Actions

Work Header

Audacity

Chapter Text

J'ai en moi l'audace
du champ magnetique.

I have in me the audacity
of a magnetic field.

*

The rain had been torrential all day, and the ensuing mud and wet made the scene in the courtyard all the more unsightly. Erwin was not particularly interested in public spectacle. He stood under the dripping eaves in straight-shouldered silence as the trial carried on, listening to his father's irritable underbreath mutterings whenever they became audible beneath the Marshal's booming voice. There had already been presentation drills that day, and Erwin's uniform was soaked already through from marching around in carefully constructed formations for the pleasure of the social elite. He'd managed to comb his hair back into something approaching order, but the Military Police uniform trousers were notoriously thin, and clung to his legs with unpleasant clamminess. Combined with the water dripping down his neck, every tiny lift of late autumn wind seemed to skitter off his skin like sleet.

Erwin knew better than to make any show of how chilled he was, however, especially during this rare display of acknowledgment. Egon Smith believed in a very certain kind of order in public, and this applied especially to his fifth son, whose circumstances were widely known in their circle, but never spoken of outwardly. Erwin had received his father's summons even before he'd left the parade grounds, and all wistful thoughts of a hot bath and a change of clothes had needed to be carefully dismissed. He'd thanked the courier most kindly, taken a few moments in the reflection of one of the barracks windows to arrange himself, and had set out for the courthouse immediately.

Egon's expression upon seeing the state his son was in had been an unpleasant one, and it remained in place even now, though Erwin knew its cause had shifted now to the Marshal. So far as Egon was concerned, these sorts of civilian trials were more properly carried on behind closed doors, in calm voices and with speakers for the defense, save for extreme cases. Erwin supposed this was an extreme case, though he wasn't fully informed of all the details. He knew his father disapproved anyway.

Their peers of the realm had a somewhat more magnanimous approach, however, which was why a teeming crowd of well dressed lords, ladies, dukes, and marquises were crowded beneath the overhangs that ringed the courtyard along with them. A good number of them looked quite angry, though just as many others wore expressions of idle, distant curiosity. They'd been more moved by the march, Erwin thought, or at least more willing to put on a good show of filial piety there. He let his eyes wander away from the crowd, and back to the courtyard again.

The courthouse was more of a court estate; a four story building composed of lovely shaped stone and fine wood scrounged from far beyond the Walls. It played host to weddings, christenings, and other celebrations much more often than any form of law and punishment, and the carefully cultivated garden of flowers and precisely set rocks that filled the courtyard were a testament to that. All four floors of the building opened out onto balconies that surrounded the yard, presumably so that meandering MP officers on patrol could dawdle and enjoy the scenery when the sun was out.

The Marshal stood ramrod straight behind his podium, tucked nicely under the tarp that had been set up just for this purpose. Erwin was a little startled to see the thunderous set of his brow and the furious twist of his mouth. Marshal Embry was a tall man, a lean, former Garrison soldier who'd found himself on the right side of society a few decades past thanks to a particularly lucky marriage, and normally he conducted himself with a strange kind of simpering confidence, like an artist performing for his patron. Erwin had never seen him look so genuine, or so angry.

“Do you admit to all of these charges? Or would you like to plead your innocence?” Embry said loudly, though the hiss of the rain drowned the words a little.

“God, man,” Egon muttered, “He's not going to respond.”

Egon seemed to have a better measure of the prisoner than Embry did. There was no response from the prisoner, only the faint rattle of chain as he shifted imperceptibly. Slight movement was all he could manage, it seemed – he'd been bound to the very top of the pole, his arms stretched full length above his head, and hoisted up to a height meant for a man much larger than he was, forcing him to balance on his toes. Egon had growled something earlier about him overpowering a handful of guards when he'd been restrained in the normal fashion, but Erwin wasn't sure he believed it. The prisoner was terribly small, and not more than a boy by the look of him. He'd been stripped to the waist, revealing the extensive bruising around his ribs and throat, and that, Erwin thought, was more likely to be the mark of the MP guards than anything else. He craned his neck a little, trying to get a look at the boy's face, but the rain had plastered the boy's black hair down into a dripping curtain, and the boy did not raise his head.

“If you continue to keep your silence,” Embry said, “We will have to assume your guilt. You understand that the sentence is execution, don't you? You understand that you will die if you don't make some attempt to explain yourself?” His nostrils were flaring.

“Sir,” Erwin murmured, taking a risk as his curiosity began to overpower him, “What has he done?”

Egon glanced at him. “Worse than showing up as an official witness looking like a drowned sewer rat,” he said, his voice dry. Erwin smiled, and looked away carefully. He said nothing, and after a moment Egon sighed.

“The boy seems to be responsible, both personally and by organization of others, for these break-ins and muggings we've been plagued by for the past year and a half,” he said.

“Oh,” said Erwin. “Well. The treatment seems a little extreme in that case, doesn't it?”

“He was caught robbing the Aldenberg Estate a few nights ago.”

“Ah.”

“When Lady Aldenberg summoned the MP, he killed two of them, and wounded three others in his attempt to escape from justice. I suppose you've been too busy in your studies to keep up with the goings on of your own branch, then?”

Erwin looked up at the MP officers clustered tightly to the railing of the second story balcony. He supposed that explained the tension radiating off of them and their fellows standing guard, not to mention Embry's fury.

“Quite an offense,” he said.

Egon snorted. “Even so, as deplorable as the boy's actions have been, this public display bears no resemblance to anything approaching a proper trial. There is no stand for the defense. They're going to hang him, one way or the other, which is well enough, but this circus makes a mockery of the justice system.”

“Yes,” said Erwin, careful to keep the distraction out of his tone. Embry was leaning over the podium, bright red spots of furious color standing out on his cheeks.

“Eli Levi!” he bellowed. “You will speak to your charges, boy, or I will declare for you here and now!”

A murmur rippled through the noble assemblage as the boy lifted his head. It was visibly an effort for him; Erwin could see the exhausted trembling in his thighs and stomach, the strain of holding such an unnatural position for what must have been hours.

“Élie,” he said.

Embry's eyes seemed close to bulging out of his head. “What?”

The boy smiled thinly. Erwin could see it clear across the courtyard. “It's Élie,” he said. His voice was calm, almost thoughtful. “Eh-lee, you stupid fuck. Quit fucking calling me Eli.”

“I beg your pardon-”

“And,” the boy went on, tipping his head almost boredly to one side, “Technically, it's 'Rivaille.' It's French, you know. The spelling's just been simplified a little. So ignorant motherfuckers like you can get it right. I guess it's a wasted effort here.”

The crowd of onlookers was beginning to titter and mutter to itself. Erwin heard a few people quietly trying out the proper pronunciation for themselves.

Embry stepped heavily out from around the podium, though he hesitated under the tarp. His hands were clenched into tight fists, his angry flush a bright point of pink in the dim of the rain.

“You little shit,” he hissed. “You threw two men to their deaths, and you don't even feel the slightest ounce of shame.”

Erwin glanced at his father again. Egon caught his look, and the question in his eyes. “I'm told he climbed most of the way up Wall Sina before another of the MPs caught him,” he said. “The dead men apparently got too close to him during his progress.”

Erwin stared at him openly. “Halfway up the wall with no Gear?” he exclaimed. A few of the people standing nearby glanced at him in confusion and distaste, and he hastily straightened his shoulders, looking forward again and lowering his voice. “How is that possible?”

“I suppose you would have to ask him.”

“Why haven't they? Sina is more or less a sheer rock face – I'm sure there are tiny handholds here and there, but the balance and strength he'd have to be capable of to...” Erwin trailed off as his father's lips thinned, and finished in a slightly hangdog manner, “Well, I was only thinking what a good soldier he'd make.”

“Which is precisely why you are not in charge of making soldiers, Erwin.” Egon didn't look at him. “The boy is a murderer. Whatever hidden talents or wily tricks he may be capable of are inconsequential.”

“Of course, sir.” Erwin looked away. Embry's voice droned back into his awareness.

“-these shameful acts, disrupting our calm and peaceful society-”

“Can't have been well trained if they couldn't even catch themselves,” Levi said. “Isn't that pretty basic training?”

“Your malicious action which-”

“I don't give a shit, old man,” Levi said. His voice trembled a little, but it wasn't with emotion. His small body shook with cold and strain, legs obviously on the verge of giving out. “Just tell me when I'm gonna die.”

“Tomorrow!” Embry thundered, and all of the crowd noise ceased in a single sweep. Now there was only the hiss of the rain, and his voice. “Tomorrow! I sentence you to be hanged at this time tomorrow! You will spend this night in prayer and contemplation-”

“Probably not.”

“-and preparation for your judgment before God!” Embry's fist slammed into the top of the podium, making a few people jump nervously. “I dismiss this court! I dismiss it! I wash my hands of this filth!”

A few of the MP officers standing guard began to come forward hesitantly to take Levi back into their custody, but Embry struck the podium again, with a sound of splintering wood. “Leave him there,” he snarled. “Maybe he'll find it within himself to do a bit of soul-searching while he waits.”

“Yes, sir,” the guards mumbled, stepping back, though their glances were wary.

The crowd began to disperse, less unsettled by Embry's pronouncement than the soldiers were. They filed past Erwin towards the door in a ruffle of expensive skirts and fine perfumes, the sound of low and well-bred laughter echoing off the fine stone of the interior.

Levi was watching them go, with a blank and utterly untouched expression. He only looked tired, and a little ill. After a moment, he seemed to rouse himself, and began to strain at his cuffs.

“And, of course, a overly dramatic ending to an overly dramatic farce of justice,” Egon said. He brushed at his dress jacket, and turned away from the courtyard. “Come, Erwin. I will see you back to your post.”

Erwin hadn't moved. He was watching the boy, watching his hands flexing in their cuffs, his feet straining for better traction. He lifted one leg and pressed the sole of his bare foot against the pole that held him in place, head lifting painfully with the effort, but there was a look on his face that Erwin recognized. It was one he'd seen on the faces of his fellow trainees, especially the ones who had gone on to hardier divisions than his own. It was a look of unconscious calculation, of canny hyper-awareness of every flat plane and surface nearby, every object in the vicinity that might be capable of taking human weight, with no division between what was horizontal and what was vertical.

He watched as Levi pushed off with his other foot, and balanced both against the pole for a moment, leaning his weight against his already strained wrists, his body bending in a perfectly acrobatic curve above the ground. He was walking himself upwards and backwards, one foot behind the other, elbows bending slightly. Then he slipped, and dropped back to the ground. The frustrated little growl that escaped him was faintly nerve-inducing.

Erwin believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that Levi had climbed that wall.

Further, he believed that Levi would have made it over to the other side, had he not been snatched up beforehand.

From somewhere far away he heard his own voice, saying casually, “I'm sorry, sir. I actually need to speak with Captain Hamlin before I return. Please, go on ahead without me.”

Egon only snorted. “Very well,” he said. “I suppose it'd be better for you to clean up afterward, too.”

“Yes, sir.” Erwin smiled at him, humble and guileless. “Thank you for allowing me to accompany you.”

Thoroughly mollified, his father only waved a hand dismissively, and left the courtyard, his boot heels echoing off the stone. Erwin waited, counting his steps as he had so often counted his own on a boring day's patrol march, and then when he was sure his father had gone, he went down the veranda steps into the soaked and muddied courtyard.

Levi had stopped his struggling. Only his head moved as Erwin came towards him, just enough for him to see. Up close, Erwin could make out his features more properly. He was a narrow eyed creature, his nose and mouth as petite as the rest of him, making assessing his age on sight impossible. He was so small that Erwin supposed a large man could fit both hands around his waist at once, though it was clear that what Levi lacked in size he made up for in tense and well toned muscle.

“Élie Levi,” Erwin said.

“Oh,” Levi said. “Look at you. A cut above the rest.” He didn't sneer, nor smirk, only looked placidly at Erwin with those sharp and pitiless eyes. They were pale and grey, heavy-lidded, and gave him a rather haunted look. “What are you, the front of the line?”

Erwin blinked. “The line?”

“Nobody's gotten around to raping me yet. Does that mean you want to be first? Come on, then.” He jerked his chin, chains clinking. “Let's see your dick. It better at least be as good looking as the rest of you.”

Erwin swallowed his revulsion, and remained impassive with an effort. “I see. No. I haven't come for that.”

Levi snorted, tipping his head up a little. His gaze broke from Erwin's face and he swayed a little, blinking hard, once. When he opened his eyes again they were unfocused, rolling back a little beyond his control. “What, then,” he muttered, sounding dizzy.

“I heard you climbed Wall Sina by yourself,” Erwin said. He pressed his palm flat against his thigh, fighting the urge to shake the boy out of semi-consciousness to ensure straight answers. He could tell he wouldn't have long to ask. “Is it true?”

“Not by myself.” Levi shivered. “Were a couple of MP assholes trying to jump me the whole time.”

“Without Gear, I mean.”

“They don't give out Gear to thugs, shithead.”

“You climbed it bare? With only hands and feet?”

“Yeah.” Levi gave him an unsteady look. “That and the pickaxe I keep up my ass. Why do you care so much? It's not that hard. Getting starting traction's the hard part. Once you're up, you've just got to keep going. Of course,” and there, now, was the faintest of curves on his lips, almost dreamy, “Of course, sometimes it's real helpful when you've got a bunch of dimwits trying to get up after you with ropes and so on. Easier to get a foothold on a grappling hook. Even if it does detach when you push off a lot of the time.”

“You climbed Wall Sina, using a running start, traction, your hands and feet, and by leaping off the grappling hooks of the MP officers who were chasing you.”

“Fuck me, you ask a lot of questions.”

Erwin smiled. The rain was showing no sign of abating anytime soon, and what little chance at drying off he'd had under the eaves was ruined, now.

“Élie,” he said, “Don't you think you'd make a much finer soldier than any of those 'assholes' ever could be?”

Levi's head jerked up, and he stared at Erwin, trying to make sense of him. “Don't call me that,” he said, tense. “You haven't earned it.”

“It doesn't seem to matter very much whether I have or not,” Erwin murmured, his smile widening. “You aren't exactly in a position to decide what you do and don't want at the moment, are you?” Impulse touched him, and he lifted his hand, touching the boy's bruised cheek with the flat of his palm. Levi flinched slightly, but his narrow eyes had grown wide and a little lost. Erwin could feel the fine tremors in his body, the honed fury and murderous independence struggling to free itself from impending unconsciousness. There was something else, too, that he couldn't quite name, something that made him step closer, and tuck the wet black hair off Levi's forehead.

The boy shivered. “Stop,” he breathed, but his eyes had grown unfocused again, his head heavy in Erwin's hand.

“I have an idea,” Erwin said. “One that will save your life, I think. But I will require your cooperation, Élie. Your cooperation and your trust.”

“I don't want your help.” He was sagging now, with a kind of inevitable finality. Erwin waited, watched as his eyelids flickered, and finally closed, as the weight of his body returned to his wrists again. His skin had grown warm against Erwin's palm, and Erwin let his thumb brush along Levi's lower lip, once.

“You will have it,” he said, “Whether you ask for it or not.”

Chapter Text

“Erwin,” said Hamlin, not unkindly, “What the fuck are you going on about?”

The Captain's office on the courthouse's third floor was a warmly lit room, even during the the wettest of nights, due to the strategically mounted candles set at regular intervals along the walls. It was necessary that Hamlin have as much light as possible at any hour of the day, and in any weather, as she could never be sure when she might be called out of bed to consult or advise on some field matter or another. As one of the most highly prized tacticians in the service, she tended to get whatever office-related necessities she demanded, and usually with a respectful salute and a query as to if she required anything further. She taught strategy and field tactics to trainees and interested MP officers (though there were generally far fewer of the latter) and rarely approved any of them to higher levels of capacity. Her exacting standards were impossible to live up to, according to most of the soldiers who attempted to train with her, and pointless anyway, as tactics had little value to the MP or the Wall Garrison. Nevertheless, the brass did not share these opinions, and Captain Hamlin's good word was worth its weight in gold when it came to getting somewhere within the ranks.

Erwin had been her favorite student since his entry into the service, and it had been on her recommendation that he be allowed entry into the MP's branch. He suspected that the recommendation had been partially made out of concern for his safety, and partially out of a desire to not lose the finest and most obedient assistant she'd ever had. He'd been fetching her papers, tea, and lunches for so long that it had become more or less automatic; he could barely sit in her presence without keeping one eye on the liquid level in her cup, or on the un-filed paperwork on her desk. Currently, he was briskly forging her signature on a heavy sheaf of paper, while she smiled at him with all fondness and all skepticism, the candlelight catching in the deep wrinkles around her eyes and cheekbones and casting heavily defined shadows on her dark and weathered face.

“It's just a thought I had,” Erwin said, setting each new signed form neatly in the little wooden box marked OUT on the edge of her desk.

“It's not just a thought.” Hamlin leaned back in her chair comfortably, folding her hands behind her head, and watched him. “You wouldn't have brought it up if it was just a thought. You don't talk about anything you haven't got another five or six steps planned out for.”

He smiled a little, looking up at her briefly. “Yes, ma'am.”

“So explain yourself. This prisoner – this criminal? Some kid you think is promising enough to pull off Embry's rack and stick on top of the wall?” She grunted. “He's breathing fire today. I guess this is the one he's got down in the courtyard, getting acquainted with pneumonia?”

“Yes, ma'am.” Erwin straightened the papers in the box. “My father says he scaled half of Wall Sina bare.”

Hamlin lifted her eyebrows. “With a rope, or something?”

“Apparently not. He told me he'd done it with his hands and feet.”

“You believe that?” She blinked, and narrowed her eyes a little. “You talked to him, huh?”

“I- well, yes, I-”

“You didn't come here to ask me if I thought it was a good idea. You came here to get me to help you spring him. Am I correct, Erwin?”

Erwin let his breath out slowly. “Yes, ma'am,” he said, calm. “I did.”

“What the hell for?” Hamlin said, sitting forward again. She was scowling. “You're a police officer, Smith. You're in good standing, not just because of the pathetic scraps of association your father tosses your way – it's because you're bloody brilliant. In Gear, and out of Gear. You'll make brass rank in another month or so. Hell, I'd take you on as a full time underling, if they'll let me. I've never met a mind as sharp as yours. And you're telling me you want to – what? What do you want to do with him, exactly? If I can convince Embry to hand him over to you – which I'm not saying I can, or that I'll even try – what then? Are you going to keep him in the barracks like a pet? Send him off to die with those lackwits in Survey? What's the point?”

“Maybe I'd like an underling of my own,” Erwin said.

She eyed him for a moment, and then laughed. “Boy,” she said, “You think you're fooling me with that 'nice kid' persona of yours?”

“Maybe,” Erwin said, “I believe that I can train him into a perfect weapon, one I'm personally responsible for, and that with him under my fist as such, I can finally get to work revolutionizing our entire combat system for the greater good of humanity.”

Hamlin didn't say anything for a long moment. Erwin didn't flinch under her hawk-like gaze.

“Smith,” she said slowly, at last, “I do believe if anyone is capable of such a thing, it's you. You've talked about it enough. But you listen to me, here. You're ruthless. You're driven, ambitious, and underhanded. That obedient mild bullshit you pull with your father and your superiors isn't going to help you with this. Do yourself a favor, and stop hiding your better qualities.” She jerked her chin at him in a slight nod. “Wear it on your sleeve. They'll be properly terrified of you then.”

Erwin smiled a little, rueful. “And terror is what I want?”

“They'll never listen to you unless you scare them more than Titans do.”

“Ah,” Erwin said, sighing. “Well, I suppose that shouldn't be too difficult in the long run. Most of them haven't seen much more than a silhouette on the horizon. Myself included, to be honest,” he added.

Hamlin snorted. “This is why you're a brilliant tactician,” she said, “and a terrible person. What's the boy's name?”

“Levi, apparently.”

“And he's still out there in the yard?”

“I believe the Marshal is trying to teach him a lesson in his last remaining hours on this earth.”

She rolled her eyes exaggeratedly. “What lesson is that, then, I wonder?”

Erwin hummed. “I couldn't say, Ma'am.”

“Well, you look.” She tapped the desk, eyeing the papers he was still holding. “You finish these up, file them properly. I'll go and see if the good Marshal has finished his last late night pint down at the Black Sickle, and if he hasn't, I suppose I'll buy him a few more until we've drained off the last of the anger. When you're done here, go out there and get the little rat off the rack if he's still alive. You can bring him up here and put him on the daybed. If he decides to get rowdy, Erwin, you're entirely responsible for making sure he doesn't make a mess of my office. Am I understood?”

“Yes, Ma'am.”

She scowled at him. “I want a proper salute for this. Get off your ass.”

Erwin rose in a single fluid motion, snapping to attention with a perfect ease. He even managed to keep the triumphant grin off his face in the process.

Hamlin grunted, standing and coming out around the desk to grab her jacket off the coat rack. “Good. Now get to work. Better get done fast. I hear people can suffocate strung up like that for too long.”

“Not that one,” Erwin said. “I don't get the impression that he'll die so easily.” This time he did grin, widely enough that she growled at him, reaching up to slap at the back of his head as she passed him.

“You understand that if you stumble on this, if you fail in any way here, Smith – you understand that I'll gut you myself, yes?”

“Oh yes,” Erwin said, widening his eyes a little. She only slammed the door in response.

It didn't take him very long to finish the work, as he'd known it wouldn't; another handful of minutes saw him straightening the neat stack in the OUT box a final time. His own uniform jacket was still unpleasantly damp, but he supposed it was only going to be soaked again fairly shortly, so he pulled it on anyway, shivering, and went out, down the steps to the courtyard.

The courthouse was largely deserted at this hour, and even the standing watch was nowhere in sight. That was fairly typical, in Erwin's experience, especially on cold, wet nights. There was warm light gleaming from somewhere down one of the second story corridors, and he suspected that down that way was an open room with a large, warm fire, and a number of fine wines gifted to the Military Police in thanks for noble services rendered.

Levi remained where he'd been left, head hanging against his chest, knees bent loosely. He didn't move as Erwin approached him. Erwin paused for a moment, and then reached out to place the flat of his hand against Levi's throat. The boy's skin was icy, but there was movement beneath, the low and steady flicker of heart's blood stubbornly refusing to cease its flow.

“I thought not,” Erwin murmured, half-smiling. “Stubborn creature, aren't you?”

He glanced up at the rack and pole, then steadied a hand against Levi's shoulder and reached around to pull the pin that held the crossbar in place. It came free with a clank, and Levi sagged forward, his strained arms dropping at last. Erwin caught him easily – he weighed hardly a thing, and even now Erwin supposed water retention had to be some percentage of it. Erwin was not a small man, and could lift a considerable amount when called upon to do so. Levi's body felt like hardly more than an afterthought in size. He thought he'd never handled a person quite so small.

He considered the cuffs, but decided to leave them on for now, and lifted Levi up, supporting his upper body against one shoulder, one arm across his back and the other under his knees. The rain tapered off, and finally stopped as he mounted the stairs out of the courtyard.

A few stray patrol officers were wandering the halls inside now, and they gave him strange, suspicious looks as he walked past with his prize. He kept his face schooled into an expression of calm, confident professionalism, and hoped that Captain Hamlin was as convincing as she seemed to think she was. Otherwise, he thought, the situation could spiral out of control fairly quickly, especially if Levi woke in a state of distress.

No strategy is without risks, he reminded himself, nudging Hamlin's office door open with the toe of his boot. Every advantage has a potential cost. And all tacticians are playing the calculation game in everything they do. Everything we do.

He left Levi in a sodden heap on the daybed to soak the sheets and comforter and stripped off his jacket again, snagging the bit of toweling Hamlin kept on a hook by the door for just such an occasion. Thoughts of the bath he'd missed that afternoon surfaced again as he dried himself, but he pushed it away. There'd be time later. There'd be time for any number of things later.

“What a liar.”

Erwin looked up, startled despite himself. Levi had rolled onto his side, his bound hands tucked between his thighs, knees drawn up so that his body took up as little space as possible. He'd lifted his head and was looking at Erwin with those tired, heavy lidded eyes, their grey lost by the candlelight. He looked like tiny predatory animal, assessing Erwin as either food or as threat. “You're a liar,” he repeated, with perfect, uncanny calm.

Erwin gathered himself expertly. “Am I?” he said pleasantly. “What have I lied about?”

“Closed door, convenient bed, and we're alone.” Levi rolled his eyes, strangely patient, like he was dealing with a man who was deliberately working at being obtuse. “It's fine. I thought you'd get around to it eventually, if you could manage it.”

“To – Oh. I see.” Erwin smiled. “Again, no.” He wrung out the towel in the floor bucket beneath the hook.

“Are you sure? I've heard a lot about you limp-dicked MPs. The only ass you can get is the usual upper crust inbred – what are you doing?”

Erwin dropped the towel over Levi's face, pressed his hands on either side of the boy's head, and began to scrub vigorously. “You're soaking wet,” he said. “I'm trying to help.”

He'd expected some kind of ruffled and outraged sputtering, perhaps, some break in Levi's preternatural calm, but the only thing he got was silence, and a long, solemn stare when he lifted the towel again. Levi's black hair was ruffled into rather charming disarray, and some of the color had returned to his face.

“Motherfucker,” he said, without the slightest change in that calm and reasonable tone, as though he was commenting on the weather, “I'm going to rip your throat out.”

It was the only warning Erwin received. Levi moved faster than he could blink, and Erwin gagged in shock as one of Levi's feet struck him hard just below the adam's apple, slamming him backwards into the table as Levi leap onto him, bound hands seizing a good handful of his hair painfully. The table's edge dug into the small of his back and Erwin gasped as the rest of the breath was knocked from his lungs. Levi's weight, which had seemed so slight when he'd been wet and unconscious in Erwin's arms, was now centered directly over his lungs and solar plexus, laboring his attempts at breathing, and it no longer seemed so infinitesimal. The boy perched on him like a bird of prey atop a downed partridge, toes flexing with practiced balance.

Erwin stared up at him.

“You thought this would be pretty easy, huh?” Levi said. He sounded almost bored. “Lazy. At least those men who died were actually trying to catch me, instead of waiting to see if I'd come quietly.” His fingers tightened viciously in Erwin's hair and Erwin, hating himself, heard a tiny squeak of pain pass his own lips beyond his control. “Lazy, lazy.”

“Just – trying to be nice,” Erwin managed, amazed by how calm his own voice sounded. “You looked – cold.”

“Vulnerable,” Levi said, giving Erwin's head a rough little shake. “That's the word you want.”

“Fine. Yes.”

“Do you fool people with this nice act bullshit?” The boy peered at him. His heel pressed into Erwin's breastbone and Erwin gasped, trying to catch some modicum of breath to hold.

“Yes,” he said, hoarse and honest. “Yes, Élie, I do.”

Something angry rushed into Levi's eyes. The corners of his mouth flattened out. “I told you not to fucking call me that.”

“You don't like it?” Erwin tried to smile, grasping at the first tool he'd found that seemed capable of prying him free of what was starting to look like a very messy and unsightly death. “I think it's awfully pretty.”

“You haven't earned it.” The boy's voice was tight, now, and Erwin fancied he could feel that death grip loosening – that there was a tremble beginning in those powerful legs. No matter how strong and flexible he was, his muscles wouldn't hold him up forever, after what he'd been through.

“You said that before,” he said, deliberately soothing, like he was speaking to a child. “Is there a trial process, then? Some paperwork I should submit?”

“Do you want to die that badly, pretty boy?” Levi snarled, voice raised for the first time since Erwin had laid eyes on him. Despite himself and the pain he was in, he felt an odd warmth growing in the pit of his stomach – something like fondness, or admiration. This wild, black haired creature, half his size and still partially bound, more than capable of conquering him with indomitable will and skill alone.

Imagine, he thought. Imagine what he could do with weapons and training. Imagine what you could do with him.

“Do you?”

Levi stilled, looking momentarily unsteady.

“Do you really want to die, Levi?”

“It doesn't matter,” the boy said, but Erwin could hear the hesitation in his voice now. “It doesn't-”

Erwin moved, swinging his arm around, up and under, and punched him as hard as he could in the stomach as he rose up off the table, using his momentum. Levi slammed into the far wall with a startled yelp, and dropped face first onto the floor, unable to catch himself with his hands on time. Erwin was on top of him in an eyeblink, pressing him to the floor, while beneath him Levi bucked and struggled, growling like an animal.

Erwin wrapped a shaky hand around his throat and squeezed.

Levi stilled, all sounds dying in his throat.

“I don't want you to die,” Erwin said softly, leaning down until his head was close to Levi's ear. His breath touched the sensitive skin and he felt Levi shudder, felt the bob of his throat as he waited, his life once more in Erwin's large hands. “I don't want you to die, Élie. I want you to live.”

Levi squirmed once, under him, but Erwin could feel him straining to lift his head, to look Erwin in the eye. His mouth opened, but no sound came out.

“I want you to live, because you're magnificent,” Erwin murmured. His lips brushed Levi's ear, and the white hot curl of sensation that went through him was startling. He felt strangely divided from himself, as though there was one man, here on the floor, his free hand stroking up Levi's bare back slowly, and another standing over them both, asking what are you doing, Erwin? What are you doing? in a voice only he could hear.

That voice seemed to grow louder, suddenly, and Erwin leaned up again, releasing Levi entirely. He reeled to his feet. He could still feel the heat of Levi's back against his body, a dent in the chilly dampness that suffused them both. Levi remained where he was, half kneeling and half sprawled on the floor, his head still lifted as though waiting to hear the end of a sentence Erwin had begun but left unfinished. The look in his eyes was strange, and heated, and it made Erwin so uncomfortable that he he had to look away, unable to bear it any longer.

“Get up,” he said roughly. “Go and sit on the bed and be still.”

He heard Levi grunt quietly, and the shuffling sounds of the boy getting to his feet. When he looked back again, Levi was settling himself neatly on the still damp bed. He crossed his legs together, dropped his bound hands into his lap, and lifted his head, his eyes still on Erwin, intent and predatory. He was perfectly still, without even a shiver from cold. There was a terrible, animal grace to him, poised as he was, and Erwin had the distinct feeling that, despite this sudden and strange obedience, he'd been defeated here, somehow. Somehow, he'd lost.

Erwin stepped back, seized the chair in front of Captain Hamlin's desk, turned it around, and sat down in it heavily. The strained creak of the old wood sounded much too loud in the suddenly quiet room.

When he met Levi's eyes again, the boy looked almost as though he was smiling.

Chapter Text

“Doesn't look like much.”

Hamlin was eyeing Levi speculatively. He was curled on his side, head tucked down against his chest, black hair standing out starkly against the white sheets, deeply asleep.

“Believe me,” Erwin said, tired, “He is not to be underestimated.” His chest and throat still ached from the impact of Levi's attack, not to mention his pride and sense of center. He hadn't explained to Hamlin precisely what had happened, but she seemed to have a good idea anyway.

Levi had remained seated, just as Erwin had told him, for some minutes after they'd both fallen silent. Then, slowly, he'd half leaned, half sagged to one side, until he was tucked into a little ball, and he hadn't moved an inch afterward. Erwin suspected he'd fainted again. He'd touched Levi lightly after a while, and found him both deeply insensible and a bit feverish, and it was the latter that had moved him to throw a blanket over Levi's bare body. He suspected – hoped, really – that Levi would sleep that way for a while yet, and give Erwin some time to think.

Hamlin had returned an hour or so later, carrying an unopened bottle of expensive brandy in one hand and a heavy duty leather bag in the other, which had turned out to be full of towels, fresh clothes, and bandages, among other things. She'd glanced at both of them, and then had gone to her cabinet and taken out two glasses. Erwin was still nursing the brandy between both hands, resting his elbows on his knees. He'd given up on brushing his hair back into place. A third time was enough.

“Like a little stray cat,” Hamlin said, swirling her own glass as she leaned against her desk. “How old do you think he is?”

“God only knows.” Erwin shook his head. “Somewhere between fifteen and twenty, if I had to guess.”

“Younger than you, decidedly. I doubt if he's anywhere near twenty five.”

“Yes.”

“Orphaned, I suppose.”

“No one's come looking for him.” Erwin raked a hand through his hair and looked up at her. “I presume this means Marshal Embry was amenable to turning him over to me?”

“Not in the slightest,” Hamlin said. “He was raving about the boy's insolence to the entire pub. Sounded a bit like he'd rather put together a mob than wait for the executioner tomorrow.” She glanced at the battered clock on the wall. “Today.”

Erwin felt a strange, jerking feeling in his chest, a little chill that had nothing to do with the physical settling over him. “No? What, then? He's still to die?”

Hamlin took a quick drink, and set her glass aside. “Not yet,” she said, swallowing. “I convinced him to stay the execution for a week.”

“A week?” Erwin couldn't quite keep the indignant sharpness out of his voice. “We only have a week? To – what?”

“I won't have that tone, Smith,” Hamlin said calmly. “Or that ingratitude. Do you know how ridiculous an errand this was?”

“Ma'am,” Erwin said, lowering his head. He let out a long breath, trying to force that strange urgency out of him. “I apologize, ma'am.”

“Good.” Hamlin rapped her desk lightly with one hand. “That's better. Now I'll tell you what I've gotten you. You have one week to beat some training into him. Whatever you think will stick. Something good, I'd hope. When your time's up, you'll present him to the commandants. He will be impressive, impeccably behaved, and perfectly obedient. Like the finest showing horse you've ever handled. If he fails on any of these points, according to their standards-”

“He dies.”

“Indeed.” She cast a long look at him. “And by your hand, Erwin. Embry want your absolute cooperation in this. If you fail to train him properly, you'll be asked to cut his throat yourself, then and there.”

Erwin looked down at his drink, and then up again. Levi was still soundly asleep, his dark brow furrowed a little. Erwin was no longer fooled into pity or underestimation by his size or by his generally bedraggled state, but something about him was more than a little sad. Something about how little his impressive displays of power and his obvious desire to survive would mean, now. Something was coming home to him, something to do with his choices, and his responsibility for those choices.

“He's not an animal,” he said, quietly.

“No,” Hamlin agreed, still gazing at him. “But you've asked to be allowed to treat him like one.”

That was it. Erwin stared forward. Levi's eyelashes were as dark as his hair, and the set of his face in sleep softened his naturally harsh expression somewhat. He wasn't beautiful, necessarily – not in the way of painted portraits or glowing young social debutantes, nor in a way that would easily be described or quantified. But there was something about his overall being, the aura of him, the sheer power and presence that seemed to make him so much larger than he really was. Something painful.

Erwin had been hunting a few times, on private estates owned by friends of his father's family, during times of particular patience and paternal indulgence on his father's part. There were animals in their reserves, living placid, carefully tended existences on acres and acres of private land unimagined by the likes of the people who lived out beyond Wall Sina, animals who lived specifically for the pleasure their eventual deaths would bring. Deer, foxes, wolves, and others; they were chased, stalked, driven down, and dragged all the same, while his father's friends chuckled and toasted each other from horseback and lawn chair about what a fine new wall piece this one would be.

He'd gone once with the Marquis de Berthelier, a patron of the arts and a friend to the service, on a long wolf hunt in the winter, through the Marquis's reserve. The wolf had been a magnificent creature, shaggy and winter-coated, swift and clever, and it had given them a long and difficult chase through the snowy woods before a shot from someone's rifle had finally downed it. The creature had struggled, hurting, dying, as the Marquis braced his foot against the laboring grey body with a hearty laugh. “Not good enough to outwit me,” he'd said, as he'd put his rifle to the animal's head, as though he himself were capable of such grace, of running and leaping and twisting and dashing just as the wolf was, rather than being nothing more than a fat man who could barely sit his horse. Erwin remembered distinctly the revulsion he'd felt in that moment, the strange and sour taste of helplessness, of responsibility.

After all, he'd told himself, as he'd looked away carefully, not wanting to see the wolf die, he too had chased it down. He, too, was the hunter, and no friend to wounded and desperate beasts, no matter their beauty.

“Yes,” he said, feeling Hamlin's eyes still on him, but remembering too the sensation of Levi's small body pressed tightly against his, not resisting his hand around his throat, but only waiting, waiting to see what he would do next. “I have, haven't I?”

Hamlin smiled thinly. “In any case,” she said, “He is now officially your responsibility. From now until he dies, I suppose.”

You haven't earned it.

Erwin rose to his feet. “Thank you, Captain,” he said. “I suppose I should let you go home.” He nodded his head at the huddled little bundle on the bed. “I'll take him with me, never fear.”

“Take all this crap with you, too.” Hamlin kicked the leather bag lightly with the side of her boot. “I got some clothes, but I don't know how well they'll fit him. There's a uniform in there, too. One of the women's smaller sizes. Hopefully it'll fit him. You think you can contain him in that tiny little apartment of yours?”

“I don't really have a choice, do I?” Erwin said, smiling ruefully. “And I suppose neither does he.”

***

By some grace of God, Levi slept all the way through the slightly harrying process of getting him back to Erwin's rented rooms. It was almost sweet, Erwin thought sourly, as he picked his way down the muddied cobblestones, with Levi's head pillowed on his shoulder and his breath against Erwin's neck. Sweet, if he could forget the memory of how quickly the boy had been ready to murder him. He was thankful it was so late, as there were no other passersby at this time of night to see them and to wonder what Egon Smith's ill gotten youngest son was up to with some other lad.

Though technically most younger officers were expected to live in the barracks until they made brass, Erwin's standing both socially and academically had made it easy for his superiors to look the other way about his desire for private lodgings. He'd ended up renting the topmost floor of a three story building whose first floor was given over to a rather casual middle class eatery, and whose second was a boot shop. The building was situated near the end of a row close to Wall Sina, and he could see the great structure out of all of his westernmost windows.

The third floor was the attic, more or less, made up of one large space with two smaller rooms branching off from it. He'd converted the main room into a sort of combination living area and study, with his shelves for books lining one wall, and the small wood stove in a cleared space of it's own on the opposite. There was one wide window at one end, and two smaller ones at the other. The second largest room was his bedroom, and the third a spare room for storage, though he had little to store there. At the moment it was storing a good pile of winter blankets and the old thick cotton-stuffed mattress he'd used himself until he'd bought one of the newer spring-loaded ones last spring. The fact that he'd kept it so long, he thought, was the second of God's graces that evening.

Despite himself he was gentle as he laid Levi down again on the old mattress, still feeling the strange weight of his choice upon his back. He was more than aware that Levi would happily cut his throat if given half a chance at escaping. That much had been made clear. Erwin thought it might even be better for all involved if he simply left the door unlocked that night, giving the boy the opportunity to slip out into the darkness and disappear again. He'd probably live longer, one way or the other.

He will be impressive, impeccably behaved, and perfectly obedient.

You haven't earned it.

That expectant, almost patient look on his face. Waiting to see what Erwin would do.

You haven't earned it.

Erwin laid his hand across Levi's forehead, frowning at the warmth there, and Levi opened his eyes again, as though he'd been waiting for that touch.

“Now what,” he said.

Instead of removing his hand as though he'd been caught at something he shouldn't have been doing, Erwin let it settle flat against Levi's skin. Levi narrowed his eyes, but there was no tension in him, as though this was just the natural response to a near stranger caressing his face.

“Now you're going to rest a little,” Erwin said.

“I don't sleep very much,” Levi said, without inflection.

“You're going to right now. You've got a fever.”

“Maybe I can get to the hallucination stages by the time they string me up.”

“You're not going to be hanged.”

Levi lifted his eyebrows slightly. Erwin felt them them move. “No?” he murmured. “What am I going to be, then?”

Erwin hesitated. “Trained,” he said at last, uncomfortable both with the sound of the word and with how true it felt. “To fight as a soldier fights.”

“Soldiers don't fight properly,” Levi said, matter-of-fact. He turned his head a little, hair sliding damp and soft beneath Erwin's fingers. “Too many rules. They have too much to think about.” His eyes fixed lazily on Erwin again. “So?”

Erwin blinked. “So?”

“High society shithead, and you don't even know that it's polite to introduce yourself? I can't remember, though, what is it – lower level peons get presented to people like you, and then you graciously introduce yourself. It goes in that order, right?”

Erwin sat back, letting his hand slip away from Levi's face. “My name is Erwin Smith,” he said. “I'm a lieutenant, and I am not high society.”

“Oh, sorry.” Levi didn't smile. “I guess I missed you hanging out in the alleys and eating shit out of the garbage piles along with the rest of us, then.”

“I meant – by their definitions, that is.”

“The only ones that matter, I guess.”

“That isn't what – my mother is a parlor maid in the palace.” Erwin looked away from him, hating the little bubble of anger that had come up in the back of his throat like bile. “My pedigree affords me many opportunities to see privilege, but rarely to be a part of it.”

“Shit,” Levi said, tipping his head. “You've got a real skewed view of the world, Lieutenant Erwin Smith, you know that?”

“Nevertheless,” Erwin said, hear the prim offense in his tone and hating himself for it, “Nevertheless, Élie Levi, it is my view of the world that is saving your life-”

“Which I didn't ask you to do.”

“-and it is my view of the world that will make you great-”

“Which I didn't ask to be.”

“-and you will shut your mouth while I am speaking,” Erwin exclaimed, temper flaring beyond his control, “And be grateful for this last chance at life!” Levi opened his mouth again, and the unimpressed look on his face made heat surge into Erwin's cheeks. He reached out in a whip-quick movement, seized one of Levi's wrists, and jerked him onto his back, looming over him, huge and furious.

“You will shut your mouth,” he hissed. “You will sleep this night, and rest after your ordeal. When you wake in the morning, if I am not awake, you will sit right here, quietly, without moving an inch. Am I understood?”

Levi stared up at him. Erwin's shadow had fallen across his face. His lips were a little parted and there was a thoughtful tilt to his brows. He didn't respond, and Erwin gave him a rough shake.

“Am I understood, Levi?”

“Yes,” Levi said. His voice was a little more throaty than usual. He was watching the movement of Erwin's mouth as though fascinated by it. “I understand.”

“Good.” Erwin realized how hard he was gripping that small wrist, certain suddenly he could feel the fine bones grinding together, but Levi didn't even flinch. Instead he closed his eyes, head lolling, and drew one of his legs up bent at the knee. The inside of his thigh pressed against Erwin's hip and Erwin realized the position he was in abruptly. He released Levi's arm and got to his feet as gracefully and carelessly as he could manage, turning away to press his hand to his burning face.

“Good,” he repeated, and strode for the door, slamming it closed behind him. The lock clicked into place like the sound of a gunshot, and Erwin found himself staggering, reaching with both hands to grip the arm of the battered sofa that was the living area's centerpiece.

He bent over it, fighting for breath, and for some semblance of his emotional control, which seemed to have fled him entirely.

Chapter Text

The church bells tolling out from the Lady Cathedral woke Erwin from a sound sleep, and at first he could not fathom where he was and how he'd gotten there. The room was dark, with a faint hint of light glimmering through the western window, Wall Sina casting heavy shadow over the buildings in its vicinity. His head was facing entirely the wrong direction, and he was sweating uncomfortably under his uniform.

“Oh,” he muttered, and sat up. He was, indeed, still in his uniform, which had mostly dried but remained unpleasantly clammy in places. Now that he was upright, it was clear he was on the sofa in the living area, his legs tucked up uncomfortably tightly in order to fit. At least he'd taken off his boots.

The little wooden clock on the wall said it was somewhere past six, which meant that he'd slept only a little over four hours. He was definitely feeling the lack. His eyes felt like they'd sunk tangibly into his skull, and the skin of his face felt hot and too tight.

He remembered collapsing here in an admittedly rather childish fit of frustration and temper, unable to deny how sharply Levi's criticism had taken him. Of course he knew he was lucky. Of course he was – he'd never wanted for food or shelter or even affection, not really. However horrible his father managed to be in his silence and his judgment, his mother had ensured even on her meager salary that he wanted for very little, least of all love. Iseult Garand had been a parlor maid to the royal family for most of her life, and frequently enjoyed the Queen's favor, as had her small son for the first ten years or so of his life. Erwin hadn't understood what was wrong with his pedigree – or even that pedigrees existed – until some time after, when he'd made move to join the service at the recommendation of one of his tutors, and they had asked him more detailed questions about his parentage. The only person who hadn't been shocked when Egon had come forward to take responsibility for the young Erwin had been Iseult, who seemed to have known all along, with her customary canny certainty, that Egon would behave just so.

The first thing Erwin's father had said to him upon meeting him was, “You're a great deal like your mother, aren't you?”

Erwin knew he was. He was poised, and confident, and more than capable of controlling people until he achieved what he wanted, whether for himself or for the greater good of people he cared about. He didn't know what his mother had done to force Egon Smith's favor onto his bastard son, but it had worked, and he knew that, too, was a kind of opportunity someone like Levi had never known. No matter how much it hurt to gain.

He rubbed his hands through his hair and glanced at the closed door. Not a sound in the night had wakened him, and he supposed that if Levi had broken the window to escape, he probably wouldn't have managed to do it silently. Either the boy was still sleeping, or he really was sitting in there, silently upright, waiting as he'd been told to do. Erwin doubted that very much.

He decided to throw his concern to the wind for now. The public wash house was only a few houses down the row, and if Levi managed to escape between now and Erwin getting to finally clean his hair, then Erwin would happily consider the entire exercise a wash out. He snatched up a change of clothes, fresh belt and suspenders and all, and clattered down the stairs into the chilly morning.

The water and steam rejuvenated him. He scrubbed his hair twice through, and used the convenient bucket of dry sand to work over his arms and back as well. By the time he was done his pale skin was rubbed red and raw, and it stung a little when he submerged himself. When he caught a glimpse of himself in one of the wash house mirrors as he dried, he could see the now livid bruises that Levi had left on his throat and chest., and he thought a bit ruefully that this was probably only the beginning of such marks.

By the time Erwin began his walk back, the neighborhood bakeries were beginning to put their first loaves into the ovens, and the thick, hearty warm smell of fresh bread and pastry filled the air, undaunted by the still dark cast of Sina's great shadow. Erwin allowed himself to be tempted, this time, and mounted the stairs back to his apartment carrying a basket brimming with bread, some fresh new butter, and a hock of cheese he'd picked up from the dairy down the way.

The apartment was still silent when he returned, and he set the basket cautiously on the little table by the wood stove, and stood still, balanced on the balls of his feet, listening. When nothing was forthcoming, dismay began to settle in at last. It was possible he'd been foolish about this, investing a degree of trust in a boy who for all intent and purpose was a murderer and a serial criminal. More than possible, he thought, dour, as he crossed the living area; it was very likely. Levi had most certainly wormed his way free through the window.

I should have looked up as I left, Erwin thought. For certain I would have seen him, a little speck atop that wall.

He half smiled a little, despite himself, as the image was faintly comical. He was still smiling as he unlocked and opened the spare room door, and he felt the expression freeze nervelessly on his face.

Levi was sitting at the end of the mattress, his legs crossed, back straight, hands tucked together in his lap. He looked ruffled but alert, and he gave Erwin an interested look as Erwin appeared through the doorway. Something about him seemed off, aside from the fact that he was still there at all. Erwin looked down.

The cuffs he'd been wearing sat neatly on the mattress next to Levi's thigh. They'd been shattered into halves.

“Are you feeding me,” Levi said, “Or can I get up now?” His tone gave no indication of any resentment or anger, as though he'd only coincidentally chosen to do precisely what Erwin had told him to do hours ago in a fit of temper. He blinked a few times, reasonable and feline, and Erwin fought the urge to step back away from him in alarm.

“Yes,” he said. It was all he could manage.

Levi bobbed his head as though they were old society friends who'd met just now by chance at a dinner party, and he got to his feet with no apparent difficulty. Erwin stepped numbly out of his way, and the boy went out into the living area as though it were perfectly normal circumstance for him to be here.

“I thought you'd have a better place than this,” he said. Erwin closed the door, blinking.

“Well,” he said. “A soldier's pay isn't very impressive.”

“Apparently not.” Levi glanced at him, and then made a beeline for the basket of food.

“How – are you feeling?” Erwin said, after a moment. Levi didn't look at him; he'd seated himself on the table, small enough to fit when he tucked his legs up, and it would have been charming if Erwin's mind hadn't been occupied by the continuous, mildly hysterical question of how the hell he'd managed to crack solid iron cuffs to free himself. There were ugly bruised marks around Levi's slim wrists, and a place or two where the skin had been rubbed raw, and Erwin's gaze fixed there as Levi pulled half a loaf of bread out of the basket and bit into it without further ado.

“Fine,” Levi said, placid and chewing. “I don't stay sick for long.” He swallowed. “Don't you look fresh.”

“There's a public wash house down the street. I haven't bathed since early yesterday. I thought it'd be best if I didn't stink too badly.”

Levi snorted, which seemed to be what passed for a laugh, for him. “You stink of bullshit, mostly,” he said, and took another decisive bite of the loaf he'd commandeered.

Erwin shrugged, a little helplessly. “Why didn't you leave?” he said.

Levi stilled.

“It wouldn't have been hard,” Erwin went on, coming forward until he stood next to the table. Levi watched him, pale eyes sharp beneath his dark brow. “The window's not even locked.”

The boy didn't answer. He stared at Erwin, and then looked away, taking another bite of bread.

“Levi,” Erwin said, low. “Why didn't you?” He needed to know, very badly, very suddenly.

“I thought,” Levi said, his voice a little tight, “That I'd give you a chance, and see if you were as big as you talked, or if you were full of shit.” When he looked up at Erwin again, he seemed strangely angry, like Erwin had made yet another misstep somewhere that he hadn't even noticed. “So far, you're full of so much shit that not even a hundred baths could get the stench off.”

“I don't,” Erwin begin, and that was as far as he got before Levi barreled into him, headfirst. He half grabbed at one of the wooden table chairs as he went down, and it clattered loudly to the floor next to him as Levi's knee dug painfully into his stomach, Levi's hand fixed around his next, his palm pressed hard against Erwin's windpipe.

“Stop fucking doing this,” Levi said. He sounded calm, but there was a terrible, frustrated blaze in his eyes. “Stop fucking pretending. If that's all you're gonna do, then I'm not just going to leave. I'm going to open you up from throat to dick and leave you to whine about how inconvenient it is that you're bleeding to death. You want to be the kind of man who trains soldiers? You've never even seen a fucking Titan, have you? You can't just-”

His angry screed turned into a startled squawk as Erwin kneed him in the back, hard, and seized at his other hand, jerking him over and onto his side. He reached out in a motion so fluid he could hardly believe it was his own and seized Levi by the hair, pulling him back again, until Levi's shoulders crashed into his chest, and he could wrap his free arm around the boy's chest and arms.

“Have you?” he growled, and leaned forward over Levi's shoulder, holding his head back at a rather brutal angle. “Have you ever seen a Titan?”

“Everyone's a Titan to me.” Levi craned his neck against Erwin's grip on him, looking at him out of the corner of his eye. He was smiling, strange and wicked. “Especially you, fuckhead.”

His elbow jabbed into Erwin's ribs, and Erwin let him go with a grunt of pain, pushing himself backwards to avoid whatever Levi's next attack would be. But Levi didn't come back. He got to his feet and, with a single small hop, was back on the tabletop, coiled as comfortably as he'd been before, while Erwin sat on the floor, his chest aching painfully.

“Stop doing that,” Levi said, conversational. He turned and rummaged in the basket for some of the cheese.

“Stop – doing what?” Erwin grunted, staggering upright. He was tired of double talk, tired of being spoken to as though there was a part of this conversation he wasn't privy to. “What am I doing wrong?”

Maddeningly, infuriatingly, Levi only shrugged. “I don't know.”

“You don't know?”

“I don't know what it is. But it's wrong.”

Erwin felt hazy, a little dizzy. He reached out again, dreamlike, and his fist found Levi's hair once more, dragged him forward with no room for conversation; he bent the boy's head back and he leaned down and then he was biting Levi's lower lip, not playfully, catching the short little choking exhale on the tip of the boy's tongue before it could escape. He kissed Levi and he felt Levi surge under him, up into him, taking hold of a fistful of his nice, freshly pressed shirt; he felt Levi rumble deep inside somewhere where the monster that was his true face slept, and he pressed him down against the table until Levi was on his back, the basket pushed aside, one of the boy's hand's still clutching his clothing and the other thrown careless over his head. The position must have been painful, but when he lifted his head again, trying to catch his breath, the only thing on Levi's face was an odd and dreamy kind of confusion, as though Erwin had just spoken to him in a language he hadn't known he understood until that very moment. He was shuddering – they both were, Erwin realized, and he let Levi go again.

Levi remained where he was, sprawled on his back, his face flushed and his eyes hazy.

“You'll have to do better than 'I don't know,'” Erwin said, amazed by the calm in his voice. “In the future.”

“Oh,” said Levi, rolling his head towards Erwin. “I will endeavor to, Erwin.”

“Get off the table.” Erwin felt an odd buoyancy in him, now, something discomforting in its honesty. “Go and sit on the sofa.”

Levi rolled to his side and landed in a feline crouch on the floor. He rose and went to the sofa, where he sat, almost politely, and looked at Erwin with a mildly questioning expression.

“I meant what I said, before,” Erwin said. “I don't want you to die.” He took a breath, trying to find himself through the strange and unsettling fog in his head. “If I don't find some way to convince you to cooperate, they want me to kill you myself.”

For once, Levi didn't seem to have a swift reply. He tipped his head a little, listening.

“I don't want to do that.” Erwin looked at the floor, his stomach tight, now. “I don't – it has nothing to do with anything that – none of this. It isn't fair.”

“Fair?” Levi repeated, softly.

“That a man like me can decide on what happens to your life on a whim.”

Levi was silent a moment.

“What kind of man are you, then?” he said, finally. The intensity was back in his eyes, the strange and predatory curiosity. But Erwin sensed something else there, this time – something strangely gentle. He smiled faintly.

“I don't know,” he said. “I suppose that's what this little exercise is meant to discover. I thought I knew, but I'm beginning to suspect that I'm not as well informed as I thought I was.”

He expected Levi to voice some form of agreement, but the boy only shrugged, leaning slightly against the sofa's wooden arm. “Come here,” he said.

Erwin paused, and then walked to him, and Levi rose up on his knees, then stood; it put him a little over Erwin's height, which Erwin found oddly charming.

He smiled. Levi quirked an eyebrow, then reached for his throat with one hand, quickly but not with the snake-fast movement of before. Erwin seized his wrist again before Levi's hand could even make contact, and pulled it aside, and he was close enough to see the boy's eyes soften, the heavy set of his brow even out, and the strange, faint confusion filter into his expression. It looked a lot like hope.

“That's better,” Levi murmured, and pulled himself free.

Chapter Text

I feel like you're in a tighter spot than you think you are, Smith.” Rademaker was perched on one of the exercise bars at the edge of the obstacle training field, his Gear in a neat stack beneath him. Another set of Gear was piled next to it. Erwin looked up at him with a weary squint. He'd begun to feel the effects of his lack of sleep not long after they'd arrived. “Embry's on fire, you know.”

“I thought he might be,” Erwin said, though in truth he hadn't even thought that far. It had been more than a little dismaying to arrive at the barracks with Levi in tow to find most of his fellow soldiers staring openly at them. Especially after the morning he'd had.

He'd spent the walk pushing all thoughts of their encounter on the table – and what a delicate word for it that is, Erwin Smith, he thought – from his mind, trying to remind himself of what was at stake. He hadn't been operating under some forceful drive of sexual urgency then, he was fairly certain. In fact he'd felt a strange nothingness about the kiss, both during and after, like someone had come along and laid muffling gauze over the rest of the world.

It hadn't been a sudden narrowing of focus onto Levi, either; the boy had become a kind of background noise for a while, Erwin aware of his presence as he ate and dressed himself and washed his face in the kitchen basin, but strangely uninterested in the details of him at that time. Levi for his part had done nothing to try to wrench Erwin's attention back to him again. He'd accompanied Erwin readily enough, without any kind of public scene, though Erwin understood by now that loud outbursts weren't really within Levi's patterns of behavior. He'd walked calmly at Erwin's side, keeping up with him perfectly easily, his head held high and alert.

It gave the entire affair a kind of dream-like quality. Coupled with the alarming little mystery of the broken cuffs, it would have been easy, Erwin thought, to pretend he'd dreamed the entire thing. Certainly the kissing of men was outlandish enough to qualify for dreaming behavior. Erwin knew, of course, that people of such inclinations existed, and he wished them no harm, but it was quite a different thing to find himself straddling the line between categories as well. There was a magnetic something about Levi, that much was fact, but what precisely it was was much less certain. Erwin had heard many a tale and song about love and romance, and none of those came anywhere close to describing how he was feeling now.

Frustrated was closer. Controlled was closer. Uncertain. Uncomfortable. Angry, even, this over the impression Erwin had that despite his continued passiveness, Levi was doing something to him. Something single-minded and deliberate. Playing nice and reasonable with Levi had only made the feeling worse. Losing his temper seemed to have better results, but only towards Levi behavior. Levi's control, over himself and seemingly over Erwin, seemed an advanced and unbreakable thing, made all the more frustrating by the fact that Erwin could point to no particular behavior to evidence it.

When they'd reached the barracks Rademaker had caught up with him first, and let him know quietly but with friendly concern that Marshal Embry had been loudly telling the story of Erwin's proposal to anyone who would listen, with a heavy side of angry pessimism. “He's telling everyone that Egon's kid has gone off the rails,” he said now, grinning slightly down at Erwin. “Your father's going to have kittens, I'll bet. If he isn't already.”

Jonas Rademaker had entered the service in the same trainee group as Erwin, though he was a year or so younger, and they'd kept up a friendly camaraderie since, though Rademaker seemed to understand intrinsically that Erwin was by his nature a rather solitary creature, and as such made no extreme overtures of friendship. After graduation he'd moved on to trainee intake, which seemed to mean spending the requisite handful of hours shouting newcomers around the obstacle courses, and then retiring to a shared office for the rest of the afternoon for a nap or a game of cards or similar. Erwin didn't begrudge him his lax scheduling; there was so little call for MP members to actually use their Gear that no one really seemed to care whether or not any of them could fly properly or not.

“I'm sure I'll be receiving a courier about it any moment now,” Erwin said, sighing. “Even the Captain seems to think I've gone mad.”

“Haven't you?” Rademaker said, raising his eyebrows. “I know you've always been a little... ambitious, but I always thought you'd just, you know.” He shrugged. “Make use of all your charm, and whatnot. Work your way up. Not press-gang some street trash into service so you can prove a point.”

Erwin didn't reply for a moment. He looked out across the course, at the small figure standing under the large, straw mock-Titan set up in the center. The trainee uniform Captain Hamlin had dug up for him had fit him well enough, and he could have passed for any ordinary young soldier on first glance. When they'd reached the training ground, he'd left Erwin's side without a word, and had begun to walk from place to place on the ground, tower to tower, bar to bar, staring up at it all solemnly.

“What's he doing?” Rademaker said, twisting his hands around the bar he was sitting on. “You can't see all the handholds from the bottom. You have to be up top.”

“Walking the course, I think.” Erwin glanced at him. “Like you do in a jumping competition, you know. You lead the horse around and the two of you have a look at everything on the ground.”

Rademaker chuckled. “I suppose he'd be taller if he tried to do it on horseback,” he said. “Though I doubt he'd get very far. Really, Smith – what is this about? Embry didn't even seem to know what you wanted.”

“Something needs to change,” Erwin said, slowly. “Why did two trained officers fall off that Wall, when someone who's never even touched a Gear set didn't have any trouble with it? What does he do that's different? He said to me that our soldiers don't train properly, and in all honestly, I've felt similarly for a long time. All of this--” he swept a hand across the field, “--is to teach us how to defend ourselves against them. But most of us have never even seen them, and of course--”

“--On paper and in the field are two different things,” Rademaker finished for him, shaking his head. “Sure, of course. But what do you expect? There's hardly any point in Military Police training to fight Titans, Smith. We're never going to see one. The walls are impenetrable. They can't even be climbed. I mean, maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea for us to be better prepared just in case, but how would we get around to doing that? You think they should start sending Survey Corp out beyond the Wall to wrangle some smaller Titans for the likes of us to practice on? Those guys can barely keep a Commander alive, much less enough personnel to do something like that.”

“I've heard there's someone at Grace University who has some ideas about Titan experiments.” Erwin kept his face studiously straight as Rademaker's mouth gaped open. “There was some to-do about her proposal a few months ago, I think.”

“Because she was crazy,” Rademaker exclaimed. “Some middle-tier orphan girl here on scholarship who thinks that the Military Police should be positioned on every wall, and equipped with, what was it, heavy duty nets? Spear guns with ropes attached? And something about Titan pheromones? I heard the University council wanted her tried as a heretic!”

Erwin shrugged. “I only said I'd heard about it,” he said, non-committal. “In any case, it's only a side-thought. All I meant was if there's a better way to do what we're already doing, I think that I can find it. And I think that Levi is an excellent candidate for a new way of fighting. I intend to instruct him, yes, but I think his input will be just as valuable as mine.” He did feel that, he found, despite the tense, tightly-wound sensation in the pit of his stomach that seemed to have taken up a permanent lodging there. Whatever else, he did believe that Levi was capable.

“That's a lot of faith in one person.” Rademaker looked out at the field again. Levi was coming towards them again, taking his time with the long walk. “Especially someone like him.”

“He has a great deal more to lose than I do,” Erwin said, “By trusting me.” This, too, was true, much as he hated to admit it even to himself. “I would like to give him a chance.”

“It's your neck on the line,” Rademaker muttered, and leapt down from the bar easily. “Levi,” he called. “What do you think?”

Levi glanced at him as he approached, dusting his hands together lightly. “It's pretty small,” he said. “The course. Shouldn't it be taller?”

“Probably,” Rademaker agreed cheerily. “Though it's about as high up as any of us will ever get, save for ceremonial Wall walking during parades and inspections and so on. You want to try this Gear on, practice balancing the harness a little?”

“Not yet.” Levi looked at Erwin. “I'm going to see how far I can get.”

“How far you can get-?” Rademaker said, but Erwin already had an idea of what he meant.

Levi didn't wait for further word from either of them. He centered himself under the bar Rademaker had been balanced on, leapt up, caught it, and pulled himself up into a crouch with no apparent effort. He rose up and quick walked, one foot after the other, the length of the bar, and when he reached the end he jumped. He caught the edge of the high stone wall positioned next to the bars and pulled himself up with both hands, his feet kicking off the wall, and then he was perched on the wall's top edge, racing down it for the next obstacle. He cleared the top of a makeshift battlement wall in a single leap and landed catlike on the other side, only pausing a moment for balance before he was off and running again.

“Good Lord,” Rademaker muttered, watching with a faintly admiring grin on his face. “Where do you suppose he learned how to do that?”

Erwin didn't answer. He was watching Levi. Every glimpse of the boy's face that he had revealed nothing, only that now familiar expression of distanced intensity, as though his mind was far away from what his body was doing. The acrobatic ability he'd only had hints of before was in full display now, as Levi ran and jumped and rolled over obstacles designed for fully trained soldiers in properly balanced Gear. He skittered a few times, and nearly fell a few more, but always he righted himself and kept on, doggedly moving forward in an increasingly smaller spiral.

“He's going for the Titan,” Rademaker said, clearly also unable to tear his eyes away. Erwin felt another little twist of anxiety – the jump from platform to the mock-Titan was much longer than any of the others, meant to give the trainee room to swing around if needed.

Levi didn't slow. He reached the edge of the platform, jumped, and missed his grip on the Titan's arm.

