"Huh," he said. "You seemed fine after we got back. I didn't think it was bothering you."

Hange's gaze dropped. "I was so grateful to be alive that it didn't really bother me, at first. But the more I think about it-"

"Don't think about it. You'll be fine. You're going to see your first titan, go bat-shit and forget anything bad ever happened."

"I suppose."

"You okay?" he asked again, fishing for a different answer this time.

"I think so. Yeah." Hange looked up, a spark of excitement finally showing in the dark eyes. "Yeah, let's do this."

The scouting party rode to the wall in tight formation. A small crowd had gathered in the streets for their sendoff - surprising, given that this was such a small mission. Berit's team stood atop the wall; the Squad Leader fired a green flare as the formation approached, signalling that the titans had been cleared from the area around the gates.

"Give the speech," said Levi. "I'm no good at that stuff."

"Oh." Hange turned to face their teams, voice gaining strength. "We chose you for this mission because you're the cream of the crop. Your strength, skill and speed will be integral to this mission, and the information we bring back will be integral to the success of the upcoming expedition. The reclamation of Wall Maria begins with its first step, here, today. Prepare to advance!"

The team hollered, raising their swords. Levi gave Hange a nod of respect. Not as good as Erwin, but not bad. For a beginner.

The gates opened.

As they crossed under the shadow of the wall and into the sunlight on the other side, Levi took a deep breath, letting the crisp air fill his lungs. In one short year, nature had reclaimed these lands: no garbage, no body odour, no sewage, nothing but the taste of a wild, free land.

Berit's team had done an excellent job of clearing out the titans, leaving the road empty. They rode in a huddle until the road widened, then spread into an inverted V formation, its apex at the back. The carts rode at the centre back of the V, a small defensive team riding behind it. The remaining teams stretched out in groups of three, forming the right and left flanks.

Levi rode in front of the carts with Eld and a new recruit named Sonja. In Erwin's absence, it was his job to direct the formation using signal flares. His head already ached as he tried to consider everyone working together at once; he was accustomed to considering only a small, immediate team. And there are only twenty of us. How the hell does Erwin keep track of the entire regiment at once?

Even though it was late spring, the weather was still abnormally cool. The breeze sent a chill through Levi, raising goosebumps on his neck. If it was this bad when the sun was up, it was going to be even colder at night. At this rate, the entire scouting party was going to have to huddle together for warmth while they slept; the decrepit checkpoints were sure to be even draughtier than their headquarters in Trost. If Erwin had been along on the mission, huddling together would have been welcome, but Levi didn't relish the idea of sleeping against someone who was practically a stranger. His nose wrinkled. It'd be even worse after a few days, once everyone became sweaty and stale.

His mind lingered on the much more pleasant notion of being pressed up against Erwin. After their near break-up, something had changed in the Commander. They no longer sneaked little risky affectionate gestures in public, but once the bedroom door was closed - and locked - Erwin was all over him. It was as if their fight had broken through his last defensive wall. They had shared the same bed nearly every night that week.

Levi's body glowed as he reviewed his memories from that morning: the beautiful contours of Erwin's muscular ass jarring and rippling in front of him, the slew of curses the Commander had pressed deep into his pillow, the way his entire body had seized with orgasm.

"Squad Leader," called Eld, pointing to the west. Red flares had gone up from the right flank. Titans.

"Thanks." Focus, you idiot. The terrain was hilly enough that Levi couldn't get a look at the titans they had spotted, but his number one priority was avoiding combat where possible. He fired a green flare to redirect the formation away from the threat. Green flares rippled through the formation on either side of him as the teams confirmed his directions, and he felt a wave of satisfaction. It felt as if he had his fingers in every piece of the formation, turning it in the direction he wanted to go. That depth of control was so like Erwin. He wondered how the regiment had managed to function before Erwin had devised the formation. Each mission must have been chaotic. Catastrophic.

As they continued the push toward their first meeting spot, Levi stayed alert, scanning the horizon. Other than a few red flares here and there, the ride was quiet. Three hours in, one of Hange's squad members rode over to him:

"The clearing up ahead, sir."

Levi nodded and fired a white flare, signaling for the formation to begin to pull in. They'd take half an hour in the clearing to rest the horses and stretch their legs.

While Hange directed a few scouts to surveillance positions around the perimeter of the clearing, Levi turned to Eld and Sonja.

"You two, ride to the top of that hill before you take your rest." He pointed south. "The valley below it was called out on the map. Could be high-traffic."

"Sir," they said in unison.

Levi dismounted. He was just hooking up his horse's feedbag when Hange approached.

"Titans are quiet today."

"Yeah," he said without looking up from his task. He was about to hear an explanation whether he faked interest or not, so he wouldn't bother putting in the effort.

"I wonder if it's because it's been so cloudy lately?" Hange stepped closer and patted his horse affectionately on the neck. "I still think weather is connected to titan activity. Everyone seems to think it's only sunlight, but we've encountered titans early in the morning before, and some seemed more active than others. Besides, those three I killed alone during the last expedition were so sluggish – maybe heat is involved, too? Given that their temperatures run so hot-"

"Three?" interrupted Levi. "I thought it was five."

