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In These Fallen Leaves

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Leaves coat Erwin's memorial stone, blood red and rotting. Levi claws at them, wincing as the cold soaks into his fingers. This is the tenth autumn, the tenth time he's struggled to keep decay away from the monument. He hates autumn.

The scent of smoke fills the air. He turns to see it curling from the chimney; the kitchen windows glow orange with the sunset. He didn't realize he's been out so long. Hange is probably waiting on the meat.

He picks up the rabbit. His knees creak as he stands.

"I should clean this thing and get inside." He always feels a bit ridiculous when he talks to the stone, but he feels hollow if he doesn't. "See you tomorrow."

He skins and cleans the rabbit. A spray of blood spatters his cheek; he curses his sloppiness and swallows back an onslaught of memories. If he starts recalling them, he'll never get this done, and Hange's probably getting hungry. He finishes cleaning the carcass and buries the remains in the pit.

Hange is sitting at the table reading an anatomy book. The cutting board is filled with neatly chopped leeks, carrots, and cabbage. A pot of stock bubbles on the stove. "You're late."

"Snare was empty," he lies. He pulls out another cutting board, then begins to scrub his hands in the sink.

Hange steps forward to prepare the meat. "There's a letter for you. I got one too."

He turns to see a red envelope on the counter, pressed with a wax seal. His stomach drops. "Who died?"

"It's nothing like that. She wants the four of us to meet up for a quiet celebration of the anniversary of the end of the war."

"What's the point?" He opens the letter and scans it, then drops it on the counter when he sees the date: October 14th. "No."

"What," Hange says, "you're going to sit here and talk to a stone instead?"

It's a fundamental difference between the two of them: Hange deals with loss by pushing it aside and pursuing new goals. Levi's goals died ten years ago.

"If I don't celebrate his birthday, no one will," he says.

Hange stares at him, lips pursed.

"I know," he says pre-emptively.

"You can still remember him in Mitras."

"I know."

"They can remember him with us."

That argument makes him pause. Historia and Mikasa have known loss, too; the four of them understand it better than anyone.

Besides, Historia has access to the best wines. He could take a bottle to the rooftop of the MP Headquarters and relive that night, years ago, when he and Erwin slipped away to discuss political strategy. Levi can't remember what the discussion was about, but he remembers the comfortable silence as they watched the sunset together.

"Fine."

"Bring something nice to wear," Hange says. "There's a ball on the fifteenth."

"Fine." He knows exactly which suit he'll bring.

 

Levi falls asleep in the carriage to Mitras, and when he wakes up, the bolo tie has left its impression in his palm. He doesn't remember pulling it out of his pocket; he tucks it away. He can tell, by Hange's worried expression, that he was having nightmares again, but neither of them mentions it.

Historia waits for them in the throne room, Mikasa standing solemnly at her side. When the queen sees them, she smiles and runs forward to give Hange a hug. Even though she's in her mid-twenties, Historia is still tiny, her large eyes deceptively youthful. There is power in her stance and her speech, however, so much so that Levi often forgets just how small she is until she hugs him. Her hug lasts several beats too long, and he stiffens and tries to pull away.

Hange has a hug for Mikasa, too, but Levi only gives her a knowing glance and a nod. They've been at a polite impasse since the war ended. She reminds him of Erwin's death; he reminds her of Eren's.

The four of them sit in the queen's dining room, a large room with tapestries on the wall. The chairs are padded and have too many cushions. Levi sets a couple on the floor before he sits down.

The royal staff brings them each a plate of beef stew and a glass of fine wine. No one speaks until the staff leaves the room.

"Thank you for coming," Historia says. "It means a lot to me that we can get together like this — ten years is an important anniversary."

Levi turns his gaze to her. "It's Erwin's birthday today."