“Shit,” Erwin hissed, under his breath, as Levi dropped some twenty five feet to the sand. He landed, half on his buttocks and half on his back, and rolled as he did so, coming up in an unsteady crouch at the mock-Titan's feet. He looked up at them after a moment.

“Let's try the Gear this time,” he called.

He was less successful in the Gear, as it turned out, but this didn't seem to bother him very much. Instead he seemed to regard it as more of a burden than a help. “Feels restrictive,” he complained, perched on top of one of the walls again with the Gear's straps digging into his legs. “Do you people really not learn how to do anything without a safety net?”

“I guess not,” Erwin said, from below. Levi was taking the course at a slower pace this time; he'd insisted he didn't need time to get used to the harness balance, and that seemed to be more or less true. Erwin was walking it with him, trying not to remember his earlier observations about walking horse-jumping courses with the horse. “There doesn't seem to be much need for them, most of the time.”

“I bet Survey Corp disagrees with you,” Levi said, adjusting his trousers with a frown. He stretched one leg up and out, and then the other. “I don't really know how to make the Titan jump.”

“You have to trust the Gear,” Erwin said. “And accept that you're not going to fall.”

“I still might.”

“No, the Gear will definitely catch you if you've fired it right.”

Levi snorted. “And Gear's always reliable, right? Doesn't it break sometimes? Or misfire? Or run out of gas? Nothing's reliable every time.”

“The Walls, at least.” Erwin smiled a little. “Can't we believe in that?”

“No,” Levi said, “And I'll tell you why.” He jumped down in front of Erwin and straightened up, slapping the slide of the wall he'd been standing on. “You think I climbed Sina by some combination of skill and miracle, right?” His expression said fairly clearly what he thought of miraculousness being applied to any part of him.

“Yes?” Erwin said, a little more stiffly than he meant to, certain that his embarrassment was red and visible across his face. “I suppose I do.”

Levi slapped the wall again. “You trust Sina to be perfect. It isn't. Look.” He pointed. There was a slight groove in the rock face, smudged white with the passage of many boots. “And here.” A slight crack in the stone, wide enough, maybe, for a single finger to fit through. He looked up at Erwin. “That's what Sina looks like up close.”

Erwin frowned. “I assume it's been weathered some, surely, but...”

“More than some. You lazy fuckers barely even glance at it from anything but a distance. Up close, it's full of grooves and holes and cracks. Yeah, I had a running start off a rooftop to get there, but I climbed Sina because I know how to climb and I'm not afraid to fall, not because I know some special trick to it. Anyone could do it, if they had the balls.”

Erwin felt chilled, suddenly. “Anyone?”

Levi shrugged. “Anyone with decent balance.”

The truth of what he was saying began to filter in. Of course, there were soldiers who patrolled Wall Sina, but they were as laid back as the rest of the Garrison behind it, fully assured that no Titan would ever make it so far into human cities. Erwin doubted that they even glanced at the Wall's surface for more than a moment or two as they ascended and descended. Trainees in the force spent more time on the Walls for practice, but nearly all new initiates did their training out on Rose and Maria. Erwin wondered if they, too, were showing such obvious signs of weathering.

“Someone should know,” he murmured.

“I really doubt they give a shit,” Levi said.

“They should,” Erwin said, a little angrily, and to his surprise Levi nodded in brief agreement.

“Yeah,” he said, “But they won't. And that's why I don't trust their shit, or their Gear. You can't just put something in place to protect you and then assume it's going to work forever. Shit happens. Things fail. Things break. Nothing is safe. Nowhere is safe. There is no safety net.”

Erwin looked away. Rademaker had received some kind of summons a while earlier and had disappeared inside the barracks, leaving the two of them alone.

“Trust in yourself, then,” he said, finally. “Trust that even if you miss, and fall, you'll be able to get back up. That even if you don't make it the first time, you'll have a chance at a second. I suppose that's what I would do.”

“You suppose?” Levi repeated, tipping his head a little. “Is that why you're like this, then?”

Erwin looked at him sharply. “Like what?”

“A meek little suck up who thinks he can play it safe by never committing to anything?” There was a barb in the words, sure enough, and Levi's pale eyes were more narrow than usual, that hunting look returned to them. Erwin struggled for a moment with his indignation, and nearly lost before he mastered it.

“I have committed to you, at the very least,” he said stiffly. “Or do you disagree?”

Levi snorted. “I do,” he said.

“Then what exactly is your idea of commitment, Élie?” Erwin retorted, purposely putting a heavier emphasis on the name than he might have. Levi stiffened immediately, something approaching real hatred in his eyes.

“You're pathetic, asshole,” he said, calm voice not at all matching the look on his face. “You get one little bit of leverage and you never reach any higher.” He spread his hands, the Gear on his hips clanking. “Congratulations. You've got my life in your hands and you get to call me by a name I hate whenever the fuck you want. Good for you. You're on the same level as all those other fuckers you seem to hate so much. The only difference between you and that Embry asshole is that at least he's pissed off that some people died because of me.”

Erwin opened his mouth to reply, but there were no words forthcoming. He felt the uncomfortable internal chill that usually preempted nausea.

“Levi,” he said, a little hoarse. “I'm sorry.”

Levi drew back with visible shock, the tense lines around his mouth and eyes disappearing. Erwin felt the urge to reach out to him, to touch the shaggy black hair in reassurance, but the tension in the boy's shoulders was as visible as the bared teeth of a cornered dog. “I mean it,” he said. “I'm sorry. I don't want to be cruel to you.”

“I don't care if you're cruel,” Levi muttered, looking away. “That isn't – the point.”

“And you don't know what the point is,” Erwin said gently. Levi shook his head, his gaze still averted. “All right. That's fine. I suppose I'll need to do some thinking of my own.”

“Don't suppose,” Levi said, glancing at him briefly. “Just do it.”

Erwin half-smiled, but caught movement out of the corner of his eye before he could say more. Rademaker was gesturing to him frantically from the edge of the course. “Hold on,” he said to Levi. “I'll be right back.”

“You need to either get out of here quick, or get ready for some pain,” Rademaker said when Erwin reached him. He had a faintly wild look in his eyes. “Your father's here, and he wants to see you.”

Chapter Text

Erwin had marched nearly the full length of the barracks' easternmost breezeway before Levi caught up with him; he could hear the slightly quicker tap of his boots on the stone as he measured his pace to keep up. For a moment he wanted to tell Levi to turn back, to wait for him out on the grounds until he was done being dressed down and very likely disowned, but he didn't. Other soldiers were milling about, going this way and that about their own business, and Erwin had no interest in making a scene, especially as one promised to unfold shortly anyway, beyond his control. He was feeling something very strange as he tried to steel himself for what was coming.

It wasn't fear. His mother Iseult had told him time and again that she was quite certain he'd been born without fear, at least for himself. As a child he'd scaled the palace towers, eaten any manner of strange insect he could find in the garden, and had begun his horse riding lessons on the head cook's faithful draught horse, a creature who stood some eighteen hands high, when he was barely six. Erwin did not meet often with fear, and the few times he did so were calm and cordial encounters.

Nor was it anxiety, though the urgency in it felt similar. He listened to the unhesitating step of Levi's pace at his back, the long familiar quiet clanking of a full Gear set as its wearer moved, and the image of a faithful beast crept into his head again, unbidden. The boy had been furious at him moments before, but had still turned to follow him when it had become clear Erwin was experiencing some measure of distress.

“Levi,” he said, sensing Levi's attention on him, “Whatever happens, you aren't required to answer to anyone but me, here. Do you understand?”

“Sure,” Levi said. He didn't sound winded in the slightest, though he must have jogged a bit to catch up. Erwin half turned, glancing at him, and Levi met his eyes as he did. His dark brow was furrowed, somewhere between consternation and what might have been worry.

“Good.” As the word left him Erwin understood abruptly what it was he was feeling. It was anger.

How dare he, he thought, eyes forward fixedly. How dare he come here to dress me down in front of the entire barracks. He has no right.

He rounded the breezeway corner into one of the open meeting alcoves. Egon was facing the entryway, tall and pale and imposing in his fine clothes, his expression coldly furious as he spoke swiftly and quietly with another man who had his back turned. His words died in mid sentence the moment Erwin came into view, and his eyes fixed on his son like a hunting snake's.

“Well,” he said, evenly. “I see what the Commander has been telling me is true.”

“I apologize, Lieutenant Smith,” said the other man, turning to face him with a faint and apologetic smile. “It wasn't my intention to get you into some kind of trouble. Or, in fact, to inform Lord Smith about this recent to-do at all.”

Erwin kept his expression calm by an effort of will. The other man was as bald as an egg, with deep lines around his eyes and mouth and a neatly kept mustache gone white with age.

“Commander Pixis,” he said, and saluted sharply. He had only encountered the Wall Garrison commander a few times since his enlistment, but nearly everyone knew the man on sight. He seemed to be everywhere, at once, in every district; he kept friends in places both high and low, and to all reports valued them equally. He was known as an eccentric to most, but Captain Hamlin had always spoken of him with high and personal esteem, and so far as Erwin was concerned her opinions had greater weight than those of the peerage. Of course Pixis would be acquainted with Egon Smith – Egon was a vocal and monetary supporter of the military forces, and kept close ties with any member of the brass in particular standing – but Erwin was fairly sure that Pixis would keep his own council as to Erwin's recent actions. From behind him, he heard a vague humming noise, as though Levi had read his mind, and had decided this was a surprisingly interesting development.

“At ease,” Pixis said, waving a hand slightly. “I only tagged along with Egon here because we were rather in the middle of a conversation when he decided to march off.” He tipped his head a little, canny eyes looking past Erwin. “Ah, hello. You must be the man of the hour.”

There was no response from behind him, and Erwin didn't look to check on Levi's response. Egon was still staring at him.

“I would like for you to explain yourself to me, Erwin,” he said. “I assume there is an extremely good reason for this – this.” He made a faint gesture with one hand in Erwin and Levi's direction. “You are a clever boy, I'm aware, so I'm certain it's a very impressive and interesting story.”

“Sir,” Erwin said, maintaining eye contact. “I suppose it is.”

“You suppose.” Egon smiled thinly, like the sharp edge of a knife had just appeared across his face in place of a mouth. “I don't know what sort of people you 'suppose' the Smith family is comprised of, but I can assure you we are neither a family of storytellers, nor one of heretics.”

“Heretics, sir?” Erwin could hear the maddening reasonableness in his own tone, and he felt an unmistakable pang of smug satisfaction. The color beginning to grow in Egon's cheeks was one of the first signs Erwin had ever seen of his father losing control of his temper properly. “I'm sorry, I'm not sure I understand.”

Indeed, Egon bristled, slight but visible. “Are you trying to make a mockery of me?” he demanded, stepping forward. “Is this some latent teenage rebellion you've kept to yourself all this time? What in God's name possessed you to – to take charge of this creature against the wishes of both the military court and society itself?”

“You said yourself that the trial was a mockery of justice, sir,” Erwin said. “I agree with you.”

“You agree with--” Egon stopped and took a breath, bringing the volume of his voice under control with an obvious effort. “You twist my words.”

“No, sir.” Erwin shook his head slightly, but did not take his eyes off his father. “You thought he should be given a fair trial, and this is what I consider fair.”

“You are not the law!” Egon bellowed, his voice ringing suddenly off the stone. A few gawking new officers nearby decided there was something much more interesting to be found in the training yard and scurried away. Erwin took a step back despite himself, and found himself shoulder to shoulder with Levi, who hadn't moved.

Egon stormed forward, and before Erwin could even make sense of his action he'd seized Levi under the chin, half dragging him forward and jerking his head upright at a painful angle. The Gear he was wearing clanked heavily. Levi made a faint grunting sound of surprise, his hands half lifting to protect himself, then dropping again a little helplessly. His eyes had gone very wide, but he was still, terribly still.

“Do you not recognize the heretical when you see it, Erwin?” Egon said, giving Levi a rough shake. “Look at him! Is it not obvious what he is?”

“Father,” Erwin begin, and Egon gave another yank, turning Levi around fully to face Erwin. His fingers were digging cruelly into Levi's jaw and throat, but the boy still made no move to pull away, though Erwin could see the rage in his eyes and the wideness of his flared nostrils.

“Look at him,” Egon repeated, his voice a hiss. “Does he look like a proper and God fearing human being to you? He's a God-forsaken Mystic! One of the Wandering Heretics! A Wall-Breacher!”

Erwin knew the words, and what they referred to. Everyone knew. Even in an organized society like theirs, even behind safe walls and in the warm glow of God and certainty, there were outsiders. It was said they'd come along only a few years after the Walls had gone up, from somewhere out in the abandoned world, bearing unholy magics and God-defying traditions, that they'd brought diseases of body and soul alike with them. Most of the Mystic people lived in close groups of small neighborhoods, often forced up against the nearest Wall to avoid mixing with normal people. At first, it was said, they'd spoken of travel beyond the Walls, of distant and impossible civilizations of other peoples who had rejected God's gift of imposing physical protection, but a few decades worth of civilizing at the hands of the Wallist Church had convinced them of the value of silence. Erwin had no concept of them beyond that. He'd never needed to have one. He'd only needed to know enough to know that they were different, and meant to be kept far away from civilized lives such as his.

“A Mystic,” he repeated, and glanced up at Pixis, who regarded him in kind with a expression of perfect indifference. There was no help from that quarter, neither in explanation or in freeing Levi from Egon's arrogant breach of the boy's bodily autonomy.

He met Levi's eyes again. The boy was pale all over now, breathing hard through his nose, his skin reddened where Egon was gripping him. There was some plea in his expression, something furious and repulsed – not a cry for salvation, or even for understanding.

Erwin thought he knew.

You haven't earned it, he heard again, that persistent echo of the last day and a half, but this time there was an addition, one just as angry and just as wounded.

But try to. Try. Try, for once in your stupid, easy life. Live up to it. Live up to me.

Calmly he took Egon's wrist in a strong grip and wrenched it smoothly to one side. His father made a sound he'd never heard before, and suspected he never would again – a pained and shocked sound.

“Levi,” Erwin said, “Come and stand behind me again, please.”

Levi lowered his head, slowly, and stepped away from Egon without looking back. Erwin kept his grip on Egon's arm, even as his father stared up at him, his face contorted with rage and disbelief. He caught a brief glimpse of Commander Pixis, standing out of the way, watching them all with a vaguely thoughtful expression.

“How dare you-” Egon began, but Erwin raised his voice over the protest, the authority of certainty flooding him.

“No,” he said. “I understand that you are dismayed by this choice I've made, Father. I suspected you would be. If you like, We can discuss further details of what it entails in private, in reasonable and civilized voices. However, I have taken personal responsibility for Levi, here. His crimes of action are also my responsibility, which is why I have pledged—” his voice rose again, by way of projection rather than volume, “--to end his life with my own hands if he fails me. As such, you will not touch him.”

He let go.

Egon staggered back again, momentarily off balance, and tried to bluster his way back into some position of dignity and authority. Erwin watched him coolly, thinking for the first time in his life how interesting it was that at only twenty five, he was several inches taller than his father, and certainly built more strongly as well.

He turned, and smiled at Pixis, cordial. “There's no need to apologize, Commander,” he said. “The situation is perfectly under control.”

Pixis nodded, as though the incident had been nothing more than a brief philosophical discussion. “Clearly,” he said, and looked at Levi again. “Levi, isn't it? Not 'Rivaille.'”

“Yes, sir,” Levi said, without resistance.

Pixis smiled, and then he said something in a language Erwin had never heard before, something rolling and guttural, but oddly elegant. Erwin glanced at Levi. The boy's mouth was open in apparent shock. After a moment, however, he lifted his head and replied, a word or two that sounded similar. Pixis nodded again, his question obviously answered.

“Well,” he said, “That's fine. I'm told the two of you will be showing us the results of your teamwork in at the end of the week?”

“Yes, sir,” Erwin said. “Levi has a number of good ideas regarding the better use of our Gear and our combat training time.”

“Does he, now?” Pixis sounded genuinely pleased. “I'm glad to hear it. It's long past time someone tried to shake things up a bit. Smith, you haven't considered a reassignment to Survey Corp by chance, have you? Seems to me those poor bastards could use some new ideas more than anyone.”

“Ridiculous,” Egon said. His voice was a little rough, but he seemed deflated, now, uncertain. “Absolutely ridiculous. The entire exercise is a waste of time and resources – of my own money, in fact.” Some of the fire seemed to return to him, and he fixed on Erwin again.

“Your mother is a decent woman,” he said, “Despite her position of birth. She would be ashamed of this behavior. I'm ashamed of it. I want nothing further to do with it.” He drew himself up again. “From this point on I wash my hands of you. You are no longer my son. You never should have been in the first place. I will no longer be held responsible for your outrageous behavior, nor will I be embarrassed by your – tainted associations.”

Before Erwin could muster a response, Levi spoke up abruptly.

“You know what's embarrassing?” he said. “A man who's obviously got no problem with adultery lecturing anybody about fucking decorum or outrageous behavior.”

“He has a point,” Erwin murmured. “I'm not sure you're in a position to make judgments about such things. Despite your position of birth.”

Egon's mouth snapped shut. Pale spots had appeared beneath his eyes, and the lines around his mouth were jaggedly drawn by the tension in his face. He looked at Pixis a little wildly, and then whirled around and stormed away. Idling MP officers were forced to step out of his way as he went.

Erwin felt a little light-headed. “That, I suppose, is that,” he said, and nodded at Pixis. “I'm sorry for the scene, sir. I had no intention of... of... well.” He smiled, weakly. “Of any of that.”

“Nor did Egon, I think,” Pixis said. He'd hooked his thumbs into his uniform belt, and was staring off in the direction Egon had gone. “Shame. He'll probably vote to have Levi killed no matter how well you do. He'll have the right as a financial backer, of course.”

Levi snorted, utterly untouched by the possibility. “Whatever happens to me,” he said, “It won't change the fact that he's a pathetic piece of shit.”

“It isn't his decision,” Erwin said. “Nothing to do with me is, anymore.” He felt a little hollow, saying it. “I hope he's not expecting me to change my name. That'd be a great deal of hassle.”

“Smith is common enough,” said Pixis. He straightened up and leaned over, trying to get a glimpse of the sun through the breezeway. “Ah, it must be about noon. I should get going.” He turned a little, and held out his hand to Levi, who took it. “I'm looking forward to hearing what you've got in mind,” he said. “Do let me know if you need anything.”

“Of course, sir,” Erwin said. “I – thank you for your faith.”

“I like a bit of a gamble, now and then.” Pixis grinned at him, and stepped between them. “Good luck,” he added over his shoulder.

***

“What did he say to you?” Erwin asked, hesitant.

They'd returned to Erwin's apartment immediately after Erwin's disowning; the desire to continue working had decidedly left Erwin, and it seemed to have left Levi too. The boy had taken up a perch on the back of the sofa in the living area, with an unfamiliar, defeated sort of slump to his shoulders. He looked up at the sound of Erwin's voice. There were livid marks on his jaw and upper throat, solidifying into bruises still.

“He asked me what my family was.” He paused. “There are different types of... us.”

Erwin hesitated again, and then sat on the opposite end of the sofa, watching him. Levi looked away, fingers curling around the edge of the sofa's back.

“What did you tell him?”

Ashkenazim.” Levi's eyes were on the window, and the wall beyond. “That's what we call ourselves. We used to live in the North Corner against the other side of Sina.”

“You're from the other side.”

“Yeah.”

“Did you climb over?”

Levi glanced at him, and to Erwin's surprise he smiled a little, genuine. “You think I'm pretty amazing, I guess,” he said. “No Wall can stop me.”

Erwin smiled back. “I do,” he said. Levi shook his head.

“I didn't climb it,” he said. “I went up a few quarters and stowed away on a ferry through the Sina gate.”

“Why did you leave?”

Levi fell silent for a long moment then, and his gaze drifted away towards the window again.

“There was a plague,” he said at last, putting his chin in his hand and resting his elbow on his knee. “I don't know how old I was. Old enough to walk. Everyone got sick. I got better. My parents and sisters didn't. Most other people didn't either, and the ones who did moved away. Eventually, the military decided to burn the village to keep the illness from spreading to anybody else.” He rolled his slim shoulders in a shrug. “I ran. I didn't want to die.”

Erwin leaned back against the sofa's arm, watching him. He watched to touch him, then, and not selfishly as before – he wanted to reach past that cold exterior and offer comfort, some reassurance that all of Levi's running hadn't been in vain. A part of him thought that the boy wouldn't reject it, either; that something in his solitary existence craved contact, even if it was only one person, someone who knew who and what he was and accepted it. He had the impression that Levi could fearlessly face any of the world's horrors, so long as he knew someone was standing behind him. That someone was guiding him. With that sort of armor, nothing would stop him. But without it, he wouldn't have a chance.

He moved over, until his shoulder bumped the boy's knee, and he reached up and took one of Levi's dangling hands in his own.

“I don't... know everything,” he said, slowly. “About you, or where you come from – or how you... how you are, even. But I would like to understand.”

Levi looked down at their joined hands, and then he nodded slightly.

“Understand,” he said evenly, “That I would've broken his arm if I hadn't thought you were going to do something about it.” The calm viciousness in his voice nearly made Erwin shiver, and not really with discomfort. “No matter what it cost me.”

“Yes.” Erwin did understand.

“Good.” Levi pulled his hand free, but didn't draw away entirely. He looked down at Erwin, seeming a little puzzled, this time. “Why did you say 'if he fails me'?”

Erwin frowned. “When?”

“You said you'd end my life if I failed you.” Levi was giving him that look again, that steady and searching look. “Not them. They're supposed to be the ones who decide if I pass or not, aren't they? But you said 'me.'”

I have pledged to end his life with my own hands if he fails me.

Erwin squared his shoulders slightly. “I said what I meant,” he replied. “I don't care about their judgment. They're frightened, small minded, lazy and complacent. They might decide you should die no matter what happens. But I'm not doing this for them. Your life doesn't belong to them.”

“Who does it belong to?” Levi murmured, lowering his head. He looked strangely curious.

Erwin felt an answer emerging, a single, decisive word on the back of his tongue, one that felt as sharp and as certain as the cut of a blade through flesh.

He's not an animal, his own voice said, returning the memory of only a day before. It felt like a lifetime. He's not an animal.

He swallowed the word, and chose a different one.

“You. Your life is your own.”

Levi made an odd little noise in the back of his throat. He sat up again, and turned to slide off the back of the sofa the other way.

“Fine,” he said, and Erwin could sense the chill in him. “I'm going to go sit in my room and think about how to fix all your problems for you, then. I hope that's okay.”

He was hurt, Erwin realized, and he stood up as well. “Levi.”

“You think I'd just let some motherfucker touch me like that?” Levi said calmly, turning to face him. “You think I'm some helpless little kid? You think I've ever in my life stood still and let some old fuck paw my face and talk bullshit about my dead fucking family?” He tipped his head, like a schoolteacher expecting a proper response from a wayward pupil, perfectly in control. “Well?”

“Why did you?” Erwin said. He was too drained for dismay or for hurt of his own. The only thing left was reason.

“Because right now my life is yours,” Levi said, the slightest hint of a growl beginning, “Not mine, and I'm trying real fucking hard to hold up my end of this bargain, even if you're just going to fuck it up and forget about it once I'm dead.”

He lunged forward suddenly, as he'd done before, and Erwin was too slow, this time.

They crashed to the floor, Levi's weight against his stomach and his hands gripping at Erwin's shoulders. One of Levi's knees was pressed between his legs painfully, and Erwin winced as his teeth fixed deeply into the side of his neck, breaking the skin. A surge of electric feeling coursed through him with the contact, and this time it felt familiar. It felt like certainty again.

“Get off me,” Erwin said. He felt Levi's teeth clench again and swallowed a noise of pain. “Levi. Get off.”

For a long and agonizing moment the pressure remained, on his stomach and against his thigh and his cock, and then Levi drew back. He dropped to his knees as Erwin sat up, his pale eyes fixed on Erwin's face and body as though waiting for a sign of retaliation.

Erwin put his fingertips to the throbbing mark in his neck. They came away slightly bloody.

“Levi,” he said. “Just stay there.” He eyed the boy for a moment, then added, “And sit up straight.”

Levi's hooded eyes searched his face. He drew his legs up and crossed them, slowly, then straightened out his back and let his hands rest on his thighs. Erwin surveyed him briefly, then got to his feet and went into the little kitchen to fetch the water jug. He dampened a dish towel and pressed it to his neck, the sting of it barely touching him.

“If I'm displeasing you,” he said, “From now on, you will inform me. If you aren't sure how to word it, then...” He turned. Levi hadn't moved. He wore an expression of careful attention.

“Then figure something out,” he finished, aware that it wasn't as precise as it could have been, but unable to word it any more eloquently. “I meant what I said. I want to understand. But you have to help me.”

“You're going to bleed on your shirt,” Levi said.

Erwin clapped the damp towel to his neck again. “Thank you.”

“You pretend to be a passive suck up,” Levi said, lifting his head. “And you do it so much it's what you've become. It's not pretending if it's all you ever do, Erwin. I've known you for a day and I can tell how full of it you are, even if you've fooled everyone else.”

“People prefer to assume my cooperation,” Erwin said quietly. “But I suppose you have a point.”

“Yeah, I do.” Levi slumped a little. “Shit, you piss me off.”

Erwin dabbed at his neck again, trying to ensure that no more blood dribbled down onto his collar, and then he set the towel aside. Levi looked up at him suspiciously as he knelt in front of him, and stiffened as Erwin took him by the shoulders.

“If anyone touches you that way ever again,” Erwin said, “Don't wait for my word. Show them yourself why it's a mistake.” One hand left Levi's shoulder to touch his bruised face gently, and he felt the boy's jaw tighten with stubborn self-possession.

“Relax,” he murmured. Levi looked up at him, doubt and frustration in his eyes, but then the reassurance in Erwin's voice seemed to filter in. He huffed quietly, and Erwin felt his body unwind, felt him loosen like a man unbound. His hands dropped from his thighs and he turned his head just slightly, pressing his cheek into Erwin's palm. His eyes closed.

“I have you,” Erwin said.

They remained that way for quite some time.

Chapter Text

Four days later, Erwin was standing on one of the high towers of the training course, holding a steady position with one end of a taut-stretched rope looped over his shoulder and secured at his waist with one gloved hand. The other end was tied to one of the mock-Titan's thick straw and wood arms, which was much heavier than it had any right to be. He peered down at the sand pit below it, trying to decide what would happen next.

The young trainee was older than Levi, but probably not by much, and she'd been both the first to try to harry the now mobile Titan, and the first to fall off the course. The other trainees had clustered at the edge of the starting platform to watch her, wearing such matching expressions of apprehension that Erwin had found it a little funny. Once she'd fallen, however, Levi had left his own perch on one of the barred walkways in a single graceful leap, and he was kneeling beside her now, one hand on her shoulder. Erwin could hear his calm soft voice, the even flow of his words like dark water, but couldn't make out what he was saying. The girl began to nod, dragging the back of her hand across her nose and then her eyes in the universal discomfort of a person who is ashamed to be seen crying.

“It isn't your fault,” he heard, and he watched Levi's face, the pale intent eyes and somber countenance. He wasn't smiling, but the girl didn't seem to mind very much; she smiled herself after a moment, weakly, and nodded again. Levi let her go and moved back, and the girl picked herself up without assistance, brushing the sand off her uniform trousers with a wince. She flexed the arm she'd fallen on experimentally, and then turned, firing off her grappling rope to swing back up on the starting platform, where the other trainees made room for her.

They'd showed up around midday the day before. At first there had only been two of them, a pair of new MP intakes, wearing slightly hunted expressions. Levi had been running the course again, with his personal and rather hair raising combination of Gear reliance and sheer practiced fortitude, and so they'd come up to Erwin, their eyes fixing everywhere but on his face.

“Lieutenant Smith?” one of them, a slim boy with dark hair and eyes, had said. “We... I'm sorry to disturb you.”

“It's not a problem,” Erwin said, somewhere between curiosity and tired dread. There had been a lot of questions for him, the past few days, questions of varying directness and approval; he had definitely noticed a drop in the number of other officers who greeted him kindly. Even those people who knew Egon Smith's reputation for ill temper and self importance had reasons to disapprove – whatever else, Erwin had dispersed with filial piety and gratitude, and many of the officers in the Capital were of the peerage sort who believed that things like bastardhood and disownment were probably contagious. A couple of goggle-eyed newcomers couldn't mean anything good.

But he'd been surprised. “Thank you, sir,” the boy had said, looking up with a slight start as Levi passed them on the left somewhere a little above their heads, his blur of an expression saying that he was pointedly ignoring the interruption. “We wanted to ask you something – a favor, I suppose, or – well, not really a favor, only...”

“Yes?” Erwin had said, too weary to be anything but patient.

“We want to learn what he's doing,” the other trainee had said abruptly, voice a little raised. “We heard he knows how to climb without Gear. We heard he took on ten men by himself and won.” He glanced at his companion, who was blushing furiously. “And he's your prisoner, right?”

Erwin paused. “He – is my underling,” he said after a moment, carefully. “Haven't you all just come from training? You've graduated.”

“Well, yes.” The dark haired boy seemed to have found his feet again. “Yes, but--”

“We didn't learn anything useful,” his friend exclaimed. “Sure, we learned how to use the Gear, but we barely practiced on the model Titans – we only learned how to save comrades from falls a week ago!” There had been a heat in his tone and in his eyes that startled Erwin. “And now that we're here, they just have us polishing our superiors' boots and cleaning their rooms and running down to the city center to buy more wine! It's useless! I know we're probably never going to even smell a Titan, sir, but shouldn't we be learning everything we can?”

“I think so,” said Levi, from somewhere directly behind and near the level of Erwin's head. It had taken a large quantity of Erwin's considerable self-control not to yelp in surprise. “But people around here don't put a lot of estimation into what I think.” When Erwin glanced back at him, he'd been hanging from one rope at about shoulder level, wearing a curious expression. “You probably don't want to be seen associating with me.”

“My sister died,” said the first boy, his voice brittle and defiant, “In Survey Corp.”

“I'm sorry,” Erwin had said automatically. “She must have been very brave.”

“She was,” the boy said. “But she had no idea what she was doing. Nobody does.” He looked at Levi, who hadn't moved. “I don't want to die. Even if there's no chance of danger here. I'm – I come from Maria. I've seen Titans over the wall. I've heard them scratching at the stone. You can hear them when the sun gets highest – they make terrible noises.” He bit his lip. “Everybody says you're some kind of combat genius, and that you're dangerous. I want to be dangerous too.” His friend was nodding emphatically.

Erwin looked at Levi again.

Levi had blinked, slowly. “Sure,” he'd said. “Come back tomorrow.”

They had arrived as instructed, with a gaggle of other young new intakes, and it was around that time that Levi had set him to work operating the mock-Titan, with the air of a man who expects to be obeyed without question. The somewhat comical thing was that Erwin had done what Levi wanted without thinking about it. Erwin had instinctively come to think of Levi as a sullen and unfriendly creature, a boy of natural solitude and discomfort around other people, but Levi had taken charge almost immediately, with shocking patience and a strange gentleness Erwin hadn't thought him capable of. That gentleness still lingered on Levi's face as he returned to Erwin's side of the course, and Erwin remembered Levi's other crime, according to the tribunal: the deft and skillful organization of others under his instruction. Teaching a bunch of kids to fight Titans properly was apparently not so different from convincing another bunch of kids to help him rob houses and mug carriages.

“She told me they never trained to fight anything moving,” Levi said, as he landed on the platform beside Erwin. “They just attacked big dummies, one at a time. Nothing that dodged or tried to grab them. Taking turns hitting the same damn spot.” He snorted. “Fucking stupid.”

“It was kind of you to encourage her,” Erwin said.

Levi shrugged. “It really wasn't her fault,” he said. “Like I said, she's never tried to hit anything that was trying to hit her back.”

“She was obviously terrified.” Erwin looked out across the course. The girl was checking her Gear again, chin set in a stubborn line. “The trainee instructors are rather harsh about overt displays of fear.”

“Yeah, she was scared, but I'd put money on her surviving an attack over one of those instructors.” He looked up at Erwin. “If you're fighting people, sure, better to be calm and confident. Keep your shit together and out think them. But Titans don't think. They don't get intimidated and they don't operate under any kind of predictable rules. If you're fighting Titans, it's better to be scared. Your instincts will save you way more often than your training will.” He shrugged again. “That's what I've read about them, anyway.”

Erwin smiled faintly. “You don't believe in bravely going forth to die honorably in battle either, I suppose. Standing your ground, and so forth.” He didn't, himself, and he was pleased to see Levi's look of obvious disgust.

“Did you know, when you die, you shit yourself?” Levi said. “Shit and piss everywhere. Real heroic and impressive.” He scuffed his boot against the wood. “Honor is bullshit. All you achieve if you die out there is one less soldier who can help protect the squad, or the Walls. You aren't helping the survival of humanity if you can't even survive yourself in the process.”

“I agree.” Erwin nodded. He glanced at Levi again, finding that he was rather enjoying Levi's displays of feisty and opinionated irritation. “But you aren't often afraid yourself, are you?”

Levi stilled, his eyes fixed on some indeterminate spot out on the course. “I'm only scared of a few things,” he said, slowly. “I'm not telling you what they are.” He was well hackled, Erwin could tell, but he also recognized that other, unnameable emotion, the undercurrent to Levi's ever present resistance.

“I'm sure I'll know,” Erwin murmured, watching him. “Soon enough.”

Levi shivered, his eyes wandering but never quite fixing on him. “I doubt it,” he said, and stepped towards the edge of the platform. “Someone else go!” he called. “Titan's gonna get away!”

Erwin hid his smile, and readied the rope again.

By the time the sun was beginning to set, all but two of their wayward students had hit the Titan in at least the general neck area, which Levi had declared to be perfectly acceptable for beginners. The two who hadn't were visibly disappointed and apprehensive at first, but Levi had spoken to them, in the same gentle and steady way as he had to the first trainee, and something about whatever he'd said was obviously relieving to both of them. The trainees had departed in high spirits, a few of them waving excitedly to Levi as they left, with promises of returning the next day as well.

“You're good with them,” Erwin told Levi, as they put away the equipment away. Levi was unbuckling the other detachable straps that helped keep his Gear on while he moved, and Erwin saw his faint wince as he moved. Levi's body was still badly bruised and strained from his ordeal on the rack, which to Erwin made his performances all the more impressive. Levi was outclassing and outmaneuvering himself and any other Gear wielder he'd ever seen, and he was doing it with strained and sore arms, weak and shaky legs, and any number of other aches and pains that had gone thus far unspoken. Levi glanced at him, his black hair in his face, and waited to see if Erwin had more to add.

“I hadn't expected it,” Erwin added, half smiling at him. “You're perfectly awful to me, most of the time.”

Levi lifted his eyebrows, and to his pleasure Erwin saw the faint twinkle of amusement in his eyes. “You're perfectly awful,” he replied, “so you deserve it.” He twisted slightly, and tossed Erwin's uniform jacket at him, underhanded across his chest. “Here. Get dressed. I want to go home and take a bath.”

“You want to go home and have me fill a bath for you, you mean,” Erwin said, dryly.

“That seems to be what bath entails.” Levi pulled on his own jacket, wincing a little.

“Do you really think they'll come back tomorrow?”

“Why wouldn't they?” Levi pulled the starched collar of his shirt away from his neck. He didn't like the restriction it caused, or the rough material, but Erwin had insisted that the neater he looked, the better their chances would be of impressing the right people. “They got what they wanted.”

“I suppose they did.” Erwin put his hand lightly on Levi's head as he passed him towards the door, and though Levi growled at him quietly, he didn't avoid the touch. Erwin permitted himself another smile once his back was turned, feeling warmed and successful. Word would spread, he suspected, whatever else their entertainment of newcomers caused. People would hear about Levi's techniques, his nearly inhuman capabilities, his refusal to surrender to the weakness of body or the terror of circumstance, and they would understand his value at last. They would understand that Erwin Smith was not a man to be trifled with, disowned by his father or not, and that if they desired Levi's power and ability, they would need to deal on Erwin's terms first and foremost. And then, when he and Levi told them all what was wrong the military, the ways in which they were failing citizen and soldier alike, they would have to listen, for fear of losing their greatest chance at victory.

Erwin would at last be able to rebuild their broken system from the ground up, just as he'd always wanted. He could shape these young soldiers, all the wasted potential he saw around himself, until the military was the true power it was always meant to be, until people cheered and waved when patrols went down the street, and the complaints about laziness and wasted taxes were finally silent. He could taste it, nearly, so close at hand, and it made his steps feel lighter.

The warmth of those thoughts stayed with him as they walked the cobblestone lane back to the house row, Levi as always at his side and slightly behind his elbow, where he could be heard if he spoke but still remain out of the way. Erwin couldn't see him, but he could sense him, and he felt warm about that, too.

They'd had no difficult encounters like those of the first day since. Levi had been angry with him, once or twice – that seemed unavoidable – but Erwin felt that he was learning the value of an apology by now, or at least that he'd internalized the throbbing little pain of the bite mark in his neck. He'd learned, as well, that dealing with Levi meant listening to him – not just his words, but his silent statements as well; the movements of his body, the subtle changes of his expressions, the way he stood, the things he refused and didn't refuse. Learning Levi had become a pleasure, these last few days, and one that Erwin was surprised to find he felt no shame about. There was a wonderful challenge in puzzling out a situation in which Erwin could ask no questions, could demand no clarification as to his own actions, something freeing and exhilarating. The satisfaction he'd begun to feel when he pleased or soothed the boy was surprisingly fulfilling.

When they reached the apartment Erwin opened the door and held it for Levi to pass through under his arm. Levi padded tiredly to the sofa and flopped on it, leaning on the arm comfortably as though he'd lived here for years. He crossed his arms against it and propped his head on them, legs trailing out behind him, and watched Erwin expectantly.

“Lucky you,” Erwin said, turning to the kitchen area. “I brought up an extra water barrel while you were sleeping this morning.”

“I wasn't sleeping,” Levi said, almost drawling the words. He looked for all the world like a housecat lounging after a large meal. “I was waiting. I heard you go out, and I heard you saying 'shit' every couple of seconds when you came back in.”

Erwin snorted. “Either way,” he said, “I should have this ready in about thirty minutes.” He gave the tin bathtub a small kick with his boot, raising a hollow, tinny sound.

On the second morning, he'd offered to take Levi to the public wash house, but Levi had refused, insisting that such a place was likely to be just as filthy as its customers were. Erwin had thought it a little odd, as thus far Levi had proven himself to be fastidiously and aggressively dedicated to cleanliness, both of himself and of Erwin's apartment. But later that morning, he'd watched Levi wash his hands twice over in the kitchen basin, and then his face, with an expression of deep concentration and vague apprehension, and he'd had a sudden and unpleasant thought. Levi's family had died of sickness, he'd said, a spreading and terrible sickness that had claimed his entire community and left him the only survivor. Most civilized people understood the importance of cleanliness to prevent disease, that so often soap and hot water was the only thing that stood between oneself and a bad, stinking death on a stained and filthy mattress. Erwin had watched Levi and his fastidious little movements, and he'd thought about what he himself would have been like if he'd watched his own mother waste to death, quarantined away from help or sympathy by the very nature of her birth.

That evening he'd offered, quietly, to pull out the old tin washtub and to fill it for Levi's use by the wood stove, and the boy had given him such a look of confused gratitude that he'd gone on doing it the next two nights as well, without comment, retreating into his own bedroom to give Levi some privacy. Levi had never thanked him, nor had he offered to fill the tub himself, though boiling enough water took nearly an hour's preparation. Erwin felt no lack because of this, as he might have expected he would. Instead it felt very natural, like such servitude was only a normal part of caring for this boy upon whom he'd pinned all his hopes, and Levi in kind seemed to feel similarly. So it had continued.

When Erwin began to boil the last bucket or two of water, Levi got up from his sprawl and went to the other side of the kitchen to get the soap. Erwin had a particularly fine bottle of the stuff, a newer product according to the druggist from whom he bought it, which was a careful boiled composition of soap, water, and a selection of pressed herbs grown on some noble's pasture somewhere. The most pungent of these were sandalwood and lavender, which the druggist had insisted would be much finer for hair washing than the usual lye soaps were, and Erwin had found it to be more or less true. Levi was clearly fond of it as well, and it had given his dark hair a nice and healthy shine after the first wash.

Erwin poured the last bucket into the tub and set it down, wiping his forearm across his forehead. “Should be enough,” he said, and looked up.

“Sure,” Levi said, and Erwin stared at him for a long moment. The boy had calmly removed his uniform shirt, and was unlacing his trousers as well, his boots already long discarded. The bottle of hair soap was next to one leg, next to the usual peppermint concoction Erwin reserved for other things.

Erwin said nothing, and neither did Levi, and soon enough the boy was utterly bare. His body was lithe and strong, the petite circumference of his waist and thighs belying the power that lay beneath his skin. The bruising of straps and MP abuse lay across his legs and ribs and stomach in blue and brown ropes and splotches, but between them he was pale and smooth, save for the places were wiry black hair interrupted. He looked at Erwin almost thoughtfully, and his stomach rippled a little as he moved to lower himself into the tub. Erwin caught a glimpse of his cock as one leg moved, as petite as the rest of him, and it broke the spell; he looked away, swallowing.

He heard Levi snort, followed by another low sound, one he hadn't heard before but recognized immediately. Levi was laughing, quiet and certain.

“Sorry,” Erwin muttered, feeling somewhere between embarrassed and irritated, and hating the fact that he knew the cause of both emotions.

“Why?” Levi said, and when Erwin looked at him again he'd leaned back, his size letting him fit perfectly in a tub that had cramped Erwin's knees so badly he'd given up on using it. “Why are you always sorry?” He tipped his head back, the steam dampening his hair.

“Because--” Erwin struggled for a moment, trying to find the right word, “--because you're powerless. Like this.”

“Am I?” Levi said.

“Yes.”

“I could kill you any time I liked,” Levi said, terribly conversational. There was an almost fond softness in his eyes that made it worse. “While you slept. Anytime you turned your back. Right now, before you could even blink. Haven't I proven that to you a few dozen times?”

“Yes,” Erwin said again, stiff. “You have.”

Levi rolled his shoulders. “You're not afraid you're going to hurt me,” he said. “You're afraid you're going to try, and I won't be impressed. You're afraid all your size and power and training won't mean shit. Well, let me assure you now: it doesn't.”

“You think you know everything there is to know about me, don't you?” Erwin replied. He was thinking about his father's hands on Levi's face, the burning cold fury he'd felt at the sight of those boney fingers digging into to the soft curve of Levi's jaw. He wasn't angry, not anymore. The feeling wasn't dissimilar to his time spent pouring over maps and strategy plans, to his listening to his supposed betters talk about their battle plans and knowing his were better.

“I think I have an experienced assessment,” Levi said. He closed his eyes. “But I'm always willing to be proven wrong.”

Erwin unbuttoned his uniform shirt carefully, and folded it with military neatness, then set it on the low table by the wood stove, leaving only his undershirt.

“You are not a tactician, Levi,” he said. He knelt by the side of the tub, and Levi opened his eyes. Erwin was pleased to see the brief flash of apprehension and uncertainty there.

“But I am.”

He reached out through the shimmer and steam of the water to touch Levi's flat, smooth belly. His fingers brushed the dark hair between his legs for a moment and then he grasped Levi's cock firmly.

Levi made a startled noise, his arms tightening against the sides of the tub, and his hips jumped a little, more out of surprise than arousal. He stared at Erwin, mouth opening as though to say something, but Erwin twisted his wrist just a little, pulling upwards, and the only sound that came out of him was a low grunt.

“Good,” Erwin said, liking the feel of this, the soft and delicate skin under his calloused fingers, the throbbing pulse he could feel there and the heat radiating from the water and the boy's body alike. “That's good, Levi, but shut up for a little while. I don't want any more noise out of you.”

Levi's mouth closed abruptly. Erwin felt a tremble go down his own spine, so much like the feeling he'd had the first time he'd caught himself with a Gear wire. There was a power here he hadn't known he had, not really.

“Good,” he said again. He rubbed his thumb along the head of Levi's cock, back and forth in a slow and thoughtful motion, and watched boy's face change, watched the haze come down over his eyes, his mouth opening again in silent astonishment. Levi was gripping the edges of the tub with both hands and Erwin could hear the scratch of his nails along the tin as his fingers tightened, but that was the only noise he made, even as Erwin gripped him at his base and pulled down, slowly, in a long and lingering motion. He was turning red, Erwin saw, the flush creeping up his neck and down his belly to his groin, and when Levi's head went back against the tub's rim with a ringing thud he felt his own cock stir more than a little. The only sound was the splashing of the water and the occasional clang as Levi shifted, his heels striking the tub's sides or his hands losing their grip for a moment.

When Erwin dug his fingernails into Levi's cock and scraped, Levi bit his lip so hard that blood appeared at the center in a bright bloom, the color leaving his face in a sudden rush. His dark eyelashes fluttered and Erwin thought it was the most alive he'd ever looked, the most bright and the most young, his pale limbs flashing under the water like fleeing fish.

“Good, Levi,” he said, and then, “Should I do it again?”

Levi's teeth were still digging into his lip, but he nodded in a tight little motion, his thighs spread wide now for Erwin's attention. Erwin hooked his fingers again, so tightly he thought he might draw blood, and Levi's mouth came open helplessly, his breath a heated wheeze, but silent, perfectly silent as he'd been told to be.

“You're beautiful,” Erwin said, and leaned up over him to kiss his forehead, his free hand caressing the boy's damp hair. One of Levi's hands left the tub edge to seize Erwin by his undershirt, holding him down in something approaching a death grip. His hips lifted up again so violently that some of the water sloshed out of the tub, and Erwin could feel him trembling, could hear the way his breath escaped from his nose and mouth at the same time in short gasps.

“Élie,” he breathed. Beneath him, Levi's eyes came open again, the question in them clear, and Erwin could only nod, the stiffening of his own cock making it hard for him to find other words. He gave Levi another cruel little twist, and ran his thumbnail across the sensitive tip, and Levi thrashed again, head hitting the tub edge so hard Erwin thought he might concuss himself. His thighs came apart again almost involuntarily and he came into Erwin's hand in perfect silence.

“Élie,” Erwin said, stroking his face and neck, cupping behind his head to prevent him hurting himself. “Élie, Élie. That's good. Thank you.” He didn't know where that had come from, but Levi leaned towards him as he said it, like it was proper to be thanked at such a time, and Erwin pulled him up and against his chest. “Thank you.”

Levi's forehead pressed against his chest, and after a moment the hand that had gripped his shirt lifted to curl around Erwin's bicep lightly. He was gasping, but the usual air of calm had settled around him again. Erwin held him, feeling his heart thudding in time with Levi's own, allowing his own rise of arousal to fade away again. He didn't know why, but this had been for Levi alone, not for him. Levi's pleasure, Levi's relief. He threaded his fingers into the boy's hair, and was silent for several long moments.

“Speak to me,” he said at last, and felt Levi stir.

“You're welcome,” Levi said, in a low and husky voice. “You're welcome.”

He lay lax in the water while Erwin refreshed it and boiled another bucket, his eyes half lidded, the darkness that lined them deeper than usual due to exhaustion and heat. Erwin returned, and picked up the soaps. Levi didn't protest as Erwin began to scrub him clean, limbs limp as Erwin lifted them to be washed. He leaned his head firmly into Erwin's hands as Erwin scrubbed his hair, working at his scalp and the back of his neck.

“Maybe,” Erwin murmured, “We should cut your hair.”

“Maybe,” Levi said. “It's sort of itchy.”

“We could shave some of it. Like mine.”

“Maybe. But you brush your bangs like a little kid sitting for his first portrait painting.” Levi lifted one hand, gesturing at his own hairline. “You know, all tucked back. I don't want that.” He licked the blood off his lips, almost absently. “But shaving it up the back might be good.”

“I'll do it myself,” Erwin said. He saw Levi smile, just a little.

“Good,” Levi said. “I don't want anybody else touching me.”

Chapter Text

“Hi, you're Lieutenant Smith, right? You don't look much like your father.”

It took a moment for the voice to filter in to Erwin's morning muddled senses. It was barely past sunrise, and the light had yet to crest Sina's height, so the streets had been dark and muted when he'd stepped out into the cool early morning air. He'd wandered in a vague fog down the lane towards the dim glow of the freshly opened bakeries and dairies, the quest for breakfast the least fuzzy objective he could come up with. He thought, too, that he might pick up some of the spicy, energizing brown tea that Captain Hamlin favored, as Levi had been swilling tremendous amounts of his coffee supply from the start and he was running a bit low.

He'd felt warm about Levi, too. Once he'd been bathed to both Erwin's and his own satisfaction, Levi had climbed out of the bath and attended to his drying and his nightclothes without fuss. He'd moved as a man close to sleepwalking, his expression soft and his black hair feathered across his forehead, charming in the night shirt Erwin had loaned him, which was of course too large and consumed his arms and torso completely. He hadn't spoke to Erwin beyond their conversation about his haircut; instead he'd gone without fanfare into Erwin's bedroom, and when Erwin had gone after him Levi had already climbed into his bed.

There had been nothing, then – no tension, no more of those new and needy urges. Levi hadn't touched him, and he hadn't touched Levi. He'd gotten into bed himself, the gap of space between them feeling perfectly appropriate, and he'd lain on his side and watched the boy as he slept. I don't sleep much, Levi had told him on the first day, and this was the first time Erwin had seen him do so under circumstances not involving sickness and exhaustion.

It was still true, he thought to himself, that Levi wasn't beautiful in any traditional way. He was a little too narrow, too hunted looking, the set of his features a little too weary and unbalanced. But Erwin had seen him in motion, now, had been allowed glimpses of his secret depths, of the places where he was soft and the places where he was unyielding, and he found that such experience colored the way he looked at the boy's physicality. He remembered the weight of Levi's cock in his hand, the straining muscles of his thighs and stomach as he'd writhed in silence, and he found that he still agreed with himself, now that it was over. You're beautiful. He was. Like the wolf on the hunt, like the warhorse, like a striking hawk.

He's not an animal, he thought, and then answered himself in the past; Maybe not, but there are very few human ways and words for him, even so.

When Erwin had awakened the next morning, Levi was still sleeping, curled at the edge of the bed in a corner of Erwin's blanket, and Erwin had left him alone, managing somehow to stagger out of the apartment without waking him. Now here he was, standing outside the bakery, the smell of fresh bread and pastry making his stomach curl in on itself with hungry want, and some stranger had decided to address him without preamble.

“I'm Lieutenant Smith,” he said, turning a little in the direction of the voice, “Yes. Can I help you with something?”

The speaker beamed at him. It was a girl, probably in her late teens, skinny and lanky in ways usually reserved for awkward teenage boys. Her hair was a reddish brown and clearly unwashed, pulled back haphazardly into a rough bun, and there were several paper-rolled sticks of writing charcoal jammed through it at titling angles. The glasses that sat slightly askew on her nose were visibly battered; one lens was cracked across the middle, and the other so smudged that Erwin wasn't sure how she saw anything at all.

She held out a skinny hand dotted and smeared with what looked like black ink. “Hi,” she repeated. “I'm from the University. Is he here? Is he with you right now?” Her eyes widened behind her glasses, and she twisted around to peer up at Sina's massive bulk. “Is he on the Wall right now?”

“Is – what?”

“Your friend. Your prisoner. The little guy – you know!” she flapped a hand impatiently. “Do you think he's got some kind of special mutation? Little clawed feet, or something? Not because he's a Mystic, of course – they're just people like anybody else, really strange how people are so scared of them, the ones I grew up around were perfectly nice – or maybe it's hollow bones? Like a bird? Birds have hollow bones, you know.”

Erwin stared at her. “I'm sorry,” he said, rather at a loss. “I didn't get your name, I'm afraid.”

The girl blinked. “Oh, did I skip that part? Sorry. I'm Hanji Zoe.” She was still holding her hand out absently, and Erwin took it, receiving a surprisingly strong shake for his trouble. “It's a pleasure, Lieutenant. So, anyway--”

“He's sleeping,” Erwin said, extracting his hand as politely as he could. “Are you – you're not a soldier, are you?”

“Me? No. Well, not yet.” Hanji smiled, shoving her glasses back up her nose with a finger. “Probably will be in a few weeks. I finished my training years ago – top marks, you know! – but I thought I'd spend some time at Grace University before I moved on to the Military Police.”

Something about the mention of Grace University reminded Erwin of the conversation he'd had with Rademaker earlier in the week. “I believe I've heard about you,” he said. “Heretical Titan theories and proposed experiments, right?”

Hanji grinned happily, without shame. “That's me,” she said. “It's really a shame people are so threatened by knowledge, don't you think? I'm glad to know my reputation proceeds me, especially since I got suspended for it. But oh, well. Live and learn. Has he ever seen a Titan, do you think?”

“Levi?” Erwin glanced at the bakery doorway as it jingled. A young woman and a child went down the steps, talking animatedly to each other and carrying a shopping sack that smelled wonderful. “I don't think so.”

“Oh, well, that's not a problem.” Hanji nodded, as though agreeing with something Erwin had said. “I'm pretty sure I can explain things to him either way. When should I drop by?”

Erwin blinked. “Are you – would you like to observe the training, then? I'm not sure if... Well, we're heading over there in a few hours.”

“Perfect! I can get my things together. I should go. Glad we met up like this! Otherwise tracking you down was going to be such a bitch.” She seized his hand again and squeezed it, then let him go and turned around without further ado. “See you soon!”

Erwin stood on the bakery steps and watched her bustle away, weaving absently in and around the few people who had come out of their homes to start their days. She had a surprising grace despite her lankiness, and she was soon out of sight.

When Erwin returned to the apartment Levi was awake and curled on the couch in his nightshirt, scowling at one of Erwin's strategy books as though it had offended him personally. He had one of Erwin's tea mugs pressed between his knees, brimming with coffee, and he didn't look up when Erwin came in.

“Why do all of these people think soldier unity is about abusing the shit out of your troops?” he said finally, while Erwin put the food he'd bought on the table and began to set it out. “All of them talk shit about discipline, but nobody says anything about earning their trust.”

“I believe the idea is that once you've volunteered yourself for the service, it's necessary for you to be disabused of your autonomy, to some degree,” Erwin said, curious as to where Levi was going with this. “Your superiors need to know that they can trust you, not the other way around. It's said that it helps to make you a stronger person.”

“That's bullshit.” Levi eyed him moodily. “That's why you've got these people in charge who'd piss themselves like fucking infants at the first glimpse of a Titan, but they expect these kids to stand up straight and let death take them without a complaint.” He tipped his head. “Did you surrender to the people who trained you?”

Erwin thought about it for a moment. “No,” he said, finally. “I convinced them that I had been persuaded to be malleable.”

“And you're a goddamn snake in the grass,” Levi said, without particular judgment regarding this, “Who only respects the officers who respect you first. Right?”

Erwin chuckled. “A snake in the grass,” he repeated, and Levi huffed impatiently.

“You see what I mean, though.” He set the book down. “You get a bunch of twelve year olds who're mostly far from home and family, and you scream at them and tell them they're worthless piles of shit until they either break or rise above it and become great? You teach them that obedience is won with pain, and fear, and then they either crack under the pressure of training, or they do it in a fight. The ones that make it learn that they wanna get as far away as possible from that kind of shit, so when they make it to the MP, they don't care about how good they are anymore. They're just glad they don't have to deal with the abuse.”

“According to some, many people blossom the most under adversity,” Erwin said, without argument. He looked at Levi briefly. “And pain.”

Levi looked back at him for a moment. There was the faintest hint of extra color in his cheeks.

“I'm not normal,” he said. Erwin thought he detected something a little pained, there, and it made him feel a little sorry.

“Neither am I,” he said, gentle. “So that's fine.”

Levi only took a drink of coffee in response, and then went on. “Those kids yesterday were scared to death I'd hurt them when they failed,” he said. “Don't you think that's fucked up?”

Erwin came over, and sat down on the couch, handing Levi half of one of the small loaves of bread and some of the fresh cheese he'd bought. “Yes,” he agreed, leaning back. “When you put it that way, I do.”

Levi nodded, and turned his attention to the food. They ate in silence for a few minutes, and then Levi picked up the half empty coffee mug and handed it to Erwin.

“This is the last of it,” he said. “You'll have to get more. Finish it off.”

“Thank you.” Erwin did so. It was still warm, and Levi had added a little honey to the liquid, cutting the bitterness nicely. “By the way, I think we're going to have an interesting visitor this morning.”

Levi only raised his eyebrows.

“A girl from the university,” Erwin said. “She heard about us somewhere – God knows where – and she seemed quite keen on contributing to your training, somehow.”

“From the university,” Levi repeated, eyeing his bread.

“Mm. She was a little... strange.”

Levi shrugged. “If she's useful, she's useful. If she's not, she's not. Either way, I only have two days left.”

Erwin stilled a little.

He'd known, of course, that there was a time limit – that was rather the theme of the situation, after all – but at some point the potentially fatal nature of the denouement had slipped his mind. Their trips to the training yard had become a comfortable routine, as had Levi's presence in his general vicinity. He'd been thinking about the future, about the reports he would write for Captain Hamlin and others, about the ideas he'd put forward to men like Pixis, gently and steadily guiding their forces into tighter, more functional unity. All of these visions contained Levi now, hovering quietly somewhere in his vicinity.

A new vision intruded, now: his hand in Levi's hair, pulling his head back, the boy's face strained and grey, his neck exposed for the knife while Erwin's father and Marshal Embry and all the others looked on with grim satisfaction, waiting for him to be true to his word. He thought about the warm wet of life's blood pouring over his hands, of Levi dying in his hands with the same stubborn obedience of the night before.

Levi looked up at him as Erwin's hand came down on the top of his head, but he didn't protest. His pale eyed searched Erwin's face for a moment.

“You have many more days ahead of you,” Erwin said, and let him go, rising to go and fetch his uniform.

The trainees were already waiting for them when they arrived at the training course, and they greeted Levi with visible enthusiasm, though most of them didn't seem certain as to how to address him, accustomed to titles as they were.

“We practiced last night, too!” one of them chirped – the girl of the day before. She towered over Levi by many inches, but her posture was eager and deferential. “Kurt and Farraday finally did it! You should've seen them, it went just the way you said it would! When you speed up on the down-swing--”

“Did you?” Levi said, eyeing the trainees in question, both of whom blushed and nodded, visibly pleased. “Good. I told you you'd be fine. It's fine if you fuck it up again today, anyway. Just keep trying.”

“Of course we will,” Farraday said. He was the dark haired boy who'd come first, and his proud grin was leagues different from the pinched and nervous expression he'd worn the first time Erwin had met him. Erwin smiled.

“Well done to all of you,” he said. “You've made fantastic progress.”

The trainees turned towards him nearly as one, and their bright, excited expressions, filled with gratitude and pride, washed away a good measure of the dread that had begun to build within him. Levi was right, he thought. They know he cares about their progress, and they know nobody's going to scream at them if they fail. So they're not afraid to fail at all. Soldiers who don't fear their leaders – only the Titans. Soldiers who could fight just the way he does.

The trainees had just clustered up on the starting platform when Hanji arrived.

She did not, it seemed, make quiet entrances. She jogged out onto the sand, a heavy canvas bag clanking on her back, one hand extended to wave at Erwin as though they were old friends. “I'm here, I'm here!” she called. “Sorry, it took me a little while to get all my equipment together! Have I missed anything?”

Erwin glanced at Levi, who was crouching on top of the highest pole on the course, surveying this rowdy newcomer with thoughtful wariness. “Not at all,” he said, and gestured at her. “Come and stand by me. They're about to start their warmups.”

“Oh, good! I was hoping to see – there he is! Hello!” Hanji waved at Levi, who blinked, for once a little visibly surprised. “When you have a second, can you come down here? I want to look at your teeth!”

Levi looked at Erwin, now faintly accusing. Erwin shrugged, hiding his grin. “She's a scholar,” he called out. “She's interesting in helping us. I told you.”

“She can't have my teeth,” Levi said, shifting his weight a little like a cat trying to decide whether or not to leap away.

Hanji laughed. “I don't want to keep them,” she called. “I just want to look at them! You can tell a lot about someone by their teeth, you know.”

“No,” Levi said, and gave Erwin a sour look as he leapt off the pole to join the trainees on the platform.

He studiously ignored them both as he walked the trainees through the day's practice, which left Erwin to absorb most of what Hanji had to say. He was surprised to find that, once he'd grown accustomed to her particular way of rambling and changing topics at lightning speed, Hanji seemed to know quite a lot about combat, and about Titans.

“They captured one, once,” she told him, “When I was a trainee at Maria. Very small, maybe six, seven meters? It'd swallowed some important officer or another, they wanted to get his Gear back – weird, if you ask me, one Gear's the same as another – but I asked them to keep it alive for a few days so I could look at it. I did a few sketches, too. Their physiology is really bizarre, but it's still pretty humanoid. Did you know when you cut off a Titan's limb, it's actually a lot lighter than you'd think it would be? It's almost like it's hollow on the inside, even though it doesn't look like it.”

“Do they feel pain?” Erwin asked. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Levi creeping towards them again, his curiosity apparently getting the better of him. Hanji didn't seem to notice; she was shaking her head.

“I don't think so. This one seemed a little frustrated that he only had one arm to try to grab me with, but there wasn't any distress. I don't think they feel emotions like we do. It's like something else is driving them. It's not hunger, either, so it's not as though they're like normal animals. They're just – strange, and hollow.”

Erwin had been paying attention this time, so he wasn't startled when Levi appeared next to him, dangling from one of his wires casually.

“Golem,” he said.

Hanji gave him a look, oddly sharp. “What?” she said.

Levi looked up at the platform above them, apparently trying to avoid her gaze. “Golem,” he said, and Erwin could hear the faint hesitance in his voice, like he wasn't sure if he should be saying the word or not in such company. “It's a creature from – one of our texts.”

“A Mystic text?” Hanji said, the interest brimming in her voice. “Oh. Please explain.”

Levi sighed. “They're creatures composed of dust or clay,” he said slowly, avoiding looking at either of them. “Usually made by holy men. A rabbi. The golem is man shaped, but usually bigger and stronger. Then the rabbi brings it to life by--” he paused, obviously debating his terminology, “--by writing the word for truth on its forehead, or by placing a shem in its mouth. A name of God, written on paper,” he added, apparently sensing their questioning looks. “In most of the stories they're made either to work for the rabbi, or to protect the community from outsiders.”

“I see,” Erwin murmured, not entirely certain what he should say, but not enjoying Levi's obvious self-conscious discomfort. Discussing such things in company other than theirs would be grounds for accusations of heresy, or even treason. Hanji, at least, only looked curious, not at all scandalized or disturbed.

“Do they obey?” she asked. “Do they ever go bad? How do you turn them off again?”

A distant thwacking sound rang out as one of the trainees struck the mock-Titan. Levi didn't look over.

“When you write 'truth,'” he said, “It's emet, in the holy language. If you erase a part of it, it says met, death. Then the golem dies. Or you remove the shem, and it no longer knows God. It dies then, too.” He looked at Hanji at last. “Sometimes they go bad, yeah. Sometimes they're too alive. Or too obedient.”

“Too obedient?”

