In the best of times what Levi does in the deep hours of the night can only barely be qualified as sleep. Sleep carries the connotation of rest and rejuvenation. The snorting, twitching performance Levi was prone to giving was often hard-pressed to produce such results. He struggles to fall asleep and wakes at the slightest provocation, but such things happen when undisturbable slumber can spell a knife between the ribs.
As such in the days following the sighting of titans within the confines of Wall Rose, when the world was all fear and mad speculation and Erwin lay in hospital on the delicate edge of life, Levi thought nothing of the fact that in four days he had slept a nonconsecutive four hours.
There were things that needed attending to, grounded though he was. Things which could be accomplished on sheer adrenaline and purpose. And where Levi was concerned sleep could, at the very least, wait until he was certain Erwin would live.
He visited many times while Erwin was still comatose from blood loss, stolen moments which could have been spent sleeping. He sat by the commander’s bedside and watched, hawkeyed, for the stuttered rise and fall of the other man’s chest, never letting his eyes stray too far to Erwin’s right.
Most of his scant sleep was attained in the chair by that bed, slumped down so far that his knees actually bent. Always short naps that left him feeling worse than before. He would wake in the dark and panic would well up inside of him, because half asleep in moon dappled shadow it was too easy to imagine that Erwin had stopped breathing. Vigilance was easier.
The days pressed on, and four days turned into five, and five into six. Nearly a week and still only the barest signs of improvement from Erwin. That night Levi sat up well past midnight watching Erwin twist and fret in the clutches of a freshly resurgent fever. An unending parade of clean, damp cloths and his presence were all Levi could offer. So he sat and watched, and made sure there was some sheet in Erwin’s hand when he clenched it so hard that all of the color went out of the knuckles and the tendons strained at the skin.
Moans and half formed words bubbled from between chapped lips and more than once Levi was called to sharp attention by something that sounded almost like his name. There was no lucidity behind the sounds, yet all the same the syllables of his name in Erwin’s voice sent an electric charge through him, igniting hope and despair all at once.
As night was beginning its arc toward dawn the fever broke. Erwin’s muttering trailed off and he slipped back into a deeper but undoubtedly no less troubled sleep. For over an hour Levi sat with the other man’s large, limp hand cradled in his lap, his fingers pressed to the inside of Erwin’s wrist, lips moving silently as he counted each heart beat.
Keeping count quickly became a farce, because in his blood deep fatigue the numbers ran together. He found himself skipping numbers or repeating himself. His eyes were burning and his body seemed to be full of a strange low buzzing.
He lifted Erwin’s hand and pressed his lips to the valley between the knuckles of the ring and middle fingers before gently placing it on the bed. For a moment he considered the sliver of open space beside Erwin, but decided against it and instead folded himself onto the couch. Due in part to his massive sleep debt he was out almost as soon as he closed his eyes.
Clammy wind rushing past his face. Wind heavy with the stench of human waste, and rot, and mildew. The shadows of a girl and a boy. The girl’s laughter. His own grough reply. A glimpse of wings, of calculating blue eyes.
Blinding, brilliant sunlight and blood and screams that ended with sick and abrupt finality.
A heavy, painful crunch.
Levi woke with his shoulder and injured ankle telegraphing pain through his whole body. His uneasy sleep had thrown him clear off the edge of the couch, the last collision of his nightmare made manifest. He pressed his face into the palms of his hands to clear his eyes before looking around. The room was no lighter. He closed his eyes, the lids twitching, breathing in slowly through his nose, and then stood.
The chair by Erwin’s side was rigid and hard, but it was right. He threaded his fingers between Erwin’s. Leaning forward he rested his head on the mattress, and closed his eyes to wait for morning.
When Erwin finally did wake Levi was in the city putting the finishing touches on the arrangements for his new squad and their quarters. Requisitions of rations and supplies, travel plans. Things which his long years in the Corps had made routine. He was finishing a transaction when a small girl, barefoot but conspicuously well scrubbed, brought him the news.
He crouched down and placed a heavy gold coin in the girl’s hand, “This time, buy some shoes.”
