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Black Dog

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Kenny called them games. He called them life lessons. Survival. He had a lot of names for them, and Levi didn't like any of them. Every time Kenny brought them up, he knew something bad was about to happen, and either his blood was going to spill, or someone else's.

"Here's the deal," he said, hand on Levi's shoulder. "You go out there and you come back with food, or you don't come back at all."

Levi stared at him stone-eyed and didn't bother to ask how he was supposed to do that. He knew better than to ask questions. Life was hard, and nothing about the world they lived in was merciful. Levi learned that very, very quickly.

"You've got a day," Kenny said. He pushed open the door of the abandoned building they'd been squatting. "If you don't come back I'll hunt your scrawny ass down myself."

Then he kicked him out the door.

Levi wandered for three hours before he found the bakery. He spent most of the morning pilfering bits and pieces from people's bags, from restaurant plates, but it wasn't enough. It was past noon now, the air hot, and Levi's stomach was so empty it hurt. He sat across the street and watched people moving in and out of the bakery, took note of how many people were working. Kenny taught him things like this. When he found Levi, he was just a runt with straw legs that should have been dead. Kenny saved him, in a way, even if he'd put him back together crooked.

Thirty minutes in there was a lull in the customers, and the girl running the counter took off the down the street on the arm of some young businessman. Only the baker was in there from what Levi could tell. His stomach growled, and he went for it. He slid in the bakery door unnoticed, short and unassuming, still young enough that no one thought to look twice at him. The smell inside had him drooling, had his stomach clenching tighter. It had been two days since he'd last eaten. Levi watched the baker duck into the back, and then started shoving anything he could into his pockets, under his arms. He grabbed loaves of bread, sandwiches. He had his arms full when someone grabbed him by the back of the neck, fingers squeezing his trachea. Levi dropped everything in his hands.

"Looks like I caught a little rat."

It was the baker. He shoved Levi forward and then grabbed him by the arm, rolled cigarette dangling from his mouth. Levi's skin quickly turned red from his grip.

"Let me go, fat ass," he said.

The baker leaned down.

"What did you say to me?"

"I said let me go. I'm just trying to eat."

The baker laughed but didn't let go. Levi could feel his skin burning.

"This ain't a free shop, runt." The baker inhaled on his cigarette, embers burning orange. "And you're going to die down here anyway. But if I see you back in my bakery I'll throw you over the walls and feed you to the Titans. Get some use out of you."

He let go of Levi's arm and then turned like he wasn't even worth his time, he wasn't worth anything. And maybe that's what made Levi do it—the idea that he was worth less alive. He could have run away. But Levi didn't run. He lunged. Something snapped in him and he jumped forward faster than he knew he could move and sunk his teeth into the baker's hairy arm. He heard the sound of his flesh puncturing, and then the baker screamed.

"You little—!"

He shook his arm but Levi didn't move, his teeth dug in tight. The baker shook again and then punched him upside the head. Levi stumbled backwards and fell, tasting iron in his mouth. The baker was holding his arm, cigarette clenched between his teeth.

"You fucking bit me," he said. "A goddamn feral dog—I oughta kill you."

Levi scrambled upright and ran, practically broke through the door. He ran until his lungs burned and his legs lost feeling. He hid for a while in one of the sewers, stomach yelling and twisting. Levi relished the taste of blood in his mouth. He sat back and caught his breath, watched children running. He wanted to leave. Then he shut his eyes and thought about Kenny's footsteps coming toward him.

He went back at nightfall. He waited until the streets were empty before smashing the side window and climbing in. The bakery was dark, larger somehow in its darkness. There was movement behind the kitchen door. The baker was still there, and Levi had expected as much, and this time he was ready. He waited. The baker stepped out carrying a bag of leftover bread, cigarette hanging from his mouth. He saw Levi and paused. It didn't take him long to recognize him.

"You," he said. "You got some kind of death wish? I told you if you came back here I'd kill you."

Levi pulled out a knife from his pocket. The baker only had time to drop the bag before Levi stabbed him. It sunk into his stomach with a wet squelching sound, and then Levi felt warm blood run over his hands. He couldn't believe how easy it was. The baker looked down, eyes wide with shock. His cigarette fell from his mouth.

"Shit," he said, but didn't move.

Levi pulled the knife out and stabbed again, this time a bit higher. Then again. And again. Each time it got easier to do. The baker stumbled and fell back, head colliding with the shelf and then he went down, down, his body heavy on the ground. Levi watched his eyes go dark, blood on his hands, until the baker's body was just that—a body. It was the first time he'd ever killed anyone. He didn't have time to feel anything. He shoved the knife back into his pocket and grabbed as much food as he could before sliding back out the window and running into the night.

He got back to the building they were squatting and pushed through the door with his shoulder, his arms full of food. Kenny had a gun out and pointed at him, but when he saw it was Levi, he lowered it. Levi dumped the food on the table, some of it rolling to the floor, his breathing still coming too fast. But he wasn't shaking. He felt nothing.

"So you actually came through," Kenny said.

Then he saw the blood on his shirt and hands. He smiled.

"Good job," he said. "Now you know survival."

They ate well for the first time in days.

--

Isabel's voice wakes him, brother, brother, has him sitting upright in bed and grabbing for the knife under his mattress. He braces himself for the attack before he realizes there isn't one. There is nothing in the darkness but him and his heavy, panicked breathing. Levi's heart feels like it's trying to beat its way out of his chest. He drops the knife on the mattress and shuts his eyes and tries not to think about Farlan's bloody resigned face before he was eaten. He tries not to think about how he left them. How it's his fault.

Once they got back safely inside the walls, Erwin put his hand on Levi's shoulder and said, "Thank you." They were the first words he'd said since the expedition ended, since Levi had held a blade at his throat and told him that he had nothing left. After, Levi had ridden on the back of Erwin's horse and stared at the wings on his cloak, eyes blurring. Levi wasn't sure what Erwin was thanking him for—for staying? For not killing him? And Erwin didn't elaborate. He glanced sidelong at Levi in the stables, hair still damp from the rain, and then left. Levi watched his figure until it disappeared from sight, until his knees were aching from having stood for so long. That was only hours ago, but it feels like years.

His heart rate eventually slows and Levi lies back down, hands shaking. The room feels strange, quiet. Isabel and Farlan are dead. Levi thinks about Erwin's face in the rain, his resignation. Was he always ready, Levi wonders, to die? He thought he had Erwin figured out, thought he knew everything about him. But he knew nothing. Levi counts his breathing in the hopes it will lull him back to sleep.

Hours later, he's still up to watch the sunrise.

--

Erwin calls him into his office after exercises that afternoon. He wasn't out with them that morning, so Levi hasn't seen him since they got back, since Erwin thanked him in the barn. It's strange how he feels anxious about it. He walks into Erwin's office without knocking, but Erwin looks like he was expecting that. Of course he was. He knew Levi was a spy before he ever made himself known.

"Levi," Erwin says. "Have a seat."

Levi drops into the chair across from him, arms crossed. Erwin's office smells dusty and lived in.

"Your skill with the gear has been getting you high praise since day one," Erwin says. "I'm very pleased."

He pauses for a beat, and Levi says nothing. He knows that's not the reason he was called in here. There are formation plans on Erwin's desk that have been freshly inked, and a smudge of black sits on Erwin's palm.

"But your attitude towards your superiors is still dreadful," he says.

"So?" Levi says.

"They're your superiors, Levi. Not to mention your comrades."

The whole conversation feels odd, clinical. Rehearsed. Just over twenty-four hours ago, Levi had Erwin on his knees. There's a tension hovering between them that he doesn't understand.

"Most of them are idiots," he says.

Erwin smiles. "I assure you they're not, and outside these walls they are your only allies. Treat them as such."

It's a valid point, and Levi knows that, but he doesn't want to interact with anyone other than Erwin anymore than he has to now. He still isn't even quite sure how he's supposed to be interacting with Erwin.

"Is that all?"

"No," Erwin says.

He folds the formation plans and sets them to the side, digs into one of the desk drawers. He pulls out a stack of papers.

"I have death notices here for the fallen soldiers from the last expedition. I don't suppose Isabel and Farlan—"

"No," Levi says quickly, throat thick. "They had no one but me."

Erwin nods and digs through the stack and pulls out two papers. He signs them, seals them into one envelope, and slides them across the desk to Levi.

"It isn't much," he says. "But it's tangible. Please take it."

Levi's palms are sweating before he even grabs it. He stuffs it into the inner pocket of his jacket.

"That's all?" he says again.

"It is."

Levi stands and hesitates before nodding thanks. He's not used to this. He doesn't know what to do. Erwin stands with him and nods as well.

"You look tired," he says.

Levi doesn't say anything. He doesn't know how to tell Erwin that he couldn't sleep without seeing them die all over again, and what's more is he doesn't want to. He's got his hand on the door handle when Erwin speaks again:

"I'm glad you're still here. Most men would have left."

"I told you I had no one else." Levi remembers the rain again and the Titan's wide mouth. "And I'm not most men."

"I know," Erwin says, in a much different tone.

Levi leaves without saying anything else, legs stiff, and doesn't stop until he gets back to his room. He pulls the envelope from his jacket pocket. It's pristine white, smooth. Levi slips it under his mattress next to his knife.

--

Isabel's voice wakes him again at night. This time she comes back to life only to get killed again. There are two Titans now, and they pull at her arms until her body splits down the middle like paper. Levi wakes up and grabs for the knife under his mattress. There's still no one there.

"Shit." He wipes sweat from his forehead. "Shit."

He lays back down, heartbeat fast, and tries to go back to sleep. But it's the same every time. Isabel. Farlan. They die each time. He's had nightmares before. In fact, he has them often. It's just multiplied now, worse. Levi's never been much of a sleeper, but now he can't even seem to enjoy a few minutes without waking in panic. Eventually, Levi swings his feet off the bed and gets up. The floorboards are cold but he ignores them, shuffles to the corner of the room where he keeps his broom. He starts sweeping even though there's nothing to clean. When the sun comes up, he's collapsed in the corner with the broom leaning against him, eyes still open.

--

The mess hall is always noisy, and Levi may be strong but he's still just a soldier, which means he has to eat with the rest of the Corps who aren't officers. One perk of being a soldier, Levi will admit, is that the food is a hell of a lot better than anything he got in the Underground. He digs into his baked potato, secluded in the corner bench by the window. Outside, he can see officers talking, but he doesn't see Erwin. It doesn't surprise him. From what Levi has noticed, Erwin seldom has time to interact with the others. He's too busy planning, working that mind so it's another step ahead.

Levi hollows out his potato and bites into his bread. It tastes freshly baked, still warm. When they'd first arrived, Isabel joked that they would get fat living like this. Levi swallows thickly. He looks around and sees other soldiers watching him. Did someone tell them what happened? Did Erwin? He doubts they'll trust him much anymore if they know. The first two days after the expedition, he ate in his room or just skipped the meals, secluded and exhausted. Levi stares at his plate, pushing his meat around. After a few minutes, someone approaches him, their shadow visible over the table. Levi adjusts the hold on his fork and prepares himself for a fight.

"Hey," someone says. "Uh, Levi."

He looks up and sees the soldier—hair cropped short, eyes wide and green. There are four other soldiers behind him.

"What?" Levi says.

"Mind if we sit with you?"

Their faces are eager, Levi realizes, round with admiration. They don't know what happened. He looks around and realizes that none of them do.

"You can sit anywhere," he says.

The soldiers all stand there for a moment, perhaps expecting an affirmative, but eventually they realize Levi isn't going to give one, so they sit. Levi scoots to the side to make room for them. They don't engage him in too much conversation, just seem content to sit by him. Most of them are young and loud and kind of annoying, but Levi is more relieved that no one is going to try and fight him, so he puts up with it.

"I'm Theo, by the way," the soldier next to him says.

He's the one who actually had the guts to speak to him. Levi nods.

"You used to sit with your two friends," Theo says. "Isabel and Farlan, right? I'm sorry they passed."

"Yeah." Levi pushes a pea around his plate. "Me too."

"It's always hard losing a friend." Theo's eyes darken, look distant, and Levi knows he's remembering. "But I guess that's the risk we take here."

It wasn't their risk, Levi wants to say. It was mine. But he doesn't. He picks up his tea and sips, aware that some soldiers at the table are listening in. When he doesn't respond, the conversation between the other soldiers picks up again, everyone laughing with their mouths full, the terror of the last expedition forgotten. He feels a certain detachment from them, like a jagged puzzle piece. He's not connecting.

From the corner of his eye, Levi sees Erwin standing in the doorway. He's watching him. Levi wonders how long he's been there for. He locks eyes with him, quiet across the hall. They watch each other, but it doesn't feel like a challenge. It feels like curiosity. Once the other soldiers notice Erwin, the mess hall goes quiet.

"Levi," Erwin says into silence. "Come with me, please."

Levi pushes up from the table, plate forgotten. His footsteps sound loud as he walks across the hall and follows Erwin out. He's aware that everyone is watching still. He doesn't look back. Once they get outside, he falls instep with Erwin, and they keep walking. The moon isn't out, and it feels darker than normal, the air still thick from the earlier rainfall. Erwin hasn't said anything to him yet, and Levi can't figure out what he wants. That's the thing with Erwin—he's hard to read, and Levi is very good at reading people. They walk minutes before Erwin speaks.

"I'm pleased to see you're interacting with the others," he says.

Levi nods slowly, waits for Erwin to reveal what he wants.

"I'd like you to demonstrate proper technique for the new trainees."

He doesn't say anything more than that. Levi waits for an elaboration, but Erwin says nothing. They cut to the path on the right towards the barracks.

"Why?" Levi says.

"Because I want them to see what you can do." Erwin's eyes flicker in the darkness. "You seem to give people hope, Levi."

They reach the entrance to the barracks. Levi thinks about the soldiers in the mess hall sitting by him, the respect their eyes held.

"Fine," he says, and reaches for the door before pausing. "You didn't tell anyone…about in the forest—"

"That's behind us now," Erwin says. "And no one's business but ours."

Before Levi can open the door, Erwin salutes him, and he realizes he should probably salute back. He's never actually saluted Erwin, or anyone else really. He certainly never did it and meant it, but that was before everything changed. Levi crosses his fist over his chest to mimic Erwin.

"It's off a bit," Erwin says, and Levi looks down at his salute.

Erwin reaches out, slowly enough that Levi could stop him if wanted to, but he doesn't, and grabs hold of Levi's wrist and positions it up more.

"There," he says. "Right over your heart."

Levi holds the salute, hyper aware that this is the first time Erwin has actually touched him. Through Erwin's open collar, Levi can see the faint cut from his blade in the forest. It will probably scar. A few days ago, he was going to kill Erwin. Now he's one of the only things Levi's got left.

"Just give it time," Erwin says.

Levi waits for some sort of elaboration, but once again, Erwin doesn't give any.

"What is that supposed to mean?"

Erwin laughs softly. "Goodnight, Levi."

He walks away and Levi stands there with his hand over his heart.

--

The fifth night, Levi dresses and walks the grounds. He can't sleep more than a an hour without Isabel and Farlan haunting his dreams and the crippling guilt that comes after, the guilt he imagines a child might feel after disappointing its parent. He slips his boots on and walks into the night, still in awe of the glow of the moon, even now. The night is cool enough that he steps into the officer's building, his footsteps hushed on the wood flooring. The building looks strange in the darkness. Levi trails a hand along the wall to guide himself, nails scraping the finish. There's light near the end of the hallway, almost hidden behind a door. Once Levi gets closer, he realizes that it's Erwin's office. He's awake. Levi presses himself quietly against the door and listens for any noise, but he hears nothing. He almost knocks, but decides against it, pushing the handle down until the door swings open.

Erwin is inside, reclined at his desk, reading. He's got his chin in his hand, and when Levi opens the door he looks up, eyes tired. He doesn't seem at all surprised to see him.

"What the hell are you doing up?" Levi says.

"I could ask you the same." Erwin waves him in. "Please, join me."

Levi hesitates in the doorway, considers excusing himself and just leaving, but the candlelight of Erwin's office is inviting and he has nowhere else to be. He sits on Erwin's couch, sinking into the cushions, and listens to the hush of paper as Erwin turns the page. He doesn't ask Levi why he's awake, or if he needs anything, and Levi appreciates that more than he can articulate. Isabel's broken body flashes through his mind. He blinks heavily.

"Do you just not sleep or what?"

"I tend to work late." Erwin marks his page and closes his book. "Plus I've been preparing for a meeting in the capital in a few days."

"Mitras?"

"Yes. Have you ever been?"

Levi pulls at a loose thread on the couch.

"No," he says.

Erwin hums but says nothing else. From his angle on the couch, Levi can barely see the spine of his book, bound tightly in red threads and gold lettering. It's a history book. Levi glances at the ceiling.

"Your office is filthy."

Erwin looks up and surveys the room.

"Is it?"

"Yeah." Levi points to the ceiling. "Cobwebs. And it's musty as hell. Don't you clean in here?"

Erwin's mouth opens like he's trying to remember.

"I supposed I don't," he says. "This wasn't my office, originally. The officer who had it died a few expeditions ago."

"Well, he did a shit job cleaning up after himself."

"Levi," Erwin says lightly, as if he meant to reprimand him but then thought better of it.

Levi shrugs and leans back against the couch, watches the gray lines of dust that are pockmarked into the ceiling. After a while, he hears the sound of Erwin picking up his book again. The silence is oddly familiar, and Levi can't bring himself to move just yet. They stay like that a while—Levi watching the ceiling and Erwin reading, until Levi feels he can no longer keep his eyes open. He leaves quietly and without a goodbye, almost embarrassed to even give one, and walks back to his room. He falls asleep almost immediately, this time for more than a few hours.

--

It's cold in the morning, and there's dew on the edge of the grass that sit there like pinpoints and make a crisp sound under Levi's boots. There are three Titans ahead of him, though really they're just wooden constructions, vulnerable napes made from potato sacks. Levi tightens one of the straps of his gear, Erwin next to him.

"Don't worry about proper technique," he says. "Just perform as you normally do."

Levi looks at the crowd of trainees. They're silent, eyes wide like moons. In the front, he can see Hanji watching, their eyes bright with excitement and almost terrifying. Next to them, Mike is looking straight at Levi, the line of his mouth set. He's held his blade to Levi as well. He's the only other one who's seen. He doesn't like him. Levi looks back at Erwin.

"I got it," he says.

Erwin steps away from him, boots crunching over the grass. Levi exhales and releases one of his grapples. It hooks easily into the thick bark of the tree and then he's being propelled upwards, toes pointing. He releases another grapple to the adjacent tree, making a crisscross line in the mock forest. Two of the Titans are side by side. Levi gets his footing on a branch, crouches, then springs out like the Titan is his prey, not the other way around. He hooks his line into the opposite tree and spins, slicing the nape of the first Titan. He pushes off the Titan's shoulder and cuts the nape of the second, lands almost vertical on the tree. The next Titan is a bit further away, and at an odd angle. Its back is facing the tree. Levi moves, hooking himself to the top of the next tree so he's gained serious air, the ground flowing like a river beneath him. He angles down, nearly diving, and slices the nape open before releasing a grapple to hook into the side of the tree behind the Titan. He spins and lands on a branch, looks out at the trainees. In the front, Erwin is watching him, eyes proud. Levi's chest swells.

He lands back by him, the new trainees full of his energy. Some of them are whispering to each other, excited. Hanji is waving their arms around at a few of them, talking too loud. Levi sheathes his blades.

"Can I go?" he says to Erwin.

"No, you can't go," Hanji says. "That was so quick! Show me that backhand grip again."

The closer Hanji comes, the more Levi realizes that they smell a bit ripe. He takes a step back.

"Don't you ever calm down?"

"Who can be calm when—"

"Hanji," Erwin says, and Hanji does calm, turns back and starts talking to Nanaba about it instead.

Erwin nods to Levi. "You're dismissed, Levi, thank you."

Levi glances at Mike again. He's facing forward but his eyes are still focused on Levi, arms folded behind his back. He doesn't trust him. Levi supposes he can't really blame him.

--

He goes to Erwin's office again that night. Levi enters without a word and sits on the couch, pinches the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger.

"Evening," Erwin says.

Levi nods his greeting and leans back against the upholstery. His eyes are burning. Farlan's face is etched behind his eyelids. He doesn't know why he's back here. He woke up scrambling and the room felt so empty, even with the other soldiers around him it felt empty. Levi felt alone.

"Do you always have trouble sleeping?"

Levi's lets go of the bridge of his nose, hands falling to his lap.

"Those mattresses are piss poor," he says.

Erwin doesn't disagree with him. He's slipping something into an envelope, another secret that he keeps. He tucks it into the pocket of his jacket and then stands up, goes over to one of the floor cabinets and pulls out a finished wooden box. He sets the box on his desk and then Levi sees that it opens from the top. Erwin sets it open the inside of the box is checkered, black and white pieces scattered over it.

"Would you like to play?" he says.

Levi stands. "I've never played." He doesn't mention that he has no idea what this even is.

Erwin doesn't seem bothered by that though. He motions for Levi to pull a chair up and starts setting the pieces on the board, black toward Levi, white toward him. Levi watches with open curiosity.

"Chess requires a lot of thought," Erwin says. "Strategy."

"I can see why you like it, then."

Erwin smiles softly and then takes his seat again, the board set up. Levi looks over the pieces, eye catching on the ones shaped like a horse.

"So what am I supposed to do?"

"Checkmate." Erwin puts his finer over one of the pieces on the board. "This is my king. You want to take him using your pieces while keeping your king safe. Does that make sense?"

"Sure. Protect my king, kill yours."

Erwin nods. "Basically."

Levi watches Erwin make the first move. He explains the rules more as they go, and chess has so many complexities it makes Levi's head spin a bit. It seemed simple in theory, but now Levi stares at his pawn and knows there's a hundred wrong moves he could make. He picks it up, then puts it down again and reaches for another.

"You can only move your pawn forward," Erwin says.

Levi hisses. "They're useless, then."

"Don't be so quick to dismiss them." Erwin says this right as he takes one of Levi's rooks. "Every piece is valuable."

It doesn't take very long for Erwin to nearly clear the board of Levi's pieces. He understands very quickly why Erwin is so good at it—it's all about thinking ahead. Levi makes some good moves, some that actually cause Erwin to raise his brows, but in the end, Erwin corners his king and neatly announces the checkmate. Levi leans back, arms crossed. He may have lost, but he likes this game, and now he wants to beat Erwin in it. He glances at the clock and sees that nearly two hours have passed since they started playing. It felt like only minutes. Levi blinks, feeling how tired he is now, and stands with Erwin as he puts the chessboard away.

"They'll get better," Erwin says, and turns to him. "The nightmares."

Levi looks up sharply. Embarrassment prickles in his cheeks and up his spine. He could deny them, but that won't work with someone like Erwin, someone who's always a few steps ahead.

"I'm fine," he says.

"You're not sleeping," says Erwin.

"Neither are you."

"Levi," he says, and leans over him, neck out, and Levi can see the scar from his blade on the skin.

"What do you want me to say, huh? That it's not my fault?" Levi pauses, finds it harder to breathe. He feels cornered. "It's my fault."

Behind the candlelight, Erwin's eyes darken like he knows what guilt is. It makes Levi wonder. There are a lot of things Erwin doesn't tell him. He's asking Levi to trust him blind. It's because he thinks they can do it. He really thinks they can win, and Levi wants to believe him. That's what's strange about Erwin. He makes Levi want to believe. If Isabel and Farlan had stayed alive, maybe they would have believed with him.

"They're just always there," Levi says, quiet. "They're always in my head."

Erwin watches him, not with pity but with understanding, a kind of empathy. And Levi wonders if this is okay, if this is what it should be like. He doesn't know how he's supposed to act around Erwin yet. He feels like he doesn't know a lot of things these days.

"Your actions may have brought them to their death," Erwin says. "But you can't let the guilt consume you. You didn't kill them, a Titan did. Redirect your anger."

Levi looks down. He had almost forgotten that he hadn't actually killed them—it wasn't actually him. It just feels like it was. Erwin grabs his wrist, grounding him, drawing his attention.

"Let go," he says. "Or you'll be dragged."

Levi pulls his arm away, the skin burning, and leaves without another word.

--

He doesn't really talk to anyone else. Most people stop attempting conversation with him. Levi is high-strung and tense, not exactly the easiest person to talk to, and he still doesn't feel like a Survey Corps soldier. He's not one of them. Hanji attempts conversation but it stays mostly one-sided. They're just always so excited, manic with energy, and Levi doesn't have the patience for it. Isabel would have. Their first and last expedition together, Hanji gave Isabel sweets without asking anything in return. Levi hasn't forgotten that. He tries not to be as short with Hanji as he normally would be.

A few days later, it's just the same loop of Isabel and Farlan dying over and over again, but this time Levi really is the one who killed them, this time he's the Titan. He walks quietly to Erwin's office and the door is open but the office is dark and he isn't there. Levi sits on the couch, heart a hammer, and waits. Erwin comes in an hour later, dressed in a black formal jacket. Levi remembers that he had a meeting in the capital. He must have just gotten back.

"Levi," he says, like he was expecting him.  

He lights the lamps and office comes to life, glows. Levi leans back against the couch and watches as Erwin drapes the jacket over his chair before sitting. His body looks heavier, exhausted. Erwin carries himself like iron but Levi wonders if he's able to rust. He wonders what happens in the capital.

"I'm sorry about the other night," Erwin says, and the apology is so unexpected that Levi doesn't answer.

"I was out of line," Erwin says. "I didn't mean to trivialize the death of your friends."

You didn't, Levi wants to say. He wants to say, Why are you apologizing when it should be me? He doesn't say that. He stares at Erwin's interlocked fingers and says, "I was going to kill you."

Erwin wipes specks of dirt from his desk.

"Yes," he says. "You were."

"But you let me stay here."

Levi feels angry and he isn't sure where it's come from, only that it's there.

"You shouldn't be so nice to me," he says.

Erwin shrugs like anything else was not an option.

"I saw you." He looks up at Levi. "That day in the forest. I saw who you are, Levi. I trust that person."

The forest. The rain. The moment when Levi had him on his knees and was ready to slit his throat and watch his uniform run red. The moment Levi lost everything, or maybe gained something. Erwin hadn't shown any fear. That was what made him hesitate. Levi leans his head back against the couch, the dusty ceiling there to greet him as it always has been. He wants to call Erwin stupid, but he's tired, he's so tired, and he doesn't believe it anyway. He feels like a stray dog in Erwin's life, someone who wandered in and tried to bite him, but instead got to stay. Erwin says nothing else, so neither does Levi, and the night passes.