“You can't order a golem around in vague terms,” Levi said. “You have to be specific. Otherwise they find loopholes. Tell one to fetch water, it'll go and bring a bucket, show it to you, then throw it away. That kind of thing. Most of the stories end badly, because the rabbi doesn't know how to control it anymore.” He shrugged. “It's just a story, anyway. It's not real.”

“Maybe it is real,” Hanji said, thoughtfully. “Maybe if we had a good look at the inside of a Titan's neck, we'd find one of those shem.

“That would mean that someone out there is making them deliberately, wouldn't it,” Erwin said. It wasn't a question. He felt a little chill go down his spine at the thought.

“I really doubt it,” Levi said, flatly. “Anyway, it's just something I remembered.”

“Truth, and death,” Hanji mused, touching a finger lightly to her chin. “I wouldn't have thought of them as two sides of a coin.”

“Truth of self,” Levi said, clanking his Gear irritably. “You die if you lose your truth of self. Are we going to work, or have a philosophical discussion? I don't really have time for this.”

It is said that if one knows oneself, and one's enemy, one may win a hundred battles,” Erwin said, surprising himself by quoting from memory. “Knowing oneself, but not one's enemy, one may win only fifty of one hundred battles. Knowing neither oneself, nor one's enemy, one will always suffer defeat.

Hanji smiled a little, her expression a bit sly. “That's a heretical text, too,” she said. “Isn't it? The Makings of Conflict, something like that.”

“I've done a bit of reading in my time,” Erwin said.

“I can see that.”

“If you two are going to stand around and flirt, I'm leaving,” Levi announced. “Have fun.” He triggered the wire recoil, and zipped upwards again, bouncing off the platform above them and soaring off towards the trainees.

“Do you think he'll let me look at him afterward?” Hanji said hopefully.

“I don't think there's anything new to be discovered,” Erwin said, watching Levi begin to fuss with one of the trainees' harness belts. “Not from him. Though,” he added, catching her disappointed expression, “I do think you should corner him long enough to give him that physiology speech you just gave me. He'll squirm a bit, but I think he'll have good use for the information.”

“Oh,” Hanji said, and Erwin was mildly surprised by the naked gratitude on her face. “Do you think so? Do you really think so? Sorry, I'm just so used to people telling me to fuck off, or that I'm in danger of violating a bunch of laws, or something.” She grinned. “I'll do what I can, Lieutenant Smith.”

She left not long after the trainees did that evening, but not before she'd thoroughly talked shop at Levi, whose naturally world weary expression grew miraculously darker with each passing minute. After she'd departed with a cheery wave to both of them, Erwin came up beside Levi, who was staring after her a little goggle-eyed.

“What do you make of her?” he said.

Levi didn't look up at him. He leaned against Erwin's side and leg almost absently.

“She's smart,” he said. “I think you should keep her.”

“What, like you?” Erwin said, smiling down at him.

Levi snorted. “No. Definitely nothing like me.”

Chapter Text

Hanji arrived the morning of the sixth day, and so did another ten trainees.

Levi's disciples now numbered nearly twenty, and at first Erwin was a little surprised that no superior officers or babysitters had come along to dissuade them from consorting with heretics and the dangerously unpious, especially as Jonas Rademaker hadn't spoken to him or even made eye contact with him since the incident. After some thought, however, he realized how likely it was that the two things were connected. Rademaker's job was dealing with trainees and newcomers, after all, and he was better about it than most; his absence from Erwin's general company coupled with the growing ranks of interested trainees probably meant precisely the opposite of what he'd been assuming. He was looking the other way. Maybe even quietly encouraging his trainees to seek them out. Of course there were other ways to show support and approval aside from loud and showy displays that might endanger one's position, ways that were much more productive in the long run if one's position was beneficial to the cause. That morning Erwin had caught sight of Rademaker patrolling on one of the second floor walkways, and he'd stopped, looking up at the other man, and had snapped him a brief salute. Rademaker had paused, meeting his eyes at last, and then he, too, had saluted. Erwin could see the tiny smile on his lips, even as he turned away.

It wasn't just Levi, Erwin thought, who inspired devotion in unlikely places. He, too, was worth placing faith in.

You won't be disappointed in them, Jonas. Or in me.

Hanji had arrived equipped with a sealed tin pitcher of cold black tea and a pair of battered clay mugs, one of which she handed to Erwin without fuss. “We won't miss anything this way,” she'd said. “I brought lunch, too. The butcher's daughter at the shop in the city center is a – friend of mine.” She grinned, her eyes a little distant, and Erwin chuckled knowingly, finding himself both fond and grateful for her presence. He'd acclimated to her rapid fire ways fairly quickly, and he could see, now, the sharp ruthlessness that lay beneath the scattered surface of her outward persona.

Levi's trainees – “ducklings,” Levi had muttered, upon seeing them clustered around waiting at the sand pit that morning – were in perfect order from the start. The newcomers had clearly been shown the ropes already by their more experienced peers, and all of them snapped neatly into striking formation as soon as Levi raised a hand. Levi had spent that night on Erwin's couch, coiled up neatly with another stack of Erwin's strategy books and battlefield formation folios, reading with painstaking care and occasionally asking Erwin, without particular shame, about the pronunciation of an unfamiliar word. Levi could read, he'd discovered, and write well enough, but he'd been ill practiced in the last few years and was a little bit rusty. Occasionally he'd make a notation on the extra paper Erwin had lying around in the blocky text of his people's language, his handwriting then neat and carefully, gracefully arranged.

“Read it the other way,” Levi had told him, when he'd noticed Erwin peering at one of his scrawls. “Backwards from the usual. Do you want to know what it says?”

“What?” Erwin asked.

“It says you're a nosy asshole,” Levi had said, and he'd laughed his strange and quiet laugh, a soft and rare little huffing noise that seemed to come more through his nose than his mouth.

What Levi had been up to, it turned out, was devising new strike patterns, using some of the old beginning tactical models Erwin remembered from his first year of study under Captain Hamlin. Most of them had been made to work from horseback, but Levi rarely accounted for horses, whether because of lack of inexperience or because he disdained fighting that was too dependent on outside equipment; instead he arranged the trainees in tight formations, giving signals to strike at strategic intervals. Soon the air was full of flying and shouting soldiers, some of them swinging so close to one another that they nearly collided, and the regular heavy thunking sound of practice blades striking the mock Titan's neck.

The pattern became clear after a few rounds, Erwin found. One soldier would swoop in low and make a pass. Another would follow on the opposite side, enough distance between them and the Titan that the downswing took about a second and a half to reach it, more than enough time to tell whether or not the first strike had hit its mark and, if it hadn't, to either launch a second attack or to get out of the way of the moving target.

It was simple, but clever, and required an acrobatic concentration that was clearly a new experience for a number of the trainees. Much of basic training centered around just getting close enough to strike the Titan, with little thought to escaping or cleaning up another soldier's mess, and there were a few crossed wires at first. Two of the newcomers couldn't seem to stop colliding with each other, and after a few passes Levi sidelined them, each on opposite sides of the sand pit, with instructions to watch for a while instead. After they'd watched the others for a while, he called them back up to the platform, and when they completed their first successful pass on their next try the entire group gave a whoop of spontaneous pride and excitement.

“You starting a cult out here, Smith? That's what I'm hearing.”

Erwin turned to see Captain Hamlin approaching him. Hanji had drifted over to the other side of the course, and was standing firm and spread-legged with a notebook and charcoal pencil in hand, her eyes fixed determinedly on the paper. Hamlin strolled up and gave him a hearty clap on one shoulder, which was no mean feat, considering he towered over her by several inches.

Erwin smiled. “It's not my cult,” he said. “He seems to have a way with them, doesn't he?”

“That he does.” Hamlin squinted good naturedly out at the course. “And a way with – that's a scissor-cross formation, isn't it? I'm surprised they haven't all killed themselves by now.”

“Trainees have a delightful tendency to bounce, luckily.” Erwin shot her a sidelong look. “Far be it from me to question anything you do, Captain, but are you certain you want to be seen with me?”

Hamlin raised her eyebrows. “Son,” she said, “Do you really think, at this point in our working relationship, that I give anything nearing a shit about anything that pen of swaggering roosters thinks or says?”

He laughed. “I'm sorry, Captain. Of course I don't.”

“Good.” She tucked her hands into her trouser pockets and said, without a change in her expression, “I came to let you know that you're in a hell of a lot of danger right now, Erwin.”

Hamlin wasn't one to mince words or exaggerate, not really, and Erwin felt a little chill go through him. “Am I?” he said, carefully, and she looked at him, her dark eyes narrowed, the skin around them tight.

“Yes,” she said, a tension in her voice he hadn't heard before. “Did you really think this would just go along the way you wanted it to if you kept your eyes on the prize? Men died because of that boy. Men with friends, Erwin.”

Erwin avoided her gaze. “Of course I know that,” he said, hating the sudden sensation that he was a trainee again himself, stumbling his way through the physical and the political at once. “Of course. But I'm hoping that the brass will remember their honor, and their bargain-”

“Piss on their bargain,” Hamlin snapped. She turned and seized his arm, yanking him around to face her. Erwin was not a small man, but the strength in her wiry arms was considerable. “Piss on it. You're a bloody idiot if you think they're going to let you walk away from any part of this, no matter what the brass says – who, might I remind you, are inviting a number of military patrons to judge him, too. Your father. Your father's friends.”

“I can deal with him,” Erwin said grimly, but Hamlin's expression only grew darker.

“You're still trying to play your father's game,” she said. “Big displays of public nobility, an honorable front, all of that bullshit, while you deal under the table. That's well and good. There's a time and a place for it. But I'm not talking about your honor or your social standing. This isn't about whether or not you can shame those useless cockerels into taking a chance on something useful. I'm talking about a knife in your armpit the next time you're out by yourself in the dark somewhere. I'm talking about pissy little noble sons who are missing two of their cronies, who think you're fair game now without your father's favor. They hate you, and they hate him.” Her hand tightened on his bicep to the point of pain.

“You took him in, and now you're responsible for what he's done – they're going to come for you, Erwin, and when they've gotten you, it's going to be real easy for them to point the finger at your little stray kitten and say he turned on you. You can imagine what they'll do to him.”

Erwin could, well enough. Dismay had settled over him like a cloak over the shoulders, balanced somewhere between disbelief and pessimistic understanding. Deep down he'd wanted to believe, of course, that there was fairness inherent in the military system, that once one cut past all of the corruption and self serving agendas and issues of quiet cruelty there was something there at the core worth saving.

But he knew better. He'd known better all along. He knew he should have expected such things, just as surely as he knew that Levi's new trial was likely going to end badly. There was very little more dangerous than complacent and powerful men poised on the brink of forced change, save perhaps such men with an excuse for righteous action.

Levi was right about him. He'd spent most of his life playing at cooperation, at humility and patience and respect, all the while telling himself that the difference between himself and the rest of them was the fact that he didn't believe in it. He made his moves only in order to keep up his outward face, but never to change. The division between thought and action was not the absolute he'd been pretending it was. So long as he took no risks, the only person he was lying to was himself. And continuing to play games without ruthlessness would get one or both of them killed in the very near future.

Face the truth – wear truth, or die, he thought, and smiled faintly, without humor. Truth of self, or death. And nothing in between. Met, or emet.

“Yes,” he said, while Hamlin stared at him, clearly searching for some signal that Erwin understood how serious the situation was. “I can imagine.”

“Well, imagine it,” Hamlin said, sourly. “Fix it in your mind and keep it there, because I'd rather not lose my best student over some ridiculous histrionics.”

“Histrionics seems a bit unfair,” Erwin said. “To be honest, I can rather understand their perspective. Two of their friends are dead, so far as they're concerned, because of an uppity bit of street trash.” His eyes were on Levi, who was demonstrating some kind of pivoting motion, the grace in him unmistakable even from such a distance. As if sensing the look the boy lifted his head and caught Erwin's eyes with his own for a moment. He tipped his head slightly, questioning, stilled in mid-motion.

“But it doesn't matter, really,” he said. He could still feel Hamlin's eyes on him, suspicious now. “I've committed to my path. I'm going to see it through.”

He bobbed his head very slightly at Levi, and the boy turned away again as though released from a physical grip.

“That's very noble,” Hamlin drawled. “I hope you're not just talking big to get me off your back.” She sighed. “Just be safe, all right? There's only so much I can do for you, as much as I'd like to do more.”

“Thank you, ma'am.” Erwin straightened his shoulders, a little humbled by her favor, as he always was. “You've done more than enough for me.” He paused, and then added, “And I would like to make you proud, some day.”

“Get your head all the way out of your ass, Smith, and you'll get there,” she said, and let go of his arm at last. His bicep throbbed where she'd gripped it. “I've done what I can. Probably in regards to everything else about you, too,” she added. “At this rate I'm going to have to find a less ambitious assistant.”

Erwin heard the resignation in her voice and turned towards her, opening his mouth to voice some protest he wasn't sure he even had words for – I'm not finished yet, possibly, or please don't leave me, I'm not ready -- but she smiled at him, as solid as striking steel.

“Get the hell out of my nest, little eagle,” she said. “It's time you grew your own wings.”

She straightened up, and clasped her fist against her heart. Her black eyes were smiling and fond.

With an effort Erwin drew himself up, and snapped smartly into his own salute, eyes straight and forward.

“Yes, ma'am,” he said. “Thank you, ma'am.” His voice didn't waver, though he felt it wanting to. The first time he'd ever leapt out into space with only a Gear wire to catch him had felt like this; the knowing, academically, that he would likely be all right, but his body betraying him, alight with nerves and with childish fear. He'd had tea with Hamlin nearly every afternoon since he was seventeen, had spent more sleepless nights than he could count helping her arrange her presentations, ghost-writing her battle plans, reading and writing and listening all under her command.

You'll be a commander yourself one day, she'd said more than once, flapping her papers against the top of his head or waving him away to fetch her lunch. You'll have to learn what it means to serve, first.

“Thank you,” he repeated, a little hoarsely.

Hamlin nodded. “You're welcome,” she said. “Just remember not to be a stupid ass, and you'll be fine.”

She was a proud and straight-backed figure marching back into the barracks by the time Hanji came loping back across the sandpit, her pencils between her teeth and her eyebrows lifted.

“That's Allyson Hamlin, right?” she said, peering after her with an expression of impressed curiosity. “The famous tactician? I didn't know you knew her.”

“She was my mentor,” Erwin said, quietly. His left arm was still clenched behind his back. “Since I was a trainee.”

“Well, damn.” Hanji grinned. “You know all kinds of interesting people, don't you?”

***

“You're not all right,” Levi said abruptly, as they made their way down the hill into the city proper. Hanji was several paces ahead of them, deeply absorbed in her own folio. Occasionally she'd push her glasses up onto the top of her head, walk a few feet, and then pull them back down again in apparent realization. The sun was pressing warm and fading against the western facing buildings, orange light obscuring the view through the windows they passed.

Erwin glanced at Levi. The boy was peering up at him, his walk uninterrupted by his change in focus, as though he were confident the cobblestones would arrange themselves under his feet without fuss. His pale eyes were curious, eyebrows lifted a little. “You're not,” he repeated, before Erwin could even open his mouth. “What happened?”

I am left to my own devices, Erwin thought. And tomorrow, you may die. We both may.

“My instructor – my mentor has decided that it's time for me to graduate from her service,” he said, after a moment. Levi's expression said that he didn't fully understand what that meant, and Erwin added, “She believes I've learned everything I can from her.”

“You don't think you have.”

“No. I think she's not wrong.” Erwin pressed his lips together, disliking how childish he felt. “Only... well.”

“You're worried the wire won't catch you,” Levi said, and Erwin started slightly, feeling as though Levi had seen briefly into his earlier thoughts.

“I... yes,” he said. “I suppose I am.”

Levi rolled his shoulders. It wasn't a shrug, not really, but it bore similarities. “Learn to live with fear,” he said, not unkindly – at least not for him. “Spend too much time being angry at yourself for being scared and you'll just make the fear worse every time.”

“You're right. About a lot of things, Levi, if I'm honest.”

The boy gave him one of those odd, slightly uncomfortable looks, as though Erwin had called attention to something dangerously different about him. “Yeah?” he said, voice slightly raised. Erwin nodded, as sincere as he could manage to be.

“I've given a lot of thought to some of the things you've said,” he said. “I think they're very wise.”

“Wise,” Levi repeated in a faintly disgusted mutter, obviously not liking the word. “Shit. People go around ignoring each other and themselves so much the minute somebody pays attention for a few seconds they're some kind of people genius.”

Despite himself Erwin laughed, and he pressed his hand against Levi's back companionably, without really thinking about it. He felt Levi stiffen slightly, and then relax, and when he looked down again the boy's expression had returned to its customary mixture of calm and annoyance. In front of them, Hanji turned at the sound, and then grinned, walking backwards to reach them. She fell into step on Erwin's other side comfortably, and leaned around him to peer at Levi.

“So,” she said, “Do you laugh at all?”

“No,” Levi said immediately, which made Erwin chuckle even more, both at Levi's visible consternation and at the bald-facedness of the lie. Hanji just went on grinning.

“You know,” she said, “They say that laughter is the way people signal to other people that there's no danger nearby. Back and back, a long time ago – cover your ears if you don't want to be struck by lightning, Lieutenant – a long time ago before people were properly people, they say we all lived in trees! In big groups! It's true. So it was easy for a big group of before-people to keep an eye out for dangerous things – big animals, you know, this was before Titans. And laughter developed as a sound we make when we know the danger is past. That's why it's contagious.” She beamed.

Erwin was beginning to feel about as close to hysterics as he personally could be. “In trees,” he managed, throat constricted with suppressed laughter. “Perhaps we should train our Wall watchers to laugh at Titans from now on?”

“Imagine Levi in charge of a laugh-brigade,” Hanji said, and she was giggling too. “He'd get them all killed.”

“I would not,” Levi said, and the indigence in his voice made them both break up again. There were people on the street around them, people turning their heads to stare at the Mystic, the heretic, and the bastard son, and Erwin suddenly felt relief again, like the warmth of a hearth after trudging through heavy snow. It didn't matter what they saw, or what they thought, not really. Levi was warm under his hand, all muscle and power and promise, and when he leaned briefly against Erwin's side, feline and affectionate, Erwin thought that Captain Hamlin was probably right.

He would be fine.

Hanji left them in the city center proper, with a cheery wave and and a promise to see them tomorrow “before things got interesting,” and the two of them made their way back to Erwin's apartment alone. Erwin kept his eyes open for unfamiliar movement or strange faces in the neighborhood, but there was no sign of anything out of place, and Levi too seemed relaxed, which Erwin took to be a good sign. He suspected that the boy would give some sign at the first whiff of trouble.

“You're sweaty,” Levi said, once they were inside. He was removing his boots by the door as he always did, careful to stand them in the same general area, so that sand and mud could collect in one place and not be spread throughout the rest of the apartment. “And you smell, sort of.”

“I'm afraid that's the human condition,” Erwin said, shrugging off his uniform jacket. “Are you going to be shirty with me about my smell, now?”

“You look like you've been swimming.” Levi wasn't even looking at him, too busy knocking the dirt from his boot heels.

Erwin eyed him, watching the movement of his muscles beneath the thin uniform tunic he wore.

“I do not,” he said, quietly. “But if you'd prefer to inspect me for your approval, be my guest.”

“I intend to,” Levi said. When he lifted his head his black hair was heavy across his forehead and in his eyes, and there was that predatory consideration again, the slightest tip of his head and the faint parting of his lips, like a cat scenting. “Sit down.”

Erwin sat, his buttocks hitting the thick old sofa cushioning hard, as though yanked by a drop-line. It wasn't helplessness that made him do it, or even desire. It was as though he was answering a question that had been silently asked – answering it with a resounding yes.

Levi surveyed him for a moment, and then he smiled his uncanny little smile, and padded forward.

Chapter Text

“I'd bathe you,” Levi said, “But you wouldn't fit in the tub.”

He leaned down, resting his palms against Erwin's thighs, close to his knees. Being touched by Levi so deliberately was always a little startling, as much of his physical contact seemed to be made up of coincidental encounters; the brushing of a shoulder or leg, the push of an arm. His purposeful touches always had the air of a solid wall of thought and intention behind him, and this time was no different.

Erwin lifted his chin, exhaling. Levi's hands were warm, his eyes soft.

“I know what I've said to you,” he said. “About ruthlessness.”

“As I said,” Erwin murmured, “You're not incorrect.”

“Ruthlessness needs a purpose that isn't you.” Something in Levi's expression was slightly pleading, a look Erwin had seen before but still couldn't quite define. “Be ruthless to achieve. To save. But don't do it for revenge. Don't do it just to hurt. Don't turn off on the inside. You're capable of that, too. I'm pretty damn sure.”

Erwin blinked, and opened his mouth to respond, but Levi overrode him, his fingers tightening slightly into Erwin's flesh.

“The story I know about golems,” he said, “goes properly like this. There was once an evil priest who hated us – my mother told me once that we've always been hated, back and back to the beginnings of everything. Outsiders tell lies about us, and always have – that we steal children, and drink blood. My mother didn't know why, and neither do I. But she took it for fact, and so do I. So this priest hated us, and accused the Ashkenazim of a certain city of such things – boiling the blood of children, and other dark magic. The people of the city believed him, and grew angry, and decided to attack the community during one of our holy seasons.” He drew a breath, eyes intent on Erwin's face.

“There was a rabbi, in that city. The rabbi was called the Maharal, and he knew the ways of holy magic. He made a golem out of river clay, and he named it, and he set it to protecting the community.” Levi's tone had taken on an unfamiliar quality, now. There was an air of recitation to his words, but also of something approaching reverence, and Erwin could see that vague distress filling him again, the knowledge that these were words of heresy, but also of heritage, and that asking for understanding was a dangerous thing, even from someone he'd come to trust. He knew, inherently, that Levi had never told this story before, and that even a boy as strong willed as he was found it difficult to speak of it above a nervous whisper for fear of what would be made of it.

Erwin reached out, and gently laid his hand over one of Levi's.

“Go on,” he said, gentle. Levi paused, his chin set stubbornly for a moment, and then nodded, once.

“The golem obeyed,” he said. “They have to. The story never says how big it was, only that it was big. Inhuman. It protected our people through the holiday, but at the end of it, something went wrong. The golem became violent. It attacked people. It was –“ he paused again, and Erwin saw how pale he'd gotten, and he realized with a start that Levi was afraid of this story, afraid of it beyond his considerable self control.

Abruptly Erwin could imagine him, so much smaller than he was even now, huddled somewhere by a dim stove fire and learning for the first time that nothing, not even the powers one could summon to protect oneself and one's people, was safe. Learning that unfeeling giants that killed without discrimination were an inevitability, and that no measure of courage or belief or good intention could save you.

“Levi,” he said, and both hands curled around the boy's wrists, dwarfing them. Levi dropped his eyes and stared downwards unseeing, pressing on doggedly.

“No one knows why it started killing. Some versions of the story say the magic just wore off, or that the Maharal had worked it wrong in the first place.”

“Levi.” He was squeezing now, aware there was some tide spilling forth, and not certain how or if he should stem it.

“But,” Levi said, his voice brittle, his eyes wide, “My mother always said that the truth was, the golem fell in love.”

He'd let Erwin pull him forward, slightly, but his legs were steadied, resistant. “But all it knew in return was disgust,” he said. “And power. Control. So it killed, instead. And eventually it forgot anything but death.”

“Levi.” Erwin gripped him by the upper arms this time, feeling the tension twanging through him like a badly tuned violin string. The calm and steady drone of the boy's voice as his face had gotten whiter and whiter was unnerving and upsetting. “Levi.” A thought occurred to him. “Levi, relax.”

Levi's head jerked up, and he looked at Erwin as though he'd forgotten entirely that Erwin was there.

“Relax,” Erwin repeated, gentle but insistent. “Relax.”

Levi's arms went loose in Erwin's grip, and for a moment he swayed, as though his knees might give out, too. His fingers uncurled against Erwin's thighs and his mouth came open a little.
.
“Despite your best efforts, and mine,” Erwin said quietly, “I am very fond of you. Despite only having known you for such a limited amount of time, I am very, very fond of you.” He tested each word on his tongue as they came forth, and he found they were true. There had been no lightning bolt moment, not even a slow swelling of tide; he could not even put name to the feeling as simply as a bard or poet might, and despite the urgencies such people sowed into their craft, he felt no real need to.

“I am invested in you,” he said, feeling the rightness of that word, at least. “You – your well being. Your mind, your soul.”

“My prowess,” Levi muttered, head lolled slightly to one side as though Erwin were the only thing holding him up at the moment.

“Yes,” Erwin said, because that was undeniable, and not wrong, he felt, “But there is also you.”

Levi was afraid of golems, he understood now, and afraid of Titans, afraid of them beyond the natural human revulsion and terror their presence invoked. Levi feared Titans the way children feared the dark, the way some people screamed and hid at the sound of thunder, the way some fainted at the sight of blood. The boy's emotional control had disguised it well thus far, but this was the eve of his absolution, and he was only human. Levi would fight for Erwin as commanded, most certainly, but it would be at the cost of some private and jealously guarded part of himself, some part of the iron will that had allowed him to survive as long as he had. Levi had spoken so passionately about the power and value of fear, and Erwin realized how foolish he'd been not to notice it before now, before he had the boy trembling in his grip and pleading in silence and metaphor to be understood.

Levi was capable, would be capable of the glorious battle Erwin and so many others wanted, but no one had asked him if he wanted to be. Levi would obey – Levi wanted to obey, he had proven that well by now, but he had not been given the chance to offer his obedience himself. Fear could be used, and overcome, but chaining Levi to a cause without his consent would ruin him.

Because what frightened Levi more than facing the mindless violence of a misused golem was the idea of becoming one himself.

“You,” Erwin repeated. “Levi. Look at me.”

Levi moved his head marginally, enough to fix his weary eyes on Erwin's face. Erwin touched his cheek with his fingertips, as he had that night when Levi still hung, battered and bruised, in the stocks.

“I will not,” Erwin said, slowly and firmly, “Force you to fight.”

Levi's eyelashes lifted a little, the hurt resignation in his eyes fading a little. Now he was listening, measuring Erwin's intent.

“When this is over, I will ask you. I will ask you to give your strength and your brilliance and your resolve to the service, because I believe that together you and I can save humanity. I believe we stand on the brink of something hopeful, and wonderful. I have believed that since I laid eyes on you. I will ask you. I may even beg, if you seem disinclined. Despite the way I may seem, at times, this is the cause that I am devoted to. Whatever happens, I will apply myself to springing us from this trap. I will fight, with my own hands. A leader who can't or won't has little right to lead.” Erwin's thumb rubbed slow down the length of Levi's cheekbone, and he felt the boy press his head slightly into his hand.

“But, Élie,” he murmured, “I will not force you to do so, if you don't want to.”

Levi's eyes opened again.

“No?” he said.

“No.”

“You'd let me leave?”

“Yes. If that's what you want. I'd even help you. I have funds of my own. You could go anywhere you wanted to.”

Levi was silent at this, his eyes downcast and thoughtful, his skin warm beneath Erwin's palm. His other arm remained loose in Erwin's grip.

“Whether I fight or not,” he said at last, looking up again, “I'd rather stay with you.” The ghost of his previous smile hovered around his lips, though he still looked pale. “You're not so bad, when you quit acting like a shithead.”

He let Erwin pull him forward, finally, and he braced his free hand against the back of the sofa, lifting one knee to press it into the cushion space between Erwin's spread knees, balancing as he stretched up to kiss him.

It was not a particularly soft nor tender gesture, and Erwin felt no clatter of thunder or burst of light as their lips met. There was only that warmth, rising gradually like before, the calm certainty and satisfaction of touching a new blade. He pulled Levi's other arm forward and Levi draped it across his neck agreeably, the shift of his weight bringing his knee firmly up against the inside of Erwin's thigh. Erwin grunted, and Levi's eyes came open, a little huff of air escaping his nostrils.

“If I'm still alive by this time tomorrow,” he said, lips brushing Erwin's chin with every word, “You can ask me then. I'll see how I feel.”

“Fine,” Erwin said, sliding a hand experimentally up his back, pleased when he saw Levi's eyes slitting in feline appreciation. “But how do you feel now?”

“Fine,” Levi said, repeating Erwin's tonality almost perfectly as he pressed his knee very deliberately into Erwin's crotch. “What about you, Lieutenant Hard-on?”

Erwin barked a short laugh, surprised both by the sudden pressure and by Levi's words, but didn't bother to respond. He lifted his head up and caught the soft flesh between the joint of Levi's neck and shoulder, and bit it with no degree of gentleness, remembering the burning ache of the mark in his own skin. Levi's whole body tensed against his, and Erwin felt the tightening of his spine beneath his hand, but the noise that escaped the boy was soft, and human. He leaned forward in a swaying motion and then he was straddling Erwin's thigh, an expression of almost meditative thought on his face.

Erwin had been with women before, of course, and though he had never considered himself a man of crooked leanings such as these, he was finding that the general principles were not very different here. At the sound Levi made he reached down and under with his free hand, gripping Levi's cock through his trousers, and he felt the boy's throat work beneath his lips.

“Doesn't it hurt,” he murmured, and Levi nodded once.

“Yeah,” he grunted, wincing.

“But that's good, isn't it?” Erwin said, remembering the feeling of Levi's cock straining under his fingers in the water, even as his fingernails cut into the delicate skin. “You enjoy that.”

“Yeah, fuck.” Levi glared at him, already a little flushed, and obviously annoyed. “Do you need a diagram or something?”

“I don't think so, no.” Erwin clapped his hand abruptly against the back of Levi's neck, the other against his hip, and turned him onto his back along the length of the couch in a swift and unannounced movement.

Levi yelped, his back arching up in protest, but Erwin pressed him down again, with a hand against his collarbone. He caught the bent knee before it slammed into his kidneys, and jerked his head up out of the way of the hand that went for his throat. Outwardly he was calm, but he felt hot and heady, like his skin was suddenly too tight to contain him. He unlaced Levi's trousers and let him go long enough to roll them down to mid thigh, his fingers trailing across the firm swell of Levi's ass.

Levi growled at him, his head thudding back against the sofa cushion with a muffled sound. His fist snaked out towards Erwin's stomach, but Erwin caught it, and wrenched it to the side firmly.

“You speak a very different language than others I've been with,” Erwin said, squeezing the small wrist mercilessly. Levi's mouth came open, his breath in short huffs, and his chest heaved for a moment, but his eyes were on Erwin's face. Erwin could see the hunger in them. “But I like to think that I'm a quick learner.”

“You'd like to,” Levi breathed, hoarse. He was half hard, without Erwin having handled him at all, and Erwin could see the pulse in his throat jumping. “Arrogant fuck.”

“No. Confident,” Erwin said. He leaned down, listing slightly to one side to accommodate his size on the sofa's limited width, and neatly swallowed the snarl on Levi's lips with his own mouth. He bit here, too, digging his teeth into Levi's lower lip, and Levi moaned, bucking under him once. When he reached for Erwin this time, it was to fit deft fingers around his trouser lacings, tugging at them insistently until they came free. Erwin's shirt had come untucked long ago, and he shuddered as Levi's cock brushed against his belly, firm and hot.

“Fuck, help me,” Levi muttered. His reach wasn't long enough to get any sort of useful grip on Erwin's erection, and Erwin bowed a little to smother a breathless laugh into the black hair. “It's not funny, Erwin, move.” There was blood on Levi's lips, bright and welling, and he licked it away impatiently, baring his teeth. “You fat fucking cart-horse, move.”

“Bossy,” Erwin said softly, affection welling up within him until he thought he might burst with it. He moved, bringing himself forward into Levi's reach, but laced his fingers into the boy's hair as he did so, pulling it back with a firm and obviously painful grip. Levi whimpered, startled.

“I expect more patience from you.” Erwin shook him gently, his calm belying the heavy weight of his cock where it rested on Levi's stomach. Levi's hands had stilled, within reaching distance now but making no effort to do so. His attention was on Erwin's face, his eyes very wide. “Ask nicely in the future, Levi.”

“Yes,” Levi said, very quietly.

“Thank you.” It took great effort to keep the tremble out of his voice. Erwin let him go, and Levi rolled his hips upwards. He made a low noise as Erwin's cock pressed against his, and Erwin answered him with a sound of his own as Levi gripped it, working it through his fingers in a long, slow pull.

“Keep going,” Erwin rumbled, and Levi bowed his head, his fingers digging into Erwin's flesh.

Erwin let go. He let go of his worry and his self-consciousness, of his control and his future. He felt Levi's calloused fingertips along his cock, brushing sometimes at the tightened skin of his balls, felt his own body hitching beyond his control with eagerness and pleasure, felt Levi breathing hard beneath his almost crushing weight. When he came into Levi's hands and across his stomach he felt his entire body go tight and clenched for one long moment, and then relax completely, in a way it hadn't relaxed in a very long time. Erwin caught himself with an effort, before he really did crush Levi, and let his head hang as he fought to regain his breath. He felt a hand in his hair, stroking him, and he thought weirdly of Levi and his trainees, of his hidden but expansive compassion, of the sweetness on Levi's face when he held someone else's hopes and fears between his hands.

You did well. I'm proud of you. You did well. You were brave. You were brave where it counted.

“Erwin.”

“A moment,” Erwin gasped, and shivered. “Just... give me a moment.”

Levi shifted beneath him, making some unseen motion for a moment, and then his other hand threaded into Erwin's hair too, brushing it back from Erwin's face. He put his palms against Erwin's cheeks and drew him down slowly, and then his lips really were sweet against Erwin's, sweet but brief before their foreheads pressed together.

“Now you really are sweaty,” Levi said after a moment, conversational, and Erwin laughed, unable to contain it.

“So are you,” he said, and lifted up a little, trying to get a look at him. The brief motion had obviously been Levi cleaning his hand on his discarded jacket. He was still flushed, but calm enough. Erwin glanced down.

“I'm sorry,” he said. “Should I...?”

“It's fine.” Levi rolled one shoulder. “You needed that a lot more than I did.” He wiggled a little. “You could get off me, though.”

Erwin sat up, bracing his hand against the back of the sofa for balance, and half eased, half dropped into a sitting position. Levi rose up, too, but only a little, just enough to turn himself over and then settle back down again comfortably, his head on Erwin's thigh. Erwin paused, and then lowered his hand onto Levi's head to stroke his hair, and Levi turned a little to nuzzle him.

“It doesn't just happen, does it?” Levi said, after a few moments of silence between them. “It's not like a lightning bolt, or a wound, or something. It's not the way people talk about it.”

“No,” Erwin said. He was fairly certain he knew what Levi was talking about, and why he didn't seem to want to give it name. “I don't think it is. It seems to come slowly. From a long way off. Like a change of the seasons.”

“Mm.” Levi was quiet for another moment, and Erwin thought he'd fallen asleep until he spoke up again.

“But still, a long way off... that means you can see it coming.”

“I suppose so, if you're paying attention.”

Levi lifted his head a little to look at Erwin, his expression thoughtful and a little unsure. “Are you paying attention?” he said.

Erwin smiled. “I am now, Élie.”

Chapter Text

Erwin cut Levi's hair in the morning, as the sun touched the tops of Sina's highest crenelations and turned them golden. He seated Levi facing away from the windows, to avoid the glare, and felt the day's warmth grow against his back.

They had not been coiled together when he awoke, though he hadn't expected such a thing. Levi had slept next to him in the bed, but aside from a cursory and almost curious brushing of hands and once of Levi's cheek against his shoulder, he'd curled up on his own side and left Erwin alone. Erwin had lain awake for a few hours, and he'd felt how each of his small movements jostled Levi from his light sleep; once he'd looked over and seen the boy eyeing him speculatively after a particularly decisive roll. Levi had huffed at him, obviously annoyed, and left the bedroom, presumably to reclaim his mattress in the spare room, where no giants would jar him awake or roll over on him by accident. When Erwin had finally extracted himself from bed, Levi was already in the living area, Erwin's broad map book open on his crossed knees, though he didn't seem to be looking at it. He'd looked up when Erwin came in, silently, and they'd regarded each other for a moment or two before Erwin said, “Shall I cut your hair?”

Levi's hair was softly textured under his fingers, inky black with not a hint of brown, and it came away easily beneath the gentle scrapings of the straight razor. Erwin generally used the razor on his face, and had someone at the barracks help him keep his own hair neat, but it was strangely fascinating to watch the slow, grey fade creep up Levi's neck. He had to lean over a bit uncomfortably to be able to reach him. Levi sat still, perched on the kitchen chair with one leg crossed under him, and only shivered once, when the razor lightly touched the back of his ear.

“Tickles,” he muttered.

“Sorry.”

“It's fine.” Levi half lifted a hand as though to feel out Erwin's handiwork, then paused and lowered it again. “Are you done yet?”

“A bit more on the left, I think,” Erwin said. He rubbed his thumb the wrong way up against the stubble and Levi leaned back a little, draping his arm across his stomach instead.

“Nervous?” Erwin said.

Levi was quiet for a moment. “Yeah,” he said, finally. “They're just going to say I fail, no matter what I do. You know that, right?”

“I suspect it, yes.” Erwin tipped the boy's head to the side, to finish the cutting there. “But they've asked me to kill you myself, if you fail.”

“And you won't do it.”

“No, I won't.” Erwin let him go. There was a fine cluster of black scattered around the floor, like the leavings of a shaggy beast. Levi turned around and looked up at him.

“How do I know that?” he said, calmly.

Erwin frowned. “Why – what reason would I have to betray you that way, Levi?”

Levi shrugged. “Your career,” he said. “Social pressure. I don't know. If it comes down to my life or yours, what's more valuable to you?”

“The right thing,” Erwin said, stiffly. He was surprised by how insulted he felt – and how suddenly guilty. Not because he thought he might throw Levi's life away to save his own, but because he hadn't considered what he would do after the initial refusal. What were they going to say? What would they threaten to get their way? Would there be something, in the end, he'd find he couldn't say no to?

Levi was looking at him steadily, and Erwin realized that in all honestly he had no good answer. The realization made him feel a little sick. It was easy to promise things in the abstract, easy to reassure that the future was bright and possible and that no harm would come when it wasn't himself in danger of harm. He could tell by the expression on Levi's face that this was, more or less, Levi's opinion as well.

“I'm sorry,” he said. “I – you don't know that. You don't, do you?”

Levi's cold look softened a little bit.

“I know,” he said, “that you're going to try.” He shrugged loosely, unseating some of the sheddings of hair from his shoulders. “I guess that's all I've got. I've had worse odds. We should get breakfast.”

“Levi-”

“You can only promise you'll try, and that's fine,” Levi said firmly, glancing at him. “It's fine, Erwin. I can take care of myself if I need to.”

Erwin didn't want to think about what that would entail. He knew Levi wasn't being passive aggressive, only honest, and it was more upsetting than he'd thought it would be. “No,” he said, ignoring the faintly incredulous tip of Levi's head as he spoke, “You won't have to. There are – I can make sacrifices. For the right thing.”

Levi said, quietly, “Not just for me?”

The abrupt knocking at the apartment's entry door prevented any startled reply that Erwin might have made. They both turned in the direction of the sound, and then Levi looked at him, expectant. Erwin schooled himself into outward unruffled calm, and began swiftly to button up his shirt.

“There are a lot of things I would do for you,” he said, gesturing slightly with one elbow. “Put your shirt on.”

He went to the door, trusting at least that Levi would do as he was told, and opened it, squinting a little at the early morning light coming up from the stairwell.

Marshall Embry gave him a thin smile. He was freshly washed, it seemed, and there was a hint of fine cologne about him. His uniform was pressed and well creased, and Erwin felt alarm manifesting within him in two different directions: one, that he himself was still rather ruffled from sleep, and two, that he wore only his undershirt and trousers.

“Sir,” he managed, though instinct presented him from holding the door open for Embry to come in. “I'm – I'm terribly sorry for the state I'm in, I didn't expect to see you until later today.”

Embry waved a hand slightly, the motion hindered a bit by the tight space of the stair landing and his own impressive height. “No, no,” he said. “I've come unannounced. The fault is mine, of course.” His eyes roved Erwin's face, then fell to his shoulder, then strained past him. “Is your, ah, your guest is here, I assume.”

“Yes.” Erwin didn't relinquish his grip on the door, giving Embry his blandest smile. “He's still asleep, I think.”

“That's fine.” Embry gave him another smile, the one Erwin recognized from his encounters with the man from before things had gotten strange. It was faintly simpering, a little apologetic, hopeful. Suspicion bloomed within him. Something was not right.

“Well, then, sir,” Erwin said, giving the man his blandest, most polite smile. “What can I do for you?”

“I was hoping you'd accompany me on a brief walk,” Embry said. “Just around the neighborhood, while we talk. Unless, of course, you'd rather not leave the – your guest alone in your apartments.”

“He'll be fine,” Erwin said. “I'd be honored, Marshal. Give me a moment to pull on some clothes?”

“Of course, of course.” Embry was genial. “Take your time.”

Erwin nodded, beaming, and closed the door. He turned around, and saw Levi retrieving his uniform jacket and starched shirt.

“You'll be all right here for a few minutes, won't you?” Erwin said.

Levi didn't look up. “Of course.” He draped Erwin's clothes over one arm and came over, offering them solemnly. “He sounds fit to piss himself.”

Despite himself Erwin chuckled. “He does, doesn't he? Keep your voice down, he's right outside.”

“Fit to piss,” Levi repeated, at the same volume; Erwin was a little relieved to see the hint of laughter in his eyes and the corners of his mouth. “Go. I won't destroy anything.”

When Erwin emerged, dressed and hastily combed, Embry had retreated to the landing just below the final stairs that led to the apartment's entry. He smiled again at Erwin as Erwin descended, and Erwin took hold of his anxiety in a firm hand, and squeezed it, reducing its alarmed yammering into a quiet and more reasonable murmur.

“Well, Marshal. Shall we?”

The sun was warming the building tops now, when they emerged onto the street, and there were a few early morning pedestrians out and about; servants, mostly, by the look of their cheap mob caps and linen dresses, their patched jackets and ill fitted trousers. Embry took no notice of any of them with the same carefully trained lack of awareness displayed by any born noble, though he shot Erwin occasional looks as they arranged themselves into a comfortable side-by-side pace.

“You must be wondering,” Embry said, as they passed the crossroads up the lane, the clatter of horse hooves coming from somewhere distant, “what I'm doing here at such an hour, on such a day.” He chuckled, a sound as thin as his smile.

“I suppose,” Erwin said, neatly sidestepping an as of yet unattended pile of horse leavings. The wind of his passage unsettled sluggish flies. “But that hardly matters – I'm honored for you to have come all the way here, to my home.”

“Yes, yes.” Embry waved an arm generously. “There's no need for pomp, Smith. We're both just men, in the end. Men with similar goals and values. Isn't that so?”

“That's so,” Erwin said. “Most certainly.”

“Most certainly,” Embry repeated. His eyes skimmed up to the hulk of the Wall before them. “Yes. Such an interesting thing. I had the honor of meeting your mother last night.”

It took most of Erwin's considerable will to restrain the surprise this struck within him from showing on his face. His mother?

“Did you?” he said, calm but careful. “That's strange. Usually she's quite busy with work.”

Embry was pointedly not looking at him. “Apparently she sometimes accompanies the Queen, when Her Highness takes a personal errand day into the city proper. Very noble, I find, yes. Such dedication to one's mistress.”

Erwin pursed his lips a little. “They are... friendly,” he said, trying to maintain causality. “Her Highness is terribly generous with her time and affections, when it comes to the house staff.”

“Indeed, indeed. That was the impression I was given.” Erwin could see now that Embry was sweating beneath his collar, despite the pleasant cool of the day. “In any case, it seems she came looking for you – no doubt to convey some motherly good wishes, or some such, but you had already gone for the day, so she contended herself to speak with me instead. She was – she was very interested in your progress here in our services.”

Erwin was beginning to feel he had an idea as to why Embry had come. “Oh?” he said, allowing himself to relish the chance to leave the man hanging.

Unconsciously Embry reached up and pulled his collar away from his neck, sighing a little with relief from his own internal heat. “Yes,” he said, absently. “Yes, she was – such a charming woman. Clearly a proud mother. Very proud. She talked to me a bit about your childhood in the palace as well.”

“Days I remember with great fondness,” Erwin said, as blandly as he could muster. He felt the weird urge to smirk, suddenly. “The Royal Family is also very generous with its time and attention when it comes to house servants.”

“Yes. Yes.” Embry's hand dropped nerveless to his side again. “She mentioned, of course, that you and the Prince were playmates for some time? How dutiful – to serve the Crown at such a young age. To indulge the Prince at his playtime. What a good sense of honor you have.”

“I suppose.” It was true, of course, no exaggeration about it save for Embry's imagined motivations. Within the palace walls, the royal children had played with whomever they chose, and Erwin had maintained a childhood friendship with Prince Theobald. They were about the same age, and Erwin had been too young at the time to take on household responsibilities; the Prince, as well, had been a little too young to understand the full extent of his status. It was true, they had played together often, and Prince Theo had referred to him more than once as a friend. But that had been childhood, and before Egon Smith had come along to claim his bastard son, and Erwin hadn't seen the Prince in some ten years. He harbored no illusions about a close relationship in adulthood; children would play with whomever they liked, status and responsibilities be dammed, but it was different in advanced years. At least so far as Erwin was concerned.

Embry, however, seemed to have no realistic measure of such a relationship. Erwin recalled again that the man had come from an insignificant family, by all definitions of upper class – that he had come to be allowed to rub elbows with the Sina elite due only to his marriage to a woman of some impressive means, a lady whose name escaped Erwin at the moment. Embry had no point of reference for the places where nobility and commonality intersected and parted again.

He was suddenly very sure that Iseult had dropped this tidbit about his history very purposefully into her conversation with Embry. He didn't wonder how his mother had known the situation he was in; Iseult was an expert in knowing precisely the things she needed to know.

She was trying to help him.

“It's been some time since I spoke to the Prince,” Erwin said slowly. “Though of course I remember my time with him fondly.”

“I'm certain you do,” Embry said, giving that thin, twitching smile again. “I'm certain you do! And I'm certain he feels the same.” He swallowed. They were passing the cluster of bakeries and butcheries at the end of the lane now, and the smell of fresh bread mingled unpleasantly with the coppery taint of blood. Embry didn't seem to notice. “And that's why I've come to see you, Erwin.”

Erwin marked the intimate use of his given name, instead of his surname and title. “I see,” he said, noncommittal. “Do tell, sir.”

“As I'm sure you well know, the doings of the Military Police are often very vast, and complex.” Embry was already nodding, as though Erwin had agreed with him vocally. “Yes, very complex. The chain of command can be a little complicated, and – unorthodox.”

“Certainly.”

“We have, of course, the best interests of the Crown and the people in mind.”

“I'm sure.”

Embry coughed. “As such, there are times when... well... What I'm trying to say, Erwin, is that the brass and I would be happy to overlook this – this recent to-do. With your cooperation, of course. Honestly, I feel I was a bit too hasty in setting such terms. Barbaric terms, really. That boy, Eli--”

“Élie,” Erwin corrected, automatic. Embry's smile was closer to a grimace.

“Yes, of course. Elly. He is quite young, isn't he? A death sentence is rather extreme, I'm sure you agree. Perhaps he'd be better served with a few years in prison, to teach him a lesson.”

Erwin briefly pictured the sort of lessons Levi might learn – or teach – in prison, and had to suppress a grim smile. “Hm.”

“And a dedicated man such as yourself. Don't you feel you'd be better served in a higher position?” Embry looked at him, strangely hopeful.

Erwin paused, trying not to take too long, so as to alarm the man. “Hasn't all the paperwork been submitted, regarding Levi's case?” he said finally, allowing a little interest to creep into his voice. “Certainly the Crown officials have already seen the reports and signed off on them. They had to invest you with the power to try him in the first place, didn't they?”

“Oh, paperwork.” Embry was clearly happy to seize on that hint of curiosity as a positive; he stopped dead and turned, taking Erwin companionably by the shoulder. “Paperwork, Erwin, is not something the Military Police have to worry about.” His smile now was genuine. “This entire mess could easily go away, just as a stellar recommendation from High Commander Zacklay could very easily materialize. You understand what I mean?”

“I think so,” Erwin murmured. “But wouldn't Zacklay notice? And what about the Crown?”

“Erwin.” Embry squeezed his shoulder. He was tall enough to look Erwin in the eyes, a feat few men were capable of. “Neither Zacklay nor the Crown has seen or will ever see a report that we haven't approved of ourselves. Nothing that the brass and I haven't expressly decided on. It really is that easy.”

“You doctor them,” Erwin said, feeling a little light headed with this sudden revelation. He must have managed to keep his face straight, however, because Embry was nodding again, visibly pleased.

“Of course we do. To be honest, I authorized myself to hold that trial – the paperwork is there, of course, but several of the other higher-ups have a certain talent, shall we say, for Royal calligraphy. So it would be very easy for me to reverse my decision and give your young friend a second chance.”

“Forgery,” Erwin said. “You mean you've all been forging the King's signature and seal on official paperwork. That's... treason, isn't it?”

Embry laughed, high pitched and nervous. “No, no, nothing like that. Well, I suppose technically, but you understand – there is so much going on at one time, what with the day to day. We generally feel that there's little need for the King to be bothered with such lesser matters--”

“Or the High Commander.”

“Well, yes.” Embry's smile began to fade. “You understand what I'm offering you here, don't you, Erwin? I'm trying to give you a chance. To salvage your career, and that boy's life. To ensure that this matter stays where it belongs: in the hands of the brass. The rest is all very minor.”

Erwin wondered, a little numbly, how long this has been going on. How little of what was really going on within the MP's daily doings had been reported to anyone who had any power to change things. Forging the Royal signature? Going over the High Commander's head as a matter of course? He looked at Embry, saw how nervous the man was, how anxious he was for a favorable reaction, and he knew it must be true.

But why tell me? he thought, searching for the proper response to this information. Because of the Prince? Yes. That's precisely it. They held Levi's trial illegally for some quick revenge, and now they think if I'm not bought out, I'll run off and tell my close royal friend all about what they've been up to. And then the whole thing falls down like a house of cards. Half the brass would be up for execution. Probably more than half. Embry, too.

They're afraid of me. Afraid of what I'll do.

What sort of things could you accomplish with this kind of power, Erwin? The reformations you've always wanted, perhaps. Other things. At such a little cost.

They'll put Levi in jail.

He'd be alive, wouldn't he?

For how long? And besides, that isn't what you've promised him.

You have promised him, Erwin. You've promised him life, and freedom.

“Marshal,” he said, slowly. “I think I will need some time to consider all of this.”

Embry's expression tightened a little. “Really,” he said, “I'm not sure what there is to consider. It's a fairly simple yes or no, Erwin. Do you want to save the boy's life, or not?”

“I would like to do more than save his life,” Erwin said. “I believe, as I have believed from the beginning, that he is capable of doing a great deal of good in our forces. If you'll allow me to show you as we planned-”

“Oh, come off it, Smith!” Embry exclaimed, his face twisting. His fingers dug hard into Erwin's shoulder as his voice echoed off the shop fronts. A few people turned to stare at the sudden outburst. “Don't play games with me! I know all about you and your silver tongue, and I won't be toyed with!” His voice dropped into a sudden and malevolent hiss. “Especially now. I told you all of those things in the hopes that you might see reason and let go of this ridiculous farce. If you refuse our offer, do you really think we can let you walk away?”

A chill went through Erwin, but he kept his voice calm as ever. “I hardly think you'd be able to stop me,” he said, lifting his chin haughtily. “What will you do, Marshal? Have me killed? I'd be missed by more than just a street urchin, you know.”

Embry didn't reply. He released Erwin's arm and stepped back. All of the nervousness and anger had gone from him; he was startlingly serene, suddenly.

“Well, then,” he said. “I suppose we'll just have to see how you do today with your pet rat, Smith. I hope you'll remember that I tried to help you. I really did.”

He turned on his heel as smartly as a man in formation march, and walked away without looking back, leaving Erwin and a number of still startled pedestrians to stare after him. The sun was up over the Wall, now, marking the beginnings of real morning, and after a moment Erwin, too, turned away, to hurry back to the apartment to fetch Levi.

This, it seemed, would be it.

Chapter Text

“Couldn't have been anything good,” Levi said, as Erwin closed the apartment door behind them.

“It wasn't,” Erwin muttered, starting heavily back down the stairs. The old wood creaked beneath his boots. Levi, behind him, was as soft and silent as a cat. “But it's not something for you to worry about.”

“It is,” Levi said, and landed solidly on the second landing next to him in a leap Erwin hadn't even heard, crowding up into Erwin's space. His elbow pressed into Erwin's ribs as he reached up to take a handful of Erwin's uniform shirt in one fist.

“It's my business,” he said, pulling down on Erwin's shirt, so that Erwin was forced to lean towards him, or have his shirt stretched badly. “That man is pissed off at you because of me, so tell me what he wanted.”

“He offered – he was offering to – let go of me, and I'll tell you!” Erwin staggered upright as Levi released him abruptly. “For God's sake, Levi.”

Levi shrugged. He'd let go of Erwin's shirt, but he remained pressed into Erwin's personal space, his arm resting solid against Erwin's side, the top of his head close enough to reach without trouble. Erwin put a hand on his hair almost automatically, feeling the newly shortened length, and drew a breath to steady himself.

“He was trying to bribe me,” he said. “He's found out that I was playmates with one of the Princes, years ago, and he thinks I might cause him some trouble.”

“Playmates,” Levi repeated, arching an eyebrow, managing to pack a good deal of innuendo into the single word with tone and expression alone. Erwin scowled at him.

“As children. We were playmates as children.”

“Fine. And that's all? What did he try to bribe you with?”

Erwin rolled his eyes. “You, alive and in jail, and me, in some higher up position, so I can sit on my ass for the rest of my career and make the peasants suffer.”

“Sounds tempting.” Levi was smiling faintly, as though he was in on some farce Erwin had missed. “But you angrily refused in a big noble huff, huh?”

“Yes.” Erwin eyed him. “How did you know?”

“Are you kidding me?” Levi shifted, almost sidling, until his hip was pressed lightly against Erwin's thigh. “Even if you hated my guts you wouldn't agree to some shit like that. It's beneath you.”

Erwin let his hand slide lightly down to the nape of Levi's neck, fingers rubbing at the newly shaven fuzz there. “Is it?” he murmured, a little warmed. “What's this high opinion of me, all of a sudden?”

Levi moved, one of those startling whip-fast lunges of his, and Erwin was dragged down again with much more intent and much greater force, and then Levi was kissing him near to biting. The landing was too small for Erwin to maneuver his considerably larger bulk favorably or not, and so he did the only thing he could do – he swept his free arm down and around Levi's waist and lifted him off his feet. He turned a little, balancing himself on the edge of the landing, letting Levi nip and rumble as he stepped carefully backwards down onto the step below. He set Levi down on the landing again, and Levi loosened his grip a little as though he'd been expecting Erwin to do something similar. Erwin let his hand remain, pressed wide against the small of Levi's back, feeling the carefully caged movement of his muscles as he pressed his advance.

At last Levi let him go, but didn't draw back; one fist rested lightly against Erwin's chest for balance. He licked his lips briefly, as though satisfied.

“I'm not a sack of flour,” he said.

“Nor do you appear to be a lamprey,” Erwin said, wiping at his mouth, half to check for blood, “And yet I fear to lose skin whenever you come too close.”

Levi only smiled, slitting his pale eyes with feline serenity.

Erwin couldn't help but shoot a few guilty glances around them as they walked up the hill. There was no sign of Embry, though he hadn't thought there would be. Likely the man had trotted as fast as his lanky legs could carry him back to the barracks, to inform the waiting patronage of Erwin's foolishness. That was well enough; Erwin expected no advantages and certainly no lack of resistance. The street was quiet in any case, only the usual neighborhood comings and goings, the occasional carriage rattling by. Levi seemed equally unbothered, and as Erwin had become accustomed over the last week to using the boy as an alarm bell for trouble, he forced himself to relax.

Hanji appeared a few blocks from the barracks, and to Erwin's surprise she was dressed in a proper uniform, the crossed blades of an unassigned trainee marking her jacket. She grinned when she saw them, and trotted over like she'd been waiting.

“Hey,” she said, and gave Erwin a companionable slap on the shoulder. “You guys look fresh.” She eyed Levi. “Oh, nice. Nice cut. You look very dashing.”

Levi put on his very best tolerantly put-upon frown, but Erwin thought he didn't seem all that displeased by the compliment, judging by the way he lifted his chin up.

“I hope you guys don't mind if I watch,” Hanji said, falling into step easily at Erwin's side. Her legs were nearly as long as his were. “I'm pretty interested in learning some new techniques myself.”

“I suppose the University's made your suspension permanent?” Erwin said, and winced in sympathy when she nodded, her nose wrinkling with displeasure.

“Oh, yeah,” she said, tipping her glasses back up her nose. “They've got Wallists on staff, you know. A few of them wanted to report me to the Crown for treason, but I just told them I'd go back into full service. I'm thinking of joining up with Survey Corp.”

“Why on earth would you want to do something like that? They can barely keep a single squad alive and upright.” Erwin blinked.

Hanji smiled. It wasn't a pleasant smile, nor one of her distracted, agreeable smiles, the ones that said she knew you weren't listening. This was something sharp, a stretch of her lips that didn't come close to touching her eyes.

“Oh, you know,” she said calmly. “Really, I'd like to kill Titans. I'm not very interested in bureaucratic fucking around.”

Levi snorted, looking up. “That's the smartest thing you've said yet.”

“Thanks.” Hanji's smile turned into a faint smirk. “It's true, though. I'm interested in how they work, sure. But that's mainly because I'm certain there are more effective ways to destroy them.”

“I expect there are,” Erwin said, shaking his head. “Well, if you do decide to ship out to the front, I wish you luck.”

“You should consider it yourself, Erwin.” Hanji lifted her eyebrows at him, hooking her thumbs into her belt comfortably. “You're a hell of a soldier. I've seen you on the course.”

“I don't know how much good I'd be at the front. My strengths are more in planning, and strategy. So far as I know the extend of 'strategy' in Survey is 'don't get eaten.'”

The barracks was just ahead of them, and by the looks on the faces of the MP guards on duty, they were expected. Erwin let his breath out slowly, resisting the urge to reach for Levi again in some way, whether to reassure himself or the boy.

“If you worked at it,” Hanji said quietly, “I think you'd be pretty terrifying in the field.”

Erwin paused. Her words reminded him uncomfortably of something Hamlin had said to him in the days prior.

Do yourself a favor, and stop hiding your better qualities. Wear it on your sleeve. They'll be properly terrified of you then.

“Terrifying to who?” he said at last, reaching up to straighten his jacket as they passed under the archway. “Titans, or humans?”

Hanji didn't have a chance to answer him; Jonas Rademaker was walking towards them at a hurried clip, and he half raised a hand to Erwin when their eyes met, as though afraid to call out to him right away.

“Smith,” he said, as he came within their hearing range. “Smith, they're waiting for you at the training ground.” As he spoke he reached out and gripped Erwin's hand and forearm in both hands, leaning close to him in a gesture of apparent friendship.

“Something's wrong,” he muttered into Erwin's ear, letting go of his forearm to slap him on the back. He wore a rictus smile on his face, frozen into something like fear. “The whole place is empty.”

“Empty?” Erwin jerked his head around slightly, startled, and then forced himself to be still again. “What do you mean, empty?”

“There's nobody on duty but gate guard.” Rademaker drew back, giving him that wild grin again. There were pale spots under his eyes, and perspiration beaded along his hairline, though the day was cool. “The whole building's empty, Smith.”

Erwin felt Levi's eyes on him. Hanji was politely looking away, though her lips were pressed together in a way that said she, too, was listening.

“They've canceled training for the day,” Rademaker went on, half turning to walk with them. “Sent all my trainees home. Me, too. I'm off duty. I told them I'd show you in. The only people here are Embry and his friends, a couple of the biggest patrons. Your father. I don't know what's going on.”

“Neither do I,” Erwin said. The chill had returned to him again, wormed its way under his skin in a way that told him it would not be so easily shaken off, this time. “Thank you, Jonas.”

Rademaker drew back, the false smile twitching a little on his lips. “Look,” he muttered. “Whenever you're done with this – this show, don't pause. Don't talk to anybody. Just hear what they have to say and get the hell out. Meet me down at the Sickle. If you're not there in two hours, I'm summoning the Garrison.”

“Do you really think--”

“You're a good man, Erwin Smith.” Rademaker tapped his right fist over his heart, once. “Trust that you have friends you don't have to manipulate, too.”

Erwin flushed, despite himself. “I... yes,” he managed. “I'm sorry. You're right. I'll come when we're finished.”

“Thank you.” Rademaker bobbed his head, then turned and marched away, his steps tight and a little unsteady.

“What a fucking farce,” Levi said, staring after him. “What are they gonna do, get me up on a platform and then shoot me? Maybe it'll be target practice.”

“They wouldn't.” But Erwin was no longer sure, not of this, not of anything.

***

The training ground was as eerily quiet as Rademaker had predicted.

Embry and a good handful of other officers of similar rank were clustered near the western side. A number of padded wooden chairs had been brought out of the building, and the civilian nobles were perched solemnly atop them. Erwin recognized the Lady Aldenberg, whose estate Levi had been captured while robbing. There was the Marquis de Firth seated next to her, waving a ridiculously ornamented fan in front of his face to keep the morning insects away. He saw another handful of minor dukes and duchesses, all of whom he knew to be good acquaintances of his father, and in the middle of their company was Egon Smith himself, staring at them in the manner of an impatient man attempting to make sense of words written in an unfamiliar hand.

The silence in the place was unnerving. There was no sound of distant drilling, no yells to attention or shouts as trainees and officers sparred and practiced. The assembled crowd had stopped its mumbling to itself as soon as the three of them came onto the field. Even Hanji seemed a little cowed; her boots scuffled in the sand a bit as she slowed, trying to take in their audience.

“Lieutenant Erwin Smith,” Embry called out, rising from his own chair. “If you would please come forward, with your prisoner.”

Erwin looked down at Levi to find the boy looking up at him with a terrible kind of resigned hopelessness in his eyes.

“You tried,” he said, softly.

Erwin put a hand gently against his back. “I'm not finished yet,” he murmured, and gave Levi a slight nudge to move forward.

“Before this assembled peerage,” Embry said, when they had come forward, “I say that we are here to witness Lieutenant Smith's ability not only to train the untrainable, but also to keep his promises.” He smiled, faintly. There was no trace of his earlier nervousness. Erwin smiled back, as bland as he could muster. “Will you please remind us, Lieutenant, of the conditions of your promise?”

“Certainly.” Erwin stepped away from Levi slightly, towards the waiting pile of requisitioned Gear, and held out one hand in his direction.

“Élie Levi,” he began, “Is a boy of deeply promising talent. As most of you probably know, I first encountered him at his own trial, one week ago, wherein he was charged with a number of extremely regrettable things. Difficult things. Murder, for one.”

A faint murmur went through the watchers.

“However, I maintain two things. First, that the deaths he caused were entirely accidental, the product of his remarkable attempt to climb Wall Sina using only his hands and feet. He regrets what happened, of course.” From the corner of his eye, he saw Levi nod, slowly, and sent up a silent prayer of thanks for the boy's intuitive cooperation. “And I am sure that, given the chance, he would like to find some way to make it right.”

