Erwin wakes choking and gasping for air like a man who's just survived drowning, and when he has the courage to open his eyes he sees nothing but blinding light. Fragments of images shift and meld together until his eyes are able to adjust. He's standing in a vast open space with no end in sight. His toes are bare, he's wearing his uniform strapless, he's clean and feels utterly weightless. The bolo tie no longer hangs around his neck like a noose and the sensation has him feeling questionably relieved.
There's no sense of urgency washing over him, and that irritates him to no end because he was just doing... something... right? Something important.
Erwin Smith doesn’t forget important.
It quickly becomes the itch he can't scratch.
So, he starts walking. He walks because it's the only thing he can do in this barren white abyss. His mind is running a marathon of possibilities as to where he is, and why he's here. The most logical being that he's dreaming and his subconscious conjured up a safe haven for him. He'd read reports of soldiers who suffered from severe cases of trauma completely shutting down into comatose. Their brains turning them into empty caskets as a defense mechanism against the relentless nightmares and memories.
Erwin finds he doesn't mind facing this reality. Who better to suffer an empty maze of his own creation?
It's poetic justice.
He deserves this, he thinks.
He convinces himself it's for the best, and a selfish part of himself is grateful he will never have to see the disappointment and hate gleam from his fallen comrades faces. He couldn't bear having to tell them how little he was able to do with their sacrifice.
He doesn't realise it until his toes brush up against something soft, but he's standing in a patch of cool grass. Alarmed, he turns around to look behind him and the vastness from before seems to have vanished.
Erwin's in a forest now, only it looks incredibly different from the ones he's familiar with from within the walls. The trees here wind and warp and loom over him with long strands of what looks to be made of moss and vine, and a multitude of mushrooms and plants climb the coiling trunks. He follows the beaten path, enchanted by sparks of fireflies and abnormally large moths. There's a distinct and powerful screeching pattern being sang that he thinks belongs to a song bird he can't find. When his curiosity gets the best of him, he approaches what looks like an abnormally large cricket with wings and makes note that this creature is the source of the lullaby ringing throughout the forest.
There is no song bird, how peculiar.
"I was kinda hoping I wouldn't see you this soon."
Though admittedly spooked at first, he quickly composes himself before turning to see who the unfamiliar voice belongs to. She fits the ambience of the forest too eerily well. Long jet black hair, flowy white dress, feet bare like his own. But, what's most striking are the eyes. He is certain he has never met this woman before but her eyes twinkle something incredibly familiar.
Erwin swallows thickly before asking what's been on his mind since he arrived.
"Where am I?"
"Who knows." She waves her hand around like it doesn't matter. Like he's asking the wrong questions. When she starts walking away further into the forest, he follows her.
"How do you know me?"
"Who doesn't know the 13th Commander of the Survey Corps?"
Erwin blinks at that. She's so blunt and sharp with her tongue, like there's a blade wedged between her teeth. He reads her body language the best he can and her demeanor tells him she'd be immovable if she chose. Very short tempered and stubborn, yet charming and there's no doubt about that.
"I'm picking mushrooms for a stew tonight. I could use an extra pair of hands."
It's only then that Erwin notices the basket filled with fresh fruit and vegetables. The gentleman in him instinctively reaches out to carry the goods for her, and she comfortably hands it to him. There's a brief moment where he catches her glaring at his right hand. He thinks nothing of it, and for the next hour he's helping this nameless woman pick mushrooms for food. She teaches him what to avoid and what to look for when picking them, and talks only when it suits her. He's grateful she doesn't bother with small talk.
He can't remember the last time he'd done anything worthwhile with his hands that didn't involve the upkeep of equipment or the routine cleaning of his 3D maneuver gear. He finds it therapeutic while it lasts, and by the end he’s feeling somewhat accomplished. Once they've finished filling the basket to her liking he expects them to go their separate ways, but when he pointedly moves to return the basket to her she only tuts impatiently and narrows her eyebrows at his audacity.
"You're much denser than your reputation Commander. I don't expect to eat everything in the basket by myself."