He doesn't remember falling asleep. He startles awake that morning, not from a nightmare, but from the realization that he's not in his bed. The office is empty. Levi sits up slowly, blinking awake, and notices something's been laid over him—not a blanket, but a jacket. Erwin's jacket. It smells like him all over. Levi bunches the fabric of the jacket into his fist, stares at it. There's noise against the windowpane, the wind, probably, but he still jumps upright, jacket in hand, and flees the office.

Chapter Text

There's a thing now where soldiers scramble to sit next to him at dinner. Levi doesn't say anything about this because he doesn't know what to say, other than it's ridiculous. The way they look at him makes him uncomfortable. He doesn't talk much to them either way. As soon as he finishes eating, he leaves and works out until he's too exhausted to stay awake.

The night after he takes Erwin's jacket, Hanji sits down next to him at dinner. All of the other soldiers stay away, because Hanji is strange, and also smells. They plop next to Levi, tray rattling, much too close for comfort. Hanji is a Squad Leader, they shouldn't be here anyway. Officers eat separately, but apparently Hanji doesn't care about that.

"I've been dying to see you in action again," Hanji says. "I can't wait until the next expedition."

Levi looks at them from the side. "Is that a joke?"

Hanji keeps talking like they haven't heard.

"Of course, you're not in my squad, but if you were I'd have you right in the front."

Some soldiers are watching the exchange, their eyes wide and amused, though mostly they look like they're waiting for Levi to yell at Hanji.

"Erwin is obviously fond of you," Hanji says, and Levi's head snaps left to look at them. "That just makes you even more interesting."

They poke Levi's forehead with a finger. Levi jerks back, frowning.

"What a joy it would be to dissect that brain of yours, but then you'd have to be dead, and I don't want that."

"Thanks," Levi says, dripping with sarcasm, but Hanji doesn't seem to notice.

He picks up his napkin and wipes at his forehead, not caring if it seems rude. Erwin is obviously fond of you.

"Hey, what's that for?" Hanji says. "You think I'm unclean? You know, for someone so cool, you seem awfully high strung—"

"Stop," Levi says, and he's holding his fork so tight it's starting to bend. "Stop doing that."

Hanji regards him for a long moment, face softening. Their eyes, for the first time, look calm and aware. They look down at Levi's grip on his fork and actually seem apologetic.

"I'm sorry," Hanji says. "I get excited. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."

Levi picks up his cup and drinks. Hanji is perceptive at least, when they want to be. He thinks of what Erwin said. These are his comrades.

"Just stop yelling all the time," he says.

Hanji throws their head back and laughs, and it's not at all quiet.

--

Shadis announces the expedition the next morning after warm ups. It's misting when they all stand there and wait for his announcement, hoods pulled up.

"We leave in two days," Shadis says. "Practicing the same formation Squad Leader Smith proposed. Our objective is to minimize casualties and cover more ground in establishing a base beyond the walls."

Anxiety creeps up Levi's spine. It will be his first expedition without Isabel and Farlan. He'll be alone. He looks for Erwin without thinking about it and sees him facing forward, face hardened, military. Levi looks back to Shadis at the front, dread filling his chest for the first time in a long time. Rain slides down the slope of his nose and drips onto his lips.

Before he can group off with the other soldiers for training, Shadis calls him over. Levi slides his hood off and walks over, notices Erwin standing next to him, arms folded.

"What?" Levi says.

Shadis frowns at the lack of formality but doesn't comment on it.

"I'm moving you to Erwin's squad for this expedition," he says.

Levi looks at Erwin, but Erwin just stands there, unsurprised. He must have orchestrated this. He must have. It makes sense, in a way. His squad was all killed last expedition, and Erwin is the one who brought him in.

"Okay," Levi says. He remembers to add the sir on a few seconds later, but it sounds too much like a bite.

Shadis nods, his stance a lot stiffer than Erwin's. He looks exhausted.

"That's all," he says. "You're dismissed, soldier."

Levi starts to turn away, but Erwin's voice stops him.

"Levi," he says, low, a reminder.

Levi turns back around and hesitates, his hand curled into a fist. Erwin's voice cuts back in, louder than before.

"You will salute your Commander," he says.

It's loud enough that people around them stop and look, wait for Levi to disobey, to do something. He doesn't. Levi salutes Shadis quickly, but he's watching Erwin the whole time.

"Sir," he says, and then turns around the join the others.

They're still looking at him.

--

He finds Erwin in his office that night like he knew he would. It isn't very late, just after dinner.

"Oi, Erwin," he says.

Erwin looks up from desk and draws down his brows. Probably because Levi is carrying a broom with him, bandana tied around his head, another loose around his neck.

"Levi," he says. "You should really knock."

Levi switches the broom to his other hand, fumbles a bit before taking Erwin's black jacket out from under his tucked arm. It's folded neat.

"Your jacket."

"Oh," Erwin says. "Thank you."

Levi shifts on his feet, leans some of his weight onto the broom handle.

"I washed it."

Erwin reaches out and grabs it with both hands, sets it on his desk.

"That wasn't necessary, but thank you nonetheless."

"I'm also cleaning this office."

"That isn't—"

"Necessary, yeah, I know. But I'm doing it." Levi pulls the bandana over his mouth. "Don't worry, I won't mess up your shit."

He cleans while Erwin works, hits the cobwebs down off the ceiling, wipes the dust from the shelves. He opens the window and lets the dry night air in. Erwin's window looks out onto the training grounds, though in the darkness Levi can't seem much more than the outline of the trees. He wants to give Erwin's floor a proper scrub, but that will have to wait for another time. He can't be sure, and he knows better than to ask, but Levi is pretty sure Erwin didn't request Levi in his squad just because of his skill. It was a favor. Levi finishes up, dumps dirt and dust out the window before shutting it again. Erwin looks back at him.

"It's much cleaner in here, thank you, Levi," he says.

Levi nods, leans his broom against the wall. He doesn't want to leave yet.

"Want to play?"

Erwin stands to grab the chessboard immediately.

They play and Erwin beats him again. Levi is pretty sure he did worse this time than the last. They don't talk about the nightmares. Erwin starts to collect the pieces to put them away, looking slightly more relaxed than he did an hour ago.

"I'm looking forward to having you on my squad this expedition," he says.

"Really?" Levi says. "I'm not exactly a model soldier."

Erwin smiles. "No, you're not, but your skill is incomparable. If I can be frank with you—I'd wanted you on my squad since the beginning, so my reasoning was a bit selfish."

Levi doesn't say anything. He has no idea what to say, just shifts in his chair. Erwin shuts the box, looks up.

"I hope you don't mind—"

"I don't," Levi says, perhaps a bit too quickly.

Erwin nods, looks relieved. "Good."

Levi leaves after that, broom tucked under his arm, and gets a few feet down the hallway before Mike approaches him. His mouth is a firm line, displeased. His nose twitches when he sees Levi.

"What are you doing in here?" he says.

"Cleaning," says Levi.

They don't move. If this is some kind of pissing contest, Levi doesn't plan to back down.

"Erwin's office," Mike says, and it isn't a question.

Levi sniffs. "Do I need to ask your permission?"

"I don't trust you," Mike says, just gets right to it. "Erwin may, but I don't."

He must know about Levi moving to Erwin's squad. He doesn't like him. As far as Mike is concerned, Levi is still probably just the thug who tried to kill his friend. I told you, Erwin, he had said in the forest. He never trusted him to begin with. And what was there to trust?

"I have nothing to prove to you," Levi says, and keeps walking.

--

Open land is infinite. That's what Levi thinks. It keeps going and going, never stops. He wonders if Titans are everywhere, infinite. He heard someone say once that the world was flat, and if you went far enough you'd just drop off, but he doesn't buy that for a second. Nothing just ends. They leave the walls with Levi on Erwin's left side toward the front of formation. Mike is on the right, Nanaba just behind. It's sunny today, peaceful, an obvious deception to what lies ahead. Levi can't stop himself from being on high alert.

It still feels strange to be without Isabel and Farlan. Even if he wasn't outside the walls, they were always with him, backing him up. He had never thought about what it would be like without them. Levi always assumed he would die first. He's never feared death, not for himself, at least.

They ride through the forest, one that Levi recognizes, but this time they come out the other side. That's when the first two Titans appear. Another squad takes them down easily, and the formation keeps moving. Levi isn't sure what they're looking for. Maybe they're all just looking to see how far they can get, how far this really goes. They stop to water the horses in a clearing. When Levi's horse nuzzles him, Levi strokes under her mane. She has no worry being out here. After they've remounted and starting moving again, Shadis has Erwin's squad move ahead and the formation separates. Not far, just enough to cover more ground and scout.

Levi thinks it's been too quiet, and he's right, because not five minutes later, the first shot goes off. They all look up, see the red smoke rising over the trees. A moment later, a second shot goes off, this time to the right.

"Keep moving," Erwin says. "Prepare to switch to your gear."

Levi looks over at Erwin and sees his grip on his reins has tightened. A third shot goes off. Then a fourth. Erwin slows down until he's next to Levi and Mike.

"Stay close to me," he says.

There's yelling from behind, and Levi turns his head back to look, but they're too far for him to see anything properly. Either way, he can hear screaming and he knows that people are dying. He swallows. Erwin holds a hand out and they halt in the forest, the sound of footsteps approaching.

"How many?" Erwin says to Mike.

Mike raises his nose to wind and inhales.

"Two," he says.

Only seconds pass before the two Titans come into view, the awkward limbs of their bodies unpredictable and terrifying. They need to attack, need to do something. Levi's first instinct is get off his horse and attack. He reaches for the triggers on his handgrips.

"Levi, wait," Erwin says, voice sharp enough that Levi does wait.

"They're getting closer," Levi says. "We need to move."

"Wait just a bit longer." Erwin looks over at him. "Trust me."

Levi's finger itches over his grapple trigger. If they don't get higher soon they'll be eaten, and Erwin is asking him to wait. He's asking a lot. He's asking Levi to put his life in his hands. He's asking for everything.

"Shit," Levi says. "Okay."

He lets go of the trigger. They hold their position as the Titans approach, bodies prone, alert. Levi waits for Erwin's word, even though every nerve in his body is on fire and all he wants to do is attack. At just fifty meters away, Erwin gives the word.

"Move directly upwards! To the trees!"

They release their grapple-hooks and shoot upwards. When Levi looks down again, he realizes what Erwin was waiting for. The two Titans start skidding to a stop, dirt kicking up, but they don't manage to do fully stop until they're almost directly under them all. They have a clean view of the nape. After that, no one needs to be told what to do. Nanaba and Levi propel themselves downward, blades out, and the Titans are dead on the ground before Levi can land back on the branch. Erwin whistles for the horses.

"Let's reconvene with the rest of the formation," he says. "We'll provide back up if necessary."

And it's back on the ground, all of them circling around back towards the clearing. Levi can still hear the sound of metal and gas, the screams. His heart is pounding. His head was clear when he was killing the Titan but now he feels unease again. Once they reach the clearing again, Levi skids to a stop. There's an entire squad on the ground in front of them, two wounded, the others dead. The rest of the formation is meters away trying to take down a Titan, but it appears to be the last one. Either way, it's a fucking mess.

"Why did they break Erwin's formation?" Nanaba says.

Levi looks out into the clearing and sees the Titan fall.

"A Deviant," Mike says, and looks down at the dead soldiers. "Where are their horses?"

"Gone, I would imagine." Erwin pulls at his reins. "Get the wounded up if you can."

"Squad Leader Smith!" A soldier rides up, chest heaving. "Commander Shadis needs you at the left!"

Erwin grits his teeth but nods an affirmative.

"Nanaba, ride with me." He looks to Levi and Mike. "Help these men get to the wagons, then meet back with the rest of the formation."

"Understood," Levi says.

Erwin rides off with Nanaba and the other soldier. Mike helps one of the men onto his horse, his femur exposed. The bone is so white. The soldier screams, and the sound travels right up Levi's spine. He remembers Isabel's scream. Something pounds behind his eyes. Levi squeezes them shut.

"Hey, are you okay?" Mike says.

Levi doesn't answer. There are footsteps from behind them in the forest. It sounds like a gallop of a thousand horses, thundering, shaking the earth. Levi looks at Mike, but he already knows.

"Oh no," the other soldier says.

Levi looks down. He recognizes this soldier. It's Theo, the one who talked to him at dinner the first night.

"It's m-my gear," Theo says. "My gear is busted. I can't fight—I can't fight."

Levi hops off his horse and pulls him up. Theo winces, clutches his shoulder, but he lets Levi help him onto his horse, sags against the neck.

"Ride to the wagons and get a back up," Levi says. "Make yourself useful."

Theo's mouth drops open. "But there are Titans approaching, aren't you—"

"I'll handle it, just go."

Levi pushes the thigh of his horse to get her to move. He catches Mike watching him, swords out. He's still on his horse, the injured soldier leaning on him.

"Make sure they get back okay," Levi says.

Mike nods to him.

"You sure you got this?" he says.

"Yeah." Levi presses his finger over the grapple trigger. "Just make sure they're out of here."

Mike rides off and Levi takes to the trees. Like hell he's going to wait for the Titans to come to him. He's going to them. Levi moves right a few trees in and positions himself near the top of the tree. Here he can nearly see overhead, enough to see the trees shaking and know which way the Titans are headed. Two come into view, one 7-meters, one at least 10. They're ahead of three other Titans, all larger. Five in total. If they get past, Theo and other injured soldier will never make it. Redirect the anger, Levi thinks. The guilt. He lets himself fall, and then spins.

He takes down the 7-meter Titan first, uses its head to push off and go for 10-meter. The other three Titans see him now, and their mouths fall open, jaws snapping, a foul odor radiating. Levi moves higher again. He has to move forward to avoid their hands as they swipe through the air. They're getting closer to the clearing, and he's running out of trees. He hooks left and pushes off the trunk of a tree with both feet, hooks a grapple into the back of one of the Titans, reels himself in and cuts, spins up, cuts the next. He propels himself sideways, swords out, and barrel rolls to the third Titan, blades slicing into the nape. Blood hits his cheek.

"Levi!"

He looks down. Erwin is at the edge of the forest on his horse. He looks relieved when he sees Levi on the branch.

"Hop on," Erwin says. "We're moving out."

Levi jumps down and then hefts himself onto the back of Erwin's horse, wipes at the blood on his face with his sleeve. He holds himself steady on Erwin's cloak and feels the warmth of his back. When they get back to the rest of the formation, Theo and the other soldier are in the wagons. Mike has his horse.

--

They walk back into the Walls exhausted, filthy. This time, the casualties were small, but ten soldiers still died. Levi walks next to Erwin. They moved far today, not far enough, but Erwin still looks pleased. He's looked that way since Shadis called for him. Levi wonders what happened. The gates close behind them and Levi sees a crowd waiting for them.

The first time they'd come back, it had been dark and raining still, and Levi hadn't noticed a crowd if there was one. But now it's sunny and people are watching them, whispering. Some look happy, most do not. Levi is too tired to pay attention to them. Now that the adrenaline has worn off, his body feels overused and weary.

"What happened to her? What happened!"

There's a man running toward the dead wagon, tears already down his face. The line stops. The man reaches into the wagon and touches one of the dead soldiers, his shoulders shaking.

"My daughter—you took my daughter from me!" the man says. "She shouldn't have been out there. She shouldn't have!"

Levi tenses, starts to step forward, but Erwin grabs his arm.

"Don't," he says.

"You can't just let them talk that shit," Levi says, but he listens. "They have no idea—"

"You're right, they don't." Erwin is still holding onto his arm. "They only have their grief. Let them have it."

Levi looks out to the crowd. A lot of them are whispering to each other, their eyes sharp and judgmental. Is this how it is every time? Levi doesn't know how they deal with this shit. But he says nothing. The crying father is eventually pulled back by his family, and the line keeps moving. Erwin lets go of Levi's arm.

--

He bathes for longer than usual. There's dirt and grime under his fingernails, stained to his skin. If Levi had known going outside the Walls would get him so damn dirty he may never have agreed to it. He soaks, scrubs himself nearly raw, drags his fingers over the indentations from the belts of his gear. After he dresses, he goes looking for Erwin. Things move slowly after an expedition, the constant fear lessened. A lot of soldiers ask to visit home. No one wants to answer questions, but if Levi knows anything, it's that Erwin hardly ever stops working.

He enters without knocking, and Erwin isn't alone. Mike is standing by his desk, probably updating him. They both look up when they see Levi.

"Hey," Mike says, a greeting, not an accusation.

His face isn't hostile anymore. He salutes Erwin quickly, tells him that they'll pick up later, and nods to Levi on his way out. Once the door shuts, Erwin leans back again his desk, more relaxed, arms folded. He looks pleased.

"Can I help you, Levi?"

"How's that injured soldier?" Levi hesitates to use his name. "He came in on my horse."

"Theo's fine," Erwin says. "A slight dislocation in his shoulder, but he should recover."

Doubtful he'll be ready for the next expedition though, if and when that happens. But Levi is glad he's okay. It would have been stupid for him to die out there like that.

"And how are you?" Erwin says.

Levi shifts his stance. He knows what he's asking, but he isn't sure he has the answer.

"I didn't get injured."

"Of course." Erwin seems more at ease than usual, shoulders relaxed. There's hot tea by his arm and he picks the cup up, takes a sip. "I'm glad you came by. I wanted to ask you about your goals now."

"My goals?" Levi says, startled by the question.

"I would hope they aren't the same as when you joined." Erwin sets his cup onto his desk with a soft clink. "Have you given any thought to becoming an officer?"

"An officer?"

"Yes," Erwin says. "You'd be perfect for it."

He has a hard time imagining it, not that the idea of bossing people around isn't unappealing. But he's never even considered it before. Levi's not sure he wants to be in charge of other lives again.

"I don't think so," he says.

"What do you want, Levi?"

Levi doesn't hesitate.

"I want to be outside the Walls," he says. "I want to fight. I don't care how I do it, just as long as I do."

He doesn't know if that's the right answer or not. Or if there even is one. But that's the truth, and that's all he can give. After a moment, Erwin smiles, and Levi feels like he's made the right choice.

"I'm glad," he says.

Erwin picks up his tea again and drinks, and Levi stays. He hasn't asked him to leave, and Levi really doesn't want to. Before, he hadn't wanted to come, but now, talking to Erwin again, he doesn't want to go. They stay like that a long moment before Erwin finally stands up. He rounds the desk and walks towards him, gets close enough that Levi has to crane his neck to look at him.

"You did well out there," Erwin says.

Levi nods. His throat feels very tight and he doesn't trust himself to speak.

"Levi," Erwin says. "You did so well."

His eyes are so fond it's nearly embarrassing, and then his arm moves. Levi doesn't breathe. He's positive that Erwin is going to touch him so he waits for it, chest tight. He wants him to touch him. Levi isn't sure when that feeling came, maybe just now. And Erwin looks like he wants to, he looks like wants nothing more than that. But Erwin doesn't touch him. His hand drops back down to his side, and the disappointment Levi feels actually hurts.

"Rest up," Erwin says. "Normal schedule resumes tomorrow."

Levi exhales silently. "Understood."

He walks quickly back to the barracks, legs stiff, but he walks around the back of the building instead of going inside. He leans back against the wood and can't seem to catch his breath. His groin aches and it seems like there's cold air trapped in his chest. Levi waits for the feeling to pass but it doesn't, just sits there like a sickness until his legs won't hold up anymore and Levi slides to the ground. He doesn't move for an hour.

--

The nightmares stop abruptly and Levi actually finds himself missing them, not for the guilt, but for the moments where Isabel and Farlan are alive again, even if it isn't real. He doesn't dream at all over the next two weeks. Theo is out of the infirmary apparently, but Levi hasn't seen him around and hasn't bothered to check. He's distracted. Not enough that it shows, but enough that Levi notices. His routine feels off. Even cleaning doesn't hold the same satisfaction.

Erwin doesn't touch him and it's like he's careful not to. Watches Levi during training and exercises but doesn't go over to him. Levi still goes to his office, they still talk, play chess, but every movement feels calculated. It's like Erwin is trying very hard not to look him in the eye. People know by now that Levi is usually wherever Erwin is. He's entering friendly territory with Hanji and Mike and Nanaba and starting to feel less like the thug who wandered in and more like he's welcomed.

Three weeks after the expedition, Erwin approaches Levi outside while he's training. It's a hot day, probably the last of the season, and Levi is wearing loose clothes, forehead dripping with sweet, the smell of grass in his nose.

"Looking to spar?" Levi says, knowing already that Erwin will decline.

"No," Erwin says. "I actually have a favor to ask of you."

Levi wipes at his face with a towel, aware that Erwin wants him to step away from the other soldiers. They walk toward the fence, idle, pause under a tree for shade.

"What do you want?" Levi says.

Erwin leans against the bark of the tree.

"I'd like it if you accompanied me to the capital."

A light breeze blows, cuts right through Levi's clothes and cools the sweat on his skin. He stops himself from shivering.

"You're shitting me," he says.

"I'm not."

"I don't know a thing about politics, Erwin. I'm not going to be any help in a meeting or whatever you do."

"Actually, you will be." Levi waits for him to elaborate, and this time, Erwin does. "Levi, you saved an entire squad and took down five Titans by yourself. That is an incredible feat, and news travels fast."

Levi feels lost. "What do you mean?"

"Some important people want to meet you," Erwin says. "Nobles, aristocrats."

It doesn't make sense to Levi at first. From what he understands, those types of people don't care much for the Corps. In fact, most of the big names in the capital don't like them at all. Levi tosses his towel over his shoulder.

"Do I give a shit about them? They've never done anything for me."

"You're right," Erwin says. "But if you want to continue fighting, we need to impress them."

"You mean we need their money," Levi says, understanding.

"If I could pay for these expeditions myself, I would," Erwin says. "Since I can't, we need the government's help."

Erwin hands Levi his water and Levi drinks quickly, aware that Erwin is watching his throat move. Help, Levi thinks, and huffs. Politics.

"So schmooze them," he says. "Sure, I can do that."

Erwin's face softens, amused. "Can you?"

He's joking with him, Levi realizes. He's never seen Erwin anything but serious before.

"Yeah," Levi says, the corners of his lips turning up. "I can."

--

It's a disappointment that Shadis comes along. Levi steps up into the carriage, sees him sitting across from Erwin, and can't stop the scowl that comes to his face. He sits next to Erwin and slumps a bit. He had been hoping they would be alone. Sometimes Levi forgets that Erwin isn't the highest authority in the Corps, which makes little sense to him, because he's seen Erwin do more than anyone else. For a long time, Levi had thought that Erwin was just selfish, but he's realized now that he's the opposite. He's prepared to do whatever it takes, and Levi can understand and admire that, the willingness to get your hands dirty for the sake of the cause. To kill the baker to take the bread.

The carriage ride is long. Levi is silent for most of it, drowns out the sound of Erwin and Shadis talking to watch the scenery pass them by. The farther they travel, the less trees Levi sees, until it's nothing but buildings and people. As they enter Mitras, Levi leans forward to look out, curious more than anything to see the city. It was always described as a paradise in the Underground, a place to never go hungry. But Levi doesn't see anything utopian here. The streets are well kept, the clothes nicer, but there's weariness on the faces of the people they pass.

"You've never seen Mitras, have you?" Shadis says.

Levi glances at him quickly, then back to outside.

"No."

"The king lives here," Shadis says, as if Levi wouldn't know.

He looks away from the window and leans back into the seat. If Shadis is trying to impress him, he's not doing a very good job it. Levi cares as much for the king as he cares for nobles and aristocrats. He knows what people are like, people with money and power. They're fueled by greed, their own ends. And Levi can't stand people like that.

"He's on a throne and everything, right?"

"Yes," Shadis says.

"So does he ever leave it or just shit right there and make someone clean it up?"

"Levi," Erwin says, stern, but not angry.

Levi crosses his legs, quietly amused at the appalled expression on Shadis' face.

They reach the Capital Building in silence. Levi follows behind Erwin as they climb out, the sun blinding him for a moment. The building is tall, pillars lining the front. It's unlike anything Levi has ever seen before. They walk inside and go straight ahead to a room at the end of the hall with a solid mahogany door. Shadis knocks.

"Schmooze," Erwin says quietly, and Levi nods.

The door opens. Nobles and aristocrats, as Levi had suspected, are too well fed for their own good. They get welcomed in with handshakes for Shadis and Erwin, invitations to sit at the table. One of the men has a thick brown beard that curls and a silver pocket watch. Months ago, Levi would have robbed him of it.

"Gentlemen, thank you for stopping by before the meeting," he says.

"Thank you for having us, Mr. Wilks," Shadis says.

Wilks signals for a boy to pour them all tea. A fine china teacup is placed in front of Levi, white enough that he can see the shadow of his reflection. The other men at the table introduce themselves, but mostly listen after that. It feels very foreign. Levi's never seen something quite like this before, this stuffy sort of fake friendship.

"And this must be Levi," Mr. Wilks says.

He pours sugar into his tea and stirs, tiny silver spoon between his thick fingers.

"I've heard quite a buzz about you, though, you're certainly not what I was expecting," he says. "You're quite short."

Levi clicks his jaw. "Sorry I'm not awkward and gangly—"

"Levi's stature is small," Erwin says, cutting in quickly. "But his worth as a soldier is that of one hundred men."

Levi bites his tongue and curses himself. He's already lost his patience and they haven't been here for five minutes. But Mr. Wilks just laughs, beard bristling.

"I meant no offense." He sips his tea. "So it's true then, about the Titans?"

"As Commander, I can confirm this," Shadis says. "He gave a squad enough time to retreat. Levi was also able to help two injured soldiers."

"But you were thug, before," Mr. Wilks says.

"I was," says Levi. "Erwin recruited me to the Corps."

Mr. Wilks looks pleased by this, as do the rest of the men at the table, like Levi is some kind of success story, some oddity.

"You know I was previously hesitant to back to the Survey Corpse due to it's…well, record," he says. "But this is an interesting turn and I must say, I would be disappointed to never hear another story of the strongest soldier."

Levi brings his teacup to his mouth and drinks, maybe gripping it too tightly. He feels too restrained and that's made him restless. He wants to leave.

