When people look at Levi – new recruits, citizens, higher ups, soldiers, anyone really other than Erwin and Hange and some of his squad – they always look at him like they are waiting for him to snap, afraid that he will snap. Afraid that he will suddenly and without warning turn into the killer that he is known as, jarred out of that cold, calm demeanor in an instant.
And Levi always wants to laugh. Because Levi does not snap – he splinters.
He splinters when Isabel and Furlan die, but Erwin isn’t really around to see that. The first time that Erwin realizes just how fucked up Levi is – and he hides it very well, has spent a lot of time hiding it very well and yet even that hiding is sporadic, reflexive – is after Levi is a captain, after he is supposedly tamed and properly turned into the weapon that Erwin saw three years earlier down in the underground city. Wall Maria will not fall for another year. Levi will not truly gain the name of Humanity’s Strongest for another year. He is nineteen years old.
It’s a stupid thing that sets it off. Of course, it’s usually a stupid thing that sets it off. It doesn’t matter how many people he watches die or how many Titans he kills, how close to being killed, he gets. That has all been numb to him for a long time now. He can’t bathe.
They lose ten of the thirty soldiers on the first day of the expedition but when they arrive at the village to find the library still intact, Erwin can convince himself that it was justified. They set up camp inside the library, which is relatively large. It’s warm enough that they don’t need fires and the light is just starting to die when Erwin sees Levi walk towards the exit and push open the front doors.
“Levi,” he says, and Levi looks back at him, hand still on the door. “Where are you going?”
“To wash,” he says, and then turns back to the door, pushing it open another six inches.
“Where exactly?” Erwin says.
“River we passed south of here,” Levi says without looking.
Levi stills, and then turns. His face is as expressionless as always but Erwin sees his eye twitch.
“It’s not completely dark yet and there could be abnormals around anyway,” Erwin says. “It’s not safe.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“It’s an unnecessary risk and you are not to go outside, that’s an order.”
Levi stills again. He stares at Erwin for a long second and Erwin has about a fifty-fifty bet on whether or not he’ll listen.
The door closes with a bang. Levi’s expressionless face has turned just down enough to be called a glare, and he holds Erwin’s gaze for another few moments while he walks back to where his bedroll and bag is set up.
Erwin thinks nothing of it until two days later, the morning after they return to their base within the walls, and Erwin finds Levi’s squad just standing around, sans Levi.
“What are you all doing here?” Erwin asks. “Where’s Captain Levi?”
“We haven’t seen him this morning,” one of them says, “I knocked on his door but he didn’t answer.”
Erwin frowns, and then goes back into the building and to Levi’s room. He knocks firmly. “Levi, it’s me.”
He gets no response.
“Levi, open up,” Erwin says.
There is a pause, and then the turn of the doorknob and the light creak, the door opening slowly and just enough for Levi to look out at him, impassive. He’s not dressed to train. He’s wearing a crisp white, long-sleeved shirt and his standard black pants. There’s circles under his eyes and his skin looks pink – it’s startling and for a second Erwin things he’s flushed or blushing, but a moment later he realizes it looks more like his skin is irritated.
“Why aren’t you down in the yard?” he says. “Your team is looking for you.”
“I’m unfit for training today,” Levi says flatly, and starts to shut the door.
Erwin grabs the door, frowning. He’d think that Levi was being lazy except that Levi is never lazy. Slow, methodical, uncaring, but not lazy. “Are you ill?” Erwin asks. “Do you need to go to medical?”
“It’s taken care of,” Levi says, but Erwin doesn’t close the door. He glances up and down, and notices suddenly that there are bandages wrapped around Levi’s right hand, and his fingers are bright red. It disappears under his sleeves.
“Did you get injured?” Erwin asks, and he’s trying to remember – they only ran into one Titan the day before, and Levi had seemed fine the day before that – Erwin hadn’t noticed any injuries and Levi wasn’t one to avoid medical – in fact, he was surprisingly overcautious about injuries and their healing.
“Yes,” Levi says.
“Did you go to medical?” Erwin asks. It feels off – there’s something that’s making his skin prickle. Levi is always impossible to read but this time there’s something that feels forced.
“Erwin,” Levi says. His mouth twitches.
“What are your injuries?” Erwin says, commanding this time, and there’s that one moment of stillness and then Levi’s expression suddenly breaks, a sudden flash of irritation followed by something close to recklessness, a loss of control that Erwin can’t ever remember seeing on his face, save maybe when his friends were killed on that first mission beyond the walls.
“My knuckles and elbows of both hands are split open, my right arm wrist to elbow is scraped raw, there are somewhere around two dozen cuts total across both my arms, and I have first degree burns on my right hand. I will be back on duty tomorrow, sir.”
And he slams the door in Erwin’s face and Erwin is too shocked to do anything but stare at the wooden door in front of him.
Levi sits in his room and takes another swig of wine. He rarely drinks. It makes him too vulnerable to attack, and he has a habit of getting much too drunk on the occasions that he does drink, and that makes him vulnerable to attack for the whole day afterwards as well – he does not get sick. He almost never vomits from it, but his body shakes and his head falls thick and his reactions are pathetically slow.