“I did buy shoes last time. For little brother.” The girl’s face was solemn.
Levi pulled another coin from his pocket and stacked it atop the one the girl already held. “This time you buy yourself some shoes. Am I understood?”
The girl nodded, all wide eyes and wonder, before dashing out the door.
The lobby of the hospital was strangely empty given that so many people had been waiting on Erwin’s waking. The nurse at the desk greeted him with a smile and said, “He was asking for you.”
“Oh yes, almost the first words out of him.”
Levi merely blinked at this and opened the door to Erwin’s room. The curtains had been pulled back letting in the bright afternoon light. Erwin was sitting propped up on a small mountain of pillows. He looked ragged and scruffy, but the dullness of pain and fever were nowhere to be seen. His eyes were sharp and clear, and when they fixed on Levi a small measure of darkness flitted away.Though it seeped back in as he took in Levi’s appearance.
“You haven’t been sleeping.” His voice had a rough, tortured quality to it.
It wasn’t a question or even an accusation, just a statement. The type Erwin was so good at making because no matter how anyone tried he could always see what they least wanted him to.
Levi didn’t rise to it. Instead he crossed to Erwin’s bedside and took the other man’s face between his hands. Erwin’s skin was warm under his calloused fingers and his pulse, though somewhat erratic, was very much there.
“You haven’t been keeping off your ankle either.”
Levi made no motion of response. He only continued to stare into Erwin’s face. The man had twisted out of death’s grip. He was weak from blood loss, but alive and undoubtedly already plotting. Yet he was focused on Levi’s condition over his own.
“I’m alive Levi.”
At those words Levi crushed his mouth to Erwin’s, as though he still disbelieved and only this could prove otherwise. Erwin responded in kind, his left hand gripping the back of Levi’s head to steady himself.
It wasn’t long before Erwin was short of breath and he pulled away, his face distorted by pain. He let out a husky laugh and said, “I’m alive, but I feel like I’ve been trampled by an entire stable’s worth of horses.”
Levi’s face grew grim at Erwin’s attempt at humor. “You stupid asshole.” He pushed a stray piece of Erwin’s hair behind his ear. “Go out without me one time and get bits of yourself eaten off. Fucking stupid asshole.”
Levi sunk to the edge of the mattress, suddenly feeling the weight of his sleepless week. His head dipped forward to rest against Erwin’s left shoulder. “Fucking stupid asshole.”
Erwin’s hand was on the back of his neck again. Large and warm, and rough skinned. With his face buried in the commander’s chest, the smell of his skin and clean shirt blotted out everything else. He could feel his eyelids growing heavy, could feel his brain going fuzzy, his thoughts unfocused.
He could sleep. Erwin Smith, stupid fucking asshole that he was, was alive. He could feel Erwin’s face pressed into his hair. Feel his breath on his scalp. Erwin was saying something in a low voice Levi couldn’t hear.
He could sleep right there.
But then there was a knock at the door, and Levi jerked upright. He inhaled sharply through his nose, chasing all traces of fatigue and near sleep from his demeanor.
He crossed the room, missing the look of concern that transited Erwin’s face, and opened the door. Commander Pixis greeted him with a hearty bark of a laugh before turning to a harried looking young woman in a Stationary Guard uniform standing just behind him.
“What did I tell you Barthes? Pay up,” Pixis said, holding out a weathered hand to his aide. She begrudgingly pulled a flask from her jacket pocket and handed it over.
Levi stepped aside to let them in, as Pixis uncapped the flask and took a long pull. The Garrison Commander took up a perch on the couch on the left side of the room leaving Levi to return to his chair at Erwin’s bedside.
“Some kind of wager?” Erwin asked as Barthes plucked the flask from Pixis’ hand just before he could take a second drink.
“Oh I was just telling Barthes that the Captain would beat us here. She thought we would be the first ones here seeing as we had a runner direct from the hospital.”
Levi lifted his gaze from the floor to raise an eyebrow. Pixis only answered this inquiry with a wink. Levi’s eyes narrowed but Pixis had carried on to the official business at hand.