“Secondly, I say that Levi's talent in maneuvering, both with and without Gear, is remarkable enough to pardon him of any lingering charges. We have come here, today, to show you his skill, and to prove to you that I am a man of my word. If you should judge him unworthy – if you should find his ability beneath your expectations, then I will here slit his throat myself, for your gentle satisfaction.”

His eyes went to Levi again. The boy was staring straight ahead, back straight, not a flicker of worry or suspicion on his face.

“Levi,” Erwin said. “Come here.”

Levi turned to him, perfectly obedient, small and serene. Erwin knelt before him, and began to fix the Gear to his uniform harness. He took his time, tucking straps and buckles out of the way with care, settling the weight of the gas canisters and blades evenly on Levi's hips. Levi stood still, dark eyelashes lowered. Erwin knew he was watching him, and knew there was something proper between them in this moment, something that they had not achieved yet before. It had little to do with the strange lust that had gripped them both in the days past. Erwin's hand brushed up along Levi's inner thigh and he felt nothing, nothing but calm, and certainty. Levi's eyes closed as Erwin fixed the last strap into place against his stomach, and for a moment his hand fumbled, fingers brushing Erwin's like a man unbalanced trying to steady himself.

“Good,” Erwin murmured, so softly that only Levi would hear, and Levi opened his eyes again. He looks like he belongs in that uniform, Erwin thought fondly, and he touched the side of Levi's neck briefly before letting him go again. Levi turned to their audience, and unbidden snapped into a straight, perfect salute, eyes forward and chin lifted.

“My heart,” he called to them, tapping his fist once against his chest. “For your consideration.” He turned his head just enough to see Erwin, expression waiting, now. Waiting to be loosed.

“Yes,” Erwin said, and stepped back.

Levi drew the dull practice blades out, and surged forward like water released from a dam. He scaled the starting platform in two leaps, balanced for only a moment on its edge, and then was off and flying.

Erwin didn't watch him. The serenity that had settled around him told him that he didn't need to – that Levi could fly perfectly well under his own power. Instead, he watched the officers, the nobles, and his father, as their expressions changed from hardened and cold into unavoidable surprise. The sound of Levi's wires firing off was very far away, as were Hanji's occasional whoops of approval whenever he made a particularly daring move. He watched Lady Aldenberg shifting in her perfectly arranged skirts, her eyebrows lifting despite her grimly set mouth. He watched Embry grow more and more pale, watched the false confidence drain out of him, watched him lean over to grip the back of the chair in front of him. He watched his father sit as though carved from stone, touched only enough by what he was seeing to grow more and more angry, as though Levi's skill were an affront to all things proper.

When Erwin looked up at last, Levi was quick-stepping across the bars to his right. When he reached the end he leapt again, over Erwin's head, and Erwin caught a glimpse of his face, just enough to see the smile on it.

“Get it!” Hanji shouted, as Levi swung towards the mock Titan. He fired off one wire, catching it against one of the far climbing walls, and arched up, high into the air. He released the hook at the highest point of his swing, and came down in a controlled spin atop the Titan's shoulders. Straw flew up into the air as he slammed first one, and then the other practice blade into its neck. As the second blade came out, he twisted again, balanced on one foot to kick out with the other at the back of the Titan's head. The straw bristled and cracked, and the stuffed head began to fall forward as Levi leapt away again, landing on the thin ridge atop one of the climbing walls.

His wires hissed back into their coils. Levi flipped both blades around at once, and slipped them neatly back into their sheathes. Balanced on a surface barely wider than one of his feet, Levi pivoted towards the gaping audience, and, in a gesture of elegance and smugness that Erwin never again saw him repeat, he tucked one hand across his stomach, and bowed to them.

The silence that followed was only briefly punctuated by the crinkly thud of the mock Titan's head hitting the sand.

Egon Smith turned to the duke next to him and began to murmur.

Shortly thereafter all of them were murmuring to each other, hands tucked in front of their mouths as though worried Levi would read their words on their lips if they didn't. Embry's head was bowed low. He alone was silent.

After a minute or so, he stood up. The others fell silent again, watching him, expectant.

Embry looked at Levi first, who was still perched on the wall, relaxed with most of his weight on only one leg. Then he looked at Erwin.

“He passes,” he said. He did not raise his voice, and at first Erwin didn't understand what it was he'd said.

“He – does,” Erwin said, as the words filtered in. “He does?”

“Yes.” Embry looked drawn, and strangely resigned. “He does.”

Erwin looked at his father, who was watching him. Egon's expression didn't change, though he tilted his head just slightly to one side, as though politely inquiring what it was Erwin was looking for.

“I,” Erwin began, trying to find the words. “I... thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your attention.”

Levi landed next to him. Erwin could feel the heat of his exertion radiating off of him, the sweat matting his fine black hair. Distantly, ridiculously, Erwin thought how glad he was that they'd decided to shave it that morning.

“He's free to go,” Embry said, still standing stiffly in front of his chair. “So are you, Lieutenant. Please return the equipment to storage, and then see yourselves out for the day.” He sat, with some finality.

“Yes, sir,” Erwin said, and belatedly remembered his salute. He felt giddy and light-headed, neither of which were sensations he was accustomed to, and it was making things difficult to keep up with. “Thank you, sir.” He lifted his head, looking around for Hanji, but she was standing under one of the landing platforms, eyeing its vertical surface thoughtfully. “Levi, let's go.”

Levi nodded. He seemed lost for words himself, at the moment, and he stuck close to Erwin's side as they crossed the field and went under the breezeway's arch, one hand gripping the back of Erwin's shirt where it showed through beneath his jacket's hem.

“Where the hell is storage,” he said finally, once they were inside and alone, and Erwin laughed, the sound so sudden that it startled them both.

“I'll show you,” he said, and turned to enfold Levi in a hug born more of relief than of anything else. Levi stiffened in his arms for a moment, then settled, and when he laid his cheek against Erwin's chest and his arms crept up around Erwin's waist, Erwin thought that there could be nothing so sweet as the taste of victory.

The equipment storage room was one of the smaller doorways off the north end of the breezeway, and Erwin held the door open for Levi to pass under his arm before going in himself. There were low benches inside, and Gear cases stacked haphazardly around; one of them, sitting open, was clearly the match for the Gear Levi wore.

“Sit,” he told Levi, dragging the case over to the bench. Levi sat obediently still as Erwin unbuckled him, swaying a little with each movement.

“In the end,” Levi said, rather abruptly, “I decided I'd rather trust you.”

“I'm glad you did.” Erwin smiled. “Though to be honest, I'm still not sure what I would have done if they'd called it a failure.” He unrolled the straps from around Levi's legs, and began to tuck them back into the case carefully.

“You would have done something,” Levi said. “That would've been enough.”

“Not if you'd died anyway,” Erwin said, with a little more heat than he meant to, but Levi only smiled thinly.

“I wouldn't have died.”

“You're not immortal.”

“No,” Levi said, with real amusement, “And I'm not a golem. But I am really, really fucking good at surviving.” He leaned back comfortably as Erwin tucked the wire coil into the case.

The supply room door opened.

“Hanji,” Erwin said, lifting his head, “Did you--”

A peculiar sound interrupted him.

Levi jerked where he sat, a terribly young noise of startled pain escaping him, soft and confused. Erwin stared at him, trying to comprehend what was wrong, taking in the shape of the metal bolt protruding from Levi's chest. Levi groped blindly at it with one hand, fingers clumsy, his eyes slowly unfocusing, rolling back into his head.

"Levi," Erwin breathed, but the boy had gone slack in his grip, head lolling on his shoulders.

The Marquis de Berthelier, he thought suddenly, strangely, as though time had slowed. The wolf hunter. Sometimes he used a rifle. But other times he used--

Without further thought Erwin shoved Levi off the bench in one surging motion, then threw himself sideways as another bolt flew over his head and embedded itself in the far wall. In the doorway, the crossbow-wielder swore, his voice muffled by the scarf he'd tied over his lower face. “You missed?!” came another voice from somewhere out in the hall, and then there were five of them, surging into the room at once. Erwin saw the flash of short knives in gloved hands, saw the uniform trousers and dress shirts stripped of their branch identifying jackets, and he lurched to his feet. He had only a momentary glimpse of Levi, coiled on the floor, blood pooling, before he lunched towards the crossbow-wielder.

The man was smaller than Erwin was, and had clearly not been expecting Erwin to leap at him; Erwin slapped the crossbow out of his hands and kicked at it wildly as it hit the floor, sending it skittering away into a pile of cases. The man swore again, and then one of the others seized Erwin's arm. Pain bloomed along the inside of his elbow, and Erwin bellowed with it, swerving in a single motion to slam the palm of his other hand into the man's face.

“Fuck, Smith, don't make this hard,” one of them snarled, as Erwin pulled away and staggered backwards into the wall. Blood was flowing down his arm in a steady stream, but the pain had already begun to subside. The men were idling – all of them masked, standing in an uncertain array in front of him, Levi forgotten.

Levi, he thought. Levi, Levi. I'm sorry.

He lunged forward again at the nearest man, seizing him by the wrist and yanking him forward. The man gave an abortive shriek as his face collided with the wall. Erwin aimed a left-handed punch at the next man, and missed, narrowly managing to avoid taking another knife-slash across the face. He caught himself clumsily and straightened up again, advancing.

He knew he was walking forward to intercept the next assailant, knew he was fine and strong and upright until he realized dimly that he was folding down instead, that his knees were no longer cooperating. His left leg buckled under him, sending him crashing sideways into another stack of cases. He rolled to the floor on his face, unable to comprehend how he'd gotten there. He was fine. There was a lot of blood, it must have been his, but he felt fine, only his legs wouldn't move at all, and his vision was greying strangely. He couldn't hear the men anymore, either, and he wondered if they'd run away, now that their work was done. They'd killed Levi. That was what they'd wanted.

There were strange muffled vibrations beneath his cheek and chest, ringing through the floorboards, but the world had taken on an eerie calm silence, like the city just before sunrise. I will rest, Erwin thought, letting his eyes close against the shimmering grey. I will rest now. When I wake, I can atone. I can make it right. Levi.

I'm sorry.

Chapter Text

The snow is early, this season, and the night's drifts are still piled up against the Wall's outer rim. The stone beneath his boots crackles with frost, and ice gleams between the crenelations here and there, waiting for a foolish misstep.

He is unconcerned. He no longer has room in him for foolishness, or for missteps.

The wind is cutting up here, trying to snake its sharp icy fingers beneath his cloak and jacket, and he turns sideways a little, bracing into it with an automatic movement born of long experience. The sun is setting, and it gleams yellow and orange and throws dusky dark shadows on the snowdrifts both near and distant. The far away trees loom in the oncoming gloom, tremendously tall, their silhouettes crooked and human shaped enough to quicken the heartbeat a little, at a brief glance.

He waits.

He doesn't know, precisely, what he is waiting for. A little hawk, perhaps, loosed alone into the open sky, tethered only by hope and so many years of carefully built trust. But the sky is empty, and cold, and so too is his chest, where his heart should be.

A bird of prey is not a pet, he knows, and he bears the scars of his knowing still. A hawk is a partner only, one that tolerates only what it wants, and leaves behind what it does not. It is not a thing to be tamed, nor to be shuttered away for its own protection. He wishes, at times, that this last was not true.

The sky is empty, and darkening.

He is needed for other things. There are a thousand and one fires to be lit or extinguished, and every moment he waits here is another moment wasted. He will not be thanked for dallying, though this does not concern him either – he has learned to live without gratitude. His time is paid for in blood and human lives. He knows this well, and does not dismiss it. But, too, a hawk is a small thing, and the world beyond is very large, filled with another thousand dangers, and a man cannot live away from his heart at any distance. He is suspended between two points, here between the future and the ever-fading promise of the flash of feathers in the sunset, and there is only one thing he can do, now.

He waits, his eyes on the dimming horizon, for a sign of life. He waits, until all the light is gone, and there is nothing but the cold, and the sound of his own breath alone.

In the grey, at last, a voice speaks his name.

***

“Erwin.”

Erwin opened his eyes.

He did not immediately recognize his surroundings. The walls were painted a pleasant and soothing cream color, and gentle sunlight played across his face from some unseen window. There was a smell in the air that took him a few moments to place – something clean and fresh-scented, but strangely inorganic. Peppermint, perhaps, tinged with something else. Something medicinal. He was lying on his back, though slightly propped up by firm pillows at his shoulders.

“Here you are.”

The voice, however, he knew.

Erwin turned his head to one side, in the direction of the voice, his body strangely stiff and uncooperative. The woman seated at his bedside smiled at him. She was handsome, thanks to her strong and curving nose, and the lines around her mouth and eyes were the only evidence of her age. Her honey-colored hair was tucked back neatly from her face into a simple bun.

“Mother,” Erwin said.

Iseult reached out and laid a graceful hand on her son's shoulder. There was strength in her squeeze, and the motion made nerves twinge all the way down his arm. He winced.

“Does that hurt?” Iseult said, calmly.

“It... yes,” Erwin managed, and tipped his head over further to look at his outstretched right arm. It was bandaged tightly, from mid-bicep to mid-wrist, and was, he realized now, throbbing gently.

“That's good.” Iseult let her hand fall to the bed. “The doctor was perfectly correct, then. It should heal fine.”

“What should...?” Erwin felt slow and stupid, his head packed with cotton, something urgent nagging at the back of his mind like a rising migraine. “What happened?”

“Your friend Zoe is insistent that you were attacked by some, how did she put it, 'disgruntled assholes.'” Iseult's poise was not touched in the slightest by the rough words. “She says that she arrived after it was almost over.” She gestured slightly. “This is a private doctor's residence. We thought it would be prudent for you to recover in relative peace and quiet.”

“My arm...?”

“The doctor says that the main artery was severed.” Iseult's eyes flicked to the bandage, and then to his face again. “You were nearly dead when Miss Zoe discovered you.”

It was, horribly, that word – dead – that brought memory back to him. Levi, slumping over, impaled without warning, without even a chance for Erwin to protect him. Levi, confused and so small and fading, fading.

He jerked a little under the weight of the vision, and new hurt sang up his injured arm with the motion. Iseult reached over and pressed him back down against the pillows, firm, and then reached up to brush some of the stray hair from his forehead. He could see the relief in her eyes as she leaned closer, the evidence of what was probably more than one sleepless night, and it was almost enough to silence his next question, to preserve her.

Almost.

Erwin swallowed. “Mother,” he said. “Where is Levi? The boy who was with me?” Unbidden his churning, numbed mind showed him possibilities; cold and lifeless, a small body in the hands of callous and uncaring soldiers, left on a garbage pyre somewhere as so many of the city's poorest were when they died, no thought given at all to what he or his people would have wanted.

But Iseult only went on stroking his hair, soothing. “Under arrest, I think,” she said, and Erwin prevented himself bodily from another painful jerk, “Though Miss Zoe is with him. For insurance, she said.”

“God,” Erwin said. It was all he could manage. He leaned back, closing his eyes for a moment, dizzy. “How?”

“I don't know very much, Erwin,” Iseult said, a little admonishing. “I only came down last night, after Dot sent a courier, and the only thing his message said was that you'd been injured in a fight, and that I should come to see you as soon as possible in case you didn't make it.” She folded her hands back into her lap. “Your friends told me the rest, though I suspect there are things they have left out.”

Erwin let her words sink in, though he carefully sidestepped the part where his mother was, apparently, on a first name basis with one of the most powerful men in the military. “Rademaker,” he said. “And Hanji.”

Iseult nodded. “Miss Zoe – Hanji is her name? – Hanji said that when she arrived to collect you, there were two men attempting to strangle that boy – Levi, I suppose – and another three men unconscious on the floor, as well as you with most of your blood on the outside of your body.” One of her eyebrows twitched slightly. “She took care of them, she said.”

“But-”

“Erwin,” Iseult said, a firm and final note in her voice, “That is the extent of what I know, aside from the fact that my son came very close to being murdered two days ago. You'll forgive me, but I've had a number of other priorities ahead of detective work.”

Erwin subsided. He's alive, he thought, but it didn't make sense. He had to know for himself. He had to see. “Am I recovered?” he said, hesitant. “Can I leave?”

“Do you feel well enough, Erwin?”

He decidedly didn't, but he nodded anyway, more vigorously than he meant to. It made his head swim, and he squeezed his eyes closed against the sudden reeling of reality. “Yes.”

“That's a dammed lie.” He could hear the amusement in his mother's voice, and after a moment her hand touched his forehead, wonderfully cool against the sudden heat. Whatever strength he'd felt he contained was fading quickly, sleep trying to drag him down. “Rest a while longer. I'll tell your friends you're awake and making demands.” She paused. “I'm proud of you, you know.”

Erwin opened his eyes again, wearily surprised. “Truly,” he murmured. “After the mess I've made of everything you've tried to build for me?”

Iseult smiled. Her thumb caressed his cheekbone. “You,” she said, “Are the only thing I have ever been interested in building. And here you are – strong, handsome, wise, and very capable. What should I feel but pride?”

He swallowed, for a moment forgetting his other concerns, the nagging worry in his heart.

“Thank you,” he said. He could think of no other words.

“It's been rather worth it, anyway,” Iseult added, rather casually, “To know how much your father is squirming under that stone gargoyle exterior of his.” She drew her hand back. It felt as though the light went with her.

“Sleep, darling.”

Erwin could do little but obey.

***

When he next swam out of the miasma of pain and exhaustion, it was dark and quiet, though a small lantern was lit on his bedside table. Hanji was leaning over him, and she smiled when she saw his eyes open.

“You're pretty dumb,” she said, cheerily, leaning back again. She was still dressed in her uniform, though her jacket was missing. A brief glance found it hanging over the back of the chair by the bed. “What were you thinking, trying to take on five men with a severed brachial artery?”

“A what,” Erwin said, shifting his shoulders a little to ease the stiffness there. “Did my mother leave?”

Hanji touched his bandaged arm with two light fingers.

“She went down the street to get something to eat, I think. Nice woman. You look a lot like her. The brachial artery. Supplies blood from the heart all the way up and down the arm. You cut that open, you've got a few minutes tops to keep breathing. You, apparently, decided to flail around for a while instead of lying down quietly and applying pressure. There was blood everywhere – on the walls, on Levi--”

Erwin seized on this. “Levi. Where is he? Is he all right?”

Hanji shrugged, tucking her thumbs into her belt. “His collarbone's cracked, I think, so he's in a lot of pain. The bolt stuck right in it. Was apparently kind of a bitch to get out. The last guy standing tried to throttle him to death, too, so he's sort of bruised up. And he's about as pissed off as a wet cat. But other than that, he's fine.” She caught the look on his face and lifted her eyebrows. “Really, I swear. They've got him in one of those cells up at the barracks. Chained up a bit, but he's under Garrison supervision.”

“Garrison?”

“Rademaker got anxious, lucky for you. As soon as he left, he contacted Commander Pixis. Told him he was pretty sure something bad was about to happen up at the Police barracks. He showed up with a few soldiers in tow not long after I got to you.”

“What the hell even happened?” Erwin whispered. “It was so fast.”

Hanji sighed, and sat back down in the chair. “Apparently,” she began, “Some of the friends of the men who died on the Wall decided to try to take justice into their own hands. They tried to kill you.” A corner of her mouth quirked upwards in an unpleasant little smirk. “Funny how they had a golden opportunity to do so, what with the building being practically empty.”

Erwin stared at her. “I thought they'd retaliate,” he said, trying to feel his way through the dawning knowledge of what had really happened. “But I thought it would be – something simple. Something stupid. A toe out of line, and a stripping of rank – something.”

“I don't think you've gotten away from that possibility entirely,” Hanji said, folding her arms. Erwin could see now how tired she, too, looked, and that there was a fading bruise along one of her cheekbones. “Those guys are in custody, too, but it sounds like the brass is holding everyone responsible for the incident. You're going to be in some trouble when you get back.”

He said, quietly, “But you saved us.”

She glanced at him sharply, then away again, seeming a little uncomfortable for the first time since they'd met. “Honestly, Levi was almost finished with them when I showed up. He passed out for a few seconds, he said, because of the pain. When he snapped out of it you were halfway to the floor, so he defended you.”

“With a bloody arrow sticking out of his chest?”

“Embedded in the bone and everything,” Hanji said, nodding. “He handled three of them before he got woozy, and the other two jumped him once he let his guard down.”

“God.” Erwin exhaled. The whole thing felt surreal, and far away, even the conversation with his mother like a distant dream. “Are any of them – did he kill anyone?”

“Nope. The one who cut you's probably going walk with a limp for the rest of his life, judging by the state of his kneecaps. I might have concussed one of the others pretty badly,” she added, a bit primly, for her. “But emergency situations, and all that.”

“Hanji.”

She looked at him, an uncertainty in her eyes that he didn't fully understand. “Thank you,” he said, hoping that all of the gratitude he felt was tangible in the words. “Thank you for saving me. And him.”

She smiled briefly, but the uncertainty remained. “You know,” she said, a little too casual, “I'm kind of surprised. Most people really don't like me to be involved in their business, even if it does involve helping. Like they're afraid crazy might be catching, or something.” She shrugged again, hugging herself, and Erwin thought he understood, now.

“Hanji,” he said, “I would be very lucky for you to be involved in my business at any time. You're a good friend.”

Hanji's hands dropped into her lap, her eyebrows furrowing. “Oh,” she said. “Well, all right, then.” When she smiled this time it was lighter, somewhere between relieved and hopeful.”I'll keep that in mind.”

“Please do.”

“By the way, she said suddenly, straightening up, “I did finally get a look at his teeth.”

Erwin blinked. “Oh?” he said, a little baffled. “Well, that's...?”

“His third molars are only just starting to come in, you know.”

He blinked again. “I have no idea what that means.”

She leaned back, resting her hands on her knees. “It means,” she said, almost gently, “That I don't think he's much older than seventeen, Erwin. Maybe only just eighteen. Those teeth only come in all the way when you're older than eighteen.”

“How on earth did you manage to get a look inside his mouth?” Erwin said, smiling weakly and without much humor. “I'm impressed.” Seventeen. He really is a child.

He wasn't surprised, he realized, nor did he feel any particular shame for what had gone on between them, those moments of closeness and skin. Instead there was only a slowly growing cold, a gradually yawning chasm of understanding blooming dark and ugly within him.

A child I cannot keep safe.

Dependent on me entirely for his life, his food, and his right to any kind of future. Prevented from choice. Forever in danger.

Hanji hadn't answered him; she was watching him with a calm and serious expression, as though she knew what direction his thoughts were going. When he sat up, with ginger care and a muted grunt of pain, she took his outstretched left hand in silence, and helped him up out of the bed.

***

The walk felt as though it took eons, though it couldn't have been more than half an hour. The city was dark, the sun long since gone. Hanji's shoulders were straight and strong, and took his weight with relative ease, and she never once complained as they walked, his good arm slung across the back of her neck for balance, his mind a thousand miles away. When they passed under the entry arch the guards on duty came over to the edge above them, to look down at him in astonishment and uncertainty. Some of them, he saw, wore Garrison roses, and he was grateful for that. No one intercepted them as they crossed the courtyard to the breezeway, though every solider they passed stared, some with curiosity, others with open hostility.

Erwin ignored them, and Hanji did, too. He was grateful for her presence. Alone, he wasn't sure he would have managed to make it even halfway.

On the stairway leading down to the cell block, Pixis himself appeared. His expression was serene, but he studied Erwin with a cool detachment that chilled Erwin more than any of the other soldiers' reactions had.

“Sir,” he said. “I would salute you, but I'm not really in a condition to do so.”

“A bit dangerous for you to be here, Smith. Don't you think?” Pixis didn't smile. His tone was neutral. Beyond him, down the stairs, Erwin could hear the particular, telling silence of a number of people attempting to hold their breathes at once.

“Yes, sir,” Erwin said.

“I suppose,” Pixis said, slowly, “That you haven't been informed of Police Command's decisions regarding the situation?”

“No, sir.” Erwin smiled. He felt tired, and used up. “But I presume it's very bad.” He felt Hanji shift to brace him as he swayed a little, still dizzy.

“Very typical,” Pixis said. He rubbed one hand slowly across the top of his bare head, and sighed. “Well, then, I regret to inform you, Erwin Smith, that you've been stripped of your rank, your commission, and your position within the Military Police.”

Erwin listened with a calm detachment. Very strange, he thought, a bit dull, how much power over a man simple words can have.

“You're being reassigned to the Survey Corp, effective immediately. You'll enter their service at the same level as a new trainee. As soon as the doctor you're seeing declares you fit to travel, you'll leave.”

“I wonder what it is I've done to deserve such finality,” Erwin murmured. Strangely enough, this brought a smile to Pixis's face at last, however small.

“You stopped playing their game, Smith,” he said. “And you failed to die under convenient circumstances when you became embarrassing. Grave sins, here behind Wall Sina.”

“What about the other men?”

Pixis shrugged. “Detached to a variety of other posts throughout the region. Sure to resume their old ways of life again in another six months. Does it matter? The MP's made its choices. You know why this has happened.”

The faint, sharp edge of the words brought some of the focus back to Erwin. He looked Pixis in the eye. “Do I, sir?”

“You do,” Pixis said. “And so do they. And so do I, and that's why I'm prepared to make good on my gamble.” He tipped his head in the direction of the cells. “Go and speak to him. Get him to stop growling at everyone who gets too close.”

“Erwin,” Hanji said, hesitant, “Do you need...?”

“I'll be all right.” Erwin let her go, and gave her a reassuring smile, though it didn't seem to have its intended effect. He found he didn't much care.

He went down the stairs, feeling their eyes on his back.

There were three other Garrison soldiers in the block, who gave him uncertain looks that matched those of the soldiers on the archway. He nodded to them, politely, and they glanced at each other, then filed into a line and stepped out into the outer hallway, leaving Erwin alone.

Levi looked up at him.

He was coiled on the battered bed within his cell, bits of straw stuck here and there to his trousers. His arms were shackled together at the wrists, though there was a length of chain between them, ostensibly to prevent straining his wound. He wore a thin white shift shirt, and the thick bandage that wrapped his chest and shoulder were visible beneath it. He was paler than he should have been, clearly exhausted, and the emotion that filtered across his face as he laid eyes on Erwin was terrible.

“I thought they'd killed you,” he said. His voice was badly roughened by the abuse his throat had taken. Erwin could see the finger marks in his flesh. The hands of unworthy men, he thought, and smiled a little, more to himself than to Levi.

“No,” he said. “Though they certainly tried.”

He stepped close to the bars, and held out his left hand, palm up. After a moment Levi rose with the quiet tinkling of chains, and came to him. He pressed his cheek into the offered hand and rubbed it there, catlike, eyes closing. He was grimy with dust and sweat, and on the upturned cheek Erwin could see the faint tracks there, evidence of his private grief and exhaustion. He felt the heat of Levi's skin against his palm, and for a moment it was all he could do to stand, Levi's breath steady against his wrist, the strands of his dark hair tickling Erwin's skin.

“Élie,” he said, at last. “You know – you must know how much I've come to value you.”

“I know,” Levi said, without opening his eyes.

Erwin touched his hair, lightly. “I hold myself responsible for what happened.”

Levi's eyes opened. “You're not,” he said, a little flat. “Don't.”

“Sentiment aside, you are in my charge, and under my protection. You nearly died there.”

“Because of bullshit political games and corruption,” Levi said. His eyes were on Erwin's face, now, searching, sensing something akin to danger. “It's not your fault.”

“You aren't safe like this.”

Slowly, Levi drew back, eyebrows furrowing suspiciously. “And,” he said.

Erwin smiled at him. It's something like love, this feeling, he thought. Something like love, but something otherwise, too – something like admiration, astonishment. Hope, a strange small thing with fragile wings. Hope, despite all I've lost.

“I'm leaving you in Commander Pixis's care. You'll be safe with him.” He let his hand drop. “And I've been reassigned. I'm leaving.”

Levi's entire body bristled, his mouth coming open in shocked dismay. The chains between his wrists rattled. “What the fuck,” he said, the roughness of his voice giving the words a choked sound. “What the fuck, no you're not. You're not leaving me anywhere.”

“Yes, I am.” Erwin could see the distress rising in Levi, and still he felt nothing. Nothing but the calm. “You will do as he tells you.”

“No I fucking won't!” Levi snarled. He stepped forward, seizing the bars between them with both hands, his face twisting with the pain of his jarred wound and with something much deeper. “You can't fucking do this to me! You piece of shit! What am I supposed to do now? Where the hell am I supposed to go?”

“You'll be safe with him,” Erwin repeated, and barely even blinked when Levi seized him by the shirt front and pulled him forward, though the movement made his arm trill with pain and spots of color flashed momentarily before his eyes.

“You can't,” Levi said, his eyes very wide, and it wasn't just anger now that lay hot and hurting beneath his words. “You can't. Don't leave me here. Fuck, Erwin, you can't. Please.”

“It's the right thing.”

Fuck your right thing!” Levi cried. There was an awful brightness in his eyes, one that some time ago Erwin would have thought impossible for him. Some time ago, before he'd known how many layers Levi truly contained. “Fuck that – I'm staying with you!” When Erwin took hold of his wrist to pry him loose, he could feel how hard the boy was shaking.

“I am doing,” Erwin said, “What you want.”

“You're fucking not.”

“This is what you wanted from me all along.” Erwin pulled himself free from Levi's grip, and stepped back, out of range, tucking his injured arm against his side. “You wanted me to choose for you. For both of us. I am choosing now.”

“No,” Levi said, terribly small.

“You want me to be ruthless in the service of my goals. I am being ruthless. You're angry with me, but you want that to not matter in the face of my duty to you. That's what I've been getting wrong about you all this time. I am putting it aside, Élie. For your sake. I am taking charge.”

Levi seemed to have run out of protests. He stared at Erwin, jaw tight, trembling. Whatever color he'd regained after his injury was gone again, leaving him pale and haggard looking. The naked hurt on his face was painful to see, but Erwin retained the memory of him, limp and bleeding, for comparison, and the choice was not hard at all.

He said, gentle, “You've given me the tools to save your life, and I am going to use them precisely as you have wanted me to. Obey me.”

“No,” Levi whispered.

“You have no choice.”

Please.

“I'm freeing you, Levi.”

“I don't want to be free.” The boy slumped a little, his breath hitching as he fought for his customary self control. “I don't want this.”

“You have no idea what you want,” Erwin said. “You're a child, and one in need of more guidance and protection than I can give you alone.” He let out a long, slow breath. “Whatever you may believe of me after this, please know that it was a choice made with nothing in mind but your welfare, and your future happiness.”

“Then,” Levi said, low voiced and hoarse, “Go the fuck away, then. I don't want to hear any of this bullshit from you. You and your clever choices and your fucking maneuvering and your god damned selfish shit. I'm not a fucking chess game. I'm not a pawn.” His voice cracked on the last word, and he turned angrily away, scrubbing at his eyes with one furious hand.

“That's precisely the point,” Erwin murmured. “Please take care of yourself, Élie.”

When he turned away, he knew the boy was weeping, and for a moment he nearly did waver. The urge to return, to reassure and soothe, was strong.

Do you care, Erwin Smith, do you truly care, or will you make yourself a liar? After all of this?

He knew the answer well enough.

When he emerged into the cell block entryway, Hanji and Pixis were waiting for him. Hanji studied his face for a long moment, and then looked away, expressionless. He was grateful for her lack of judgment, one way or the other.

“Commander, sir,” he said, turning to Pixis. He felt as though the last of his strength would be used up, here, as though after he'd spoken he might simply collapse to the floor as an empty husk, devoid of emotion, devoid of substance, devoid of purpose.

Survey Corp. The front lines. The place where even the strongest of soldiers went to die, in terror and shame. Where nothing changed but the registries, as soldiers died and were replaced, on and on and on. Somewhere he knew he'd probably never return from.

Pixis was looking at him, and Erwin shook himself firmly. Finish what you start.

“Sir,” he said. “Take him to the trainee camp. Enroll him. Have him registered as a citizen of the Capital. Fake papers if you must. They'll be able to handle him.” He'll be safe there, were the words that went unspoken. He'll have rights, there. A place to become himself, under no one's terms but his own.

Pixis lifted one eyebrow slightly at Erwin's demanding word choices, but his voice was neutral when he spoke. “Well enough. It'd be a waste if he didn't put his skills to use. I think he's well enough to travel, anyway. I'll take him out there tomorrow.”

“Yes. Thank you.” Erwin bobbed his head politely. “If you'll excuse us.”

With Hanji's steady help, Erwin made it all the way to the entryway arch again before he began to stagger. She said nothing, only took him by the shoulders and pressed him up against the stone, giving him a chance to catch his breath. He leaned there, eyes closed, for several long minutes.

“He's going to hate me for the rest of his life, I think,” he murmured at last. When he opened his eyes again Hanji was smiling a little, sympathetic.

“Maybe,” she said. “On the other hand, at least you won't be shipping out to the front alone.”

He blinked at her, trying to decide what she meant, and she made an exaggerated little gesture with both thumbs at her own chest, lifting her eyebrows encouragingly.

Despite himself, Erwin laughed. It hurt to do so, in more ways than one.

“I suppose not,” he said, and held out his hand again. “I'm ready to go, I think.”

Hanji took it, and pulled him up against her shoulder with strong, steady arms, and together they made their way slowly back down the hill in the dark of the city's night, the eyes of the night guard on their backs, and the uncertainty of the future looming before them.

*

j'ai en moi l'audace
du champ magnetique
et ça c'est magnifique.

i have in me the audacity
of a magnetic field
and that’s magnificent.

it's easy, it's like breathing
it's like a heartbeat, it's easy
You haven't betrayed your ideals
your ideals have betrayed you
what are you going to do?

end: 1/???

Chapter Text

“I didn't take you for the squeamish type,” the young man said. Slim and black haired, his eyes pale in the lantern light, he cut a rather unassuming figure, to the untrained eye.

His companion shrugged. “I'm not.”

“You think I shouldn't do it.”

“I think you're being a little irrational about it.”

The young man didn't smile. “I've never known rationality, not really. I've never known much of anything concerning emotion, to be honest. It doesn't matter. I've already accepted the offer.”

“Why? What do you have to gain from it?”

“I want to see him,” the young man said, an unpleasant gleam in his eyes. “I want to see what he'll do. What he'll think of me. If he'll be brave about it or not.”

The other sighed, weigh shifting from one foot to the other. “I guess it's a competition, then. That's kind of a shame.”

“Why's that?”

“I'm going to have to kill the both of you in the long run, at this rate.”

The young man smiled vaguely, brushing dark bangs out of his eyes. “You can try,” he said, calm. “That might even be fun. But I'll get to Erwin Smith first, you mark me. I'll open him up from chin to gut. I'll hold his heart in the palm of my hand, and see how big he talks then.”

The other did not reply.

*

it's the season of the dark horse
the ocean of night
it's the angel of mercy
leaving you behind
you're just a number
you're just a victim
dead man walking
buried alive.

Chapter Text

and history
like love
is never enough.

*

The Titan resembled nothing so much as some cruel divine experimentation on an already misshapen toddler. Its cheeks were round and infantile, its eyes wide and startlingly clear, almost innocent, and it gazed up at them with the mute tranquility of a well fed infant. It had hair, too, a surprising little shock of brown that grew up in tufts all over the lumpy oval of its head. It stood there, its chubby arms – each well bigger than any of their largest cannons – raised towards them, like a child asking to be lifted.

“I've seen her a few times,” Hanji said. She had both hands planted on her hips, her stance steady and calm, but Erwin could see how unnerved she was by the high color in her cheeks. “Never on patrol, but usually on Wall guard – she likes to hang around between here and the outer curve.” She smiled, distantly. “I think she likes to listen to the people inside.”

“Because everyone loves to hear the sound of cows mooing before they eat a steak, I suppose,” Erwin said, sour. “Lets you know the meat's fresh.”

Hanji laughed, a tense, high sound. Even with three years of field experience under her belt and her own personal fascination with all things Titan, her fear of them had not diminished. This was not uncommon in Survey Corp, as it had turned out. Even the most capable and battle hardened of soldiers seemed to exist in a state of wide-eyed perpetual alert, forever tensed and ready to draw blades even when out of uniform. Erwin would have wondered when and if they slept, but the electric tension seemed contagious even during the calmest of periods, and despite his position he too found himself at times tight-shouldered and straining with both ears for the telltale sound of heavy footsteps and animal grunting.

No, he thought, no one could be blamed for their terror. Captain Hamlin had loaned him an old book, once, which had most assuredly been a carefully overlooked heretical tome, in which the unnamed author had explored theories of human behavior. “Humans,” the book had read, “Are designed to watch for danger at or below the natural standing eye-line. All things dangerous to humans exist on this level. It is not instinctive for a human to look up, and scout the skies for predators.” There had been a good amount of the book, steeped in old and unspeakable ideas of human origin, which had been beyond Erwin's understanding, but this had stayed with him ever since. He found it to be true, especially now, here at the edge of civilization, where every instinct denied that death could simply swoop down from above and end a person in an eyeblink. Learning to defy the mind's own certainties, the instincts inherent in all of them, was a painful and nerve-wracking process. Often, above was the only direction death approached.

Erwin scraped his boot along the edge of the Wall deliberately, dislodging a bit of the loosened sediment. A few pebbles rolled off the wall and down onto the upturned face of the Titan beneath them. It gave no sign that it had even noticed, even when some of the rock struck it in one of its opened eyes. One of its chubby hands pressed gently against the Wall, fingers curling as it swayed. It was smiling with blank and uncaring mildness.

“No self-preservation instincts,” Hanji said, scuffing her own boot lightly. “Not even to blink. Obviously they can see, but evolutionarily speaking--”

“Stop at that word,” Erwin said, looking at her sharply. “I won't see you dragged in front of Nilsen again for more of his ridiculous paranoia lectures.”

Hanji accepted the admonishing without further comment. “Anyway,” she said, unruffled, “You're not missing that much. One skirmish is pretty much like another – and you've had that one, at least.”

“Yes,” Erwin muttered, folding his arms. “Though I'd like it known that I'm still perfectly willing to switch places with you at any time.”

“I'm not very good at office management.” Hanji smirked a little, but it was an old and fond joke between them by now, and lacked the sting of the occasional comments of others. Erwin could endure a great deal from Hanji Zoe without complaint – she was, and had been for nearly three years now, his closest friend in the world. “Anyway, I bet Nilsen'd probably be pretty disappointed to lose one of his pretty secretaries.”

Erwin snorted. “Frisk is more than enough of both 'pretty' and 'secretary' for anyone,” he said. “And Commander Nilsen is deeply unfond of me. I'm certain he would've sent me out to die in the field by now if his superiors would let him.”

They both paused, stilling, as the Titan gave a low grunt beneath them. Its gaze wandered fixedly along the top of the Wall for a moment, and then it shambled backwards a few paces, enough for it to turn and stagger away towards another cluster of its fellows, which were exploring the distant joint of Zhinganshina's protruding curve and Wall Maria with clumsy hands and tongues.

Hanji shivered. “Uh huh,” she said, distractedly, her eyes on the Titans. “Well, that's his problem, not yours. Are you going to come receive the new recruits today? Dispatch said there's about ten. Not bad numbers, for us.”

“If I'm required to, yes.” Erwin glanced back over his shoulder, out over the sprawling, grassy town. “But I've got to meet with a few people about requisition issues today, and it'll be dark by then, I expect. You'll have to tell me how they look.”

Hanji paused, her eyes sliding sideways behind her glasses. “And,” she said quietly, “If...?”

It was all she had to say. Erwin shook his head. “Not a possibility,” he said, firm. He was more certain in word than he felt, but he wasn't in a place to deal with that queer feeling today, the tense, sick feeling of dread and hope, the seesawing of his emotions as though they couldn't decide where to fall. All of this, over what was becoming an increasingly distant possibility.

He needed to be certain. The alternative was a sharp and unknown thing.

“Well,” Hanji said, a little forced good cheer in her tone, “I'll let you know if I see anyone interesting, then. I should get going.” She squeezed his arm companionably. “Come find me later, okay? We'll have a drink.”

Erwin watched her swoop down off the Wall in a graceful arc, relieved more deeply than he wanted to be that Hanji was Hanji, and Hanji understood intrinsically when not to push him.

It was coming near to supper time as he made his way back to the barracks office, and he recognized more than a few locals on his short walk. Several of them raised their hands to him in greeting, which he returned. The Zhinganshina Outpost was more agreeable than most might have been. Zhinganshina was technically a small District, but its inhabitants and those who oversaw them tended to treat it more like an overlarge town or a small city. It was a largely self-sufficient place – to the West, there were carefully tended and regulated farms, of livestock and produce alike, and one or two fish hatcheries, where the very well to do or the very careful penny-pinchers could purchase trout and salmon for considerable price. Most people, however, lived on space enough to tend their own small farms, and Zhinganshina managed largely to need very little from the interior to get by.

It made the district a good fit for a Survey Outpost, as supplying and outfitting some two hundred soldiers could be a costly process. Survey Corp requisitioned its supplies from the Capital like the other branches did, but the remote nature of Survey made receiving necessary goods and materials a difficult task at times. Shipments were often late, and frequently depended on the mercurial natures of the various merchant guilds, and there were times when supplies at the outpost ran nearly to empty. The previous Survey Commander, however, had brokered an agreement with the farmers and merchants of Zhinganshina, which largely meant that necessary foodstuffs and other such things were made available when official channels dried up, usually in exchange for some official favor or another.

These were the sorts of tasks Erwin was concerned with, these days. The job fell to him, generally, to sort out these shortages and exchanges of favor. At first he'd relished a chance to put his considerable people skills to some use, but as time had worn on, it had become clear that, far from applying Erwin to the task out of some awareness of ability, Commander Nilsen had merely shuffled those things he found the least agreeable to the officer he found least agreeable.

Erwin had more than once considered explaining to Nilsen in no uncertain terms that he would be perfectly happy to be sent to the field, that he found this desk placement insulting, that it was clearly the work of higher ups in Sina who despised him even now for his refusal to cooperate with their methodology, and above all that he himself would likely make a better Commander than Nilsen could ever hope to be. But these thoughts – especially the last – weren't much more than idle daydreams. It wasn't even fear of confrontation or of losing his hard-won position again that held him back. It was the simple fact that his sense of responsibility remained, strong as any Wall, inevitable like the coming and going of night and day.

He might have been bored, felt wasted and diminished behind a desk and a mountain of other peoples' shoddy paperwork, but the fact was that this, too, was important work. Erwin paused with his hand on the office door's latch, reminding himself tiredly that it was true. No matter how much he wished he could make a difference in combat, he was needed here, just as much as he might have been needed in the field, in struggles of life or death.

Have some pride, Smith, he told himself firmly, and went in.

Frisk looked up at the sound of the door, and gave him a distracted little smile, his hands full of papers. His desk was close to the door, no small private room as Erwin's office was, and Erwin suspected this was largely because he made for pleasing visual as the entry room's centerpiece. Weyland Frisk had come to the outpost some six months before, and after a few disastrous incidents during squad training he'd been assigned almost immediately to Commander Nilsen's administrative team – a team which, until his arrival, had largely consisted entirely of the recently re-promoted Lieutenant Erwin Smith. Frisk was largely sweet and humble, eager to please, a pretty-faced young man with striking light blue eyes. Erwin was fond enough of him – he was pleasant company in such close quarters, and thankfully much more accomplished behind a desk than he was with Maneuver Gear – though not as star-struck by his good looks as others seemed to be. Frisk, for his part, seemed innocent of the effect he had on people, which Erwin supposed was for the best.

“Carla's here,” he said to Erwin, as Erwin removed his jacket and hung it on the coat rack. “She's in your office, Lieutenant.”

“Thank God for that woman,” Erwin said, and Frisk grinned a little, tucking his dark hair out of his face. “She hasn't been waiting long, has she?”

“No, just a few minutes.” Frisk waved at him, turning back to his paperwork. “Go on. I'll bring you the rest when I'm done with it.”

“Thank you, Cadet.” Erwin nodded to him, and went down the short hall to his office.

Carla Jaeger was seated on the beat up loveseat wedged in the far corner of the tiny room, half leaned against one of the fraying arm rests. She smiled at Erwin in greeting but didn't rise – her arms were occupied by a small blond child, who appeared to be dozing against her shoulder. She'd tucked her dark brown hair over the opposite shoulder, though much of it had come loose from its low ponytail.

“Friend of yours?” Erwin said, closing the door and crossing the room to lean against the edge of his desk.

“Neighbor's boy,” Carla said, caressing the boy's back as she spoke. “Believe or not, he's my son's age – much too small for six, isn't he? I'm looking after him today. He's sick again, and his parents are God knows where.” Her tone was heavy and disapproving. “I'm not sure I understand why a family with such a sickly child is all right with leaving him alone so often, but it isn't my business, I suppose.”

Erwin smiled a little. “A lucky boy, to have a neighbor like you,” he said.

“Don't you start that charming business on me, Erwin Smith,” Carla said smartly, without looking up. “You know I don't stand for it.”

He held up his hands briefly in surrender. “Apologies. No more compliments.”

“Better.” She shifted a little, gentle with the boy, and leaned back. “I got your courier yesterday, and I just finished checking over Grisha's supply this morning. We have enough to lend out a bit extra. It should be enough to deal with that cough that's going around. I'll just need another evening to get all of it together.”

“Thank you.” Erwin let out a long sigh. “If only all my supply contacts were as reliable as you. That's not flattery,” he added, before she could say anything further. “I'm being deathly serious.”

She smiled a little. “I'll accept that, then. Do you need anything else? I'll need to know sooner rather than later.”

“That's all, for now. Our own supplies should be here at some point, anyway.” He turned, picked up a scrap of paper from the desk's surface, and peered at it. “Within the next three days, according to the last dispatch. I'll let you know if it changes as soon as I can.” He looked back at her. “Do you have a request for us, then?”

Carla snorted, and levered herself upright again, steadying her sleeping burden with careful and practiced hands. “If Grisha or I come up with something,” she said, “I'll let you know. But frankly, the lot of you deserve better treatment than this. I know they have no trouble with medical supply in the Military Police.”

Erwin huffed in agreement. “They certainly don't. But we know our place, here.” He straightened. “Let me get the door for you. Don't want to jostle the young master, there.”

The little boy opened one weary eye as Carla turned her back. “Sir,” he said, in a small and roughened voice, with an air of carefully trying to inform without offending, “I'm not a master of anything.”

“He's being silly, Armin,” Carla said, patting his back. “He likes to exaggerate.”

Armin looked thoughtfully at Erwin as he was carried out into the hall. “Facetious,” he said, after a moment. “Like that, you mean?”

“That is definitely what she meant,” Erwin told him, hiding his surprise at the boy's word usage. “She's a bit harsh, with me.”

“She's a bit harsh with everyone,” Armin whispered, and Erwin laughed. The last thing he heard before he closed the door again was Carla's mock-admonishing tone, reminding him, pleasantly, of his own mother and her warm but no-nonsense child-rearing methods. He missed her, being so far away from Sina.

Erwin spent the rest of the afternoon speaking and making arrangements with his supply contacts, having to spend a bit more time, as always, with the man from the fisheries, who usually demanded some personal cut of money for his troubles. Commander Nilsen had at least the forethought to see to issues of near bribery, and there was a small fund of loose currency under lock and key in Nilsen's office for just such an occasion. Erwin doled out the agreed upon amount dutifully and then saw the now simpering man out again, full of promises and future deals to be discussed. The fisheries man was the last of his meetings, and he bid a grateful goodnight to Frisk, happy to be finished for the day. Commander Nilsen would be returning that day with the new recruits, and the work days would likely be longer once he was back, and Erwin was more than willing to take his bits of freedom where he found them.

The barracks were bustling when he emerged from the administrative wing. Housekeepers and stablemen darted back and forth across the front courtyard, preparing for the newcomers, and more than a few of the other soldiers were milling around in full uniform, trying to appear as casually impressive as possible. Erwin glanced around, but saw no sign of Hanji.

“Commander's a few minutes ride out, Lieutenant Smith!” someone called to him, and he glanced in the direction of the voice, nodding and trying to decide which direction would be best to flee in. The courtyard was much too crowded now, however, for an officer of his standing to sidle away without notice, and so Erwin resigned himself, and went over to sit wearily on the hay bales stacked by the horse barn. The vaguely soothing sound of horses at their dinner buckets, oats crunching between flat teeth, the clank of jostled buckets and the swish of tails touched his ears, and he let himself relax a little. It would do him no harm to see and be seen by the new recruits, he thought, propping his chin in his hand and his elbow against his bent knee. There could be no harm, because it would be the same as it had been every six months for the past three years – nervous, unfamiliar faces, shuffling awkwardly together like baby birds ejected from the nest.

He held no hope – and no certainty – of anything further than that.

“Maybe we'll keep this crop alive a little longer.”

Erwin looked up, then got a bit awkwardly to his feet. He was halfway into his salute before Mike Zacharius waved a hand at him lazily, shaking his head.

“No, no,” he muttered. “Sit down. I don't care.” As if to prove his point, Mike plopped himself solidly down on the hay bale next to Erwin, and arranged himself into a posture that was nearly a mimicry of Erwin's. Erwin paused, then sat down again himself, a little more stiffly than before.

It wasn't that Captain Zacharius – he scowled, most of the time, when people attempted to address him by that title – was particularly intimidating to him, per se. The man was by and large entirely unreadable, even for a man as accomplished in understanding people as Erwin was. He was friendly enough, and Erwin had spend enough time with him to know that he was a capable officer and a compassionate person, but there was a certain untouchable distance there he couldn't quite label. Mike, for his part, seemed either unaware or uncaring of the effect he had on people, and tended to glide his way into conversations as though he'd been there all along.

“I heard,” Mike said, after a moment of gazing out at the darkening courtyard, “That a couple of our new recruits are from the top ten.”

“I wonder what's wrong with them?” Erwin said mildly, and Mike laughed, a short, barking noise.

“Bloodthirsty, maybe,” he said, leaning back against the bales, apparently uncaring as to whether or not his uniform got covered in hay. “Or rich Inner Wall kids who don't know how to be scared properly.”

“I doubt that,” Erwin said. “They aim resolutely for the MP, in my experience.”

“I guess you'd now,” said Mike, without rancor. “Well, either way. It'll be nice to have some talent. I'm scouting for some new members for my personal squad.”

Erwin paused, more than aware that this was because Mike had seen a handful of his personal squad crushed and eaten two patrols ago, but Mike's face was neutral as ever. “They'd be lucky to learn under you,” he said finally.

Mike smiled vaguely. “They'd be lucky to not have to be here at all,” he said.

There was the clatter of horse hooves now, coming down the hill from the town center. A few of the housekeepers moved around, lighting torches in the courtyard. Erwin squinted as the light touched his eyes.

“One of them's the top graduate, I heard,” Mike said, as horses and wagons began to stream into the courtyard. Erwin stood without thinking, trying to get a glimpse of the newcomers. He had a sudden, uneasy pain in his stomach, the anticipatory fear feeling of standing too close to a precipice without a safety line.

You are wrong. You are foolish. You are fooling yourself.

The line of horses and riders was steady, now, new recruits intermixed with returning Survey soldiers, and Erwin craned his neck, knowing Mike was watching him curiously and not caring.

You are wrong. He wouldn't. He has no reason. There is no reason.

“I heard he's someone you know, actually.”

An auburn haired girl passed through the archway, and then, behind her, beyond all reason and realism, sharp featured and black haired, impassive as stone--

--he was there, looking at Erwin calmly through the dusk, pale and uncanny by torchlight, eyes gleaming.

“Levi,” Erwin said, very quietly. “Yes. I know him.”

Chapter Text

“Oh, it's him, all right,” said Hanji, waggling her mug in Erwin's face. “I saw him, too. Standing up straight like the best behaved little cadet in the world, right next to the most beautiful girl--”

“Who's probably only fifteen,” Mike said.

“--Probably only fifteen,” Hanji repeated, a momentary note of comical drama coloring her words, “with just the cutest face and she's third in their graduating class, you know.”

They'd met at the little pub on the town outskirts a ways after dark; Hanji had been covered in straw when she'd arrived, an oddity which she had not explained, and she'd paid no attention to Erwin's heightened state of tension. The pub was called the Rose and Hawk, a name which Erwin had wondered about to some degree until he'd met the landlord, who as it turned was a retiree from the Garrison some years ago. “Involuntary discharge,” the man had said, and he'd shown Erwin the carved wooden leg brace hooked directly to the stump of his left leg. Erwin had hidden his dismay – catastrophic, career ending injury was one of his more recent terminal fears – and thanked him for his service politely, to which the man had replied with a laugh more hearty than Erwin felt necessary.

But the Rose made for a good meeting place after hours, and most of the Survey soldiers stationed at the outpost tended to frequent it. They mingled there with Garrison and townsfolk alike – the handful of Military Police stuck close to the inner Wall, unwilling to taint what was likely to be a brief three week tour of the countryside with anything so pedestrian as associating with locals and suicidals.

“I wasn't aware you were shopping, Hanji,” Erwin said, over the rim of his beer. His voice sounded much too casual to his own ears, but neither Hanji nor Mike seemed to notice.

Hanji widened her eyes at him with mock-indignation. “I wasn't aware either,” she said, taking a drink. “But sometimes you just – her test scores are great, too, you know? I've seen all their files. I wonder why she'd join up with Survey, though? Most of the top recruits head to the interior as fast as they can transfer.”

“Maybe she's interested in Titans,” Mike said. He'd followed Erwin's departure from the barracks yard without comment, as though they'd agreed on the rendezvous with Hanji together, and Hanji hadn't seemed particularly surprised to see him. He outranked them both, a captain spending time with two lieutenants, but this didn't seem to figure into his behavior at all, other than that he'd quietly paid for both their drinks. It had occurred to Erwin – somewhere in the din of the panicked yammering that his dammed hind-brain had started up a few hours ago – that Mike was lonely.

“Well, what about you, Mike?” he said, trying to gently steer the conversation away from the new recruits. “Are you seeing anyone?”

Mike set his beer down, and laced his fingers together on the table top, looking down at them pensively. “I was,” he said. “But she's decided to take some time to herself, for now.”

“Oh.” Erwin swallowed a curse. “I'm sorry.”

Mike shrugged, and looked up at him. “So. You do know Cadet Levi, then?”

His attempt at avoiding the conversation well foiled, Erwin slumped a little bit, wrapping both hands around his mug. “I... yes,” he said, carefully not looking at Hanji. “We were very briefly acquainted, some years ago.”

“Hmm.” Mike's tone did not indicate what he thought about that either way. “Well, his scores are impressive. I'm hoping the Commander will assign him to my squad. I could use somebody that capable.”

Erwin experienced an unpleasant little twinge of displeasure. He leaned back in his chair, trying not to look at Mike until the feeling passed. “He's very capable,” he said, as neutrally as possible. “Very fast. Incredible balance.”

“He used to give lessons to the MP trainees behind Sina,” Hanji remarked. “During his trial period.”

“Trial period?” Mike managed to make it sound both like a question and an offhand statement.

“He was – a thief, back then,” Erwin said, giving up. “He was caught robbing an estate one night, and put to trial for the thefts and for the deaths of a few MP officers who chased him.”

“So he's a killer, then.” Mike was looking at him with what appeared to be deep thought. Erwin shook his head, decisive.

“No. They were accidental deaths. I happened to be present at his trial, and it was mentioned that he had some considerable skill in climbing... So, I took it upon myself to try to put him to better use than a morning's entertainment at the gallows.” Erwin touched the rim of his mug for a moment, considering, then took a drink instead. “I helped him train for a week, and the brass agreed to have him sent out to the trainee camp. That's all,” he said, swallowing another mouthful of beer.

“Some of those trainees who hung around came out here, you know,” Hanji said, glancing at Erwin. “Your Nanaba's favorite underling Freida is one of them, Mike.”

“She isn't mine,” Mike said, quietly. “She belongs to herself.”

Hanji glanced at Erwin. “Yes,” she said, a bit uncertain. “I just meant, I know Freida's had a few lessons from him.”

Mike nodded, but his general aura of good natured silence had taken on a decidedly pallid feel, and Erwin coughed, elbowing Hanji lightly.

“In any case, I'm sure he'd be a fine addition to your squad, Mike,” he said. “He can be a bit... independent, but usually to good benefit, I found.”

“We'll see if Nilsen will let me have him,” Mike said. “Man's been a little absent minded lately, I've noticed.”

“Absent minded,” Hanji muttered.

“He's got a lot on his mind,” Erwin said neutrally, reminding himself a bit belatedly that Mike was still his superior officer, and that despite Survey's strangely casual atmosphere there were still chains of command to keep in mind. “I don't really blame him. New intake takes quite a bit of concentration, and there's the next expedition to be planned.”

“Hm.” Mike bobbed his head again, while Hanji shot Erwin a brief look that managed to convey even in its brevity that she was fairly certain he running a little low on canister gas. “I guess so.”

“Sure.” Hanji rolled her eyes at them both and drained off her beer in one quick go. “Listen, if you two are going to just sit around and tell cute stories about Nilsen, I'm going to go ahead and take off. I'm halfway through my analysis of that bone fragment we got last week still and I need to get moving on it if I want to submit it back to Grace University before next month.” She put her chin on her hand and looked at Erwin. “And I think you should go talk to him.”

“To Levi?” Erwin blinked.

“Uh, yeah. Why, do you think he's mad at you or something?”

Erwin thought about the last time he'd seen Levi, bound by the wrists again, in pain, crying with a helpless sort of rage that had been painful to see in him. He'd felt cruel, then, and he still felt cruel now, reducing a creature of fragile pride and vulnerable hope to that kind of frightened desolation. Because Levi had been frightened, he understood now – not angry, but frightened, frightened of being left alone with people who had no reason to wish him well. Alone, wounded, and restrained, while the one person who had promised him life and safety left him behind. He had been only seventeen, and Erwin had seen it in his tears. He himself neither felt nor saw any shame in weeping, especially as life was hard, frightening, and often short, but the childishness in Levi's grief had made him feel just how wide the gap between them really was.

“Maybe,” Erwin said quietly. “I don't know.”

She shrugged. “But things are different now, aren't they? You're on equal ground. He's not a prisoner anymore, and you're not his only hope for survival anymore. He's a soldier now, and a good one. And he came here, when he definitely didn't have to.”

“It's not as though he'd want to go back to Sina and join the MP,” Erwin muttered, hearing the sullenness in his own voice with annoyance. Hanji, too, seemed to hear it, and she only smiled at him, calm and certain.

“You started this, Erwin,” she said. “You're the one who took him on in the first place.”

That, as much as he would have liked to have protested, was undeniably true.

Mike was watching their exchange with quiet interest, and Erwin felt abruptly a bit too exposed. “You're probably right,” he said, with a small, genial smile. “Honestly, I should be going. I still have to see to my horses tonight.”

“I think they have the newcomers on stable duty,” Mike said unhelpfully.

Erwin kept his smile carefully in place. “Probably. But Liebe's been favoring her right rear the past few days. I need to make sure she's still doing all right. Can't have a lame horse standing around in stall muck alone for days, can I?”

Hanji waved a hand at him dismissively. “Just go,” she said, reaching over to slide his beer towards her. “Oh! But if you see that girl – you know – ask her her name? Please?” She beamed hopefully at him. “Just for future reference, of course.”

“Of course,” Erwin said, half smirking. “Thank you for the drink, Mike.”

“My pleasure,” Mike said, then added, with only the faintest note of hesitance, “Meet you again here soon?”

“Definitely.” Erwin got to his feet. “The two of you have a good night.”

The little road that looped out of town and out into the fields where livestock grazed and the barracks stood was mostly deserted, though a few of the townspeople were still trudging their way up into the proper, carrying tools and baskets and wood braces. The cobblestone ran out as the road snaked out between two wheat fields, and turned into dirt instead, hard packed but slightly softened from a recent rain. Across the field, the windmill turned slowly, its creaking strangely ominous in the dark. Halfway between the lights of the town and the lights of the outpost barracks the night was thick, and it felt like being adrift on an impossibly large lake, the shore far away, the isolation total. Between the wheat stalks there were occasional rustles, small and low to the ground, as night animals went about their secret thievery of human agriculture. Above Wall Maria, the moon was a dim sliver, half obscured by heavy late autumn clouds.

Erwin walked with a heavy tread, trying not to scuff his boots along too much in order to avoid the need to polish them too excessively later. In the eerie stillness he thought he could almost hear that terrible distant scrabbling, the soft grunts and slapping-skin sounds of Titans settling down for the night, deprived of sun and life. He and Hanji had watched it happen once, from the top of the Wall, the sun setting and their awful clumsy movements growing slower and slower. Some of them slumped over gracelessly into heaps; others merely drooped where they stood, standing to sleep like horses. It was an alarming sight, evoking slow death and the promise of miraculous and terrible resurrections, awarded to monsters but never to people.

The horses were quiet when he arrived at the stable, but the sound of his entry stirred a few of them, including his mare Liebe, who stuck her slim chestnut head out over her stall door and snorted softly for his attention. Survey horses were a special breed – smaller than some other horses and built with a deceptive delicateness, their heads small and dainty, with long, slender legs and alert, sensitive temperaments. Despite their fragile appearances, they were by and large well suited to long distance and endurance running, with impressive stamina and tough physical strength. Strong boned and with tough hooves capable of handling most terrain, soldiers sometimes joked darkly that the horses had a better survival rate than they did. Each Survey soldier was issued two at arrival, and was expected to spend several hours a week with both horses, to cement a proper bond between them. Survey horses were intelligent enough to recognize their riders even from a great distance, and a well bonded soldier could expect to call one or both of his mounts to return to him in the field with merely a whistle or a shout. Any soldier could be given stall-mucking duty, but each of them fed only their own mounts, carefully cultivating the deep relationship between horse and rider.

Erwin's pair were no different. Liebe, his mare, was high strung but deeply trusting, and he imagined she would make a fine field horse, whenever he was finally released from his desk prison. His gelding, Nuit, was a gleaming black showboat of a horse who nevertheless had proven himself to be as brave as he was beautiful, enduring all of the company equine stress training with hardly more than a little shying and some angry pawing.

Nuit, too, stuck his head over his stall door, and tried to take a bite out of Erwin's shoulder as he passed by. Erwin slapped his neck warningly, and shouldered up to their joined doors. Liebe leaned over to sniff him thoughtfully and he stroked her nose for a moment. He hadn't lied, per se, about her condition – she had been limping some, recently. What he hadn't been forthcoming about was the fact that he already knew that she'd bruised her frog on a stone during exercises, that she was already receiving poultice care from the stablemaster, and that the only thing he could really do for her at this point was offer her attention and treats.

“My lovely girl,” he murmured to her, rubbing the white streak that bisected her nose up to her forelock. “You're bored, I expect. Maybe we'll go for a walk around tomorrow, what do you think?”

Liebe huffed, and bumped her chin against his shoulder companionably. Nuit stretched his neck out, heavy lips pulling back from strong, square teeth, as he tried to reach a corner of Erwin's jacket, ostensibly to pull him closer, and despite himself Erwin chuckled and reached up, wrapping his other arm around the gelding's head to scratch him along the cheek.

“I'm sorry,” he said, to both of them. “You don't get to go out on many adventures.”

“Adventures is a pretty shitty way to put it, but it sounds about par the course for you.”

Erwin didn't start, though he felt his heart leap in his chest in sudden warning. He turned his head, his arms still occupied by both horses.