And that familiarity washes over him again. He can't place it, but he knows this isn't the first time he's felt equally endeared and slightly irritated by someone’s bluntness.
"Forgive me for being forward Madam, but I don't think it's a stretch to assume I wasn't invited for dinner when we've just spent the last hour picking fungi from an enchanted forest and you haven't even told me your name."
"My name is Kuchel."
"Kuchel..." He repeats.
It takes a moment, but when the gears start turning his world spins relentlessly. He can feel his knees start to give out. His fingers feel numb around the wicker. He involuntarily leans his body against the closest tree and wills his eyes shut. His mind is running a mile a minute and he understands everything with clarity. He understands where he's seen that twinkle in her eyes. He understands who this woman is. He understands that he has never seen this woman a day in his life, and what her appearance implies.
They don't move for what feels like an eternity, until Kuchel has the courage to gently pull him away from the trunk.
He follows her easily, her presence grounding him. She tightly clutches onto his free hand and leads him further down the forest path until they reach a hidden pond. A calm starts to etch it's way into his skin at the sight.
It's incredibly serene.
Patches of light filter through the trees from above onto the clear water where lily pads and lotus flowers lay delicately undisturbed. Birds, the like of which he’s never seen before linger and prod at the pond for food as dozens more fireflies buzz away happily in a glow that’s contagious.
Erwin takes it all in.
There's some shuffling to his right. He looks over to see Kuchel has made herself comfy on a some moss by the edge of the pond. She pats another patch just beside herself invitingly.
He sits. They don't talk until he’s ready.
"I wanted to die so many times…"
A stone sits lodged in his throat. Every word comes out like a croak. He remembers leading a charge with the few rookie soldiers remaining, and the absolute searing pain in his lower left side. He remembers the fear. He remembers dying.
"Why am I here?"
"You're dead, you absolute lard."
The response is hissed under her breath, but Erwin still catches the snark and the absolute pure impatience behind it. Like he needs to get it through his thick skull already.
He bursts out laughing.
With the weight of the world no longer on his shoulders, it suddenly becomes very easy to let loose. His laugh lasts longer than he's used to. He lets it bleed from him like he's never laughed before. He's shaking, his stomach hurts and there are tears stinging his eyes. It feels GOOD, better than it has in forever. When he has the strength to gather himself, he chances a glance at Kuchel. What he sees steals his breath away.
It's him. It's Levi, and he's smiling at him. Levi has Kuchel’s smile.
He composes himself the best he can before clarifying.
"I meant, why am I here and not... I don't know, burning in a sea of fire?"
"For someone with such a brilliant mind, you can be quite half-witted, you know that?"
That gets him chuckling again. She joins him this time.
"Look, I don't know if there's a place assholes go to when they die, but you of all people don't belong there, wherever that may be- and don't try and tell me otherwise or I will smack some proper sense into you." She wags a fierce finger at him.
He wants to shake his head, present the facts to her and tell her all the wrong he's ever done and why he's so undeserving to have even met her, but he knows better than to test her threats. He doesn't want to find out the hard way where Levi's brash impulse comes from. So they talk about everything else instead.
Kuchel tells him the noisy winged crickets are called Cicada and are annoying at first but grow on you. She teaches him that the sweet juicy figs in her basket only grow because wasps like to climb in and die inside them. She tells him that the pink birds are flamingos and to not be deceived by their majestic persona. It seems birds are 'little shits' no matter the species.
Then she goes onto talking about her life before death. How she was raised on the run from the government from the start. How the Ackermans never stood a chance, and how she took refuge in the underground against her brother's wishes. She decided she could get by incognito and refused to take people's lives the way Kenny did. That in the process of preserving life, she made a new one.
She talks about the fear of childbirth in a lonely cold stone room all by herself, but that the reward heavily outweighed the pain. She remembers lying down and crying into a tiny shoulder. How she cherishes the memory of soft skin and strong baby wails.
He gave her hope.
"You're not the only one."
Kuchel stops and looks at Erwin for a moment, truly looks and sees the genuine unfiltered fondness from him when he speaks of her son the way he does.
