Erwin’s eyes snapped open, an hour before the morning bell. He lay awake on his back for a few moments without moving, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness and breathing the crisp, early-fall air. He reached his arms out and stretched, still prone, and felt his shoulders crack and pop. Another moment and he was out of bed, on the floor doing a quick set of one-armed push-ups. When he was done he slipped on his uniform pants and soft undershirt and hurriedly went about organizing the paperwork he had left out the night before.
Normally, Erwin would take his time with his morning routine. He would have a cup of coffee while reviewing his agenda for the day, and would mark down any stray thoughts that had bubbled up from his subconscious while he slept in the small notebook he usually kept in his breast pocket. He liked having extra time to organize his thoughts and prepare for the day, before anyone else was expecting him to be up and about.
Recently, though, he had been shortening his process in favor of joining Levi for an early jog. He ran a hand through his hair, combing it roughly into place, and headed out of his room, down the stairs and out into the training grounds. Levi was waiting for him outside, leaning casually against a wall. When he saw Erwin, he started moving immediately, and the two fell into an easy pace beside each other as they headed out from their base into the nearby forest.
Erwin had shown Levi this jogging path a couple of weeks ago after noticing that he was doing laps around the exterior wall of the base in the mornings. Levi had been surprisingly receptive to his suggestion that they meet each other before dawn so he could show him a more interesting and challenging route for his morning workout. Erwin got the impression that, although Levi mostly kept to himself when not training with the rest of the Corps, he was in need of some company. His suspicions were confirmed when Levi suggested that perhaps Erwin could come along again the next morning – just to be sure he had the route right. Since then, Erwin had been skipping most of his usual pre-dawn routine to meet up with Levi. He found himself looking forward to getting out of bed each morning to see Levi waiting for him, looking bored.
Jogging, however, was not very conducive to prolonged conversation. In the span of those two weeks, they hadn’t said much to each other of substance. Every now and then, Levi would surprise him by asking Erwin some seemingly-random question about military protocol, or local flora, or about nearby villages and towns. Erwin always answered eagerly, encouraging Levi to continue talking, although typically they lapsed into silence again within a few minutes as they ran. Today Levi was quiet, and Erwin stole glances at him from the corner of his eye, watching the way his hair bobbed as he ran, and wondered about the enigma who people were starting to call “humanity’s strongest soldier.”
There was a light mist of rain, and by the end of their first mile their clothes were soaked through. Erwin wiped the moisture from his face with his forearm and Levi startled, looking up at Erwin like he was only just now realizing they were side by side.
“Everything alright this morning, Levi?”
“Yeah, just annoyed at this shit weather.” Levi glanced at Erwin sidelong. They ran along in quiet for another minute, then Levi cleared his throat. “Do you ever think about…that day?”
Erwin slowed his pace a fraction. Despite the cryptic question, Erwin was sure he knew exactly what Levi was talking about – the day Levi went on his first mission and lost his two friends, Isabel and Furlan. The same day Levi took a swing at Erwin, with the intent to kill. Erwin thought about it a lot, actually.
“What day do you mean?” Levi had never spoken of it once in the months since that mission, but it was obvious to Erwin that his grief had left an indelible mark on him, even if he had clearly managed to accept the loss of his friends. Erwin thought it was ironic that this was the closest Levi had ever come to discussing it—jogging in the rain one foul fall morning with him, the man he had once been hired to kill.
“Never mind. It’s nothing.”
Erwin knew that wasn’t true, but he didn’t want to make him uncomfortable or cause him any pain by forcing the issue. As they jogged back into base a quarter of an hour later, Erwin hoped Levi would go back to it, but he didn’t even make eye contact as he waved a dismissive goodbye and walked off towards the barracks. He watched him walk all the way across the grounds and disappear into the building before he finally turned and started back up to his room to wash up for the day.
During their last mission outside the walls, two squads had been decimated by an ambush of abnormal Titans. It had been the first mission to go poorly in over 6 months, but it was eerily reminiscent of Levi’s first time out. The mission had been simple: resupply the first two outposts south of Shinganshina. Everything went smoothly on the ride out, but as they were headed back, Erwin and his squad, Levi included, saw the black smoke signal go up. At Erwin’s order they diverted course and headed right towards it.
When they arrived, at least 5 soldiers from two different formation groups were dead, their bodies in pieces on the battle field. One was squashed like a bug into the grass. Levi was cool and methodical as he swooped to take down one of the Titans; Erwin focused on another while the remaining troops struggled to reform. They lost three more before it was over—one of the Titans pulled a young soldier apart by her arms and legs, then slurped down her torso right in front of them all. Levi skidded in, low to the ground, before the Titan could grab another terrified soldier and spun up along its back, slicing its neck wide open and bloodying his uniform in the process. The surviving members of the squad watched him in awe and, admittedly, Erwin had a hard time not feeling the same way.
