Nature had never really been something he indulged in, what with its dirt and bugs and unknown creatures passing through the darkness, just out of view. The trees made eerie noises as the wind passed through their leaves and while Zeke knew, on a conscious, scientific level, that the other strange noises were just woodland animals, he couldn’t help the shiver that ran down his spine as he sat alone in his cold, claustrophobic tent.
It had been a week since the Raid on Liberio, and he wasn’t getting used to the hard forest floor beneath his back as he slept. Normally, he’d complain about such conditions, but considering how Ackerman already seems fed up with him, he has decided not to push his luck. Instead, he stretches and makes his way out of the tent into the cool night air.
The two soldiers standing guard outside his tent watch him as he pads past them, giving them a small nod. They don’t try to stop him, so he assumes this means he’s not a prisoner to his tent, just to the camp. Surrounding him are thirty Survey Corps soldiers in the trees; If he squints, he can just barely make out the silver metal of their swords glinting from the light of the dying fire in the center of the clearing. He can feel their eyes on him- well, fifteen pairs of eyes. They likely watch him in shifts throughout the night, as not all of them can stay awake constantly like Captain Ackerman. The man seems immortal, Zeke thought with a shudder, recalling how easily he had been chopped to bits by the Captain, not once, but twice now. He didn’t want there to be a third time.
He walked over to the fire and crouched in front of it, extending his cold hands toward the dying flames. He huffed in annoyance- usually, the Captain keeps it burning all night, but of course tonight, the night he’s actually cold, is the night Ackerman decides to slack. He turned around to say something that would probably earn him a glare at best, a punch in the gut at worst, only to find that Ackerman wasn’t in his usual chair.
“Captain?” Zeke said quietly, careful not to let his voice carry to the soldiers patrolling the perimeter. He walked around the fire and started, nearly stepping backward into it. Ackerman had slumped down in a different chair than normal, this one facing his tent, likely to keep a better watch on him. His charcoal black hair hung haphazardly into his eyes, and he was leaned back into the chair with a stillness similar to death. It took Zeke a moment to realize that Ackerman was not, in fact, dead but sleeping.
His face looked haunted and gaunt, Zeke thought with a frown. The bags beneath his eyes were more prominent in the light of the fire than they were during the day, and his skin seemed ghostly pale. His eyebrows and mouth no longer heald their scowl he had thought was permanent. Instead, Levi Ackerman, Humanity’s Strongest Soldier, looked dismal and utterly desolate.
His cravat had been discarded delicately over the arm of his chair and the top two buttons of his shirt had been undone. Even though his ODM gear was still in place, his dress shirt had been parted enough to reveal a thin gold chain running around the pale skin of his neck and over his collar bone before disappearing again beneath his shirt.
His eyelashes fluttered in his sleep and his lips pressed together. He shifted, drawing in on himself, and now he looked much smaller than Zeke had ever seen him. Sure, Levi’s height made him a bit unassuming, but his glares and sharp tongue were enough to flay any poor soul who crossed his path. Yet now he truly looked tiny, anguished, vulnerable.
Levi mumbled something incomprehensible, and Zeke stood petrified. It should have been welcome to see that Levi was human, but instead, he only felt his fear intensify. I know absolutely nothing about him.
“Er… Erwin.. Please… …‘m sorry… Don’t..-”
A single tear slipped from his eye and Zeke held his breath. Slowly, quietly, he crept backward around the fire, away from Levi, away from the terrifying unknown. As soon as he was out of the circle on chairs, he turned on his heel and walked as quickly as possible back to his tent, ignoring the confused looks from the two guards. Only once he was safely inside did he breathe.
Who the hell is Erwin?
“Hotel, my ass,” Zeke mutter as he turned a page in the book he hadn’t been reading.
“Don’t be ungrateful, hairball,” Levi snarled from across the ashy firepit, a similar book in his hand. “If it had been my choice, you would have been kept in a cell with the same bucket to piss and drink from.”
“So vulgar,” Zeke said with a roll of his eyes. He risked a glance at Levi. The Captain sat loosely on his chair, his arm draped along the back and one leg crossed over the other in a manner that may have looked relaxed in any other scenario. Zeke knew it was anything but. Similar to himself, he knew Levi wasn’t paying attention to his book. He was extremely guarded, always alert and prepared for a fight. It made Zeke tired just thinking about it.