They just sit after that, admire the wildlife in a comfortable silence. Erwin catches his reflection in the water among the tranquil. He looks more relaxed than he thinks he ever has in his life. While the mystery of what lay in the basement at Shiganshina still haunts him to some degree, he finds that none of it really matters anymore.
A Cicada falls into the shallow corner of his reflected face and struggles to climb out. Erwin reaches down to gently scoop it free, but freezes upon seeing his reflection has completely altered.
He goes from calm to cold very quickly.
Through shallow ripples of clear water there's Levi exhausted and battered from battle, meticulously cleaning and airing out a bedroom in an abandoned attic. There's a vase of fresh flowers on the nightstand beside the bed.
‘This... must be after the charge... Which means Levi survived. Did he kill the beast titan, did they win?’
A pit forms in his stomach at the thought that Levi might not be joining him in this safe haven after all. He has to quickly shake the feeling from him and be thankful he survived against all odds. He will not take this from Levi, and he will be happy that the Survey Corps’ symbol of hope has survived in their memory.
He has to.
But when Levi curiously leaves the room only to return carrying a body that's nearly twice his size, the heavy stone that sits in his stomach pierces him painfully. Levi gingerly places his lifeless body atop the bed and begins to cleanse the gore and grime from his face with a damp cloth, making sure to pay extra attention to his thick eyebrows and eyelashes. He watches him tenderly push his bangs from his face and fix his blonde hair appropriately. He wipes, he frets, he makes sure there isn't an ounce of imperfection on his face like a ritual of some sort. Once he's satisfied he pulls the bolo tie from his body, and rips out the stitched wings of freedom from his shoulder.
Erwin thinks he's about to pull away when the unthinkable happens.
He kisses him.
He does it in segments. As though his cold apathetic face is worthy of only the most sincere and nonperishable love and attention he can offer.
He kisses his forehead.
He kisses his eyebrows.
He kisses both eyelids, his nose, his cheeks.
He kisses his lips.
Levi’s second press turns heavy, insisting, imploring. There’s a desperate tremor in his lips seething through emotions on his face to have something reciprocated. Erwin's never seen him this vulnerable before. He sees Levi whimper something soft between kisses, but the pond can only show him so much. He can't hear him. He can't read his lips.
"He loves you."
Erwin doesn't realise how violently his heart is ripping apart until Kuchel's voice shakes him from his musing.
She gives him a moment to digest it all as he goes back to watching his Captain. Somewhere between the shock and turning to look at Kuchel, Levi has slid from the bed onto the floor. He's leaning against the frame, his head pillowed on the sheets as he stares at nothing.
"Did you know?"
Erwin can't tear his eyes away. Feels like he owes it to Levi to watch, to know that he's responsible for that numb look in his eyes.
"I think... I wanted to be wrong."
As time passes, they watch as Levi gathers himself and stands. Watch as he places the Survey Corps cloak over Erwin's upper body and pause a final time by the door on his way out. After Levi wars with himself with something they can't cipher, he leaves without looking back.
"He deserved better than me... Someone who could treat him right, follow through with promises-"
"You don't get to chose what someone does with their heart, Erwin Smith."
Kuchel's eyes are piercing through him like he's translucent. He feels naked.
"I did it more often than you think." He wavers.
"I saw the army of men you led. You think they followed you because you conned them?"
Erwin shakes his head ready to refute vehemently.
"You really are a proper dumbass, you know that?" She gapes at him. "You don't believe me? Just ask them yourself."
Kuchel points to something across the pond and a culmination of fear, guilt and unfiltered joy overwhelm him. She's pointing at someone, not something.
