It's never the children's fault, it will never be. The irresponsible, those who have known how to cultivate evil, those who have no idea how stupid their genius is, those who play god with lightness that only ignorance enables, those who believe that war is the answer.
It's their fault.
These children, eaten while they scream and cry and regret having trusted adults; it's not their fault.
It's the fault of those shits who are out there, lurking, using weapons instead of their brains, instead of their hearts.
It's their fault, yes.
It will always be.
—October 21, 844—
He has spent enough time with commander Shadis to know it: with every day, every mission that passes, his face deteriorates a little more. Lately, he's been terribly exhausted. Also, unfortunately, the walls are thin and Erwin occupies the closest room to his, so he knows firsthand that nightmares are increasingly recurring.
Soon, Erwin understands it: their commander will resign. It may take a few months, a few expeditions, but he will.
What he didn't expect, until a moment ago, was that the confirmation would arrive so soon:
"You'll be in charge in a few months, Erwin," the commander tells him at the end of a new meeting in his office, between heaps of reports from the last expedition.
Erwin contains the irremediable need to smile.
“Pardon?" he whispers while he continues to check the draft of a report that Shadis himself gave him an hour ago. His face before the commander remains immutable, and he instead asks, "What do you mean by…?"
Shadis chuckles. He stands up, turns his back as he approaches to the window and, looking at him through the weak reflection that it returns, he continues:
"Come on: I know who you are, I know how you are and you can't fool me with that face." Erwin can't help but blink when he hears him. Damn. "You're ready to be in charge of the Survey Corps, you want my resignation more than anything. And you know what? It's okay. You've prepared yourself a lot for this, haven't you?"
With the same face as before, checking the draft and nothing more, Erwin nods.
"I've done it, sir."
"Then, mentalize yourself: you'll occupy my chair soon."
Erwin holds his breath without realizing it. The suddenness of the announcement has taken away all his ability to reason, to give the idea, to assimilate that he has reached the place he has pointed to since that day.
The one in which he ruined everything forever.
"I don't remember other resignations," Erwin mentions, gathering his breath again, "it's not the custom among the commanders of the Survey Corps."
A laugh, and Shadis' reflected look hardens.
"I survived long enough to know that it would have been better to die in combat."
Erwin's eyes widen when he hears him. He's not able to understand the weight of these words, not yet.
"Will you leave the Military?" Erwin asks not without hesitation, caught in the commander's gaze.
Shadis smiles at him through the reflection.
"I'll train recruits, I think."
"A man of your experience will do it fantastically."
"Don't play smart with me: you still have a lot to learn, so I'll take advantage of my last months to practice with you." He turns to Erwin, finally, and smiles confidently, without glimpses of mockery or falsehood. "I'll show you what you still need to learn."
Without further ado, the commander returns to his chair and continues with the reports. Erwin tries to concentrate on his work, but two things prevent him from doing so: the severe look in the reflection, the last sentence.
How much does he still needs to learn?
He sighs and tries to reconnect with the report: Titans' behavior, number of abnormals, average size, dead soldiers, outstanding soldiers.
Levi, last name unknown: seven titans killed individually, no titan killed in team…
"That kid, the thug," Shadis says.
"Levi," Erwin answers with his eyes fixed on that name, written by his hand on the paper.
"He has killed eighteen titans on three expeditions: I don't remember a similar number in another rookie, at least not individually."
"He's mastered every single difficult subject perfectly. His talent is historically unprecedented." Shadis stops, almost breathless, amazed while he looks at nothing in particular, perhaps remembering Levi slaughtering titans in front of him.
Erwin feels kind of proud.
"He's amazing," he says with more sincerity than he can recognize.
"He'll be valuable if you manage to tame him, Erwin: he's still very young, and his problematic personality is directly proportional to his talent." Shadis pushes the reports ready for archiving to the right, and he takes the stack of the ones to be checked. “It's a pity that the other two have died on their first expedition: that trio would have gained notoriety among people very, very fast, and their example would have attracted more recruits; as a squad, they had overwhelming potential. But that Levi surpassed his comrades: he's an abnormal within humans, but like all abnormal he's unpredictable.”
Wise description, Erwin thinks without altering a millimeter of his gesture. Levi is an abnormal among humans, his ability surpasses all known, including those of legends of the Survey Corps. With so little time, the bar so high, even more than Erwin himself calculated! Eighteen titans since he was recruited six months ago: that record will be difficult to overcome in just three expeditions.
But yes: like every abnormal, Levi is unpredictable.
"He'll be one of your priorities as the future commander," Shadis tells him as an order, "we need him. Before I leave, I need to make sure you'll be able to tame him."