"You would have our gratitude," Shadis says.

"Though, with respect," Erwin says. "We hope to do more out there than provide you soldier's tales."

"Of course, of course," says Mr. Wilks. "Gentlemen, please, let us savor our tea and resume this talk at the official meeting."

It's high quality tea, but something about it tastes bitter to Levi anyway.

--

They step back into the hall after and Levi notices the building is more crowded now. People are moving in and out, walking briskly. It's mostly nobles, but Levi can see a few Military Police hanging to the far left, and near them a man in religious robes. He's looking at him and Erwin. He's tall and dark-haired, nose bent like it was once broken. Levi narrows his eyes at him and then turns his attention away.

"Shouldn't religion be separate from politics?" he says to Erwin.

"Not everyone agrees on that fact, but yes. Why?"

They both look left at the same time, but the man is gone now. Levi shakes his head.

"Just wondering how fucked up this system really is."

Erwin smiles grim and then motions for him to follow. They leave the main hall, step into one of the corridors.

As a low ranking soldier, he isn't allowed in the official meeting. He waits outside and stares at the scuffs on his boots instead. A few people who walk by look at him, and Levi wonders if they know who he is. The strongest soldier. What a bunch of bullshit. He wants to know who made up such a ridiculous name. He'd had a reputation in the Underground, and even the Military Police knew of him, but no commoners really had any clue. He had a sense of anonymity, protection. Now it feels like everyone's watching him.

It's a good hour before Erwin and Shadis return, and by their expressions, Levi is pretty positive they're going to get another expedition, as well as some extra funding.

"Sorry we kept you waiting," Erwin says. "Come, we're returning to Headquarters."

Once they're in the carriage, Shadis exhales, satisfied.

"That went well," he says. "Our asses are saved…for now."

"That's a problem for another day." Erwin adjusts his sleeve and looks at Levi. "Thank you for coming. You did well."

Levi nods, warm in his uniform from Erwin's praise. He gives it so easily, but he always means it.

"I think I'm beginning to like Wilks," Shadis says.

Levi snorts.

"I wonder how many stories that clown would be interested in if he actually saw a Titan for himself."

Shadis watches him from across the carriage, lips thin. When they get back to headquarters, he asks Erwin to speak with him in his office. Levi doesn't have to guess what about. Shadis dismisses him and he starts walking down the hallway, but as soon as they've shut the door, Levi pivots back and presses his ear against it, listens for their voices.

"He listens to you, and you alone, Erwin."

"He trusts me."

"But you're not his Commander, I am. It's disrespectful."

"I understand, Keith, and I—"

"You know I heard someone call him Erwin's War Dog the other day."

There's a pause. Levi presses himself closer to the door.

"Do you think he should be yours?" Erwin's voice sounds thin.

"No, my god, Erwin. I just think that no matter how good he is, his lack of discipline is a problem."

"He's improving, Keith. Understand that he feels alone here."

"But that's not entirely true. Everyone can see how much he likes you, Erwin. And surely you've heard the rumors about you two."

"Levi?"

He spins around and grabs for the knife in his belt without thinking, nearly seizes the neck of the person behind him until he sees that it's just Hanji. They have a folder in their hands. Hanji looks down at Levi's knife and frowns.

"Uh—"

Levi slams his hand over Hanji's mouth.

"I wasn't here," he says.

Hanji nods, breath warm on Levi's palm. He pulls away and walks quickly down the hallway, leaves Hanji standing confused behind him.

Chapter Text

He goes to Erwin's office after dinner. Shuts the door behind him, almost locks it. Erwin looks up from his writing, expectant, face schooled neutral. Maybe he already knows. It wouldn't be a surprise.

"What are people saying about us?" Levi says.

Erwin sets his pen down. "Levi. You really shouldn't eavesdrop."

"Then people shouldn't talk so loud."

Erwin stands up, circles to the head of his desk until he's in front of Levi. He doesn't look angry, more tired, stretched thin.

"I'm assuming, then, that you know Shadis does not approve of your attitude."

"I don't care what Shadis approves of," Levi says.

"Shadis is the Commander of this operation, and you are a soldier under his command."

Levi has to fight to stop clenching his teeth.

"He shouldn't even be Commander. It should be you, you do all the work anyway."

Erwin's face goes so soft that Levi has to look elsewhere. He looks surprised by Levi's kindness towards him, as if he doesn't already know that it's true.

"But I'm not the Commander." He pauses, maybe thinking about what it would be like if he was. "Would you at least consider being more amiable, as a courtesy to me? Keith is a good man, Levi."

"I guess," Levi says.

He hates this. He hates what they have to do to get money, hates thinking how many times Erwin has subjected himself to that bullshit just to get funding for his men. He hates Wilks and the way he acts like this is all a game, like this isn't life or death. It pisses him off that Erwin is doing everything for this, everything, and is taking nothing in return. He must look miserable, because Erwin's gaze softens further.

"Levi," he says. "You must know I favor you."

Levi drags his gaze back to Erwin.

"But you don't touch me."

For the first time, Erwin looks startled. He blinks, mouth slightly open.

"What?"

"Nothing," Levi says.

He has no idea where that outburst came from. His face burns. He starts to turn away, but now Erwin does touch him, reaches out and grabs his arm. Levi stops, and for a moment neither of them moves. Then Erwin starts pulling Levi back toward him. Levi resists because it seems like the thing to do. Because talking about it is one thing, but the idea of acting on it pulls a cord in him that's terrifying.

"Hey—"

He grabs a fistful of Erwin's jacket but doesn't push away, just holds tight, heels digging into the floor. Erwin's hand moves from his arm and he holds Levi's face in both hands, thumbs pressing into his cheekbones. Levi pushes, finally, but just ends up moving forward more, and suddenly they're that close. Levi is up on his toes and he can feel Erwin's breath across his lips, close but not close enough. Erwin's eyes look like they're burning, something flashing behind them. Levi's heart hammers in his chest and he waits for it. He waits.

"Levi," Erwin says, and then there's a knock at the door.

"Squad Leader Smith?"

Levi pushes himself back, stumbling, trying to force the blood to drain from his face. Erwin is already composed like nothing ever happened, though Levi can see the tremor in his hands. He stands next to him, then takes a few steps away. Erwin clears his throat.

"Come in," he says.

It's another officer, Levi can't remember his name, but he's carrying a stack of paper, and Levi knows Erwin's night is over. When the officer notices Levi he pauses, blinks.

"Sorry, Erwin, did I interrupt?" he says.

Levi wants to bark out yes, yes he did interrupt, but Erwin simply shakes his head.

"Not at all, Levi and I had just finished our discussion." Erwin barely turns to Levi, eyes still clouded. "You're dismissed."

Levi leaves the office, eyes cast downward, legs barely working. Even after he gets to the barracks there's a tremor in him that won't go away. It stays with him the rest of the night.

--

"Put more pressure on the inside of the wrist."

"Like this?"

"No, like this."

Levi flips the soldier easy, his back hitting the ground with a soft thud.

"Shit," the soldier says. "How did you do that?"

Levi pushes his palm against his knuckles to crack them.

"You have to distribute your weight."

The day is cooler and less muggy, everyone moving with a bit more energy. Levi's blood feels warm. He offers a hand to help the soldier up, Jin, and instructs him to move into position again.

"You're just going to flip me again." Jin sets his stance anyway. "Is there really a point to all this hand-to-hand stuff? It's not like you can pull that move on a Titan."

"You really think Titans are the only enemies in the world?" Levi says.

He takes Jin down again before he can respond, this time flipping him over his knee and holding his arm back. Jin grunts. A few of the other soldiers laugh, watching.

"Give it up, Jin, you can't take down Levi."

"Yeah, yeah I know." He rolls over after Levi releases him and picks himself up. "But going against Humanity's Strongest is only going to make it easier for me to kick all your asses."

There's some laughter. Levi reaches for his water.

"Don't call me that," he says.

He eats with Mike and Nanaba after in the sunshine. Across the field, Levi sees Erwin walking with another officer. They haven't interacted in two days, not since the night Erwin grabbed Levi in his office. Wherever Levi is, Erwin seems not to be there. It's almost like he's avoiding him. But Levi hasn't done anything about it. He doesn't know what to say, what to do. Things have been busy, anyway. Levi just doesn't think about it. Or at least he pretends not to. He isn't sure where they stand now, and talking about it seems terrifying. Just like he's sensed it, Erwin looks up from the other side of the field and his gaze lands right on Levi. They lock eyes a moment, and then Erwin looks away. Levi looks down at his half-eaten lunch, heartbeat choking his throat.

--

 

"It's Mike's birthday. Join us?"

Levi looks up from his finished plate. Nanaba is smiling at him, her hair glowing in the light.

"I don't do parties," he says.

"Oh come on," Nanaba says. "It's not a party, it's just whiskey and some old cake. I know Mike would appreciate it."

Levi looks back down for a moment. He knows it's a good thing to be friendlier with his squad mates. And for what it's worth, he does like Mike. And Mike likes him, despite the rockiness in the beginning. He seems to be able to trust Levi now, and he knows that's no small feat after what he did. Erwin also likes him, which really counts in Levi's book.

It's been a week since he's actually seen Erwin. Somehow, it's like he's disappeared. If he really wanted to, Levi could go to his office, confront him. But he doesn't and refuses to acknowledge that it scares him. Maybe it'll just be like this forever, unless he's at Mike's non-party tonight.

"I'll go for a bit," he says.

"Good." Nanaba touches his shoulder lightly. "North supply room in fifteen minutes."

He walks over twenty minutes later, and his shoulders drop when he opens the door and doesn't see Erwin. It's just Nanaba, Mike, and a few other veterans of the Corps. Mike acknowledges him with a tilt of his head and then motions him over. They're all sitting on wooden crates, their shirts loose, casual. Levi takes a seat and accepts the whiskey Nanaba pours for him.

Farlan used to get them whiskey on cold nights. They'd huddle close by a fire and drink it to warm their bones, no word about worrying what was going to happen next. It was silent, but it was a good silence. And Levi sort of feels it again now, even with the light conversation going. He feels welcomed.

"So what are you now, thirty?" Levi says.

Nanaba snorts. "He wishes."

Mike brings his cup to his lips. "I'm just grateful to see another year pass."

That all quiets them a bit, and they sit there looking to the ground, counting their luck. Then one of the veterans taps on the crate he's sitting on.

"I heard there'd be cake," he says.

Nanaba wasn't lying about it being old cake. It's a bit crumbly, but still sweet, and they eat it gratefully, their bellies warm with alcohol and camaraderie.

Levi walks with Nanaba and Mike after, and Nanaba points out constellations as they walk. Levi listens, looks up. He never got much of a chance to look at the stars before. They are beautiful. Levi wonders how far someone would have to climb to reach one, or if that's even possible. Even though they look close, Levi has a feeling that they're far away. His hand itches at his side and he tucks it into his pocket, tries not to think about the way Erwin grabbed him in his office, the heat in his eyes.

"Levi."

He turns at his name, sees Mike watching him with an amused expression. Nanaba is looking as well. They must have been talking to him.

"What?" Levi says.

"What did you think of the capital?" Mike says. "You went with Erwin, didn't you?"

The mention of Erwin's name puts his senses on high alert. For some absurd reason, he wants to lie.

"Yeah, I did." Levi shrugs. "The clothes are nicer, but the shit still smells."

Mike laughs through his nose. They turn left, closer to the barracks. Mike looks like he wants to say something. They're friends now, Levi supposes. He supposes Nanaba and Hanji are his friends as well. He's never had so many before. He isn't sure what to do with them.

"Why?" Levi says.

"Nothing," Mike says. "It's good you went with him."

Nanaba nods next to him. "He seems to like you," she says. "It's good. Erwin's never had too many friends."

Levi feels oddly guilty. He says nothing, doesn't let his expression betray anything.

"He's your friend though, right? Kind of odd he wasn't there tonight."

"Erwin and I had a drink earlier," Mike says. "He's even busier these days."

Levi doesn't doubt that, though he wonders if he was just avoiding him again. He keeps walking, and like a cruel twist of fate, they cross Erwin's path.

"Erwin," Mike says. "Your ears must have been burning just now."

"Oh?" Erwin says.

He notices Levi next to them and adjusts his stance, goes slightly stiffer. A silence passes between the four of them, and it's awkward, almost painfully so. Erwin tucks his hands behind his back.

"I hope this birthday served you well, Mike," he says.

"It did."

"Good," Erwin says. "Please excuse me."

He walks away toward the officer's building. Levi stands there and feels something ugly in his heart. He doesn't like it.

"Huh," Nanaba says. "I wonder what that was all about."

She and Mike leave Levi at the barracks and Levi spends the rest of the night thinking about it, the way Erwin looked at him and his brows drew down, the way he left as quickly as possible. He washes up, movements irritable, enough so that the other soldiers make sure not to go near him. And once he's in bed, he still can't stop thinking about it. It pisses him off. But it's more than that. It actually hurt that Erwin was avoiding him. Levi's never really felt that before. He tosses and turns for an hour until it becomes pretty clear he's not going to get any sleep. Levi gets out of bed and changes quickly before heading to Erwin's office.

He tramps across the grounds into the hall and opens Erwin's office door but the room is dark and Erwin is nowhere to be found. Levi exhales, deflating somewhat. If Erwin isn't here, then he's probably in his room, and while Levi knows it's somewhere upstairs, he has no idea which one it is. They might just continue to miss each other like this, Levi realizes, never another moment alone. Levi shuts the door and turns, starts walking away. He didn't fasten his boots properly and they sound clunky against the floor. As he's about to step into the stairwell, Erwin rounds the corner. He's not wearing the straps of his gear and his shirt is untucked, hair loose.

"Levi…" he says, face open, disarmed. "What are you doing here?"

"Looking for you," Levi says, with more heat in his voice than is probably necessary.

Erwin doesn't answer right away and Levi starts to get angry again, chest flaring hot.

"Forget it," he says, and starts to turn away again.

Erwin grabs his wrist just like before and Levi freezes in place, their eyes locking.

"The other night," Erwin says, voice much lower.

He doesn't say more than that, voice trailing off. His grip on Levi's wrist is tight and his hand feels huge, encompassing. Levi holds his gaze.

"I wouldn't have stopped you."

Erwin inhales audibly but still doesn't speak and Levi's heartbeat is too loud in his ears. The moment stretches, and just before Levi can lose his patience and pull away again, Erwin snaps. He pulls Levi to him and kisses him, mouth bruising, hungry for it. Levi struggles on the tips of his toes to keep up, fingers pressed against Erwin's chest. Erwin walks them backwards until Levi's back is up against the wall and they are kissing, kissing, kissing. Levi can feel Erwin everywhere, a vibration straight to his molars. He presses himself against him and Levi can feel his cock against his abs, half-hard already. He searches out more with his tongue, hungry for it. Erwin pulls away suddenly and Levi tries to follow, but Erwin stops him with a firm hand on his neck. The pressure forces Levi to look up at him.

"Come with me," Erwin says, and Levi remembers they're still in the hallway in plain view.

He nods, legs shaky, and follows as Erwin leads, his hand still gripping Levi's wrist. They struggle up the stairs and then walk to Erwin's room, the light inside almost blinding compared to the dull light of the hallway. Erwin shuts the door and has Levi against it before he has a chance to take in the room, his hands bunched in Levi's shirt collar. He steadies himself against the door but eventually they both just slide down it, collapsed against each other, practically sprawled on the floor. But Erwin seems to come back to himself again because he pulls back, and for a moment Levi thinks he's going to stop this entirely. Instead, he stands and offers Levi his hand. Levi takes it.

He can see Erwin's room now. The bed, the table with the water jug on top and so many books before settling back on Erwin. The way he approaches him is almost predatory, eyes burning.

"Levi," he says, and his mouth forms around the word in a way Levi has never head before, dries his mouth right out.

Erwin steps in close and Levi thinks he's going to kiss him again, but instead he starts pulling at his shirt, eyes focused on Levi's. Levi feels dizzy. Erwin undoes the top button of his shirt. He undoes the rest of the buttons at a maddeningly slow pace, and if this is some weird test of patience, Levi hates it. He allows it, though, because it's Erwin, because he's allowing him many things. Erwin seems so much calmer now, but his fingers are trembling as he pulls Levi's pants down, palms grazing over his ass. If they were anyone else, they probably wouldn't have made it past the door.

"I've been telling myself this is a bad idea," Erwin says.

"Are you going stop?" says Levi.

"I can't."

Levi's clothes pile onto the floor and he doesn't even think about picking them up. Erwin's gaze is hot, and Levi has been waiting for this longer than he realized. He climbs onto the bed, mattress sagging, and rolls onto his back. Levi looks over at Erwin and sees him standing there, watching, still buttoned up.

"Aren't you going to undress?"

"In a moment," Erwin says.

He keeps watching him, and Levi feels very exposed, his cock hardening, very aware of his nakedness. He flushes and it spreads down his neck, his chest, his stomach. He's so anxious for Erwin to just touch him. To do anything. Then Erwin starts undressing. He does it without taking his eyes off Levi, like he can't stop watching him. Every bit of Erwin is solid, impressive. His cock is thick and heavy between his legs, fully hard now. Levi swallows, waits. He almost doesn't believe this is happening. Erwin climbs onto the bed, straddling him, and Levi can't take it anymore. He kisses his, hands pawing, aggressive. Erwin allows it only a moment before he's pinning Levi's wrists to the mattress.

"Is this what people are saying about us?" Levi says.

Erwin's thumb strokes over Levi's pulse point. 

"I don't give a damn what people are saying," he says, and Levi wants him to take everything.

Erwin lets go of his wrists and slides his hands up to his collarbone, fingers spreading wide to touch the skin there. Erwin is watching him like he's something incredible, something precious, and the whole thing suddenly feels too intimate. Levi's heartbeat quickens, anxious. Rough hands slide down his chest, skirt over his ribs and hips, press lightly into the dip of his pelvic bone. Levi feels like he's going to explode. He pushes his hips up, starving for more.

"Are you just going to touch me all night or what?"

Erwin smiles, soft, almost sad, his thumbs rubbing at Levi's skin to soothe.

"I'm sorry," he says. "I've just wanted to do that for so long."

Levi wonders how long. How long has Erwin been watching and denying himself? How long has he thought about Levi under him just like this, the two of them bared and aroused? He doesn't ask. Erwin reaches over and opens his bedside table, pulls out oil. The jar looks unopened. Erwin is the one who hands the oil to Levi, slides it into his palm silently. He doesn't have to ask. Levi dips his fingers in and hikes his knees up, spreads his legs in full view, slips one inside of himself. His mouth drops open. He's tight, and it's been too long and Erwin is watching him like he's from another world. Erwin strokes his neck, his chest. The added touch has Levi feeling hysterical, but it distracts him enough so he can fit another finger in. Erwin is still watching him. Levi feels like he has to say something or he's going to explode.

"I should have known you'd be such a pervert in bed," he says, chest heaving.

"You've thought about getting me into bed often, then?" Erwin says.

Levi can't make a comeback before Erwin is nudging a slick finger in beside his. He jerks, toes curling. Erwin's finger is much thicker, slides in between his two and starts moving. Levi lets his mouth drop open and moans, loud, unable to care about controlling himself. He lets his fingers slip out and Erwin adds two more of his own, the three of them rubbing and searching. Levi's whole body shivers.

"You're so sensitive," Erwin says, like he's amazed by it.

Levi can't think of anything to say back, and the tips of his ears burn. Erwin moves so slowly inside of him, his fingers warm and constant.

"I'm good," Levi says, and swallows thickly. "Seriously, Erwin, you're killing me—"

"Sorry." Erwin smiles down at him like he means it, but doesn't stop moving. "It's been a very long while for me, I wasn't sure about you."

His admission embarrasses Levi for some reason, and he has to look to the side.

"I…yeah."

He likes that it's been a while for Erwin, likes that there hasn't been anyone else, not for a long time. The possessiveness of the thought startles him. Erwin slips his fingers out and it's a relief, but now Levi feels empty and he hates it. Erwin pushes his legs so that Levi's knees are up against his ears and his body is folded in half. Levi can't see anything but Erwin, Erwin blocking out the light in the room, blocking out everything but himself.

"Levi," he says, and Levi just closes his eyes and nods.

"Come on."

He finally starts to push in, the head of his cock slipping past Levi's rim. Levi wraps his arms around Erwin's neck and tenses immediately, mouth shocked open.

"Oh," he says. "Fuck."

It hurts. Erwin feels way too big, too much, all of him overwhelming. Levi's stomach muscles jump and Erwin looks down at him, apologetic, fond.

"Are you all right? Should I stop?"

"No, shit, don't do that." Levi breathes out. "Just give me a minute."

It takes him a moment to remember how to relax. The more he does, the more Erwin pushes in. The stretch burns, but after the burning stops all he feels is full. It radiates up his stomach and down his legs, a vibration of pleasure. When Erwin finally thrusts, the force of it has Levi's lower back lifting off the bed. Levi scratches lightly at the back of Erwin's neck, nose pressed against his clavicle. He can't kiss him this way, has no choice but to moan helplessly against Erwin's chest as he bucks into him, hips snapping. He feels small and out of control, but it doesn't scare him. It feels good to let it go. It feels good to let Erwin take it.

"Levi," Erwin says, sounds absolutely shocked by him. "You're—"

He doesn't finish. His head dips down, eyes closed, and he circles his hips like he knows nothing else. Levi bites his lip until it splits, focusing on the feeling of Erwin inside of him. It doesn't last long. Erwin thrusts hard, enough that it moves them up the bed, and then he's coming inside Levi, head snapping up. He groans like nothing Levi has ever heard before and it moves all through him.

Erwin goes still after that, breathing heavily, and then pulls out slowly. Levi can feel Erwin's come leak out of him, an ache start to form in the muscles of his legs. Erwin moves down and kisses Levi, presses his body against him. The friction feels good. Levi's cock is still hard. He rubs himself against Erwin's stomach, desperate for it, and Erwin gets the hint quickly. His hand steals down and strokes Levi's erection until Levi is whining into his mouth. He thinks he kicks Erwin's back with his heel at one point, but the pleasure is too much and Erwin doesn't seem to mind at all. Levi seizes up and comes all over his stomach, his moan swallowed by Erwin's mouth.

Then they lay there, panting, watching each other, Levi only half able to believe what just happened. Erwin strokes the side of his face, still looking at him like he can't believe he's real. Levi doesn't let go of his hold around Erwin's neck.

"I've thought about you a lot like this," Erwin says.

Levi can see the scar on his neck, so he leans up and fits his mouth over it. Erwin sighs against him.

--

He doesn't stay the night. He can't, not without risking drawing attention to his absence in the barracks, and Levi doesn't trust himself sleeping next to another person yet. He doesn't even know if Erwin wants him to stay, but Erwin seems to understand without him having to say anything. Levi dresses quickly and knows he's being watched from the bed, Erwin in only his pants. As he's pulling his boots on, Erwin leans over and kisses the back of his neck, teeth scraping along the skin, and Levi can feel that he's shaking. He turns quickly to kiss Erwin on the mouth, and Erwin looks utterly pleased by it. There isn't anything Levi can think to say right now. So he says nothing. He slips out of Erwin's room and disappears down the hall like he was never there.

--

Everyone is loud the next morning at breakfast even though the mess hall is nearly empty. Most of the soldiers are on leave, but the ones who have no families have stayed behind. They're just happy to be alive, and it shows in the way they laugh. Levi sits by the window and drinks his tea quietly, listens to the sounds of them all talking. He doesn't see any officers outside talking this morning. Some of them are on leave too, but most of them are buried in paperwork.

Levi showers after, feels a deep ache inside of him that he can't quite reach even when he tries. He doesn't go looking for Erwin. He lets him work, leaves the base instead and goes into town. He's never actually explored it before. It's a nice day—sunny, cool, and people are smiling when Levi walks into the center of town. They're all busy tending to their lives, buying groceries, shopping. Levi walks by the windows of shops and looks in, sees toys and clothing arranged neatly, all inviting. He keeps walking. Some people, when they notice the wings of freedom on his back, nod and give a half-smile. Others look away. There are a few other soldiers out. Levi watches them walk into a bar even though it's only past noon.

He isn't looking for anything in particular, but Levi wanders into a general store halfway down the main block and looks at some cleaning supplies. There's a jar of cleaner made with fresh lemon, lavender. Levi picks it up.

"Oh," the shopkeeper says. "I see you have a good eye for cleaning products."

Levi unhooks the stopper and inhales, the smell stinging his nose a bit.

"How much?"

"Ten for the bottle. I'll wrap it for you."

Levi puts the bottle on the counter and grabs a new duster to go with it, satisfied.

"The Survey Corps must not be very busy these days, if they're sending you out to buy cleaning supplies," the shopkeeper says. Her face is round and cheery.

"They're for me," Levi says.

The shopkeeper furrows her a brow a bit, puts the supplies in a paper bag. "Oh."

Levi pays her and then leaves. He keeps the bag tucked under one arm and walks to where it's less populated and the cobblestones fade into grass. It's quiet and the buildings feel lonelier. Levi had forgotten how much he appreciated that quiet. He never found it in his life often.

He buys lunch from a street vendor and then walks back to base. A few soldiers are sparring in the courtyard, but really they're just horsing around, and when they see Levi they look embarrassed, settle down. Levi walks into the main building and runs right into Erwin. He's handing a stack of papers off to someone, stance softening the moment he sees him.

"Levi," he says, eyes brightening immediately. "You went into town?"

"Just for a bit."

"I see." Erwin walks over to him and glances into his bag. "Cleaning supplies?"

"Yeah." Levi looks down at them, feels so damn awkward. "Some of us like to keep things clean."

"Of course," Erwin says, and he's teasing him like he wasn't inside of him last night, like they didn't just cross so many lines they can't come back from.

Levi doesn't say anything, but he also doesn't move. He just kind of stands there, admiring the shape of Erwin's jaw and not knowing what to do with himself.

"Ah," Erwin says, like he just remembered something. "Why don't you come by my room later tonight? I'd like to show you something."

Levi flushes under his collar, heartbeat picking up.

"Sure," he says. "I'll come by."

Erwin smiles, knowing. "I'm glad."

He turns and leaves Levi there, disappears around a corner. When he starts walking again, Theo calls his name and jogs up from behind. Levi had been so focused on Erwin he hadn't noticed him. He slows down when he catches up and walks instep with Levi, full of energy.