After the mission, Levi and Erwin sat in Erwin’s office in quiet, sipping tea. Erwin hadn’t even invited Levi – Levi had just followed him and made the tea for them both.
“Those brats should’ve ran. Dumbasses didn’t even realize they should’ve ran.” Levi’s voice cracked a little as he spoke, although outwardly he seemed disaffected.
For all their training, all their drilling, Erwin thought, they never really taught the soldiers how to assess when the odds were stacked against them, when to cut and run. They relied on the chain of command for that, but what happened when the Squad Leader or, worse, the Commander fell on the battlefield? How were the rank and file to know when to press on and when to retreat? Later that night, when Erwin submitted his official report on the mission, he suggested to Commander Shadis that they supplement their new recruit training with some lessons on the finer points of disengaging from the Titans.
Shadis had instantly approved Erwin’s recommendation. This morning was his first in his new training regime, and to help ensure its success he had asked Hange, Mike, and Levi to join him. Survey Corps’ newest recruits, a group of fifteen men and women, were lined up before them, looking alert but uncomfortable. They hadn’t been ready for the last mission, having only just graduated a few days before, but Erwin was sure they had heard the stories.
Erwin began by explaining the basic premise of the new drills. Dummies set up in the forest would simulate an ambush; this part wasn’t too different from how they already trained offensively. This time, however, squads of three would practice dealing non-lethal blows to the dummies in order to buy themselves time to slip away. The veterans would supervise, rotating through the different squads, and would verbally interject game-changing scenarios about the Titans that the recruits would have to respond to on the fly. It was the best Erwin could come up with for field training, although he intended to supplement with added time going over strategy with the soldiers as well.
Erwin invited Hange to add her comments about the behavior of the abnormals they’d encountered beyond the Walls. “Abnormal Titans are the greatest threat in the field. Whereas your average run-of-the-mill Titan appears to be motivated by a sole purpose – devouring human flesh – abnormals act in a completely unpredictable fashion. Despite my extensive field observations, I have yet to pinpoint what, if anything, drives these Titans or if there is any uniformity to their seemingly random behavior. Now, as Squad Leader Mike can attest, Titans often have a very pungent aroma, and you can often identify whether a Titan may be lying in wait to eat you by their smell…” Hange, per usual, was brimming with information, but her scholarly enthusiasm was clearly having a poor effect on the recruits’ morale.
“Thank you, Squad Leader Hange. That will be sufficient for today’s purposes.” Erwin cut her off politely with a nod. “Recruits, head out in squads of three. We will be out shortly to issue challenges and observe your technique.” The trainees zipped off as ordered into the forest.
“Hey, shitty glasses, next time cut down on the science babble so the recruits can focus on the real point of this exercise. I thought the brats up front were going to shit themselves when you started talking about Titans stepping on them.” Levi smirked and engaged his 3DMG gear, soaring off into the trees. Mike cracked a smile and Hange guffawed.
Erwin watched him go with a smile as he quickly double-checked his gear. Overall, despite his caustic attitude, Levi had started to make friends, and something about that made Erwin feel content. He turned to issue orders to Hange and Mike, but came up short when he saw them both looking at him.
Hange’s grin was unsettling. “Oh, nothing. Just wondering if you even realize what your face looks like half the time.” She laughed at her own joke and whizzed away. Erwin raised his eyebrows and looked to Mike, who shrugged and grunted in a way that suggested he agreed with Hange. Another moment, and Erwin was standing alone on the forest floor, wondering what the hell had gotten into the two of them.
Erwin set out, listening for the nearest squad. A few minutes later he found them, perched together on a high limb not too far from one of the Titan dummies. Erwin couldn’t hear them from where he was, but he could see Levi, arms crossed, addressing the three soldiers seriously.
Erwin shot up into the trees and landed on a sturdy branch, only a few feet from Levi.
“Is there a problem here, Corporal?” Erwin asked Levi. One of the young female recruits, named Gitta, looked particularly agitated, and the other two were avoiding eye contact.
“Is there a problem?” Levi addressed the young woman, arms still crossed. She looked like she had just been on the verge of tears, but snapped a smart salute.
“Good. Now get back out there and let me see your form as you take out this Titan’s ankles.” The soldiers engaged their gear and were away before Erwin could ask any questions.
“What was all that about?”
Levi shrugged. “One of the soldiers got cold feet is all. It’s nothing.” Erwin turned his attention to the Cadets as they swung low around the dummy, angling for its legs. They sliced at its ankles, then cut off in three directions into the trees in a basic avoidance maneuver. Pleased, Erwin turned back to Levi to comment on their form. Levi’s head snapped quickly out into the forest – had he been staring at Erwin? Erwin felt a little warm all of a sudden.
“Carry on, then.” He said simply, and shot off the branch, suddenly feeling embarrassed and eager to put some distance between himself and Levi.