"Oh." Hange's stance shifted back and forth. "Three, five, who can remember?"

He turned back to his horse. "Look, I don't give a shit about kill counts, but keep your story straight if you want to have any sort of credibility with your squad."

"Well..." A pause. "Ever do that thing where you blurt out something that isn't true, but it'd take too long to explain why you lied, and you don't even know why you did it, so you have to commit to the lie? And it makes you feel like shit every time it comes up again?"

"If you thought before you spoke, that wouldn't happen." He finished hooking up the feed bag, then rubbed his horse's nose. "You wanted something?"

"Oh, right." Hange pulled out a small bag and held it out. "I have a task for you sometime during this mission, whenever it's reasonably safe. I want you to use one of these when you're in close quarters with a titan. Let me know how it reacts, in as much detail as you can. If you can do it more than once, that would be even better."

He rifled through the bag and pulled out a shell. It was shaped like a flare, but its casing was metal. "What is it?"

"A little something from the lab."

"A new weapon? Did Erwin okay this?"

"Well…" Hange shifted again. "He told me not to bring any new weapons, but this is something the MPs already use, just in a new setting. It's a stronger type of sound round than the ones we use -- it makes a loud noise at a frequency that stuns-"

"No," said Levi, pushing the bag away.

"Fine. I should be able to get enough data by myself."

"You're not going to use them, either. We're supposed to be scouting, not running experiments."

Hange's jaw set. "If this works – if it stuns them the way it would stun a person – we'll have an effective way to safely escape close-range encounters."

"And if it doesn't," said Levi, "you're going to deafen your teammates and attract the attention of every titan in the area."

"Give me some credit. I'll only test it out in low-risk settings."

"You know what I think, shitgoggles?" said Levi, folding his arms over his chest. "I think you're emotionally vulnerable after what happened on the last expedition, so now you're hell-bent on proving that you aren't afraid of titans, that you have what it takes to head up the research team. Relax. You don't have to do all that right away. This is just a scouting mission - all we have to do is get back alive with information about the route and it'll be a success. Go have a snack, take a shit in the trees and then focus on the mission."

There was a long pause as the Squad Leader's brows slowly lowered over the goggles.

"I know you're going to be Captain one day, Levi, but you don't outrank me yet. I'll do what I think is best for the Corps." With a curt nod, Hange walked away.

Levi watched, his jaw tight. That could have gone better.

"Sir," said Eld, riding up to him. "Lots of titans to the south."

"How many?" asked Levi. "Are they close together or spread out?"

"At least fifteen, maybe twenty. Spread out. Doesn't seem to be an easy route through them."

"Shit." Levi turned. "Hey, Hange, get back here. Bring your map."

The two Squad Leaders spread the map on the ground and crouched around it, along with Eld, Sonja, and Hange's new assistant, a blond-haired man by the name of Moblit. Sonja began to mark Xs on the map with graphite, replicating the titan layout to the best of her memory.

"Don't forget the two here," said Eld, tapping a blank spot - the one space where Levi had thought they had room to manoeuvre.

"Shit," said Levi again.

"What if we go east first and avoid the meadow?" asked Moblit, sliding a finger to a gorge.

"No visibility," said Hange. "We'd be sitting ducks in there - unless we have spotting teams running along the crest on either side of it, but then they'd be the sitting ducks. And the mountains to the west are too steep to navigate at full speed; we'd have to walk the horses, and who knows if the carts can handle the terrain? Straight through the meadow is the only realistic option."

"Realistic," repeated Levi, staring at all those graphite Xs.

For several minutes, they were silent. He closed his eyes and tried to tap into old strategic knowledge he hadn't used in years. When outnumbered by great odds on the streets - or before that - what would he have done? Probably pull the targets onto me and give the others time to escape.

His eyes opened. "We need a decoy team. Small enough to move quickly, but large enough to keep the titans contained if we need to engage. Maybe two people? If I take Eld to this location-" He tapped the densest area of the map. "I can use one of your sound rounds, four-eyes. It'll draw the titans in."

Hange's face paled. "You two can't fight that many titans at once."

"You believe the rounds will stun them, right? One round to stun the nearest titans and draw the others in. Another round to stun the remainder after they've gathered around us. You lead everyone else through the empty space we've created. Meanwhile, Eld and I slip away through the stunned titans. If it gets messy, we work together to hold the titans' attention while the rest of you escape."

"Levi." Hange sat back, frowning. "Erwin said not to take any unnecessary risks."

"He also said not to try out any new weapons," he said.

"It's too dangerous. I don't know if the rounds will stun them or not. That's why I wanted to try a round on a single titan, separate from a group. If it doesn't work and you get swarmed, you'll be on flat ground. The two of you wouldn't stand a chance. I'm not even sure our entire group could handle that many."