"Hey," Theo says. "What were you and Erwin talking about?"

"Nothing," Levi says. "What do you want?"

"I just…" Theo scratches the back of his neck, sheepish. "I wanted to thank you for what you did the last expedition. You saved my life."

"Why would you thank me for that?" Levi picks up his pace a bit but Theo keeps up easily. "You're a comrade. I wasn't going to let you just die."

"I know, but—"

Levi stops walking and Theo skids to a stop with him, a little bewildered looking.

"You're a good soldier," Levi says. "But you have to be more alert outside the Walls."

"I know," Theo says. "You're right. I will be. I just wanted to—I don't know. I just—"

"Get to the point already."

"I wish I could be more like you."

Levi adjusts the bag in his arms. He looks to the side because Theo's face is so eager and trusting that Levi can't stand to look at it. It reminds him of Farlan.

"Don't say something so stupid to me ever again," he says, and this time Theo doesn't follow him when he walks away.

--

Erwin smells clean when Levi gets to his room. The whole room smells clean, and Levi wonders if Erwin did that for him. He steps in and pulls at his sleeves, hates and loves that he knows exactly what's coming. He shuts the door, and when he turns around again Erwin pulls him forward by the waist until their bodies are flush. Levi braces his hands on Erwin's chest, feels the hard muscle underneath.

"'I'd like you show you something?'" Levi says. "What kind of shitty excuse was that?"

He can feel Erwin's laughter. "I'm sorry, you were staring and it was very distracting."

They don't move, bodies pressed together, waiting for something.

"Levi," Erwin says. "You don't have to act any differently around me."

Levi keeps watching his chest. "I'm not."

Erwin cocks his head.

"It almost seemed like you were avoiding me."

"Well, I wasn't."

"Would you look up at me then?"

Levi does, self-conscious. Maybe he had been avoiding him a bit. It's just that he doesn't know what to do with this, he doesn't know how to act. He's never had anything that wasn't a one-time deal before, something quick and hurried just to get release. This is different. And Levi never has been good with different. Erwin cups the side of his face, brings him back into the moment.

"You don't have to act so damn confident," Levi says, even if the fact that he does turns him on a bit.

"I just know what I want," Erwin says. "What do you want, Levi?"

Levi grabs Erwin's wrist and squeezes. "I want to touch you."

Erwin's eyes cloud. He tugs Levi's cravat open and starts undressing him again. He slides his hands under Levi's jacket to slip it off, and tucked into one of the stitches, Erwin pulls out a small knife. He steps back, looks at Levi, eyebrow raised, but continues undressing him. He undoes Levi's buttons just like the night before, though this time a bit faster. When Erwin pulls at his belt, he finds another knife.

"Levi…"

"What?" Levi says, strangely embarrassed.

"This isn't the Underground. No one is going to attack you here."

"I know that."

Erwin reaches for him again and Levi holds a hand up, digs into his back pocket to pull out another knife. When he'd dressed the other night, he'd been too hasty to arm himself. Levi tucks the knife into Erwin's hand.

"Old habits," he says.

Erwin puts the knives on the table and Levi takes care of the rest of his clothes for him. After, Levi gets him on the bed and settles between his open legs on his knees, the two of them naked. Erwin keeps his hands at his sides and lets Levi take the control. His cock is hard, fluid welling at the tip. Levi wants to suck him off, so he does. He licks the pre-come away and sucks the head into his mouth, teeth tucked into his lips. Erwin groans and the sound is nothing but encouraging, so Levi takes him in more, as far as he can. Erwin is big. Levi had felt it when he entered him the night before, still feels it even now. He presses his tongue to the underside of Erwin's cock, eager to hear more of those sounds, hums around Erwin's length when they come.

He's so distracted by Erwin's cock in his mouth that he doesn't notice what Erwin's doing until he feels two slick fingers press against his hole before slipping in. Levi raises his head up and jerks forward, shocked by it in a good way. Erwin pulls his fingers out and rubs them around the rim, teases the sensitive skin there. Levi grits his teeth.

"Is it too much?" Erwin says. "Are you sore?"

Levi shakes his head. He is sore, but the pain is dull and feels good. He presses back a bit, hoping Erwin will get the hint and push his fingers back in. Instead, he pulls them away completely. Levi hisses.

"Why did you stop?"

"I'm sorry," Erwin says. "I enjoy seeing you flustered."

"You're a fucking sadist."

"And you're very sensitive." Erwin pulls him closer and then rolls them so he's on top. "Where else are you that sensitive?"

"I'm not," Levi says, and stops abruptly when Erwin takes one of his nipples into his mouth, teeth grazing. He presses his thumb against the other and rubs. Levi lets out an embarrassing noise and grabs the sheets in both hands, cock jumping against his stomach.

Erwin looks up at him, eyes grinning, and Levi pulls him by the hair.

"Come here."

They kiss, messy about it, Levi wrapping his arms around Erwin to get him that much closer. Erwin presses down and Levi lets his legs drop open, and they move against each other just like that, all friction, and breathe their want into each other's mouths. They come within seconds of each other, toes curling, and then go still. Erwin's breath is hot against Levi's neck, a little uncomfortable, but Levi doesn't move him. He combs his fingers through Erwin's hair, absentminded, calm.

The feeling passes slowly, but once it does, Levi starts to feel antsy. He cleans himself off with the towel Erwin left by the bed and then starts pulling on his clothes.

"You could stay, if you wanted," Erwin says.

Levi is surprised by the offer but he doesn't hesitate to refuse it.

"Not a good idea," he says.

"No?" says Erwin.

Levi looks back at him. His expression is neutral but Levi can see it in his face that he wants him to. But he can't.

"You like pushing your luck, don't you?"

"I don't believe in luck," Erwin says.

Levi pulls his boots on.

"I figured you wouldn't."

He kisses Erwin before he leaves, and then doesn't look back.

Chapter Text

Things happen in slow motion. Training picks up. There are whispers of another expedition. Levi wakes early and doesn't get back to his barracks until late evening. He hasn't had the chance to see Erwin much at all, though he looks for him on the training field and spots him sometimes from darkened windows, watching him. His gaze makes Levi shiver, like he's undressing him right then and there. Part of him, a large part of him, wants to go to him at night, when everyone is asleep. But he stops himself. And Erwin seems content to wait and let him come. Levi is aware that he can be stubborn to a fault, but this is his choice. He'll still wake up sometimes in the night, though, bad dreams behind his eyelids, and wish he could turn to Erwin. But he's never done this before, whatever this is. They haven't defined it, and Levi can't imagine how people do, or how what he and Erwin have could ever feel anything but fragile. Even knowing that, Levi doesn't want to stop what they've been doing. 

A week into the training, there's an officers' meeting that lasts nearly all day and the base seems oddly empty, even though there are more soldiers than officers. Levi keeps to himself, waiting. Lately, Erwin has gotten into the habit of finding him. He'll just happen to be there—the mess hall, the training fields. It's unobtrusive and quiet and Levi enjoys that, knowing Erwin went out of his way to look for him. But as the day fades into night, Erwin is still missing, and the rest of the officers are moving around. Levi sees Hanji walking by the kitchens and stops them.

"Is the meeting still going on?" he says.

Hanji swallows something that looks like a whole potato. "No, thankfully. You know Shadis, he loves to repeat himself at least—"

"So everyone's out?"

"Yeah," Hanji says. "Why?"

"No reason." Levi squints. "You've got dirt on your glasses, you know."

Hanji goes cross-eyed to look.

"Oh, so I do. Thanks, Levi."

Levi makes his way over to the officers' hall and finds Erwin in his office like he knew he would. He sees Erwin surrounded by stacks of white papers like towers, worrying at his lip with his thumb and forefinger. He doesn't seem to notice that Levi's entered.

"Oi," Levi says.

Erwin looks up.

"Levi. Hello."

"What's all that shit?"

Levi walks over to his desk but doesn't touch the papers, just nods to them. Erwin sighs, lips pressed together.

"Reports from previous expeditions," he says. "I'm investigating some similarities."

Of course he is. Erwin is always working.

"Shouldn't Shadis be doing that?"

Erwin keeps reading. "I asked to."

"You already do enough," Levi says. "You're going to work yourself to death."

Erwin laughs, distracted. He's still got his eyes on the papers. "I don't think the paperwork is what's going to kill me."

Levi doesn't respond to that. He looks at the mess on Erwin's desk again, struck with the urge to clean it. Erwin dying hasn't been something he's considered since they started sleeping together. Levi feels careless for not thinking about it, especially when it seems like such inevitability in the Corps, but there's also something about Erwin that seems so constant. Indestructible. But Erwin doesn't seem to care what happens to him at all, not so long as humanity prevails. Levi doesn't really see the point if he isn't there to see it. Maybe that makes him selfish, but no one ever said that had to be a bad thing. He has begun to realize that Erwin, for all his cunning and prowess, harbors a vulnerability in him that seeps through during quiet moments. A softness that Levi imagines he perceives to be weakness. Only it's not. It's a strength that Levi feels himself growing on.

The silence stretches until it feels a little awkward, and then Erwin looks up.

"You're quiet tonight," he says.

Levi glances away quickly and looks over again to see Erwin still watching him.

"I've got nothing to say."

It's a lie, and Erwin must know it but he doesn't call him on out on it. Levi wants to kiss him. He thinks about it, nearly on the edge of his toes. They've never kissed anywhere but the seclusion of Erwin's room, and always leading up to something more. A kiss here teeters on a level of intimacy Levi isn't sure they've reached or ever will. He hates that he can't read this like most things.

Eventually, Erwin looks down again, lips moving as he reads silently. He's going to be here all night, busier than ever. Levi starts to turn around, but Erwin's voice stops him.

"I could use some company," he says.

Levi turns back and sees Erwin's lips curved into a small, secret smile. He relaxes on his heels.

"Okay," he says.

--

Erwin must find something from the past expeditions, because he becomes a sort of phantom over the next week. He and Shadis are off base a lot, sometimes overnight, and when Erwin returns he goes straight back to his office. It doesn't necessarily bother Levi. He doesn't feel ignored, but the longer he goes without seeing Erwin, the more he notices his absence. It's annoying.

He distracts himself by training with Nanaba. She's easy to get along with, doesn't talk much, but always has something smart to say. Levi appreciates that. They take their horses out in the cool afternoon and work them in the forest, cover retreat maneuvers around the trees. When the horses get exhausted they break for water in the sunshine. Levi feeds his horse and waters her, strokes the long hair of her mane until she moves her head and nuzzles his temple. She leaves a streak of drool up the side of his face and Levi wrinkles his nose but doesn't stop it.

"She likes you," Nanaba says.

Levi shrugs and wipes the moisture off with his sleeve. "She's a horse."

"It's not hard though, you know."

He turns around. Nanaba is still sitting, her water halfway to her lips.

"What?"

"I mean you're a good person, Levi. I wasn't so sure about you at first, but you are."

For some reason, Levi thinks of the baker he killed so many years ago.

"I'm not really," he says.

Nanaba laughs, which Levi doesn't get, because he doesn't think it's particularly funny. He ties up the bag of horse feed and sets it down, frowns at Nanaba.

"What's so funny?"

"Sorry." Nanaba stands, pats her horse's neck. "It's just that Erwin's said that exact same thing to me before."

Levi looks down. They don't talk more about it. They train again, mostly on the trees with their gear, and Nanaba reminds Levi of Mike—the way she's so silent and precise. They head back before sundown for dinner. As they stable their horses, Nanaba nudges his shoulder.

"Hey," she says. "A few of us are going into town after dinner for drinks. Do you want to come?"

"Fine," Levi says.

Nanaba cocks her head sharply. "Yeah? I thought I was going to have to guilt you into it again."

Levi pets the wiry mane of his horse, fingers tangling in the dark hair. He has absolutely no desire to hang out in a bar with a bunch of drunken soldiers just to watch them embarrass themselves, but he enjoys the taste of beer and Erwin is off base. He just doesn't see any reason not to.

"No," he says. "But you will buy me a drink."

Nanaba laughs and the ease of it reminds Levi of Isabel.

"All right," she says. "Deal."

--

They get permission to leave and end up at a pretty subdued bar in town, one that's tucked into an alleyway. It's smoky and loud when they first walk in and mostly soldiers, a military bar. One of the bartenders waves to Mike. Levi trails behind him with Nanaba, Jin, and a few other soldiers with them that Levi isn't familiar with. They grab a corner table, the wood sticky with spilled alcohol. Levi pulls out a cloth and wipes his hands off, grimacing. He gets sandwiched in the middle of Mike and Nanaba as one of the barmaids brings over a round of beer for them. Levi takes a sip. It's not bad. He hasn't had alcohol in a while, and normally avoided it in the Underground anyway. He couldn't afford a moment where his senses weren't at their peak. Briefly, Levi wonders what Erwin is up to. Probably still awake and working on something with Shadis. He imagines him at a desk, forehead wrinkled in concentration, and takes another sip of beer.

Talk starts shortly after that. It's just complaints for a little while, talking about how much the gear marks up your skin, and how it's been too damn cold lately. Levi doesn't join the conversation, just sits and nurses his beer. He's surprised when he looks down and realizes that he's finished. Another round comes over, and Levi isn't sure who's paying, but he takes the beer anyway.

"At least summer is over," Nanaba says. "Mike won't stop complaining about the smell in summer."

"It's worse," Mike says, and there's foam on his upper lip.

Levi watches his nose twitch and doesn't envy him. He starts on his second beer just as the bar doors open and two Military Police walk in. Mike must know one of them, because he sighs heavy. The two MPs notice them almost immediately and walk over. The female one looks vaguely familiar to Levi.

"Two rounds in already?" the male MP says. "Didn't realize you all started so early."

"Really, Nile? I can smell the liquor on your breath from here," Mike says.

The female MP is looking at Levi, squinting, trying to place him. Levi ignores her, but eventually she snaps her fingers and points right at him.

"Hey, wait a second," she says. "Didn't I try and arrest you two years ago?!"

That's right, Levi remembers now. There had been a few MPs who tried when they were actually stupid enough to go down. She was one of them. Levi gave her the slip easily.

"Probably," Levi says.

The woman scoffs.

"Wow, is the Survey Corps so desperate that they're letting in criminals?"

"Hey," Mike says, his tone sharper. "You have no idea who you're talking to."

"Oh?" the female MP says. "And who exactly am I talking—"

Next to her, Nile jerks forward. "Wait, I know this guy…heard about him, anyway. Levi, right?"

Levi doesn't answer.

"I'm Nile," he says. "You know, I was in Erwin's trainee class back in the day. We were friends. I don't suppose he's mentioned me."

"Not once," Levi says, and enjoys the way Nile's face drops.

Nile and female MP take off to their own table and Levi can hardly believe Nile used to be friends with Erwin. He doesn't look like someone Erwin would associate with, his eyes shrewd and beady. He doesn't like him one bit. Levi glances at Mike, aware of how he'd defended him minutes ago. He doesn't say anything, but Mike seems to understand regardless, and just nods.

The conversation turns light again after that. Levi declines a third beer for himself and hangs back, allows himself to actually relax. Most of the soldiers in the bar are Garrison or Military Police, all of them laughing and drinking like there's nothing wrong, and never has been. After a while, Levi gets up and uses the bathroom, avoids Nile's gaze as he walks by. When he gets back to the table he sees they've got more company. A few girls have joined them, civilians, giggling and flirting with the males. Levi backtracks and takes a seat at the bar, pulls a few coins from his wallet and orders another beer. The bartender, young, male, beard well trimmed, sets the beer down and slides his coins back to him.

"Don't worry about it," he says.

Levi hesitates for a moment, then tucks the coins back into his wallet.

"Thanks."

He sips his beer and sits with his forearms resting on the bar top, body pleasantly warm with alcohol, but nowhere near drunk. There's a loud laugh from behind and Levi glances over his shoulder, sees one of the girls with her arm over Jin's shoulder. Nanaba leans closer to Mike, amused.

"Not joining your friends?" the bartender says.

Levi shakes his head and takes another drink.

"Those girls aren't your type, huh?"

Levi looks at the bartender over the rim of his beer glass. He's watching Levi openly, his eyes daring and hopeful. He's not unattractive. He's younger than Levi probably, face soft with youth.

"Not really," Levi says.

"Yeah, mine either," the bartender says, and leans over the bar top a bit more, intent obvious.

Levi could, if he wanted to. Opportunities like this have presented themselves before, and he's taken them. It's been exactly what he's wanted—quick and unattached. He just doesn't want to now. He isn't sure when that became true, but it is. Levi takes a long swig of his beer and then pulls out enough money to pay for the beer.

"Not interested," he says.

The bartender looks down at the money, then back up. He seems taken aback, glances quickly to the side to make sure no one's heard them.

"Sorry…thought you were alone," he says.

Levi hesitates. He is, technically. There is nothing to say he and Erwin are exclusive. There's nothing they've said about what they're doing at all. Levi stands up and digs a coin out for a tip.

"Thanks for the beer," he says, and walks back to the table.

The girls seem to have lost interest, because they've scattered from the table. Levi takes his seat back and realizes that the alcohol has actually gotten to him a bit. He's still not drunk, but his body feels heavier. There's a contented silence from the table and Levi nearly closes his eyes, a rare moment of comfort, but the door to the bar opens and he goes alert again, tensing. It's just more Military Police. They're already drunk—even Levi can smell the liquor on them. The three of them stumble in laughing, and once they catch sight of the Survey Corps, they sneer.

"Shouldn't you all be off getting eaten by Titans?" one says.

No one says anything. None of them are interested in a pissing contest right now. It makes Levi's blood boil, because these soldiers are clearly high-ranking, but they're acting like low-level thugs Levi's met in the Underground. Mike pools their money on the table and it's clear they're going to leave. Nanaba groans under her breath.

"No comeback?" another one of the MPs says. "Makes sense, only the stupid ones join the Survey Corps."

Levi stands from the table and the same MP snorts, lips flaring.

"Or the short ones, I guess," he says.

Mike slides a bit closer to Levi, braced for a fight, but Levi does nothing.

"Don't you assholes have anything better to do?" Nanaba says.

She's trying to switch their attention, and it works, sort of. The third MP, who'd been quiet up until now, leans forward, cheeks red from alcohol, words slurring.

"I could say the same about you." He sniffs. "Saw your Commander walking past parliament the other day—he looked ready to drop."

"Yeah," the first MP says. "Dragging his donkey behind him."

The three of them break out into laughter. Mike stands taller.

"What did you just say?"

The MP steps even closer, stupid brave, his head cocked out. "His donkey. Everyone knows Squad Leader Smith is a psychopa—"

Levi's elbow connects with the MP's forehead before he can really think about it. The skin splits and then his face runs red and he stumbles back and Levi barely registers that it happened. No one really has. The MP touches his forehead, then looks dumbly at the blood on his hands before looking back up.

"Shit," Mike says, and they're all brawling.

--

Erwin doesn't get back until late the next day. Levi sees the carriage pull in from his perch on the roof of the south building and watches Erwin step out, hair reflecting silver in the moonlight. Shadis looks haggard, and then an officer runs over and whispers something to him and he looks furious. He relays the information to Erwin, and he looks up directly to where Levi is sitting as if he'd known he was there. Something catches in Levi's chest and he slips back inside.

About an hour after his arrival, Shadis calls Levi and everyone else who was at the bar to his office. Erwin is in there, knees stiff, expression giving away nothing, as usual.

"This behavior is unacceptable," Shadis says. "Do you have any idea how shaky the reputation of the Survey Corps already is? And then to brawl with the Military Police over a few comments…"

Shadis trails off and exhales, and those MPs were right—he does look ready to drop.

"You're all confined to base for the next forty-eight hours, is that clear? We're lucky no names were used."

"Sir," Nanaba says. "They were being disrespectful. I know it got out of hand, but—"

"Who threw the first punch?" Shadis says, and Nanaba goes quiet.

"I did," says Levi.

In hindsight, the fight hadn't been too bad. The MP Levi elbowed was already out of the fight, drunk and concussed. The other two tried to pick a fight but Mike and Levi subdued them fairly quickly. That was when Nile and his female companion came over, Nile waving his arms and yelling some bullshit about having them all arrested. Nanaba calmed him down with sharp words and they all left the bar, all of them knowing the fight wouldn't be kept quiet. They're supposed to be some of the best. And Levi, well, he knows the Corps has a lot riding on him. Shadis slides his gaze over to him now, eyes hard and dark. Levi doesn't look away from him. He knows Erwin is also looking at him, but he keeps his eyes on Shadis. The room feels heavy.

"Forty-eight hours," Shadis says. "I don't want to hear of another incident like this again."

They all salute and then Shadis dismisses them. Levi turns quickly and follows them out, eyes burning now. He gets halfway down the hall when he feels someone behind him. It's Erwin. Levi slows somewhat, but Erwin keeps going.

"My office, thirty minutes," he says, lips barely moving.

Levi nods and keeps walking.

--

He knocks on his door exactly thirty minutes later and Erwin's voice beckons him.

"Come in."

Levi does, and Erwin is at his desk writing like he never left, jacket off, sleeves rolled up. The veins and muscle of his forearms ripple.

"Thank you for coming, Levi," he says.

Levi stands in front of his desk and doesn't move, doesn't respond. He'd spent the last thirty minutes imagining different ways he'd handle whatever Erwin said, different things he might do. But now that he's here, he has no idea what's going to happen. He hates how hard it is for him to read Erwin sometimes. Erwin's pen moves across the papers on his desk fluidly, the sound loud between them.

"You can sit," he says.

Levi does. He perches himself on the edge of Erwin's desk, already angry about the conversation he knows they're going to have, and yet still apprehensive about it.

"What did they say?" Erwin says, and doesn't look up. "The men at the bar."

For a moment, Levi clenches his jaw so hard it hurts.

"Nothing. Just drunk nonsense."

"And you thought that was worth starting a fight over?"

Levi opens his mouth to respond but shuts it quickly.

"You already know what they said, don't you?"

Erwin stops writing and sets his pen down, eyes dragging up Levi's body. Levi swallows and still can't read him. He's upset, he must be, the way they embarrassed themselves. Levi's been in plenty of fights, but he's never felt so stupid about one.

"Sorry," he says.

"Please don't apologize."

Erwin smiles briefly. He's not upset. Tired, definitely, but not upset. If anything, he looks kind of pleased. Levi presses his thumbnail into the pad of his index finger.

"I thought you'd be pissed off."

"It was poor judgment," Erwin says. "But no, I'm not angry. One bar fight isn't going to undo all you've done. And…I'm not sure I've ever had anyone defend my honor before."

Levi bristles under his collar, tenses a bit.

"Asshole, I wasn't—"

"Levi," Erwin says, and looks at him. "You know you didn't have to do that."

Levi doesn't even know what to say, feels ridiculous for Erwin even knowing that it was because of him. That he lost his temper over him. He tears his gaze away from Erwin's and stares at the desk instead and sees a large red stamp on top of a stack of papers. He recognizes that stamp.

"Are we having another expedition?"

"Yes," Erwin says. "Thanks in part to you. Wilks has provided the majority of the funding."

Levi almost forgot about Wilks and his shitty moustache. He's glad that having to talk to him at least gave them some form of benefit. It also explains why Erwin's been so busy lately.

"What's the objective?" Levi says. "Can I ask that?"

Erwin hesitates a moment, and Levi wonders if he pushed too far. This is serious, and Levi doubts Erwin has ever given an objective away to someone as low ranking as him before. But he grabs the paper and hands it to Levi anyway, flipping the page so he can read. Levi scans it twice and then sets it back down.

"Is that a joke?"

"Not at all," Erwin says. "We're going to capture a Titan."

"And do what with it?"

"Study it. Titan knowledge is very limited. We should know more about what we're up against."

It sounds absurd to Levi, the idea of capturing a live Titan and then bringing it back inside the walls. But Erwin sounds confident in it, which makes Levi a bit less wary.

"Who thought of this? You?"

"Hanji, actually," Erwin says. "They pointed out that Titans tend to flock in groups, but killing the larger Titans sends the smaller ones into a state of confusion. Almost like they're following a leader. I looked through past expedition reports to confirm it."

He's got one hand resting on desk, so close to Levi's thigh and yet not touching him.

"When do we leave?"

"Soon." Erwin presses his lips together. "How long do you plan on changing the subject for?"

Levi thinks about the fight again, the bartender, and decides to play dumb.

"Shit, stop talking in riddles."

He pushes himself off the desk and still can't make himself say it, but he moves away just a bit too slowly. Erwin catches his wrist, and then the room spins and he has Levi pinned down against his desk. Levi scrambles against the wood, fingertips flat on the surface, stomach pressed against it. He exhales, shocked, aroused, stilling when Erwin leans over him, breath hot against the back of his neck. His kisses it once. Levi doesn't dare move after that. Erwin has his hands on either side of Levi's shoulders and they drag down, down over the ridges and lines of his back, teasing over his ribs. He goes impossibly slow, like Levi's body is paper and he means to burn every inch of it. His hands drag over Levi's ass then down his thighs. Levi shakes against the desk, itching for something else to happen. Erwin noses at his ass, a tight grip on his thighs that drags down to his calves. Levi twitches, clothes much too tight now.

"You've had something on your mind since you walked in here," Erwin says.

Levi exhales again, hips pushed painfully flush against the wooden edge of the desk.

"You're the one who called me in here," he says.

Levi could get out from under him so easily, if he wanted. If he wanted. Erwin's hands slide back up his thighs.

"You can tell me what you're thinking."

He stands, and Levi doesn't move for a moment, the office laid out before him, quiet and bright. Then he turns himself around, elbows propped on the desk, Erwin above him. He looks like he wants to know anything, everything.

"I'm not sleeping with anyone else," Levi says.

Erwin watches him carefully. "You have every right to do what you want, Levi."

"I know that." Levi's voice snaps harshly, only out of frustration. "But I'm not fucking anyone else."

"I didn't think you were."

"Yeah," Levi says, most of the words still caught in his throat. "But I don't want to either."

"…I see," Erwin says. 

Silence drops into the room and Levi feels like he's said too much, given away too much. He goes to push up off his elbows but Erwin braces his hands on either side of him and leans close. Levi settles back against the desk, tensed, Erwin's eyes nothing but blue, blue, blue.