Is he capable? Erwin finishes the report and gives it to Commander Shadis before standing up.
"I will," he replies.
Shadis nods and dismisses him. There's no more paperwork, finally.
Walking towards his room, Erwin avoids the look of the reflection and the enigmatic words; he focuses on Levi and the concept that Shadis has introduced to him, something that is easy for him, surprisingly. Thinking about Levi is easy these days.
Will he able to tame him?
His wings are real, he has seen them with his own eyes; Levi has the potential to become a breaking point for the Survey Corps and therefore for all mankind. His technique is different but effective, and the charisma he has, the presence he has, all can lead him to be a new legend.
He may be hurrying, he cannot lose direction with this. Initially, after the first expedition, he thought that perhaps it had been mere good luck, that the fury provoked that massacre on the battlefield, the overwhelming adrenaline of having lost his best friends in such a cruel way.
But it didn't.
Two more expeditions and the average has only increased.
The next day, during the training sessions, Erwin checks once again that there is no mistake, that he's not marveling too much, that the light that comes off Levi is not blinding him. The wood replicas immersed in the forest are not real titans, but the fact that Levi doesn't leave even one of the ten standing in record time…
"He's a monster," Nanaba says in a tiny voice, devoid of her usual composure and seriousness. Levi always seems to cause the same as he swings through the skies. "How can he move that fast? It's as if the vertical maneuvering equipment is part of his body, one more extension, as if it were…”
"A pair of wings," Erwin answers watching how Levi uses the equipment to return to the starting point, moving with an almost touching skill, with an elegance that moves him, as if his movements were a piece of art. "He should save some gas, maybe, but with each time he economizes his moves more. He has taken criticism well: his speed is inhuman."
"He has his style, but his squad leader has told me that he doesn't pay attention to his teammates," Mike says, standing next to Nanaba. "He got along perfectly with Church and Magnolia, but it seemed he was the one who taught them how to use the equipment: it was obvious in their style, or so I got to observe. The three of them could read their movements and understand each other outside the wall. It seems that is not the case with the rest.“
Good point: his style is unpredictable, Erwin thinks, and that could endanger his squadmates eventually.
Maybe it's a good idea to supervise him personally, take him with his squad on the next expedition.
"We have time to analyze it," Erwin concludes.
Between the sunlight and the shadows that the trees draw on the ground, Levi walks with a stoic gesture between stunned onlookers. He walks firmly, with the bearing of the most experienced soldier, and he watches only one person while he walks.
Erwin looks at him too, serious.
How indifferent, but how curious too: Levi doesn't talk to anyone, Erwin looks at him enough to know; he neither seems to rest much or so it seems considering the dark bags under his eyes; everything about him indicates that he has no interest in those around him.
But he always listens, always follows, always obeys when Erwin is the one who gives the order.
Erwin barely hears his voice beyond that; he hardly socializes with him, except when Levi cleans the office he occupies in the barracks, the one he uses to work on his strategies: he enters, cleans and leaves, no matter if he's there or he's not. Erwin has already noticed a certain obsession with cleaning in him, who personally cleans much of the barracks, so he had no way of opposing; he let him be without saying a word. Knowing that being in the Survey Corps, having a hobby is always a positive thing.
For Levi, perhaps even more so, as he lost everything on that first, fatal expedition.
There's something about Levi that intrigues him, Erwin discovers for the umpteenth time when he thinks about it: he's unpredictable. He is when he fights and he is during his daily life. His eyes, made of colorful silver ice, seem impenetrable.
It's impossible to know what he's thinking, and that worries him.
"Well done, Levi," Erwin says as a congratulation. Nanaba and Mike, although visibly uncomfortable in his presence, nod. “Your speed is unmatched, and the power of your attacks is accurate in each case. You are conserving more gas. Keep it up, don't stop learning how to economize.”
Levi neither perturbs nor nods or makes gestures of respect; after hearing his words, he leaves. Around him, everyone whispers.
He fights like ten soldiers in one. No! 50. They say he killed three without touching the ground. Were there not five? I think they exaggerate. They don't exaggerate! Didn't you see his speed?! No titan could get rid of that strange spin he does. I want to do that too! But how awkward to grab the blade like that. That is to say…
"They shouldn't flatter him so much," Mike says, disturbing with his voice the echo of the whispers. "Excess of pride is never positive in the Survey Corps."
Is Levi the type that is carried away for flattering comments? Dealing with his ego will surely be part of making sure he accomplishes his mission: he has to tame him.
But how, if those eyes are ice and his plan depends on reading through them?
Days pass, one after another; they become weeks, and inertia becomes, in turn, the protagonist of his life.