"Oh, is it?" Without missing a beat, Historia gives him a kind smile and raises her glass. "The four of us know how much Commander Erwin contributed to the war. There's no question humanity would still be dying to the titans if not for his efforts. It's because of him peace found the Walls. So, it's fitting that we toast him on what would have been his birthday. To Commander Erwin."

The others repeat the phrase as they lift their glasses, but only Hange is enthusiastic. Mikasa is staring at her plate, a blank expression on her face. Levi swallows back a surge of anger. They make a strange family, the four of them, and it's important they stay together. They're all they have left of the war.

Even though it's a memorial dinner, no one is willing to talk about their memories. Hange fills the silence by talking about their ongoing research to create a titan cure from shifter spinal fluid. Levi glances at Mikasa; her knuckles are white as she violently cuts her meat into smaller and smaller pieces.

"The dispersion system worked with the water tests, but it's still a small-scale prototype." Hange pulls out a notepad and makes a quick sketch, then passes it to Historia. "It should scale up nicely to the size we need. Then we just need to find a way to cluster titans into large groups — we may need to use soldiers as bait."

Historia smiles. "That's good progress on the dispersion system. But how is the actual cure itself coming?"

The light in Hange's eye dulls. "We have a limited supply of spinal fluid, so I need to be absolutely certain before I start testing—"

"It's okay," the queen says. "I understand."

But Mikasa shoves back her chair and storms to the window. She looks through it, as if she's making sure they aren't being overheard. Levi can see her fist trembling.

Well, if she's going to start getting dramatic, then he needs to leave. He pushes his chair away, too, and grabs one of the wine bottles. "I have to be somewhere."

"I see," Historia says. "Before you go, I'd like to invite you to a royal ball tomorrow night, in celebration of the harvest. It's formal attire, so I'd be happy to pay for a suit if—"

"I have a suit."

"Okay. Breakfast is at nine tomorrow."

He nods and leaves the room, tightly gripping the neck of the bottle.

It's a short walk to the MP Headquarters. The air is brisk; it cuts through him almost as deeply as the innocent laughter and smiles of the people he passes on the street. He finds himself cursing every single one of them.

The soldiers at Headquarters salute and greet him with "Guard Captain." He nods back and pushes past them. He pauses as the hallway brings him past the office of Commander Nile Dok. The light is on. Even though it hurts every time, the desire to connect with any part of Erwin's past makes him poke his head in.

"Working late, shitbeard?"

Nile looks up from the desk. His hair is greying, his face lined with wrinkles that deepen when he smiles. He has been smiling a lot more frequently over the past decade than he ever did during the war. "Did you bring that to share? I could use a drink."

Levi looks down at the wine bottle. "No, I only share wine with friends."

"So, you're drinking alone?"

It's meant to be lighthearted banter, but it still stings. Levi slumps against the doorframe. "How are Marie and the kids?"

"Good. Luke got into medical school."

"That's a start — at least one of your kids won't end up a paperwork grunt like you."

Nile snorts. "Well, Henrietta's talking about joining the Garrison, but Erwin's asking a lot of questions about the MP these days."

Levi's stomach knots. "Maybe he'll be a Commander one day, like his old man."

The Commander puffs up, but downplays his pride: "Maybe, maybe not. He's still a kid; his mind changes every day. He wanted to be a firefighter a couple months back. Marie wasn't too fond of that idea."

"But she's fine with the MP? She thinks the military is safer than firefighting?"

"Not as if any of us will ever see real combat." Nile leans back in his chair, clasping his hands behind his head in a stretch. "You in town for a few days?"

"I guess so. Her Majesty is dragging me to a stupid ball tomorrow night."

"About time you actually spend some time doing your job. You can't really be a Guard Captain if you don't guard her now and then," Nile says dryly. "Oh, right: retirement. Explain to me again why a mid-forties Guard Captain can afford to retire, but the Commander of the Military Police can't?"

Levi's fist tightens. He would trade all the money for the man who left it to him. "Maybe because I didn't spawn three brats."