"Dammit, would you say something—"

Erwin kisses him. Levi meets him for it without even thinking and holds himself up by gripping Erwin's shirt, Erwin's hips between his thighs. He knows this can't go that far—they're in Erwin's office, after all, but he still wraps his legs around Erwin's waist and pushes his hard cock against him, lets a low moan tumble from his lips to Erwin's. They start to rut against each other without thinking about it, cocks pulsing. Erwin is breathing heavy and wet into his mouth and Levi's never felt urgency like this before.

"Okay," Erwin says, starting to pull back a little. "Okay."

He looks at Levi like he's never quite been undone like this before by someone and Levi can't help himself. He kisses him again. Erwin digs his hands into the backside of Levi's trousers, palms his ass and lets out a noise that vibrates in his chest before making himself pull away. They breathe against each other, Erwin's mouth pressed against Levi's temple. His lips move against his hair, and the words are hard to make out. But in the vibration it sounds like he's saying, "I don't deserve this."

Levi turns into him. "What?"

"Nothing," Erwin says.

Levi doesn't push it. He can't be sure of what he heard. He hops off the desk again, legs shaky, and adjusts himself as much as he can. Erwin sits back down, nearly collapses into the chair.

"Was there anything else you needed?" he says.

Levi snorts. "No."

He finally walks back to the door, legs still a bit shaky but feeling clearer and calmer than he has in over a week.

"Levi," Erwin says, and Levi looks back. "I want you all the time."

Levi swallows thickly and unlocks the door.

"Finish your paperwork, Squad Leader," he says. "And eat something. You look like shit."

Erwin's smile is the last thing he sees before he shuts the door.

--

They leave at the end of the month, and the night before the expedition, Levi and Erwin sit together in his office and drink tea, quiet. It's the same anxiety every time before they leave, the knowledge it could be the last time. Erwin is staring at his bookcase and Levi watches him, the sharp line of his profile. They've both been busy—training, preparing—and haven't had much time together. Levi knows it'll be like this often, and if Erwin ever becomes Commander, even more. He swallows the last of his tea and considers preparing another pot.

"What do you think about the world?" Erwin says, breaking their silence after nearly ten minutes. "The formation of it, I mean."

Levi shrugs. The question seems random and strange, but he's used to that from Erwin by now. Besides, he always has a deeper meaning behind it.

"I heard once it was flat, but I don't believe it. I guess it just keeps going. Or maybe it ends somewhere."

"Or meets back around," Erwin says. He forms a 'O' shape with both hands. "Like a circle."

"Where'd you hear something like that?"

"From someone who's no longer here." Erwin is silent again for a moment, contemplating, then he stands up. "I want to show you something."

He goes over to his bookcase and pulls out a few books but doesn't open them. Instead he lifts the wood board they were resting on and reveals a hidden compartment. He grabs a long, rolled piece of paper and nods to Levi.

"Lock the door."

Levi does, quickly, and then walks back over as Erwin sits on the floor. Levi joins him, watches as he unrolls the paper and spreads it open. It's a map. It's not a map Levi has ever seen before, looks hand drawn.

"Did you draw this?" he says.

Erwin shakes his head. "My father did. This is what he believed the world looked like."

It's the first time he's mentioned any kind of family. Levi just assumed they were all off somewhere else, or dead. He doesn't ask any questions about it, just watches as Erwin's fingers trace the lines of the map and knows he's done this quite a bit, probably always alone. Some areas are shaded, but others are not. Levi points to the areas that aren't shaded.

"What's here?" he says. "Did he not finish?"

"No," Erwin says. "There's a theory that most of the world is actually water, not land."

Levi's never heard anything like that before. It's strange to think about, but it also catches his interest. He imagines it like the rivers running through the Walls but much, much larger, then wonders if the water is different. There are fish in the waters inside the Walls, so surely there are fish in the waters outside of them. If they're as big as theorized, maybe the fish are even bigger.

Erwin leans close to him and their shoulders touch. Levi doesn't move, eyes on the map.

"Is that what you want to do once we take back the world?" he says. "Go see these big rivers?"

"I want to do many things," Erwin says. "What about you?"

Levi pauses. He's never thought about it before. When he was younger, he just assumed he'd be dead before anything like that ever happened, was too busy just trying to stay alive to bother thinking about it. He never thought he'd even live to see outside the Walls, but he has. There's a lot that's happened to him that Levi never imagined would or even could. His life has changed dramatically in the past few months and he owes most of that to Erwin.

"I'll go with you, I guess," he says. "See the big rivers."

Erwin's lips brush against his hair.

"I'd like that," he says.

Later, they go to Erwin's room and drive their bodies into each other. They leave marks on their skin, below where anyone else might see. Levi doesn't leave right away after. He cleans himself up and climbs into bed next to Erwin and they just lay there, their bodies so heavy and tired, their hearts so worn. They barely touch at first. But a minute later, Erwin's side presses up against his, and eventually, Levi rests his head against his shoulder. In that moment, there is nothing else he wants to do. Soon after, Erwin falls asleep. It's the first time Levi's ever seen him sleeping. He looks much younger like this, but his face is still set serious, mouth in a frown. Levi watches the steady inhale and exhale of his chest. Stay alive tomorrow, he thinks. He kisses Erwin's forehead and then slips out into the dark.

--

It goes as planned at first. Erwin's squad takes down the larger Titans while Hanji leads the attack against a 7-meter Titan. The ropes are released and the Titan wobbles, limbs caught. Its eyes are big and expressionless. That's the one thing that freaks Levi out about Titans. Their eyes hold nothing.

He and Mike take down the last big Titan, nearly 14-meters, and then Levi watches the Titan start to fall. It's working. And since they're nowhere near the trees right now, it has to. Levi rides up next to Erwin, both swords still prone.

"Let's surround them in case more Titans appear," Erwin says.

They start towards them, only a few hundred meters away. Hanji's squad is pulling forward from one side, and the squad Theo is in pulls from another. The Titan is on its knees now, but still hasn't fallen completely. That's when Levi gets a sick feeling in his stomach, that's when the rope slips off the Titan's right arm. It swings it, sends two men and their horses flying.

"Shit!" Hanji pulls to keep the Titan off balance and give the squad enough time to retreat. "Move out of the way!"

The Titan starts to stand. The other Squad Leader moves forward on his horse to grab the dangling ropes. Erwin's squad still isn't close enough to help, and all Levi can do is tighten his grip on the reins.

"We can still get it!" the Squad Leader says.

But he's wrong. The Titan has enough balance now that it can grab the Squad Leader easily. It squeezes, and Levi can see his body jolt and twist before going limp. That's when the rest of the squad tries to help. They cut at the Titan's arms but it does nothing. Levi sees Theo twist up and slice near the neck, but he can't quite reach the nape. He tries again. The Titan pulls at the other ropes on its left arm and drags Hanji's squad forward, plucks Theo right out of the air. Levi has one foot out of the stirrup to move but he's just not close enough. The Titan's jaws close, and blood washes down the lower half of Theo's body.

Something drops in Levi's gut and then he's moving up, gas propelling him, grapple hooked into the Titan's left shoulder. He swings, spins down, and cuts the nape. The Titan falls, drops the Squad Leader and the lower half of Theo's body. They fall into grass with soft thumps, lifeless.

"Dammit," Hanji says, and punches their own thigh. "Dammit!"

A flare goes off behind them. The rest of the squads are in the forest. The squads wait, anxious, for another flare signal. Levi hears the sound of hooves, then screaming. Another flare goes off. It's a second ambush. He snarls and glances at Theo's body, the way half of it has been ripped so easily, like freshly baked bread. They'll have to leave the bodies. Levi isn't sure the family would want them back anyway.

"On your horse, Levi," Erwin says. "We need to move out."

Levi doesn't hesitate. He gets up and prepares a new blade.

"Wait," another soldier says. "The bodies—"

"There's no time," Erwin says.

"How can you say that? We can come back—"

"Hey," Levi says. His voice is sharp and the soldier snaps out of his grief. "You heard what Erwin said. Let's go."

The soldier hesitates but obeys, glances once more at Theo and the Squad Leader's broken bodies. Levi doesn't look at all.

--

They lose too many people and gain too little. With the amount of casualties they've had, and with nothing to show for it, they all know there will be repercussions. The expedition is over the but the stress is just beginning. Levi feeds his horse in the stables and avoids interacting with anyone else. As soon as they'd gotten back, Erwin and Shadis walked off together, bodies tense. He knows they're going to get chewed out and hates the idea of someone yelling at Erwin and him just taking it. Levi bathes the grime and blood away, Theo's half-eaten body still fresh in his memory, and then goes to the medical wing.

A lot of soldiers came back injured, and the thickness of the air in the room makes Levi's breathing shallower. Doctors move frantically between patients, and some soldiers are wrapped up so tightly in bandages Levi can only see their eyes. The stench of blood is everywhere. After Isabel and Farlan had died, Erwin gathered the death notices himself so that he could give them to Levi privately, but normally, the task switches between the lower-ranking officers. Levi knocks on the door past the beds of groaning men and women. The officer inside is named Gregory, if Levi remembers correctly, and he's staring down at a stack of papers with dead eyes.

"I need a death notice," he says.

Gregory looks up, eyes gray. "Last name?"

"…I don't know." Levi looks at the stack of papers. "First name was Theo."

The search doesn't take long, Theo's death notice already sealed and stamped. Gregory hands Levi the envelope, the name Theo Dreher written across in shaky script.

"You planning on hand delivering this or something?" Gregory says. "You don't have to. Trust me, it's not something you want to do."

"I know," Levi says, and tucks the envelope into his jacket pocket. "Thanks."

Theo's next of kin is listed as his mother. Her house is in a village easily missed if you aren't looking for it. There were children playing when Levi rode in, but once they saw him they rushed back inside. It's ghostly quiet now as Levi rides up to the house. He dismounts and leaves his horse by the fence without tying her up. He's come to really bond with her, and he has a thing about tying up animals, anyway. He knows she won't run off. Levi walks up the dirt path but before he can even knock on the door, a woman opens it, hair falling messy from a bandana, eyes already watering.

"Come in," she says.

Levi doesn't move. "I'm only here to—"

The woman turns and walks back into the house, leaves the door open. Levi exhales and follows. He shuts the door behind him and the woman sits at her kitchen table, body heavy. She doesn't look at Levi. The house is quiet, no children, no other members. Levi pulls the envelope from his pocket, walks over and places it on the table. He doesn't sit down. There's silence, and the woman doesn't touch the envelope, but after a minute her tears start to fall onto the table, one of them hitting the envelope and smudging the ink.

"The harvest was so good this year," she says. "The soil was really rich. I always wanted Theo to farm with me."

Over her shoulder, Levi can see where the wheat had been harvested, a sickle leaning against a shed.

"But now my son is dead," Theo's mother says. "And for what?"

Levi hadn't planned on saying anything. He just wanted to give her the letter and leave. But now he feels a strange obligation, something tugging at his body.

"The chance to take back the world, for something better."

"But we have peace!" She slams her fists against the wood of the table and her teeth are clenched together. "We have enough, we have everything we need."

"Don't be ridiculous," Levi says. "Stuck in here like cattle, you think this is the way to live? What's going to happen if a Titan ever breaks through any of the Walls?"

"I don't know," Theo's mother says. "I don't—"

"Your son believed in something more," Levi says. "A world without Titans. I think that's worth fighting for."

She looks at him, eyes hardened. "Do you think that's worth dying for?"

Levi doesn't hesitate. "Yes."

Her expression wavers, eyes wrapped in new tears.

"I can't tell you it's the right choice," Levi says. "But it was his choice."

Theo's mother touches the envelope in front of her for the first time, thumb brushing over her son's name.

"I've seen the men who come to deliver these in the village before, but never you." She looks up, face streaked with tears. "Were you his friend?"

"…No," Levi says. "I'm just another soldier."

She starts crying again, and Levi knows there's not much else he can say to her. He's not even sure why he came here. Maybe he just wanted to see for himself. Wanted to see the grief and feel the guilt like he deserved it. The Squad Leader had been an idiot—he shouldn't have reached for the rope. He should have known better. He put his men in danger. But Levi isn't planning on dwelling on that. Even if circumstances had been different, Theo still might have died. It's his job now to keep moving forward. He walks out of Theo's mothers house, feeling exhausted, and sees his horse right where he left her. She's grazing, but when Levi approaches she looks up, ears twitching. Levi strokes her nose and then mounts her and heads back.

He eats and then goes back to the barracks, kneels by his bed and lifts the mattress, pulls the envelopes Erwin gave him out. They're still perfectly white, a little crinkled at the corner. Levi has thought about opening them a few times. He slips them back under the mattress and then goes to Erwin's office, surprised to find it empty. He knows Erwin is usually busy with paperwork after expeditions. He might, by some miracle, be asleep. But Levi has no plans to be alone tonight. He climbs the stairs to Erwin's room and knocks. When Erwin opens the door, he looks relieved to see him, like he was expecting him.

"I looked for you earlier," he says.

Levi leans against the door to shut it. "I had to do something."

They stand for a moment, hovering.

"I'm sorry about Theo," Erwin says.

Levi kicks his boots off. "Shut up. Just shut up."

Erwin grabs him.

They kiss, hands roaming, and Levi grunts when Erwin picks him up to carry him to the bed but doesn't say anything. He can kiss him better at this angle anyway, can hold Erwin's face in his hands. They pull and push at each other with some kind of unnamed grief. Erwin sets him on the bed and pulls at his shirt, pushes Levi onto his back once it's off. Levi exhales sharply, wiggles his hips to try and push his pants down. Erwin tugs them off for him, then his own shirt, and leans down to push Levi's legs up and apart.

Levi bites his hand when Erwin's tongue touches him, traces the rim of his hole. He's not expecting it. Hasn't ever done it before. He doesn't know how to feel about it, but he doesn't stop it. Erwin pushes his tongue in, thumbs pressing into the meat of Levi's thighs. It feels good. Levi runs his hand through Erwin's hair, head pushed back against the pillows, mouth open.

"Fuck, Erwin, fuck."

He tries to pull him up but Erwin just pushes his tongue deeper. Levi whines, legs trembling. He says his name again, Erwin, Erwin, but Erwin keeps going like he wants nothing else. He eases out and then pushes right back in, tongue circling, and reaches up with a hand to run his fingers up Levi's cock and tease the head. Levi sobs for it, blunt nails digging into his skull. He feels too wet and open.

"Please," he says.

And that's what gets Erwin to pull out. He wipes his mouth, sits back on his haunches.

"What do you want me to do?" he says.

Levi crawls forward and climbs onto his lap, Erwin's cock teasing the crack of his ass.

"I want you to fuck me."

They stay like that, faces close. Erwin fingers him open, Levi circling his hips in his lap because he can't help it, until they're both too turned on to wait any longer. Levi eases himself down, the full feeling something like relief, his body shaking. Erwin wraps an arm around his lower back to help him move. Their thighs bracket each other, close as they can physically be. Levi lets his head fall back and Erwin bites the exposed skin, teeth scraping lightly. Every touch feels magnified. Levi moves his hips forward and down and Erwin's cock presses against his prostate, makes his toes curl.

"Look at you," Erwin says. "You're perfect like this, Levi."

Levi bites his lip, doesn't trust his voice to come out right. Erwin's fingers skitter up and down his back before settling on his ass and spreading it, spreading him open more.

"I want to see you come like this," he says.

Levi drops his head against Erwin's shoulder and pushes down as hard as he can like he can take more. Erwin encourages it, and before Levi can take his next breath, Erwin reaches to the front and touches his cock. He jerks in his lap and then settles on the feeling. He can't think of anything else, no blood, no broken bodies, no threat of anything. Erwin kisses his temple. He kisses his hair. He kisses the slope of his nose. He kisses him like he's trying to remove something, hand moving fast against his cock.

"Don't stop," Levi says, desperate for it. "Don't stop, I'm—"

He rides it out, feels it building, and then orgasms. Drops his mouth open against Erwin's skin and comes between them, body tensing. He loves coming like this, with Erwin still hard inside of him. Levi shifts his hips, exhausted but willing, and Erwin's grip on him tightens.

"I want you to come," he says.

"Keep moving." Erwin's breath is hot against his ear. "I'm close."

Levi does, for a bit, circles his hips lazily until Erwin repositions them. He lowers Levi onto the bed and slides out, maneuvers Levi onto his side before lifting his leg up. Levi grabs hold of the pillow as Erwin sits up on his knees and pushes back in. His leg is resting straight on Erwin's chest, Erwin's hands on his hips and stomach. Something about the angle and the way Erwin's looking at him has Levi whimpering, over-stimulated and barely able to keep his eyes from blurring. He watches sweat drip across Erwin's clavicle and the way his hair comes undone, eyelids fluttering. He looks close to happy.

"Levi," Erwin says, and his name sounds so heavy on his lips.

He comes and Levi watches, breathing open-mouthed into the pillow and panting.

Erwin pulls out and Levi's leg drops, limbs sandy. Erwin shifts to next to him, their shoulders touching and sticky with sweat. It's quiet now, and Levi feels his exhaustion. He grabs the towel from the bedside table and sits up to wipe himself. He swings one leg over the bed.

"Wait," Erwin says.

"What?" Levi turns to him. "You ready to go again already?"

Erwin's hand curls around his arm.

"Stay tonight," he says.

Levi bunches the towel in his hands and sets it aside. He looks at the pile of his clothes on the floor.

"Erwin—"

"Stay with me tonight," Erwin says. "Please."

Levi lets himself look at Erwin. His face is weary and there's something in his eyes Levi doesn't want to say no to. He tugs at the sheets a bit.

"All right, I'll stay."

Levi settles back into the bed. Erwin is still close to him, but he doesn't embrace him, lets him have his space. Levi watches the ceiling. It's much different from the one in the barracks, cleaner. He doesn't remember falling asleep.

--

Kenny hits him over the head. Levi shifts forward, hisses.

"What the fuck was that for?"

"You're not paying attention." Kenny points. "You wanna die, kiddo?"

Levi follows his finger. There's a Titan in front of him. Its head lolls on its neck, mouth open in a dead smile. Levi reaches for his gear before remembering he doesn't have any. He grabs a knife from inside his belt instead. Kenny starts laughing.

"Seriously?"

Levi ignores him. He holds the knife out, ready to die fighting. They're in a house and Levi doesn't know how this Titan got in here, how it got inside the Walls, but all that matters is he survives. He has to kill it. The Titan steps forward and then starts heaving. There's something moving in its belly. Its head scrapes along the ceiling and the Titan drops to its knees, lurching. An arm pokes out of its mouth, fingers outstretched. Then another hand. Levi sees a face and realizes it's Theo. He's drenched in blood.

"Help me," he says. "Please help me."

Levi runs forward, knife raised, but the Titan grabs him before he can do anything. He drives his knife into its hand but it does nothing. When Levi looks up, the Titan is Kenny, mouth twisted and laughing.

"You should see the look on your face," he says. "You should see the look—"

Levi wakes up reaching for a knife that isn't there, and then someone is touching him, and Levi panics. He shoves his elbow into the attacker's sternum and flips them, fist cocked for the punch, but is rolled again into the mattress, pinned. Levi is about to stick his knee into their gut when he hears Erwin's voice.

"Levi, it's me!"

It comes back to him all at once. He's in Erwin's bed, Erwin's room. Erwin is the one who touched him. Levi allows himself to breathe, hands uncurling. Erwin's face comes into focus above him, calm and assured.

"Fuck," Levi says. "Shit, I'm—"

"It's all right," Erwin says.

He lets Levi up now, sits on his knees, watches him. Levi runs his hand over his forehead, through his hair. They're slick with sweat. He's embarrassed, shaking.

"I'll go."

He tries to get out of the bed but Erwin pulls him back in.

"That's not necessary," he says.

Levi stares at him. "Seriously? I just attacked you. If I had my knife I would have stabbed you."

"Well then it's lucky for me that you didn't," Erwin says.

He squeezes Levi's arm and Levi wants to yell at him for acting like it's not a big deal.

"If you want to leave, you can." Erwin pulls his hand back to show he's serious. "I'm not holding you here. But I don't want you to."

He sits back and grabs a few papers off the bed. Levi just now sees that the light in the room is still lit. Erwin must have been reading. Seconds tick by, Levi's left foot still dangling off the bed. Eventually, he pulls it back in and settles down again, turns onto his side so he's facing Erwin.

"What are you reading?"

Erwin folds the papers over.

"Sorry," he says.

"You can't tell me," Levi says.

Erwin's smile is apologetic. "It isn't that I don't trust you."

"You don't have to explain yourself." Levi yawns, the scene of the nightmare still with him, but easier to put aside now. "Have you gone to sleep at all?"

Erwin sets the papers on the bedside table.

"Ah, no."

"Idiot," Levi says.

He reaches over and pulls Erwin's arm, turns to his other side and keeps pulling until Erwin is pressed up against his back. Erwin curls his arm around him, rests his chin on top of his head. Levi can feel all the heat from his body.

"I didn't blow out the light," Erwin says.

"I don't give a damn about the light," says Levi.

This time, they fall asleep together.

--

The next day is all clean up. Erwin and the rest of the Squad Leaders are neck-deep in paperwork, and Shadis is trying to deal with the shit being flung at them. It's all a mess. Levi keeps himself busy by cleaning the barracks, which is a fruitless effort to begin with, because no one else seems to keep it clean, but that isn't about to stop him. People know better than to get into his way when he's cleaning. They'll either get yelled at or recruited to help. Levi barely notices them today, though.

Waking up next to Erwin hadn't been as strange as he thought it would be. Nightmare aside, they woke up early together, Erwin still spooned around him. Dressing didn't feel as rushed or awkward as it usually did. Erwin kissed him softly before he left, and then Levi was back in the barracks before the sun had even started to rise.

He finishes cleaning and then eats. The post-expedition routine is a little easier for him to grasp now. It's a chance to rest and breathe, and Levi hasn't had too many of those in his life, but he appreciates them now. Levi finishes eating and steps outside just as Hanji approaches. They've obviously been looking for him, because their eyes light up when they see him.

"There you are! You're very good at hiding, did you know that? I guess because you're so short."

"You've got shit on your glasses again," Levi says, and chooses to ignore the height comment.

Hanji goes cross-eyed just like before, then removes their glasses the clean them. Levi doesn't understand how they don't notice that sort of thing, but Hanji's mind tends to veer to one-track sometimes, and everything else comes second.

"I've been writing reports all day and I'm so bored," Hanji says. "Want to keep me company?"

"No," Levi says, though on another day he might have. Hanji actually smells decent. "I have something I need to do."

"What could you possibly have to do? Erwin's busy."

"I'm not going to see Erwin, shit-glasses."

Levi hopes the heat that's risen to his face isn't noticeable. He remembers Shadis saying that there had been rumors about them. He supposes they're true now. Hanji frowns and Levi nudges their arm with his shoulder before leaving and making his way up to see Shadis. Levi doesn't think he's ever even been in his office before, just listened in. He's past Erwin at the end of the hall, and Levi has occasionally seen him stepping out of the office, always frowning. He has a hard job. Levi doesn't fault him that. He just doesn't like taking orders from too many people.

He knocks on the door loudly and waits.

"Come in."

Levi pushes the door open and shuts it behind him, pauses when he sees Erwin standing beside Shadis. He hadn't thought he'd be here, and he wanted to tell him later, a surprise, sort of, but it's too late now. Both men are looking down at something on the desk. Shadis must have been expecting someone else, because he speaks without looking up.

"Did you hear anything?"

"Should I have?" Levi says.

Erwin and Shadis look up at the same time with an eerily similar but still comical expression. Shadis sits up in his chair, eyes roaming over Levi like he doesn't quite believe he's actually in his office.

"Levi," he says. "Well this is certainly a pleasant surprise."

"Am I interrupting?"

"Not at all," Shadis says, and Levi isn't quite sure he believes that, but he's in no mood to wait and can't be bothered with more small talk.

"I want to become a Squad Leader," he says.

There's a long pause Levi wasn't expecting. Shadis stares at him, eyes beady and shocked. Erwin stands neutral, but his stance has straightened just a bit. Finally, Shadis shakes himself and sets down the pen he was holding.

"I'm…pleased to hear that," he says. "I'm very pleased. This shows great initiative. What inspired you to pursue a higher ranking?"

"Does that really matter?"

"Yes," Shadis says. "It matters a great deal. It's a very serious position. You'll be in charge of other lives, not just your own. You have to be deemed fit by both your current Squad Leader and myself."

Levi clicks his jaw. It sounds like a bunch of hierarchal bullshit to him. Shadis knows he's good for it. But that's the drawback of having order here. It isn't like the Underground where he could fight his way to the top. He has to work the system.

"I think I'd be effective," Levi says. "I want to lead a squad to minimize casualties. They respect me. They'll listen to me. Is that reason enough?"

"Thank you, yes," Shadis says. "I accept your request for candidacy."

"Good."

Levi salutes him without hesitating this time, then turns and takes his leave. He assumes now it'll be just a waiting game. There won't be any issue with Erwin recommending him for the position, but Shadis still thinks his attitude is shit. He's willing to be nicer if that means becoming an officer though. He'd always been reluctant about that sort of thing before. Even when he was in the Underground, he wasn't looking to be a leader, just looking to survive. Being responsible for too many lives wasn't the sort of thing Levi ever strived for. But it's different now. He can't just stand by and watch people die without trying to do something about it. Farlan and Isabel would definitely have been ecstatic about it, that's for sure.

Levi's halfway down the hall when he hears Erwin's quick steps catching up to him. He slows a bit so Erwin can walk next to him. He's looking down at him, smiling. Levi shoves his hands into his pockets.

"I had no idea you were going to pursue becoming a Squad Leader," Erwin says.

"Good to know I can at least keep something a secret from you."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

Levi pulls his hands out of his pockets but they just dangle awkwardly at his sides. He doesn't know why he still feels so incredibly out of depth with Erwin sometimes.

"I was going to tell you after," he says. "I didn't know you'd be in his frigging office."

"I see," Erwin says, and he's just read Levi like a book again, already knows what he'd been planning. "I'm sorry I spoiled your plans."

Levi glances up. Erwin is looking forward now but he's a got a huge grin plastered to his face. Levi grunts.

"What are you smiling about?"

"Nothing," Erwin says. "I'm just pleased."

He touches Levi's back lightly before turning down the hallway. Levi feels stupidly flustered the rest of the day.

--

He stays in Erwin's room again that night and jerks awake once from a bad dream he can't remember. Erwin's body is solid against him and the physicality of it draws Levi back into reality almost immediately. He falls back to sleep easily. When he wakes up again it's still dark out and Erwin is out of bed already and dressed. He turns when Levi stirs on the bed, goes over and sits by him.