He nearly trips into the water in an attempt to get up, his legs carry him faster than he can process. He's running around the pond, cutting shortcuts through pathways and letting branches whip him as he sprints by. His heart aches, he can feel it bursting in his chest. He doesn't deserve this. To dare to hope, to see them again, but his body betrays him nonetheless. As he gets closer to the other side, he can see parts of a body running at him through the leaves just as fiercely. He feels so numb on adrenaline that he almost doesn't feel his body clash into Mike's so unapologetically. They're clutching onto each other, not believing, not sure this is some cruel illusion this world has created for them. He can feel Mike's beating heart through his chest, can feel the very solid body standing tall and strong around him. Can actually feel the breeze from his nose as he smells the top of his head.
"It took you long enough." another voice startles him from behind Mike.
He reluctantly pulls away to see Nanaba with a hand on their hip, grinning from ear to ear. His shoulders sag before they too wrap him in a firm bear hug. And before he knows it, all of Team Mike is shyly coming up to their former Commander and passing warm hugs and well wishes.
"You did your best out there, sir!"
"You gave’em hell, Commander!"
"You were really fierce out there, sir!"
And as he pulls away and looks around himself, he feels so blessed and relieved. So much weight peels away with every warm look and every reassurance that comes his way. He hadn't realised how much he had yearned to know that they didn't loathe him for sending them to perish until now.
"I won't say I told you so, 𝘊𝘰𝘮𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘦𝘳." Kuchel's voice teases from behind. She's making her way over, smirking with that signature twinkle in her eye again. Erwin wonders if he'll ever get used to seeing so much of Levi in her.
When he turns to look at everyone again, a very genuine and sincere appreciation bubbles it's way past his throat.
"Thank you, all of you, from the bottom of my heart."
His voice cracks unashamedly and unfiltered with sincerity.
"I can think of several other people at home just waiting to show their appreciation to this handsome man, so we best get going- Gelgar!"
"Yes, maam!" Gelgar stammers, nearly losing his footing from the sudden outburst.
Kuchel steps in without missing a beat, forcing Gelgar to obediently take the basket from her hand as Lynne cracks up. Erwin gathers Kuchel's been running the show around here, and that everyone is not foreign to testing their former Captain's mother.
The conversation is light and airy as they follow the path out of the forest and onto an open prairie. Tall strands of soft yellow grass dance to a fresh warm breeze coming over a hill far ahead. Grasshoppers and butterflies jump and flutter out of their way as they walk.
Nanaba is cracking jokes at Gelgar as he keeps his head down, still embarrassed with ears red and a faint blush dusting his cheeks. It makes Mike smirk the way he always used to, and Erwin thinks he could really get used to hearing that sound again.
He's not really sure what to expect, but he finds the word 'home' does perfect justice to the old building sitting at the top of the grassy hill. It's the spitting image of comfort and serenity. He feels instantly drawn to it.
A girl with short red hair runs out the front door before stopping to wave enthusiastically. Nifa, Erwin quickly deduces, is calling out to anyone else in the building, her voice quieted by the gentle warm breeze coming over the hill.
"They found him!"
And sure enough, one by one they scurry out beyond the deck and onto the field to wave just as eagerly. When Erwin gets close enough, the small mob's patience runs out and they begin sprinting down the hill to him. As if to silence any remaining doubts he may have had, he's met with the warmest of welcomes from some Survey Corps veterans. He even gets a formal salute from Petra Ral and Oruo Bozado. It pulls another sincere and gentle laugh out of Erwin.
"I'm not your Commanding Officer anymore you two." Erwin reminds.
But when Moblit pushes past the small crowd and smiles shyly before bursting with emotion and wrapping his arms around him tighter than anyone, he remembers again why it is that he's here.
"I pushed them down a well." He mutters between shaking breaths and attempts to hold back tears.
Erwin doesn't really understand what he's saying until he notes that Hanji hasn't greeted him yet.
Hanji survived. Moblit died saving them.
Erwin swallows thickly.
"You did the best you could." and before he realises it, Erwin finds that the feelings he's trying to convey are meant for everyone around him.
"All of you did your very best till the bitter end, and as your former leader, I couldn't have been more proud."
"Neither could I."
Time freezes. Erwin doesn't notice the crowd parting for the new voice. Doesn't notice how they leave to give them some form of privacy. Doesn't feel the tears wretched from his soul and falling infinitely.