Nile gives a laugh so deep and loud that Levi swears he feels the floorboards vibrate beneath his feet. "Well, if you're still in town night after tomorrow, come by for dinner. Marie and the kids would love to see you."

"Maybe."

"Bring some of that wine if you do. It looks expensive."

Levi looks at the bottle. "I told you, I only drink wine with friends."

They exchange nods and goodnights, then Levi steps away. He feels like he's stepping away from a campfire; the cold air settles in his bones again.

He ducks through a side door and climbs the ladder to the roof. The breeze is even colder up here than it had been on the street. He pulls his jacket tightly around himself.

Once the bottle is open, he closes his eyes, trying to picture Erwin beside him. His memories are fading as time passes, so he takes the time to paint him from top to bottom: his hair, his eyebrows, his eyes ... The voice is harder. He still remembers the words — the important ones, anyway — but his own internal voice has overwritten Erwin's. He gets flashes of it now and then, mostly when he's not actively trying to recall it.

He takes a swig of wine and pulls the bolo tie out of his pocket. He brings it to his nose; the string still has a faint whiff of Erwin's cologne. Or maybe he's just imagining it.

"This is supposed to be getting easier," he says to the bolo tie. He pours a small amount of wine onto the rooftop in his honour, then takes another swig. His thumb traces the gold border around the rim of the green stone; he can barely see it in the dark, but he can feel it.

"I hope you're resting well. Maybe I'll see you again one day. Maybe soon."

He's silent until he finishes the bottle, and even though he's shivering, he stays up there for a while longer, staring across the seat of the kingdom that has already forgotten the man responsible for saving it.

 

He awakens early the next morning in the guest room. His mouth is dry and tastes like old alcohol. He washes the taste away with another glass. The day after Erwin's birthday is always the hardest: the dawn of yet another year without him.

He makes his way to the dining hall and asks the servants to bring him crêpes, eggs, and spiced apple juice. While Historia has been clear that all her citizens deserve fair treatment, she hasn't actively turned away a life of luxury, either. He hears she frequently brings in children off the street to feed them fancy dinners, so at least she's not hogging the extravagance to herself the way the previous aristocrats did.

He's halfway through the crêpes when Historia walks in, dressed in a white dress shirt, a quilted skirt, and a scarf the colour of the sky. She gives him a sad smile. "Did you sleep well?"

He shrugs. "Bed had too many pillows. It was like sleeping on a damned cloud."

"One of the orphanages has the children making pillows for craft time, and they gave some to me during their last visit."

"Oh." That lifts his mood a bit. "Cute."

"I thought so, too, so treat those pillows with care." She sits, leaving only one chair between them along the enormous oak table. "I didn't realize it was the Commander's birthday yesterday. I'm sorry to have asked you here on such an important date."

He glances at the doorway, but she holds up a hand as if to reassure him. "It's okay. I dismissed the guards so we can talk honestly."

The idea of having a deep, personal chat makes his skin crawl. He carefully trims his egg, making a game of it, trying to get as close to the yolk as he can without breaking it.

"Levi," Historia says, not as a queen to a guard, not as a soldier to her captain, but peer to peer. "I've started seeing someone."

He tenses, already guessing where the conversation is going. "Oh?"

"A member of the Council. She thinks I'm taking it slowly because of our roles. She doesn't know the whole truth about Ymir; I don't know her well enough to trust her with any of that. It's ... lonely, in a way." Historia's eyes are glassy. "I miss her, Levi. Every day. That's never going to change. But we must choose our own happiness. It isn't a betrayal to the past if we shift our eyes to the future, especially when it's been so long."

Levi looks down. "Our situations aren't the same."

"I know, believe me. I spend almost every waking moment with Mikasa — I know how deeply your bloodline's hurt runs, on a level I'll never understand. But please don't think Ackermans are the only ones changed by loss." She leans closer. "I'm not saying you have to find someone, but maybe it's time to start finding your own purpose in life again instead of just waiting for the days to pass. I think Ymir would be annoyed at me for putting my life on hold for so long to mourn her. Don't you think Erwin would want you to start healing?"