"Shadis has been called the capital," he says. "I'll be going with him."

Levi reaches out and adjusts the collar of Erwin's shirt.

"Stay here as long as you want," Erwin says, and then reaches down and kisses his temple. "I'll be back tonight."

Levi stays in his room a while longer but doesn't go back to sleep. It feels strange without Erwin in there, but the lingering smell of him is enough to keep Levi in his bed until the sun starts peak over the horizon.

--

Hanji's office is messier than Levi thought it would be. He had imagined it would but cluttered, just didn't realize any living person was capable of this much clutter. There are books everywhere stacked in precarious piles, chipped teacups rusting on top of them. Walking over to Hanji's desk is an effort that requires Levi to dodge sharp corners and zigzag through a carved path until he's reached Hanji. Their desk is pushed against the wall, the window cracked open above it, but the office still smells stuffy and dirty. Levi would have an absolute field day cleaning in here. His fingers itch just thinking about it.

"Oi, shit-glasses," he says.

Hanji jumps, knocks over a thankfully empty teacup, before turning around.

"Levi! Wow, what a surprise. What are you doing in here?"

"You said yesterday you were bored."

"Did I say that?" Hanji pauses for a moment. "I did say that, didn't I? Well, sit down, sit down!"

"I'll stand," Levi says, mostly because there's nowhere to sit, and he wouldn't want to sit down even if he could.

Hanji digs under papers on their desk and pulls out a sketch.

"Look at this."

Levi does, though it's hard to decipher it at first. The lines are crude, but Levi can definitely make out the Titan in the drawing and the tight ropes over its back.

"I thought of the idea last night," Hanji says. "I think our first approach was all wrong."

They point at the line of ropes over the Titan's back. "See, we need the limit their mobility at the top, since most of their strength is upper body. It'll be easier that way to pull them down and contain them."

The idea actually makes a lot of sense. It doesn't surprise Levi, though. Hanji is manic and often acts without thinking, but they're brilliant when it comes to Titans.

"I wish I had thought of this earlier," Hanji says. "A lot of people got killed that day."

"They knew what could happen. You did the best you could." Levi circles around the Titan with his finger. "What about the approach? Your first idea was shit. They're more aware than that."

"Yeah, I was hoping Erwin would have an idea for that."

"What if we use bait?"

"What?" Hanji says.

"As long as it's not a Deviant, it's going to chase, right?" Levi grabs the pencil from Hanji's desk and draws two circles by the front of the Titan. "So we send two soldiers to lead it away, isolate it."

"Oh," Hanji says, brightening. "I see what you're saying. Then we could sneak up easier."

They end up discussing the idea for nearly an hour and go through two more sketches before settling on something to present to Erwin and Shadis. Hanji is full out smiling by the end of it, exceptionally pleased.

"Look at us, we make quite a team."

Hanji slaps Levi's back, laughs.

"Don't touch me," Levi says.

Hanji laughs again.

By the time they've finished the day is nearly half over. Levi works out as usual and then eats, more relaxed than before. There's less people scrambling to sit next to him now, and Levi doesn't mind. He's aware that he isn't easy to talk to, can be overly blunt and kind of intimidating. He supposes his humor is a little on the strange side as well. He prefers the quiet anyway. It makes his tea taste better.

Erwin and Shadis return at dusk but no one sees them and Levi doesn't worry about finding Erwin. He'll see him tonight anyway. Levi walks into the barracks and there are too many beds empty. New recruits will be coming in soon, but Levi wonders how many. The Survey Corps is talented. But its death rate is high. They've all seen that first hand. People aren't exactly clamoring to get in.

Levi waits like usual and then sneaks over to Erwin's room. His breath forms in the air when he steps outside the barracks. It's gotten colder quickly this year, the chill sharp. Levi hurries into the other building, walks down the dark halls unnoticed. When he gets to Erwin's room, there's no light coming from beneath the door. Levi knocks. No answer. He tries the handle but finds it locked. Erwin's definitely not there, and Levi knows there's only one other place he would be.

He sees the light from Erwin's office and enters softly. Erwin isn't writing or even reading. He's leaning back with his arms folded, looking blankly at the desk before him.

"Hey," Levi says.

Erwin looks up. "Levi…"

"I went to your room but you weren't there."

Erwin tucks his lower lip into his mouth before sighing, sitting forward.

"I'm sorry," he says. "Something came up."

Levi grabs the chair and sits across from him, crosses his legs. There are lines creasing Erwin's forehead. Whatever something came up, it wasn't good.

"Bad news from the capital?"

"Very bad. Funding has been pulled."

"What?" Levi uncrosses his legs and sits straighter. "What are you talking about, we had Wilks."

"I know," Erwin says. "Despite the death toll this expedition, his funding would have been able to keep us afloat. But he pulled it, said the risk wasn't worth it."

"There's no risk for him," says Levi. "That's bullshit."

Erwin just nods. He's upset. Levi can understand that. Erwin tends to take the things that happen in the Corps and put them on himself personally. Like he feels wholly responsible. Without another expedition in the works, everything up until this moment will have been for nothing. They all know that, but Erwin feels it more than anyone.

"You'll get it back," Levi says. "You're smarter than any of those idiots in parliament. I know you'll figure it out—that head of yours is always scheming."

Erwin's face lightens just a bit.

"Thank you, Levi," he says. "I do have my work cut out for me, though."

He grabs the folder off to the side of his desk and opens it, starts reading. Levi taps his finger against the arm of the chair.

"Right now?" he says. "You're going to do it right now?"

"I'm going to start."

"You can start tomorrow." Levi stands up. "Go to bed for now, you need the rest."

Erwin peers up at him over the folder, mouth set in a stubborn line. Levi rolls his eyes.

"What, are you going to fix it tonight?"

"No, but—"

Levi snatches the folder from Erwin's hand.

"Come sleep with me then."

Erwin looks exasperated, his face tired and drained. He needs to sleep. He needs to distance himself from all this crap for just a little bit.

"You're not going to give that back until I agree, are you?"

"No," Levi says. "You're the one who made me stay the night in the first place, and now I'm used to it so I can't—I don't—" He pauses, swallows. "Tomorrow you can shit yourself working on this, but for now we're going to bed."

Erwin stands up and Levi gives the folder back. He closes it, sets it on the desk, and blows out the candle he'd lit for reading.

"All right," he says. "Let's go to bed."

--

There's snowfall two days later. It normally only snows in the mountainous areas, and certainly never this early, but the weather has been off recently. The snow makes everything look clean, dusted white and new. The training grounds are also too slippery now, and everyone hangs inside by the fires, warms their hands on cups of tea. The break is welcomed but still comes with a feeling of uneasiness. The soldiers know now about funding being pulled, the expeditions on hold. The future of the Survey Corps is in a precarious position. It makes Levi uneasy as well. He doesn't know what he'd do if the Corps were disbanded. He doesn't have anywhere else to go. He has Erwin. That's it.

He's stayed up working with him the past two nights until both of them fell asleep in their chairs and woke up in the morning with cricks in their necks. They've barely touched in two days, but Levi doesn't mind. The sense of urgency and static between them is smoothing into something comfortable. Erwin's presence alone feels like enough, but there are still times when his throat will bob and Levi blood runs hotter.

Today, Levi cleans to warm his blood in the cold weather. He can only be so useful to Erwin in terms of political intelligence. When he was living in the Underground, force was how you got what you wanted. Bureaucracy is foreign to Levi, feels poisonous. The rules are there but twist and bend until they feel useless. He almost thinks it would be better without them.

In the afternoon, the sun turns the snow orange and Levi brings food and hot tea up to Erwin's office. He knows how he gets when he's working like this. Levi sets the tray on an open spot on the desk and Erwin thanks him, hands smudged with ink. Levi hates that he can't do anything to fix this. All that strength, and he can't do anything.

"I'm coming back in an hour to make sure you actually ate," he says, and Erwin smiles humble.

Five days later, Erwin returns to parliament with Shadis. The snow has melted but left everything brown and damp in its wake, and Levi watches them leave from the roof of one of the buildings. He wants funding back. He wants to fight, he wants a squad. He wants to do something other than sit around and wait for the day a Titan might break through the Walls. Levi isn't ready to lose everything again.

--

In the end, parliament decides to table the issue for another month. Apparently, they haven't finished "discussing" the matter, which Levi thinks is bullshit. They're just stalling. He meets Erwin in his office once he's returned and is incredibly grumpy about the whole thing, even though Erwin seems calmer than Levi's seen him in almost a week. Maybe he's finally going to take a break. Levi watches him organize his desk, all those messy papers put neatly into order.

"So what now?" he says. "We just wait?"

"For a time," Erwin says. "Until we can secure another approach."

He's already thinking of another plan. Of course he is. Levi nods and crosses his arms.

"It's still bullshit."

"I know. But this isn't the end of it." Erwin shuts his desk drawer. "You have the day off tomorrow, don't you?"

"Uh, yeah," Levi says.

"Good. Come into the city with me."

Levi looks up. "What for?"

"Just to go," Erwin says.

"Just to go, huh?" Levi feels like there's more to it, but he doesn't question. "Fine, I'll go with you."

Erwin nods, shoulders dropping a little like he's relaxed more now. Levi watches his face for some sign, but Erwin's expressions can be deceptively neutral. There's nothing Levi can do now but wait for tomorrow.

"You're so weird," he says.

He leans in to quickly kiss his temple, but Erwin catches his wrist and pulls him in, kisses his mouth.

"I've been told that quite a bit," he says, breath ghosting over Levi's lips.

Even after all this time, Levi still shivers.

--

They leave late morning. It's cold out, but still a nice day. Erwin doesn't say anything else about what this trip is going to entail, and Levi doesn't feel a lot of pressure to ask. He just meets him outside the main gate as planned, Erwin watching him with a pleased expression. They walk side-by-side in silence to the city center, storefronts laid out before them. Erwin doesn't seem to have a specific destination in mind, and Levi wonders if he's looking for something specific, and why he'd need him to come along. They pass shop windows and make small comments to each other, mostly Levi asking who would buy such useless crap. He recognizes the general store he'd bought his cleaning supplies out, and as they pass it, the shopkeeper smiles at him. Eventually, they come to a café. Levi can smell fresh bread inside, the sweetness of cream and sugar.

"Let's go in," Erwin says.

The bell above the door chimes as they enter, and the smell intensifies. It smells good, all of it. Levi glances at display cases of sweets, eyes a pastry with fruit and cream on top. It looks enticing, up until he sees the price. Levi frowns. It's twice as much as a decent loaf of bread and some cheese. Erwin settles behind him, his shadow reflecting against the glass, and leans close.

"That looks delicious," he says.

Levi shrugs. "Yeah."

"I'll buy one for you."

"What?" Levi turns around to look at him. "Are you serious? It's too goddamn expensive."

"It's a pastry."

"It's a rip-off," Levi says. "The only way it'd be worth it is if we stole it."

"Levi," Erwin says.

The man behind the counter is staring at them.

"I'll take two, please," Erwin says to him.

Levi is still staring at him, but he doesn't bother objecting. It's free food, after all. They walk back outside with them, and this time Erwin does seem to have a destination in mind. They end up near a grassy area with benches, not exactly a park, just a place to sit. Erwin hands Levi his pastry.

"…Thanks," Levi says.

He bites into it and freezes. It tastes good. He's not sure he's ever tasted anything quite like it in his life, almost enough for it to be worth the price.

"Good?" Erwin says.

"It's all right."

Erwin chuckles beside him. They sit like that together, their sides nearly touching, and Levi isn't exactly sure what this is, but he doesn't mind it. Cream from the pastry drips and he catches it on his finger, sucks it into his mouth. He knows Erwin is watching him. Levi swallows the sweetness from his mouth.

"You still haven't told me what we're doing here," he says.

"Right now, we're enjoying a pastry." From this angle, Levi could swear Erwin looks sheepish. "Relax, Levi."

Levi grunts and takes another bite. Erwin is always so secretive. Sometimes Levi thinks he's waiting for him to figure it out. He looks out at the landscape before them, the buildings and people. It's nice, being out here with Erwin without any sense of duty. It's just them together, everything subdued.

Something reflects off the sunlight and catches Levi's eye. He looks to the side. All he sees is a man, at first. But he recognizes him. He had been walking across the street when they'd first walked into the city, hands shoved conspicuously in his pocket. Levi assumed he was a thief. But he's walking toward them now.

"Erwin," Levi says, and then he sees the gun. "Erwin!"

Chapter Text

He pulls Erwin back by the shoulder and they tumble over the back of the bench just as a bullet flies into the wood. It splinters, blossoming, the sound deafening. They're both up immediately, the man running toward them now, gun pointed. Erwin grabs Levi's arm and they run. Levi hisses, adrenaline rising. He hates running, would rather stand and fight, but this man has a gun and he and Erwin don't even have gear. Levi only has one knife on him and it pisses him off now that he's broken his habit. Just because he's left the Underground doesn't mean he's safe.

"Go," Erwin says. "Away from civilians."

They turn down random streets, their hearts pumping acid. Levi hears yelling and knows there's more than one person after them. He pulls Erwin down an alleyway, spots the boxes piled up.

"We need to get on the roof and get a fucking vantage point," he says.

He scrambles onto the boxes and Erwin follows. They're stacked a bit too low, so Erwin boosts Levi up by his feet without a second thought. Levi scratches his way onto the rooftop and then leans down and pulls Erwin up with him. He looks around frantic, and can see the two men now, both of them with guns, and now they can see them. They aim to shoot, so Levi and Erwin duck low. Two bullets ricochet off the roof.

"Move in opposite directions," Erwin says. "We need to separate them."

Levi nods and takes off running, hops from one roof to the next. He looks behind once to make sure Erwin's all right. He's moving faster than Levi's ever seen him without gear on before. Another shot rings out, catches the shingle by Levi's left foot. He jumps to another rooftop, rolls, and then stays in a squat, surveying the area. He's at a dead end and the gunman knows it. He slides his hand into his pocket and pulls out his knife, holds it close to his side. Everything goes quiet, but Levi can hear his heartbeat pounding in his ears, adrenaline twitching in his fingers. Then there's movement behind him. Levi turns quick and sees the gunman climbing onto the rooftop across from him. He's close enough that if Levi ran, he'd shoot him right in the back. Levi glances around and sees rope from a laundry line strung between the two buildings. When he looks back up, the gunman is on the roof. Levi jumps for it.

He falls. The wind whips around him and Levi grabs the hanging rope, left hand holding his knife. It slows him down for a fraction of a second before the line snaps. He falls but keeps holding the rope, one end still attached to the building. The end holds, but Levi's grip isn't good enough. The rope slides through his hand and then there's a red streak all over it. Levi grunts and pulls his hand in, tucks himself to break his fall. He's lucky to land on more boxes. They break under him and he hisses. His body stings but he's alive. Levi waits a minute, breathing, his hand bleeding something fierce. There are footsteps so Levi forces himself up again, holds the knife in his good hand even though it's bleeding and raw. He edges himself along the side of the building, waiting, anticipating.

The gunman rounds the corner and Levi throws his knife. It hits the gunman in the chest and he drops the gun immediately, knees buckling before falling face first onto the ground. Levi exhales and sags against the wall, hand shaking. Then he remembers Erwin. He stands upright, adrenaline edging into panic.

"Erwin?" he says. "Erwin!"

He knows Erwin can fight and hold his own, but something unreasonable grips at his heart and won't let go. He stumbles out of the alleyway and starts back down the street, ignores the gathering crowd.

"Erwin!"

"Levi!"

He pushes forward another few steps and sees Erwin jogging towards him looking unharmed, but his eyes are bright with concern. Levi meets him halfway and they stand there in the street, panting. People are watching them, hands up to their faces, terrified and confused. Levi pays them absolutely no mind.

"Where's the other gunman?" he says.

"He fell from the roof," Erwin says. "He's dead. Is the—?"

"Also dead," Levi says.

Erwin nods. Alive would have been better. Alive meant they could have questioned them, found out who sent them. But at least they're alive. Something drips between them and Levi looks down, sees his hand still bleeding.

"Are you okay?" Erwin says.

Levi tries to tuck his hand away. "I'm fine."

"You're not…your hand…"

Erwin reaches out, touches it, and Levi hisses immediately at the contact. The rope dug deep into his palm and the skin is open and raw. Blood trickles into the etchings of his hand as Erwin holds his wrist out, face tight and angry.

"I've had worse," Levi says.

He doesn't pull his wrist back. He lets Erwin hold it as more people gather.

"Erwin," he says. "Who the fuck were they?"

Erwin shakes his head, eyes on Levi's hand.

"I have no idea."

--

They let him rest in Erwin's room. Levi's injury isn't that serious, and the medical wing is understaffed and overcrowded anyway. It's actually Shadis who suggests letting him rest in Erwin's room, which at any other time would have been funny, but Levi can't stand the idea of sitting out.

"I know there's no peace in the barracks," Shadis says, but Levi shakes his head.

"If you're having a meeting about this I want to be there."

"Levi, I'm only giving an initial report," Erwin says. "Please use my room and rest."

"That's an order," Shadis says, and Levi bites the inside of his cheek.

"Fine."

It's a little odd at first, being in Erwin's room without having snuck in there, but as soon as Levi crawls into his bed he realizes how tired he is. His hand throbs. The wound was cleaned and wrapped, and with any luck, it'll heal quickly. Levi eyes the white bandages wrapped around his hand and wrist and thinks how close they came to losing everything before falling into a dreamless sleep.

He wakes up to Erwin's stroking his hairline. Levi opens his eyes slowly, stretches his legs out. Erwin is sitting on the side of the bed watching him, body angled close.

"What time is it?" Levi says.

"Late afternoon. You slept about four hours."

Levi nods, still groggy, and content with Erwin's petting. He's not exactly shocked that someone tried to kill them. People attempted it quite a bit when he was up and coming in the Underground, and Erwin's certainly made his fair share of enemies. What he wants now is to know who it was, and why.

"What did Shadis say?"

"All soldiers are confined to headquarters until further notice. And the bodies of the two gunmen were identified, but it's a dead end, as I suspected."

"No surprise there."

Levi tries moving his hand but only succeeds in grimacing at the way the wound pulls. It feels tight and heavy now. Erwin moves his hand from Levi's hair and touches his wrist, gaze on the bandages. His eyes are easy to read. Levi pulls his wrist back.

"Don't do that shit," he says.

Erwin blinks and looks up. "Hm?"

"Don't feel guilty." Levi sits up in the bed, sheet pooling around his middle. "You think this is the first time someone's ever tried to kill me?"

"No," Erwin says. "I don't. But I've asked a lot of you, and not in just going outside the Walls."

He shifts and his body language scares Levi a little. It makes it seem like he's going to leave.

"I've been very selfish when it comes to you," Erwin says. "And you've never asked for more."

"More? What more would I ask for?"

Erwin looks at him like he's said something surprising.

"More than this," he says, and gestures between them.

"What are you talking about?" Levi grabs his wrist and pulls like he's going to tug him back into sense. His voice is sharp. "Don't act like I'm a kid, Erwin. I knew what I was getting into, I knew exactly what this would be. I told you I'd stay with you…did you think I was just saying that? I'll follow you into hell and there's not a thing you can do about it."

Everything is perfectly silent for a moment. There's no wind shaking the window, no birds singing outside. Erwin pulls his wrist away gently, but only so that he can wrap his hand over Levi's.

"I understand, Levi," he says. "I am sorry, though, I just wanted to give you a nice day."

"A nice—?" Levi stops short and realizes now what Erwin had been doing. "Shit...was that a date?"

"Something like that, I suppose."

Erwin looks a little embarrassed, red dusting his cheeks, and Levi's chest swells again. He ducks his head, just as embarrassed now, but after another moment he leans up and kisses Erwin before he can even think about pulling away. He nips lightly, Erwin responding beautifully, and Levi is already sliding his eyes closed. He pulls his hand out from under Erwin's so he can drag him forward by the collar and deepen the kiss. Erwin frowns into it.

"Hold on," he says. "You're supposed to be resting."

"I'm not dying," Levi says, and keeps kissing him. "Just watch my hand."

That's really all it takes to convince Erwin, especially when Levi is dragging his hand down his chest and sticking his tongue into his mouth. Erwin trembles lightly under his touch. It's been a while since they've touched like this, and Levi aches for it. He lets Erwin press him down against the bed, Erwin holding his face with one hand, touching him gently. Levi tries to undo his shirt but it's hard with only one hand and he gets frustrated quickly, grunts against Erwin's lips.

"Let me," Erwin says.

He sits up and undoes the buttons slowly, eyes on the Levi the whole time. Levi lays there, groin twisting, until Erwin slides the shirt down his shoulders. He shimmies out of the sleeves and kisses him as Erwin removes his pants. He grabs Levi's cock and pumps it slowly, teases his fingers down over his balls and perineum. Levi shudders, full-bodied, and pushes his tongue more into Erwin's mouth. He doesn't want to stop kissing him. Erwin pulls away though, but only to speak.

"I want to be inside of you," he says.

"Fuck, you don't have to say it like that." Levi touches his hand though, guides it closer to his entrance. "Right there, come on."

Erwin stretches him with Levi on his back, but once he pulls his fingers out, he starts to turn Levi over. Levi tries to maneuver onto his stomach but Erwin stops him.

"Stay on your side like that," he says.

Levi does, injured hand lying out on the mattress, and understands why Erwin moved him like this. But he still jumps lightly when Erwin curls around him from behind. His hand trails down Levi's hip, skitters over his thigh and then moves underneath, lifts it slightly. Levi can't see him, but something about it feel so intimate he's burning, fluid welling at the tip of his cock. Erwin enters him like that, shallow at first, works his way in until his stomach is pressed against Levi's back. The position has Levi shivering, and when Erwin's hand drifts along his stomach, Levi grabs it and brings it up to his chest, but it's Erwin who laces their fingers together. He noses Levi's neck, lips drifting over the short hairs there. Their legs tangle.

"You feel so good like this," Erwin says. "You're always so good for me, Levi."

Levi can't say anything back that isn't a low moan, eyes fluttering closed. He squeezes harder on Erwin's hand, aware of the intimacy of this, aware that this is much more than anything he thought it ever could be and not minding. He turns his head a bit and moans into the pillow. Erwin's free hand cards through his hair.

"Let me hear your voice," he says.

He pulls back a bit and then pushes in, hip twisting up. Levi gasps.

"Erwin, shit. Deeper, come on."

"That's it," Erwin says. "Keep going. Tell me what you need."

"I don't…" Levi fits his foot behind Erwin's ankle and pushes back against him, Erwin's thigh thick between his own. "Just more. I want more."

Erwin kisses his neck and obliges him, thrusts in deeper. There's a fullness in him that Levi wants desperately to hold on to. Something in the way Erwin surrounds him that he doesn't want to give up. He squeezes Erwin's hand and pushes back against him, waits for it. Even up until the moment they both go over the edge, their fingers stay interlocked, nearly inseparable.

--

Later, Levi watches Erwin next to him in bed. He's reading, sleeves rolled up, hair slightly out of place. Erwin notices him watching and sets his book down, cocks his head.

"What is it?"

Levi rests his hand over Erwin's like before. He's been thinking about it for hours now.

"I really hated you before," he says.

"I know," Erwin says. His turns his hand so that his palm is facing up and slots his fingers between Levi's. "Get some sleep, Levi."

Levi falls asleep with his hand in Erwin's.

--

His hand aches for days after. He's pulled out of training and forbidden to put any strain on his body until he shows signs of healing. It drives Levi out of his skin. He feels like Shadis is being extra cautious, only pulling him out completely because he's considered such an asset to them. But it wouldn't surprise Levi to learn that Erwin had a hand in it as well.

So instead he watches the training from inside, frowning and grumpy, right hand curled in his lap. It's not the worst injury he's ever sustained, not by a long shot, but it makes everyday tasks a lot more difficult. Erwin joked with him a few times about helping him dress and Levi just flicked him off, fiddled with the buttons of his shirt until he'd secured them himself. The most annoying thing is that he can't sweep properly. The pain of it is nothing. Levi hasn't taken the bandages off but he's sure the raw skin has scabbed over by now, so he has to be careful not to open it again.

He drinks tea and watches the training until it pisses him off too much, then he sits by himself in the barracks. Shadis hasn't said anything else about becoming an officer. With the position they're in right now, Levi supposes it isn't the high thing on his list, but Levi still wants to know. He feels like he's stalling. He sets his empty teacup down and reclines in bed, watches clouds pass by the window. It's quiet in the barracks, which is rare, but he can't really enjoy it at the moment.

He's ready to do anything. Any hesitation he might have had is long gone, has been for a while. Whatever Erwin asks him to do, he's going to do it, not because he's following him blind, but because he trusts him. Completely.

"Levi?"

It's Erwin's voice. Levi sits up quickly and stands off the bed, pokes his head around the corner and sees Erwin walking in. He's never come in the barracks before, not that Levi can remember anyway.

"Erwin?" he says. "What's going on?"

Erwin comes very close to him, and for a moment Levi thinks he's going to kiss him, but he grabs his shoulders instead and walks him backwards, looks around to make sure the barracks are empty. Levi frowns but doesn't move from his grip.

"Shit, Erwin, what's gotten into you?"

"I have a theory," Erwin says. He's looking at Levi now. "I think Wilks and the attempt on our lives is connected."

Levi digests the information immediately.

"You think Wilks tried to have us killed?"

Erwin shakes his head. "No. Wilks is a dishonorable man, but he's no killer. I think whoever tried to have us killed may have influenced him to pull the funding."

"But you don't know who," Levi says.

"No." Erwin's hands slide from his shoulders and he leans against the wall, arms crossed. "How's your hand?"

"Healing. What do you need?"

"I want to talk to Wilks and find out what he knows."

"Okay," Levi says.

The boredom of the last few days slips from his mind. This is what he'd been looking for.

"We're leaving in two days," Erwin says. "Be ready."

--

Wilks has a nice house. It's big, which Levi thinks is ridiculous, because only Wilks and his wife live there. Once the servants leave for the evening, the only room in the house lit is his bedroom. Levi and Erwin have been watching on the rooftop across the street for a few hours, their hoods pulled up. From their angle, Levi can see inside Wilks' bedroom. His bed is large, mahogany frame, the walls of the room neatly wallpapered. Levi used to dream of a room like that. He's always hated the aristocracy, but a richer lifestyle still appealed to him, the idea of never worrying where his next meal was coming from. It angers him to be envious of it.