He's trembling as he reaches out only to pull back from the sheer fear alone. He can't speak, his tongue and teeth twist and push to create something tangible. A weak mantra of desperate apologies leave his heart pierced and drowning.
This time his knees do give out.
He feels strong arms catch him and gently lower him to the ground as though he weighs nothing. Erwin feels so small, so vulnerable. Every ounce of agony that he'd accumulated over the years flow out of him in aggressive rivers. He cries like a newborn, uncontrollably, powerfully. With each striking wail, he goes back in years until his body is physically reduced to the boy who's unfiltered curiosity begged the very fateful question that day,
'𝘩𝘰𝘸 𝘥𝘰 𝘸𝘦 𝘬𝘯𝘰𝘸 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘯𝘰 𝘩𝘶𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘴 𝘰𝘶𝘵𝘴𝘪𝘥𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘴?'
The arms that caught him are firm and tender, rubbing endless circles on his back and soothing him into a familiar embrace. His father's voice tuts like he's calming a frightened child from a storm, speaking soft things and feeding into the neglect that his absence has caused. It takes forever, but eventually he's reduced to loose limbs and drooping eyelids, comfortably leaning against the person he ached to prove right for years.
"I'm tired, father."
He makes it sound so simple.
Maybe it finally is.
"Will you be here when I wake up?"
With the soft grass below him, and his father beside him. With the warm summer breeze and the sun hitting his face softly, sleep finds him easily. Blissfully.
It's been months since then. At least Erwin thinks? He's not really sure. There's no solid way to tell how time passes in their realm, but with a few glimpses into Levi and Hanji's realm, he's able to tell. It turns out that most still waters can reflect what's happening to the people you hold dearest.
Erwin has learned plenty interesting things since arriving.
He's learned the souls here can shapeshift into the age most appropriately portrayed with their sudden outbursts. He's learned that up and over the grassy hill there's a vast deep blue of salt water called the 'ocean' and that the tiny specks of white rock are called 'sand'.
He's learned that people don't necessarily get hungry here but that Kuchel makes and effort to cook out of principal of bringing them together at least once a day. Kuchel teaches him how to garden and scavenge for food. In the mornings, he lends a helping hand with collecting what has ripened and by evening he's helping her cook. She teaches him how to combine flavours and how to cut and clean the vegetables.
One time he brought home a poisonous mushroom, and Kuchel had very strictly berated him for hours for confusing them with the edible ones. Oddly enough, it only made him laugh until his guts squirmed and demanded mercy, as though he were being tickled to death by her.
She chases him out of the kitchen with a large wooden spoon in hand that day.
Afternoons are spent walking the beach shoreline with his father. They talk about anything and everything. He teaches him about the different plant life and wild fish that loom in the water. Sometimes they discover something new and excitedly observe like kids in a candy shop. Both bright blue eyes sparkling in awe and admiration. Erwin will never forget the first time that very distinct ocean smell had hit his nose, or the way the humid breeze had enveloped his skin. It was after he'd slept by his father's side in the open field, and they'd had a very heartfelt conversation clearing up years of mutual guilt and misunderstandings.
Erwin finds out that years of him harboring guilt had only added to his father's distress when he watched his son beyond the clear water. That he'd wanted to reach in an insufferable amount of times to tell Erwin how wrong he was. That he could care less, that it wasn't his fault. The pure relief that came with the knowledge that his father had always loved him and never once blamed him for a single passing moment had healed the thickest crack in his heart. The soothing sound of ocean waves and the colours from the sunset over the horizon had only added to the calm and warmth.
Nights were spent awake late in the company of his fellow veterans over an open campfire. Occasionally they’d play good natured games with one another, usually winding up with one or more unlucky participants embarrassed beyond repair. Other nights they'd bask in the warmth of the open fire and let loose on easy banter or share stories. If Farlan was feeling up to it, he would bring out his makeshift ukulele that he'd built himself and play a tune for them all to enjoy. A dance would break out, peals of laughter and joy filling the empty space like sparks and smoke from the fire.