"He doesn't want anything. He's dead." The yolk has bled across his plate and soaked the crêpes, and his stomach is suddenly sour. He pushes the plate away and leans back in his chair, folding his arms over his chest. "Cut the bullshit, Historia. Why all this talk about moving on? Are you trying to set me up with someone?"

Her eyes duck away, and he has his answer.

"I'm not interested."

"He just asked for an introduction at the ball tonight. He's quite taken with you."

He stands. "I'm going to the training yard."

"Levi." She catches his wrist. The contact buzzes his skin. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to push. I only want what's best for you — we all do."

The skin contact is so uncomfortable that he yanks his arm away. He gives her a long, displeased look. "I know what’s best for me." And he’s gone.

As he strides to the hallway, he can still feel his skin vibrating from her touch.

 

"That's the suit you brought?" says Hange. "The sleeves are too long."

"I told you, I like the style. They don't make them like this anymore." He smooths the lapels of the black jacket, studying himself in the mirror. He doesn't wear his cravat much anymore, and now it feels too tight around his neck. His hair is silver, his eyes bordered by thick lines. He has aged twenty years in ten. He frowns. "Historia's trying to set me up with someone."

"Yeah, she told me. Another admirer — it's amazing how many nobles like their men short and surly." Hange turns to him. "Does this look okay?"

Levi studies the suit, carefully fitted to Hange's narrow waist. Their bright auburn hair falls to their shoulders in curls, and he thinks he sees a hint of makeup behind the glasses. One eye is covered with a black eyepatch.

"Did you dye your hair? Who are you trying to impress?"

Hange's cheeks darken. "No one. I just wanted to cover the greys."

"Bullshit." Everyone's moving on except him. He steps forward and lifts the eyepatch to reveal the scarred eye, its pupil grey. "You haven't worn an eyepatch in at least five years. Don't start now just because you're trying to impress some random asshole."

Hange sighs, then leans forward, forward, until their foreheads touch. "I know I keep telling you we need to move on, but this anniversary is hard. A part of me wishes I could forget it all."

"Regretting your choice?"

"No," Hange says, so quickly that it's almost a snap. "It's just ... hard."

He closes his eyes, feeling the stability of their forehead against his. "I know." They can support each other. They're family now.

They walk to the ballroom with their arms linked at the elbows. Historia is immediately noticeable on the dance floor, spinning in a white dress that floats around her form like wisps of cloud. The woman she's dancing with is dressed in red. They look like two roses in bloom.

As they descend the staircase, Levi glances at the mezzanine, at a familiar spot along the curtains. He begins to think of Erwin, but he's distracted when the spot where Historia grabbed his wrist earlier begins to buzz again. He opens and closes his fist until it settles.

"Everything okay?" Hange asks.

"Fine." He locates the bar and steers them through the crowd. They both settle beside the bar with wine glasses in hand. Hange quickly knocks back the drink, then squeezes Levi's shoulder and strides toward the dance floor.

He's about two-thirds through his glass when a deep voice to his left asks, "May I buy your next drink?"

He doesn't look over. "I can afford my own."

A pause, then the voice says, "I think you misunderstand my intentions."

He turns. The voice belongs to a tall man with slicked blond hair and a sharp nose. His eyes are bright green, framed by what appears to be thirty-odd years of life experience. His chest is narrower than Erwin's, and his lips seem to smirk even at neutral, but there are enough similarities that Levi's heart leaps.

He's not about to show his enthusiasm. "So, what are your intentions?"

"I'm trying to flirt with you." The man chuckles. "It would appear I'm not doing a very good job."

"No, you're not. Did Historia put you up to this?"