Shit, a literal one.
He sits in the corner of the room he shares with three recruits. The one that is tall and has a weird hairstyle, the one with a constipated face and the one with big thick lips that masturbates at least five times a night. He doesn't speak with them nor do they speak to him; they look at him half with admiration and half with fear.
Better like this.
None of the three have dared to ask him why he doesn't sleep in his bed, but in a chair next to the window; the three know that he only sleeps two hours, no more than that, and they have spread it well among the recruits, it seems.
He's tired of all the whispers, of all the shit that everyone spreads, that dirties everything around him.
Levi is like a cork of a wine bottle, but he's inhumanly strong! They say he killed eight! Or was it ten? As if it mattered! The point is that he's better than the best! They say that he's better than that soldier and that other soldier and that he moves better than that soldier and that his technique is better than that of…
It's shit. Pure shit coming from shit.
He sits in the chair and closes his eyes, with his legs and arms crossed. He sleeps sitting because, for some reason, it prevents him from seeing the dead faces of those he has lost.
He checks the report in his mind: in two days, thanks to the larger budget that Erwin's tactic has conferred them from the pigs in the capital, they can go on a new expedition. He'll go with Erwin, precisely, as he has been warned today.
"I need to analyze your team performance," he explained that same afternoon when he summoned him to his office. "We are concerned about your ability to interact with others: your technique is different from the one we teach, and while we don't deny its effectiveness, at the same time we need adequate feedback outside the wall."
"Wouldn't it be easier to try it in a drill?" Levi asked, bored with the conversation.
"Unfortunately, there are many maneuvers that we can only analyze properly with real titans," Erwin replied.
The commander, meanwhile, nothing; he just stood by the window, watching him. Half with admiration, half with fear.
As everyone looks at him.
All except Erwin Smith.
The speech that he gave him between steam and blood that fateful June afternoon in which he lost everything still rumbles inside him: to see beyond, to not remain blinded, to use his strength to help humanity; all the respect that throbbed in his chest upon hearing him is what resonates most, which rides him through the fog of this senseless inertia.
It's the only thing that fills him, the only thing that reminds him why he's alive: the desire to fight for something bigger than him, than all what he knows.
That's how transcendental the truth is for a man born in the cradle of lies, of the most inhuman injustice that reigns within the walls.
If fighting allows him to change that lie, then…
He remains convinced to follow Erwin Smith in his cause; the respect that beats in his chest remains intact. However, he begins to feel uncomfortable in his presence.
He takes a deep breath settling on the chair: Erwin Smith makes him nervous.
He's skilled, exemplary, nobody questions him, and during lunch and dinner, he usually hears increasingly strong rumors about commander Shadis' supposed resignation, which, theoretically, will place Erwin at the top of the Survey Corps. It provokes admiration in all his comrades, his presence fills all the space around him and his ideas are almost revolutionary: the bastard is spotless and no one seems to fear him.
Erwin Smith turns bright, neat, everything he touches.
He's not envious about it: being loved or admired or respected or whatever it will never be important to him, it's not his style, it's not what he learned in his years in the Underground, where the priority was to be strong, not famous. But something in Erwin Smith bothers him. Something in his serious gesture, in the opulence of his speech, in his attitude and polite gestures bothers him too much, to a point that begins to baffle him, which he had never experienced before, that keeps him both away and close to him, in an absolute contradiction.
But anything, even that strange discomfort, keeps him away from Isabel's bloody face in the rain, dead forever, just like Farlan, half of his body the only remnants of what he was.
He curls up in himself; in doing so, no nightmare invades him, but he can't sleep like that, not today.
La la la la, la la la la la la, la la la la la laaa…
He opens his eyes as he swears to hear that voice; a pressure in his chest empties his lungs for a moment.
Maybe that's why he doesn't have nightmares when he sleeps seated: it's the only way he could learn to sleep after that day.
Levi fights the urge to hum, tries to remember the life lessons that Kenny gave him before abandoning him forever: the strongest survive, the only thing that ensures survival is violence.
Violence empowers us.
And it doesn't.
The only thing that comforts him in moments like this, when nobody sees him and the music plays inside his head, is to allow himself to be weak.
He rests his feet on the chair and hugs his knees. He sinks his face into his thighs showing no feeling, just as Kenny taught him: If you allow your enemy to read you, he will crush you sooner or later. Better put on the worst face, the worst of all, that face you put when you smell some dirty, disgusting shit, to give them something to fuck you with.
To move forward, where Erwin Smith stands, neat under the brightest sun, it's the only thing that can take him far enough from the darkness that reigns with an iron fist inside him.
There's no longer a past to look at.