One time Oruo had tried to impress the crowd by sharing a scary story, only to fail miserably and have Gunther tell one considerably spookier. Half the crowd finds a companion to cuddle out of fear and the other half are adding onto the horror by exaggerating the story. Erwin can't help but chide in a few snippets of his own. As it turns out, him and Nanaba make a fantastic story telling duo. In the end, Oruo is the most spooked by far. Which leads Petra and Nifa to teasing him relentlessly.
Months of idly enjoying one another's company and bathing in each others happiness go by quickly. Months turn to years, and in those years an itch to explore this realms extremities develops.
Erwin Smith has spent the last 25 years of his life working very hard, and he cannot imagine living the remainder of his time in this world so delicately like he has so far. When he glimpses into the clear water one day and catches Levi meticulously cleaning his abandoned office space, he decides to wait. He wants to travel with Levi.
2 years pass.
He sees Levi sleeping in his chair, clutching onto the black suit jacket he'd lent him when he'd injured his ankle against the female titan. Erwin wonders, not for the first time, why Levi hasn't slept in the bed yet. It's too eerily vacant. He doesn't like it.
3 years pass.
He watches as Levi gingerly kisses his bolo tie and tucks it under the pillow. It's the first time Levi sleeps in the bed. Erwin realises that Levi still wants it to belong to him. That's ridiculous. On cold winter nights it belonged to both of them.
4 years pass.
He sees Levi curiously leave for Shiganshina. He doesn't understand why until Levi steps into the abandoned attic and collects his bones. He lifts the skull and kisses it's forehead before leaning his own against it. He can't hear him, but Levi's lips move again.
Erwin's suddenly struck with a new found level of self loathing. He aches to hold Levi close. He doesn't deserve his respect. He doesn't want to be the shadow Levi holds onto.
When Zeke yanks the pin from the thunder spear, they're all watching, clutching onto one another, holding their bated breaths. Petra's the first to leave with tears trailing behind her, unable to look any further. Erwin doesn't blame her. A part of himself is disgusted at how severe his desire for Levi to join them runs. The other part of him wants Levi to live out whatever years he has left in a quiet place where no one can abuse him further. Above all else, Erwin wishes peace upon Levi. He's aware how hypocritical that thought is. Erwin brought Levi into this hell. He has no right to demand Levi's escape when his own hands are tied beyond reach, when he can't help to make it happen.
The remaining spectators huddle close for comfort around the clear water. They watch Levi struggle. They watch him miserably crawl his way back to the riverbank with bits of shrapnel carved into his face. Erwin sees his lips move. He's able to read them as clear as day for the first time. Only he wishes he still couldn't.
Erwin feels a chilling shock run down his spine as the epiphany strikes him. Unforgiving guilt, a multitude of cold needles prickling incessantly throughout his entire body. Every muscle feels numb, and he cannot digest this information like it’s a second thought. It’s there, and it’s perfectly gift wrapped on a platter right in front of him. He wants to throw it away because Levi’s promise to him is not forgotten, but the force that drives him onward and this is the confession in his pain induced delirium.
His thoughts are interrupted by something heavy dropping behind them.
They couldn't find her earlier when Levi was confronting an army of companions turned titans. They couldn't find her, but she's here now and he can see it all over her face. He can see the heart of a loving mother pulling apart at the seams thread by thread. Erwin runs to her and grabs her outstretched hand before letting go to hold the rest of her body tighter than he's ever held anyone. He can feel her burying her face in his chest, the wetness through his shirt as her arms shakily wind around his back and clutch onto his shirt.
In the 4 years that he's spent here, Kuchel has shown nothing but endless strength. He's learned so much of her tragic story through bits and pieces shared by her brother, but she has never once let that trauma show. He's never seen her like this. He wants her to lash out at him, break him apart and unleash everything she's ever bottled up. Despise him as the man who forced her little bird to fight a battle between ugly men with big egos and too much pride.
She pinches a nipple through his shirt, HARD.
"I told you already! You don't get to choose what someone does with their heart, you fucking dumbass!"