The man's brows lift, presumably at his informal speech. "I did speak with Her Majesty earlier, yes, but she suggested I was wasting my time. I figured there was no harm in trying; a man can always use a fresh drink and some conversation even if he has no interest in pursuing anything more."

There's an honest, uncomplicated air about him that stands out amidst the usual confusion and unanswered questions of Levi's love life. "Who are you?"

"Lord Alec Farrington," the man says. "And you, of course, are the famed Guard Captain Levi Ackerman."

"Is that why you're flirting? Because you're a lord, and you crave the status that comes with sticking your dick in a celebrity?"

The lord's brows raise again. "She warned me you were rude."

"Answer my question."

The lord holds his gaze. "Originally, yes, your celebrity was a draw, as were your good looks, but now that I see how feisty you are, I'm thinking you'd be a lot of fun in bed." He takes a sip of his drink, then adds, "If you aren't similarly curious about me, I can try a bit harder to pique your interest. I'll buy you another drink and then impress you on the dance floor."

Levi can't remember the last time he was actively courted. His groin is pulled one way, his stomach another. His mind drifts back to the curtains on the mezzanine; he longs to recapture that memory. "Brandy, this time."

They wander toward the fringes of the dance floor, drinks in hand. Levi watches the lord out of the corner of his vision. He moves with a swaggering arrogance that destroys the resemblance to Erwin, but that arrogance is compelling at the same time.

He expects them to head straight onto the dance floor, but Alec settles against a pillar instead. "That jacket's a bit big on you, Guard Captain. A lover's, perhaps?"

"No one you'd know."

"I might." The lord scans the crowd, an arrogant crease settling by his nose. "It's about fifteen years out of fashion — the lapels are all wrong, you see. The length suggests it belonged to someone about my height. You're still wearing it, so he must be dead; if you broke up with him, you would have returned it or destroyed it, and if you stole it, you wouldn't wear it in public." His eyes shift to Levi. "Commander Erwin Smith."

The floor tilts. "How—"

"Am I wrong?"

Levi's jaw tightens. "Who are you?"

"Exactly who I said. My father was a lapdog to King Reiss. Don't worry, I always supported the Survey Corps." He smiles. "I always looked up to you. Humanity's Strongest. I didn't realize you and the Commander were lovers."

"We weren't." The tightness has spread to Levi's throat, and his voice cracks as he says, "Tell me everything you remember about Erwin."

The lord raises a brow, as if waiting for an explanation, but Levi can't bring himself to offer one. "Everything," he repeats, hating the desperation in his voice.

And so Alec speaks about the times he saw the Commander in Mitras, about news stories he read. He doesn't know much, but it's something, and Levi stares through the bottom of his brandy glass as he listens.

We will entrust our memories to the living.

Three drinks later, they make their way to the dance floor. Alec's cheeks are flushed, and through the haze of the alcohol, Levi thinks he looks like Erwin — not Commander Erwin, but the man he saw during those rare, delirious late nights when they would drink over paperwork and laugh about nothing. He grabs Alec's scarf and pulls him down for a kiss, and his cologne almost smells like Erwin's, and maybe this is what Erwin's mouth would have felt like.

They kiss through one dance, then a second. He drags Alec to the mezzanine.

"Here," says Levi, lifting the curtain.

They slip through it into the alcove. It's a small storage room that must have been forgotten long ago; there's nothing in it but a table, barely visible in the dim light that bleeds through the curtain.

Levi's breath catches. Fifteen years ago, during his first official trip to Mitras, he stealthily trailed Erwin to this alcove and peered inside. Fifteen years ago, he saw two shadowy figures, saw Erwin pressing his lover into the table with a firm hand on his lower back, heard their soft gasps. It was the first and last time he ever saw Erwin drop his decorum and give in to base instinct. He still wonders if he dreamed it; the memory is such a sharp contrast with the Erwin he knew. That hasn't stopped him from revisiting that moment every time he sets foot in the ballroom.