His skin is no longer crawling but pain sings all over instead and he feels shitty even with the relief still resonating in his blood. He hadn’t drank the night before. He had a fireplace in his room and even though the space is tiny he still has a small, but effective, tub squished into the corner. That and a large barrel of water that he keeps full.
He’s surprised and yet not surprised at all at the lack of shame or worry or hell even any concern at all that he feels about having told Erwin exactly how he’s hurt himself. He waits but just hears Erwin’s receding footsteps and huffs to himself. That would be it then, apparently.
He always forgets, in his panicked frenzy, that it will feel like shit afterwards. That suddenly his body will remember to turn on its pain receptors again, will suddenly remember that it is in fact skin and not just some absorbent covering. He drinks some more wine.
And then another knock comes, about twenty minutes later. Levi closes his eyes for one moment. He hadn’t locked it this time. The door creaks open.
He doesn’t need to look to know that it’s Erwin. He looks anyway and sees that he’s brought tea and a bag with him this time. He places the tea on Levi’s desk before pulling over the chair towards his bed. Erwin’s eyes fall on the bottle of wine that Levi is still holding, and Levi dares him to say something with his eyes, feels like he could throw the whole damn bottle at him if he says one word about it.
Erwin doesn’t. He takes a cup of tea and holds it out to him.
Levi looks at him for a moment, then puts the bottle of wine down and accepts the tea. Erwin settles into the chair with his own cup.
“Do you do this often?” Erwin says.
“If I did you would have heard about it by now,” Levi says. He takes a sip of tea.
“Is there a particular reason why?”
“You wouldn’t let me wash.”
The look on Erwin’s face is so comical that Levi actually barks out a laugh. He blames it on the wine. It’s all shock and surprise and confusion, followed by an incredulous kind of guilt, and Levi wants to sink his teeth into that, wants him to feel guilty because he can still feel the grime and sweat, and Titan blood evaporates but he swore he could feel it on his face, his hair, his clothes, his hands, his arms, everywhere. He can still taste the panic he felt that night in the library, eyes open, whole body tense, lying in the dark while everyone else slept, the panic and sudden trapped, helpless, unbearable tension. He wants Erwin to know how much he has unwittingly hurt him. He wants to hurt him back.
When Levi is done laughing, Erwin’s face has morphed into a guarded, cautious worry. He looks fucking disturbed, Levi realizes. It makes him want to laugh again and instead he gives him a crooked, unhinged smile.
This is the rabid dog that the higher ups and the nobles have always been afraid of. This is the underground, criminal scum that the other soldiers were so loathe and fearful of working with. No, he was never a danger to any of them – at least not an unpredictable danger. He is only ever reckless with himself.
Erwin clears his throat. “Levi, really. Please tell me what made you do this.”
Levi grins at him. He grins and he knows he looks disturbing, he knows the insanity which he keeps so tightly locked into the back of his mind is bleeding through, and he doesn’t fucking care. His hand is fucking agony with the burns he gave himself at two in the morning that night, unable to get the feeling of blood from under his fingernails, the cracks in the lines of his palm, his right one, his dominant hand, where blood hand gotten sprayed the most, the hand he used to pick things up, the one that always was likely to be more filthy that the other.
It had been pure desperation, and for a second the blinding pain was worth it, because he was finally, finally sure that his hand was completely sterilized, and the fucking relief was incredible. Now it just hurts like absolute hell. He grins at Erwin anyway.
Erwin stares at him, and Levi can see it, the moment he realizes that Levi wasn’t joking.
“You’re serious,” Erwin says, and it’s not accusatory or chastising, just blank and shocked. “You really did this to yourself because you couldn’t take a bath.”
“You know how I do like things clean.”
Erwin stares at him another moment, and then hangs his head down and puts one hand to his face, fingers on the bridge of his nose, elbow against his knee.
“Okay,” he says when he looks up. “Explain it to me. Why this?”
Levi looks back at him impassively. “Why what?” His tone is flat, purposefully misunderstanding.
“Why did you hurt yourself.”
“I didn’t say I hurt myself.”
“Are you telling me the injuries you listed off weren’t self-inflicted? Because I really can’t imagine anyone who would ever be able to inflict that kind of damage on you, unless they got a drop on you and are now dead.”
Levi said nothing.
“God, Levi, give me something here,” Erwin says.
“I don’t like filth.”
It comes out dry and measured, unhurried. It’s not automatic but it certainly isn’t thought out.
“Yes, I gathered that,” Erwin says, almost irritated. He lets out a sigh, seems to try again. “Can I see the wounds?”
“Why?” Levi says. “I cleaned them.”
“You said you didn’t go to medical,” Erwin says, and he nods at Levi’s hand, his right hand, that he has laid carefully by his side, holding the tea in his left. “Even first degree burns on feet and hands can be serious.”
“It’s fine.” It’s agonizing. He resists the urge to pull his hand away as Erwin continues to look at it. The only skin exposed are his fingers, and even then, only past the second knuckle. It was a bitch to wrap.
“Have you treated burns before?” Erwin says. “You can’t just wrap them up like cuts and scrapes. Did you put ointment on it?”