"Fine," he said. "Then give me a better plan. We have to get through somehow. If we stay here and try to wait them out, they might swarm us here, and these trees are too low to give us an advantage. We'd be fucked."

Their gaze held, then Hange looked back at the map, brow furrowed with concentration.

"Well?" asked Levi, hoping there was some plan he hadn't considered.

"Shit," muttered Hange.

"We can do it," said Eld softly. "We just have to run the horses as hard as we can. If we get overwhelmed, we could head for the trees here and switch to 3DMG." He pointed to a cluster of trees to the south. "Yeah, they're short trees, so it's not much better than being on the ground, but it's better than nothing."

Levi turned to look at him, impressed. He hadn't expected any strategic thinking out of the quiet man, at least not so soon. Eld's intellectual scores as a trainee had been fairly strong, but he was young, only a year out of training. Most people his age didn't have the life experience necessary to think on a large scale. I did, but my story's not normal.

"Okay, we'll do it," said Hange reluctantly. "But if you get stuck and head for the trees, fire off a red flare. We'll have a team circle toward the trees to assist." Turning to Moblit, the Squad Leader added, "Are you getting all this, Moblit?"

"Yes, Squad Leader." The assistant frantically scrawled notes in a book.

"Good. Erwin's going to need every detail so he can think about how we're going to get an entire army through this bottleneck. But for now-" Hange thrust the bag of sound rounds at Levi. "Take them all. You might need them."

Levi stood and turned to Eld, face grim. "You sure you're up for this, Eld?"

The man nodded. "I'm the best equestrian on the squad, sir. I won't let you down."

"Good man." Levi made a mental note to buy him a drink after the mission was over.

He let Hange announce their plans to the team, taking a moment to himself to eat and drink. His hand trembled as he recapped his water flask, and he frowned. Pull yourself together.

Fifteen minutes later, he and Eld approached the apex of the hill on horseback. Half the spare sound rounds were in his saddlebag, half in Eld's.

They crested the hill. The meadow opened up below them, full of flowers, bathed in sunlight, and crawling with titans. The hair on the back of Levi's neck stood on end. He took calm, steady breaths, and his focus narrowed to the titans and Eld and nothing else. He took in the titans' positions and movements, plotting the safest route to their target location.

"Follow me," he barked.

The horses burst onto the meadow at a full gallop. Levi entered his battle state of mind, thinking not in words, but in movements and observations. A titan ahead of them looked up. Its arm had barely started moving toward them, but Levi had already reacted; his horse darted out of reach. The hoof beats of Eld's horse kept pace behind him. The titan's hand whiffed them both, kicking up a breeze that ruffled Levi's cape.

Two wandering titans closed a gap ahead of him. Levi abruptly changed course, and now his pulse was racing in time with the hoof beats. Slow, steadying breaths. There was no time to worry, no time to think. Instinct would carry him through.

Fifty metres to the target location. Forty. He guided them in a speedy semi-circle around a particularly interested titan, confusing it, before getting back on track. Thirty. Twenty. He loosed his flare gun, raising it high in the air; he covered one ear with his shoulder, the other with his spare hand.

"Cover your ears!" he yelled, and he pulled the trigger.

Even with his ears covered, the sound round was so loud that he felt it boom in his chest.

His world tilted.

The box of pomegrenades began to fall toward the earth. Levi spun on his heel and tried to run, but not quickly enough. A flash. The explosion knocked him into the air; he twisted and landed hard. Red flares fired in every direction above him. Pain rocked his head, his vision blurring, his lungs refusing to suck in air, darkness closing in-

"Squad Leader," yelled Eld.

Levi realized he had been lost in his head. "Shit!" Of all the times to finally remember the explosion during the last mission... He forced himself into the present.

The two titans nearest them were stunned and shaking, but two others were unaffected - and all around them, others were converging on the source of the noise, some charging from halfway across the meadow.

It's working. We're opening up a route for the others.

Levi's hands tightened into the reins, his knuckles white. There were too many titans closing in. Even if the next sound round managed to stun half of them, he and Eld would still have far too many to deal with by themselves. The contingency plan to lure them to the tree line and request aid from Hange's group was still an option, but now he could see the trees for himself, and they were only three or four metres tall. That was barely better than flat ground - maybe even worse, if small titans were hiding among them. Besides, the trunks were too thin to support their weight, so the trees couldn't even function as grapple points.

The best option is for everyone to run. There's no need to risk the entire group just to save me. I'll hold the titans off as long as I can, then slip through the fray to meet up with the others.

He set his jaw and clicked a blade into place.

"Sir?" yelled Eld.

Levi led them out of the line of a charging titan, then dropped back to ride beside him. "Once we pull the rest of them in, I'm going to drop a few titans to carve an opening for you. Take it. Lead my horse to safety and put in just enough distance to stay out of danger. When I fire a third sound round, bring her back toward me, but stay out of the fray. If it's too messy, bring her back to the group and don't look back