The familiar whurr of ODM gear, and then a soldier was by Levi’s side, bent over and whispering in his ear.
“What?” Levi whisper-yelled, immediately closing his book and standing, not bothering to mark the page. “Where is he coming from?”
“Southeast,” The soldier replied, pointing back the way he came. Levi nodded and adjusted the strap of his gear across his chest impetuously.
“Alright. Back in position, soldier. Wait for my command once I have eyes on the target. And you,” Levi said, turning on his heel to level his fiercest glare at Zeke, “try anything, and I swear I will skin you.”
Zeke just nodded as Levi shot his grapple toward the nearest tree, turning his back and disappearing into the foliage above. Terrifying, Zeke thought, how he can just vanish like that.
Zeke waited in silence, watching the now empty camp with growing anxiety. Had Eren come to him? This wasn’t the plan- he should still have about two weeks before they were ready to meet again. He poured some water from his bottle into the tin mug he had been rationed. It wasn’t long before a young boy burst through the brush at the edge of the clearing. Leaves stuck awkwardly from his blonde hair and mud clung in clumps to his clothes, but what was striking about him was his eyes. They shone with childish innocence and were a striking blue, brighter than the sky. They also held a clarity that signified an intelligence beyond his years, despite his apparent innocence.
They locked gazes, but before either could say anything, Levi dropped down from the trees in front of the boy, causing him to yelp and jump back.
“Where are your parents?” Levi asked surprisingly gently. “This forest is no place for a child. I don’t know how you got here, but this is military business. It’s dangerous here.”
The boy smiled brightly at his words, and Levi finally looked at him properly. Then, to Zeke’s utter surprise and jar, Levi took a hasty step away from the boy, raising his arm reflexively in a defensive manner. He immediately dropped the stance, seemingly confused by his own reaction, and Zeke watched curiously.
“You’re Levi Ackerman, right? Humanity’s Strongest soldier?”
“That’s me,” Levi said reluctantly, obviously not sure where this was going.
“My mommy says you’re my dad.”
Zeke spat out his drink.
Levi paused as if processing, waiting for the boy to say he was merely joking, but when he didn’t, he snorted and shook his head. “Well, your mommy’s a big fat liar.”
“She’s not!” The boy insisted. “She said I had to find you, that- that you’re-” the boy sniffed as tears welled up in his eyes, and Levi grit his teeth, looking like he was going through whiplash.
“Hey, hey, don’t cry,” he pleaded, obviously regretting his previous tone. Without a second thought, he dropped to his knees and took the boy’s face in his hands, brushing away the tears with his thumbs, worry etched across his face. Now, the boy stood a head taller than him, and Levi looked up with genuine concern.
“Why don’t you come sit around the firepit? I need to keep an eye on that man sitting there. He’s a little bit dangerous but don’t worry, I can handle him.”
“I’m not worried!” The boy chirped. “I trust your skills, Levi.”
Levi nodded slowly, standing as the boy raced across the clearing to plop down in a chair next to Zeke, his earlier tears forgotten. Levi stood more slowly, following the boy to the firepit. “You can stand down,” He called over his shoulder to the soldiers in the trees.
“Why are you here?” Levi asked as he sat down. “I’ve already told you I’m not your father.”
“Maybe you are,” Zeke said helpfully, a smirk playing at his lips. “Have you done it with anyone blonde? Maybe the protection didn’t work as well as you thought it did.”
“Fuck off, Jaeger. He’s not mine.”
“But my mom wouldn’t lie,” the boy protested.
“I agree with the kid,” Zeke added. “I think you messed up and you don’t wanna admit it.”
Levi looked between the two of them incredulously before sighing in exasperation. “Really? You’re both so fucking intent on this? Fine. You can’t be my son because I’ve never been with a woman. Happy?” He asked, turning to glare at Zeke. “That’s what you wanted to hear, right?”
“Seriously?” Zeke exclaimed, looking utterly gleeful at the new information. “You’re missing out.”
“I really don’t think I’m missing anything,” Levi muttered, and Zeke raised an eyebrow suspiciously. “What does that mean?”
“Fuck, do I have to spell everything out for you? It means I like men, Zeke.”
There it was, another piece of the puzzle. Maybe this ‘Erwin’ is a past lover. Zeke frowned. No, that simply didn’t fit. None of the puzzle pieces that were Levi fit together. How could Humanity’s Strongest soldier cry for his lover at night? He couldn’t. The thought was too absurd to entertain, so Zeke pushed it to the back of his mind.