Levi had grown no taller, that much he could tell. There was still that unassuming smallness about him, the very make and set of his bones arranged in inescapable miniature. There was, however, a difference about his face, his chest and shoulders – his cheeks a little less round, perhaps, his chin a bit sharpened; his arms were firmer, his shoulders a bit wider, and Erwin could see the casually relaxed muscle underneath his uniform shirt. Levi had grown no taller, but there was adult strength in him now, a physical power to match his force of will. His narrow grey eyes were clear, and cold, and there was a faint cock of his hips to the way he stood in the barn's wide entryway, the weight only on one foot or the other, like he was perpetually ready to spring into motion.

Erwin felt cold, himself, chilled by the silence of Levi's approach and the way his own throat had closed up against any kind of response. He'd noted the barb in Levi's words -- it sounds about par the course for you-- but for the moment he had no defense against it.

Levi shifted his weight again, one foot to the other, and Erwin watched his small hips move. “No hello for me all, huh?” he said. “I guess you've had a lot to think about out here, all by yourself.”

“Hello, Levi,” Erwin said, quietly. Levi lifted his chin a little, and Erwin saw no flash of emotion in his eyes, no change in the set of his mouth, none of the little signs of feeling and intent he'd seen once in the boy he'd known.

“Better,” Levi said. He came forward, his boots thudding dull on the rough stone floor, the shadows of the barn's ceiling slats rippling over him. He wore his uniform shirt open at the collar, with no adornment, and his hair was cut just as Erwin had done it for him, three years ago. Instead of his uniform harness, however, he wore a sturdy knife belt, one that centered a wicked looking blade against his left thigh, and as he walked his hand tapped his hip there, like the knife was heavy on his mind.

“We get our mounts tomorrow,” he said. “I'm not looking forward to it.”

Erwin found his voice once more. “Why not?”

“Equestrian matters were the only thing I failed at,” Levi said, a little smirk touching his lips. “Big ass nasty lumps of meat with hard sharp parts on them, and teeth? Not something I'm ever interested in getting too close to.”

“Perhaps you should have chosen a different branch, in that case,” Erwin said, aware only after he'd said it how it would sound. Levi turned towards him a little, his head tipping, and for a moment Erwin thought he looked confused.

“A different branch,” Levi repeated. “Yeah. That would've been your preference, I bet.”

“That's not what I meant.”

“That's fine. I can add it to my long list of shit you don't mean.” Levi looked away. “I just came to tell you I was here.”

“With a knife,” Erwin said, touching Liebe's nose lightly. Levi glanced at him sharply.

“I guess so, yeah,” he said, after a moment, as though he wasn't sure what else to say.

“What do you need a blade like that for?”

Levi smiled suddenly, an unpleasant and unfriendly expression. “I've got special permission to carry it,” he said. “From way above your pay grade.”

“What,” Erwin said, feeling the first kindling of real fear in his chest, “Do you need it for?”

Levi gazed at him for a long moment, and Erwin had the uncomfortable feeling of being assessed, bad enough that he himself shifted his weight, stepping away from the horses a little to give himself room to move if necessarily. He saw Levi marking his movements, and saw a darkening on Levi's face that he couldn't identify.

But all Levi did, in the end, was shrug, and turn away.

“Now you know,” he said, as he walked away, “That I'm here. Ignore me if you like. I don't really care, Erwin.”

“Levi.”

There was another name on the tip of his tongue, one more intimate, one he'd once used freely, but he swallowed it before it could emerge. It felt too much like a summoning, like a request, the fulfilling of which he wasn't at all prepared for. Instead he stood there, fists half clenched at his sides, and watched as Levi went back out into the dark and disappeared.

Chapter Text

He falls to his knees in the snowdrift, knowing in the depths of his heart that this is the place where it is lost, his place of failure and regret. He knows and so he digs even as his hands grow numb and the beds of his nails begin to go blue, as the killing cold creeps up his wrists towards his elbows. The snow is endlessly deep, and there is no sign of living green beneath it.

His fingers brush something that numbness prevents them from understanding at first. He grips for it, a flash of dark in the eternal white, clumsy and shivering, and he holds it up to the dying light to see it, his heart thundering in his ears.

It is a perfect pinion feather, striped in muted greys and browns, its tip sanguine and stiffened with frozen blood.

He is too late.

***

“Didn't sleep well?” Frisk whispered, leaning over his desk in his best impression of conspiracy as Erwin closed the front office door as quietly as he could.

“Is it that obvious?” Erwin said in an equally low voice, smiling thinly. Insomnia was no stranger to him, even at times of relative calm in his life, and the night before had been one of particular difficulty. He didn't fool himself by pretending he didn't know why, but the dreams that had touched him had been strange and unhinged visions of running under open sky, of calling out words he didn't know, of being blinded by sun and snow. They had been dreams of anxious seeking, and they had left his sleep light and troubled until well after dawn.

Frisk smiled back, but it was a nervous, touchy expression. “A little,” he said. “Listen, the Commander's already here, and he's sort of...”

“Rampaging?”

“Yeah.” Frisk slumped a little, hands dropping palm down on his desk. He looked defeated, and Erwin felt more than a little sympathy for him. When the Commander was about on a regular basis, the normally sweetly jovial Frisk transformed into a nervous, stuttering mess. New as he was, and young as he was, Frisk usually bore the brunt of Nilsen's temper when it was raised, and it seemed today was no exception.

Erwin scowled. “What the hell's he got to be angry about already?” he said, ignoring Frisk's pale widened eyes at the volume of the question. “He just got back last night.”

“Sir,” Frisk said, his tone a little pleading, “Keep your voice down. I don't know why he's annoyed, but you can take care of it, can't you? You always do.”

Erwin signed, touching his hair lightly to ensure it was still neatly brushed. “I suppose I can,” he said, trying to keep the resentment out of his voice. It wasn't Frisk's fault he was stuck in this position, any more than it was Frisk's fault that he'd had a strange and sleepless night. “Just breath deeply a while, Cadet. I'll come back.”

“Thank you.” Frisk slumped back in his chair, though the worried furrow of his brow didn't change, even as Erwin went down the hall and out sight.

Nilsen's door was opened halfway, and there was an ominous silence from within. Erwin steeled himself before he knocked, and was the very picture of civil subordination when Nilsen called for him to enter.

“Smith,” Nilsen said, as soon as he laid eyes on Erwin. His hands were folded together on his desktop, as though he'd been perched, waiting, for Erwin to arrive and hear his grievances. Cyrus Nilsen was a thin-lipped, strangely colorless man, of that particular type Erwin found rather typical of upper-crust breeding. He was about fifty, and was a sallow pale, his short cropped hair a shade of grey-blond that nearly matched his skin tone, giving him a rather transparent look. Only his eyes were dark, a brown of hues closer to amber than red, and they were heavy-lidded and deceptively lazy. Erwin knew little about him, save for two facts: he had come from a family of some repute, and he was deeply obsessed with finding and stamping out “heresy” where ever he found it.

“Heresy” was a wide spectrum, for Nilsen. It generally included the usual range of words and activities – the study of history and the more exploratory sciences, excessive conversations about “the outside”- but in Nilsen's case it also covered most ideas and concepts that he didn't like, or those that he didn't understand. Hanji had had no end of difficulty with him since her arrival at the outpost, and Erwin thought it rather a miracle that she was allowed to take notes and write papers at all. If he was honest, he thought it just as miraculous that she still had her head seated on her shoulders.

As such, the man could be unpredictable in his anger, and Erwin had spent his three years working under Nilsen's nose cultivating a kind of careful diagram of behavior, to both anticipate and soothe whatever issue arose. He was quite good at navigating Nilsen by now, by his own standards, and was rarely on the chopping block himself due to his attention to interpersonal detail. Nilsen didn't like him, of course, but Nilsen didn't like anybody. At the most, he found Erwin inoffensively annoying, which was where Erwin preferred his opinion to stay.

Today, however, was not promising to be a day of easy maneuvering. Erwin took a brief, split-second study of the set of Nilsen's eyebrows, the downward pull of the lines around his mouth, and surmised that whatever it was, the Commander was well and truly prepared to have a proper fit about it.

“Yes, sir,” he said, saluting in a clean and easy gesture, ensuring his eyes were focused on some point over Nilsen's shoulder. Never on his face. Nilsen hated to be stared at.

Nilsen studied him for a moment, and then said without preamble, “Smith, why the hell have I just received a Mystic into my ranks?”

Of all the things the issue could have been, this was not one that Erwin had been prepared to hear, and he didn't manage to catch himself before the startled, “What?” had escaped him.

“I'm told,” Nilsen said slowly, his tone carefully measured, as though he were speaking to a child, “That this Elly Levi – the new recruit, yes? I'm told that you have something to do with him being here.” The twitch of his mouth said that he'd noted Erwin's undisciplined response, and that it was not going to make this conversation any easier.

“I'm... no, sir,” Erwin managed, his salute wavering. He hadn't been told to stand at ease.

“No? That's very strange.” Nilsen looked down at his desk, reaching across it with a showman's flourish to produce a sheet of paper from atop one of his folders. He gazed at it for a moment, and then read aloud: “After which, Lieutenant Smith insisted he would take charge of the prisoner, and train him properly at a soldier's work.” His eyes lifted to Erwin's face. “Is this another Lieutenant Smith, formerly of the Military Police?”

“No, sir,” Erwin said, quietly. The chill that had settled over him was a new one – not an anxiety, not really, but something repulsed and disgusted, as though Nilsen were trying to attract his attention to a mound of human waste. It made the hair along his arms rise, a little. “It refers to me, sir.”

“Then you do have something to do with him,” Nilsen said, setting the paper down. “May I ask, Smith, why you thought encouraging a bloody Mystic to join Survey Corp would be a good idea?”

“Élie Levi is a talented soldier, sir,” Erwin said, carefully avoiding putting too much emphasis on the correct pronunciation of Levi's name. “I did not specifically direct him to--”

“I don't give a damn about his capability, Smith,” Nilsen said, his tone almost pleasant now, conversational. “He's a Breacher. Conniving, and untrustworthy, and liable to abandon his unit at the first sign of danger and run off into the wilderness – they come from out there, Smith, you must know that. They come from outside the Walls. The same as the Titans do.”

“Sir,” Erwin murmured, because he couldn't bring himself to indicate agreement even to gain control of the conversation. Wall-Breacher was a dirty word, one children whispered to each other when their parents were out of ear shot; it was an unnatural thing, a concept that rang loudly with implications of filthiness, of inhumanity, of sin. Humans lived behind the Walls, and expressed no desire to leave their stone certainty. Breachers were either too stupid or too evil to know better.

“Well, then, what do you propose we do about him?” Nilsen folded his hands together again, perfectly reasonable, perfectly assured of the righteousness of his words. Erwin thought about Levi, remembered him, Levi's hands heavy on his thighs and the frightened animal-tension in his small body as he'd tried to explain what Erwin was now witnessing. Levi's calm, low voice, monotonous and hurting: My mother told me once that we've always been hated, back and back to the beginnings of everything. Outsiders tell lies about us, and always have – that we steal children, and drink blood. My mother didn't know why, and neither do I. But she took it for fact, and so do I.

The cold lack of expression he'd seen in Levi the night before resurfaced, unbidden, but it wasn't stronger than the memory of Levi's small hands on his face, or the silk of his hair.

“Sir,” he heard himself say, a degree of jovial agreeableness he hadn't thought himself capable of faking in his tone, “Let me take care of it. I have an old friend in the Royal Palace. I can see about some kind of official discharge, perhaps.”

Nilsen paused, and for a moment Erwin thought he'd been too false to be convincing.

“I've heard about your past in the Palace,” Nilsen said, after a strange little pause. “But I heard you were more than friends with Prince Theobald.”

“I'm sorry, sir?”

“I believe you know what I mean, Smith.”

Erwin clenched his jaw, and steeled himself. The Commander clearly knew all there was to know – the truth between him and Prince Theo, the truth of titles and official functions beyond “convenient playmate.” He wondered who the informant was. Perhaps Nilsen had his own connections within the royal family and their household. Perhaps he, too, had come from some shadowy union between servant and unfaithful nobleman, raised in strange conjunction with the soft and easy life of assured safety and power and the knowledge that even the near to holy need their bedsheets cleaned and their chamber pots emptied. Or perhaps his was a clean, straight line from the gilded birthing bed of a good family into powerful command service. Either way, by the untroubled look of smug interest on his face, Nilsen knew what most outside the tight little circle of palace dwellers and workers did not.

“We were good friends, sir,” Erwin said, low. “We're about the same age. We grew up together.”

“I find it hard to imagine how such an arrangement works, in practice,” Nilsen said, his tone musing. “Does it really function? Did he really feel remorse, because of you?” He noticed Erwin's expression and smiled a little. “Come now, Smith. It's an honorable thing. I'm sure many men wish they could have been in your position.”

Erwin did not reply, and after a while Nilsen shrugged, reaching for good-natured dismissal. “I was only agreeing that your connection may be useful to us,” he said. “The seeds of such intimacy is sure to have flowered a number of unquestioned favors by now. Go, then. Write to Prince Theobald. Tell him – oh.” He waggled a hand. “I'm not doing this to be cruel, of course – just tell him we need a soldier transferred somewhere. Garrison, far away from here. That should do well enough.”

“Yes, sir,” Erwin said. His teeth were clenched together so tightly between the two syllables that he thought he might crack one.

“Thank you, Smith. It's good to know I can count on you once in a while. You're dismissed.”

Erwin relaxed his salute at last, and turned on his heel in a perfect parade march rotation. He left Nilsen's door open, just as it had been when he'd come in, and walked heavily back into the outer room.

Frisk looked at him with wide, sympathetic blue eyes.

Erwin smiled at him wearily. “You were right,” he said. “But I think it's under control.”

“I knew you could do it,” Frisk said softly, but he didn't seem particularly relieved. He glanced in the direction of the hallway, swallowing so hard that Erwin saw his throat bob, and said, “Sir, after – after hours, might I be permitted to speak with you privately?”

Erwin looked at him with faint surprise. “I'm free this evening, yes,” he said. “Is there something the matter?”

Frisk began to shake his head, then stopped and licked his lips instead. “Sort of,” he said, tight voiced and more than a little pale. “I just want to... I need to tell you something.” He brushed nervously at the dark hair that had escaped his ponytail in charming little waves around his face, and Erwin's mouth quirked a little, despite himself.

“Of course,” he said. “Come and find me when you're finished for the day.”

“Thank you,” Frisk breathed, and tried out a tremulous smile. “I'll do that.” He patted the stacks of paper on his desk. “But for now I'll just, um, get back to this. You probably have things to do.”

Erwin did, and he felt his shoulders slump a little just remembering it. “Back to the land of requisition forms and courier receipts, I suppose,” he muttered, and went back to his own office, where he closed the door and then sat in his chair for several minutes, trying to calm the anger that Nilsen had lit within him.

***

The sun was fading through Erwin's office window by the time he cleared all the paperwork off his desk for the day, but by the sound of the shouts and occasional bursts of laughter from the yard, the new recruits were still being put through their paces. There would be no easy way to slip away without being seen, Erwin knew, and a part of him was a little indignant that he even felt it necessary to skulk around at all, for the sake of avoiding a little discomfort, and so he decided to head out to the yard to watch the recruits at work.

The recruits, as it turned out, were at work on their hand to hand combat forms, which accounted for all the noise. Erwin had known a number of trainees in his own group who'd complained bitterly about having to learn to fight other human beings, but Erwin had never found issue with the exercise. At the time he'd felt, mainly, that a soldier should be prepared not only to go about warring on outside threats, but also to protect from those on the inside as well, and he'd taken his own forms quite seriously.

Much of what trainees were taught centered around disarming and grappling, and there were a number of people picking themselves up off the flattened grass as Erwin walked slowly around the perimeter. Mike and Captain Shadis were supervising, Mike with his customary expression of perpetual sleepiness, and Shadis looking as intense as always. It didn't take him long to spot Levi – he was on the far end of the assemblage, partnered with the young auburn haired girl Hanji had been talking about the night before. Despite his steadily deepening desire to avoid Levi's attention at all costs, Erwin paused to watch them. Levi was standing close to the girl, gripping her wrist in one hand, his other hand on her shoulder, close to the nape of her neck. He didn't seem to be attempting to restrain or throw her, and after a moment Erwin saw his lips move, and the brief, sunny smile on the girl's face.

Nostalgic familiarity blossomed somewhere in Erwin's chest, coupled with that calm and easy fondness he'd discovered back behind Sina. He still teaches, he thought, feeling a pride he knew wasn't truly his to experience. He teaches, and guides, and reassures, and that is something intrinsic to him that has nothing to do with me. The girl laughed loudly at something Levi said, and shouldered against him in a sisterly sort of way, and Erwin saw the flicker of a smile on Levi's lips as he let her go and stepped out of her range. Whatever maneuver the girl made was concealed from his view by the ungainly airborne passage of another recruit in the foreground, but in the next moment Levi was on his back on the ground. The girl had stepped away from him to prevent a counter-attack, her fists raised, but she was grinning. Levi rocked his hips once, and then with a skilled and graceful ripple of his body he was on his feet again, as though gravity was nothing to him, a rule made to be bent in times of necessity. He reached for the girl and for a moment Erwin thought he was going to move on her, but instead he clasped her shoulder, and in the brief lull of voices and thudding bodies he heard Levi's calm low voice. “Good.”

Erwin let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. His sense of easy fondness had been replaced a hollow sort of longing. It wasn't lust. It rarely seemed, where Levi was concerned, to be anything as base as a desire for sex, though to his eye Levi moved and acted in all things with a measured and unintended sensuality, born of his natural intensity, his effortless grace, and the calmly controlled anger and hurt Erwin knew lay just beneath his skin, a wound rarely shown. Erwin watched him sidle into a fighting stance of his own, and saw the new, adult confidence where coltish uncertainty had been before, and the unknown feeling gripped him again with sudden force, almost a stranglehold.

What is it you want, Erwin? his knowing internal voice murmured to him, as though mocking him for missing something secret. What do you want? You liked having him under you, didn't you? You liked the way his wrists fit into your one hand, the way his cock got hard when you startled him, the way he held himself silent at your word? What do you think that means, Erwin? Wasn't that about control?

I do not possess him, he told himself firmly, unsettled by the thoughts that had surfaced, the flavor of them.

You'd like to, though. Wouldn't you?

Erwin hesitated. There was a truth here that he felt deeply, but at the same time there was denial, which he knew was not false.

I do want to, he thought, after a moment. I do, but not without his giving. Not without his wanting to be possessed.

He found no further protest within himself. That seemed to be the key of it. And hadn't Levi made it clear, then, when he did and did not want Erwin to act upon him? Hadn't there been times – binding Levi into his harness, cutting his hair, unbinding him again, that unprompted offering of thanks the first time he'd touched him – hadn't there been times when he'd touched a serenity the like of which he'd never known before? He'd felt pride, watching the MP officers and their superior patrons as they'd watched Levi, as Levi's undeniable skill and grace were displayed before them. Pride, because he'd felt, to some degree then, that Levi belonged to him.

But the idea of asserting that kind of ownership over him now, now that he'd seen the obvious hurt and anger in Levi, the fact that Levi had shown him only coldness, made him feel ill.

His earlier conversation with Nilsen returned to him strangely, and he frowned, glancing back towards the office building. Nilsen had implied heavily that he'd known things about Erwin's childhood that few were privy to, but Erwin was certain that, even if he did know, he didn't really understand. Nilsen was a man who enforced his control over people with brute gesture and negative enforcement – he had no concept of gentle persuasion or of positive manipulation, or even of the sheer power in capitulation, in agreeably showing one's belly to someone unworthy, in order to gain.

As such, what had gone between Erwin and Prince Theo would remain out of Nilsen's reach, and for that Erwin was glad.

He caught movement out of the corner of his eye and looked up, blinking out of his introspective daze. One of the recruits was approaching him, a nervously friendly smile on his face. “Lieutenant Smith, sir!” he called, hesitating as Erwin looked at him as though not certain if he should salute at such a distance or not.

“At ease,” Erwin said kindly, smiling at him, and the young man's easy pace returned. He snapped a short salute when he came close anyway, and then relaxed, though his eyes remained politely away from Erwin's face.

“Can I do something for you, Cadet--”

“Cadet Radic, sir.” The young man bobbed his head. He was olive skinned and dark-eyed, handsome with neatly trimmed hair. “Oliver Radic. I only wanted to introduce myself, sir. I've heard about you.”

“Have you?” Erwin said, neutrally.

Radic nodded. “You were Captain Allyson Hamlin's last apprentice, sir. Good enough that she kept you on for many years, sir. Isn't that correct?”

“It is, yes.” Erwin relaxed a fraction. “Are you interested in tactical planning, Cadet Radic?”

“I am, sir.” Radic smiled, clasping his hands in front of him. “Captain Shadis told me you're not currently on field duty, but when you are again, sir, I would very much like to be on your squad.”

“Ah,” Erwin said, keeping his tone positive and jovial. “Well, when the time comes, Cadet, I'll certainly consider you. Do you have any other recommendations for me?”

“Lia Kaiser,” Radic said immediately, as though he'd been waiting to be asked this question. “And Petra Ral.” He turned, and pointed, first at a tall, pale brunette girl who was in the process of wrenching a knife from her partner, and then, to Erwin's surprise, at the auburn haired girl who was practicing with Levi. “Ral was third in our graduating top ten, sir, and she's only fifteen.”

“Impressive.” Erwin thought he had an idea as to how Ral had maintained such good scores, but he kept it to himself. “Thank you, Cadet. I'll keep them in mind.”

“I hope you will, sir. And--” Radic paused, and glanced to one side. Erwin followed the line of his gaze. Frisk was closing the office door behind himself with one hand, and trying to tuck his ponytail back into place with the other, fumbling both actions rather badly. “...And, really, that's all. Thank you, sir.”

“Of course.” Erwin frowned slightly as Radic loped back into the fray of flailing, yelping recruits. He glanced over at Frisk again. The young man had managed, finally, to close the door properly, and he was walking towards Erwin as he did his hair back up and out of his face again. He smiled, but it was a sickened, pallid expression, and he didn't speak until he was directly next to Erwin's shoulder.

“Thanks for agreeing to talk to me,” Frisk said, his voice a low murmur. “It's just that – well. I don't really know how to go about this, sir.”

“Go about what, exactly?” Erwin tried to be patient, though he was experiencing an annoying cross between impatience and apprehension. “Whatever it is, you're obviously spooked out of your mind about it. Just tell me.”

“Well.” Frisk licked his lips, and looked away. “Someone told me you knew Cadet Levi, before.”

This seemed to be a theme, lately. “I did, yes,” Erwin said, lowering his own voice, as though Levi would hear him all the way across the field. “Why?”

“We were... I graduated a little earlier, sir, than the others did, but these recruits come from my trainee regiment.” Frisk flushed a little, visibly ashamed. “I was pushed out early because the training master said I just wasn't going to get any better.”

He paused, and when Erwin made no soothing noises, went on. “Ah, but the point, the point is, I trained alongside Cadet Levi as well, sir. I didn't think he'd come here at all, but I guess I was wrong. Since he's here now, you should know.”

“Know what?” Erwin murmured, his eyes straying back out to the field again. Levi was looking their way, his eyes fixed hawk-like on Frisk with calm menace. He must have known that Erwin had noticed him, but his look didn't waver – a poisonous, darkened look, predatory and mean.

“He came here to kill you, Erwin,” Frisk said, small voiced and a little desperate. “He told me himself.”

Chapter Text

Erwin had seen Levi angry before, under multiple circumstances. He would not, three years ago, have described Levi as particularly hot tempered – the Levi he'd known had seemed a boy much more prone to a slow and calculated burn, one of those sorts of people who carefully cataloged offenses and put them away for later consideration until their numbers grew too expansive to be peacefully contained any longer. It had given him the impression at the time that Levi was not a person who angered easily.

He watched Levi now, while Frisk stared at him, until Levi sensed his gaze and his pale furious eyes lifted to Erwin's face. He met Erwin's look without trouble, and then looked away again, though not without any particular sense of being cowed.

Is it true? Erwin thought, seeing the stiffness in Levi's shoulders as he turned back to Ral and resumed his combat stance. Is it really true, Levi?

The last time he'd laid eyes on Levi, in the crowded little gaol beneath the MP barracks, there had been such pain and urgency in him, such exhausted relief upon seeing Erwin whole. I thought they'd killed you, he'd said, and his face and throat had born the marks of his fury towards the men he'd held responsible. Levi had, according to Hanji, fought and defeated three men nearly twice his size, his collarbone broken and blood pouring down his chest, because he'd thought Erwin dead.

And he'd wept, when Erwin had turned his back and left him; the strangled small sounds of his efforts not to cry out in the process had haunted Erwin for months, and still did, to some degree.

Do you hate me that much, for doing this to you?

“Sir,” Frisk said nervously, and Erwin looked back at him in numb distraction. “Are you all right?”

“Fine,” Erwin said, perfectly calm. He was remembering Levi's cheek in his palm, the first time he'd touched him, when Levi had been exhausted and feverish and helpless to save himself; another time, when Erwin had comforted him on the floor of his tiny apartment; the last time, when Erwin had turned his back on him even as Levi had cried out for his protection. “I'm fine. A bit surprised, I suppose.”

“Surprised,” Frisk echoed, a little weakly, eyeing Erwin as though concerned he hadn't fully conveyed the seriousness of the situation.

“Yes.” Erwin met his eyes, and smiled at him. “Thank you for letting me know, Frisk. I'll take care of it.” He turned away, and walked back towards the buildings, towards the road that led to town, ignoring Frisk's tentative shout of surprise. He wanted to be left alone with these feelings, with his dismay. He wanted no other interpretations of Levi or his intentions to intercede.

His feelings, he realized, were hurt. It sounded childish, put in such a way, but he'd left Levi in that gaol with a mixture of sorrow and hope, such hope; he'd left with all certainty that his choice had been the right one, with Levi's health and safety and happiness centered alone.

Apparently, Levi had not seen it from that perspective.

He turned up the dirt road leading to the town center, and in the distance light still blazed in the windows of shops and houses. He could hear children calling to each other across the fields, the distant sounds of horses heading home, cattle mooing and bellowing as they were herded back towards their home barns and pens for the night. Bats wheeled overhead in the fading light, only the faintest whisper of sound to mark their passage. Erwin was touched briefly by the pleasantly cool evening breeze, enough to lift his resigned melancholia for a few minutes; questions began to surface shortly thereafter.

Why would Levi have told anyone what he intended? Levi hadn't struck him as a braggart, particularly. Perhaps it had been done as a warning; perhaps Levi had had done it to make it clear to Frisk that interference in his intentions would be fatal.

He killed those two men on the Wall, he thought, and then squashed that line of thought immediately. It had truly been an accident, he was certain of that much. Even if Levi had contained the capacity for murder all along – which would not surprise Erwin particularly, whatever the truth of this situation turned out to be – the death of MP officers had been more trouble for him than it had been worth. If anything, he thought, Levi was at least pragmatic. But on the other hand--

“Watch out!” an unfamiliar voice called, and Erwin, sensing the incoming threat more than hearing it, ducked down immediately into a crouch as something large and eerily silent swooped down over his head with a sound not unlike that of heavy snow falling.

When he looked up, a handful of people were coming towards him. They were hard to make out in the darkness; most of them appeared to be dressed in black and shades of dark brown. They stopped hesitantly in the middle of the path when he lifted his head, and Erwin stood up uneasily, brushing at his uniform jacket in a small expulsion of nervousness. Then he sensed movement to his left, and he jerked back as that strange silent thing swept past him towards the strangers. He only realized that it was a large bird when it landed neatly on the outstretched arm of the small figure in the front of the group. An owl, he could see now, with a serene, heart-shaped pale face.

“Ah,” he said, fumbling clumsily for words. The people were staring at them – he could see their faces now, pale, worried shapes, stark figures clustering together away from him. “I'm sorry. Good evening. I'm from the outpost, I was just on my way to the pub in town.”

“Lieutenant Smith?” one of them said in a familiar voice, detaching from the group, and Erwin recognized her almost immediately.

“Carla,” he said, more than a little relieved to see a familiar face. He smiled at her, but she didn't return the expression, instead eyeing him with a somber, faintly suspicious uncertainty.

“What are you doing out here?” she said calmly.

Erwin paused, sensing that she was on the edge of hostility, and baffled as to why, when she was usually so friendly. “As I said,” he said, doing his best to sound casual, “I'm just on my way to the Rose for an evening drink. I'm very sorry if I've interrupted something.” His eyes strayed away from her, to the group of people now clustered behind her. The one who had caught the owl was a girl, dark eyed, her hair a black mass of coils barely contained by her headscarf. With her was an older boy with a similar complexion, wearing a simple workman's tunic and trousers. The third was an older woman, her head entirely covered by a mobcap, though a few stray curls peeked out around the edges. She met Erwin's gaze with no small amount of anxiety on her face, and he looked away quickly, not wanting to distress her further.

He looked to Carla again, who was still watching him with that oddly unpleasant expression.

“Truly,” he said, trying to understand what was going on. “I meant no harm.”

The young girl turned to the older woman, the bird on her gloved arm shifting nervously, and spoke – Erwin realized with a start that, though he didn't understand the words at all, he had heard the sound of that language before.

They were Mystics.

For one foolish moment he thought he must be mistaken, for none of them bore even the slightest resemblance to Levi – the boy and girl were lovely, wide-eyed things, with full lips, warmly tanned skin, and well shaped noses that decidedly marked them as siblings. Neither of them contained any trace of the narrow angles and sharp lines of Levi's features. But that was ridiculous; he himself bore no more resemblance to Mike Zacharius, though both of them were fair complexioned. It was terribly narrow to presume that all of Levi's people would look like him.

Erwin paused, and then said, trying to be careful of his pronunciation, “Ashkenazim?”

Carla and the three Mystics all stared at him, and then the girl grinned widely, lifting her free hand to gently ruffle the owl's pale breast feathers.

“No,” she said. “Sephardim. Most of the Ashkenazi move further inward.”

“I see,” Erwin said, and smiled at her, still a bit hesitant. “That would explain... I know a young man from one of those communities.”

The girl nodded, still grinning, and turned to the older woman. She spoke again, this time at length. The woman glanced back at Erwin uncertainly, but she seemed to relax a little, even offering him a hesitant smile of her own.

Carla Jaeger tipped her head, frowning, though some of the hostility seemed to have left her. “I took you for a city man,” she said, with no particular indication as to what that meant to her.

“I am one,” Erwin said, bobbing his head a little. “But I have received a very small education in matters of the world.” He paused, and then added, his eyes straying to the three Mystics behind her, “I met a young Ashkenazi boy behind Sina, before I transferred here. He taught me a very small amount.”

“More than most,” said the girl neutrally. “You can almost say it right.”

“This is Miriam Nadel,” Carla send, holding out one hand towards the woman, though her eyes were still on Erwin. "Miriam has some land of her own, close to the West edge of Maria. A few acres. It's good and varied soil. She keeps an extensive herb garden, enough to stock most of Zhinganshina's needs. I buy them from her.” She turned a little, gesturing to the boy and girl. “This is her daughter, Rani, and her son, Avrum.”

Erwin drew himself up, and bowed politely to Miriam. He was pleased to see some amusement enter her worried expression. “Madam Nadel,” he said.

She nodded to him, though she remained regally upright. She was only a little younger than his own mother, he thought, though she wore her years a little more obviously. Her eyes were warm and brown, her mouth generous – he could see the resemblance between her and the children.

“A pleasure to meet you,” she said, her voice deep and a little husky.

“Likewise.” Erwin nodded to Rani and Avrum as well, noting the shy look on the boy's face as he did so. Rani, however, was undaunted, and she came forward to extend her free hand to him with great confidence. The owl on her other arm seemed more or less unbothered by her movement, though it turned its head to regard Erwin with predatory consideration.

“Nice to meet you,” Rani said as they shook. Her hand was small but well calloused, and her forearms were crossed here and there with long, slim scars. “This is Chen.” She jostled the owl slightly, and the bird spread its wings a little for balance. “You scared her a little, stomping around in the dark like that.”

“I'm terribly sorry,” Erwin said, eyeing the bird. There were delicate leather lacings tied around its legs, just above its talons. A length of thin rope was tied to each of these, and joined in the middle into a single lead, which Rani held in her thick glove, wrapped in a loose coil.

“Rani and Avrum raise hunting birds,” Carla said.

“Most people who can afford one don't like to bother with the little details of actually raising them,” Rani said, cheerfully. “That's where we come in.”

“Owls, too?” Erwin said. He'd had some mild experience with falconry at the hands of his father's friends, but his part in such excursions had usually involved tromping through the undergrowth alongside the dogs, whacking at bushes in the hopes of scaring up a pheasant or two. He had little knowledge pertaining to the birds themselves.

Rani shook her head. “We found Chen years ago with a broken wing,” she said. “I just take her out some nights to let her hunt for herself.”

“And she's eaten her fill now, I think,” said Miriam, pleasant but firm, “So I think we should be going.” She turned to Carla, and took both her hands, squeezing them between her own. Erwin looked away politely as they conversed – he couldn't be sure, entirely, but this time it sounded like a different language altogether than the one he'd heard before.

“Sure,” Rani said, and gave Erwin another little grin. “Come by if you want a bird, though. You look like you could afford one, Survey Corp or not.”

Erwin smiled thinly. “Looks are deceiving, I'm afraid. Goodnight.”

Carla remained where she was as the Nadels departed, cutting into one of the thick fields right off the path and vanishing shortly thereafter. Rani carried her owl with practiced and unconscious ease, lifting her arm up and lowering it down again to keep Chen from becoming tangled in the wheat.

Only when they were gone did Carla turn to Erwin with something approaching an apologetic expression.

“It's extremely difficult,” she said, “To be different, behind these walls.” Her eyebrows drew together a little, her lips pursing, as though she were turning more words over on her tongue, tasting them before they were shared.

Finally she went on, “I think it's a little less difficult, out here. But when I was a girl, there were more... types of people around.” She glanced up, meeting his eyes for a moment, and then looked away. “People around here don't really seem to make note of the color of my skin – or if they do, they don't care very much. But I have to wonder what they'd think if I weren't married to Grisha.”

Erwin said, quietly, “I think that people will do their best to find ways to be awful, when given the chance.”

“Oh, yes.” Carla's smile was grim and knowing. She looked away, across the fields, in the direction the Nadels had gone. “I'm not a Mystic, but my family comes from the same place they do. Miriam even speaks the same language my father did. The first time she addressed me in it, I almost cried.”

“It's kind of them,” Erwin said, “To share their herbs.”

“This is their community, too.” Carla glanced at him, and then brushed a bit of stray dirt off her blouse. “Why wouldn't they? In any case... I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't go around telling people about them. It's not a secret, really, but – there are some at the outpost, I'm sure, who wouldn't appreciate the efforts that go into getting them their medicines.”

“I won't.” Erwin smiled at her, hoping the expression was as sympathetic as he felt. It must have been, because she huffed at him good naturedly, slipping her hands into her apron pockets.

“You know,” she said, “My son is a big fan of Survey Corp. If you happen to see him trying to sneak into your training yard one of these days – do me a favor and disabuse him of the idea that it's something he wants to do, will you?”

“Madam,” Erwin said, finding himself somewhere between amusement and utter, painful seriousness, “I will do everything in my power to convince him otherwise.”

***

The strange encounter on the roadway, coupled with a few hours spent drinking himself silly in the company of a number of other, more raucous Survey officers, did wonders towards lightening Erwin's mood. It wasn't that he put the seriousness of his situation aside, per se, but somewhere around his third beer the idea of Levi being a danger to him at all began to seem ridiculous.

Surely Frisk was ill-informed. He was a nervous creature, after all, and Levi could be rather intimidating for those not acquainted with his particular brand of friendliness; it was easy to picture misunderstandings between them, based around Frisk's inability to comprehend Levi's personality, or even, Erwin thought fondly, based around Levi attempting to be funny. Something like that, yes – Levi had teased him, upon being questioned about their past relationship, and Frisk had taken him seriously. In either case, depending entirely on Frisk's interpretation of the situation was foolish.

Erwin had lost count of the number of drinks he'd had by the time he decided that he would speak to Levi personally in the morning, but it didn't seem to matter very much – even the sobering work that the walk back to the outpost through the chill night did for his state of inebriation did not dislodge the idea, nor did it sour the pleasant tone of it.

Levi was no mysterious entity, after all. He was human, a boy who had become a young man, and Erwin flattered himself that he knew at least a little of Levi's hidden heart. Levi had shown him glimpses enough, those years ago. Erwin thought it impossible that he might have so fundamentally changed that a reasonable discussion would anger him.

The yard was dark and deserted when he came in through the archway, the only sound the usual muffled horse noises and the sound of settling beams in the timber of the buildings. Erwin ducked in under the eaves of the office doorway, feeling a little awkwardly in his trouser pocket for his keys, his fingers still a bit numb and clumsy with drink. He laughed quietly at him himself, foolishly drunk like a freshly graduated trainee, but the laugh died in his throat as he finally fitted his key into the lock.

The door creaked open on its own.

Foreboding shivered over him. Had Frisk forgotten to lock the door behind himself when he'd left for the evening? Maybe. He'd certainly seemed distracted enough. But Erwin's instincts, muddled though they were at the moment, told him that wasn't the case.

Tense, now, he pushed the door open, turning his body sideways a little to present a smaller target. He'd learned that lesson by now, well enough.

The office entryway was dim, but moonlight streamed in through the back windows, illuminating Levi's face in grey and blue shadow. He was still dressed in parts of his uniform, but his jacket was gone, and his uniform shirt was unbuttoned to his collarbone, showing the pale skin beneath. He was standing between the entryway and the hall that led to Erwin and Nilsen's offices, and his eyes were on Erwin as though he'd been waiting there for hours.

“Close the door, Erwin,” he said, and Erwin did so, too stunned to disobey.

“Levi,” he breathed. “What are you doing in here?”

Levi tipped his head a little, the shadows sliding across his face and his exposed throat. When he moved, Erwin caught a glimpse of the scarring at his left breast, a few degrees shy of his heart – a mottled little dark place, bisected by a single slashed line. Where the crossbow bolt had been cut from him, Erwin thought numbly. He was chillingly sober, now, all trace of muddiness gone from his head and the heaviness fled from his limbs; instead now he felt light, too light, like any movement he made would result in a terrible unbalancing.

Levi came toward him in a calm, pacing motion, and Erwin's vision was filled by the roll of his hips, the easy sway of his shoulders and the movement of every finely tuned muscle in that small body, and he was half reaching for Levi even as Levi reached for him, seized him by his shirt collar and pulled him down into a punishing kiss.

Erwin tasted blood and with it, memory, and he groped at Levi's hair for a moment, trying to get a grip on something – anything – before Levi could draw away, but Levi slapped his hand down without even looking at him, seizing his wrist and shoving him back until Erwin's lower back hit the closed door with a noisy rattle of the lock. Levi's fingers dug into the soft flesh of his wrist and Erwin grunted at him in pain, twisting around to grab at Levi's own wrist with his free hand. Levi released his grip on Erwin's collar and his arm as Erwin seized him, and pulled back, enough to look up at him. His pale eyes were alight with something terrible and unreadable.

“Stupid,” he said, his voice low, and Erwin suppressed a shiver, instead pulling down on Levi's arm. Levi was pliant in his grip, but his pliancy did not extend to his expression, nor to the cadence of his words, which was measured, calm, and unkind. “You really are this stupid.”

“What have I done,” Erwin said, “To deserve your scorn?”

Levi's expression twisted for a moment, and his fingers twitched against the underside of Erwin's arm. He still wore the combat knife at his hip, Erwin saw, and he tightened his grip a little, his goodwill evaporating.

“You know him pretty well, then?” Levi said, a hint of strain in his voice – Erwin's grip on him was clearly painful.

“Who?” Erwin intoned, though he suspected he knew.

“Pretty little fuck, isn't he,” Levi said, without smiling. He lifted his head a little. “Not like me. Got some size on him, I bet. Probably got a real nice cock.”

“What sort of man do you take me for?” Erwin hissed. “I have no interest in Frisk.”

“He sure had a lot to say to you.” Levi winced just slightly as Erwin twisted his arm a little more, but made no move to free himself. “What did you talk about?”

“It's none of your business.”

“Must have been private, then.” Levi licked his lips, rolling his eyes to one side. “Does he whine when you fuck him, though? He seems like he'd be a whiner.”

“I am not,” Erwin hissed, his teeth painfully clenched, “Fucking him, Levi.”

Levi paused, and Erwin felt how close to true rage he was, how furious the accusations made him. He didn't even fully know why.

“I guess you aren't,” Levi said at last. He looked up at Erwin again, and gave his arm a small, insistent tug, not enough to free himself, only enough to ask that Erwin let him go. Erwin obliged, and Levi stepped back again, rubbing the bruised wrist with absent-minded thoughtfulness. Erwin wiped at his mouth, and found blood there, his lip punctured by Levi's teeth; he pressed his fingertips against the wound and tried to get himself back under control.

“I wouldn't blame you if you were,” Levi said, after a moment. He'd turned half away, and he looked back at Erwin again, the lift of his dark eyebrows giving him a strangely uncertain look.

Erwin dropped his hand from his face, the anger still stinging as much as the bite did. “And yet, I'm not,” he said, letting some of that temper come through in his voice. “Why? What do you want, Levi?”

“I wanted to see how easy it would be,” Levi said. His eyes were still on Erwin's face, as though searching for something. “To get you alone like this. Apparently, it's pretty easy. That's why you're stupid.”

“Fine,” Erwin said. “I'm stupid.” He could hear the faint tremor in his own voice and he hated himself a little for it, for this weakness before someone who could and probably would use any display of softness against him. “I'm foolish, and I lie to myself, and I let people control me – what else was it that you used to say about me? I'm not ruthless enough? I have no direction? Refresh me.”

Levi blinked at him, and didn't respond immediately. The room's shadows had crept across his face again, making it hard to fully see his expression.

“No,” he said, quietly. “He told you I came here to kill you, didn't he?”

“He did,” Erwin said, tight voiced. “Is it true?”

There was another long silence, and then Levi turned away from him, and went back across the entry, towards the rear wall windows.

“More or less,” he said, his back turned; his voice was so monotonous that Erwin could read nothing in him, now. “You should probably be a hell of a lot more careful from now on. Don't you think?”

He lifted his head, half turning to look back at Erwin; the set of his mouth was angry, his eyes cold.

“A hell of a lot more careful,” he repeated, and in one smooth motion he lifted the nearest window open and slipped out. Erwin heard his feet, brief and soft, on the grass outside, and then nothing, as though Levi had never been there at all.

Chapter Text

“You're in good form today,” Nanaba called, dangling one long leg off a balancing beam. “Are they finally going to let you back out on the field?”

Erwin paused, dangling by both arms from the crossbars he'd been doing his pull-ups on, feeling the sweat trickling down his back even in the cold morning air. “I doubt it,” he said, gritting his teeth with the effort of hanging on. He'd missed a day at his customary exercises, and he could feel the strain through every fiber of muscle along his neck and down to his shoulders, but he'd woken that morning with not even an ounce of mercy in him, not even for his own body. He'd slept lightly and uneasily, and had risen at last as the sun crowned the trees, to pace his way to the training yard in a tight coil of indignant frustration and lost patience. But tension was no friend to heavy exercise, and it had taken him some minutes of stretching and pacing to bank the fire in his head well enough for him to focus on the task at hand.

Nanaba had joined him not long after he'd started in earnest, as she often did. She was an early riser much as he was, and an agreeable training companion; her demeanor was naturally rather serious, but there was a genuineness to her that Erwin liked, and her talent in Gear and in combat was undeniable. She was a lanky woman, not unlike Hanji, but she handled her long limbs and broad shoulders with a natural, innate grace, and her calm in the face of danger was unparalleled, which had long ago earned her a spot as Mike's second in command. As officers of equal rank, she and Erwin enjoyed a degree of informality between them that was rare but comfortable, and he'd been grateful for it today, in his need for distraction from his own demons.

She was smiling at him now, mild, her short hair still mussed from recent sleep. “Shame,” she said. “We've hardly gotten to see what you can do.”

“I'm a master of the quick filing system,” Erwin said, pulling himself up again slowly, until his chin lightly brushed the bar. “And I excel in office organization.”

“Useful skills,” Nanaba said, a faint drawl in her voice, and Erwin smirked briefly as he lowered himself back down.

“We can't all be Captain Zacharius's greatest triumph,” he said, tossing his head to flip his bangs out of his face. When he looked up again, Nanaba was looking away, gently bouncing her extended leg against the platform.

Abruptly Erwin remembered his conversation in the Rose with Mike and Hanji. Wincing, he pulled himself back up, turning his hands around one after the other until he'd lifted himself up high enough to sit on the bar he'd been holding. Mike's relationship with Nanaba wasn't a largely gossiped about topic, but it was well known enough that she and Mike had been quite serious about each other for some time. The apparent unhappy tension between them was fairly clear, now that he was paying attention.

“I'm sorry,” he said, after he'd caught his breath. “I didn't mean that cruelly. Only that I know he's trained with you extensively.”

“I know you didn't,” Nanaba said, giving him a brief, tired smile. “I guess he told you?”

“He didn't volunteer the information independently,” Erwin said, and then added after a brief pause, “Are you all right, then?”

“I'm fine. So is he, honestly,” she replied, her shoulders slumping a little. “It's not as though he's done anything wrong. He's Mike.”

“If you're certain,” Erwin said. “It's not my business, I know, but – if there's something I can do...”

She looked at him a bit sharply, frowning. “I... no offense, Smith, truly. You're a good man, I'm sure. But it's not really something I can just talk about with anyone.”

“And not with Mike.”

“Oh, fuck, I don't know.” Nanaba rubbed her hand across her face. “I just don't know. I trust him with my life in the field. I've trusted him with a lot of things. I'm just... not sure, this time. I know that doesn't make a lot of sense.”

“It doesn't matter,” Erwin said, tucking his leg up against the next bar down. “You don't have to explain yourself to me. It's only...” He paused, and then smiled a little, feeling slightly awkward. “Well, I do consider you a friend. I'd like to be of some use, or at least comfort, if it's possible.”

Nanaba looked at him for a long moment, an odd little smile of her own playing on her lips. “I believe you,” she said, at last. “I do. And I do – I feel the same, Smith. You're a good man. A thoughtful one. I've heard about you and that Mystic boy.”

“Have you,” Erwin said, his defenses on the matter lowered, somehow, by the way she'd said the words. By the sound of it, she'd made something else of the situation that had little to do with shame.

She nodded. “Yeah.”

“And what do you make of it?”

“It gives me hope,” she said, simply, “That maybe you really could be a man worth trusting, eventually.” She got to her feet, balancing on the platform as easily as if she'd been born in a tree. “Come on, get back to it. I should get some work in too, before we assemble the foals for culling.”

His confused and slightly trepidacious response must have shown on his face, because she laughed. “My parents breed military horses,” she explained. “In the East behind Rose. After the foaling season we gather up all the colts and fillies and pen them up to pick through the gaggle for the most promising. The others get sorted out either for private sale or for butchery and factor. It's a little gruesome, but...” She shrugged. “We need the materials. Hides, and bones, and meat, and adhesives.”

“Not a bad metaphor, then,” Erwin said quietly, slipping off the bar he'd been sitting on to dangle by his arms again. A twinge of protest rippled up his left bicep, and he changed his grip slightly until his hanging weight was more evenly distributed. It still ached a bit, but there was nothing for it but further motion. He tossed his sweaty bangs out of his eyes, and swung himself forward to seize the next bar, maneuvering his hips for better momentum.

By the time Erwin had finished up on the last landing platform, however, his earlier dour mood had crept up on him once again. He retrieved the scrap of old toweling he'd brought with him and set about drying the worst of the sweat from his face and hairline, his eyes wandering back towards the main courtyard at the top of the hill. Most of the other soldiers were up and about, now, and a few of them were picking their way down to the training yard, new recruits and veterans mixing evenly.

Erwin surveyed the oncoming group, and spotted Levi among them without much surprise. Ral was with him, and both of them were dressed in light, loose tunics and thick leggings, their long uniform boots traded in for shorter, more flexible working boots. Levi lifted his head as they came to the yard's edge, and looked around. His eyes rested on Erwin for one brief, disinterested second, and then then flicked away again. Erwin felt a pang of brief anger, bright and flaring and irrational. It was a harsh and irrational feeling, a punishing one, shaped as nothing less than how dare you.

How dare you ignore me. How dare you put this into me, and then act as though it doesn't matter.

He grappled with himself then, not liking the forceful ruthlessness of that emotion, despite its ostensible righteousness. It tasted too much like real violence, like retribution. Whatever hurt and anger he felt towards Levi, however baffled he might be at Levi's turn against him and the violence Levi had promised him in word and action, the idea of harming him – really harming him – was repulsing. Even if his presence here was potentially fatal.

He exhaled slowly through his nose, pressing his hand against one of the bracing poles of the starting platform. Levi had passed by him without a word or another look, and was standing now under the training course. Erwin was stuck by the memory of him back behind Sina, in a borrowed uniform jacket a little too big for him, pacing the MP's training course like an actor memorizing lines; preparing to master, to embody, to perform.

He held his breath as Levi took a few easy, loping steps toward one of the sets of low bars, as he sprang up without any trace of effort and seized one bar in both hands and flipped himself up and over with natural ease, ending in a steady crouch atop it. The motion had been so swift and so flowing that a few of the Corp soldiers shouted in pleased surprise, and Levi stood up, the flexible soft soles of his exercise boots allowing his feet to bend and balance around the curve of the bar.

“Damn,” Nanaba muttered from behind him, her towel clutched against her chest as she watched Levi quick-walk along the length of the bar, then back again, footsteps light and sure. “Hanji wasn't lying about him.”

Erwin said nothing. Levi was surveying his gathered observers with a serious, thoughtful expression, his bangs hanging lightly half over his face, his lips faintly pursed. One arm was slightly lifted for balance, the fingers spread like a dancer poised to begin. The soldiers and recruits were watching him expectantly.

For a moment, Erwin's hurt and anger washed away; in the face of the graceful arch of Levi's neck, the loose curve of his spine, the poised strength in his shoulders and the perfectly gathered bunching of muscle in his thighs, it all seemed suddenly unimportant. He knew what he was about to see, had seen it now dozens of times, but he couldn't bring himself to turn away.

Levi looked once over his left shoulder, and that was the only warning any of them had. His turn in the direction of the next set of poles was performed in the same motion as his leap, the slap of his feet against the side of the bracing wooden slats immediate, and then he was on his toes on the two-pole split. He switched both feet to the right side and darted down the length of it, back curving up like a cat coiling to launch, arms lowered to either side of his body. The distance between his platform and the next was great, both in vertical and horizontal terms, and Erwin heard a ripple of sound as several of the observing soldiers drew in their breathes in tandem.

Levi jumped, without a moment's hesitation. His hands caught the edge of the landing platform, and his legs churned beneath him for a moment, gaining traction against the side, and then he was atop the platform in a low crouch. Someone in the group of onlookers whistled in appreciation, but Levi didn't even glance in their direction. Erwin recognized the look on his face, the intent, hunting look that said his mind was miles away from what he must have looked like, and instead focused only on getting from one point to the next. He leapt down from the platform to the next, seizing the upright pole protruding from it, and whipped around in a swift half circle, changing direction with dizzying speed to jump for one of the middle platforms instead of the next in the outer circle. His whole body moved, every muscle and limb employed in his efforts, not a movement wasted.

Erwin thought, with a deep ache and a sudden, awful sadness, that he had never seen anything quite as beautiful as Levi in flight.

He moved to retrieve his towel again, having had enough of anguish for one morning, but as Levi flashed by him again, something caught Erwin's eye, and he turned back for a moment, trying to get a second glimpse. Levi had paused at the top of a vertical pole, crouching low and balanced on one foot. It was a delicate little pose that must have demanded a large degree of muscle effort, but he perched there like he'd been born in a tree. His back was turned to Erwin and his loose collared shirt had slipped down his back, exposing the pale skin of his neck and shoulders.

Erwin stared, not entirely certain what he was seeing.

There was a mark of some kind, across the middle-base of Levi's neck, just above the nape. It was a fresh scar, vaguely the size of a small human hand laid horizontal, the skin around it pinked and scabbed in places. From Erwin's distance it looked as though someone had simply lifted a portion of Levi's skin right off his neck, and had not been cautious about it – there seemed to be gaps in the marking, in some pattern Erwin didn't recognize.

Levi left his perch in the next moment, and the mark disappeared again as his clothing shifted and his back left Erwin's view. Erwin swallowed hard, feeling his throat protest the violence of the action. He turned swiftly and seized his towel, pressing it to his face to dampen the discomfort that had washed over him.

He couldn't have reached around to do that to himself, he thought, his heart hammering in his chest. Someone must have done it to him. Why? Was he attacked? Did those men come for him again? Does it have something to do with why he hates me?

Erwin knew he would find no answers to his questions, not unless he asked them of Levi directly. That, he suspected, would be ill-advised, if not largely impossible.

Is that why?

Did someone hurt you, Levi?

A chill crept uneasily down his spine; he remembered one of the first things Levi had ever said to him, and the tired, aching resignation with which he had said it.

“What are you, the front of the line?”

It wouldn't do to let himself range off across the fields of wild suppositions, Erwin knew, but the memory put a little block of ice in his belly that did not thaw, even as he began to hike up the hill towards the barracks. If Levi had some outer cause, some driving rage outside of Erwin's own responsibilities towards him – if some hand had been laid upon him in the wake of Erwin's abandonment – then Erwin would have to make some kind of amends. Offer some kind of retribution, or comfort. For Levi's sake, and for no other, more selfish reasons, though selfish reasons were in heavy numbers with these thoughts.

At the top of the hill he stopped, and turned to look down the slope again. The day had dawned ominous and thundery, a strange combination of overcast but light, the wind heavy and cool but damp with the promise of a storm. He could see Levi now only because he was the sole figure atop the training course, but he could imagine the wind touching his hair and pulling at his clothes, the hunting look in his pale eyes.

How could you have let him go, Erwin? Why did you do it?

Because, he replied to himself, turning away again. Because he is a wild creature, and one of his own making, and breaking him for the sake of keeping him forever would be an evil I cannot begin to fathom. He has been earthbound long enough. If he wishes me dead, then that at least is a choice he has made alone.

He tucked his towel under his arm and crossed the yard towards the offices.

***

Frisk was at his desk in the front when Erwin returned from changing clothes in his office, but only just so, it seemed; he was ruffled and sleepy-eyed, and for a moment he only looked at Erwin with a blank and tired expression, as though he didn't even recognize him.

“Good morning,” Erwin said, trying to give him a bit of a nudge, and Frisk straightened up, eyes widening into something closer to genuine awareness.

“Oh,” he said, voice a little high pitched. “Sir. I'm sorry. I was – I didn't sleep well.” He ran his hands spread-fingered across the messy surface of his desk until they encountered a sealed leather courier case. “This is – a man dropped this off for you a few minutes ago. Well, it's for the Commander, really, but you know he'd just throw it on your desk without looking at it, so...” He smiled, though it didn't quite diminish the anxiety in his eyes.

Erwin took the file, and gave Frisk a thin smile. “Thank you. And – thank you, also, for your advice, before. It is well fixed in my mind.”

“I hope so, sir,” Frisk replied, his eyes sliding over to the closed office door as though concerned there might be prying ears at work nearby. “I really do.”

Erwin gave him another uncomfortable little smile and tucked the folder under his arm to return to his own office. He closed the door behind himself carefully, paused a moment, and then removed his key from his pocket and locked it for good measure.

He was fairly certain he knew what the package was before he even opened it, and he was proven correct when he unwound the leather cord and a small slip of paper fell out onto his desk. It was scrawled upon lightly in spidery whirls of ink, a handwriting he recognized well, by now.

I know this will go to you, it read. So I didn't worry too much about addressing it properly. Here is everything I could get. Good luck.

The note was unsigned, but it didn't need to be – Erwin had only been expecting one package.

“Thank you, Jonas,” he murmured, running his thumb along the smooth leather surface. He tipped the folder up gently, and slid the papers out onto his desk. Settling himself comfortably in his chair, he began to go through them.

Nearly an hour later he leaned back again, dropped both hands in his lap, and tried to sort out what he'd just read.

Rademaker had prepared for him records, copies, and notations on nearly every piece of major official paperwork passed between the Military Police and the Crown in the last three years. There were initial field records, examples of official royal seals and signatures, and even a few lessons on forgery for his perusal. Rademaker had made no notes, and written no theories himself, to avoid implication, but the amount of material he'd gathered was astounding. All put together, it laid a clear path of corruption, beginning with MP Marshal Embry and snaking its way through the higher ranks, onward to the patrons and financial backers, taking a few twists and turns through merchant and mining guilds, and ending up in a faintly nebulous place somewhere in the vicinity of the lower ranks of the royal house. He saw his father's name in more than one place, and for once the sight of it on paper made him smile.

This, here, was the work he'd been devoting himself towards, in between babysitting Nilsen and ordering more kitchen store supplies. The definitive proof of the corruption and forgery that had nearly killed him and Levi both, that had seen to any number of falsified criminal charges and executions, land seizures, embezzlement, and nepotism. Embry had made a hideous mistake, that day behind Sina, he thought, in telling Erwin what he knew, but his greatest mistake had been in not ensuring Erwin had died that day and kept his silence with him to his grave.

Everything he needed was finally in front of him. Everything he'd been quietly working towards, stuck slaving behind a desk miles away from anything useful or combative, was in his hands, and all that was needed now was to see it organized and put in front of the right set of eyes.

Erwin knew perfectly well which set of eyes it had to be.

Theo, he thought warmly. It's been a long time.

He had no doubts that Prince Theo would receive him favorably. It had been some ten years since they'd last seen each other, at fifteen and seventeen, respectively, but the things that had gone between them as boys were things that one did not turn one's back on. And Theo was a gentle soul, a kind if timid young man who had spent much of his life bullied about by his older and more important siblings. If there were any part of the monarchy that Erwin felt any degree of filial piety towards, it was Theo.

So far as he'd heard, the prince had largely devoted himself to liasoning between the common populace and the higher echelons of the Crown; he entertained all citizens with needs or complaints to address on a regular basis, and sought answers to their issues via his royal connections. It would have been easy for someone of Theo's social importance to avoid having any sort of proper work to do at all, and the fact that he'd stepped into such a position told Erwin a great deal about the continued strength of his character.

The strength of Theo's character, after all, was something he had become intimately acquainted with over the years. Erwin reached around with one hand and gently ensured that his shirt-tail was properly tucked, the movement long since automatic.

The question that remained now, however, was how to deliver the information. In person seemed the best idea, but getting away for long enough to make the journey back to Sina would be difficult, let alone doing it without alerting Nilsen or Frisk. But having it delivered, with all the pertinent information linked and outlined with all implications revealed and highlighted, would be far too risky – even the best of couriers were still human, after all, and outsiders couldn't be trusted with something this important. He would have to consider it more deeply.

He was tucking the papers back into the envelope when the rattle of the door handle made him jump. It was followed by an impatient knocking, as though the person outside was accustomed to interrupting; a moment later he heard Hanji's voice and he understood.

“Erwin! You're not doing something weird in there, are you? Mike wants to talk to you! It's important!”

Erwin got up and unlocked the door, pulling it open gently so as to help prevent Hanji from tumbling directly onto his carpet. She blinked up at him, eyes big behind her glasses. Her hand was still lifted to knock and after a moment she opened her fist and slapped him lightly in the shoulder instead.

“Come on,” she said, and turned around, clearly expecting that he would follow her out.

Outside, the new recruits had been assembled into neat rows. They had horses with them, one on either side, and by the look of both horses and recruits, not many of them were excited about this new union. The Survey horses, being notoriously high spirited and not yet attached to their new riders, were sidling and snorting, heads turning this way and that to try to get a look at their neighbors and to possibly gauge how easily it would be to get in a kick or two. Erwin spotted Levi a few rows back – he looked somehow even more consternated than the rest of them. The horse on his left side was a big brown creature – a gelding, Erwin would've guessed- who stood boredly in place, chewing a mouthful of some greenery or another that it had clearly torn away from the ground or a passing tree as they'd gathered in the yard. The one on his right was a dainty grey, with large, soulful eyes that were were fixed on Levi; a little of Levi's dark hair stuck up to one side, visibly stiffened by horse slobber. Despite himself, Erwin smiled a little, and pressed a hand to his mouth to hide it.

“Smith,” Mike said, coming towards him from the right. Erwin turned and saluted him properly, sensing the eyes of the recruits on them both, and for once Mike didn't admonish him. “At ease. Nilsen's gone into town for a bit, but he left some orders that concern you.”

“Yes, Captain?” Erwin said, shifting into a more comfortable stance.

Mike made a slight face, his body turned away from the watchful eyes of the recruits.

“Yeah,” he said, voice dropping just a little. “He said, 'to hell with it. I'm putting Smith on field duty.'”

Erwin's mouth dropped open. He couldn't help himself. “He... what?”

Mike nodded, glancing over at the recruits. “Yeah,” he said. “He wants you to pick out a squad, now. You'll be going on the expedition with them in a few days. Congratulations, Captain Smith.”

Chapter Text

A day later, any sense of anticipation or accomplishment Erwin might have felt had been thoroughly squashed.

It had nothing to do with his squad at all. Quite the opposite, where they were concerned. He'd remembered his conversation some time before with Oliver Radic, the gregarious young recruit who'd introduced himself personally, and he'd remembered, too, that Radic had had recommendations for squad members at the time. Radic hadn't been wrong, as it turned out, about his recommendations or in conducting himself with such confidence – Erwin had finished out with four of the top ten of the trainee group, all of whom were eager to prove themselves.

Radic himself was a lean but powerfully built young man who matched Erwin inch for inch in height. His skin was a warm dark color, his hair as black as Levi's, and his grin was as fast as his blades were. Lia Kaiser was a brunette, tall as well, but somewhat gangly about it – she looked like someone who should have been clumsy, and watching her at work, riding the wires with ease and relaxation, was slightly unsettling for it. She was soft-spoken but sharp eyed, and appeared to be listening with intensity to every word Erwin spoke.

Petra Ral was, indeed, only just fifteen. She was more petite than even Levi was, a pretty slip of a thing with a warm smile and an air of perpetual intelligent curiosity. As small as she was, and as young as she was, she showed no signs of being intimidated, either by Erwin or her new squad-mates, and her skill was clear from the moment Erwin put her on the training course. Despite that, however, he felt a little self conscious ordering her about; her youth gave her a fragility, to his perception, that he couldn't entirely ignore.

To round out his group of green, untested soldiers, Nanaba had transferred into his squad to act as his second in command. He'd been a little concerned about that, too, but she'd assured him that it was a mutual decision between her and Mike, and so he'd asked her no more about it. Truth be told, he was more than grateful to have Nanaba watching his back – she was an experienced field officer and a viciously competent warrior, and he was certain she would be more than capable of taking up his slack, should it become necessary.

All of these were positive factors, but they only served to bring home to Erwin the severity of what they would be doing in just a few days' time. Longing privately to be useful to the force while seated behind a desk covered in paperwork was well and good, but taking charge of a handful of untested and terribly young soldiers and leading them into almost certain peril under the pretense of a “reward” for his good behavior – as Nilsen had assured him, upon his return, that Erwin's promotion was precisely that – was chilling.