He bends over the table and doesn't look back. "Fuck me here."

He closes his eyes. It's Erwin behind him, pulling down his pants, caressing his ass. He can almost hear his voice — his ears strain until they ring.

Levi.

That was too clear to be fantasy. His eyes fly open.

"Just give me a moment to undo my belt," says Alec, far in the background, but his voice is drowned by rushing wind and Erwin's voice:

Levi, help me!

Levi's arm is burning, and his head spins. He stands and staggers backwards, breathing hard.

Alec is frozen beside him, his hands still on his belt buckle. "What's wrong?"

"I have to go."

"Was it something I said?" All arrogance is gone from his tone; he almost sounds hurt.

"No." Levi knows he should offer an explanation, but the walls of the alcove are reverberating with Erwin's voice and he needs to get out. He pulls up his pants and hurries to the curtain.

He pushes through the crowds and finds his way to a balcony. At first, he thinks it's unoccupied, but as he leans on the railing to catch his breath, he sees the orange glow of a cigar in the shadows near the wall. He's too raw to have company, but he doesn't trust his legs to hold up if he tries to leave.

After a moment, the glow lowers and a woman's silhouette paces toward him. As it steps into a patch of light, he recognizes Mikasa. He relaxes — you — then tenses again — you ... 

"You're smoking cigars now?" he says.

"Not normally. Needed something a bit stronger tonight. Alcohol doesn't do much for me; you're probably the same." She settles on the railing next to him. That's surprising. Usually, she goes out of her way to avoid him. "I have another one, if you want it."

"No, it'll make me feel worse. Just give me a drag of yours."

She holds it out. He takes a mouthful of smoke and swishes it around. It tastes like burning leather, like a pyre. He spits it out. "Disgusting."

"Why are you upset?"

He eyes her. "I’m surprised to see you showing concern."

She frowns. "Please understand, Captain: you chose to let go of the Commander. I didn't have any say with Eren."

Are they finally going to talk about this? The only way to repair their relationship is to be honest, so he says, "Erwin had already decided it was his time to go. I kept trying to hold on, but I was being selfish. I chose what was best for him, not what was best for me." He pauses. "Apparently it still fucks me up." The Commander's voice from the alcove is still echoing in his mind, but it seems less real now. Likely, it was just a combination of nerves and alcohol. Sex hasn't been high on his priority list in a long time.

Mikasa takes another puff of the cigar, then slowly releases the smoke. "Hange and Historia don't understand what we're going through."

"No, they don't." They never really determined why their bloodline draws such strength from loyalty, but there is no denying the power of it. He wonders sometimes about Kenny. Did he feel this bond with someone, too? He seemed to be talking about a specific person on his deathbed, the person who was drunk on something, but it's difficult to imagine Kenny loving anyone.

Maybe they need to stop being stubborn and acknowledge their similarities. Trying to avoid it hasn't helped their mutual resentment. "Look, it's shitty what happened to Eren. But he was like Erwin: he made his choice and gave himself to his cause until it destroyed him. There's only so long you can protect someone from himself." It hurts to openly acknowledge Erwin's self-destruction. It hurts to admit he gave too much of himself. Levi knows, deep down, he could have stopped it. "But if we had intervened," he says, thinking aloud, "humanity might not have found this time of peace."

There's a long silence, then Mikasa says, "Sometimes I wish I had said 'screw humanity' and fought for him instead."

The same thought comes to him often in the middle of the night.

"It's easier protecting Historia," Mikasa continues. "She actually listens to my opinions."

"Isn't it easier to protect her if you're at her side instead of hiding on a balcony?" He remembers the red and white dresses. "Or are you upset about the company she's keeping tonight?"

Mikasa frowns. "It's not like that."