Shadis doesn't know what they're doing, not exactly. Erwin told him they'd solve the issue of funding, hopefully by the end of the month, and Shadis looked between them in his office but said nothing. It was then that Levi realized Shadis was afraid of Erwin. Not that he thought he'd kill him, or even betray him, but because he knew Erwin would do whatever it took. Shadis let them go with just a nod, a silent approval of whatever it was they were going to do. He feared them both, probably. Levi liked knowing that.

Levi waits next to Erwin, their thighs touching, as Wilks and his wife finish their nightly routine. Clouds cover the moon tonight, and the darkness will do them good. Levi sniffs, flexes his right hand a bit.

"This fat bastard," he says. "You sure he didn't have anything to do with those assassins?"

"It's highly unlikely." The light in Wilks' room goes out and Erwin stiffens. "Let's move, Levi."

They don't use their gear. It's too risky and leaves marks. Instead they cross the street in silence and go right to the front door. It's slightly secluded from the street and gives no visibility. Levi looks at the door lock. It's nice, but not impossible to pick. This had been his idea. Erwin had considered scaling the back of the house and entering through a window, but Levi knew climbing would be difficult for him with his hand.

"Can you do it?" Erwin says.

Levi nods and pulls one of his knives from his sleeve. Ever since the attack, he's started carrying them again. He uses his left hand so it's slightly awkward, fits the thin blade into the lock as a pick and twists. He pulls another small knife out and inserts it up top. It only takes about thirty seconds before the lock clicks open. Levi pulls the knives out and backs up.

"There," he says.

Erwin opens the door quietly.

They separate to do a quick search of the house to make sure no one else is there. It's empty. Levi meets Erwin at the foot of the stairs and they climb silently. Wilks' door is closed. Erwin motions toward it.

"All yours," he says.

Levi kicks the door open. Wilks and his wife immediately sit up in bed, scrambling, eyes not yet adjusted to the darkness. Levi and Erwin enter quickly Levi pulls a blade out just so Wilks gets the idea of what's happening. They stop at the foot of his bed, Wilks still shaking and confused. His wife is gripping his arm, mouth open in shock.

"Who the—?" He has the sheet pulled over him like a shield but now he drops it, rubs his eyes. "Erwin Smith…"

He notices Levi and swallows visibly.

"Is this a robbery?" his wife says, but no one answers her.

"What are you doing here?" Wilks says. "What do you want?"

"I'm sure you know by now that there was an attack last week," Erwin says. "The newspapers didn't print it, but word spreads quickly."

"I heard rumors," Wilks says. "But I don't see how that justifies you breaking into my home—"

"Shut up and listen to him," Levi says.

Wilks glances at Levi again and closes his mouth. He hasn't relaxed yet, still sits up in bed stiffly.

"After our last expedition, you pulled your remaining funding but listed no solid reasoning. I suspect that had something to do with our attack."

"Now wait just a minute," Wilks says. "I had no idea about that. I didn't have anything to do—"

"I already know that," Erwin says.

He circles around to the side of Wilks' bed. Levi stays at the foot of it, blade still ready if need be.

"I don't believe you pulled our funding because of what you said." Erwin slides his hood off. "Who came to you?"

Wilks flounders a moment, stuttering, and it's obvious that Erwin was right—something happened. He read it so easily. Levi is quietly impressed.

"No one," Wilks says. "It's like I said, the risk was too great, money—"

"Quit lying," Levi says. "You have more money than you'll ever need, you pig."

"Someone threatened you," says Erwin.

Wilks looks down. Levi can see the defeat in his face and he actually feels sorry for him in that moment, seeing such a pathetic expression. Wilks rubs a hand over his forehead, mumbles quietly.

"Please," he says.

"Darling," his wife says. "What's going on?"

Wilks waves her quiet with his hand.

"Please," he says again.

"All I need is a name."

"You don't understand." Wilks' voice is more urgent now, a hissed whisper. "He threatened my life. If he attacked you, he won't hesitate to have me killed as well!"

"What a shame," Levi says.

Erwin glances at him, then back to Wilks.

"We intend to pursue him, with or without your help. Should he become wise of this, don't you think he'd tie up any loose ends? Wouldn't you rather us have the element of surprise?"

There's silence. Wilks is still looking down, considering, temple beaded with sweat despite the cold weather.

"The man who came to me is a priest from the Wall Cult," he says. "But he was working for someone else. I don't know who…but even if you know who he is, you can't honestly expect to find proof of his involvement."

"His name," Erwin says.

There's a shorter stretch of silence, and then Wilks sighs.

"Clio Shrive." He grabs the sheets in both hands. "Please, don't tell him I told you, he'll kill me."

Pathetic, Levi thinks, but he doesn't say anything. They have a name, that's what they came for. But the Wall Cult…Levi wasn't expecting that. He can't tell if Erwin was or not.

"Thank you," Erwin says. "I hope that if this matter is resolved, you'll consider reinstating our funding."

Levi can tell by the sound of his voice that they'll be leaving, so he sheaths his blade. Wilks stutters again.

"Wait—"

"Don't worry, we won't let Shrive know you've spoken to us."

Erwin backs away and starts walking back over to Levi.

"Let's go," he says.

Levi shuts the door behind them.

--

Erwin finds the information on Shrive quickly. He's got a lot more pull than even Levi realized, and by the end of the next evening, he's got what he needs. Levi looks over it with Erwin in his room while Erwin changes the bandages on his hand.

"Clio Shrive," Levi says. "Who the fuck is that supposed to be?"

"I've never come across him before," Erwin says.

He's bent down on one knee while Levi sits on the bed, unwraps the bandages carefully. It stings a bit when Erwin pulls the bandaging off the cut itself. It's not that it's deep, it's that it's wide, and parts of the scab have stuck to the bandaging. Levi grits his teeth as Erwin pours water over the wound.

"It still hurts?" Erwin says.

"It's not that bad."

Erwin pats his palm dry and then rubs salve over it carefully to keep it moistened. It'll scar, most likely. Levi looks at Erwin's neck. The scar he gave him is still there, barely noticeable. But Levi can find it every time. Erwin starts to rewrap the wound. He's been quiet ever since he got the information on the Cultist. He's forming a plan, Levi knows that much, especially now that they know that whoever tried to have them killed is also trying to keep the Survey Corps from going outside the Walls. But there's something else.

"Erwin," Levi says, and he looks up. "What is it?"

Erwin finishes wrapping his hand and keeps his fingers pressed lightly over the pulse point of Levi's wrist. He looks unsure, and Levi has never seen that before, never seen anything like hesitation in him. Erwin's strokes his pulse.

"Levi, when you said you were willing to follow me into hell—"

"I meant it."

The air between them stills. Erwin nods and doesn't take his eyes off him.

"This man, we'll need information from him. We may have to take it by force."

"I understand."

Erwin nods again, looks pleased at Levi's decision, but there's something still lingering there, though Levi can't quite figure out what it is.

"Just tell me what to do," Levi says. "I trust you."

Erwin kisses the bandaging on his wrist, and it's like he's a different person in these moments, Levi thinks, the way he expresses such fondness. He runs a hand through Erwin's hair, fingers scratching the scalp lightly.

"Thank you, Levi," Erwin says.

--

Levi waits for Erwin to give the word, body still on high alert. Right now, they have the element of surprise and that's what they need. If Erwin is right about this, then getting Clio Shrive to give up who wants them killed also means securing the future of the Survey Corps. Levi bides his time by testing how far he can push his hand. It's still a bit tender, and using his gear might give him some trouble, but he can manage it if he has to.

In the late afternoon the following day, Erwin comes for him. He says nothing, just appears in the hall while Levi is eating and nods. Levi understands immediately. He leaves his food and follows Erwin out, the two of them leaving on horseback. They ride for a mile before Erwin slows to a trot next to Levi, darkness creeping on them quickly.

"Where are we headed?" Levi says.

"The border of Karanese. Shrive lives alone."

Levi nods, adrenaline seeping into his system.

"Where does Shadis think we're going?"

A half-smile tugs at Erwin's lips.

"I told him we were going to do what needed to be done," he says. "He didn't ask more than that."

It thrills Levi in a strange way, the fact that they've granted themselves permission. They're acting without explicit orders but still under a Commander's grace. And there's no one who can do it but them. And there's no one else Levi wants to do it with.

It's dark when they arrive. They leave their horses at the edge of the forest as Erwin checks his information again. He folds the paper up once he's read it over and pulls a matchbox from his saddlebag. Then he lights the edge of the paper and watches it burn. Levi pets the neck of his horse and checks his knives again. They're here without gear, just the hope they've still got the element of surprise.

Once the paper has burned, Erwin lets the ashes fall to floor of the forest. He puts the matchbox back in his saddlebag but pulls the whole bag off this time, and Levi can hear iron click together. He doesn't have to ask what's in there. Erwin nods to his horse.

"Are you going to tie her up?"

"No," Levi says. "She won't go anywhere. Some things don't need to be tied down."

"No," Erwin says. "I suppose they don't."

--

They wait at the edge of the street. They're wearing plain clothes but Levi still avoids eye contact, unsure just how popular he's actually become. Not too many people are out, but they wait until the foot traffic has slowed completely before moving. Levi follows slightly behind Erwin and there is no moon tonight, no sounds, not even their footsteps. They get to Shrive's home and Levi picks the lock silently. Erwin enters first but Levi steps ahead of him, knife out. The house is dark but Levi can still see how well crafted the furniture is, the woodwork. Priests were supposes to be humble, without a lot of possessions. Erwin shuts the door behind them and they listen, but there's nothing.

"Check upstairs," he says.

Levi does. He moves quickly, quietly, slipping into each room of the house. But it's empty. He takes the stairs back down two at a time and sees Erwin waiting still by the front door.

"Nothing," Levi says. "Fuck. "Do you think he got held up?"

"The last worship is over." Erwin scans the room. "He should have been—"

There's sound behind them. Erwin and Levi step to opposite sides of the door, hide themselves in the shadows of the room. There are footsteps, the sound of a key. Levi's chest tightens as the door unlocks. Shrive steps in, still in his robes, and nudges the door shut behind him. He takes three steps forward before Levi moves.

"Hey," he says.

Shrive turns, and Levi lands a right hook straight to his jaw. He collapses right away, body crumpled, and that's when Levi recognizes him. He stands there, fist still clenched as Erwin steps out of the shadows and kneels down.

"No basement in these houses," he says. "But the upstairs bedroom—"

"I've seen him before," Levi says.

Erwin looks up, eyes sharp. "What?"

"When you took me into the Capital. He was watching us." Levi frowns. "I'd recognize that busted ass nose anywhere."

Erwin nods, no longer surprised. It makes sense that the attempt on their lives would have been in the works for quite a while. At the very least, they were being talked about. The whole thing makes Levi's skin crawl a bit.

"Let's carry him upstairs," he says.

--

While they're waiting for Shrive to wake up, Erwin gives Levi a pair of gloves. They're long and rubber.

"I know how you feel about filth."

It's the first thing either of them has said since they tied Shrive up, and the gesture is strangely considerate despite the circumstances. Levi presses his lips together. "Thanks."

Erwin starts to pull out a pair for himself but Levi shakes his head, fingers wiggling as he slides the gloves on.

"Just ask the questions," Levi says. "Let me take care of him."

Erwin starts to protest. "Levi—"

"Let me," Levi says again. "Let me do this."

Shrive is in the far bedroom in the darkness. From his saddlebag, Erwin hands Levi a knife and pliers. They walk into the bedroom together, baseboards creaking as they move. Shrive's chin is still pressed against his chest, hair hanging forward. Weak piece of shit, Levi thinks. He hadn't even hit him that hard. He walks over and slaps his face. Shrive jerks up, startling, and immediately tries to move. He struggles against the ropes, eyes adjusting as he takes in Levi and Erwin and the situation he's in. He exhales sharply and the winces.

"What the hell is this?" he says. "You're going to be hanged for this."

Levi slaps him again. "Shut up and tell us who you're working for."

Shrive leans to the side and spits blood, smiles.

"Oh, so Wilks squealed, huh? Figures as much."

"We want to know who you're taking your orders from." Erwin walks forward. "Tell us and we won't keep you any longer."

"I'm not going to do that," Shrive says.

Levi glances back at Erwin. "You want me to pull his teeth out?"

Shrive laughs, though it's weak, his limbs moving against the ropes.

"What's the matter, Erwin Smith? Afraid to get your hands dirty? Looks like you'll just let your dog do all the work."

Levi punches him for that, hard enough that his head snaps and his nose makes a cracking sound. A second later, his nose starts trickling blood. Shrive makes a low, painful sound, the skin around his eyes already purpling.

"Who are you working for?" Erwin says again.

Shrive doesn't answer. He sits there stone-willed, eyes hardened. Levi grabs the pliers, watches as Shrive's breathing start coming faster, his body tensing. He even gives Shrive a moment to speak, hovers over him with the pliers. But he does nothing. Levi grabs his jaw with one hand and squeezes hard, forces his mouth open. Shrive groans, eyes widening, and then Levi shoves the pliers into his mouth. The front tooth is the easiest, so he grabs it and pulls. It gives little resistance before it pops out, and then Shrive squeezes his eyes shut and screams.

Levi lets the tooth drop to floor and steps back so Erwin can ask more questions. He waits a moment for Shrive to stop shaking and groaning, his fingers tensed against the arms of the chair.

"I'm going to ask you again," Erwin says.

"You damn fools," Shrive says. Blood runs over his lips and chin. "What do you think you'll accomplish, huh? You're not going to change anything. You'll die like animals! The Walls protect us, don't you understand?"

"His name!" Erwin says, voice so loud it startles Levi.

But Shrive shakes his head again. Levi grunts.

"Looks like I'm taking out another tooth."

"No!" Shrive throws his head up. "Please, don't!"

"Then give us the name."

"He'll kill me."

"If you don't start talking, I'm afraid Levi may kill you," Erwin says. "You have five seconds to decide."

Tears well at Shrive's eyes. The blood has dribbled onto his shirt now. Levi counts to five, almost excited to hit the last number.

"All right, open up."

"You already know him," Shrive says.

Levi pauses mid-step.

"What?" says Erwin.

"Nicholas Lobov." Shrive shuts his eyes and tears streak down his face, mix with the blood. "You know him."

Levi blinks and looks at Erwin. Last he knew, Lobov was in jail. The documents saw to that. If this news fazes Erwin, he doesn't show it. He just shifts his stance.

"Lobov is in jail," he says.

"Not since last month." Shrive spits blood again. "The king pardoned him."

Erwin says nothing. The news is a blow to both of them. Not just that Lobov is behind it again, but that everything they did was for nothing. They keep trying to climb higher and higher and everyone keeps shoving them back into the shit. Levi glances at Erwin, sees the defeat there, and then over to Shrive's bloody face. His hands turn to fists.

"I'm taking the rest of his teeth," he says.

Shrive starts struggling again. "No! You can't, I told you the name! You said you'd let me go."

Levi grabs his jaw again. "I never said anything about that."

"Levi, enough," Erwin says.

Levi turns, Shrive's jaw still in his grip. "Seriously? If we let him go, he'll go to Lobov."

"Not without forfeiting his life. He knows that." Erwin watches Shrive carefully, hands folded at his front. "Why did you agree to help Lobov?"

"To protect humanity," Shrive says.

"What?"

"The Walls are our only defense. Don't you see that? And you heathens go outside of them every chance you get—you'd tear them down if you could. Lobov understands our cause, he knows—"

Levi squeezes his jaw between his hands and Shrive whines, more tears springing from his eyes.

"You piece of shit," he says.

"Levi." Erwin's voice is steady behind him. "Come here."

Levi lets go of Shrive's jaw and steps back over to Erwin, anger still hot in his chest. Erwin is watching Shrive, but he puts an arm on Levi's shoulder and leads him back out of the room. They stop near the stairs and Erwin leans close to him.

"What is it?" Levi says. "Did you have any idea—?"

"No." Erwin shakes his head. "I knew Lobov had some pull, but his crimes were serious. I underestimated how corrupt the system was. I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize." Levi reaches out to grab Erwin's hand but remembers the bloody gloves he's wearing and stops short. "What are we doing with Shrive?"

"I have a few more questions for him," Erwin says. "We can decide after that."

Levi cracks his knuckles. "I'm sure he'll answer—"

They pause at the sudden agonized groan from the room. Shrive's heavy breathing has gotten even heavier. Levi and Erwin both walk quickly back into the room, Levi with a knife already out. Shrive must have gotten free, and now he's waiting to attack them. But when they step back into the room, Shrive isn't close to them at all. He's by the window, clutching his right wrist. It's bent awkwardly, and Levi understands now how he got free—he broke his own wrist.

"Don't do this," Erwin says.

"I've betrayed the Walls," Shrive says. "I'll be damned to an eternity of suffering."

Levi understands quickly what's happening. Shrive has no plans to go back to Lobov. He has no plans to go anywhere.

"Don't be an idiot, get back from there."

He steps forward.

"You will never take our secrets," Shrive says, and then he throws himself through the glass.

--

The ride back through the night, silent, Levi watching the stars from his saddle. He looks over at Erwin occasionally and sees him staring straight ahead, gaze never wavering. He's thinking. He's disappointed. Levi can sense it, can tell without even asking. But he doesn't say anything. What Erwin doesn't need right now is something telling him what he already knows—that they did their best, even if it wasn't good enough. It isn't until they get back to the base that Erwin starts to show more signs of life. They stable their horses and Levi feels a sort of desperation for Erwin to look at him, to tell him what to do next. And like he's read his mind, Erwin turns to him. He puts his hand on Levi's shoulder and strokes the bones there. Then he reaches down and grabs Levi's injured hand with both of his hands, turns the palm upright and stares at it.

"You're not my dog, Levi," he says.

Levi doesn't move. "I know that."

"And you're not a tool." Erwin strokes his palm. "I trust you."

Levi looks down and away, the intimacy still awkward for him, especially here in the open, where anyone might walk in.

"Erwin, I know—"

"When I saw you kill that Titan for the first time, I felt hope."

Levi looks up at that. Erwin's eyes seem a little brighter now, but the defeat is still there. It hurts Levi somewhere he can't quite name to see it, but also sparks an anger in him.

"I'm afraid I don't know what can be done about Lobov now," Erwin says.

Levi shuts his hand over Erwin's and squeezes.

"We can figure that shit out. There's something we can do, we'll find it."

Erwin nods. He's exhausted, they both are. A night without sleep and so much bad news.

"What do you want to do now?" Levi says.

"Sleep," Erwin says.

They go to Erwin's room and Levi washes up, limbs heavy. Before they left, they'd cleaned Shrive's body but left him under the window. A suicide was easy enough to explain away, but it had to look real. Levi bent his broken right wrist underneath him, dropped his pulled tooth nearby. Erwin had cleaned up the blood from the room. And then they left without any trace of their presence behind, two shadows in the night.

Levi scrubs under his nails even though he was wearing gloves before joining Erwin in bed. He's already on his back, one arm splayed out and the other over his stomach. He was something else entirely tonight, a ruthlessness that Levi knew existed but never got to witness. It thrilled him. Levi settles against Erwin's side, Erwin's body still warm from earlier.

He doesn't sleep. Erwin does, dozes off almost immediately. But Levi lays awake, eyes on the ceiling, watching, thinking. This can't be the end of it. Not after they've come so far. And Erwin can only do so much. He's already done too much. Levi shifts, glances quickly at his healing palm before closing his eyes.

--

Hanji has been buried in their office for days. When Levi walks in, the door is practically barricaded shut by boxes and papers. He has to shove his way in, an avalanche of paper falling at his feet. Levi resists the urge to pick them up and steps over them instead. Hanji isn't even awake. They're asleep at their desk, mouth open, a coin-sized spot of drool on the wood beneath them. Levi kicks Hanji's shin with his foot.

"Hey."

Hanji jerks away, hands slapping down on the desk.

"The Titans! They broke through! The—" Hanji turns and sees Levi standing there. "Oh, Levi. Hey, what's up?"

"You smell terrible," Levi says, because he can't help himself.

Hanji frowns and sniffs under their armpit.

"Oh, I guess I do a bit. Is…that why you're here?"

Levi hesitates. He's already resigned himself to doing this, but he wishes there were another way. He doesn't want to involve Hanji, and more over, he wants to do it himself. But he has to avoid suspicion. No one can know, not even Erwin.

"Levi," Hanji says. "What to you need?"

Levi exhales.

"I need your help."

Chapter Text

It does not feel like coming home. It was never a home. The Underground was a placeholder, a pit, a ditch Levi stumbled into and happened to find his footing. But it was never home. When he comes down the tunnel, the city seems darker than he even remembered it to be, his eyes struggling against the dimness.

Everything else he remembers perfectly.

He wears his cloak, hood up, presence undetectable. He's small, and that makes it easier to navigate the crumbling buildings and rusting sewers without being noticed. Nothing has really changed since he left. Levi doesn't know if that relieves or depresses him. He sees barefooted children running, their faces malnourished. Sees the back alley dealings, the dead-eyed looks. He lived here for so long that the scenes became commonplace. Sometimes Levi could even pretend to forget them. Seeing them again now, he's not sure how he ever did.

It takes him less than twenty minutes to find what he's looking for. The house (it's a shack, really) sits ugly and unassuming. It looks a little more gutted out than the last time Levi saw it. But the back window is still broken in like he knew it would be. He pulls the tan cloth aside and slips in just like that, one motion. The house is empty, clean, but he can sense a kind of staleness to everything. It doesn't surprise him. Levi spares the place a glance, takes it in, remembers it, and then takes a seat at the chair by the kitchen, legs splayed out, and waits.

He had to calm himself down, earlier. He felt jittery and on edge most of the day, even if he managed to hide that from Erwin. Levi's done things like this before. He's killed men without a second thought, watched their pulse struggle like a trapped rabbit to keep going until it slowly faded to nothing. This feels different. Because it is different. Because there's more riding on this than just his life. Levi's eyes flicker to the ceiling, knowing Hanji is waiting for him above.

Hanji was a bundle of nerves for an entirely different reason. Even before they've left, Hanji babbled like they were drunk, hands gesturing like flags in the wind, boneless and wild. Once they got into town, Hanji calmed a bit, but only enough to talk with a steadier voice as they walked.

"This is so exciting," they said. "I've told you before that we make a great team."

"We haven't actually done anything yet."

"Doesn't matter," Hanji said.

Levi rolled his eyes, lets his silence be the agreement. Hanji didn't know what the plan was, but they had forged a pass for Levi. When he asked Hanji for help, they agreed without question. It was one of the reasons Levi asked in the first place. He said they were going into town, and he told Hanji he'd need a pass. He knew Hanji was too creative, too smart not to be able to make one. And they did.

Once they got there, Hanji was a tight storm of energy, eyes darting around the roads and buildings. It wasn't until half an hour later that their grin started to break into confusion.

"Is this…" the frown Hanji's lips dropped into was comical. "Is this really all we're doing? Shopping?"

Levi ran his fingers over the dust cloth on the shelf. The fibers looked promising for catching dirt.

"For now, yeah."

They'd been to three shops so far. Levi had picked up tea and pens and a few baked goods, the two of them not exactly inconspicuous in their uniforms. They'd been noticed. They'd been seen. That's what he needed. Levi grabbed the dust cloth from the shelf and paid for it, Hanji nearly twitching in anticipation behind him. They stepped outside and Levi handed the shopping he'd done off to Hanji, who took it without question.

"I have to run another errand," Levi said, and didn't look up as they walked. "You can't come with me, but if anyone asks, we've been together the entire time, haven't we?"

There was only a short silence before Hanji responded: "Yes."

"Good." Levi glanced up and saw how serious Hanji's expression was, the understanding of what was being asked of them. "You should make yourself scarce for now."

"I won't be seen," Hanji said.

They reached into their jacket and pulled out the forged pass. "Here."

Levi grabbed the pass without speaking and started to pull ahead, the nervousness from earlier finally calmed. He felt stoic.

"Levi, wait."

He turned back and Hanji was there, shopping collected awkwardly in their arms.

"You are coming back, aren't you?"

"We'd better hope so," Levi said, and kept walking.

--

After ten minutes of waiting, Nena walks in. When she sees Levi, she drops apples at his feet and says, "Shit."

"Hi to you too," Levi says.

--

Nena and Bill had been Farlan's friends, originally. Farlan had a lot of friends, had a lot of enemies, also. He was charismatic and loud in that way. But Nena and Bill were discreet enough that Levi didn't mind their company. When Bill had gotten sick, too sick for the medicine down there, they helped him get a pass above ground. They'd done it before for others. Nena stayed behind. She was his sister, older and heftier, chin held high like she was daring you to hit it. She's still that way as she serves Levi tea in a chipped cup, her hands warm.

"Your house is still filthy," he says.

Nene snorts into her teacup.

"You really didn't come all this way to tell me to dust," she says. "I know you're here because you need something. Otherwise you would've never come back."

Levi doesn't answer her right away. He takes a sip of tea, forefinger running over the chipped rim of the cup.

"Do you still want to go above ground? See your brother?"

Nena's chin quivers, briefly.

"You know that I do."

"There's someone I need killed," Levi says. "But it has to look like a random killing, nothing to create suspicion."

Nena wipes one of the apples she dropped on her sleeve and bites into it.

"…Why not kill him yourself?"

"Can't risk it."

Nena looks him over. "It's true, isn't it? You're with the Survey Corps now."

The way she says it makes Levi wonder about the rumors. What they must have all been saying, a thug as famous as him disappearing. When he decided to stay and follow Erwin, he thought about everyone down here, and how things would operate without him. It was a brief thought he pushed aside and left in the forest with Isabel and Farlan's bodies.

"Some people said you were dead, you know," Nena says. "But I knew you wouldn't go out that easily, not without leaving a lot of bodies behind. Even the Survey Corps rumors I didn't believe, but, shit. It's real."

There's a pause, Nena's eyes flashing in wonder.

"What happened to you up there?"

Even if he had all the time in the world, Levi's not sure he could answer that question. He reaches into his jacket and pulls out the pass to get above ground, slides it across the table.

"This is yours. Take it."

She doesn't touch the pass. Her mouth is set in stubborn curiosity.

"How do you know I won't just go above ground and never kill this guy?"

"Because you know I'll find you and kill you."