Even with that aside, further complicating Erwin's feelings on the matter was the fact that Mike was also assisting him in training his new underlings by working his own newly reformed squad alongside Erwin's, and Mike had selected Levi to fill out his ranks.

They'd spent the first day and evening of squad formation running formations. Levi had been in perfect, graceful form, sleek and arrow-sharp, like the extension of a blade, and Erwin had dreamed again that night, of blood and snow and loss, of hopelessness and black feathers as soft and silken as Levi's hair had once been under his fingers.

The increasingly histrionic nature of his internal turmoil wasn't lost on him at all. During training, Levi only looked in his direction when Erwin called out something for the entire group to hear, and he obeyed Erwin's orders with quiet indifference, a thing that only served to make Erwin feel all the more impotent, as though his voice were strangely muffled in a way only Levi could hear; a feeling like expectation unfollowed, as though he had taken a misstep somewhere and had never quite recovered.

It was, perhaps, the feeling of not being needed nearly as much as he'd thought he'd been needed. He watched Levi stand at attention during Mike's uniform inspections, watched him nod agreeably in response to orders and commentary, and the feeling grew stronger.

Considering it now, without the recent memory of Levi's lips hot and quick against his own, Levi's apparent goal began to seem strange to him again. Why threaten a target, only to ignore them immediately afterward? Erwin could gamely formulate some vague hypothetical motivations along the lines of wanting him to suffer in terror, or something similar, but nothing he thought of matched what he'd already experienced first hand with Levi. When Levi had struck out at him in the past, it had been swift, without warning, and that made good sense in terms of Levi's size and usual modus operandi – a quick strike, before the enemy had time to consider a better defense, especially if they were larger and more powerful than Levi was. As things stood now, it was wholly within Erwin's power to strike Levi first, on levels both physical and social. It didn't make sense, so far as Erwin was concerned, for Levi to allow such an imbalance to stand between them, if his intentions were so violent.

All of these questions and suspicions, he knew, were occurring at the worst of times. Whatever else was going on, whatever the truth of the situation between Levi and himself was, they were going out beyond the Wall. They'd be facing Titans within days, and Erwin did himself and his squad no favors by obsessing so over whatever was going on in Levi's head. And so, he did his best to set them all aside, in favor of focusing on his team. They warranted as much. Their lives depended on his capabilities and his attentions.

With Nanaba's patience and experience, it became clear that the recruits he'd chosen would make fine enough field soldiers, given some training, but that didn't make Erwin feel much better. He stood at the edge of the training course, watching Radic guiding Ral through her first lunge at one of the mock Titan dummies that dotted the course, and he tried to picture them all swinging into the faces of real, roaring Titans, gaping hot mouths full of blunt teeth and dumb hunger, massive hands swatting and gripping at their tiny bodies with terrible crushing strength.

Children, he thought, as Levi whizzed over his head – that, at least, was something he'd grown accustomed to previously. The majority of them won't be coming back alive.

He turned a little as Ral leapt down off the course nearby, and gave her a small smile of approval, trying to disguise his misgivings. She lifted her head, and snapped immediately into a smart salute, which did not entirely erase the pleased look on her face.

“Sir,” she said. “I hope you're pleased with our progress, sir.”

“I am, yes,” he said. “At ease, Cadet Ral.”

She relaxed, tipping her head winsomely to one side. “Thank you, sir,” she said, and without further ado she turned away from him, taking hold of the leather side-bag she'd brought with her to the course that morning and sitting down with it.

Erwin watched her curiously out of the corners of his eyes, but she didn't seem bothered by his presence there. “Lieutenant Nanaba said I should take a break,” she said, pulling out a wide, bound book, and a slender long draw-string bag. “I thought I could catch up a little, if that's all right with you, sir.”

“Catch up?” Erwin repeated.

Ral opened the book she'd retrieved. The pages were blank, free even of centering lines or scrawls of note. She paged backwards through it a little, and then a few things appeared; clean, careful drawings, in some kind of charcoal or possibly plumbago. Erwin blinked, and then shuffled closer, and Ral tipped the book up for him to see with a friendly smile.

On the page she'd opened was a perfect sketch of Levi. He was lying on his stomach wearing a trainee's short-sleeved tunic, one arm tucked up under his head, his face turned towards the viewer. His hair was a dark slash of color, a little longer in the back than it seemed to be usually – Erwin supposed it must have been drawn between haircuts – and he was smiling, a small and secretive expression, the light of it in his eyes conveyed even on the paper.

“He looks a little more cheery there than he usually does,” Ral said, her eyes on the page with an expression that could only be called fond. “But he was in a good mood that day, so I took some license.”

“You draw,” Erwin said, sounding a little foolish to his own ears. It was clear she did. But the girl didn't seem to find him silly – she tapped the paper lightly and turned the page over.

“It's a hobby,” she said, showing him the two page spread. There were other Levis here, as well, but less detailed – Levi sitting, Levi jumping, Levi in profile. But there were other people along with him, trainees Erwin didn't recognize, as well as what looked like ordinary country-town folk. Here and there were sketches of what looked like Ral's own right hand, the fingers flexed and spread or curled into fists or simply in relaxed stillness. All of them were remarkably good, and his estimation must have showed in his expression, because when he looked up again the girl was blushing furiously.

“They're beautiful,” Erwin said, with feeling. Ral laughed, a high, light sound, and touched her hand to her face as though to cover the redness.

“Thank you, sir,” she said. There was a confidence in her voice that her blush had belied.

“You'd make some competition for anyone behind Sina,” Erwin said, curious. “Why choose a soldier's life?”

Ral didn't answer right away. She'd turned towards him, the sketchbook open to a blank page across her lap and a fine graphite pencil that must have cost some good money in her left hand. As she spoke, her hand moved across the page, her hazel eyes lifting now and then to his face.

“I've been asked that more than once, sir. Not just because of my drawing.” The steady rustle of her pencil on the paper lay confident under her words. “Because I'm small, and young, and female, and pretty, according to some.”

Erwin half smiled, but didn't interrupt her.

“In all honesty, Captain, it's because I'm good at this.” She looked up at him, a moment longer than before, and then down at her paper again. The pencil moved to the other side of the paper. “I'm an excellent soldier, even at my age. And I wanted to do this. Do I need another reason?”

“No,” Erwin said, quietly. “I suppose you don't.”

“Levi said you were an understanding sort of man, sir,” she said, and Erwin was too surprised to react in a fashion that would have given away his turmoil. “I'm very grateful you've picked me.”

“The two of you – you're close, then?” Erwin said, trying to phrase himself as neutrally as possible.

Ral nodded, this time without looking up. “He's been very kind to me,” she said, her pencil pausing for a moment before it resumed its motion again. “It was hard for me, at first – a lot of the other trainees... they weren't mean to me, not really. But nobody wanted me for a sparring partner, I guess because they were afraid they'd hurt me, or something.” She smiled thinly. “Levi wasn't afraid.”

Erwin looked up at the course again. Lia Kaiser was taking repeated swoops at the straw Titan dummy, swinging around and bouncing off whichever pole or wall she encountered first to go in again for another hit. Nanaba was patiently coaching Radic on his rebound technique nearby. Mike and three of his new cadets were clustered around the feet of the Titan, watching Kaiser's progress, Mike obviously giving directions to all four of them as they did so. And Levi was standing on the highest point of the course, a single upright pole, balanced perfectly on one foot, his head turned up the hill towards the barracks like he'd smelled something on the wind.

Erwin turned to follow Levi's gaze. A few of the other cadets were coming down the hill, most of them carrying galvanized cases of what must have been the newly assembled 3D Gear, ready for the squads to use. As they reached the field they began to set the boxes down, with regular muted thumping sounds. He saw Frisk among them, clumsily lugging three cases at once and nearly unbalancing himself in the process as he tried to unload them at the side of the field. Once he'd dropped the boxes he looked up, caught Erwin's gaze, and waved half-heartedly, a sheepish smile on his face as he turned to trot back up the hill.

The boxes sat there on the grass, gleaming in the late afternoon sun, each of them a reminder of what was to come. There were perfect little paper tags tied between their handles, the names of each new recruit written out neatly in what was probably Frisk's handwriting. Little gifts of potential death, each and every one of them.

“Captain Smith?”

“Yes?” Erwin looked down at Ral. She gave him a hesitant smile of her own, and held up her sketchbook for him to see.

“What do you think, sir?”

She'd been drawing him, Erwin realized, which he supposed he should have known from the start judging by the way she'd been looking at him. On paper he looked different to himself, not at all the man he saw in mirrors and the reflection of passing windows; this man stood with confidence, calm eyes gazing out at some unknown point, his body language loose and relaxed but still strangely poised. It was made all the stranger by the remarkable likeness of the face – they were his features, yes, but set onto a man he had never seen, a man of power and internal ease.

Is this really what I look like to them? As though I have any idea what I'm doing, as though nothing frightens or surprises me?

“It's an excellent likeness, Cadet,” he said, and he was confident, at least, that not an ounce of his uncertainty showed through as he said it.

***

He ate his dinner that evening privately with Hanji and Mike in town, feeling a little too raw-skinned to chat about the upcoming expedition with those bright young faces. Hanji was in good spirits, in that particular fearsome way that she had about her just before a good fight. She'd moved into Nanaba's vacated secondary position in Mike's squad, and to all appearances it was a good match.

“We're going to be on the right flank together, as far as I've heard,” Hanji told him, gesturing in his general direction with her beer mug. “So Mike can keep an eye on you.”

“No offense,” said Mike, quietly.

Erwin shook his head. “I'm relieved, in all honesty,” he said, meaning it. “I only have the one foray under my belt, after all. I don't presume to know what I'm doing automatically.”

Mike smiled a little. “You can rely on Nanaba, too,” he said.

“Oh, yeah,” Hanji exclaimed, leaning back. “She's a beast in the field.”

Erwin chuckled. “I had thoughts, you know, of swearing to you that I'd keep her safe during the fighting--”

“And you've learned,” Mike finished for him, his eyes bright with affection and pride, “That she doesn't need protection, not from you or from anyone.”

“Yes.”

“How are you feeling about your cadets?” Hanji said, elbowing Erwin lightly. “What about that Ral? Is she as good as her scores say?”

“She is most definitely good,” Erwin said, swaying gently under the impact of Hanji's arm. “And most definitely only fifteen years old.”

Hanji scowled at him. “What do you take me for?” she said, huffing. “I'm just taking an interest in the younger generation.”

“The 'young, cute girl' generation,” Mike muttered, smirking against the rim of his mug. Hanji stuck her elbow into his ribs as well, which didn't seem to make much of a dent in Mike's impressively large frame.

Their banter, and Hanji's agreeable willingness to take it in the playful manner it was meant, did well enough to ease much of Erwin's tension. Nothing would erase the stomach-deep dread he felt when he put his mind to the next days' tasks.

He had been on a single mission, thus far in his strangely mundane career in Survey, and that had been early on, scarcely a week or so after his initial arrival at the outpost. Despite the considerable courage and willing he knew existed between the two of them, he and Hanji had stayed pressed close together, even after they'd opened the great Maria gate to let the tense and almost humming mass of terrified horses and soldiers out into the unknown world beyond. The sun had been high and bright that day, and he had seen the dark sweat creeping down Hanji's shirt-back, flowing out from under her uniform jacket in a slow spread, like a tide; he had felt the matching damp at the small of his back and under his arms, along his collar and temples, though the day had been balmy and pleasant. Both of them had startled at the sound of the gate fixing into its wheelhouse, and then there hadn't been time to think any longer.

Erwin didn't know what he had been expecting, beyond the Walls, beyond the only reality he'd ever known. The sun was high and bright, and it slanted down onto his face as they rode out from under Maria's shadow, and there had been grass and path under their horses' hooves, fields of tall and unkempt grass waving in the faint breeze, thick clusters of trees on the horizon, and everywhere, turning towards them in horrible uncanny unison were the huge, misshapen bodies, the empty staring eyes, the thunder of great feet against hard packed earth.

The first of them had staggered into their formation from the right, blindsiding the right rear flank, and Erwin had learned for the first time the sound of a human body being crushed in one swift impact. He had cried out then, the only time, and then Hanji had shouted something he hadn't caught and turned her horse into his, forcing them both to the left. The other half of the formation had pounded forward, away from the reaching clutches of the Titan, and Erwin's single glance back had shown him a brief image that even now didn't make sense to his eyes; a tangle of equine limbs and human clothing, flesh that could have belonged to either one, white bone gleaming in the pleasant sunlight.

It had been Captain Shadis who slew that Titan, a Titan that had crushed two of his squad members, but it had been Erwin and Hanji, joined in their union of terror and mutual need to keep the other in sight, who cut it apart at the heel tendons to bring it down, first.

A part of Erwin's training – a part of all military training, he supposed – had involved growing accustomed to the feeling of a blade cutting through real flesh, and they had practiced on newly slaughtered pigs from a local butchery. There had been something wretchedly different about the feel of a blade sliding into real flesh, something far apart from the papery resistance of straw and cloth. A thickness, that made him think of the pig before it had been relegated to this indignant usage, a living creature that ate and slept and breathed and probably felt things too, to some degree. The cutting of the Titan's tendons had felt precisely the same, and he had been fine. Fine for hours as they dodged the gripping hands and grinning mouths, as soldiers died around them in short abortive shrieks and terrible crunching noises, he had been fine until they were back behind the gate again and it had locked into place and he had slid off his horse and groomed her and stabled her and cleaned himself up, and he'd gone to the mess for the evening meal and the smell of meat had touched his nostrils and he'd turned in the middle of the doorway and staggered two steps before he'd vomited with such violence that he'd slumped to his knees afterward.

There were years between him and that day, now, but it gave him no comfort. He was fit and trained, still – he had continued to devote himself to physical and mental betterment, even in his state of idleness – and he practiced almost daily alongside Hanji, who offered him tips, replayed scenarios for him, and tried her best to bring home to his practice the reality of what she was facing.

But there would never be anything to prepare him, or anyone, for the Titans.

He put his beer to his lips. Hanji was explaining – rather calmly, for Hanji – some theory of hers to Mike, and he tried to pay attention, to lose himself in drink and the reassuring, comforting sound of his best friend's knowledge and certainty that, even though this was horrible, and even though they were hateful creatures, there was some way to end them, if only they searched hard enough.

After a few hours Erwin was well and truly drunk, and beginning to feel a little ill about it, so he excused himself, kissed Hanji on the cheek as she attempted to explain her most recent idea regarding potentially cutting swallowed soldiers out of Titan bellies directly – “It takes them at least thirty seconds to be burned too badly to survive, I think!” – and went out into the crisp night air.

The chill refreshed him somewhat, and chased a degree of the wooziness away, though the uncomfortable sensation of being unbalanced remained. He walked slowly down the township's hill, hands tucked under his jacket for warmth, shoulders clenched together to suppress his shivering. He wished he'd brought his overcoat.

“What are you doing?”

The first thing Erwin thought of, at hearing a voice from above, was his memory of the Titan, the looming, terrible grunting from above, and he staggered back from the building he'd been passing. There was a balcony on the second floor, that wrapped the entire front and alleyway side, and Levi was standing at the corner bend, his elbows on the railing, looking down at Erwin with a neutral expression.

Erwin knew he should have been afraid, probably, that he should have turned back to call for Hanji and Mike, perhaps, that he shouldn't have been out here alone when he knew one of the most capable and serious fighters he'd ever met had every intention of seeing him dead.

Instead he lifted his head, the motion making him faintly dizzy, and he smiled.

“Drinking myself silly, apparently,” he said, conversational. “What are you doing?”

“Hunting,” Levi said, steady. He shifted a little; he was still wearing his training gear leggings and the soft-soled boots, and all of it hugged his small body closely, outlining him in the moonlight. He lowered his head, still watching Erwin, his dark hair like an ink slash across his forehead. “Looking for you.”

Erwin saw the knife at his hip, and saw, too, that there was another tied to his left bicep, a smaller piece he identified as one probably meant for close range stabbing. But he felt calm, now, with the remembrance that he had already faced something just as terrible as Levi could be, and he had come back alive from that one, too.

“Whatever for?” he murmured, still smiling.

Levi's face changed a little, his eyebrows lifting and his lips pursing in apparent confusion.

He said, “You're drunk.”

“I believe I said that, yes,” Erwin said, slipping his hands back into his jacket. “Have I displeased you?” He was rewarded by a brief scowl, the most emotion he'd seen on Levi since Levi's arrival, and it encouraged him. “I have, haven't I. What's the matter, then? Does it take the sport out of it?”

“The sport,” Levi repeated, his pale eyes finding Erwin's own. He sounded a little baffled, which in his current state Erwin could only find amusing.

“The sport of the hunt, Levi,” he said, and took his hands back out from under his jacket to spread them wide. “Am I too easy a target like this? You do enjoy a challenge, as I recall.”

Levi straightened up, drawing back as though he'd been struck. His mouth was slightly open, but then it closed again, his lips pressing together. He leaned forward again, and put his hands on the railing, and then he was slipping his legs up and over the barrier, dropping down to the street in a single fluid motion. His boots made little sound on the old cobblestone. He grabbed at Erwin's arm; Erwin tried to draw away from him, but his reflexes were badly slowed, and Levi yanked him around instead, using Erwin's unbalanced state to control his greater weight as he towed him into the alleyway to the side of the balconied building.

“In the dark, is it,” Erwin said, staggering along, “A private affair, I see--”

He was cut off as Levi shoved him into the building's wall, one hand braced against his chest and the other gripping him by the lacings of his trousers, and despite himself Erwin grunted. He could feel the living heat from Levi's body at this range, like a little ember in the chill, and his body and mind were not reaching an accord about the level of danger he was in.

“You're fucking around alone and drunk in the dark,” Levi said, a low heat in his voice that wasn't friendly at all, “After what I said to you? You really do want to make this easy.”

“Why do you want to make it difficult?” Erwin said, a little irritation entering his own voice. “Why the games, Levi?”

“Aren't you the master of games?” Levi said coldly. His fingers had curled into Erwin's waistband and they were warm against Erwin's belly, and Erwin was too unbalanced to be ashamed of the little surge that went through his cock. “Aren't you the clever one? Weren't you supposed to be better than this, Erwin?”

“Better than what?” Erwin looked at him, looked at the way his mouth curved in some mixture of anger and frustration, the heaviness of his brows as he glared up at Erwin, and for a moment he thought he recognized something, something he'd tried to put out of his mind as solidly as he could; for a moment he saw the weeping, heartbroken boy he'd left behind to the care of strangers and an uncertain future.

But Levi didn't answer him. His face had twisted with some heavy emotion Erwin couldn't entirely identify, and then he'd slipped his hand into Erwin's trousers and gripped his cock with a sure and steady hand. Erwin let his breath out in an explosive, short swear, steam pluming over his head, and he put his shoulders back against the stone behind him to steady himself as Levi stepped into him and pressed down, hard.

“Fuck,” Erwin hissed again. He'd forgotten how swiftly he could get hard, how rapidly the blood flowed when something he really, truly wanted was so close at hand. Levi's palm was warm but his fingertips were cold, and his mouth was open, and Erwin leaned down to him and kissed him with force and with little kindness, nearly tasting the small surprised sound Levi made as he did so.

“Better,” Levi said at last, in a low, tight growl, and he let Erwin go so abruptly that Erwin groaned at him in frustration, his knees trembling.

“Don't,” he said, sensing that Levi was preparing to make his leave again, to disappear back into the night and leave him half-hard and pathetic in the cold. He reached out with a shaky hand and seized Levi by the shoulder, turning him around again. Levi's eyes were wide and startled, his lower lip already a little swollen from the scrape of Erwin's teeth.

“Finish,” Erwin said, voice heavy, commanding, “What you started, Élie.” He gripped hard, digging his fingers into the soft flesh, and Levi's mouth came open again in a silent gesture of wanton pain.

Erwin pulled him forward, and Levi's hand found his cock again easily, and for several seconds Erwin could only close his eyes and moan. He wasn't startled when Levi pressed his forehead against his chest; it seemed a natural movement, as did the encircling arm he wrapped around Levi's body. He could feel how cold Levi was, could feel him shiver in helpless gratitude for the shared warmth, and the movement of Levi's hand quickened again, fiercer this time.

“Good,” Erwin said, rough voiced. His fingers found Levi's hair and it was as soft as he remembered it. When his fist curled there at the base of Levi's neck he felt the rough edges of the scar he'd seen before, and he felt Levi's shudder as he traced the strangely square shape of it. He pressed his fingertips into the obviously tender and still healing flesh, and Levi whimpered, that peculiar high little sound Erwin remembered of him, from the times before when Erwin had given him pain. “Good.”

“Erwin,” Levi said, breathless, his fingers tight and punishing around Erwin's cock, his voice filled with a strange sorrow that Erwin did not understand. The words that followed Erwin's name were rolling and sharp edged, words as fluid and natural as any of Levi's graceful acrobatics were, and just as alien to him. Levi dug his nails into Erwin's flesh, and Erwin felt the scrape of Levi's teeth against one of his nipples through his shirt, and he came with a jerk into Levi's hand and half over him too, moaning low and aching in the back of his throat. He doubled nearly in half with it, and gripped at Levi for balance. For a moment Levi held him up with all his small strength, fists against his shoulder and chest, and through the haze of alcohol and recent orgasm Erwin felt Levi's mouth soft and sweet and secretive against his cheek, felt the shudder and catch in Levi's breath that wasn't arousal, and then Levi was pulling away from him, away from his reaching hand and his half formed plea for Levi to stay.

“Élie--”

But Levi had turned, not to climb the building again, but out into the street, a little lone shadow slipping away in near silence down the cobblestones towards the distant and silently waving wheat fields, and Erwin didn't have the strength to recapture him, just as he hadn't had the strength to hold onto him.

Weakly Erwin fumbled with his trousers, grateful that most of the mess had been contained within, and tried his best to rearrange himself into a man resembling someone respectable. There were louder feet on the cobblestones, and voices he recognized, and he turned around to lean face first against the wall in the position of a man ridding himself of the night's drunken demons.

“Erwin?” Hanji called, peering around into the alley at the sound of his shuffling, and to Erwin's relief her expression changed into nothing more than a look of sympathy. “Oh, shit. I knew I should've cut you off back there. Can you stand?”

“Yes,” Erwin said, a bitter taste in his mouth, just as though he really had just been sick. “I'm sorry. I'm just a little wobbly.”

“It's fine.” Hanji put her arm around his shoulders and helped him back onto the street, where there was no sign of Levi, nor any sign that he had ever been there at all. Mike was standing off to one side, and Frisk had joined them at some point, though he looked just as lost as he usually did.

“Oh, Captain,” he said, when he saw Erwin, obviously concerned. “Are you all right? I heard a few of you were up at the pub getting a drink, and I thought I'd come by, but you'd already left when I arrived...”

“I'm fine,” Erwin said, though he leaned against Hanji as heavily as he could without tipping her over. Most of the strength was still gone from his legs, and he felt queer and hollow, the feeling of Levi's lips against his cheek still with him, like a brand. “Just a bit too much excitement for me, for one night.”

He let them lead him, limping and pathetic, back to the outpost, and spoke no further word to anyone for the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

“The pipes are frozen through,” Mike said, looking up from where he was leaning over a wide ceramic bowl that he had clearly stolen from the mess kitchens. Erwin, his head still under the opened spigot, grunted back at him, the weak trickle of frigid water dripping through his hair. The male officers' communal bath had been his last hope for some degree of morning wash-up, as the single pipe in his own single room had also been unresponsive.

“There's not much point in cleaning up too much, anyway,” Mike said, holding out a spare razor. Erwin straightened up, twisting the spigot closed again, and took it. Mike's stolen bowl had a level of water in it, and he'd brought a tin shaving scuttle with him, a puck of mostly un-used shaving soap tucked into the top holder. Erwin peered into the scuttle; little bits of steam rose up from the waterspout.

Mike smiled slightly. “I boiled this myself.”

“Thank God you did,” Erwin muttered, dunking the brush into the spout to let it heat up. His eyes ached with exhaustion, and though he had no mirror to study, he knew what he'd see – blotchy patches of pink skin, darker around his eyelids and the corners of his mouth, hair lank and unkempt, a fuzzy dark golden haze lining his jaw. “I can't stand a rough face.”

“The Titans don't care,” Mike said, toweling the last of the lather off his own face, having trimmed his beard neatly into place. Erwin glanced at him, but Mike's face was unreadable, and so instead he turned his attention to his own shaving, all thoughts of casual morning conversation gone from him.

The two days prior had been spent in field training of ever-deepening seriousness, Mike and Erwin's squads working together in preparation for their upcoming partner work on the expedition. Erwin had expected more strange and evasive distracting behavior from Levi, after their brief encounter in the township alleyway, but Levi had seemed oddly relaxed around him, at least on the training field. Erwin had even grown brave enough to call out orders and advice in his general direction as the formations entwined, and he'd been pleasantly surprised by Levi's responsiveness, and by the return of the intense focus that he'd come to know as Levi's trademark. It was like a weight had lifted from both of them, and though it was no comfort to Erwin – the future still lay too heavily on his mind – it allowed him the space to gain control over his uncertainties.

With his heart somewhat lightened, what he'd learned was that his squad was deeply promising one. Radic's ability with the Gear was impressive, his athleticism unmatched. Kaiser struck with such power in her blades that it was necessary to re-enforce the dummy Titan's neck after three passes from her. And Ral, Erwin could see now, showed every sign of having learned personally from Levi what it meant to be a capable acrobat – her movements were her own, but her methods were his, and performed with the grace born of long and determined practice.

All three of them were personable in their own ways, though Kaiser was a little shy, and didn't speak very much. Radic took Erwin's form criticisms seriously, asking him frequently for improvement pointers, and Ral had taken to sketching him unobtrusively at every chance she got – she intended, she told him at one evening meal, to eventually produce an oil portrait, and Erwin surprised himself by the level of pleasure he felt at that declaration. There was a vast difference between filing and papers and working directly with young soldiers preparing to risk their lives against terrible odds, and the fact that all three of them were pushing forward without flinching filled him with a slow and subtle sense of pride he hadn't experienced before.

Whatever happened on the expedition, Erwin felt that he could at least say his squad had done their best.

After he'd shaved and cleaned himself up as best he could with minimal water, he returned to his single room bunk, changed into his uniform, and then headed to the stables to see about his horse for the day. It was early morning still, the sun just barely up, the air crisp and a little too cold to be comfortable with only a uniform jacket, and Erwin was glad for the Survey cloak around his shoulders. The barn wasn't heated, and he spent a few minutes breaking the ice in the horses' water buckets and refilling them again with what he could gleam from the troughs. A number of them rewarded him with grateful, dripping nibbles, their flexible lips spilling almost as much water as they drink and leaving slimy patches on his jacket and hands. He endured this with good natured understanding – the business of horses was a messy one no matter what the profession, and one learned early to accept honest affection where it was shown.

He'd gone to attend to Liebe – his choice for the day – when Levi came in through the wide doorway that opened onto the pasture. He paused when he saw Erwin, but only for a moment, and then he went over to see to his mounts as well.

Erwin turned to watch him openly. He could see the still lingering hesitation in Levi's hands as he reached up to pet the big chestnut, the faint flinch as the animal turned to lip at his fingers in search of some kind of treat.

“They take getting used to for everyone,” he called, quietly.

Levi looked over at him, his brows furrowed deeply. He was pale, Erwin noticed, paler than usual, his lips a little colorless. Erwin paused, and then smiled at him slightly, trying to be reassuring.

“I suppose you've not had much prior experience with them.”

“No,” Levi said, blinking slowly. His hand came to rest on the chestnut's neck and the horse began to snuffle at him curiously. “I didn't get very far with them in training, either.”

“You'll do better,” Erwin said. “With practice.”

Levi's eyes narrowed a little, but it wasn't in some expression of suspicion or displeasure. It seemed more to be the precursor to a smile, the look of a man who wanted to acknowledge a kindness but couldn't find the strength to do it.

“Everything's like that,” he said. “Just practice.”

“Élie,” Erwin said, and allowed himself to watch and enjoy the way the name evoked such uncertainty in Levi, a faint shiver he couldn't at all suppress. Levi's shoulders rounded for a moment, his eyes flicked away, and Erwin saw him shift, flighty and unbalanced. “What's going on? Why do you hate me so much?”

Levi didn't reply to him immediately. He looked out towards the creeping daylight, hand sliding across his horse's neck.

At last he said, his voice low and a little pained, “You're making this really fucking hard for me, Erwin.”

“This?” Erwin said, and Levi looked around at him again, almost startled, like he'd been caught at something he shouldn't have been doing. “And what is 'this'? What is it that's changed? Perhaps I flatter myself, but I was under the impression you thought very highly of me. At the very least,” he added, a little heat in his tone, and he watched Levi's jaw tighten a little, some tiny sign of hurt or frustration.

“Do you really think that little of me?” Levi said.

Erwin blinked, taken aback by the heaviness in his voice.

“You think I'm some weaselly little fuck who'll jump at the chance to murder somebody just because someone dangled a little money in front of me?” Levi turned to face him squarely, dropping his hands to his sides.

“Money?” Erwin repeated, his stomach growing cold. This was an unexpected turn. “What do you mean, money?”

Levi scowled at him. “You think you've been alive this long because they forgot about you, up at Sina?” he said. “I told you, you're stupid. Stupid to trust anybody, stupid to assume you can just take care of yourself forever. You're not good at this, Erwin.”

“Then explain it to me.” Erwin stepped forward, equally frustrated, feeling his temper rising a little beyond his control. “No more games, no more admonishments with no context. Tell me what you're up to. Are you really here to kill me?”

Levi backed up as Erwin approached him, his spine arching like an offended cat's.

“No,” he said, almost hissing. His hands flattened against the stable door, his chin lifting, every inch of him screaming that Erwin should not touch. “No. But I need you to do something you've already asked me to do a thousand times, something I've done whether I wanted to or not. Something I had no choice about.”

“What's that?” Erwin said, soft now. There was nothing kind in the calm that settled over him; it was a predatory feeling, a possessive one. “What is it you want from me, Élie?”

Levi's throat bobbed, a flicker in his eyes that Erwin couldn't read.

“I want you to fucking trust me,” he said, and Erwin could hear the real hurt in his voice. “I want you to understand what it was you did to me, back then.”

“Did I hurt you?” Erwin said, voice hardly more than a whisper, unable to keep the horror out of his tone. But Levi shook his head with such vigor that his horse snorted and drew its head back inside the stall again.

“No,” Levi said roughly. “Fuck, no.”

“Then--”

“Trust me,” Levi said, his voice calm, but not so calm that Erwin couldn't hear the pleading in it. “Erwin. Please. Please trust me. We're going to fucking die out there today, probably. This is the only thing I want.”

Erwin had no words for that immediately. He stood there, awkward and confused, Levi still pressing away from him as far as he could get without burrowing into the wood. Erwin could see how heavy his breathing was, the sickly green tint to his skin, the sweat along his hairline. Abruptly, then, he remembered Levi's terror – he remembered Levi in his arms, small and shaking, monotonously explaining how every part of his life always came back around to giants, murderous mindless creatures against which there was no defense; he remembered that Levi was small and had not yet seen the full extent of the life he'd chosen, and it occurred to him with a sickening sink that Levi had, one way or the other, chosen this life because of him, that he himself was the architect of Levi's terror now, Levi's path to a probable, horrible death at the hands of his greatest fear.

Levi made a small noise of protest as Erwin pulled him forward and embraced him, but didn't struggle. Erwin felt his nose press into his breastbone, Levi clutching for a moment at his jacket before his hands fell away again. He tangled his fingers in Levi's hair for a moment, and then kissed his temple solidly before letting him go.

“You'll live,” Erwin told him. Levi's eyes were overly bright, the only sign of whatever struggle he was experiencing to keep himself under control. “You'll live. I swear it.”

“Trust me,” Levi repeated, in a harsh whisper.

“I'll try,” Erwin said. Levi looked at him, as though measuring the worth of Erwin's efforts, and then nodded, very slightly.

“We'll talk,” he said. “After we get back.”

***

The formation was fully assembled by mid-morning.

Mike and Shadis were the designated field leaders, as Commander Nilsen did not participate in excursions. What right that gave him to remain a Commander, Erwin didn't know, but there was little protest to make about it, save for meeting Shadis's perpetually sour face with an angry one of his own, to which he received a knowing shake of the head. They were on their own.

Erwin's squad arrayed behind him neatly, and he was saddened by everything he saw on their faces, the pale and sickly uncertainty, the fidgeting of hands and mouths and horses all signifying the degree of scarcely controlled anxiety that walked among the soldiers like a restless ghost. Erwin looked at Mike, whose eyes were pointed straight forward, waiting for the company to finish its positioning, serenely unfeeling.

“Erwin,” Hanji murmured from his left side, as though she'd sensed his thoughts, “It'll be all right. We'll protect them.”

Erwin looked to his left, past her, where Levi sat straight on his big chestnut, the very picture of distant nausea, his hands clustered close to the animal's withers with little bites of mane poking up between his fingers. His shoulders were tense and pressed close together, and Erwin felt his heart go out to him.

Ride fast, he thought, though of course Levi couldn't hear him. It doesn't matter if you become great or not, Élie, it doesn't matter if you kill or if you weep or run in terror. Just ride fast, and live. Please live.

“Hanji,” he murmured, sensing her turn towards him in response. “I love you quite a lot, you know. I hope you know.”

“I know, you big oaf,” she said, without a moment's hesitation, a deep and joyful warmth in her voice. “I know. I love you too. Don't piss your pants and embarrass me out there, okay?”

The gate began to crank open, cogs thudding into their slots with heavy, final beats.

Shadis' voice rang out above the company.

“Due west, give voice when you see something!”

They began to trickle out of the gate, beginning in nervous trots, and then stretching into canters and then gallops, leaning over the necks of their horses to brace themselves. Erwin found himself in a sea of green cloaks and stylized wings, the sun momentarily blinding, the smell of crushed grass and the crisp rot of dead leaves almost overwhelming.

The plain beyond was hilly but largely visibly for miles, and they were making for an as of yet unexplored stand of old growth trees, a cloud of dark and green on the horizon. The landscape had a number of small copses dotted here and there, and the company did its best to swerve towards them at every opportunity, trying to keep some modicum of height about them for when the inevitable attack came.

The first shout came from the right forward advance; two Titans, staggering on twisted and stumpy legs in their direction, neither of them in any kind of hurry. Behind him Erwin heard Ral moan in fear, and he drew in his breath to calm himself.

“Erwin,” Nanaba called. “We're cutting left.”

They swerved in a straggling curve, half the formation missing Shadis' signal thanks to the attention stealing advance of the Titans, and Erwin bit his lip as three scouts split off from the rest, each of them new and untested, none of them in control now of the mad dashing of their mounts.

“Oh shit,” Hanji said, and leaned down over her bay's neck, pulling him right again, pounding towards the stragglers.

Erwin glanced at Nanaba. “Can you--”

“I've got them,” she snapped. “Go!”

Erwin pressed his heels into Liebe's side, thanking her internally for her speed and her willingness to perform for him, always. He caught up with Hanji quickly and together the two of them bore down on the strays. One of them was screaming, a high, unrelenting sound of mindless terror. Another had dropped her reins and was clinging to the horn, desperate to stay on her horse.

“Tree cover,” Hanji yelled, not bothering to gesture; Erwin saw it, coming up rapidly on the left as the Titans surged into place behind the running horses, close enough now to make clumsy grabs at the terrified soldiers. He leaned back, bouncing his tailbone painfully against his saddle, twisted around, picked a tree at random and fired. The surge into the air was a long one, and it made his stomach drop dizzyingly, but it gave him time to turn in midair, measuring the distance between him and the nearest Titan.

It was a ten meter or so, a long white beard covering much of its scrawny chest. One of its arms was larger than the other, big and meaty, and its mouth gaped open in anticipation, clouds of hot steam escaping into the cold air. It swiped at soldiers again, and nearly tripped one of the horses. Erwin felt his downswing approaching and, knowing the risk he was taking but knowing there was little choice, he sighted the Titan's shoulder, turning himself around with his own inertia, and fired. The hook struck the Titan with a terrible meaty smacking sound, but it didn't seem to notice, intent as it was on its prey.

Erwin surged towards it, swallowing bile the whole way.

When he came to the apex of his swing he turned again, and fired the other wire directly at the nape of the Titan's neck. The feel of its flesh under his boots as he landed was awful – it was too hot, and somehow too fleshy, like meat already cooked.

“Erwin!” Hanji screamed from below, but his focus was only for his opponent now. He drew both blades and brought them down at once onto the Titan's neck, and then was knocked aside as the Titan tried to slap him away with its shriveled hand. He fell most of the way towards the ground, was caught by his still embedded wire at the last minute, and released it, dropping to the grass in a clumsy roll.

The Titan half turned in a surging arc, but was sliding towards the ground at the same time, its neck split beyond repair. The stray soldiers scattered as it hit the ground with a thunderous sound, and Erwin staggered to his feet, already whistling for Liebe, who darted towards him, whinnying shrill and frightened. As she galloped up to him he reached out in a motion born more of faith than of true skill and seized the saddle horn, swinging himself back up and nearly impaling himself on it in the process.

“Fuck,” Hanji yelled, right behind him, but there was a buoyant, malicious glee in the word. “Fuck, you showed him!”

Erwin twisted around to look at their handiwork. Both Titans lay smoking and still, dissolving into the hillside, and the stray soldiers were ahead of them, galloping frantically back towards the formation and the waiting supervision of their squad leaders.

“That was good,” Nanaba called to him, as he fell back into step with the others, “For a desk jockey.”

“I practiced on the coat rack quite a lot,” Erwin replied, eliciting nervous giggles from the rest of his squad. He felt giddy, somewhere outside of his own body, as though he'd just watched the events unfold rather than participate in them at all himself. He looked up towards Mike's squad, several meters away from them now, but could only make out Hanji, who had returned to intently watching the horizon.

There were more Titans, now, their attentions gained thanks to the commotion and screaming, waddling in their uneven gaits in the direction of the tempting noise. The Survey horses were true to their breeding, at least, and with no more stragglers to tend to the company neared the little forest in rapid time. The trees weren't as large as those that grew in the forests to the east of Zhinganshina, but they were still enormous, and clustered thickly together, creating a darkness between them that made it hard to see.

As such, none of them spotted the gaggle of Titans lurking beneath the branches until they were much too close.

“Company, pull up!” Mike yelled, real panic in his voice, but a number of the front lines were too close to stop. Horses skidded, shrieking in fear, and several scouts were thrown free of their saddles. The abrupt stop at one end sent a ripple of collisions up through the ranks – a number of those who had time to see what was coming fired off at the trees above, and managed to zip up into the upper branches, out of death's reach, but others weren't so lucky. Screams and moans began to ring out as Erwin twisted around to take stock of his squad.

“Get into the trees,” he said to them, and saw Ral nod, her face white as paper, her fingers fumbling at her firing mechanisms. Then she was gone, soaring in a graceful arc up over his head and those of the waiting Titans. Radic was after her, and then Kaiser, and Erwin met Nanaba's eyes, feeling his own panic rising.

“What do we do?” he said, lifting himself up into his stirrups, braced to move the moment there was a clear shot.

“Nothing,” Nanaba said, her teeth gritted, color in her fair cheeks. “Nothing but save our asses. God dammit. God dammit. God – Oh, fuck, Erwin, look--”

Erwin turned in time to see the huge hand coming directly for him, and he slapped his firing mechanism more by instinct than by intent, not even sure where it was he'd aimed. He felt the wire strike and sink in and then he was flying in a dizzying rush, certain he was hearing Hanji yelling at him from somewhere far away. He grabbed frantically at branches as they whizzed past, trying to slow his progress, trying to save himself--

--and then stopped in mid flight with a sickening impact to his stomach and abdomen, a heavy branch taking him right in the mid-section. He gripped at it weakly, his vision swimming, greying out at the edges, scrambling to pull himself up. He couldn't breathe, couldn't force the air back into his lungs. He was too low, he knew he was too low, dangling from the outstretched branch like meat hung to cure, and his fingers dug frantic into the slippery bark for purchase. He could hear the heavy grunting of dumb interest just beneath him, and horribly beside him as well, felt the tree swaying as massive hands pressed against it for balance, could feel the unnatural heat of the end on his back and his neck.

Something flew past him, and then there was the fleshy slapping sound of struck skin. Erwin opened his eyes in time to see Levi landing next to him again, the Titan who'd been closest staggering backwards a little from the impact of Levi's boots against its face, its nose crushed. Levi wobbled on the branch for a moment, and Erwin nearly lost his grip.

“Kill it,” he croaked, and Levi glanced at him, wild-eyed and utterly colorless, his lip already bleeding from where he'd bitten it through. “Kill it.”

Another Titan surged towards them, and Levi turned towards it.

“Piece of shit,” he snarled, mouth twisting, pale eyes blazing with hatred, balancing up on his toes like a hawk preparing to strike. “I dare you.”

He leapt off the branch, and the Titan followed his swoop with moaning, swaying interest, grabbing half-heartedly at him as he swung up onto the next tree.

Erwin began to struggle again, trying to get his feet up under his badly numbed body. He heaved as hard as he could, and managed to get a boot under himself, and then there were other hands on him, human ones, pulling him up and steadying him, leading him back towards the trunk where he could regain his bearings.

“Are you okay?” Radic said – it was Radic, holding him by one shoulder, his eyes very big. “Captain, can you hear me?”

“I can, yes – I can hear you,” Erwin managed, gasping. “Where are the others?”

“I'm not sure.” Radic's eyes roved the treetops frantically. “My Gear misfired halfway up this tree. I had to climb the rest. It's totally broken.”

Erwin opened his mouth to respond, but a piercing scream split the forest, mingling with the sound of splintering wood, and he jerked upright again, bracing a hand against the tree trunk to lean over.

One huge Titan had knocked one of the trees clean over, and a number of soldiers were scrambling in their direction, looking for new shelter. One of them was Hanji, her face grim but steadier than most.

“Thank God,” she called, as she landed next to him. “The last I saw of you, you looked like you were about to sprout wings.”

“Levi,” Erwin said. “Where is he?”

Hanji looked at him for a moment, and then she craned her neck out over the branch.

“There,” she said, pointing. Then her eyes grew wide. “Oh, shit. I think his Gear's broken.”

Levi was dangling from a lower branch on a tree a ways from their own, his wire totally detached from his Gear. He'd wrapped the untethered end around his lower arm instead, the steel tip embedded in the tree, and was trying to pull himself up by force, his teeth gritted with effort and terror. Below him was another Titan was standing, watching him with dumb interest, its mouth slightly agape. Once in a while, it would lift itself up on its toes, open its mouth wide, and snap at him, almost lazy.

“Fuck,” Erwin muttered, looking around frantically for some clear path to make his way over. “Fuck.” He edged his way close to the trunk again, feeling his way with numb fingers, his eyes locked onto the scene.

He watched as Levi managed to pull himself up to the branch at last. Levi straightened up, wobbling badly, and ran the length, leaping for the next tree, obviously trying to find some way to get higher. Most of the branches at his level, however, were out of reach of anything but Maneuver Gear, and he ended up back where he'd started after a frantic loop, hugging the tree's trunk in desperation.

The Titan beneath him followed his movements idly, unimpressed by Levi's acrobatics, and then it reached up and slapped the tree Levi was perched on with an open hand, shaking it like a man trying to fell ripened fruit. Levi staggered, unbalanced, and Erwin could see his fingers digging into the bark.

Erwin fired his own wire into a tree nearby, zipping over with a short, quick maneuver.

“Levi!” he shouted, bracing himself and leaning out towards him with one hand outstretched. “Come on! Come to me! Just come to me!” It wasn't that far, he thought. It couldn't be too far, not for Levi, who could leap any distance, climb any obstacle, make short work of any barrier placed before him.

Come on. Come to me. Please come to me.

Levi pressed himself against the trunk, turning to look up at Erwin with wide and terrified eyes, the blood on his mouth made stark by how white he'd gone, and Erwin was startled and frightened by the mindlessness of his fear, by the disconnected, glassy cast to his gaze, as though he couldn't see Erwin at all. He watched as Levi's hands slipped away from the tree trunk, and he stood alone on the branch, nothing to steady him, and no rope to catch him. He watched Levi sway, sickeningly, saw his eyes roll as his terror overtook him.

Levi toppled backwards off the branch in a limp freefall, and the Titan below merely opened its mouth and caught him, hardly more than a mouthful, whole. Its throat worked, once, swallowing, and Levi was gone.

Chapter Text

There had been high glass windows overlooking one of the palace courtyards on the western side of the royal compounds, positioned just so in order to catch the early morning sunlight. It had been a welcome construction during the dim months of winter, allowing warmth to reach where fireplaces could not, but it had caused mass confusion and tragedy for the populations of little birds who lived in the carefully groomed bushes and trees. It wasn't uncommon on a cold morning for Erwin, crossing the yard in order to fetch Theo for their morning lessons, to find them on the manicured pathway leading to the side-arch. Sometimes they were only stunned, their tiny chests rising and falling at a pace much too rapid for him to mark, and Erwin would set them on the outer windowsills, out of the reach of wayward barn cats and other such predators. Most of the time, however, when he knelt to touch them, their eyes were clouded, their necks loose and broken, their clawed little feet clenched in death throe, and that was the image that came to him in a flashing second; the sudden and unstoppable ends of small birds at the hands of human convenience.

He leapt down to the branch that Levi had perched on only moments before, and the Titan turned slowly to regard him with huge, limpid eyes. It was swaying slightly, its belly gravid and distended, the skin discolored and patchy, and Erwin remembered Hanji's voice, distantly, in the hurricane's eye that was his mind.

“It takes them at least thirty seconds to be burned too badly to survive, I think--”

Erwin jumped, his blades clearing their sheathes without thought, without focus. He felt as though he were moving in slow motion, as though some force outside of him was operating his body and his movements. One wire connected with a tree beyond the Titan's right shoulder and he swung down directly into its fetid, hot stomach, his feet going out to brace himself on the landing. The Titan leered, and he saw one of those massive, crushing hands swinging down towards him, and he turned his body sideways and plunged both blades into the Titan's stomach with all his strength.

The Titan gave a short bellow, like an angry bull, and stumbled, the hand flying back to catch itself against the nearby tree trunk. Erwin could hear people shouting now, words like what are you doing and Jesus Christ he's going to get killed and the neck, it should be the neck but of all of it was far away, at the opposite end of a long, lightless tunnel. The Titan's flesh was horribly thick, and when he wrenched his blades to the side he gave his own angry roar of pain as the movement nearly dislocated both his shoulders. A terrible smell and heat erupted from the crevasse of flesh as it split open, a gaping red-orange mouth of a wound. The body was soft and fleshy with fat and sagging skin, and Erwin felt his boots sinking in the harder he braced himself. A thick, viscous liquid the color of rotted fruit began to spill out, covering his blades and splashing up his boots and he strained as hard he could, throwing every ouch of strength he could gather against his straining blades. The liquid smoked and steamed as it began to melt at his boot leather. The Titan was howling, an awful bone-jarring sound, a sound of frustration and animal hunger, and Erwin felt bile rising in his throat, hot with disgust and rage.

The lower lip of the wound sagged abruptly and a torrent of the awful burning liquid gushed out, the Titan's stomach deflating like an emptied water skin. The smell was stomach turning, the innard juices dotted here and there with large, shapeless masses that must have once been human. Erwin's blades tore free and he fell the last handful of meters to the ground, his still grounded wire dragging him sideways and away from the steaming, oozing spread. He fought with his harness, struggling to get back to his feet, and rolled over in time to see the Titan's hand casting a final, fatal shadow over him as it began to come down.

A flash of green swooped past him, and through the cracks between the Titan's massive fingers he saw Nanaba, her blades angled low and sure, swing down and slash at the Titan's wrist with all her might. The Titan tried to rear back, but it was too large and too slow, and Erwin ducked down again and rolled away as the now detached hand landed directly where he'd been a breath before. When he raised his head again he heard Hanji's voice, raised in a furious, wordless battle cry, followed by the now familiar sound of cutting blades severing that collagen thick flesh.

The Titan staggered backwards again, its head dropping forward on its now severed neck.

Erwin turned away. He scrambled up from his hands and knees, half stumbling, half crawling towards the steaming, rancid pool that had coated the forest floor. There were parts of people in that mess; scraps of clothing, limbs and half melted torsos, things too twisted and eaten away to even imagine as having once been alive.

When he plunged his hands into the liquid his skin began to tingle and then to burn, steam rising as it caught at the sleeves of his uniform jacket and began to eat away at the material, but he ignored the pain. His fingers ranked through the opaque ooze, searching, grasping, finding parts, finding heads with wide and staring eyes and mouths twisted and still frozen in the death rictus of terror, finding nothing alive and nothing familiar.

“Please,” he rasped, through clenched and grinding teeth, hardly aware that he'd made a sound at all. “Oh, Please.”

He plunged his hands in again and touched the thick wool of a Survey cloak. He didn't pause to identify what it was he'd gripped; instead he pulled hard, the pain in his shoulders flaring again, and Levi's small body came free, rolling out onto the blanket of dead leaves and twigs below the trees. The sound and the vibration of the dead Titan hitting the ground startled him, but did not stop him from gathering Levi up into his arms and darting back out of the way of any further violence. Erwin pressed his shoulders up against the trunk of a tree and tried to catch his breath as he looked down at his prize.

Levi was coated in the thick ooze, and it had eaten away much of his uniform, the thick leather of his trousers and the heavy wool cloak the only thing protecting his body – much of his chest was bare, and his legs as well, and Erwin could see his exposed skin reddening angrily as it burned. He was limp and still in Erwin's arms, his head heavy in the crook of Erwin's elbow. The hood of his cloak had enveloped his face at some point during his fall, and Erwin peeled it back, his fingers aching and blistering in places where sustained contact with the Titan's innards had occurred. Levi's face was still, his eyes closed, the awful liquid dripping slowly out of his mouth and down his chin and sticking even to the delicate skin of his eyelids. It was impossible to tell if he was breathing or not.

The sounds of Titan combat were fading away. Erwin began methodically to wipe the now cooling goo away from Levi's face. He brushed his thumb beneath Levi's nostrils, and then, after the pause of a breath, feeling terribly invasive, he tipped Levi's head back over his arm and scooped two fingers into his mouth. He came up with a gob of thick and viscous blockage, and he slung it to the ground in disgust. Levi began to cough and retch weakly, and Erwin turned him as best he could, trying to get gravity to help him, making stupid mindless soothing noises as one might to an infant.

Hanji landed close to him, closing the last few steps between them in two strides. “You need to get him clean,” she said, her voice tight. “That shit hardens after a while. I don't know what it'll do to him if that happens.” Her eyes were locked on Levi, who'd gone still again in Erwin's grip, almost panting against Erwin's forearm. “Jesus Christ. Why did you do that?”

“I remembered your theory,” Erwin said. The hoarseness of his own voice startled him. “About there being time to retrieve someone. You were right.”

“I guess I was.” She tore her eyes away and looked up at him. “Look, take your team and get back to the barracks. Radic and Kaiser both have broken gear, and you're all burned up. Mike agrees with me. Go back, take care of him. We'll handle the rest. Just go. Fast.”

***

Erwin had been grateful for Liebe's speed before, but now, with Levi curled small and insentient against him, wrapped tightly in Erwin's cloak to cover his exposed body, she seemed all too slow. He tried to be patient as best he could, urging her on with his heels and cradling Levi's head against his breast, his whole body tense and alert for some sign of movement or awareness.

Nanaba had stayed behind to help with clean up, and she'd kept Ral with her. The girl had been weeping when Erwin saw her, and the sight of Levi, motionless and battered, had only made her cry all the harder. Kaiser, too, looked as though she had been weeping, but she got obediently back on her horse when it returned to her and had fallen into step behind Radic, the three of them pushing their mounts to maximum speed.

Erwin didn't know how long he had. Eventually, he knew, as Hanji had said, the liquid covering Levi's body would begin to crystallize, and after that he was well certain there would no longer be the tiny sliver of hope he had now. Levi was breathing, at least, though unresponsive, and under such circumstances Erwin would take what he could get.

It took nearly an hour to reach the gate again, where the startled sentries, roused by Erwin's demanding bellow, let them in with no more than a few quickly aborted questions. Erwin had no time or emotion in him for dealing with anything but the task at hand, and he allowed it to show on his face; their passage back to the outpost was unhindered thereafter.

When they reached the outpost courtyard, however, Erwin remembered.

“Fuck,” he growled, and the frustration in his voice clearly startled Kaiser, who had just slipped off her horse next to him. “Fuck, fuck, fuck – the pipes. Oh, Christ. There's nowhere to wash him – the pipes are frozen.” The thought chilled him, reached through the preternatural calm that had settled over him as he attended to necessary things in the middle of the chaos. To come all this way, only to have to watch Levi die slowly anyway, eaten away at by rancid, foul-smelling Titan refuse, made him feel ill. He looked around wildly, catching brief sight of Kaiser's pale and confused face, and Radic, who stared back at him with wide eyes.

“Fuck,” Erwin repeated, swallowing so hard his throat clicked painfully.

“The doctor's house?” Kaiser said, her voice very soft. Erwin lifted his head.

“What?”

She averted her eyes as though ashamed. “Go to the doctor's house,” she said. “You know, sir. The Jaeger house. They have – I know they have provisions for freezes, since they have patients all the time--”

“Thank you,” Erwin breathed, and turned Liebe onto the path out towards the town without another word.

There were lights on in the Jaeger house, candles burning against the mid-afternoon dim. Erwin didn't bother to tie Liebe off at the post outside – he slipped off her back and left her to idle in the deserted street, clutching Levi securely against himself as he strode up the porch steps, using his boot to kick at the door in place of a knock.

“Carla,” he called. “Carla, it's Lieu – It's Erwin Smith. I have an emergency.”

There was a long pause, and then the sound of footsteps came towards the door, which opened. Carla peered out at him, a faintly suspicious squint on her face, but it melted away into genuine concern when she saw the burden Erwin carried.

“Inside,” she said, and held the door open for him.

It was a fairly large house, as houses in the area went, but much of it was clearly taken up by doctoring work. The kitchen was visible from the entryway door, and its ceiling was clustered tightly with drying herbs and other things more mysterious, a faint smell of camphor and smoke hanging about the place. The main room was a simple one, a family dining table set close to the stairway, and there was a young boy not more than five or six sitting there, looking at Erwin with big, curious hazel-green eyes.

“I'm so sorry,” Erwin said, his words hitching a little – his calm had worn off, now, and left him alone with weakness, sorrow, and fear, and he could do nothing but stagger through the necessary information and try not to shake too hard, lest Levi be dropped. “I'm sorry – he's a new cadet, there was a field accident – I think he's hurt, but he needs to be washed before we can do anything else--”

Carla gave him an odd look, but she nodded.

“Eren,” she said, turning towards the boy, “Take him to the back and show him how to work the faucets.”

Eren nodded, and got up from the table, beckoning for Erwin to follow him. They went through the kitchen, the house's smells widening into an entire pharmacopeia in Erwin's nose, and turned down a narrow hall at the other side. At the end of the hall was a medium sized room, a series of heavy metal pipes snaking their way up out of the floor and down into a wide enameled bathtub, easily large enough again for a man Erwin's size. Against the opposite wall was a clean, man-sized wooden table, unadorned, and a large rope-tied straw mattress bed.

“This is our examining room,” Eren said. His voice was small but lively, and his brow was furrowed with concern. He padded across the room and opened the faucets. Water spilled forth, steam rising up immediately, and surprise trickled through Erwin's tunnel vision for a moment.

Eren must have seen the look on his face, because he nodded at the water and said, “It's coal. We keep it burning during the day, in case someone comes by. I do it myself.”

“Helpful,” Erwin said, knowing it was a weak thing to say, but unable to muster further. The boy seemed to be accustomed to the worried and grieving, however, because he only nodded.

“When he's clean, put him on the examining table and my mom can look at him,” he said. Despite himself Erwin detected a faint note of defensiveness in his voice, and his impression was confirmed when the boy added, “She's just as good at things as my Dad is, you know.”

“I believe you,” Erwin said, smiling wanly.

Eren nodded again, as though they'd come to some kind of an accord, and left, closing the door matter-of-factly behind him.

For a moment Erwin only stood there, numb and exhausted. He looked down at Levi, whose head was tipped back over his arm, hair matted to his forehead and the long line of his throat exposed, slick with grime and reeking of death and rot, and his eyes fell on the scar slashed across his collarbone. He remembered enjoying Levi's helplessness, in the past – enjoying his frustration, his moments of willing surrender, the heat in his eyes when he'd realized how much of him Erwin held in the palm of his hand. But this was a different helplessness, an awful, wounded one, something broken and terribly vulnerable.

He went forward, and laid Levi gently down on the table, detangling him from the cloak and setting about trying to extract the tatters of Levi's uniform from his body. There were ugly burns in Levi's bare flesh, one in particular across his hip that went deep into his flesh – Erwin glanced down at the straps still wrapping his own body and realized it was the proper location for one of the metal harness buckles. One of his wrists was bruised nearly to the elbow in wrapping, snake-like welts, and several of the nails on his right hand were torn to the quick, painful evidence of how hard he'd fought to stay upright. To stay alive. Erwin's hand went to Levi's face, touching his cheek carefully, and he brushed his thumb against the split in Levi's lower lip, which still bore the imprint of his teeth.

He felt, he realized, responsible for this. For the state Levi was in, both now and before, for the strange distress and anger he'd clearly been possessed by. He had saved Levi's life, back then, but it had been under the expectation that Levi would become – or already was – a terrifying fighter, a creature devoid of human weakness, who wouldn't flinch in the face of any danger, no matter how insurmountable. And Levi was special, that was undeniable – talented, fierce, and more than willing – but Erwin had been shown more than once the ways in which Levi was all too human. Levi had told him outright how afraid he was, had shown him his own small preview of what had happened today, of what mindless terror would do to him. Levi had begged for his protection, for his hand and his command, and Erwin had turned him away. One way or the other, he thought, Levi had had no choice but to return to him, to come and live the life he had clearly dreaded more than anything else – whether to kill him, or for some other reason, there had been no alternative.

Erwin had done this to him.

He paused, and touched Levi's face again, wiping another errant smear of goo away from his cheek. Then he stepped back, and began to remove his own uniform.

When he settled them both into the hot water, it was with Levi resting against him, his head above the water to stop him from choking on it. Levi stirred a little as the water touched his skin, nothing more than the faintest of whimpers against his shoulder, and Erwin stroked his back in reassurance. His fingers touched the aberration on Levi's neck, then, and he paused, then shifted slightly, pulling Levi's head gently to one side to look down at it.

It was a a wide scar, a series of three characters, vaguely squared, evenly and neatly spaced as though carved deliberately into Levi's skin. It seemed relatively fresh. He had no concept of what they were meant to read, but he knew immediately that this was the sacred writing of Levi's people. He had seen Levi write in it enough times to recognize the vague shape of it. Gently, Erwin traced a fingertip across the marks, remembering how Levi had shivered when he'd touched them the night in the alleyway, as though they were some secret lock, meant only to be opened by his hand.

Golem, he thought, suddenly, and cupped his hand protectively against the back of Levi's head. A word that brings a golem to life. A word that can kill it again. Is this something I'm meant to know? Have I missed something, Élie? You can't tell me now, I know. But perhaps it's my responsibility to figure it out for myself.

He took up the strongly scented peppermint soap that had been left at the side of the tub, and he set about scrubbing the mess off of Levi's body. Levi was pliant, as unresponsive as a rag doll, and it made maneuvering him slightly difficult, but Erwin kept his patience. He was, after all, responsible for this. He had done this to Levi, and instead of guilt, instead of regret and sickness and apology, he knew, now, that his true duty was to take ownership of it, instead. He washed Levi's hair, marveling as always at the soft texture of it, and scrubbed the sweat away from under his arms and between his legs with a steadily deepening reverence. He had come to recognize, by now, the sensation that replaced lust, at times, when it came to Levi and Levi's body, that familiar feeling of warm serenity, and it was with him now. The only thing he felt was pride.

“You did well. You were brave. You were brave where it counted.”

Oh, you were, Élie. You were. And you'll be brave again.

It no longer mattered what Levi's intentions towards him were. He was prepared to take control, one way or the other. For Levi's sake, and his own.

Chapter Text

“I'm fairly certain he hasn't hit his head,” Carla murmured, her tone distracted and her eyes focused on her task. Erwin was leaning with his hip pressed against the examination table, his arm around Levi's bare chest, holding him for Carla's inspection. She had Levi's bruised cheek in her palm, and had gently pried open one eye, ignoring the strange and discomforting look that Erwin had given her. Now she was holding a lit beeswax parlour match closely to Levi's face, moving it slowly back and forth, clearly looking for something.

“How do you know?” Erwin said, just as quietly. They'd both been speaking in hushed voices since Carla had come in, as though afraid to wake a drowsing sleeper. Even Eren, who had followed his mother into the room on quiet kitten's feet, was silent, perched on a small stool nearby and watching the goings on.

Erwin had been uncomfortable with the examination from the start, though it had nothing to do with Carla's skill or the necessity. He wasn't overly fond of doctoring, himself – the invasion of body and bodily autonomy that came with it, the handling of person and condition with clean and clinical hands. It had felt right, holding Levi, attending him, cleaning him until he no longer smelled of his awful ordeal, until only fresh blood welled from his scattered wounds, but once the bathing was done Erwin had laid him on the table and felt immediately protective. Levi was no object to be manhandled as though he felt nothing, and despite Carla's absolute professional demeanor and the calm gentleness with which she touched him, the entire act felt vaguely obscene.

Carla, however, had paid his distress no attention, which on some level Erwin knew was the right thing. She knew what she was doing, he told himself, as her fingers brushed Levi's wounds and bruises with care and understanding, as she felt between his thighs without a flinch or a flicker of expression – her only words to him of warning for this having been “there are important arteries here, we need to make sure he's not been cut or burned.” Eren had shown no discomfort, either, and had stood beside his mother, responding now and then to her quietly murmured command in a language Erwin did not recognize to hand her some instrument from her bag of supplies. By the time Carla asked him to lift Levi up for further examination, Erwin had grown rather numb to the embarrassment of it all.

“His eyes,” Carla said, and turned Levi's head slightly for Erwin to see. She brought the match close to the opened eye, and Erwin saw the pupil contract sharply, though without focus, a small blotch of ink in the clear sea of grey. “Usually with a serious head injury, the eyes don't focus properly under light. There you are,” she added, much more softly, as she let Levi go. Her hand touched his hair soothingly for a moment and Erwin relaxed somewhat, noting the care in her gestures.

“How did he get those letters on his neck?” Carla said, after she'd gestured Eren up off his stool, and received a little glass jar of something golden and clear and viscous. She was frowning, not looking at him.

Erwin shook his head. “I don't know. He had them when he arrived, I think. Do you know what they are?”

“It's Hebrew,” Carla said, turning Levi's wrist over to dab some of the liquid against the welts on his arm. “I don't know what it says, though.” She glanced up at him, her expression a little troubled. “I thought at first it was the result of some kind of attack.”

“An attack?”

“They don't mark themselves at all, you know.” She laid Levi's arm down again. “No tattooing, or deliberate images like this. Not usually. So when I saw it, I thought maybe someone had done it to him. Some kind of...” She trailed off, and lifted her shoulders, looking for the first time a little uncomfortable.