“I sterilized it,” Levi says. Alcohol. He’d almost passed out. He’d put a piece of (clean) cloth in his mouth to bite down on.
Erwin looks at him like he’s insane and this time the expression is far less comical for some reason. “You need burn cream,” he says. He grabs the bag he brought with him and pulls out a tube of something and another role of bandages, these ones thinner and softer looking than the ones Levi had applied that night (or that morning, he supposes).
Levi looks at it, debates it in his mind. He needs it to heal well though, needs to avoid infection, and Erwin seems pretty sure of himself on this. Hell, what does Levi care if Erwin sees the damage?
“Fine,” he says. He pulls off his shirt. There are bandages wrapped all the way to his shoulder on his right arm and bandages from wrist to elbow on his left. There are patches of scraped skin on his stomach and chest that almost look like bruises – tiny red and purple dots in clusters, where he’d broken blood vessels just under the skin from rubbing with a sponge, then a rough cloth, and then, when he could still feel it, still feel it on his skin, he’d taken steel wool to his arms. The rest of his skin is pink, rubbed raw, as well.
Erwin forces himself to look at Levi’s arms. Levi watches him carefully, emotionlessly. Erwin holds out his hand but leaves it there, as if asking, may I? Levi turns to sit a little closer, legs over the edge of the bed, and holds out his right arm.
Erwin begins unwrapping the bandages, starting at his shoulder. It stings where some of the wounds, scabs forming, stick to the bandages. A couple start to trickle blood, just barely. His elbow is scraped. There are small, imprecise cuts hashed over each other sporadically all across his wrist – how many? Fifteen, twenty, more? He’s not sure. He didn’t stop to count. (His own blood was better than Titan blood, better than sweat, better than dirt. If he couldn’t have water and soap then he’d take blood.)
Levi watches Erwin but all he did was pause, looking at the cuts, and then continued. When he begins to unwrap the bandages on Levi’s hand, Levi sucks in a sharp breath and his fingers twitch. Erwin pauses.
Levi swallows. It was some of the worst pain he’d been in and he’d been through plenty of pain. He’d known burns were very painful but he hadn’t really realized what that meant. He had never burned himself more than a couple sparks from a fire.
“This will hurt,” Erwin says.
“No shit,” Levi bites out. Erwin continues to unwrap it and Levi tenses further and further until he closes his eyes and turns away, jaw clenching. It's almost as bad as the alcohol had been.
When he finishes, Erwin sits looking at Levi’s hand, holding it delicately by his wrist and the tips of his fingers. He starts applying the ointment, which actually seems to help, make the pain soften, at least slightly. He starts rewrapping afterwards.
“You need to change the bandages and apply more ointment twice a day,” Erwin says. “And don’t try to hold anything with it for at least a week. I won’t tell you not to train because I know you won’t listen, but you will inhibit the healing and cause scarring if not nerve damage if you try wielding a sword or vertical maneuvering gear.”
“Fine,” Levi says. Truthfully, he’s not sure he’s capable of holding anything at the moment anyway – his fingers don’t want to respond and he’s in enough pain without putting pressure on his skin.
When Levi looks up Erwin is staring at him. Calculating, just a step below intense. “You obviously get dirty all the time – why was this different?”
“I need to wash and change before I sleep.”
It was fine (mostly fine, he could ignore it, he could get over it) as long as it was still daytime, as long as he was still fighting, sweating, actively engaged in something. It was only when he stood still again that it started to grate.
(To grate and grate and rise and it felt ear-piercing, sharp and itching, and then suddenly that cracked and exploded into fear instead, panic, terror.)
Even then, it wasn’t usually this bad. It came in waves, his insanity, his fractures. He’d felt it building for the past couple weeks. This was just the breaking point, a catalyst.
“Can I help?” Erwin says. “Would you tell me next time?”
“You can let me wash.”
“Shut up, Erwin.”
“Will you be alright if I leave?” he says.
Levi looks at him sideways. Exactly what do you mean by alright? he wants to say.
Erwin waits. “Are you going to hurt yourself again if I leave?” Erwin says, firmer.
Levi narrows his eyes. “Do you actually think you could stop me if I wanted to?” he says. Do you actually think that I have the ability to stop myself?
Erwin sighs. “No,” he says, “but I thought it might help. Will you please come get me? If you’re going to hurt yourself again – if you want to hurt yourself.”
“I don’t want to hurt myself.” Levi says the words and then wonders if it’s actually a lie.
“Then why do you do it?”
Levi doesn’t answer.
Erwin sighs. “Alright,” he says. He starts to stand. “Please come get me. Please tell me next time you’re going to.”
“I’m going to tonight.”
It’s not a promise. It’s a fact. Tonight, when he can’t sleep. He no longer feels the phantom itch, but it doesn’t matter. He’s broken the seal. He knows this path. It will continue, the bursts of self-destructiveness, for another week at least, probably more like two or three, then it will taper off.
Erwin pauses. “Alright, I’ll be back tonight then with some tea.”
The next time Levi tells him he’s going to wash while on a trip outside the walls, Erwin lets him.