The boy crossed his arms in confusion, but he seemed to believe Levi’s words. “Then who’s my father? My dad got really mad when I told him it couldn’t be him. He was…” He hesitated and looked at Levi who prompted him to continue. “He was drunk, and he tried to hit me so I ran. I went back a few hours later when he was at work and asked Mom. She said it was you. But looking at you, it can’t be. Mom has brown hair and brown eyes. I don’t look like either of you.”
Suddenly, two soldiers burst through the brush, dragging a woman with them. She kicked up dirt as she squirmed in their grip, her fine, Sina-made dress tearing on a fallen branch. “Levi! Tell your men to get their grubby hands off of me,” she complained, and Levi whipped around. He stared at her, stunned, before seeming to find his bearings. “Let her go.”
The soldiers obliged, falling back into their positions around the perimeter.
“Marie? What the hell is going on?” Levi glanced around the clearing like he was looking for a way out, but his reality wasn’t changing.
“Sorry,” she chuckled, “I may have accidentally sent my son here.”
“This is yours…? But…”
“He looks nothing like me or Nile, don’t you think?” Marie said with a sad little smile. “He’s mine- I popped him out myself that’s for sure. But he’s not Nile’s.”
She whisked one chestnut lock over her shoulder, walking over to the circle and sitting down gracefully. She flicked her hand for Levi to sit too: he frowned but sat anyway. “Wait, Nile tried to hit him?”
She sighed, her head drooping forward. “Nile hasn’t been himself lately. He’s been so burdened with running the Military Police ever since we got in contact with the outside world.”
“But the Survey Corps basically runs the military now. The stupid MP doesn’t have to do shit anymore. Hell, they’ve never done shit. If Nile wants to cry about it in his safe, fancy little home in Sina and hit around his kid, he doesn’t have my pity.”
“Don’t talk like that about Nile,” Marie said sharply, leaning forward in her chair to glare at him. “He’s a good man. And might I remind you that you owe him one?”
“I don’t owe him shit.”
Marie shook her head, a clever glint in her eye. “Well, seeing as Erwin would have been hanged without his help, I think you’re in his debt.”
There’s that name again! Zeke forced himself to look bored, looking back at the pages of his book in a way he hoped wouldn’t remind Levi of his presence.
“Why would I owe Nile anything for that?”
“Look, Levi, I know you’ve never liked my husband but he and Erwin were friends, so you ought to be nicer to him.”
“Erwin’s not the Commander anymore, so I don’t have to factor in what he thinks. And if he was, I’d advise him to tell Nile to fuck off.”
Marie huffed, crossing her arms and sitting back in her seat. Next to Zeke, the boy kicked his legs happily as they dangled above the ground, seemingly not disturbed by the argument before him.
“You were never fun at parties,” she grumbled. “I don’t know why Erwin bothered to bring you.”
“He brought me because I could count the number of weapons in a room and then do something about it. Surreptitiously disarm people, keep an eye on the room, or just stand by him. I was there to protect him.”
They glared at eachother like children fighting over a toy.
“So if it’s not Levi, who’s my dad?” The two stopped their quarrel to look at the young boy. His interjection had jarred them out of their argument, and now they sat anxiously watching each other.
“Levi, why won’t you tell him?” Marie said.
“The fuck? I don’t know!”
“I think you do.”
There was a pause as Levi fiddled with his jacket, his eyes searching hers for answers. “You don’t mean…” She nodded enthusiastically, and Levi frowned, running a hand through his hair anxiously. He looked tired and confused, but he had a different look in his eyes. He looked a little bit more alive. “How old is he?”
Marie smirked. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head. He’s twelve. You’ve been in the Corps, what, ten years? Nothing to worry about.”
“I wasn’t worried,” Levi muttered.
“Sure you weren’t.”
The boy slid off of his chair and crossed the fire circle to tug at his mother’s dress. “What are you two talking about? Why can’t you just tell me?”
“Well-” Marie started, but Levi cut her off.
“Your father is a man named Erwin Smith.”
Oh shit, Zeke thought. There’s that name again. Maybe he wouldn’t have to do his research after all.
“Can I meet him?” The boy asked, excitedly looking around the camp. Levi winced.