“I understand,” Erwin said quietly. “I thought the same, when I first caught a glimpse of it.”

Carla nodded, looking away, a stiffness to her posture that hadn't been there before. It occurred to Erwin that in this regard, he was an interloper – he was a man who would blend nicely in with the upper echelons of their society, with his height and his coloration and his obvious commonness. He had only the faintest of insights into the world that Carla and Levi inhabited, a world where a single glance at either of them would tell any sighted eye that they were different, outsider, unwelcome. He supposed that Carla herself had been on the receiving end of such attentions, at some point in her life.

“But,” Erwin went on, trying to extend the message that he was relatively understanding, at least, “It's done very neatly, isn't it? Someone who'd hurt him to... send a message... they wouldn't know how to properly shape the letters, would they?”

“That was my thought, yes,” Carla said, and Erwin was gratified to see her relax a little. “They're beautifully done, for all that they're scars. And they've obviously been cared for since, though it's also obvious that the scarring's been encouraged. So he must have done them – had them done to him – himself.”

Erwin looked down at Levi, whose head was nestled comfortably against his collarbone. Throughout the examination he'd shown not the slightest sign of awareness, or of resistance, and Erwin's trepidation was returning to him in full. He knew well enough what happened to people who fell unconscious and didn't get back up after short periods of time. There were always accidents during training, or after graduation – the human body was a fragile machine, and Levi had been in his state of insentience for hours, now.

“Then,” he said, outwardly calm, “If he isn't injured beyond the burns and bruises, why won't he wake up?”

Carla didn't answer him right away. She pulled up the clean linen sheet she'd brought in with her to cover Levi, and then she turned and looked at Eren, who was sitting on his little stool again, watching them.

“Eren,” she said, “I want you to listen to this very closely, now.”

Erwin blinked, not certain of the connection to his question, but Eren immediately put on a rather impressive scowl, as though he knew what was coming. Carla looked at Erwin again.

“Tell me what happened to him.”

Erwin avoiding shooting the boy a sidelong glance. “We set out on a minor foray,” he began, trying to mentally retrace their steps, feeling the familiar stomach clenching tension that always rose whenever he paid too much attention to the detail of their field work. “We were – we had a goal in mind, we usually do. Levi is one of our new cadets.”

“The Ashkenazi,” Carla said. “The one you mentioned.” Her expression gave nothing away, and Erwin merely nodded.

“Yes. I'm the one who – encouraged him to enlist. Which was foolish of me,” he added, suddenly, feeling his train of thought slip away from him. “It was foolish, and cruel.”

“Why is that?” Carla said quietly, watching him. Erwin shook his head, feeling abruptly helpless.

“He's terrified of them,” he said, looking away. “Terrified. Everyone is, of course they are, but he's – it's different, for him. He's so – he has such control, Carla, all the time. He's such a measured and careful person. He's not unkind, but he has himself so carefully in hand at all times--” his voice was shaking again, beyond his control. It was only fractionally to do with Levi. He, too, was remembering the awful fluid on his hands, the stink of death, the screaming of horses and soldiers alike. For a moment his voice left him and he struggled with it, trying to swallow against the impassible lump in his throat, until Carla put a warm hand on his arm.

“Erwin,” she said, and there was such a gentleness in her voice that it silenced him. “It's all right.” She gripped his shoulder, too, steadying the arm that still held Levi half-upright. “It's all right. This is a safe place.”

“He was so afraid,” Erwin said, fighting with all his remaining might not to feel ashamed of the sound of the grief and fear in his own voice. “I was afraid.”

“Fear isn't weakness,” she said. Her fingers were strong, her voice level and firm and assured. “Fear is a gift. Fear keeps you alive, Erwin. Don't be embarrassed.”

Erwin closed his eyes, and for a moment just stood still, trying to regain his composure and control. Carla held onto him, unwavering.

“Fear doesn't unmake a man, Erwin,” she said. “What unmakes a man is how it's dealt with. You're not stupid. You know that.”

“Yes,” he said, a bit hoarse. “I do.”

“You saved him from something, didn't you?” the knowing in her voice, the sympathy and the faint hint of gentle admiration brought back the words he'd lost.

“Yes,” he said, swallowing at last. “As I said, he was terribly afraid. And I – I am responsible for him.” This came out decisively, and brought some certainty back with it. “I am responsible for him. He stepped in and saved me from an attack, and then was trapped – his Maneuver Gear malfunctioned badly, and he couldn't retreat. One of the Titans was – playing with him. Like a cat with a bird.”

There was a small breathy noise from Eren, at this, but Erwin didn't look at him.

“I tried to go to him. He's small – if I'd reached him I could have carried him with me easily. But as I got closer, I think it... I think it simply became too much for him.”

“He fainted?” Carla said, her eyes flicking to Levi's still face. Erwin nodded.

“Right off of his perch, and into its mouth. The Titan swallowed him.”

“Swallowed him?” Eren said, his voice high pitched with some cross between admiration and horror. “It ate him? And you saved him?”

Erwin glanced at the boy this time, and was surprised by the honest admiration in his eyes. Eren was leaning forward on his little stool, mouth agape, looking at Erwin as though he hadn't just been on the verge of tears moments before, and instead had strode in, fully uniformed and confident, to proudly tell his story.

“I did,” Erwin said, after a brief pause, and he smiled weakly. “Yes. A friend of mine had a theory that – well, I won't go into the specifics, but I moved quickly, and cut him from the Titan's stomach. This is the state he was in when I retrieved him.”

“Wow,” Eren said, and he smiled back at Erwin with a surprising amount of warmth. “You're a good friend.”

Erwin didn't quite know how to respond to that declaration, so he was grateful in more ways than one when Carla interrupted them.

“It's not his head, I don't think,” she said, and then she peered at Erwin with a look of intense scrutiny. “He's comfortable with you, isn't he? Does he trust you?”

“I hope so,” Erwin said, quietly. “I would like to hope so.”

“Then I suggest you take him to the sick bed, over there--” she gestured to the tied straw mattress, with its thick, inviting blankets of fur and cotton, “--and lie down with him a while.”

“And... do what?” Erwin said, thoroughly confused, and faintly scandalized. Carla half smiled, clearly reading his expression correctly.

“The mind is a powerful thing,” she said. “I've seen patients convinced they were blind, or paralyzed or any number of serious conditions, without having suffered any kind of extraneous injury or illness. Sometimes a person is so distressed by something, they convince their bodies that something is physically wrong with them. He's catatonic – a stupor, more accurately – but he's not injured. And I think that if he lies still a while, somewhere he feels safe, he'll come around.”

“Do you think so?” Erwin said, his grip on Levi tightening a little.

“I do, yes.” Carla nodded. “I've done what I can. Put him to bed. You can spend the night in the room – I'll send Eren down to the outpost to let your CO know where you are and what's happened.”

“Thank you.” Erwin bit his lip for a moment, but found there were no other words. Perhaps he didn't need them. “Thank you, Carla. Both of you. I'm deeply grateful.”

Carla smiled at him, but it was an absent expression, her attention focused now on gathering up her supplies and putting them away. Eren got up from his stool without being bidden and came to help, shooting little surreptitious glances at Erwin as he did so, though he turned away shyly when Erwin caught him looking.

“Just look after him,” Carla said, as she gently steered Eren from the room with a hand between his shoulder blades. “That's thanks enough.” She didn't wait for his response before she closed the door.

Erwin smiled faintly to himself, and turned to set about tucking Levi into bed.

There were no spare clothes for either of them, so after a moment's thought Erwin stripped off his uniform shirt and carefully guided Levi's arms into its sleeves, leaving himself in his trousers and undershirt alone. He wasn't embarrassed by Levi's nudity, now that they were alone, but he thought Levi would probably appreciate at least some effort at restoring some dignity to him.

The mattress was well made, for straw, and clearly had some layer of soft re-enforcement between the sleeper and its scratchy contents, for he felt none of the familiar pricking and tickling he remembered from his own older beds. Erwin rolled onto his side, and pulled Levi close to him. Levi was warm, his hair soft and dry, and he fit sweetly into the crook of one of Erwin's arms without difficulty. It was a strange dichotomy from the events of the morning – though it was only early evening, now, the events in the field felt like days ago, or weeks, or perhaps something only dreamed in the midst of a night terror. Levi's breath was warm and damp against his bare shoulder, and Erwin allowed himself to stroke a hand down the graceful curve of Levi's spine.

There was, he found, something terribly soothing about physical contact like this. He hadn't realized how deeply he himself had been shaken by what they'd been through, how heavily the fear had seeped into his head and his bones. The feeling of someone else close to him, someone alive and warm and comfortable, did wonders for the trembling that remained in his hands and shoulders, and he felt himself sinking into a contented state of semi-drowse, somewhere between asleep and awake, beyond awareness of the passage of time.

Erwin had no idea how long he drowsed; when he returned to himself, the light through the room's single window had gone, and only the silver of the moon spilled across the sheets. Something had stirred him, he knew, but he couldn't think of what it was until he realized that Levi was moving, making small, hurting sounds as his mind rediscovered his body.

“Levi,” Erwin said, and then, in a breath of nothing but joy and relief: “Élie.

Levi stilled for a moment, and then his nose pressed into Erwin's collarbone firmly, and Erwin felt one of his hands moving, fumbling at his own body with clumsy, shaky movements.

“Erwin,” he said, and the weakness of his voice, the ragged hoarseness brought about by injury and outcry, was heartbreaking. “Erwin...?”

“Yes,” Erwin murmured, touching his hair. He could hear the question in Levi's voice, bigger than simply a query of identification.

“Am I -- whole?” Levi rasped. His fingers pressed into Erwin's chest and stayed there, one of his knees bumping against Erwin's thigh as it bent. “Am I whole?” He was shivering violently now, the desperation in him evident. “Am I?”

“Yes,” Erwin said, his heart aching. “You're whole.” He stroked Levi's hair, faintly surprised by how good it felt to hear Levi talking again, to feel him move under his own power. “You're completely whole.”

“All right,” Levi said, and he buried his face into Erwin's chest again. His shoulders hitched, and his nose dug into Erwin's skin, and he inhaled again in a small, hurting sob. It was the only sound he made – he didn't seem capable of loud tears, probably never had been, though Erwin could feel the anger and humiliation in them, could feel the way Levi's mouth twisted up and his eyes clenched shut as he struggled with himself, and more than feeling pity for him, Erwin empathized with him. There was nothing like one's first battlefield, nothing at all in the world to compare to those feelings of uselessness and defeat. Erwin wrapped both arms around him and held Levi tightly, and Levi let him do so, half curled and half clinging to him, until at last he seemed to run out of tears and strength to waste them.

He was quiet after that, for a few minutes, and then he lifted his head and looked at Erwin at last. Erwin was relieved by the clarity in his eyes – Levi looked exhausted, and much too pale, his grey eyes red-rimmed, but his wits were with him again.

“Are you hurt?” Levi said at last, soft.

“That seems a rather counter-productive question to ask a man you intend to kill,” Erwin said, with gentle humor. Levi flinched, very slightly, and Erwin touched his cheek in reassurance, but also to lift his head, forcing Levi to meet his eyes.

“You aren't here to hurt me at all, are you?” he said, quietly. “Are you, Élie?”

Levi hesitated. Erwin saw his throat bobbing.

“If I was,” he said, at last, “You would've been dead by now.”

“Then why?” Erwin held his chin, firm, not allowing him to pull away, but Levi didn't even try to. “Why have you been acting like this? Why such coldness? Why did you tell me you were?”

“I didn't say I was,” Levi said, a little flatly. “I said I was, more or less.”

“That means yes, Élie.”

“It means maybe, asshole.” Levi shut his eyes. “Can we not – I don't want to talk about it, right now. I feel like I'm going to fucking throw up. Did you – was there a bath, in there somewhere?”

“I bathed you,” Erwin said, preparing to be defensive for some violation of Levi's privacy, but instead to his surprise and faint relief Levi sagged against him, exhaling with obvious relief.

“Thanks,” he said, a bit small-voiced. “Thanks. I couldn't have... I must've been covered in shit.”

“Don't linger on it,” Erwin told him, flattening his hand against Levi's spine again. “It's over, now.” He paused. “And you can sleep a bit more, if you'd like. You must be exhausted.”

“Yeah.” Levi reached up with one hand and gently touched his split lip with faint curiosity, then let his hand drop. His eyes were still closed, and it was clear he was close to the edge of sleep once again. “But, Erwin. I'll tell you the rest. I really will. I swear it. But. You have to know this one thing – this one thing first. Before everything else.”

“What is it?” Erwin murmured, looking down at Levi's bent head.

“I don't hate you,” Levi said, his lips moving against Erwin's chest, his shoulders hunched in some gesture of defensiveness and worried hurt. “I don't. I never hated you.”

He fell quiet, and for a moment Erwin thought he'd drifted off again, until his voice rose up once more, even and calm and weary, the voice of a man who understood the truth of what he was saying, but had not even the slightest beginnings of what to do with it.

“I'm in love with you. I'm pretty sure.”

Levi pressed his forehead against Erwin's breast.

“But we'll talk about that when I wake up, too.”

Chapter Text

“I'm told that we had a nice glimpse at your capacity for heroics yesterday.” Nilsen hadn't looked up for the paperwork on his desk, which Erwin knew was a careful farce of avoidance – that paperwork would end up on Frisk's desk before the end of the day.

“Nothing more or less than I would do for any cadet in danger,” Erwin replied. He was too exhausted, too filled to emotional capacity to be annoyed or offended by what he knew was motivating this early morning interrogation. Nilsen wasn't clever enough to build the unassuming menace he was trying to develop, with his careful nonchalance and furtive sideways looks. There was a hesitation in the scratch of his pen and in the tinkle of the nib against the ink well's neck that indicated how meticulously crafted his indifferent front was. Nilsen was a bad actor, and Erwin wondered with idle superiority where he thought he'd learned this tension building trick – in the audience of a Sina stage play, or perhaps at the feet of his own CO, years ago.

Erwin had awakened cold and confused that morning, stiff and aching in places he hadn't known one could strain and feeling a strange sense of timelessness, of having slept beyond all reasonable hours and into some unknown twilight. His head swam and his tongue felt swollen in the back of his throat. The source of his chill had become apparent after a dazed glance around at his surroundings: Levi had drawn pointedly away from him sometime in the night, and was curled on the edge of the bed as far from Erwin as he could get. He'd taken the heavy eiderdown with him in the process, and was wrapped in it to the very tip of his tiny nose, not another inch of flesh exposed. Erwin had been left to freeze, and freeze he had.

Had Erwin not recalled Levi's usual bed-sharing habits, he might have felt slighted in some way, but he remembered well enough how rarely Levi slept properly, and how lightly he did so on those occasions; Erwin himself was a heavy sleeper, and he was certain that Levi's escape from from his vicinity in the night had nothing at all to do with rejection of closeness and everything to do with Erwin's potential for crushing him unknowingly, as well as his tendency to turn and jostle. And so he had turned over, lingering exhaustion pulling at his limbs and his eyelids in tandem, and reached out with shy fingers to touch the feathering hair at the back of Levi's head. Levi hadn't moved, and Erwin slid his fingers up through the dark softness, and then simply let his hand rest there. Turned towards him, he had been able to see the small motions of life in Levi's body; the faint rising of the eiderdown when he breathed, the pulse thrumming slow and relaxed along the curve of his neck where the cover had slipped.

The first coherent words that came to Erwin that morning were, he's alive, and whole. He loves me.

He'd had a thousand questions about that last part, the weary confessional tone, as though Levi had been carrying a thing much too large for him for a very long time. Perhaps he had. Erwin had felt as though he'd been given a very big answer with no accompanying questions, and the need to seek clarification had been strong, but it had taken him only a few minutes of watching Levi sleep, peaceful and devoid of terror and with healthy color in his face, to quiet the need. There were more important things than Erwin's peace of mind.

So he'd risen instead, to find the Jaeger house empty, save for a still warm kettle on the stove and the faint smell of woodsmoke; when he'd dressed and gone outside he'd encountered Eren, standing in the chicken yard at the side of the house away from the street with a burlap sack of old corn and table scraps, which he was scattering among the chicken grass as orange and black hens clucked about his knees with peaceful familiarity, the little black pouf of feathers atop their bobbing heads swaying gently as they pecked about. A large cockerel, beautifully plumed, was perched awkwardly at the mouth of the little coup, and it had watched Erwin with beady, intelligent eyes as he'd approached the boy.

“Mama went out to get more camphor from the druggist,” Eren had said, looking up at him with those big, serious eyes. “She said if you woke up before she got back to tell you that you can go back to your post and we'll look after your friend for you until you get back.”

Erwin had thanked him kindly, and with a last backwards glance at the house had set off on the walk back to the outpost. He'd been waylaid by Nanaba almost immediately, who had informed him about Nilsen's state of clumsy irritation, and, with Frisk being away in town on some unnamed errand or another, it had fallen to Erwin to soothe the Commander's childish temper, with all thoughts of Levi and his soft confessions necessarily banished.

“No more or less than I would have done for any cadet,” Erwin repeated, inwardly squaring himself for the round of careful maneuvering he knew was coming. “Nor more or less than any of the other Captains would have done, I think.”

“Is that so?” Nilsen said, flipping one of his papers over on its face and dipping his pen back in the well with an exaggerated flourish. “I'm glad to know you're all so committed to our cadets.”

“It's my job,” Erwin said, his disgust keeping him afloat on the sea of his indignant disbelief. “Sir.”

“Of course it is.” Nilsen looked up at last, his pen still in hand, and he surveyed Erwin's face for a moment, clearly trying to read him. Erwin kept his expression bland and nonchalant, not a whit of trepidation in him. After a moment Nilsen, scowling, looked away.

“And where is the boy now?” he said.

“At the town doctor's house, sir,” Erwin said. “He'll need another day or so to recover, I'm told.” He left out, carefully, that it had been Carla's diagnosis prescribing him so – he had a feeling he already knew how Nilsen would respond to the medical advice of a woman with obviously questionable heritage. “But not to worry, I'm monitoring the situation.”

“It seems you are,” Nilsen said sourly, his eyes sliding back to Erwin again, gleaming as though oiled in their sockets. “Apologies, Smith. It's only that this seems to be something of a... change of heart, since our previous conversation about Cadet Levi.”

Erwin drew in his breath.

“Nonsense, sir,” he said, and watched some of the color come to Nilsen's cheeks as Erwin's flippant word usage registered.

“I'm sorry?” Nilsen said, a nasty undercurrent to his voice.

Erwin smiled at him, one man to another, with as much aloof joviality as any high born son.

“Nonsense,” he repeated, bobbing his head slightly. “Imagine how much more easily we'll be able to dispose of him now, sir.”

Nilsen lifted his eyebrows, but said nothing, and Erwin went on, the words and the attitude coming to him with perfect, natural ease.

“I saved him, yes, and it was risky, sir – I won't lie! But truthfully I was just curious about a theory of Lieutenant Hanji's. She's an upstart whack-job, of course.” He laughed, easy and cocksure. “But she has interesting ideas once in a while, don't you think? So I was curious – and, I admit, looking for a little more of a thrill than usual,” he added, aware that any experienced field soldier would have taken this last for absolute bravado and bunk. No soldier who fought titans, who glimpsed titans through the scattered leaves of trees or pounding towards them on the distant horizon, would ever speak of seeking thrills among their number. Not a person who had ridden into that fight alongside him had born anything in their hearts other than dread, he was certain.

But Nilsen was eyeing him with his own evident trepidation now, caught neatly by Erwin's display of upper crust good breeding and confidence and clearly unable to decide how to respond to it immediately.

“More easily,” he muttered. Erwin chuckled.

“Yes, sir,” he said. “Now, once he's discharged, no one will be able to say that Commander Nilsen and his officers didn't treat the little Breacher fairly, will they?” The slur sat for a moment, poisonous, on his tongue, but he swallowed the sour taste of it without trouble. Nilsen had smiled, faintly, at the sound of it, at the ugly reassurance that he was in good and rightly oriented company, and that was the important part.

“Of course not,” he went on. “You appointed me a Captain yourself, sir, so by extension, my deeds are yours, aren't they? At least, that's how I feel.” he grinned, good natured, and relaxed his posture entirely, propping one hand with poise on his hip. “We've done all we can for him, so whose fault will it be when he causes a spot of trouble and has to be hauled away? Certainly not ours. Don't you agree, sir?”

By then Nilsen was smiling, boueyed by Erwin's display, moved by the confidence of a life spent among the upper class. He was nodding as well, tapping his pen against his papers unaware.

“Yes,” he said, rolling the word around his mouth as though it were something fine to taste. “Yes... That's very clever, Smith. Very clever. But of course, I expected no less from you.”

“Thank you, sir,” Erwin said, bowing his head humbly, though the grin remained in place.

“Very clever, yes. And I suppose you've something in mind to finish--” Nilsen waggled a hand vaguely, “--cleaning up the rest of the mess?”

“I do, sir.” Erwin didn't, not in the slightest, but there was no reason to ruin his good impression now. “I think you'll be very pleased.”

“I suspect I will be, at that.” Still smiling to himself, the expression sitting sallow and heavy on his colorless face, Nilsen reached over and picked up a leather bound courier's satchel. “Speaking of which, I do have another small matter for you to attend to.” He opened the satchel and withdrew a handful of papers; Erwin took them from his proferring hand. “Apparently there's some issue with one of the cadets' paperwork.

“An issue?” The smile dropped from Erwin's face. He traded the thick sheets of paper around until the proper top-most sheet was visible, and read the name printed there in some some desk-hand's neat, aristocratic writing. Beneath it, someone had scrawled, FALSIFIED?

“Of some kind.” Nilsen's attention had returned to his own papers, now. “I haven't looked them over, and the courier didn't know. I'm sure you'll be able to sort it out, whatever it is.”

“I'm certain, sir,” Erwin said automatically, his eyes on the papers. “Don't spend a moment more thinking about it.” He looked up. “In fact, sir, if you'll excuse me, I'll go look into the matter right now.” He half turned, paused, and looked back. “Where has Frisk gone off to, by the way?”

“Frisk?” Nilsen only glanced up at him momentarily. “I sent him into town to buy more of that Sina coffee I like, and apparently he decided to take god dammed forever about it. Tell him I want to talk to him when you see him, will you Smith?”

“Of course.” Erwin bobbed his head, tucked the papers under his arm, and went out into the training yard.

The day had continued frigid from the night before, and there were light flakes of snow spiraling down from the sky by the time he finally located Lia Kaiser in the barn. As he walked in through the east breezeway she was coming out of one of the horse stalls, a pitchfork in hand. A manure filled wheelbarrow sat longways against the stall wall. The stable was empty of any other soldiers – most were at mess in or extra training sessions. Kaiser looked up at the sound of his boots on the wood, and immediately set her pitchfork down to salute him.

“Captain Smith, sir.” She smiled at him, a little shy as always, and he recalled that she had been the one to suggest he take Levi to the Jaeger house for treatment.

“At ease, Kaiser,” Erwin said, pausing a little awkwardly in front of her. He took the papers out from under his arm and looked at them again, entirely uncertain as to what to do. He had never encountered a situation like this, and his instinct told him that it was a matter to be taken seriously, though in what direction he was unsure.

“Kaiser,” he said at last, trying to keep his voice gentle, “I've been informed that there's a small problem with your paperwork.”

He didn't know what sort of reaction he'd been expecting. An innocent expression, perhaps, or nervous questions. Something measured, that might have befitted a person attempting cleverly to be someone they weren't. But instead she paled, so badly she looked almost corpse-like, and staggered back away from him, her shoulders thudding against the closed stall door so hard that the latch rattled in its well. Her mouth came open.

“It isn't what you think,” she said, and her voice had become deeper, suddenly, a high tenor rather than a low alto. “I swear it isn't.”

Those were the only words she managed before she burst into tears, heavy, shoulder shaking sobs that wracked her so violently that Erwin nearly reached out to steady her before he managed to stop himself.

“It isn't,” she gasped, covering her face with both hands. Her long brown ponytail slithered over her shoulder, and she gripped at it in nervous habituation. “I'm not, n-not some kind of, of p-pervert, sir--”

“God,” Erwin said, his tone startled and uneasy despite his desire to be as professional as possible. “Of course you aren't.” He fumbled with the papers now, and finally just folded them and tucked them into his inner jacket pocket, grasping blindly at the top of the stall's overlook to find his center of balance again.

Kaiser looked up at him, and the stark terror on her face reminded him so closely of Levi's wordless, trembling fear, of Levi's deep and mortal dread at being forced to face something so intrinsically terrible to him that he had nearly died when he'd finally encountered it. Her expression was more open, more her own, but the underlying sentiment was the same – an awful pleading, a begging with the eyes to not be forced into this position. It moved Erwin deeply, put the edge of urgency on him to understand her, enough at least to soothe that terror.

“I haven't,” Erwin began, then shook his head and started over. “The Commander has not seen the paperwork, nor what name is on it. The only thing he knows is that there may or may not be some issue with one of the cadets.” He watched her shoulders stiffen, and then relax, her eyes on his face, searching for something to trust. “I am not... aware of your circumstances, but I assure you, nothing you tell me will be used to endanger you.”

“You'll have to report me,” Kaiser said softly, “Won't you?”

“Report you,” Erwin said flatly, “For what? Going under a different name, perhaps? A lot of people do the same. My own name wasn't always Smith, you know. I chose to be Smith, instead of Garand, like my mother. I chose Smith to make it clear who I was.”

Kaiser looked at him for a long moment, and then drew in a deep breath, glancing away as she did. She was still gripping at the stall door, her hands white-knuckled.

“Lia is... a small name,” she said, shaky and unsure. “A small and graceful name. A name – a name for a woman. A graceful one.” Her voice cracked, and then dropped into a near-whisper. “I've never had – I've never been – my body has never been graceful. Not the way... it felt as though it should. I'm too heavy. Too tall, too big. Too – too much like a man.”

She spat the word man as though it were just as poisonous a slur as Breacher was, and though Erwin did not entirely understand the true shape of her problem, he began to feel as though he was coming close to knowing the name of it. It was not one familiar to him, but Kaiser's hurt, her indignance of self and helplessness to deny what was true about her, even to potentially protect herself, was.

“Jürgen Kaiser is the name on this paperwork,” he said quietly, and she flinched as though she'd been struck, tugging at her ponytail. It was long, elegant hair, he thought, and thought again that it must have been hard won, for her. “I see it is mistaken.”

“Sir?” Kaiser said, her lip trembling, clearly balanced on the very precipice of despair. “I'm sorry?”

“I do not pretend to understand,” Erwin said, slowly and calmly. “Not that this – I do not find you incomprehensible. But whatever has brought you to this point, here in Survey and under my command, that I am certain I cannot know. I will not play at comprehending your pains. But I will assure you of this: my concerns regarding you have only to do with your performance as a soldier, and your health and well being as a young woman. If there is some... issue of body, of birth, of self – that is not my business, nor is it anyone else's.”

Kaiser had begun to cry again as he spoke, her eyes very wide, pressing one hand over her mouth to try to contain herself. The hope on her face was nearly as awful as the fear.

“You are my soldier,” Erwin said, firm, certain now of this direction, sensing the rightness of it in every inch of himself. “Lia Kaiser, who has bravely chosen to fight for humanity beyond the Walls. This is what I will say to anyone who questions your presence. I will write back to the central offices and tell them there is no man here called Jürgen.”

He reached into his inner pocket, past the folded paperwork, and retrieved his handkerchief, which he offered to her. She took it, and blotted carefully at her eyes, her shoulders hitching with her efforts to pull herself back under control. When she finally spoke, her voice was so soft that Erwin could scarcely make out the words, but the movement of her lips made it obvious what she'd said.

“Thank you.”

Erwin nodded. “This is my job,” he said. “I am your Captain. I hope you know I take that very seriously.”

“You're a good man,” Kaiser said, looking away. Her tone was neither congratulatory nor surprised – it was not a compliment meant to soothe him, but a decision she seemed to be making. She twined her fingers in her hair a final time and then gently brushed it back over her shoulder and took a deep breath. “Sir, later – when you have time. I'd like to speak to you in private about something else.”

Erwin blinked. “Something else?”

She smiled, a little uneasy, but shook her head. “Later, sir. Please. If that's all right. It's important, but – it has to be the right time and place. This isn't it.”

Erwin knew that pushing her now would be cruel, and unnecessary, so he only nodded again, agreeable. “That's fine, Cadet. We will speak later.”

“Thank you, sir.” Kaiser hesitated, and then drew herself up into a perfect salute. “I'll return to my work now, sir.”

“See that you do, yes.” Erwin turned away. He was halfway down the breezeway when a thought occurred to him, and he turned back. “Cadet Kaiser?”

Kaiser's head and shoulders emerged from behind the re-opened stall door, her expression wary but curious. “Sir?”

“Please remember that I have trained on the courses with you, and ridden into battle with you,” Erwin said. “I have seen you in flight, Cadet. I would like to assure you, that you are perfectly graceful. You have shown me nothing less.”

Kaiser looked at him, open-mouthed, for a moment, and then she ducked back behind the door again without a word.

***

By the time Erwin had finished the rest of his duties for the day, it was snowing properly, big, fat flakes so swollen that they didn't swirl as they fell, only dropped like stones upon more stones. The light was dim, though it was only mid-afternoon, and before he left Erwin stopped by both his own quarters and the barracks, in the former to retrieve his winter cloak with its heavy beaver-fur lining, and the latter to fetch a change of clothes for Levi. The cold of winter had seized the land up like a brutish, clumsy fist, and he felt it stinging ruddy marks into his cheeks and the hollow of his throat as he walked through the parting in the fields.

The Jaeger house was well lit, as always. He tapped the snow off of his boots on the stoop before he closed the door, and turned towards the warmly blazing hearth fire with gratitude.

“Hello,” Eren said softly, from the eating nook by the window. He and the little blond boy – Armin – were cuddled there, sharing the space beneath a beautifully patterned quilt so large that it enveloped them both and still managed to touch the floorboards. There was a book open between them, an old one, by the look of it, and Erwin could see even from where he stood that the writings on its pages were not in any script he'd seen before. He smiled at the boys disarmingly, noting from Armin's wary, uncertain expression that the book was likely a heretical one.

“It's quite cold out there,” he said, conversational, and Eren nodded rapidly, not at all concerned about Erwin's potential judgment.

“Yeah,” he said. “We built up the fire in the bathing room, though, don't worry.” He smiled, something childishly secretive in the look, and Erwin gave him a puzzled look. “Your friend woke up earlier and I fed him.”

Erwin tried to ignore the way his heart jumped at the words. “Did you? I'm sure he was grateful.”

“He was.” Eren bobbed a little in his seat, knocking his shoulder into Armin's. “He's sleeping again now, I think, but you should go see him.” He glanced down at the book between them, and then added, a little defiantly, “We're busy right now.”

Erwin smiled. “I can see you are,” he said. “I'll just go in and try to keep it down so as not to disturb you, shall I?”

“Thank you,” Eren said, with great self importance, and then he giggled charmingly, raising an echoing laugh from Armin, who hid his face in his hands when he did so, his pale hair gleaming gold in the firelight. Warmed by the sweetness of children, Erwin went into the bathing room.

Levi was, indeed, sleeping again, though he'd let go his earlier tight grip on the eiderdown. He was curled on his side, breathing with ease and peace, and Erwin only hesitated for a moment before he took off his boots, hung his cloak and jacket from the rack, and lay down next to him so they were face to face, stretching one hand towards his head but letting it fall just short. He thought, perhaps, that he would rest a few moments from his snowy walk, and then rouse Levi, but the bed was firm and comfortable, warm from eiderdown and occupant, and instead he dozed without meaning to, drawn down into warm and reassuring sleep.

He woke again at the tickle of something along the tip of his nose, and the rising swell of a sneeze threatening to escape; at first he was too muddled to make sense of where he was or what was going on.

“Hello,” Levi said, voice low and secretive. He was touching the tip of Erwin's nose lightly with his forefinger, the way one might with a pet kitten, and stroking it ever so gently. “You snore a lot, you know.”

“I do?” Erwin said, dazed, his eyes nearly crossing as he tried to focus on Levi's outstretched finger. “What are you – doing?”

“Trying to get you to stop without hurting you,” Levi said, and let his hand drop. He slid it back again and let it rest loosely next to his head. “It took you like an entire minute to even notice.” He smiled, warm and sleepy, his black hair tousled across his forehead thanks to his slumber and the faint natural wave of it; his pale eyes weren't cold at all, Erwin could see, nothing like the winter-dimmed sky he had traveled here under. There was a sweetness there that Erwin had never seen, not so clearly centered on Erwin himself. Erwin reached out without thinking, and laid his hand heavily against Levi's cheek, and Levi shivered a little with the cold of his fingers, his eyes slitting with pleasure.

“Élie,” he said, and Levi turned his head, pressing his mouth into Erwin's palm in a furtive but firm kiss. His breath was hot and damp against the skin and it was all Erwin could do not to shiver with it.

“Oh, Élie,” he said again, closing his eyes for a moment. “I've missed you so much.”

“Oaf,” Levi said, without smiling, but with no small amount of fondness. “Did you think if you set me free, I wouldn't fly back?”

Chapter Text

Levi was clutching a small cloth draw-string bag in the palm of his left hand, his fingers curled around it protectively. He'd settled himself closer to Erwin, a space between them but still within reach, and he pressed the small bag lightly against his nose, inhaling deeply, before he spoke again. Erwin, his arm tucked under his head, waited.

“Eren made it for me,” Levi said, rubbing his thumb across the bag. “Lavender, sage, and marigold. It's meant to help me sleep, but he said--” his lips quirked slightly, not in ridicule, but in something like fond confusion, “--he said it's also for protection, and luck in love.”

“Why do you suppose he thought you'd need something like that?” Erwin said, smiling faintly, though he felt the heat rise a little in his cheeks. Levi lifted an eyebrow.

“I think when you storm into a kid's house carrying another man in your arms like a swooning lady and start demanding medical care, a kid gets ideas,” he said, and looked away without smiling. There was a touch of red along his cheekbones, and Erwin didn't press him further, sensing the fragility that lay hidden there.

Instead he was silent, letting Levi begin his slow, exhausted re-spooling of information, the careful regathering of time and incident and memory muddied by injury both physical and emotional.

After a moment, Levi said, “You were calling me, weren't you?” His eyes moved, dark lashes lifting enough for Erwin to see the soft grey beneath. “I heard you.”

“Yes,” Erwin said, concealing most of the wince that twitched at his facial muscles. “I was trying to reach you.”

“I know.” Levi shifted a little, curling his hands against his chest. “I thought I was moving. That I was reaching back. I thought I could nearly touch you.” His voice softened. “Apparently not.”

Erwin could hear the tremulousness in Levi's tone, the note of uncertainty as he questioned his normally resolute grasp on truth and reality, and it wounded him in sympathy. Levi's posture was withdrawn but not closed – only hesitant and awkward, and Erwin sensed that here was one of those moments in which his decisiveness would make all the difference.

“Just a moment,” he said, and scooted closer to Levi, close enough to slide one arm up under his body, getting a gentle grip around Levi's waist with ease. With a simple, careful movement, he lifted Levi up and then settled him down again, small body stretched full length atop Erwin's own, Levi's head close to his shoulder and his knees somewhere in the vicinity of Erwin's thighs, the warmth of his chest and belly resting against Erwin's own. Levi gave a small and startled squeak of pain, and Erwin felt him tense, both for balance and to guard against further hurt, but he held on firmly, and after a moment he felt Levi relax again, one thigh dropping down against Erwin's hip.

“There,” Erwin murmured, resting his hand lightly against Levi's back. He brushed his fingertips up along the ridge of Levi's spine and Levi shivered, letting his head drop against Erwin's collarbone. Erwin could feel him breathing, now, could feel the quickened beat of his heart, the heat of his living body, and he felt something deep inside him unravel in relief. Levi was easy to hold, even like this, with all his weight born up only by Erwin's strength, and small enough that he fit against Erwin's body with a sweetness that seemed born to him.

Levi's dark hair was ticklish and soft beneath Erwin's chin, and when Levi spoke again, he was calm.

“I woke up when I hit the liquid whatever-it-was.” He closed his eyes, and drew one hand up to rest it light against Erwin's chest. “For a moment. I remember the smell – the fumes, the heat. That's all. Then – this.” He moved his head slightly in a weak attempt to indicate the room, or possibly to indicate Erwin's close physical proximity. “What did you do?”

“I did – what I had to do,” Erwin said, steady-voiced. He was still stroking Levi's back, marveling in a slight daze at how finely muscled he was, how well tuned a weapon he had become. “I cut you free from its stomach.” He felt Levi move, slightly, to ask some question, but he went on, anticipating it. “It didn't matter if you were dead or alive to me, at that point. Whatever – whatever else is between us, I knew – I know how you feel about them. I had no intention of leaving you there, one way or the other.”

“Didn't matter,” Levi muttered, without rancor, and Erwin huffed with impatience.

“It mattered,” he said, a bit sharply. Levi tipped his head up, opening his eyes again to look into Erwin's face. “Of course it matter, Levi. I don't wish you ill. Even if you'd come here with hostile intentions, I would still have done it.”

“Because you're... what? Suicidally sentimental?” Levi smiled faintly, a little incongruous, and Erwin couldn't help but smile back.

“No,” he said. His fingers crept up Levi's back, hovering just beneath the lettering scarred into his neck. “Because I have a responsibility to you.”

“Very professional,” Levi said, watching him, and Erwin felt the first prickles of irritation at what he knew to be the familiar game of words and sentiment behind them. He was being tested, yet again, just as he had been tested three years ago, and he knew that such testing was no longer for him.

“Look at me,” he said, and dug his fingers into the scarring, feeling the tenderness of the semi-healed skin. Levi inhaled, sharp and surprised, and lifted his head, focusing on Erwin with a new brightness in his eyes.

“Look at me,” Erwin repeated. “Where am I? What am I doing? Am I attending to my paperwork, or checking up on the rest of my squad, or running drills?”

“No,” Levi said quietly, with the heavy weight of sudden and interested obedience in his voice. “You aren't.”

“What am I doing, Levi?”

Levi blinked, slowly. “Holding me,” he said, after a moment.

“Is this professional to you?” Erwin tightened his grip on Levi's scruff a little, and watched with dull pleasure as Levi's mouth came open, the flash of his teeth brief and a little feral. “Is it?”

“No,” Levi whispered. “It's not. Not at all.”

“Good.” Erwin loosened his grip slightly, but didn't let him go. “I won't be questioned any longer on the precision of my emotions. If it isn't obvious to you that I care a great deal about you on several levels, then I suggest you begin paying closer attention.”

Levi exhaled, slow and deliberate. “You're right,” he said, with the ease and immediacy of a man utterly unthreatened by admittance of wrong. “I'm sorry.”

“Thank you.” Erwin flattened his hand across the scar and let out his own breath in a long sigh.

Levi was silent for several moments, his eyes straying from Erwin's face across the room, and then back again. At last he said, with care, “I had it done a few months ago. It says emet.”

Emet,” Erwin repeated, finding the shape of the three letters beneath his fingers, tracing them by touch alone.

“Truth,” Levi said, and then added with a faint stridency, “The word that gives a golem life. It can't be erased or altered. Nobody can deny what I am.”

“You're not a golem,” Erwin said, with faint alarm, but Levi lifted his head and shook it, his expression suddenly fearsome, defiant, almost angry.

“No,” he said. “Not a golem. A Mystic. I'm not ashamed of it. I'm never going to be ashamed of it.” He swallowed. “We're not supposed to do shit like this. Tattoos and permanent markings and that kind of stuff. But there's nobody left to be disappointed in me about it, and I'm not really interested in making things right with God. So this is all I have.”

Erwin touched his hair lightly. Levi paused, drawing in his breath again, his expression briefly uncertain; Erwin knew he was still trying to piece himself back together, and he waited, patient. With Levi safely in the circle of his arms, he felt as though he could wait forever.

Finally Levi licked his lips, and said, “Now I need you to listen to me really fucking carefully, okay?”

“I'm listening,” Erwin assured him, nodding his head a little. “Tell me what it is you need to say.”

Levi surveyed him thoughtfully for a moment, as though measuring his very capability for silence, and then he shifted, resting his chin on one raised forearm.

“You have a lot of enemies in Sina,” he said, and looked as though he meant to say more, but a sudden look of realization and alarm crossed his face, and his eyes grew wider than Erwin had ever seen them.

“What is it?” Erwin said, worried. “Are you in pain?”

“Did you see Frisk today?” Levi said, his voice gone low and urgent; Erwin was startled by the anger that threaded his words, sharpening each syllable like wire. “Did you?”

“I – no, I didn't. He was on some errand. Why?” Erwin frowned, tightening his grip on Levi slightly. “What has Frisk to do with anything?”

“You're alone with him a lot?” Levi said, ignoring Erwin's question. Tension and alarm hummed tangibly through him. “Every day, aren't you?”

“What does that matter?” Erwin repeated, frowning. He couldn't fathom what Levi was aiming for; he could only recall the day that Levi had seen him speaking to Frisk in the yard, and the venomous look Levi had given them. “You aren't... you couldn't possibly be jealous.”

The moment he'd said the word he knew it was the wrong one. The fury that lit Levi's face was frightening.

“Jealous?” he repeated, somewhere between disbelief and cold, chilly calm. He sat up, careful, and Erwin was too silenced by his own sudden nervousness to warn him to be careful of his wounds. The straddle of his thighs on either side of Erwin's hips and the heat of his body separated from Erwin's only by thin fabric would have been erotic, under other circumstances, but Erwin was frozen by apprehension.

“I'm not jealous of him,” Levi said, in measured, slightly more lengthy syllables than necessary. His eyes were fixed on Erwin's face, as merciless as if he'd been carved from stone. “He's trying to fucking kill you, you gigantic piece of shit.”

Erwin opened his mouth, feeling the disbelieving lift of his eyebrows and the stretch of the skin beneath his eyes. Levi's words had struck all remorse and uncertainty from him in a single instant; he was so shocked by the accusation that he felt nothing.

Levi was staring at him, and Erwin could see the anger outlined on every feature, in the set of his shoulders. He was clenching the small cloth bag Eren had gifted him in one fist, pressed against his stomach as though it really were the talisman it was meant to be. The little bag had been threaded closed with what looked to be a short, carefully trimmed white silk ribbon, a material rare and precious, especially so far outside of Sina. Erwin had no idea if Levi believed in such fetishism, if he believed that a little bag of herbs could have some effect on whether he lived or died – though he suspected that the answer was most likely “no” – but it was clear enough to him that Levi valued the sentiment that had spurred the gift. Because Levi, for all his stoic inward focus and his serious countenance, had a hidden gentleness inside of him, a sentimentality that he protected with fearsome force, and attributing petty motivations like jealously towards his emotions was more than hurtful.

Erwin put aside his disbelief regarding the accusations against Frisk for the moment, and took hold of Levi's wrist firmly.

“I'm sorry,” he said. “That was cruel of me. I don't think you are, Levi. I really don't.”

He felt the wire-taut tendons in Levi's wrist loosen slightly, though Levi's face didn't change.

“It's just that – Frisk?” Erwin tried not to smile at the ridiculousness of it. “The man can barely walk ten feet without shying away from his own shadow.”

“Not just Frisk,” Levi said. The tension was still in his voice, a little, but his hand had uncurled from its fist, his bandaged fingers loose in Erwin's grip, allowing it. “I know there are others. I have my suspicions, but I can't be sure.”

“Others?” Erwin said, controlling the incredulous lilt that threatened to emerge. “What on Earth for? Why such urgency? Before – before the expedition, you said something about money being offered, but I can't imagine why I'd be such an important target.”

This time it was Levi's turn to look incredulous. He leaned forward, and Erwin felt his powerful thighs clench at his hips again, and he couldn't quite contain the small tremor that passed through him. Levi must have felt it, but he showed no sign of it, not even when Erwin's free hand wandered almost unbidden to fall to rest against his knee. Levi dropped his head and his unshorn hair came forward, curtaining his face to his cheekbones.

“Stop,” he said, firmly, “underestimating how much your father hates you, Erwin.”

The distraction of Levi's thighs and groin disappeared in the chill that flooded through Erwin's body. He gripped at Levi's knee again, this time for balance. His dismay must have been painfully apparent, because Levi sighed, and extracted his hand from Erwin's grip, and then reached down to touch his cheek, palm first.

“Embry told you things he shouldn't have,” he said. “I don't know the details, not really. I just know the MP and your father and his cronies consider you a liability because he opened his fat mouth.”

Erwin blinked. Embry had, indeed, detailed a great deal of information about the ways in which he and the higher officers kept business running the way they wanted it to. Embry had confessed, more or less, to a kind of collective high treason among the social elite and the important figures of the MP, but Erwin had assumed that either Embry's masters weren't aware of how much he knew, or that they had dismissed Erwin's capacity for action as unimportant. There was, after all, very little a disowned bastard son could do to speak out against the lords and ladies of the peerage.

They can't know about my plan, he thought, though just forming the words in his head sent a new thrill of alarm through him. I've been careful. Jonas has been careful. Jonas wouldn't betray me, either. I'm certain of that.

Why, then, three years later, would his death become so urgent to them that the enlistment of military trainees to the cause was necessary?

“I haven't died,” Erwin said, suddenly, and Levi tipped his head, watching his face with interest, as though waiting to see the construction of the puzzle in front of him. “That's why. They sent me out here under the assumption that I'd die in the field. But I've been chained to a desk the entire time, no risk about it. I've gained my rank back.” He grinned abruptly, without intention. “And – and Commander Nilsen likes me. I've my rank and the ear of an extremely stupid but rather important leader of the military forces. They're afraid of me all over again.”

“I expect they should be,” Levi muttered. Erwin detected a faint hint of defensiveness, and he smiled again, reaching up to touch Levi's cheek in appreciation. Levi hesitated, and then leaned into him firmly, turning his head to brush his nose against the pad of Erwin's thumb. His own hand came to rest at the joint of Erwin's neck and shoulder, hovering with curious remembrance over the little circular scar that had once been his teeth marked into Erwin's flesh. It was clear enough that he'd forgiven Erwin his missteps.

“And so,” Erwin murmured. “They came to you. Assuming that you of all people would have reason to despise me.”

Levi nodded. “They came to me about six months ago,” he said. “And to others. I don't know what they offered anyone else. I'd expect things like money, or promises of safety for family or whatever. But they offered vengeance to me.”

“Vengeance,” Erwin said, feeling a little sick, though he knew it made sense. ”Vengeance for – hurting you.”

“Yeah.” Levi hesitated, the bandaged tips of his fingers brushing Erwin's nose briefly before he drew back again in a gesture of retreated that seemed almost apologetic.

“I told them I hated you,” he said. He was calm and almost reasonable, though his eyes had strayed away towards the other end of the room, where the tub and the elaborate copper piping sat cold and silent. “I told them you'd imprisoned me. That you'd used me for your own sick entertainment. That--” he paused, as though mulling the rest of his words, and then went on. “That I'd been shown off like a fancied up prize horse and that I wanted to see you cut open for it.”

His expression never changed, and for a moment Erwin lost his grip on his tenuous calm.

“It isn't true, is it?” he whispered, the strength gone from his voice. “You aren't truly hurt, are you? You wouldn't have come back to me if you were – you wouldn't, would you? You know--” he caught himself, mustering strength. “You know of course I would send you away again immediately if I thought for an instant that I was causing you harm, Levi.” He let his hands drop away from Levi's body entirely, turning palms upwards on the sheeting beneath him. “You have no obligation to me – no matter what I feel. What I did to you--”

“You let me go,” Levi said, as gentle now as he ever was. His hand pressed down, light but firm, against Erwin's fluttering heart. “I don't go places I don't want to go, Erwin. I could have disappeared a thousand times – not just from you, but from the training barracks. Hell, even from the wagon ride to the training outpost. Even here. You think if I told Carla you'd done shit to me she wouldn't be able to help me make a run for it?”

“I... no,” Erwin said, but he couldn't shake his uncertainty right away.

“Erwin,” Levi said. “There are people like me, here. They're not exactly the same, but if I wanted to – if I really wanted to – I could go back to the life I knew. They'd take me in. I could beg God's forgiveness for living trayf, for betraying my brit mila, for all the things I've done that would've made my mother ashamed.” The words of his people were light and airy and natural on his tongue; his voice caught, a little, and he leaned back, his eyes tear-brightened. “I could do anything I wanted.”

Erwin swallowed, strangely calmed by Levi's flare of grief; this, at least, he knew what to make of. He curled his hand over Levi's fingers and squeezed them. Levi rolled his lower lip between his teeth for a moment, almost meditative, but Erwin's touch seemed to soothe him.

“None of it was true, of course,” he said, after a moment. “But it was what they wanted to hear, and it got me clearance to carry a non-issued knife.” He must have read the continued uncertainty on Erwin's face because he reached forward and gave Erwin's upturned shoulder a small shove. “I asked you to trust me, fuckhead. I'm fucking fine.”

“Of course,” Erwin said, exhaling, trying to push the last of his alarm away. “I'm sorry. I believe you.”

“Good.” Levi huffed. “So they tapped me, but I know I'm not the only one. There are at least two others, aside from Frisk and me. They're expecting one of us to make the kill, and within a reasonable amount of time – I think they were getting impatient with Frisk.”

“He came here around the same time you said they hired you,” Erwin said, frowning. “He's been here months. We've worked in close quarters and often alone for nearly the entire time. Why – if what you say about him is true – why hasn't he made an attempt yet?”

Levi shook his head, but his expression had grown weary, and he'd lost some of the color from his face, pale spots standing out beneath his cheekbones. “I don't know,” he muttered, his shoulders slumping a little. “Shit, I'm tired.”

Erwin felt his slight weight settle heavy against his abdomen, felt the now lax muscles along the insides of Levi's thighs, and he realized that Levi had used up most of the strength he'd regathered. “It's all right,” he said, pressing his hands against the small of Levi's back with gentle firmness, easing him back into a lying down position. “You've been through a terrible ordeal. You should rest, for now. We'll discuss the situation later.”

Levi didn't resist him; he was as pliant as as a bending willow, swaying loose beneath the strength of Erwin's hands. He laid his cheek along Erwin's collarbone again, and Erwin put his palms against Levi's shoulder blades, rubbing down between and around them soothingly. Levi was quiet for several long moments, occasionally rolling his shoulder slightly with pleasure under Erwin's touch.

After a while, he said, low voiced, “About what I told you, last night.”

“Yes?” Erwin kept his voice equally soft, though the memory thrilled through him like music along a plucked harp-string.

“I don't need you to be – I don't need a return.” There was a serenity in his voice that belied that way his hand moved, curling against the side of Erwin's chest, almost childish. “I don't need you to... do anything. This is enough.”

A strange mixture of fondness and dismay flooded Erwin. Fearsome, formidable Levi, a creature of fierce independence and tremendous talents, a young man born of sorrow and survival, who wore so few outwards hints of the gentleness inside of him or of the vastness of his ability to care for others. That Levi would offer up such a thing to him, a thing so private and vulnerable that Erwin was certain he had not given it to anyone since the loss of his family and his people, and insist that he required no reciprocation, was terrible.

He is my responsibility. I am responsible. Not only for what is tangible, but for every part of him. Of us. Whatever we are. Whatever this is.

“No,” he murmured. “You will not settle for 'enough.' Not ever again, Élie.”

He touched Levi's hair, and Levi turned his face away, pressing it into Erwin's chest. His fingers tightened against Erwin's skin, and Erwin lay still and silent, listening to Levi's breath and feeling the beat of his heart as it slowed, steadied, and eased into the evenness of sleep once again.

Chapter Text

He is not drowning, but he is smothering.

Between his fingers he can feel nothing but ice-roughened feathers, cold flesh and the pricking of lax talons, no matter how he fumbles. He reaches for something solid, something to pull himself up or down or sideways with, for he can no longer tell what direction he is facing – only that he is surrounded by pale-dark softness and killing cold, and that he is a fool for his sentiments, that a hunting bird does its duty but does not expect to be saved, and that to die here will just as surely kill another twenty thousand as it will him.

But there is nothing to touch, and he grips convulsively at small broken wings and splintering feather shafts, and clenches his jaw to the point of pain to keep himself from screaming.

Selfish, his own voice returns to him. Selfish. You can never truly trust or tame a wild animal.

When he opens his mouth to reply, the snow slithers in instead, a creeping and merciless cold, to fill him as it has everything else.

***

When Erwin awoke at first it was as though he'd brought the dream with him into reality, like mouldering cobwebs clinging to one's clothes and skin; he inhaled, sharp and painful, and got only half a lungful of air in the process.

Levi grunted in half-aware irritation somewhere nearby him, and it was that sound that severed the last of the clinging threads of sleep. He was on his back, a position he never slept in normally, and Levi was lying half on him, his arms and head heavy across Erwin's diaphragm.

“Sorry,” Erwin gasped automatically, as Levi opened one eye and leveled a sleepy, pale glare at him from the vicinity of his nipples before sliding away to his own side of the bed. Erwin sat up, pressing a hand over his chest, and tried to catch his breath.

“Are you dying?” Levi said, his professed affections for Erwin apparently more than capable of existing harmoniously alongside profound irritation with him, and Erwin shot him a weary glance in response.

“No,” he said, taking another deep lungful of air and then letting it out again before he went on. “Just partially smothered, thanks to you.”

Levi made a dismissive small noise at that, as though to express his disbelief that he was in any way capable of cutting off Erwin's air flow at his size, and rolled himself back in the eiderdown again, gathering the edge up under his chin with the air of a spectator at a particularly boring sport. Erwin did his best to ignore him for the moment, instead focusing on trying to calm his wildly hammering heart. He could scarcely remember what it was he had been dreaming about, only that it had been cold and oppressive, and that he'd felt a hideous emptiness, as though he had been forcefully hollowed, every part of him internal and integral swallowed by something too big for him to even begin to fight. For a moment he strained to recall, in the faint hope that recollection would bring with it control, but some part of his mind was obviously rebellious, and he gave up after a few seconds. Letting go of the dream felt like releasing a final breath into cold air.

“You're not all right,” Levi muttered, and Erwin was faintly gratified to hear the concern back in his voice. When he looked down at Levi, Levi furrowed his brow a little, as though trying to make his sincerity more apparent.

“I will be,” Erwin said, feeling the lingering tightness of his throat. “I'm sorry I woke you.”

Levi rolled his shoulder in a shrug, and the eiderdown slipped along with the oversized shirt – Erwin's shirt – he was still wearing. Erwin saw the gentle redness of the scar across the nape of his neck, and felt strangely calmed by it.

“I was done sleeping anyway,” Levi said. He glanced over at the examination table, where the spare clothing Erwin had brought sat wrapped in brown parcel paper, and then looked back at Erwin curiously. “Shouldn't you be back at the barracks by now? It's got to be after midnight.”

“Shit.” Erwin raked a hand through his hair, huffing impatiently as his bangs spilled loosely back down into his eyes, bereft of its usual gently scented pomade. “You're right.”

He slipped out of the bed, wincing slightly as some of the straw protruding from the sides of the mattress clawed at his thigh, and stretched, trying to pop at least a few of the muscles in his back into place again. When he turned around, Levi was up as well, and across the room, inspecting the clothing parcel – he'd made not a whisper of noise, which unsettled Erwin just slightly.

“What are you doing up?” he said.

Levi looked up at him, his expression one of patient exasperation.

“I'm going with you,” he said, and went on even as Erwin opened his mouth to interrupt with disbelieving protests. “After all that shit I told you, do you really think I'd let you wander off on your own?”

“You're injured, for God's sake,” Erwin said, his protesting tone faltering slightly as Levi's bending motion raised the hem of the overlarge shirt up over the pleasant curve of his ass, the movements of his arms and upper body giving hint to the faint dimpling above it. “You... you can't even put on a harness, not with those burns.”

Levi opened the parcel and slid the neatly folded clothes out, setting them aside on the examining table. He began to unbutton his shirt, shrugging it off in a slither of fabric. The Gear harness had already left its perpetual strap bruising on him, in all the usual places, but Erwin winced at the sight of the deep burns where metal buckles had heated against Levi's skin, two of them in near perfect symmetry at each shoulder blade, like a failed attempt at wings.

“You're hurt,” he repeated, unable to keep the faintly plaintive note from his voice. Any sense of the erotic was gone, despite Levi's complete nudity; Erwin was consumed now with a familiar heaviness, one that he could put a name to. It was dread. “Levi, please – I'll be fine for a night or so.”

“We don't even have a plan,” Levi said, apparently unmoved. He stepped into his trousers and began to tie them up without turning around to face him. “And he's out there, somewhere. Probably waiting to get you alone again.”

“Again?”

Levi looked up, turning to face him in the same movement, holding his shirt and belt in one hand. His expression was queerly apologetic.

“Do you remember that night in the alley?” he said.

Erwin was internally pleased by the measure of control he was able to keep over his own sudden surge of embarrassment. “I do,” he said, so calmly and without shame that Levi's eyes widened a little, and he looked away.

“He followed you into town,” he said, beginning to fumble with his belt instead of making eye contact. “And I followed him. I lost him at one point – he's faster than I am, I guess – so I decided I'd just hang around and wait until you came out.”

Erwin paused. Frisk had arrived that night, he remembered, with Mike and Hanji, which Erwin now marked as decidedly odd, as Frisk rarely went into town on pleasure excursions. Erwin had invited him to drink once or twice, in the past, thinking that perhaps a little inebriation would take a few steps in the direction of easing the look of perpetual hangdog that Frisk always wore, but Frisk had always softly refused, with a shy and charming sort of smile that, in retrospect, Erwin thought had been rather flirtatious.

But he had, indeed, been there that night. Even in his drunken haze, Erwin remembered being surprised by it.

“He did show up later,” he said, seeing the tightening around Levi's eyes as he spoke, “After you'd gone, but he was with Mike and Hanji by then.”

“I shouldn't have fucked off the way I did,” Levi muttered, turning away to pull on his shirt. It was a wide-collared shirt, and there was a button missing near the top; when he'd finished settling it into place it gaped a little at the back, showing the edges of his scar. “I'm sorry.”

“Don't apologize.” Erwin came towards him, his eyes on the visible mark, and Levi looked up at him in faint surprise as Erwin laid a hand across the back of his neck.

“I think,” Erwin said, “That it is relatively clear, at this point, that neither of us is particularly well practiced in communicating our emotions.” He smiled faintly. Levi surveyed him with wary uncertainty, but his shoulders were loose under the weight of Erwin's hand.

“Maybe you're not,” he muttered, and looked away. “Just let me go with you back to the barracks. I don't need to be here anymore, anyway. I can sleep it off in my bunk. They're just burns, Erwin.”

It was true enough that Levi's injuries were no worse than many other soldiers received in the field, especially now that he was awake and aware and relatively un-addled. He was still weak, obviously, but there was no good argument as to why Levi should stay, other than Erwin's newly sensitized nerves.

“Fine,” he said, after a moment, and let his hand drop. “Just stay close to me. And you'll be sleeping in my quarters, not the bunkhouse. I can keep a better eye on you there.”

“You're gonna cause a fucking scandal,” Levi said, but he seemed mollified enough. “Fine. Let's go.”

It didn't take them very long to gather up the rest of Levi's things, still wrapped as they were, though Erwin made him leave behind the now-stiffened mess that had been his cloak. Another one could be acquired easily enough, and Erwin knew that both of them would rather leave reminders of Levi's ordeal behind them.

It was somewhere after midnight, and the night outside the quiet house had that eerie, witching hour stillness, chilly and immobile, the sensation that all the world had gone to sleep at once, even the terrible shifting mindless animal noises of restless Titans. Beyond the not so distant wall there was only the regular rise and shuffle of cold, clear breeze, as though outside lay the vast stretch of one of those heretical oceans, water of perpetual salt and unthinkable depth. The moon was clouded over, and on the bottom step of the Jaeger's front porch Levi stumbled slightly, forcing Erwin to catch him by one arm before he fell face first into the dusty street.

“Ugh,” Levi grunted, and then he stiffened, turning to face the house. The front door, which Erwin had strained to close as quietly as possible, was ajar, and between the side and the jam Eren's face had appeared, bright hazel eyes moonlit to the point of glowing. He was scowling.

“Where are you going?” he said, voice lowered in a kind of sotto hiss. “You're sick. Mom didn't say you could leave.”

Levi pulled gently away from Erwin, his fingers brushing the inside of Erwin's arm lightly in reassurance. He went to the bottom of the porch stairs, and looked up.

“This oaf wants to go home by himself in the dark,” he said. His tone was conversational, as a friend would speak to a friend of equal standing. “I couldn't just let him do that.”

Eren opened the door all the way and stepped out onto the porch. He was dressed in simple nightclothes, with heavy woolen socks that were clearly homemade consuming his feet nearly up to little his knees. He shivered a little at the touch of the night air, and looked down at Levi with an expression both expectant and anxious.

Levi said, “Do you remember what you said to me, when you gave me that charm?” It was all he said; it seemed that their conversation was not for Erwin's ears.

Eren paused, and then he nodded, edging closer, until he could step down from the top step, and sat down, his knees raised. Levi reached into his inner shirt pocket, and withdrew the little herb bag he'd shown Erwin before. He held it up for Eren to see.

“It worked,” he said, and Erwin watched Eren's face change, a little – a childish understanding, mixed with uncertainty, a knowing that matters of adult hearts were a little beyond him now, but that Levi's words were good. He watched Eren brighten, and then the boy reached down and out, small hand extended towards Levi, and after a moment Levi leaned up himself, and took Eren's hand with his own free one, squeezing it firmly.

“I will stay alive,” Levi said. “I swear it.”

Eren nodded, and then leaned back, letting his hand slip away again. He looked up at Erwin then, and the worry and understanding was not gone from him.

“And you,” he said. “We're all friends now. You have to be okay. Promise me.”

Erwin blinked at him, taken somewhat aback by his inclusion. Eren seemed to interpret this as misunderstanding, because he scowled a little, and added, “Because I like you and so does my mom.”

“I'm... I will,” Erwin said. For a moment he remained at a loss, casting about blindly for some way to express how strange it was, how strange and welcome and warming it was to be worried over and cared about by these people who had no connection to him or his work other than the knowing of it. When it came to him finally he was already halfway into the stance, his fist lifted to his heart, the other tucked against the small of his back, as straight and as proud as though he stood again in the arena that day behind Sina, waiting for his father to judge them both and find them wanting.

“Eren Jaeger,” he said, letting his voice lift into a commander's certainty, “I promise you that I will stay alive.”

“Good,” Eren said, as though he'd expected nothing less. He got up off the step and carefully brushed the dirt off the bottom of his wooly socks, then padded back to the door.

“Good night,” Levi said.

“Good night,” Eren replied, and gave them both a final glimpse at his sweet smile before he disappeared back into the house.

***

The night's emptiness held, like a suspending spell, all the way through the fields and under the open and cloudy sky. Erwin looked briefly for the tell tale shape of silent dark wings, but it seemed it was too late even for Rani and her owl, despite the privacy such hours afforded.

Levi was quiet, but stayed close to him all the same, a vicinity that would have allowed for hand-holding had either of them felt inclined towards it. Erwin was instead experiencing an odd kind of electricity, a need to not touch, to not engage – not even in the touch of a shoulder or the brush of a hip. If Levi found his behavior strange he did not show it, and he, too, seemed to be keeping a faint distance between them by choice, his pale eyes resolutely forward and never once lifting to question Erwin's standoffishness.