She clutches onto him again while he's still dumbfounded. She talks like she's reading his mind.
"I'm happy he met you, don't make me kick you in the balls next time."
It's not very long after that.
Everyday since then, Erwin has made an effort to keep Kuchel and himself distracted by spending more and more time together. He picks up on the fact that watching Levi has become somewhat of an unhealthy obsession.
If Levi comes, he comes.
They're stargazing. Lying peacefully on the soft grass in the open field with fireflies alight, buzzing away happily. Erwin spends an hour animatedly talking about the different constellations in the sky before his tongue starts to drawl. His eyes drooping and drowsy.
"How far away do you think they are?"
He turns his head in the grass to see Kuchel's eyes glazed with a light only the moon can give. To the untrained eye, she looks untroubled with her eyebrows drawn in and her lips slightly pursed. Erwin looks at her and sees melancholy.
"I'm not sure, but you're not talking about the stars anymore are you?"
Some time passes before she reaches out and tries to gently catch one of the stars in her hand, closing her fist around nothing.
"I used to sing to Levi about stars when it was time for him to sleep."
Erwin holds his breath, afraid he might disturb the spell. It's rare when she talks about Levi. He learned long ago that it pains her too much.
"He would put up such a fuss before bedtime, but eventually the lullaby made him understand that it wasn't time to play anymore... One day he asked me why he couldn't see all the stars I sang about every night…”
He can hear her breath hitch. She shuts her eyes, and Erwin knows that's the most he's going to get out of her tonight.
It finally clicks.
She is so hypocritical, Erwin almost gets angry. She regrets not giving Levi more. Not letting his full potential flourish above the sewers and poverty. She regrets, and she aches, and she's been carrying it for so so long, keeping it all to herself and letting it fester and boil and scathe her relentlessly like poison.
"You're a good mother."
She shakes her head, doesn't want to listen to reason.
"I selfishly gave birth to a miracle and exposed it to famine, disease and poverty. He survived through gang violence and murder and still kept his integrity- what kind of mother does that make me?!"
"I know many people who'd have sooner abandoned their child in the streets of the underground to rot, and you don't strike me as the type of person who didn't sacrifice their rations when you had to choose who ate at night."
She falls silent at that. Turns to finally face Erwin.
"You are a good mother." He repeats with so much more conviction, he can see her thoughts shifting.
"What if he hates me?"
Erwin has to swallow a disbelieving laugh.
"Levi looks sour all the time, but he hates very few people. Annoyed and frustrated by them yes, but rarely hates without good reason."
"A mother abandoning a child seems plenty good reason to me."
"Stop it. You died, you didn't abandon him by choice."
Erwin goes back to stargazing.
"He didn't talk about you often, but the few times he did, you could hear it in his voice. Levi loves you-"
That catches him off guard. Kuchel only says thank you when it means something more.
They fall silent again.
"My son has very good taste."
Erwin feels the heat rise in his cheeks and quickly sits up in an attempt to hide the blush, but the more he tries to look nonchalant the faster it spreads to his ears and neck. Kuchel starts laughing, and while not under the circumstance Erwin would've liked, he's glad that she seems to be in better spirits. They fall asleep in the moonlight like that, too lazy to pick themselves up.
When the first light of dawn hits Erwin's face, something feels drastically different. The missing puzzle piece in his heart feels full, the air feels lighter, the rising colors in the sky kiss so much brighter. And then, a blinding light in the distance of the prairie beams.
Kuchel's sleepy voice groggily comes to. She knows the light means a soul's passing into their world, that the brighter the light, the more significant the person passing is to you. This light is BLINDING, almost like the one Erwin woke up to when he first arrived.
He can't feel his body, but Erwin is definitely running.
In a distant memory, he sees Levi fly for the first time in the underground. Feels the goosebumps crawl under his skin as he stares in awe at the beauty of the impossible made possible.
He sees Levi take down a titan for the first time like he's slicing through soft butter. It leaves him feeling disturbed at how much he wants to see him do it again and again, to think that he's just found humanities greatest weapon.