“You’re four years too late. He’s dead.” He paused, then his eyes widened and he shot forward in his seat. “I mean- It’s not your fault you never got to meet him. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make it sound like that.”
“Did he know?” Levi asked, turning to Marie. “Did Erwin know he had…”
“No. He had too much on his hands, and I didn’t want to make his decision to dedicate himself to the Survey Corps any harder.”
“So my dad was in the Survey Corps?” The boy asked. He seemed disappointed that his father was dead, but not particularly sad. He had never known him, but it was an unexpected emotional maturity for such a young boy. Or perhaps it was a lack of emotion.
“Yes, he was the Commander before Commander Hange,” Marie said, and Levi glanced over at Zeke, fidgeting. “I had intended to marry him at one point, but he wanted to join the Survey Corps instead and didn’t want to leave behind a widow.”
Levi snorted, a dry, humorless thing, that was maybe supposed to be a laugh.
“Although, I theorize he did anyway.”
“I’m sorry we didn’t live up to your perverted fantasy, Marie,” Levi said sarcastically. “You wouldn’t shut up about it whenever we came together to Mitras. We would share a hotel room to save on expenses, okay? Nothing else.”
Oh, Zeke was confident there was something else.
“So you were dating my dad?” The boy asked hopefully, innocently, obviously not buying Levi’s story.
“Huh?” Levi started, “I just told you-”
“I saw how he looked at you. He used to look at me like that, but it was never as intense. I suppose that’s what happens when you trust someone with your life. You were extremely special to him, Levi, more than even I ever was.”
Levi opened his mouth to protest, but Marie held up a hand and kept going.
“And I saw the way you looked at him. I’ve never seen such dedication and reverence. You would snap at everyone, finch if anyone got too close to you, but Erwin? You would listen to him at dinners and you’d let him put his hand on your shoulder when he introduced you to guests.
“I remember that time you two danced. Erwin had spent the whole evening dancing with as many people as possible, so I don’t think anyone noticed when he pulled you onto the dance floor. But I did. You moved beautifully together. You were beautiful together.”
Liege. Erwin Smith was Levi’s liege. Zeke rolled the realization around in his mind. Of course Levi would have a liege: he’s an Ackerman. But somehow the image he had created of him was this fierce, wild, intimidating leader. Erwin Smith must have been veritably incredible to earn his loyalty. Zeke couldn’t begin to fathom what the honor of being chosen as a liege would feel like.
“I see… You’re quite smart, it’s probably why he liked you,” Levi said, his gaze on the ground as he stared expressionlessly through this hair that had fallen forward. “Why did you send your son here? What do you want from me?”
She smiled that dazzling smile of hers, and Levi looked back up. “It’s more like what I can do for you. I figured you would want some visitation rights. And with Nile getting, well… getting a bit violent when he’s drunk, it would benefit him, too, if he had another father figure in his life. I reckon you have the same amount of claim over him that Nile does, although legally you couldn’t win a custody battle even if I supported you.”
“Woah,” Zeke breathed, and Levi glared at him. “I ought to tie you up and shove cotton in your ears.”
The boy giggled.
“Why now?” Levi continued, the prior malice leaving his tone like someone flipped a switch. For once, Marie hesitated. She glanced around the campsite and, satisfied that none of the soldiers were within earshot, she replied, “I saw you walk through Sina a little while ago. You looked… tired, Levi. I don’t know what happened between you two before Erwin died that day, nor do I know for sure the true nature of your relationship… and I don’t know how the whole Ackerman thing works either. But I do know that you need a reason to keep fighting. I was hoping that the promise of getting to know Erwin’s son would motivate you to see this war through.”
Levi looked stunned. He turned to look at the boy, the son of his liege, his lover. “Do you want to get to know me?”
“Of course!” The boy replied instantly. “Can I live with you?”
“Huh?” Levi stuttered, glancing frantically at Marie who looked equally as shocked. “Erwin had a way with words that he certainly didn’t pass to you,” Levi scolded, and Marie laughed.
“You can’t, honey. Levi has work to do, and he just lives at the barracks.”
“That’s right,” Levi agreed, “although I do have a cabin in inner Rose that Erwin left me.”
“Really?” Marie blanched. “He left you with a mortgage and land taxes to pay? What a bastard.”