“You’re looking quite well, all things considered Smith. Though I’m afraid the briefing I’ve got for you might take some of the color out of you again.”
The afternoon became a parade of briefings as word spread that the Commander of the Survey Corps was well enough for official visits. Levi held back some surprise that no gawkers had turned out. No smug noblemen flexing their political muscle in order to get a good long sneer in at the lunatic who was in charge of throwing their money away.
The day’s lack of incidents was a rare blessing. Given Levi’s state of increased agitation it was unlikely that such an encounter would fail to end in dire upset. Infact the visitors had all made their reports and gone on their way as other duties called, even Hanji.
Regardless, it was a long afternoon and they did not find themselves alone again until the room was full of the golden light of sunset. Whatever spell had overtaken Levi earlier in the day did not return. He was wearier than he could ever remember being, and with the implications of all that he had heard whirling through his brain he didn’t imagine that he would have many opportunities for good sleep anytime soon.
The stillness of dusk was heavy in the air between them.
“When are you leaving?”
Levi closed his eyes. “Tomorrow morning. First thing.”
“Good. Waiting this long was stretching it.”
Levi’s eyes caught the light when he opened them to glare at Erwin. Erwin knew why he held off leaving. He knew why all but the last arrangements have all been made. He knew and he was pushing just to make Levi say it, and Levi was not about to give him the satisfaction. Neither would Levi make some mealy-mouthed attempt to disguise his motivations with lies about concerns for the chain of command. He knew his place too well for that to sound anything but disingenuous.
Instead of saying anything he allowed his glare to mellow into a scowl directed more vaguely toward the view out the window.
That same electric current from the night before thrummed through his body and he looked back at Erwin’s face. There was still stubble on his cheeks and his hair was a mass of fluff transforming into a halo as it caught the golden light of the waning day. The residual humming in Levi’s nerves turned into an ache which made him wish he had never seen the other man.
“You can’t make that ride on no sleep.”
“I’ve managed worse.” He kept his voice flat in defiance of the heat in the pit of his guts.
“You need to sleep Levi.”
His name again. Of course Erwin had already seen the effect it had. He wondered if Erwin was even conscious of the way he read people.
“I’ll be fine.”
Erwin shifted on the bed, opening more space on his right. He bobbed his head in a beckoning gesture.
“Come lay down. Sleep.”
Levi’s eyes flicked from the rumpled sheets to Erwin’s bandaged shoulder and said, “Other side.”
Levi stood and walked around to the other side of the bed. “You’ve seen me sleep. Do you want me to punch you in the fucking stump?”
Erwin laughed a little at this, but he moved so that the extra space was on his left.
Nodding, Levi slipped off his shoes and removed his belt before he climbed onto the bed. His body fit beside Erwin’s so well. His head cradled in the crook of the other man’s neck and shoulder, the jut of his hip meeting the slight inward curve of Erwin’s stomach, his feet falling somewhere past Erwin’s knees.
As he settled into the mattress, squirming to find a comfortable position a muttered chorus of doubting voices swelled up in his mind. They pointed out every absurd reason why sleeping there and then was an action of pure folly. But Erwin’s hand was smoothing his hair down and with his ear pressed to Erwin’s chest the sound of his heartbeat was all encompassing, a slow and steady rhythm that perfectly drowned out the fretting.
His breathing was evening out, and the urge to let his eyes close was becoming unresistable. He tilted his head back so that he could look up into Erwin’s face. He reached up a hand to cup the curve of Erwin’s jaw, the week old stubble still viciously sharp.
“You’re still a stupid fucking asshole.” His voice was low, and carried no malice.
Erwin smiled at this.
“I know.” He leaned forward and pressed his lips to Levi’s forehead.
The world was darkening both outside the window and inside Levi’s head, and as he lost focus his mouth made the motions of another phrase. This one tainted Erwin’s smile with a stain of sadness, but once again he kissed Levi’s forehead and repeated in a low whisper, “I know.”
But Levi couldn’t hear it because he was already asleep.