Nena laughs and then coughs, her lungs filled with dust.

"This is serious, huh?" she says. "You fighting some kind of war up there?"

"Something like that," Levi says.

Nena still hasn't touched the pass. Her eyes flicker around the room, suspiciously wet looking. They'd offered to get her one, back when Bill was being moved, but she refused. It would cost enough money as it were to get Bill treated. She never once cried when he left, not that Levi saw anyway.

"Hey," she says. "Where are Isabel and Farlan?"

To his credit, Levi's stomach drops only once. He doesn't look at Nena. He looks at the broken window, the way the Underground city is laid out only so far before the darkness swallows it.

"They're dead," he says.

There's silence, and he knows there are probably a hundred different emotions on Nena's face right now, none of which he wants to see. He can't remember the last time he heard their names spoken out loud. Lately he hasn't thought about them as much, and the guilt of it makes him feel wrecked inside. Levi watches Nena grab the pass from the corner of his eye and finally looks at her. Her face is set, hardened, as if she's put some of the pieces together by herself.

"You remember when Bill got sick?" she says. "He could barely move at one point, and I hadn't known you that long, but you and Farlan were over helping me out when those debt collectors came by."

Nena takes another bite of her apple, juice spraying to her upper lip and cheek.

"One of them tried to grab me and you slammed his hand onto the table and cut two of his fingers off. Told him if he and his friend ever came by again you'd take the rest. And you know, they never did. All that money and they never came back."

Levi doesn't answer her. He doesn't know how. He remembers that day, though. Nena sets her half-eaten apple on the table.

"I'll do it," she says. "For you. For Isabel and Farlan."

Levi nods. "You know you can't ever contact me after this."

Nena laughs and her face is tired, so tired, and Levi wonders if they've all always looked like this.

"Tell me more about this person," she says.

--

They're all up late, talking, complaining. They pass around a bottle of whiskey someone swiped from Pixis in the barns, some of them with their bare feet spread out on the itchy hay. Levi leans against the barn wall and accepts a swig of the bottle, still on edge from earlier. Hanji is there as well, but they barely motion to Levi, and the hanging lantern casts a glare over the lens of their goggles.

It'd only taken him an hour to set up the negotiations with Nena. He came out later and found Hanji by the edge of the road stuffing crackers into their mouth. When Hanji saw Levi, they tried to offer him some, hands full of crumbs, and Levi refused by wrinkling his nose.

"Everything go all right?" Hanji said.

"Yeah, let's head back."

And Hanji didn't ask anything else about it, but Levi could tell they were uneasy, and wanted, wished he could say something. He was sure that if Nena failed, there'd be no way to trace the pass back to Hanji, and that's all he needed to know.

"I feel like we've been waiting around for months," Nanaba says. "Mike said there was no word on funding yet. I feel like there's usually a plan by now, you know?"

One of the other female soldiers passes Nanaba the whiskey bottle, alcohol dribbling down her chin.

"What if there isn't one? What if they disband us?"

"They'll send us to the Garrison or the Military Police." Nanaba shudders. "I'd rather shovel shit than serve those assholes."

"Hey now," Hanji says. "We're not done for yet. Our track record has always been dismal, remember?"

"Dismal," Nanaba says. "But we had funding at least. What do you think, Levi?"

She passes the bottle back to him and Levi takes a drink, shrugs.

"I don't think about it."

"What? Not at all? But after everything that's happened, don't you want the Survey Corps to keep going?"

Levi passes the bottle, focuses on the burn of alcohol down his throat. After everything that's happened. Leaving the Underground, losing Isabel and Farlan, losing everything, gaining everything. After all that, no, he didn't plan for the Survey Corps to disband at all.

"Of course I do," he says. "But I'm not going to sit around and bitch about it."

Nanaba doesn't get a chance to answer before the barn door is pushed open. The horses shuffle a bit, whining, and Erwin enters. His presence is tall but feels haggard. Everyone stands at attention. Even Levi pushes off the wall.

"I figured as much," Erwin says.

Hanji waves the whiskey bottle. "Drink?"

Erwin's smile is soft. "No, and I think it's probably wise you all went back to your rooms."

They all nod, say sir and start breaking things up, Hanji tucking the whiskey bottle discreetly into their jacket like Erwin doesn't already know it's there. The mood is sour. Levi follows Erwin out without a word, the two of them stepping into the night in silence. A few hundred feet away from the barns, Erwin pulls a bottle from his jacket. It's whiskey. Levi snorts.

"You're a hypocrite, Squad Leader Smith."

"I never said they couldn't drink, I just said they couldn't drink there."

Erwin twists the bottle open and takes a drink before passing it to Levi. They walk together without any set destination, and Levi feels like Erwin already knows what he did. Erwin who is always two steps ahead, Erwin who never stops thinking. Levi passes the bottle back.

"You were gone awhile today," Erwin says.

"Yeah, I had to get new cleaning supplies."

Erwin takes a drink, nods.

"I'm surprised you took Hanji with you."

"Idiot wouldn't stop yapping unless I took them along."

Erwin chuckles at that, and Levi breathes.

"Yes, Hanji can be…convincing that way."

They stop near the trees and Levi can barely see without the moon out, his steps awkward and unsure in the grass. When he looks up, he can make out Erwin's features in the darkness, the drooping line of his mouth.

"Hey," he says, and when Erwin looks over at him, Levi leans up and kisses him.

Erwin meets him for it, mouth sour with whiskey, his hands clutching Levi's jacket. He pulls away and Levi thinks he might say something, something about Lobov, so he speaks first.

"I can't see a damn thing out here."

"You found my mouth easily enough," Erwin says.

"That's because it never shuts up."

Erwin's hand boldly squeezes his backside and they lean away from the trees, walking very close together until they get back to the buildings. Erwin doesn't say anything about Lobov, and Levi looks at the sky and knows this could be the last night he watches it freely.

--

The morning is quiet. It's cloudy. It's a tired sort of morning, but Levi is very awake anyway. He starts in the supply closet and then works his way out, face and hair covered, sleeves rolled up. He hasn't been able to clean properly in too long. It's a rest day and no one is really awake yet, which Levi uses to his advantage. He props open windows and gets down on his hands and knees to scrub the floors, remove the dirt and boot marks. Erwin has told him at least five times that he isn't required to do this, and every time Levi snorts and tells him to go do something useful instead of standing around telling him nonsense.

As the morning picks up, people walk in and out of the halls, all of them careful not to interrupt Levi's cleaning. They learned very quickly how serious Levi is about it. Mike walks by at one point, sees Levi, nods. A few minutes later he comes back with a cup of tea for him. Levi is dusting the middle shelves but he pauses to take the cup, Mike with his own in the other hand.

"Cleaning again?" Mike says.

"You say it like I do it too much. Have you seen how filthy these shelves get?"

"Can't say that I have, actually."

Levi takes a sip of tea. He skipped breakfast this morning and hasn't had his morning cup yet, so the warm liquid feels good on his throat, welcoming.

"Thanks," he says.

"Mhm," says Mike. "Figured you'd been cleaning all morning."

Levi nods and resumes dusting. He pulls the handkerchief back up and places the cup on the clean shelf before wiping off the last one within his reach. The higher shelves are always a bit more difficult. One of the downfalls of his height. But before Levi can pause to grab a chair, Mike extends a hand.

"I can reach the top shelf," he says.

Levi regards him with more suspicion than he means to, but he's not about to say no. He hands over the cloth and Mike dusts over the top shelf, teacup held out to avoid getting dirt in it.

"Is there a reason you're being so nice right now?" he says.

Mike laughs. When he smiles, he gets great big dimples like sideways saucers.

"I forget how blunt you are sometimes." He hands the cloth back to Levi. "You just seemed tired lately, is all. You and Erwin both."

Levi feels embarrassed for not having a response, because that certainly wasn't the answer he was expecting, but Mike talks again for him.

"I guess everyone is, though, considering. Maybe I'm trying to keep myself occupied also."

There are hurried footsteps down the hall and both men turn to see Shadis and Erwin walking, their movement quick and their faces set. Erwin barely passes at glance at them before following Shadis in the direction of his office.

"Wonder what that's about," Mike says.

Levi shrugs, heartbeat pressing against his ribs. "Who knows? Follow me into the meeting room, I've got another shelf you can reach."

--

Levi's never seen Erwin's body so tense before, as if it could ripple apart at any moment. He hovers with his back turned to Levi, shoulders rigid, and Levi knew this was coming eventually. It took all day. All day of Erwin and Shadis locked in his office and Levi wondering what happened, if it worked, if anything was going to change. It wasn't until after dinner that Erwin appeared in the frame of the mess hall door and locked eyes with Levi. He didn't have to say anything. Levi abandoned his tray and followed him into his office. The whole way he wondered what was waiting for him in Erwin's office. If he was going to be arrested, or maybe Erwin would tell him to just leave before anyone came for him. And here, now, it feels like an eternity before Erwin speaks.

"I received very interesting news today."

"…Oh?" Levi says.

"Lobov was found dead in his home this morning." Erwin glances over his shoulder at Levi. "Unofficial reports state it was a botched robbery—the thieves killed him, probably while making their escape."

Levi breathes out silently, relieved. But some part of him still feels hollow about it. He wanted to do it himself. He wanted to stand over him and watch the life slip from his eyes, wanted to feel his blood run warm over his hands and onto his face. He wanted, selfishly, cruelly, for Lobov to suffer at his hands.

"I hope they don't expect you to feel sorry for him."

Erwin turns and his presence is that much more commanding, his stature taller, his face darker.

"Levi, what did you do?"

"I didn't do anything."

Erwin doesn't take that. "Levi."

He never actually planned on telling him, but with the way Erwin is looking at him now, the way he's asking him, Levi doesn't see any other way.

"People will do a lot of things for a pass above ground," he says. "Even murder someone. But I didn't do anything."

Erwin exhales and then walks forward, runs a hand through his hair and Levi watches as it comes away messy, falling over his forehead.

"You should have told me. You went behind my back—"

"I made a decision. Shit was bad and I made a decision." Levi presses his tongue against his teeth. "Do you trust me?"

Erwin's face softens at that and he leans closer reflexively.

"Levi," he says. "Why did you do it?"

Levi pokes Erwin's temple with his finger.

"Because you've got enough going on up there."

Erwin's mouth twists.

"Levi—"

"There was no point in both of us going down if it didn't work."

And that renders Erwin silent. His mouth and eyes drop wide. Levi feels guilty anyway, and he knew he would, but this was the way it had to be done.

"It was a crapshoot, Erwin, I didn't know if it would work. You've done too much good in this shitty world to go down for that. I'm just a thug from the Underground."

"You know that's not true," Erwin says.

Levi laughs, and it echoes sadly in the room.

"But you know I'm right."

And he's okay with that. He's spent all his life just trying to survive, and now there's something bigger than that. He doesn't mind. He'd die tomorrow if it meant they'd keep moving forward. Levi is strong, stronger than most. But he's not invincible, and he's not a leader. And Erwin knows that, Levi knows he does, because he runs his fingers softly over Levi's cheek, cups his jaw and squeezes lightly. He looks awed by him. Levi can't help the way the affects him. His face heats up, heartbeat thundering.

"You took that risk," Erwin says.

"I couldn't think of a good reason not to."

Erwin's fingers smooth over the skin of his cheek and jaw, tilting his head up.

"Levi…what you did…thank you," he says, and then his face all at once becomes serious, the face of an officer, a military man. "But do not ever take such serious action again without talking to me first, understood?"

Levi wraps his fingers over Erwin's wrist and hand, feels the marshmallow puffiness of the veins there.

"The way you say that makes it sound like you value my life more than your own."

Erwin laughs breathy but makes absolutely no attempt to deny it.

"Understood?" he says, as if Levi never said anything at all.

Levi's already slurring his words by the time he says yes and then Erwin is kissing him, kissing him and his whole body is against him, both their bodies angling in. It doesn't feel desperate or relieved. It feels like exactly what it is—two men kissing, and everything horrible around them is quiet for at least another moment. Erwin pulls back but keeps his hands on Levi's wrist, his voice barely a tremor:

"Take me to bed," he says. "Tell me everything that happened."

--

He isn't mad. Levi knew he wouldn't be, but he didn't expect the open show of pride on Erwin's face when he told him what happened. It made him flush, propped up on his elbows in Erwin's bed, the sheets pooling at his middle. Erwin lies on his side and watches him so openly that Levi has to stare at the pillow instead.

"You're being embarrassing," he says.

The bed shakes from Erwin's laughter.

"I expect we'll hear from Wilks by the end of the week."

Levi nods and pulls at a feather in the pillow, pulling until it blooms out from inside.

"Do you think anyone suspects?"

"As of right now, I haven't heard anything to indicate otherwise. There will be an investigation, of course, but…will anything turn up, Levi?"

"No," Levi says. "If they haven't found them now, they won't find them at all."

He twists the feather in his hand. It's white, grays at the bottom. Nena must be with Bill by now, and he's glad for it.

"Did they say how Lobov died?"

"It seems he awoke and caught the thief in his bedroom, though the altercation occurred in the hall. He was stabbed, several times, and found face down in a pool of his own blood."

Levi imagines it. Imagines Nena sneaking in, Lobov's terror upon waking. He imagines the knife puncturing his flesh over and over, the sound of it so slick and easy and then Lobov collapsing to his knees, the pain unimaginable. He imagines it.

"Well it's done now," Levi says. "But if we don't hear from Wilks soon we'll have to pay him another visit. Maybe this time we'll catch him while he's taking a shit."

Erwin shifts over and kisses his cheek, plucks the feather from his fingers. Levi watches him on his back, Erwin running his finger over the soft white hairs of it. He sets it on the bedside table and meets Levi's eyes.

"You've changed," he says.

Levi squints.

"I still bathe the same amount."

"I mean your attitude," Erwin says. "Everything. You've become so much more."

Levi looks away again. "Didn't I tell you to stop being so fucking embarrassing?"

He lets Erwin pulls him closer though, enough so that Levi is resting his head on Erwin's chest and listening to his heartbeat. He'd never imagined, not once in his whole wretched existence, that things would turn out like this. In fact, he'd always been pretty sure he'd never make it to adulthood. But he did, somehow, even if most times he had to scrape until his nails broke. Kenny always told him he was a resilient little brat. And he never expected Erwin. He never knew there could be someone like him in a world like this. Levi lets his hand drift to Erwin's arm and squeezes the muscle there.

"Hey," he says. "You know I would die if it meant defeating the Titans."

Erwin barely pauses.

"Are you giving me permission?"

"Yes."

He knows he doesn't have to. Erwin knows what's at stake. He knows what doing this means. He probably would not even hesitate if or when the time comes. Levi hopes he doesn't.

"Levi," Erwin says, softly, fondly, but does not say anything else. He doesn't have to.

--

Wilks does contact them, just before the week is up. His letter informs them that after great consideration, he's decided that the risk is necessary, and would be honored to fund them. Parliament will be meeting again in just a few days time to discuss further action.

"Everything is lining up," Erwin says. "Shadis and I will be traveling back to the Capital in a day or so to meet with them."

He looks brighter, more awake than he has in weeks. Everyone does. They're not quite in the clear yet, but there's hope now, and everyone is feeding off it. Training never stopped but it's stepped up now, the halls busy and alive with soldiers.

In Erwin's office, Levi helps him organize proposals and paperwork, both of them with their sleeves rolled up and Levi sitting on the desk. There are pieces of toasted bread between them, and Levi has fed a few of them to Erwin while he writes, shivering when Erwin's lips brush over his fingertips. He doesn't bother to slide off the desk when there's a knock on Erwin's door, not even when the visitor is revealed to be Shadis. He doesn't seem at all upset or even surprised to see Levi sitting on the desk. Even he looks a bit lighter.

"Levi," he says. "I thought I'd find you here."

"Yeah," Levi says. "What do you need?"

"Stop by my office in an hour, I have something to discuss with you." He nods to Erwin. "You too, Smith."

"We'll be there, sir," Erwin says.

After Shadis shuts the door, Levi hums.

"What was that about?"

"I haven't a clue," Erwin says, though Levi suspects that he does.

--

Shadis is standing when they enter is office. Erwin and Levi both salute, though even after all this time, it's still the one thing Levi really hates doing. They all remain standing, late afternoon sun spilling into the office and painting it orange.

"Thank you both for coming," Shadis says. "You both know there have been some changes happening as of late. Levi, I have not forgotten your request for candidacy as an officer."

Levi straightens, fingers twisted behind his back. He pushes a nail into the skin of his palm and waits.

"You've proved yourself an excellent soldier and a capable leader. Your show of change over these past months has made it clear to me, and to your superior officers, that you are ready for more responsibility. However, because of the…uniqueness of your situation, there's been a slight change."

"Change?" Levi leans forward. "What change?"

"I feel it would be remiss to remove you from Erwin's squad, given how well you work together. In fact, it's quite abnormal to be promoted through the ranks so quickly, no matter your skill level. I was quite prepared to deny your request for the time being. But a few days ago, Erwin thought of a solution I think you'll find agreeable."

Erwin hasn't moved until this moment. He looks down at Levi, and Levi can't help feeling a little irked. He hates being talked about, even for good reason. But he listens when Erwin speaks.

"You are, by far, the most skilled soldier we've had in our ranks," he says. "And so, starting today, you will undertake greater responsibility. You'll be in charge of selecting and training special operation teams, as well as assisting fellow Squad Leaders with expedition planning."

Levi expects to feel some kind of disappointment, but he doesn't. This is what he wanted. The title is irrelevant to him. He wanted to do more, and now he can. In the Underground, he pulled himself to the top fairly quickly. It's nice he can do it here as well, and with less killing.

"Do you accept this proposal?" Shadis says.

Levi glances at him, nail no longer puncturing his palm.

"Yes," he says. "I accept."

"I'm pleased to hear that," Shadis says. "We all are. You are a great asset, Levi."

He finally sits at his desk, body sinking into the chair as he shuffles some papers around.

"We'll have an official ceremony in a few days time—"

"I'd rather not," Levi says, lip curling.

Shadis looks up for a beat and continue talking.

"An official ceremony," he says. "And since you'll be an officer of sorts, you are required to come to the function banquet next week, provided Parliament approves our proposal."

Levi jerks sharply and looks at Erwin, who is skillfully, artfully, avoiding eye contact.

"A what?" he says.

--

Politics are weird to Levi. He considers himself a fairly simple person, despite all the shit he's been through. He's straightforward, blunt. But politics are too muddy and twisted for him to even bother trying to follow. Parliament had written them off not that long ago, funding had been pulled. They were in the shit. And now they're in the capital at a function banquet, surrounded by politicians and officers, members of the Military Police and Garrison alike. Everyone is pretending they like each other. Levi keeps himself pressed against the wall so that he might become part of the woodwork.

"Trying to melt into the wall?" Erwin says, having finally escaped the clutches of a noble.  

Levi scoffs as he hands him a glass of wine.

"This is the shittiest party I've ever been to."

"Oh, you go to a lot of parties, then?" Erwin says.

"Shut up."

"You're right, though. I can't stand these formalities. They're trite and boring."

Levi glances up.

"I don't think I've ever heard you actually complain before."

Erwin hums, sips his wine.

"Mike says I complain a lot, actually."

"Is that why he's always avoiding you?"

"Sharp," Erwin says. "But really, I despise the thought of being here when I could have you in my bed instead."

"Watch your mouth, Squad Leader," Levi says, and then brings his glass to his lips to hide the smirk threatening there and hopes the blush on his cheeks isn't obvious.

Erwin drains his glass, watching Levi over the lip of it with predatory eyes. They're all wearing formal jackets, but Erwin looks especially good in his. Too good, if Levi is being honest. The room is nice at least, that much he will admit. Its ceilings are high and hand-painted, long, thin windows lining the walls. Every bit of silver and glassware has been polished to perfection, and Levi would know. He's impressed by it, but it's hard for him to blindly appreciate it knowing what it's like for the rest of the population.

"Come on," Erwin says. "Time to mingle. It's much less painful than it sounds."

Levi doesn't have time to call bullshit before they're in with the wolves. The first table is full of old white men, just like every other table. One of the men stands, his beard bushy and white and impressive, and shakes Erwin's hand.

"Erwin Smith, always a pleasure." He glances at Levi. "And this must be…"

"Levi," Erwin says.

The man's eyes light up.

"Ah, yes, your right hand man."

"He is," Erwin says.

Levi's face warms slightly. The man with the beard extends his hand, sticky with spilled wine and appetizer sauce. Levi does not take it. There's a beat of awkward silence, and then Erwin laughs.

"Forgive him," he says. "Levi is quite fastidious about germs."

And the tension is gone just like that. The bearded man laughs, drops his hand.

"Say no more." He tucks his hands into the tailored pockets of his suit. "So tell me, Levi, is it true you were once a thug in the Underground?"

Levi jerks a thumb towards Erwin. "Yup, and he's the one who strong-armed me into all this."

A week ago, he stood in the sun and offered his heart to the Corps. All of them watched Shadis praise his efforts, then Erwin. And it was a small mercy that he didn't have to say anything. He just saluted, and they all saluted back, and Levi felt, for the first time in a very long time, a sense of belonging.

The bearded man laughs again, buttons threatening to pop open on his suit jacket.

"He's certainly like the rumors tell," he says to Erwin. "He's something else."

"He is," says Erwin, with absolute sincerity.

They swing around to a few more tables, Levi avoiding shaking hands with everyone, and Erwin even prepping a few people for the introduction by calling him shy. People are enamored with him because of his stories, his power. It still baffles Levi, but if it gets them funding, if it helps, he'll go along with it. Erwin eventually excuses them away and Levi escapes to the hall, feeling stuffy and shorter in his long formal jacket.

"Nice party, huh?" Hanji says.

They're sauntering up the hallway with an empty wine glass. Levi squints.

"Where the hell have you been all night?"

"Here and there," Hanji says.

They come to a stop and lean against the wall next to Levi, the smell of wine nearly overwhelming. Levi wrinkles his nose.

"How much have you had to drink?"

"Not nearly enough to deal with these sorts of things."

Hanji wiggles their empty wine glass sadly. Levi presses his head back against the wall, mentally prepping himself for another round. At least he knows Erwin is fine on his own in there.

"Hey," Hanji says, voice softer now. "What you had to do…your shopping trip…I guess it worked, huh?"

Levi rolls his head to the side and watches Shadis shake hands with another politician, both of them smiling, laughing.

"Yeah," Levi says. "…Thanks for your help."

"Will you ever tell me what you did?"

Levi pushes off the wall.

"No. And wipe off your glasses, you've got shit on them."

Hanji's laughter follows Levi into the main room as he stands beside Erwin again, ready for another round. Erwin guides him forward with a hand on his shoulder.

"Just a bit longer," he says, leaning down. "You're doing very well, thank you for coming along."

"Does this mean I get a reward after?"

"Most definitely," Erwin says, and Levi is almost positive he winks, but then his eyes are forward and he's standing straight, that sharp smile back in place. "Gentlemen, there you are. I have someone to introduce you to."

And Levi falls right into it with him, Erwin's hand on his back nearly the entire night.

--

"What did that old geezer call me earlier?" Levi says later, gasping.

Erwin's hands are squeezing his hips in encouragement. Levi is riding him hard, his knees scraping against the sheets. Their formal jackets are discarded on the floor along with the rest of their clothes. They both have wine on their breath. It was a near miracle they were able to keep their hands off each other in the carriage. Once Erwin got him in the room he ripped a button from the jacket undressing him and Levi didn't even scold him, he was that hot for it. He burned and shivered everywhere Erwin touched him, Erwin worshipping his body with his mouth. Levi took every pleasure in watching his pupils dilate as he crawled back onto the bed and spread his legs. Erwin's thumbs circle over his hipbones now and his hair is undone all over the pillow, corn silk on white.

"My right hand man," Erwin says.

"Yeah." Levi's thighs tense. "I liked that."

He brings a hand to his cock and shudders, feels it building down to his toes and the way Erwin is hot inside him.

"Levi," Erwin says, with all the affection he's capable. "My right hand man."

--

He watches the sun set on the rooftop. Isabel and Farlan found him up here that first night. They watched the stars together. Levi sits with his legs dangling over the side, eyes in slits against the orange sun. He still dreams about them. Sometimes it's more pleasant, a memory, an echo of a future they once discussed. Most times it's blood, Isabel's severed head in front of him. He wakes, breath escaping him, and if he's with Erwin, will curl against his body until he can breathe again.

Levi reaches into the jacket of his uniform and pulls out an envelope. It's blank, and Levi's never looked at the contents inside, but he knows what names are written there. Isabel Magnolia. Farlan Church. Levi sets them on the stone next to him and then pulls out the matchbox. He lights the edge of the envelope and it sparks orange and then curls brown. Levi holds the other corner as it burns, slow slow slow, burns until he can no longer hold onto it without singing his fingers. And once it's over, there is nothing but ashes that are quickly scattered by the wind, swirl up and then disappear from Levi's line of sight. He breathes out, lighter.

"What are you doing up here?"

Levi glances back and watches Erwin step onto the roof, hair golden in the sunset.

"Are you following me again?" Levi says.

Erwin grins. "You've caught me."

Levi shrugs, hands resting back on the stone of the roof.

"I felt like watching the sunset."

Erwin comes and sits next to him, dangles his legs next to Levi's. They sit in silence together, watching the sun slowly dip lower and lower. It's a gift, he thinks, sharing this kind of silence. He knows it won't last. Erwin's thigh is pressed against his, warm, real, alive.

"It is nice, isn't it?" Erwin says.

Levi nods, focus soft but occasionally, absurdly, scanning the horizon for ashes. He hopes the wind takes them over the Walls. He hopes it takes them as far away from this as possible.

"When you die," Levi says, "don't let it be for nothing. I hate pointless deaths. I'll make sure I do the same."

Erwin looks down at him, but he doesn't like surprised at his candidness.

"All right," he says. "That's fair."

Levi looks out past the tree line. If he squints, he can nearly see the smooth tip of the Wall and maybe just beyond. He wondered once if it were possible to go so far beyond you'd be able to touch the sun.

"But if we both make it through this to the end, I think I'd like to build a house by one of those giant rivers."

He feels Erwin tighten next to him, a nervous, excited twitch, but his voice is smooth and deep.

"That sounds nice."

"Yeah." Levi leans against Erwin's shoulder. "It does."

--

A month later, they leave for their next expedition. Two days in, Wall Maria falls.