Levi rolled his eyes. “He probably intended for me to liquidate it but… I couldn’t. I have too many memories there. And besides, he already paid off the mortgage.”
“I didn’t know you were so emotional,” Zeke smirked, and Levi turned to glare at him again. “You’re on thin fucking ice, shit-beard. Keep your trap shut.”
“And besides, Nile wouldn’t be happy giving him up even if he’s angry about him not being his son. You wouldn’t stand a chance in court.”
Levi paused, chewing on his cheek in a habit Zeke hadn’t noticed before. “Maybe… after this war’s over, you can live with me. If you want.” He turned back to Marie, confidence in his eyes. “I could beat Nile in court if I have your support.”
“How? Nile’s married to me, his actual mother, and his position will give him an advantage.”
Levi sighed, and reluctantly began to remove his cravat. He pulled at the first button of his shirt, opening the top to reach in and pull out a long metal chain. The same thin chain Zeke had seen days prior, when he had seen Levi sleep. What he hadn’t seen, then, was the gold ring at the end of it. Marie gasped.
“This is not to leave this fire circle. Erwin did leave behind a widow. Well, widower. I can beat Nile in a custody battle, if it’s what the brat wants.”
The boy nodded vigourously, smiling that bright smile that made Levi’s features soften.
“What’s your name?” Levi asked.
“Charles! But you can call me Charlie.”
“How wonderfully average,” Levi murmured, as if that was something he was genuinely thankful for.
“Dad says it means freedom,” Charlie replied simply.
“You wanted to meet me, didn’t you, Levi? Can’t say I feel the same.”
If only he hadn’t been such a coward. If only he had worked harder, if only he had placed his trust in the right people. And even now, he was terrified when he had no right to be. Everything he’s done has lead to this- there is no one to blame but himself. At the very least, Zeke decides, he can give the man he watched avoid sleep at all costs out of fear of his own mind what he desires.
The sky is blue even though the ground below is red, and puffy white clouds make the view serene. He knows what’s coming, yet the peace in the air fills his senses as he waits for Levi’s inevitable blades to slice through his neck.
“What a beautiful day it is,” He murmurs to no one at all. “If only I’d realized that earlier. Well, after all the killing I’ve done… that’s asking for too much.”
The pain is quick and sharp in the back of his neck, cutting through in one swift motion. Levi. With his life, the rumbling will be over. Levi will be able to go back to Paradis Island to raise his son. He’ll be able to properly grieve his lover’s death without the weight of being Humanity’s Strongest on his shoulders. His husband, Zeke reminded himself. He could have told people, spilled this secret to the right ears and used it as leverage, but then again, maybe he couldn’t. Who would believe him when he hardly it believed himself? Even now, he could chuckle in disbelief, but the truth had come from Levi’s own lips, undeniable with the cold ring constantly pressed to his chest.
Strange, how after all this he hopes for Levi’s happiness. This world is unbelievably cruel to all its inhabitants, be they from Marley or Paradis. He understands Levi now, he thinks. The pieces of his puzzle fit together, finally, and as his last moment flees and his world fades to black, he finally realizes the simple truth: Levi, like himself, is simply human.
Charlie extended his arm, and Levi placed one thin, delicate hand into his. Charlie’s fingers wrapped gently around it, pulling him up out of his wheelchair. He was twenty-seven now, and had grown like a “fucking bean pole”, as Levi so kindly put it.
There had been no custody battle. In fact, Levi never had to reveal his mariage to anyone. Both Nile and Marie had been transformed into pure titans by Zeke’s scream, and had died while Levi off was fighting in Marley to stop the rumbling. He had woken up in a hospital room with familiar blue eyes looking over him and less familiar chubby hands gripping at his arm.
Carefully, Charlie lead Levi over to the grave, both of them sitting before it.
Their hands still intwined, Levi looked over at Charlie and smiled, one of those rare, wonderful expressions. The cool metal of Levi’s ring pressed into their joined hands. “Your son’s getting married, you know,” he said to Erwin. “She’s beautiful and smart- a real buinesswoman. I think you’d like her.
“He’d be proud of you, you know,” Levi said, turning to Charlie. “I’m proud of you, too.” Tears welled in Charlie’s eyes and he quickly tried to hide them.
After the ceremony, Levi’s cheeks hurt from smiling, and his face was streaked with tears that he let fall even afterward as he embraced his son and daughter-in-law.