"No, I get it. You need to be the most important person in the world to her. Doesn't have to be romantic." He sees couples laughing and kissing in the courtyard below them, and his heart twists, so his gaze rises to the moon instead. It's the colour of Erwin's skin the day they left him behind. His head is spinning — maybe from the alcohol, maybe the cigar. "Glad you've found someone else to protect, at least. How did you manage to move on?"

Mikasa lets out a low, hollow laugh that reminds him how much she has aged since the war. "I didn't."

"So ten long years on, we're both sad sacks out on a balcony at a fancy party because we lost the people we swore to protect."

"Maybe." She pauses. "I'm out here because everything in there is artificial, but the stars and the moon, at least, are the same ones that were in the sky when I was a little girl."

He looks at her and feels paternal warmth kindling in his stomach for the first time since they fought on the rooftop in Shiganshina.

"No one told me the party moved to the balcony," a voice says behind them. A heavy arm drops on Levi's shoulder as Hange pushes into the gap between them.

He tries to pull away. "Are you drunk?"

"Yep." Hange lets out a loud, contented sigh, leaning heavily on him. "You two look miserable. Is this supposed to be a royal party or a pity party?"

Levi bristles. "Aren't you supposed to be flirting?"

After a long pause, Hange says, "Didn't work out."

He recognizes the defeat in their voice. Maybe ten years is too soon for non-Ackermans, too.

The three of them are silent as a breeze settles over them, and Hange is so warm that Levi leans closer.

"So, Levi," Hange says, "tell us about the jacket."

He stiffens. "What?"

"It's Erwin's, isn't it? I remember you wearing it back when we were all soldiers. I bet it's a cute story. We pathetic remnants could use a cute story."

He's still glowing from the alcohol and the cigar, and all this thinking about Erwin has made him nostalgic. "It's not really that cute. The night after my squad died, I was in his office and I fell asleep in a chair. When I woke up, the jacket was on my shoulders and he was gone. It was comfortable, so I kept it. That's it." He doesn't mention the faint, pleased smile Erwin gave him the next morning when he was still wearing it.

It's still strange to picture the Commander pausing to put the jacket on his shoulders. Erwin was never an overtly affectionate man. Notes of affection would creep into his voice when they spoke, but that was the extent of it. Those hints between them had been enough at the time, but as Levi recalls them now, it's easy to think he imagined them. The jacket is the only thing that keeps him from believing he read too much into their relationship. The jacket is proof Erwin cared about him.

Maybe, he reflects, that does make it a cute story, but he has already opened up too much tonight.

Girlish laughter sounds from the balcony adjacent to them. He turns to see Historia and her dance partner leaning against the railing. They're chuckling over some shared joke, arms interlocked, swaying together as if they're still dancing.

"Look at them," Hange murmurs behind him. "Look how their worlds have shrunk to only each other. You're lucky, Levi. I know it hurts now, but I'm glad you had that once."

Levi turns. "What?"

"You and Erwin. I wish I'd been brave enough to embrace my feelings like that, while I had the chance."

His stomach drops. "You think Erwin and I were a couple?"

Hange's eye widens, and there's a long silence before Mikasa says, "You weren't?"

Both are staring at him, and he's angry. All those times he told himself making a move would jeopardize Erwin's career ... He pushes away from the railing and strides to the doorway.

"Levi," Hange calls. "Wait."

"I'm going to bed." He slams the balcony door behind him.

 

The voice comes to him again in his sleep. Levi!

He opens his eyes. The battered city of Shiganshina fades in around him as if a fog is lifting. He stands before the house where he left Erwin's side one final time.

Levi, help me.

He turns and sees Erwin's grateful smile, the one he wore during their final goodbye — but no, it's stretching. It warps and grows to his ears, beyond. Sinew wraps around his arms, his legs.

Then a titan stands before him, proud nose and sharp blue eyes, and that final smile parts to release a blast of sulphurous air.

"Help ... me ... Le ... vi ..."

Levi startles awake. He's alone in the darkness, and his arm is burning.