He sees Levi tend to his horse with gentle whispers and soothing rubs to its face after it spooks from an explosion in the distance. The pure unfiltered warmth radiating off of him beyond palpable. He stops thinking of Levi as a tool to utilize that day.
Levi, with his taste in quality tea and his obsessive cleaning habits. Levi, with his limitless kindness and endearing annoyances. Levi, with his stupid shit jokes and his awkward social bluntness.
He's running hard because everything finally feels so right.
Beyond the hill, the light starts to fade. Erwin stops when he reaches the top to look down. Believing his arrival and seeing it are two very different things. There's an audible gasp to his left before Kuchel is clinging onto his arm for support.
Erwin's never believed in angels. They’re described as faultless and fair, often radiant and alluring to all those who wish to attain even a scrap of what they possess. They’re meant to guide you to a betterness that the world is without, to enchant you and make you believe in things you never thought you could. They're seen as beings of flight that mend and soothe the soul of all aches and pains.
Erwin believes in angels now.
Standing tall, strong and sturdy, his captain, his right hand man, and possibly the most beautiful thing he's ever seen.
Kuchel is sprinting down the hill head first without caution or care. She nearly trips at the bottom but presses on because it hardly matters. Her son, who she hasn't seen since he was a child daring and filled with endless hope, is finally here. She's only ever dreamed to hold him. Now she finally can.
When she gets close enough she lunges, traps him in her arms and squeezes tighter than she has ever held anyone in her entire life. Still high on adrenaline and disbelieving, she quickly lets go to wrap her hands around the sides of his face to look, to check and see that this is real. When she spots the tears threatening to fall from the corners of his eyes, filling with overwhelmed emotion and confusion, she wraps her arms around him again.
She starts crying too, unaware of how long she yearned to hear him speak, to hear him call her the way he does. She's never heard his voice as a grown man before. The sound kisses her eardrums so blissfully, so perfectly. She wants to hear him call her again and again. She doesn’t want to lose the feeling of his beating heart thumping against her chest. Her son is here in her arms. Her son is here at last.
Erwin silently watches the scene from above, still unmoving, uncertain. He'd spent years longing for this moment, had played out a library of possibilities in his head, but nothing could have prepared him for this. He can't treat this like a game of chess on a sunny afternoon with his father. Levi has always been unpredictable. So why, in God's name, is he still trying to use logic when the emotions threatening to burst from his chest go beyond reason? With courage he leaps his way down the hill in strides, pushes through the fear and the anxiety and takes comfort in knowing that he is going to cherish this man right here, right now, or it will be the greatest regret he will ever have.
Levi has suffered enough.
As the wind whips past him, Kuchel gently pulls her arms away from Levi. She gives him the opening, he takes his chance. Erwin reaches forward, cradles Levi's face between his fingers, pushes away the tears with a steady swipe of his thumbs before dipping down. He refuses to think twice about this.
He kisses him with lips trembling, begging to accept this, to respond, to finally have him, all of him. Levi remains motionless. Erwin tries again and again. He takes his time to appreciate the rest of Levi's face while he remains still. He wants to shock him from his stupor.
He kisses his forehead.
He kisses his eyebrows.
He kisses both eyelids, his nose, his cheeks.
He's about to kiss his lips again before Levi yanks Erwin down by the back of his neck. This... this is so much more than he could ever have imagined. When Levi kisses back he feels unbound strength flow through him in tidal waves that could never be measured. Hungry teeth turn to tender lips and tears begin to leave Levi once more, relieving his heart of all sorrow. A warm hand slides it's way onto Erwin's neck before a thumb is caressing the shaved skin below his chin, feeling the pulse there, making sure that it's real.
They gently pull apart, rest their heads together and just breathe this moment in. Erwin sees that twinkle in Levi's eyes, the one he smiles with, the one that extends through his crows feet. It's so beautifully contagious, Erwin starts to smile too before shutting his eyes and committing the image to memory. He breaths once more before rightfully giving his heart to the man who had stolen it years ago.
"I love you, Levi."