They slipped through the barracks yard together, alone, every building shutter closed and the faintest hint of moisture in the air foretelling the rain that was sure to come by morning. Erwin crossed to the building that housed the officers' private quarters without a word to Levi, knowing somehow that Levi would follow him, shadow-like, no matter which way he turned. Levi did not need to be led, only guided, and when they reached the door of Erwin's rooms Erwin held it open for him, high enough that Levi could pass easily beneath his outstretched arm.

When he closed the door and turned to face Levi, Levi had already dropped his things on the floor, was undoing his shirt buttons with no fanfare and no particular teasing, and Erwin leaned back against the door to watch him move to his trousers and boots. He remembered the first time he had truly seen Levi naked, that evening during Levi's bath, and he was gratified by the mature changes he could see now in Levi's body. The muscles at Levi's thighs bunched and quivered with small, perfectly contained power, and his stomach rippled and flexed in tandem as he bent and straightened. The wiry dark hair that nestled his cock was as coal dark as the hair on his head, culminating in a thin trail below his navel.

He said, with perfect calm, “I want to show you something.”

“Of course,” Erwin replied, equally calm, though he was certain the hammering of his heart would betray him, damnably loud that it was.

Levi smiled faintly, completely at ease.

“Come here,” he said.

Erwin went to him.

Levi's fingers tangled in his trouser lacings for a moment, and then the scrape of his calloused fingertips was against Erwin's hips as he peeled Erwin's trousers down. As he did he lowered himself, as well, nearly to kneeling, his breath huffing briefly against Erwin's cock, and Erwin curled his toes into his boots with faint frustration.

“The bed, perhaps?” he said, keeping the strain from his voice as best he could, and Levi snorted, flattening his palms against Erwin's thighs as he rose up again.

“Yeah,” he said, and let go. When he turned away Erwin began to struggle with his boots, fingers more clumsy than he wanted them to be, the leather slipping under them with maddening frequency. He pulled one off and looked up to see Levi outstretched on the bed – his bed – one leg bent comfortably, his head canted winsomely to one side as he watched Erwin with serious eyes. He wasn't smiling, but there was amusement there, and Erwin couldn't quite contain a brief and self-deprecating chuckle of his own.

“I'm sorry,” he said. “I'm terrifically clumsy tonight, it seems.”

“It doesn't matter,” Levi said. “Just come here.”

When Erwin went to him Levi surged up and took hold of one arm, pulling him down to kiss him with that firm ferocity that Erwin recognized. This time when Levi's teeth dug into his lip he embraced it, opening his mouth in welcome. Levi hummed with satisfaction, and Erwin's stomach lurched eagerly as Levi took hold of his cock and began to thumb at the tip, the movement sending electric jolts through the sensitive foreskin. He pressed his hand against Levi's hip and his fingers found the deep burn there; he curled them a little and Levi shuddered, his mouth opening further under Erwin's, and Erwin took the opportunity to bend him back, to fix his mouth over the little round scar bisecting Levi's collarbone.

“I need,” Levi huffed, “Something – like – ointment, or something. We had this – stuff for sore muscles--”

“I've got something like that, I think,” Erwin murmured against his skin, but he didn't reach to look for it just yet. He'd wrapped his other arm around Levi's waist and his palm had found the curve of Levi's ass; after a moment he took hold of it and squeezed, and Levi made a short, pleasing sound, somewhere between surprise and approval. When he moved Erwin got a look at his face again and their eyes met briefly, Levi's alight with something like amusement, which only brightened as Erwin pressed the tin canister into his hand.

“Lie back,” he said. “I learned this on my own, but I figure you'd like a demonstration before you try it on me.”

Erwin, reclining half on his elbows, gave him a faintly incredulous look. “Despite what you may think,” he began, “I wasn't born yesterday – I'm aware in theory of the mechanics involved in making love to a man.”

“Making love,” Levi scoffed, though he'd reddened a little, attractively. “Do you hear yourself?”

“Either way,” Erwin said, lifting himself up a little higher, trying to get a look at what Levi was doing; the clink of the tin's lid against its body was faintly ominous. “If you think-”

“Have you played with your own ass, then?” Levi said, and in the same moment his fingers trailed down beneath Erwin's cock, up and under in a cold slick, and Erwin closed his mouth against whatever inconsequential words he'd been about to fire off as one of Levi's fingertips slipped inside of him. It was not a particularly intense sensation by itself – Levi's hands being as small as they were, and relatively motionless besides – but the sudden reality of what Levi was doing came to him then in a tidal wash, and his indignant pride left him entirely.

“No,” he said, deeply honest, and drew a breath. “Show me, then. Show me properly.”

He was rewarded with Levi's smile, brief and very real, and then Levi's clever fingers were in him, slowly, moving, and the sensation began to change from somewhat odd into something suddenly very, very necessary. There was some movement he didn't fully understand and all at once he felt his lower body tightening, the tell-tale rippling of delicate muscle and the jerk of his cock in tandem, an unexpected shudder that made his back arch before he could catch himself.

“Shit,” he breathed. He was gripping at the coverlet without even realizing it, feeling the sweat beginning to break out across his abdomen and between his thighs. “Shit.”

Levi didn't respond to his imprecations, only braced a hand with more force than was comfortable against Erwin's stomach as he leaned into Erwin. Erwin could feel his palm pressing up against his ass, upturned and working now in a regular motion, and he groaned tightly, trying to focus on the sensation of Levi's fingers plunging in and out of him, of the bright hotness each inward motion evoked. His cock was hardening rapidly, the tip already crowned and damp, and when he looked up again he could see Levi's eyes were on it, thoughtful and focused.

“That's what you want,” he said, his voice swaying almost drunkenly through the words, even as Levi's motions stalled. “Isn't it?”

“I want,” Levi said, with the familiar weight of purpose and surrender in his words, “What you want.”

“I want to see you like this,” Erwin said, and Levi hesitated, finding his gaze for confirmation. “Élie. I want to see you. Let me see you.”

Levi withdrew his hand, and Erwin groaned a little despite himself; what had felt strange and a little unremarkable before now felt utterly integral. The sensation of emptiness left him, however, when Levi sat down lightly on his thighs, seized his wrist, and pressed the canister into his hand.

Erwin found himself again. “No,” he said, shifting. “On your back. Lie on your back.”

The brightness in Levi's eyes was predatory now, poised and interested, like a snake waiting for a chance to strike. He slipped off of Erwin and did as he was told, stretching full length on his back, his thighs slightly spread. His cock was hard, but not yet to the point of straining, and it rested lightly on one thigh, twitching as he watched Erwin move.

Erwin lifted himself up, and watched Levi's eyes widen as he knelt over him.

“Put your hands up over your head, Élie,” he murmured, and leaned down to kiss him, soft and adoring. “Both of them. Wrists together.”

Erwin could see the tension thrumming through Levi's small body, the anticipation and pleasant uncertainty of real surrender. Levi did as he was told, that natural grace in him even here and now, and Erwin reached up to press his hand over the cross of Levi's wrists, as though securing them with his touch.

“Are you going to tie me or something?” Levi said. His voice was a little choked.

Erwin shook his head, running his fingers lightly through Levi's hair. “No,” he said. “No. You don't need to be bound, do you? Not to control yourself. You can control yourself, can't you, Élie? Keep your hands right there, just so? You don't need leashing like some animal.”

“No,” Levi breathed, and Erwin saw his hips jerk, involuntary. “I don't.”

“Because,” Erwin said, as he wrapped his hand around Levi's cock, “You want this in the same way that I do.”

“Yes,” Levi said, the relief in his voice almost painful. “Fuck, yes, I do.”

“Thank you.” Erwin leaned down to kiss him again, this time with long and lingering adoration. Levi lipped at his mouth, taking Erwin's lip between his teeth but not biting down, this time, only mouthing it, as though trying to taste him.

“I won't let you hurt me,” Levi said, letting his head fall to one side, resting against his uplifted shoulder. His face was flushed and so was his chest, redness even creeping up between his thighs, but his pale eyes were open and terribly lucid. “Trust me.”

“I do,” Erwin murmured. “I do. Thank you, Élie.”

Levi only nodded, brief and sharp, and Erwin, his fingers newly slicked with ointment, slipped his hand down between Levi's buttocks and found his entrance with smooth ease. Levi jerked against him as the first finger went in, and Erwin felt the tightness of him, the smallness. There was a delicateness here that even the strongest man would possess, he thought, a need to act with care until things were further adjusted. He looked up at Levi through the fall of his bangs as he pressed the single finger in to the last knuckle, and watched Levi's head go back, his mouth coming open in a heady gasp. He saw Levi's hands clenching, and he said, gently, “Hands still, now.”

“Mmh,” Levi said, closing his eyes for a moment. His chest heaved, and then relaxed, and his fingers uncurled, wrists neatly crossed once again, though Erwin could see the pulse jumping rapidly in his throat.

"Good,” Erwin said, and began to ease the next finger into him, biting back a moan of his own at the feeling of Levi's body clenching at him so powerfully. He did his best to rub as much of the ointment around Levi's entrance, hoping that it would be enough for what was coming, though he was beginning to suspect it wouldn't matter much to Levi, in the long run; Levi was moaning steadily now, his chin lifted, his breath coming hard through his nostrils, writhing a little every time Erwin's fingers plunged in again. Erwin was certain he had the right of it, now, the angle and all, and so after another small thrust he withdrew his hand, reaching down to grip his own cock. It throbbed angrily in his fist, feeling somehow heavier than it ever had before, and he gritted his teeth, trying to keep himself under control.

Levi whined at him as he drew away, his hips lifting off the bed in such a powerful lunge that his cock touched Erwin's belly. Erwin shuddered, and then slapped lightly at Levi's leg, evoking another deep moan.

“Hands,” he growled, and Levi subsided. His fists were clenched again but this time Erwin didn't admonish him at all. He lifted one of Levi's legs up and to the side, and after only a moment's hesitation to orient himself, he began to guide his cock into Levi's slicked entrance, with careful, calculating speed.

Levi cried out as Erwin's cock first entered him, throwing his head back in a wild toss, and it seemed to be taking all of his strength to maintain his unbound posture. His eyes were squeezed tightly shut, sweat beading on his forehead, which Erwin noticed in a deep and muddy haze of his own. Levi was incredibly tight, slick and hot, and for a moment it was all Erwin could do to catch his breath. Levi was panting hard through his nose, and when Erwin leaned down over him again, his hands now free, he could hear Levi muttering to himself in rapid and involuntary mixtures of English and his own original language.

The first roll of Erwin's hips pressed his cock nearly all the way in, and Erwin's growl overshadowed Levi's low moan of “Yes.” Levi's legs came up, his thighs pressing up against Erwin's sides, and then his legs were crossing at Erwin's back, holding him close as Levi pressed himself up and into Erwin, somewhere between groaning and snarling with want. The force of his need would have been surprising had Erwin not found himself matching it, and after a moment Erwin could only bow his head over Levi's chest and let all sensation take him. When he came at last it was with a snarl of his own, Levi twisting under him, his head snaking to one side to sink teeth into Erwin's straining forearm. He went on thrusting, dogged, until he felt Levi's small body go rigid, felt him spasming and shuddering and choking, and he could no longer keep himself inside.

Erwin slipped out of Levi with a groan, bent over him, awkward, for a moment, before letting himself drop onto his side instead. Levi whimpered, groping for him blindly, and Erwin reached for him in kind, clumsily pulling him close as though to reassure them both that neither of them had come apart.

“God,” Levi breathed into his shoulder. He was still trembling, a little. “God. Fuck, you're huge.”

“Most of me is, yes,” Erwin said, just as out of breath, and Levi laughed his odd little huffing laugh, curling into him.

“We're disgusting,” he said, after a pause, though he didn't seem as bothered by it as Erwin might have suspected he would be. He was dewy with sweat, as Erwin knew he himself was, and the contact of their bare skin was slick and damp and a little clammy.

“I have a washtub,” Erwin said. Levi drew back enough to meet his eyes, and the look on Levi's face made his heart ache.

God, he thought. How could I ever have turned you away?

***

Erwin didn't know when it was he'd truly fallen asleep – sometime after Levi had finished his ablutions, sometime after he'd kissed Levi so thoroughly that Levi had complained that Erwin was attempting to eat him – but he knew when he awoke to heavy-handed knocking that he had not been in that state nearly long enough. He rolled over and glanced at Levi, who had as usual crowded away from him towards his own end of the bed, despite the smaller size of this one, and he reached out to touch Levi's hair briefly, as though to ensure that Levi was still real, and still wearing the faint bruises of Erwin's hands on his hips.

The knock came again, more insistent.

“Moment,” Erwin muttered, sliding out of bed and fetching his soft wool sleep pants from their crumpled pile on the floor. He turned and pulled at the bed's coverlet enough to get a proper handful of it, then tossed it unceremoniously over the still-drowsing Levi, who made a muffled mumbling sound as Erwin left him to get the door.

“Yes?” he said as he opened it, and blinked at Radic, who was standing on the other side, both hands tucked behind his back. “Cadet Radic. It's quite early, isn't it? And I believe today is our day off.”

“Yes, sir,” Radic said. Despite the hour he sounded wide awake, and grave in a way Erwin had never heard him sound before. “It is. I thought today would be best, sir.”

“Best,” Erwin said, alarm thrilling through him suddenly at the remembrance that he was unarmed, that Levi was sleeping, that he was alone, suddenly, “For what?”

Radic brought his hands around from behind his back. In each he was holding a large, wicked looking knife, nearly identical to the one Levi had been wearing, slightly curved combat-made pieces of the sort that did not see the usual soldiering uses of doubling for dinner knives or cutting at twine. He met Erwin's eyes as he did so.

“We need to talk, sir,” he said, with perfect calm. “Immediately.”

Chapter Text

Between the combination of recent sleep and the suddenness of the flourishing, it took Erwin a second or so to experience any sort of internal reaction to Radic and his double knives. When words and action came to him, even then, they were calm, and measured, and seemed to occur in easy slow motion.

“Radic,” he said, tucking his head slightly to one side – it would come off, he knew, as though he were eyeing the left-most knife, but would also project his voice through the opened door and into the room, where he knew Levi was most likely awake and listening. “I'm not sure what you mean by coming here, armed and making demands, but I don't appreciate being threatened.”

Radic gave him a long look, and in that space of time Erwin sensed a change in the room behind him, one silent and predatory, and he was awake enough, now, to have to stifle a startled twitch when Levi's hand touched the small of his back in reassurance and then disappeared again, all in total silence, behind the door.

“I'm not threatening you,” Radic said. “I think this is something better discussed in private, sir.” He met Erwin's eyes, and there was urgency there, and something else Erwin hadn't expected: fear. “Please, sir.”

Erwin paused, then said, without looking at Levi, “What do you think?”

“I think,” Levi said, “That I'm a lot faster than he is, if he thinks he's going to try anything.”

Radic's eyes widened. “Levi's – Levi? Levi's in there with you? Sir, that isn't – he's trying to kill you. You're not safe with him.”

“I'm not sure I trust that your advice regarding my safety is altogether sound, at the moment,” Erwin said shortly, and held the door open. Levi had stepped back out of the way in the process; when Erwin turned to look at him, he saw with some relief that Levi had pulled his trousers on. He had his own knife drawn, held loose in one hand, and his eyes were on Radic. “Come in.”

Radic hesitated, and then crossed the threshold, and Erwin shut the door behind him again.

Radic looked at Levi, expression troubled and grim, and then turned to Erwin. He pressed his lips together for a moment, and then began to speak.

“The first time I met Lia,” he said, “She was hiding behind the women's bunkhouse, crying so hard she couldn't even stand up.” The furrow of his brow was heavy, and Erwin could see how tightly he gripped the blade in his right hand, as though his hold on it was helping him keep his hold on some heavy emotional weight. “The training master had ordered her to put her hair up properly, or cut it all off. Nobody'd ever taught her how to braid hair, and she was too scared to ask anybody.”

He was looking directly into Erwin's eyes as he spoke, and Erwin felt his stomach twist in sympathy, remembering his own conversation with Kaiser.

“My family is--” Radic paused, and then said, a bit delicately, “The people of my mother's family prefer to not cut their hair, or shave their faces and bodies. I'm... I don't do that, but I learned a long time ago how to take care of long hair. So, I taught her. We've been close friends ever since then.”

“That was kind of you,” Erwin said, stiff. “What does Cadet Kaiser have to do with you coming to my personal room, armed?”

Radic's fine jaw tightened, and his eyes flicked to Levi again. Levi looked back at him, utterly unmoved, clearly still prepared to move on Radic if Radic so much as gestured in a way Levi didn't like.

“One of them's hers,” he said.

Erwin's eyes widened. “Kaiser's knife.”

“Yeah.” Radic jerked his head slightly in Levi's direction. “Anyone who accepted the offer got one. They're not signed by the metal smith, and they're not part of any series – easier to dump, harder to track down later.” He flicked his wrist slightly, turning one knife around so that the handle pointed towards Erwin, and from the corner of his eye Erwin saw Levi flinch ever so slightly, humming like a tightly tuned string.

“She told me she wanted to tell you everything,” Radic said. “Because you promised her you'd protect her.”

“She doesn't need my protection,” Erwin began, frowning, “She is an extremely accomplished soldier--”

“Not protection in the field, sir.” Radic's dark eyes were firm. “I know she told you about her situation. She told me a long time ago. She is my best friend, sir, and she is an incredible warrior. But she needs safety in other ways, and I do my best to give it to her. She accepted the assassination assignment because someone out there has her real paperwork – obviously, since they sent it here to scare her.” His eyes flicked again to Levi. “I don't know why he took it.”

“Boredom,” Levi said, baring his teeth briefly. “I like a big game hunt once in a while.”

Radic shot Erwin a look that was half indignant and half worried, but Erwin ignored Levi. Instead, he said, “And why did you take it, Radic?”

“Because...” Radic scowled, expression defensive, as though aware of how he would sound but unwilling to lie. “Because I thought if she failed, somehow, I might make it instead, and I could use my reward offer to get her papers back. That's all, sir.”

He flipped the other knife around, and held the both out to Erwin, lowering his head a little so as to not meet Erwin's eyes. Erwin took them. They were heavy things, obviously weighted to make lunging a little easier. Blades made only for killing. Blades made only for killing him.

Stop underestimating how much your father hates you, Erwin.

Erwin looked at Levi, who lifted his head and met his eyes, now that Radic was no longer an armed threat. He saw the uncertainty in Levi, the loss of a specific goal – the threats against Erwin were removing themselves by choice, not by intervention, and he didn't seem to know quite what to do with himself.

Erwin thought about the locked drawer in his desk, filled with papers and carefully coded notes, evidence of years worth of treason and wrongdoing, pointing directly at Egon Smith and his cronies. These were the people who had arranged to have a young Mystic thief hung without fair trial, for the sake of peerage entertainment and personal satisfaction. They were the people who had sought out and terrified a talented young soldier, who had sent the paperwork that could very likely see her maimed or killed directly to a man who was known for his bigotry, even by Sina standards. They were the people who hadn't had the spines to see Erwin permanently silenced under their own power – instead they had set young innocents to a violent and dangerous task, clearly of the thought that one or two of them would likely be hurt or killed in the process.

What is the point of gathering information, of sitting on it, of waiting with it, if you are unwilling to use it as the weapon it is? he thought, and pressed his lips together. What is the point of scheming if you don't take risks of your own? You know what you need to do, Smith. You've known for some time.

“Radic,” he said, and the young man started slightly, looking up with apprehension. “Radic – thank you. For your honesty, for your honor, for the skills you have shown me as a part of my squad, and for your willingness to make sacrifices for a fellow soldier.” He straightened, and tapped his fist once against his heart, in an officer's acknowledging salute. “I am honored to be your captain, and Kaiser's. Her courage is inspiring, and I am...” he found himself a little choked, suddenly, his words crowding together with the rising feeling of gratitude. “I hope that I can be worthy of her trust in me, and of her skill. Please tell her this, when you return.”

“Sir,” Radic said. His voice was a little thick, his eyes bright with relief. “Sir, no – I'm honored. We both are. If you'd like to tell her yourself...”

“I'm afraid I won't be able to.” Erwin smiled, faintly. “I believe the time has come to put a stop to these people. To do so, I'm going to have to take a short journey to speak to a friend of mine.” He turned away, and went to lay the knives on his armoire surface, out of sight of the room's single window.

“Nilsen'd throw a fit,” Levi said, watching him, but Erwin shook his head as he turned back, now certain of his plan.

“He won't,” he said, “If I have good reason to leave.” He looked between them both, thoughtfully. “I am going to require your cooperation, however. Both of you.”

***

“What makes you think the prince'll have any interest in listening to you?” Levi said. He was perched among the hay bales stacked against the side of the horse barn in preparation for the evening's feeding, his torso around the level of Erwin's shoulder. “You said yourself you haven't seen him in something like a decade.”

Erwin stared out across the barracks yard. It was mostly deserted, as most of the soldiers were at the mess or in town enjoying their day off; the noon bell had yet to sound, signaling the end of meals.

“Levi,” he said, after a moment, “Are you familiar with the term 'whipping boy'?”

Levi turned his head, blinking at Erwin in faint confusion. “Yeah,” he said, hesitant. “Kids who get whipped instead of important people. Why?”

“When I was seven years old, I became Prince Theobald's whipping boy.” Erwin watched a winter-coated squirrel picking through the thatch on the mess hall's roof for stray seeds. “The royal family is, as we are frequently informed, too close to divinity to be accountable to mortal men. If the princes misbehaved, there would be no way for their tutors and governesses and other servants to discipline them – the common man does not strike the divine. And so, selections were made from among the princes' friends. Prince Theo and I were very close, at that age – so I was chosen.”

Levi said nothing, and after a moment Erwin glanced up at him and smiled a little.

“It worked out very well, truth be told,” he said. “Theo was dear to me, and I to him. He was a well behaved child – especially compared to Prince Archibald – and rarely saw trouble. The few times he did, I was switched. It was painful, to be honest, as I suppose you'd expect. But Theo wept over it far more than I did. The first time it happened, he was inconsolable until I was freed, and he was allowed to hold me. I was eight, I think, and he was ten.” He looked away again. The squirrel had been joined by a few small birds, and he focused on their tiny movements as he spoke. It was easier than looking directly at Levi.

“Usually once a prince is grown, the whipping boy is given land or titles or both, something to compensate him for his service. It's not considered a dishonorable position, not really. And Theo would have happily taken me on, into his own household as his adviser, or arranger of affairs, or something similar. I would have been happy to stay by his side – I love him, truly I do. He is a brother to me. But...”

“You wanted other things,” Levi said, softly. Erwin huffed a short laugh.

“In a way, I suppose,” he said. “My father had been informed, you see, of the important position his bastard was in, and he arrived to claim me officially.” He leaned back against Levi's hay bale, and was gratified to feel Levi's fingers curl gentle against his shoulder, out of the potential sight of any passersby, but still a comfort, an understanding connection. “I didn't want my father to have any access to Theo at all. I didn't want to be a bridge between him and Theo's good will. So I thought it would be more... advantageous... to join the military.”

“And you think the prince won't hold any of that against you?” Levi said. Erwin blinked, and then frowned.

“I don't think so,” he said, honestly. “Theo – Prince Theobald has quite a humanitarian reputation, these days. He's the Duke of Rose, now, and I hear that he's deeply invested in the betterment of his dukedom, and in the lives of the people who live there.”

“Noble,” Levi said, a bit flatly. “What's that got to do with you?”

Erwin glanced at him, for a moment wondering if it was jealously he was hearing in Levi's voice, but Levi's expression was only tense and worried.

“Nothing, I suppose,” he said, after a pause. “Nothing at all.”

“Then--”

“But it gives me hope that he could be a man worth trusting,” Erwin said, smiling briefly to himself as he remembered Nanaba's generous diagnosis of him. “And sometimes, Levi, all we can depend on is hope.”

Levi snorted at that, but his knee bumped Erwin's shoulder once, affectionate.

“Don't patronize me,” he said, looking away towards the mess hall as the midday bell began to toll. “There've been times when hope was the only thing that kept me alive. You were there, for some of them.”

His hand left Erwin's back and he slipped off the bale he'd been perched on, landing nimble and light on the grass. When he straightened up, his eyes had found Radic, emerging from the mess with Lia Kaiser at his side, the two of them talking animatedly and with all airs of innocence.

“Levi,” Erwin said. Levi didn't turn, but Erwin saw his body tense, listening for his voice the way an animal might listen for prey in the forest. “You were right about Frisk. I'm sorry I didn't believe you.”

“What made you change your mind?” Levi said. Erwin could see the flick of his dark lashes as his eyes moved. “You thought he was harmless.”

“He was the last person to handle your Gear,” Erwin said calmly. “And Radic's, and Kaiser's. Your Gear all failed in the same way – wire detachment from the anchors on both sides. Hanji looked them over and gave me a copy of the report a few days ago, while you were recovering. I didn't think much of it at the time, but the wire anchoring is deep inside the case – it's not a common malfunction at all. Someone tampered with the clasping. It couldn't have been anyone but him.”

Levi looked back over his shoulder, his mouth a little open, his eyebrows furrowed slightly.

“I'll find him, Erwin. Before he finds you. I swear it.”

He turned back, and strode off across the yard, towards Radic and Kaiser. Erwin straightened up, watching him.

When Levi reached Radic, he drew his heavy knife from its hip sheath, and lunged at him, the serrated edge pointing up. Radic had been half turned away as Levi moved, and didn't have time to reaction, but Kaiser stepped forward with an angry noise, fluidly seizing Levi's wrist and twisting it around. Levi cried out loudly and dropped the blade, jerking himself out of Kaiser's grip, and then Radic swung a fist out, aiming for his face.

“You little shit,” Radic bellowed, loud enough for the entire barracks to hear. “Who the fuck do you think you are?”

“Better than you, fuckhead,” Levi shouted back, a wild, cocky grin on his face that was unsettling to see for the rage it contained. “You thought you could just show me up like that and I wouldn't cut you open for it?”

Other soldiers were streaming out of the mess now, and coming out of the barracks and administration buildings, shouting about a fight breaking out. Levi had gotten a good grip on Radic's jacket, and had yanked him to the ground, where Radic had to roll away very quickly to avoid taking the heel of Levi's boot right to the face. His arm lashed out, and caught Levi by the other ankle, and Levi stumbled, dropping to one knee as he was pulled off balance.

“Someone get an officer!” Kaiser yelled, shoving at one of the other cadets, who was standing with her fellows and gawking at Levi and Radic. “Where's Captain Smith?! Captain Zacharius?!”

Erwin strode out from around the hay bales.

“What the hell is going on?” he bellowed, and half the cadets in the yard jerked halfway to attention in automatic terror. “What the hell do you two think you're doing? Cadet Radic! Stand up!”

“Sir, he's trying to fucking kill me!” Radic cried, the edge of hysteria in his voice. “He came at me with a knife!” He was scrambling backwards in the grass, trying to get as far from Levi as possible, but Levi stalked after him, fists raised, mouth twisted in fury. “Help me!”

“Just trying to fix your face, Oliver,” Levi said, with a terrible low menace, and Erwin turned towards him; he was on top of Levi in two strides, and reached out, seizing the collar of Levi's uniform jacket and hauling him right off the ground before turning and throwing him down again. Levi hit the packed earth with a breathless noise, wincing, and Erwin planted his boot firmly on Levi's chest. Levi's hands gripped at his ankle for a moment, and then fell away as he turned his attention to gasping for air instead.

“Is that what happened, Kaiser?” Erwin said, with perfect composure, turning to face the girl. He saw now that Petra Ral was standing just behind Kaiser, her face alight with horror and protest, but that Kaiser was holding her hand discreetly, squeezing it, reassuring.

“Yes sir,” Kaiser said, straightening up. She met his eyes directly and Erwin fought to keep the pride out of his expression. She'd done perfectly. “Cadet Levi attacked Cadet Radic with a knife, sir.”

“Cadet Ral,” Erwin said, sharply, and watched Ral startle. “Bring me the knife, please.”

Ral opened her mouth as if to protest, but then closed it again and nodded shortly, slipping out from behind Kaiser to do as she was told. She came to him with her head a little bowed, but once she was within his hearing range she attempted to speak, her voice lowered so that only he and Levi could hear.

“Sir, I understand how it looks, but I'm sure Cadet Levi was--”

“Cadet Ral,” Erwin murmured, gentle, and she looked up at him uncertainly as she pressed the knife into his outstretched hand. “I assure you that Cadet Levi is doing exactly as I have instructed him to do. Please trust him, and me.”

She blinked, her shoulders stiffening a little, and her eyes dropped to Levi, who met her gaze. After a moment she then nodded, though her expression remained troubled and confused. “Yes, sir. I... I'll try.”

“Go speak to Hanji,” Levi muttered, his mouth barely moving – it looked more like a grimace of pain. “She'll explain. Go.”

That seemed to be enough for Ral; she nodded again and then scurried back out of the way, brushing into Kaiser as she did so as though seeking further comfort. Kaiser touched her shoulder reassuringly.

“Fuck you,” Levi hissed up at him. Erwin glanced down at him, and was slightly amused to see the hint of familiar heat in his eyes, even as he squirmed a little under the pressure of Erwin's boot. “Get off me.”

“No,” Erwin said, voice lifted for the benefit of the watching soldiers. “Cadet Levi, I'm placing you under arrest. I put my trust in you. I risked my life for you, and you repay me by attacking a member of my squad?” He moved his foot, and reached down to yank Levi to his feet by one arm, twisting it up behind his back until Levi grunted with pain. “Come with me. We'll be speaking to the Commander.”

“Thank you, sir,” Radic called. He'd been pulled to his feet by his comrades, many of whom still had their hands on him protectively. “Thank you. I'm sorry, sir.”

“It's certainly not your fault, Radic,” Erwin said shortly. He jerked at Levi's arm; Levi made a noise that was all too familiar to Erwin now, and he pressed his lips together to hide his smile. “Come on, you.”

He shoved Levi towards the administration building, keeping a hand on his bent wrist.

Once they were inside, Erwin closed the entry door behind them, and let go of Levi for a moment, to give him time to recover. Levi was still gasping a little, the air having been knocked from his lungs, and Erwin laid a careful hand between his small shoulders, rubbing his back in reassurance.

“I'm sorry,” he murmured.

“I'm not,” Levi said softly. He lifted his head up, and let it fall back against Erwin's chest, and Erwin put his other arm around Levi automatically, holding him close. He could feel Levi's heart hammering in his breast, and he closed his hand against it, as though he could take it gently in his palm and soothe it himself. Levi gripped his wrist, and drew in a deep breath, as though steeling himself for what was to come, and Erwin, overwhelmed suddenly by the love of him, by the trust of small hawks and lonely orphans, leaned down and pressed a kiss to the crown of Levi's head, squeezing him closer.

“I am with you,” he said, gentle. “And you are with me.”

It was all he said, but Levi seemed to understand. He nodded, gripping at Erwin's arm more tightly for a moment, and then loosened his hold, signaling for Erwin to let him go. Erwin did so with reluctance.

“Just walk calmly, I think.” Erwin touched Levi's hair again briefly, and then dropped his hands. “Try to look cowed.”

“That's going to be hard for me,” Levi said, with a faint smile. “That never happens.”

“Try, for me,” Erwin said, amused. “Just this once.”

Levi rolled his shoulders, adjusted his posture, and then slumped where he stood. When he walked forward again, there was defeat and sorrow in every movement, his expression one of badly disguised dejection. Erwin walked behind him.

Nilsen was in his office, the door partially ajar, and he looked up in vague, suspicious surprise as Levi and Erwin came in. “What's going on here, Smith?” he said, closing the ledger he'd been writing in and leaning back in his chair.

“Cadet Levi attacked one of my soldiers with a knife, Commander.” Erwin prodded Levi's shoulder with one hand, and reached into his jacket to take out the knife. “I believe he would have murdered Radic if Cadet Kaiser hadn't stepped in.”

“So,” Nilsen said, leaning forward and steepling his fingers, his eyes on Levi, who looked away, refusing to meet them. “Our Levi has a bit of a violent streak, it seems. Somehow, I'm not surprised.”

“What's that supposed to mean?” Levi muttered, and Nilsen lifted his eyebrows slightly.

“And an attitude problem,” he said. He looked up at Erwin. “Well, Smith? What do you propose we do with him? Lashes, perhaps?”

“Sir,” Erwin said, “I think he should be placed under arrest and taken to the nearest military court authority for trial. There is one in the Rose dukedom – Garrison's headquarters is there, and they're more than equipped for such things.”

To Erwin's surprise, Nilsen frowned at the suggestion, and then shook his head.

“We can't spare the soldiers right now to march the little bastard up there,” he said. “Especially not you. You're a squad leader now. Your place is here. We can throw him in the brig for a while and see where he is in a week or so.”

“Sir,” Erwin said, stepping forward and keeping a steady grip on Levi's shoulder, “I believe that Cadet Levi is too dangerous to remain at this outpost. I have reason to believe he only came here in the first place to kill me, in revenge for our previous meeting--”

“I'm sure the brig can hold one Mystic, Smith,” Nilsen said, a look of incredulous amusement crossing his face. “What are you so afraid of?”

Erwin opened his mouth to respond, even though he had no real words with which to do, but a voice from the doorway cut across the office instead.

“They have to leave, Cyrus.”

Under Erwin's hand, Levi's body bristled tangibly, and he turned in the same movement as Erwin did to see Frisk, who was standing in the doorway, touching the jam with one hand and wearing a mild, faintly displeased expression.

“They have to leave,” he repeated, and stepped forward. “Cyrus, come on. You're fucking this entire thing up.”

“I beg your pardon?” Nilsen said, his nostrils flared wide, spots of color appearing on his cheeks at the sheer temerity of Frisk's use of his given name. “Where the bloody hell have you been all this time, Frisk?”

Frisk looked at Erwin, and for the first time Erwin truly looked at him, and saw the deep and fathomless emptiness in his pretty blue eyes, saw the utter lack of anything beyond superficial emotion on his face and in his body language. Frisk didn't smile at him, or offer one of his wincing little head bobs; he made eye contact with Erwin, unblinking, the way a cat would.

“Erwin,” he said, “You should definitely go. Both of you should. Ride out to see your friend. I'll even give you a head start. That'd be fair, wouldn't it?”

His tone was mild and unaffected, and Erwin had trouble processing what he was saying.

“I'm – fair? What do you mean by fair?”

“Frisk,” Nilsen snarled, rising up from his chair, “If you don't--”

Frisk leaped past Erwin, in a movement so fast Erwin barely tracked it; Levi ducked out of the way, using Erwin's larger body as a shield, and Frisk landed atop Nilsen's desk in a lunging motion.

Nilsen sat back down heavily in his chair, making a strange, breathy gurgle as he did so, his arms dropping loosely; they struck the arm rests at his sides and then rolled off to dangle towards the floor. His eyes were very wide, and he turned slightly towards Erwin, an inhuman hissing noise escaping his parted lips. There was a heavy fighting knife buried to the hilt in his throat.

“Fair,” Frisk said, slipping off the desk without looking behind him. He gripped the knife's hilt and drew it out of Nilsen without flourish. Blood began to gush forth in a torrent and Nilsen writhed, choking on it, his eyes rolling back in his head, spittle at the corners of his mouth. “Fair is the only thing that makes it interesting.”

Levi began to surge forward, snatching his own knife from Erwin's hand, but Erwin seized him and pulled him back.

“Makes what interesting?” he said, watching Frisk, who was gently trying to push the dying Nilsen out of his chair with the toe of his boot. “Killing me?”

“Yeah.” Frisk looked up, his brow furrowed. His prettiness made the utter lack of humanity on his face all the more terrible, as though he were some fallen angel come to earth. Some of Nilsen's blood had spurted out across his dress shirt, but he didn't seem to have noticed. “It's not a challenge if you can't fight back.”

“Is that what this is to you?” Erwin said. “A challenge?”

Frisk paused, and then turned towards him. He was frowning fully now, with an almost childlike confusion.

“Not really?” he said, the tone of his voice making it somewhat a question. “It's just that I like you, Erwin. You're a lot more real than most people I've met... killing you would be hard, for me. You're strong, and fast – and you have your thing, there.” He gestured slightly at Levi. “But more than that, you're clever. And I've never had permission to kill, before.”

He turned away, surveying the window of Nilsen's office. Nilsen had slumped over, his eyes open and rapidly dulling.

“It's sort of lonely,” Frisk said, “Being the only real living thing in the world.”

He leaned over, and lifted open the window, wide enough for it to be climbed out of, and then he turned back.

“So you should get your things together and make a run for it. It's okay. I'll give you a half day's head start.”

“If I don't?” Erwin said, quietly, but Frisk seemed unmoved by the challenge.

“I'll have to hurt somebody else, I guess,” he said idly, wiping his knife against Nilsen's back, and then slipping it back into its sheath. “That little girl Ral, probably. Or maybe Radic and Kaiser, since I think you like them. You do, don't you?”

Erwin pressed his lips together without response, and Frisk nodded slightly, more to himself than to Erwin.

“So get moving,” he said, leaning against the windowsill. “I haven't had a good chase in a really long time, Erwin. I hope you won't let me down.”

Chapter Text

“I never spent more than few minutes with that kid,” Hanji said, visibly uneasy as she leaned back against her desk. Her hands were still scraped and battered from the recent expedition, and there was a still-healing burn slashing across one cheekbone; she looked as rough as Erwin felt, and there was a faint and unsteady grate to her low voice, a weight in her that Erwin knew to be her own internal struggle between collected soldier and that vague madness that seemed to plague genius. “I couldn't say what he was really like.”

“Likewise,” Mike said, his broad arms folded across his chest. Aside from Petra Ral, who had been sitting in one of Hanji's well-weathered and likely stolen chairs and nursing a cup of tea when Erwin had burst in, Mike had been the first to arrive at Hanji's workshop with questions. Nanaba had been close at his heels, her short hair more windblown than usual, and now they were arrayed in a rough semi-circle, clustered closely together as though concerned they'd be overheard even through the locked door of Hanji's small research lab, which had once been a cold-storage room attached to the far end of the mess. Mike had come with his particular air of vague, serene melancholy, but Nanaba, upon closer inspection, seemed to have cast off her customary relaxed poise – there was a darkness on her handsome face that Erwin could not yet place.

“I supervised his only flight trial, the one from six months ago,” Mike went on, glancing at Nanaba as though to confirm the truth of this. “The only impression I had was that he was nervous, and would probably get himself killed in a couple of minutes if we took him out into the field.”

“Not a one of us ever noticed the lad was out of his mind?” Erwin exclaimed, a little more stridently than he meant to. Nanaba looked over at him, brief and sharp.

“You spent the most time with him, Smith,” she said, propping a hand on one hip and narrowing her eyes. “You of all people should have noticed.”

“I noticed,” Levi muttered, but Erwin shot him a glance and he looked away, affecting an air of tense innocence.

“Well, it's sort of unimportant right now, isn't it?” Hanji said, tucking her hands matter-of-factly into her jacket pockets. She looked at Erwin frankly and without pity. “Nilsen's been murdered, and there's a dangerous and apparently extremely well trained man on your ass, and he's given you a time limit.”

“Why didn't you kill him then and there?” Nanaba hadn't quite lost her look of impatience. “There were two of you – and far be it from me to pre-judge,” she added, eyeing Levi in apparent speculation, “But I had the impression at least one of you was capable of some pretty quick violence.”

Levi was not visibly piqued by her tone, as his demeanor remained mild, though Erwin detected a hint of sullenness in his response. “He's bigger and stronger than me,” he said, simply. “And faster. They graduated him six months early because of that. Supposedly,” he added, shrugging. “If he'd graduated in our class, I would've been second to his first. I didn't want to get killed then and there, and leave Erwin without backup.” He paused, then added, “And anyway – Erwin stopped me.”

Erwin put aside the little twinge of feeling Levi's words gave him for later. “I simply thought I might be able to reason with him,” he said, and shrugged a little. “If not now, then later.”

“Even after he murdered someone in front of you,” Hanji said, a little sardonic. Erwin didn't bristle; she had a point, and he had lived with her long enough to know that Hanji in her serious moments was always best heeded, even if it rankled at one's pride.

“Wouldn't that have shown on his paperwork?” Mike said. There was no challenge in his words, only gentle inquiry. “His scores, I mean. The papers we received were pretty frank about his lack of skill.”

“I've been shown some evidence that someone involved in this business has access to official paperwork,” Erwin said, carefully. “I'm completely certain that things can and have been altered to suit what they need.”

Nanaba glanced at him sharply at this, but said nothing, only narrowed her eyes in apparent thought. When Erwin met her look with a questioning one of his own, she shook her head in dismissal; something in what he'd said has sent the darkness fleeing from her, and Erwin had no intention of making any movements to summon it again. He turned back to Hanji.

“In any case,” he said, “You're correct. There's little point worrying over the details now. I only have so much time.

Hanji nodded, once. “So – what are you going to do?”

Erwin pressed his lips together. “I intend to follow my original plan,” he said after a moment. “Levi and I will ride for Prince Theobald's estate, with copies of my evidence against Embry and his masters. I will present what I have to the Prince, and hope that he'll be willing to pass it on to neutral parties capable of doing something about it.”

“Seems like a bit of a long shot,” Mike said thoughtfully. “You're certain the Prince'll be willing to help?”

“I am,” Erwin said. This, at least, was a place of calm – he truly was certain. “He'll be willing.”

“Well then, all you have to do is get to the prince before Frisk gets to you,” Hanji said, and she grinned, the grim and wild expression Erwin knew as her killing face, more often seen under a slick of steaming titan blood. “Easy.”

“Easy,” Levi repeated, a darkness in his tone that Erwin understood was his own expression of fear. Levi's presence was tremendously grounding, Erwin found. He had half thought the opposite the night before, just before he'd slipped into proper sleep; that the advancing of his relationship with Levi – the solid knowledge of Levi's body, his heat both outside and in, the twist and writhe of his limbs and the heavy animal sounds of him in the throes of arousal – would have in the end some form of negative effect on his focus. He'd briefly and with sleepy amusement pictured himself in the midst of important meetings and operations, suddenly reeling back with the image of Levi's spread thighs and his damp open mouth at the fore of his mind, and had decided with the serenity of post-coital dreaminess that it would be a small price to pay for such beauty. But such things had not interrupted the swift flow of his thoughts yet, today, and though he knew it could be attributed to the series of increasingly tense encounters the day had contained, he was oddly certain that it wasn't.

Erwin felt clear-headed, focused, and sure. The thunderous uncertainty that had come to him so often in the past, the vacillation between choices and dubious sense of personal responsibility, had been swept away, leaving a broad internal calm. He knew, too, that it was not the product of having at last attained some base physical satisfaction, some access to Levi as an object of lust and desire. He had not won a prize, nor defeated an opposition. The feeling was not triumph. It was comfort.

No man lives alone, Erwin thought, glancing down at Levi, who was looking away towards the still silent Petra. She was smiling back at him with firm warmth, and Erwin recognized her look as not dissimilar to his own feelings.

With Levi it was and never had been an issue of taming. It was, instead, entirely about what Levi chose to offer, and Levi's warmth, whether in platonic or romantic capacity, was a precious and reassuring thing. He had offered Erwin his most vulnerable possession – not his body, or even his heart, but his trust.

It was this knowledge, Erwin knew, which had quieted for good his meandering tendencies.

“Straightforward enough,” he said, and though he smiled at Hanji as he spoke, his hand pressed between Levi's shoulder blades, heavy and warm. “I'm certain we can manage.”

Hanji eyed him for a moment, as though she has suspicions in mind that his certainty had not yet soothed, but she said nothing to the effect; instead, she only nodded, once, in a short and sharp bob.

“All right,” she said. “But what should we do?”

“Stay here,” Erwin said. This part, he had already planned for. “Guard my copies of the evidence as best you can. Try to ensure no one finds out about Nilsen yet – God knows how quickly the information would get back to the capital and I've no doubt that it would only make things worse. The story, for after, is thus: Levi fought with another cadet, and so I took him to the Rose dukedom center as planned. Frisk murdered Nilsen after our departure, and came after me, whereupon Levi, faithful soldier that he is, will take it upon himself to kill Frisk in order to save the life of his commanding officer.”

Levi looked up at him, pale eyes wide. “Even if I don't--”

“That is the story,” Erwin said, firmly. He squeezed Levi's shoulder, a little more tightly than he might have another's, and Levi fell quiet, though the visible worry did not leave him. “I will, of course, be inspired to forgive your assault on Radic, based on your loyalty. And there we are.”

“You really think you can kill him?” Mike said. His eyes were not on Levi, but on Erwin. His mouth was a little tight. “Of course you've got to defend yourself, but planning on it... it's a bit like a murder, isn't it?”

“I intend to survive.” Erwin met his gaze. “And to protect others from a man who clearly has no qualms with cold-blooded murder, himself.”

Mike nodded slightly, still looking troubled. Nanaba glanced at him, and then reached out and up to press her hand against the side of his face. Mike closed his eyes and leaned into her touch, and the fretful set of his mouth evened out again. Nanaba's thumb brushed his cheekbone and with her hands on him Mike suddenly resembled nothing more than a massive, gentle beast, bowing its head to a power it did not possess but trusted utterly. It was painfully familiar, and Erwin glanced away, aware he was witnessing something rather intimate.

In doing so, his eyes fell on Ral again; she was watching him, her mouth slightly open as though she had something she wished to say, and after a moment she blinked at him, then cleared her throat.

“Captain Smith,” she said softly, “May I also have copies to guard, sir?”

Erwin frowned. “Cadet Ral, I really do not wish to involve you in this situation, or endanger you--”

“Endanger me more or less than taking me out beyond the Walls?” Ral said. A small smile, grim but firm, touched her lips. “Am I more likely to die from titans, or from politics, sir?”

Levi huffed quietly beneath Erwin's hand in apparent approval. Erwin knew she wasn't wrong, though he couldn't shake off that desire to protect her through exclusion. She was so young, and so small, perched on the edge of Hanji's battered chair with a teacup pressed between her fingers, all bright-eyed determination. But training alone was dangerous – a handful of trainees died every year via illness or mishap – and Survey Corp a hundred times so, and she was perfectly correct: he had already led her out into the sunlight and shown her off to dangerous monsters.

“Very well,” Erwin said, and Ral smiled at him with no small amount of pride. “But please be careful. Give no indication you know that anything is amiss.”

“Of course.” She bobbed her head.

“Good.” Erwin looked at Hanji. “There are copies in my mattress, and beneath a loose floorboard under my armoire. I have the originals with me already. I think we'll take one of the emergency supply bags – they're big enough to fit a full set of Gear for at least a little while, and Levi can strap it on once we're out of sight of the barracks. If one of you could help me corral the horses, I'd be grateful.”

“I'll do it,” Nanaba said quickly, and slapped Mike's shoulder lightly as she moved past him and towards the door of the lab. “Come on. You don't have time to waste.”

“Erwin,” Hanji said, as he and Levi fell into step behind Nanaba.

Erwin turned back, lifting his eyebrows slightly in a silent question. Hanji smiled, thin and a little ill.

“Don't die,” she said.

***

Levi left them halfway across the yard in order to creep back into the barracks to gather his things and Erwin's; Erwin watched with only the smallest amount of surprise as he scrambled up the administrative building's drain spout and leapt easily onto the heavy thatched roof, then disappeared. He wasn't certain he would ever become fully accustomed to Levi's displays of acrobatics. He half-turned to Nanaba to comment as such, but before he could even open his mouth she was speaking, her voice tight and low.

“What do you know about paperwork, now?” she said.

The brief glance she gave him was scrutinizing and strangely aggressive, as though he'd made some gesture of threat towards her that he didn't understand, and he blinked back at her in surprise. The alternation and procuring of official papers was a subject brought entirely to his attention by Kaiser's plight, but he could hardly say as such to Nanaba. It was clear enough to Erwin the danger that Kaiser would be put in, should the facts of her situation become known to the wrong sorts of people, and though he liked and trusted Nanaba both, and considered her both righteous and trustworthy, the fact was, Erwin was certain, that for a young woman like Kaiser one could never safely tell who the wrong sort of people might be. It was neither his place to explain what he knew, and nor was it safe.

Kaiser had been forced to trust him in a situation beyond her control, and it had caused her no small amount of fear and distress. He was determined to guard her at every angle from such distress ever after. She was, after all, his soldier, just as he'd told her.

He said, without flinch or pause, “I know that when I first met Levi, his official paperwork gave his surname as 'Rivaille' – an attempt on his part to disguise his heritage as French. When he arrived here, his intake papers recorded it properly as 'Levi'. A sort of warning to him, I suppose.” It was a faintly clumsy lie – Levi had possessed no official papers until a set had been forged for him as part of his induction into the training squad, he made no attempts to disguise his heritage, and Erwin only remembered him attempting to tell Marshal Embry the false pronunciation at his trial – but it did the duty of keeping Kaiser's name far away from his response.

Nanaba gave him a dark and suspicious look, clearly knowing she was being lied too, as Erwin had expected she would.

“Don't fuck around with me, Smith,” she said. Erwin could hear the real menace in her tone, and he knew she was no maker of idle threats. “I want to know what you know.”

“What I know,” Erwin said, undaunted, “Is private information between myself and the individuals involved. I'm sorry, Lieutenant. I can say no more than this.”

For a moment she only glared at him, with no change in severity, until quite suddenly the darkness disappeared from her eyes and she smiled, faint and a little grim.

“That's good,” she said. “I was hoping you'd say that, at the very least.”

“I beg your pardon?” Erwin said, baffled. “You consider this a good response?”

“I do.” Nanaba stopped in front of the stable door, gripping the latch with one hand as she looked up at him. “Because you're protecting her. No risks, no name dropping, no hints to see if I know the same thing you do. That's good, Smith.”

Erwin said, tensely, “I'm afraid I don't follow.”

Nanaba laughed, a short, sharp sound. “I know about Lia Kaiser. I've known for a while.”

“I don't know what you mean--”

“I'm the same as she is, Erwin,” Nanaba said, with such sudden intensity that Erwin shut his mouth before he even realized he'd been silenced. Nanaba was looking at him, her expression not quite a glare, but challenging nonetheless. She nodded as he stared at her mutely.

“Yeah,” she said. “I've been keeping my eye on her since she arrived. She's young. She needs guidance. And there are some things only I can teach her. I've been teaching her. So, after you came to her with the papers, she came to me, to see if there was anything else I could do about it.”

“Because,” Erwin said, finding his voice again, and finding it steady, at that, “You've done it, too.”

“It wasn't as hard for me,” Nanaba said. “My given name's Alexis. It's fine for a man or a woman. All I had to do was change one little section. And that was years ago.” She paused, and added, with a softness in her voice that Erwin had never heard before, “And I've always had Mike.”

“Why, then – the distance?” Erwin asked, turning towards her fully. “He didn't do something to hurt you, did he?”

“No.” She shook her head. “He's known about me – all about me – for years. He loves me. He... I don't like to say things like 'he doesn't care,' you know. It makes it sound like these things don't matter. My body matters to him a great deal. He cares.” She lifted her chin a little, not quite looking at him. “He cares very much.”

“Of course,” Erwin murmured, wanting to encourage without interrupting. “It's the sort of man he is.”

“Yes.” she smiled, fleeting. “But even then, sometimes I still get scared. That's the way it is, Smith. I can look after myself, I can fight ten times as hard as half the men here, I'm not afraid to threaten a man your size for someone else's sake, but I still get scared of my own fucking man.”

She turned away from him, but her voice was still steady when she spoke again, though he couldn't see her face. “So I hope you understand what I mean when I say that I like you, and I trust you enough to give you a chance, with me and with Kaiser, but I will never trust you enough to be sure of you forever. I just can't – even if I could, I wouldn't. Because that's how one or both of us might get hurt. Do you get me?”

“Yes,” Erwin said, without hesitation. He did, absolutely. “Trust is a gift not owed to anyone. It is not the same thing as friendship or even love. I believe that with all my heart.”

He saw the relief in her expression, and he looked away from it – it felt intrusive to witness. “I do consider you a friend, Nanaba,” he said, instead. “And a woman upon whom I can always rely for sound and sensible advise.”

“Even if that advice might turn out to be 'get out of my way or I'll punch you in the head?'” Nanaba said, smiling a little, and Erwin nodded soberly.

“I would always like to know if there's a chance I can avoid being punched in the head,” he said seriously, and she laughed, a little more relaxed than she had been when they'd arrived.

“Well enough,” she said, and pulled the stable door latch up and to the side. “Come on, let's get your nags ready to run.”

They were nearly finished saddling the horses when Levi returned. Erwin had paused between Levi's mounts, the little grey mare and the sturdy dark liver-chestnut, and had finally decided on the latter, figuring that the animal's previous experience in the field had at least given it a taste of what it meant to be ridden under pressure. The gelding was docile, and stood calmly chewing his midday mouthful of hay as Nanaba cinched the girth into place, only showing signs of displeased protest when she pulled the last of the hay from one side of its mouth to fit the bit into his mouth. Erwin had decided to take Nuit for himself, on the thought that Nuit's stamina would be more valuable here over Liebe's speed.

Levi had changed into a fresh set of trousers and a new uniform shirt, and as he approached he slung a heavy canvas bag off his back, dropping it at Erwin's feet.

“A change of clothes for you,” he said, “And your sidearm. I figured you might need it at some point.”

“Oh, God,” Nanaba said, stepping back out of Levi's way. “I'm getting out of here before bullets start flying.” She met Erwin's eyes over Nuit's back, and gave him a smile that was, at last, warm.

“If you fail,” she said, “Don't worry. I'll take care of her. Mike and I will.”

“Thank you,” Erwin said, swallowing. “But I won't fail.”

“I hope not.” She smirked sideways at Levi, and turned away, her boot heels thudding dully on the dirt floor.

“Nice to know they have faith in us,” Levi muttered, crouching to rummage through the bag he'd brought. “I brought a field medic kit, too. Some extra food. Two of those tree hammocks we're supposed to use in forest cover.” He looked up. “Unless we're going to ride through the cities all the way there.”

“No,” Erwin said, shaking his head. He took the pistol up out of the bag. It was a simple, unadorned flintlock pepperbox, with a slightly longer barrel than a civilian model might have had. Levi had put it in half-cock to prevent it firing in the bag, and after a moment's consideration Erwin left it that way and tucked it into his belt, fairly certain that it wouldn't need discharging within the next five minutes.

“Chaviv?” Levi said.

Erwin looked up from his adjustments. “I'm sorry?”

Levi ran his hand along the arch of the liver gelding's neck, fingers twining briefly into its mane. “Him. You think I should take him? He was in the field with me. Doesn't he need a rest?” He seemed genuinely worried, more so than Erwin would have thought he'd be, given Levi's previously shared thoughts on horses and their used to him.

“He seems steady enough,” Erwin said, and smiled a little. “What does Chaviv mean?”

Levi scowled briefly, and let his hand drop. “It means big and ugly,” he said, and turned away to busy himself with connecting the heavy supply bag to Chaviv's saddle. The big horse turned as he did to lip at his clothing, gently, and Levi made no effort to shove him away. Erwin suspected, with fond amusement, that he had been lied to, but he let it go.

When they rode out at last, Levi leading the front with his best attempt at an air of furious dejection, a number of the other soldiers were in the yard, and all eyes turned to watch them go. Erwin twisted in his saddle to look behind him as they turned up the path into the town, and saw them – Radic and Kaiser, standing together to one side, close together. When she saw him looking, Kaiser smiled, nervous but hopeful, and raised one hand in a little wave.

Erwin turned away without returning the gesture, and urged Nuit into a quick trot. Here and now, he had promises to fulfill.

Chapter Text

They stopped for a few minutes on the outskirts of the Zhinganshina township, at the far end of a broad sheep pasture a few lengths from the Maria ferry, so that Levi could tie himself into his harness and Gear. He was relatively quick about it, but Erwin fidgeted all the same, watching the sky. It was only just midday, but the sky was thunderously dark, swollen grey-green clouds clustering gradually together in rain-gravid clumps. The sheep in the pasture were visible some ways away, huddled together under a tin-roof shelter and giving occasional uneasy bleats. The ferry was visibly sparse from the hillock, the few Garrison soldiers milling about the near the water's edge or trying to huddle pre-emptively beneath the small arch of Wall Maria's foot entrance.

Erwin looked over at Levi, who was buckling the harness straps against his thighs. He had looped Chaviv's reins over the saddle horn to avoid him tangling his feet, and the big horse didn't seem to have much interest in leaving, though he snorted occasionally, ears flexing this way and that, clearly smelling the impending storm. Levi was winching as he settled the thigh buckles into place, and Erwin remembered the nasty burns there with a sympathetic grimace. Levi enjoyed pain at times, he'd found, but those times tended to be heated and intimate moments, not in suffering wounds on the battlefield.

“Levi,” he said, and Levi looked up, hands paused around his own waist. “We could pad the straps a bit, maybe. To make it less painful.”

“Nothing'll help,” Levi said stoically, giving the belt line a good jerk to ensure it was tight. “It's going to hurt no matter what. Just gotta get used to it.”

Erwin hesitated, aware that with all rectitude in mind Levi should still be recovering in a bed somewhere, either under the watchful eyes of Carla Jaeger and her son or in the vicinity of Survey's doctoring team. Levi was mobile, certainly – he had proven as much – but Erwin could see the fatigue still in him, the small hesitations in his movements as sore muscles complained and the depth of the bruised color beneath his already hooded eyes, and worry touched him again, for a moment, the kindling of a small flame in his stomach.

He held his tongue, and squelched the nervous little heat. This journey would be difficult and exhausting for both of them, he knew, and more so for Levi than for him, but it would still be safer for both of them be together like this than for him to have left Levi behind. For all Levi's obedience and apparent faith in him Erwin was fairly certain in any case that leaving him at the outpost would have needed to involve heavier doses of laudanum than would have been healthy for a young man of his size; nothing else would have kept him still.

“If you say so,” he said, instead, and held out his hand.

Levi looked up at him again, and then at his outstretched hand, and turned easily towards it, fitting himself into Erwin's grip so that Erwin could check his strappings and buckles for security, and for his own satisfaction. He stood as still as a patient horse as Erwin tugged and pulled, eyelids lowered and mouth relaxed and a little open, visibly calmed and comforted by the process; Erwin remembered the day of his demonstration three years ago, when he had fitted Levi into the harness in front of his father and the others, how it had felt as right then as it did now. When he was certain of the fit, he hooked his arm around Levi's waist and pulled him into a brief, rough embrace.

“You will tell me if you feel too weak to keep going,” he said, lips moving against the silky hair. “That isn't a request. Be honest.”

“As long as you don't strap me to your saddle like a flour sack, or something,” Levi muttered. “I'll be fine, Erwin.”

He didn't wriggle, nor was he stiff and unhappy, but Erwin let him go all the same, and turned to mount Nuit once more, his own Gear clanking loudly around his thighs. He watched Levi wince as he settled into his saddle, the box and its buckle weighing too heavy on his burns, and he said nothing.

Levi would tell him.

The rain began not long after, and the thick wool of their Survey cloaks did little to keep it out. In the rush, Erwin hadn't thought to change them out for the lighter, linseed oil waterproofed cotton they usually took along during foul weather. He began to regret it more and more with each passing mile, as the smell of wet wool filled his nostrils and the moisture trapped humidly against his clothing made him uncomfortably warm despite the chill. Levi had pulled his cloak hood up over his head, and was hunched closely to Chaviv's neck; Erwin could see his hand extend every now and then, pale in the rain-dark, to stroke the big horse's neck reassuringly.

The road through Maria territory was straightforward enough, at least. Maria's part in the production of humanity's food and goods was not insignificant, and the necessity of properly tended roadways and accessibility between towns had long ago given rise to wide, packed earth roads, which usually gave way to cobble as they snaked through Maria's townships. There were a number of alternate roads, as well, used primarily during seasons of heavy merchant travel to avoid congestion, but Erwin had decided that the main roadway would suit them well enough. There was no point in attempting to hide their passage from a man like Frisk, he suspected, and either way making the effort to do so would cost them time they didn't have to lose. Harvest season was at its end, and they had little company on the road, allowing them both to urge the horses as quickly as they could go without worry over a collision or roadblock.

It took them the rest of the day and much of the night to reach middle Rose, and by the time the sun began to crest the eastern walls, Levi was visibly exhausted. They had stopped under tree cover to rest and water the horses for an hour before making their way through Rose's Southernmost land-gate, but other than that the journey had been continuous, wet, and draining, and it was clear to Erwin that Levi was nearing collapse. There had been not the slightest sign of Frisk's pursuit, and Erwin was beginning to regret the rapid pace he'd set for them. He wished, and not for the first time, that he had made himself familiar with Rose territory long ago, if only to be able to reassure the drooping and dull-eyed Levi that they were nearly within Prince Theobald's landholdings. When they came upon the borders of a large, well-to-do looking township, Erwin slowed Nuit's pace to a walk, letting Levi fall behind him, and led them up and through the town's central road.

It was only just dawn, but there were already a number of people on the street, most of them house servants or shop attendants by the look of them, hurrying to work or to fetch the wood and breakfast cream from the shops before everyone else woke up. A team of three men in simple uniforms was sweeping the street, dipping water from a large barrel mounted on a cart to wash refuse and mud into the city's gutters. The carthorse snorted at them curiously as they rode by, but neither Chaviv nor Nuit seemed to have much energy for greetings.

When they came upon a street corner Erwin stopped, and glanced around until his eyes lit on a young woman in trousers and a monmouth cap, carrying a heavy-looking stack of twine-bound newspapers.

“Excuse me,” he called. The young woman looked up at him without much interest.

“It's three pence,” she said. “But give me a moment to get my papers out, yeah?”

“Thank you,” Erwin said, “But actually I'm in need of some direction. Where, precisely, is Prince Theobald's estate? I know that it's nearby, but I'm not here very often.”

“Oh.” The woman nodded, expression knowing, as though she heard this question often. She turned a little and gestured up the street, which was situated on a gradual incline. “This here is Central. You follow Central to the top of the hill, there's a crossroad there. Go left, that one's Rose Way. It should go up the rest of the hill, and you're there. If you've got an appointment for later today you want to tell whoever's on the gate – they can show you where to stow your horses and rest a bit until the Prince is seeing people.”

“He sees a lot of people, I suppose?” Erwin said.

“Anybody who's got need of him, when he has the time.” The young woman turned away, dropping her newspapers on the curb with a clear air of dismissal. “Travel safe.”

“Thank you.” Erwin tapped his fist against his left breast once, and glanced over at Levi. “Just a bit more, then. Can you manage?”

“I'm fine,” Levi said, and true enough there was strength in his voice, despite his slight pallor. Erwin nodded, and urged Nuit back into motion.

As the ascended the hill, the estate came into full view, unobscured by tree or building, affording the town below a full radial view of the grounds. So far as palace estates went, Erwin, though, it was relatively small. The palace was centered around a single, elegant tower spire, which was a dull grey-red trimmed in beige and roofed in steely blue tiling. Two house wings extended in an L-shape away from the tower, one pointing back towards the forest that clustered at the higher elevation of the hill and cumulating in a wide square tower topped with battle-ready crenelations, the other extending down towards the polished sett-paved entry drive in a wide and welcoming arch. As they rode up the drive, slowed now to a trot, they passed small guardhouses here and there, each manned by pairs of alert-eyed guards, who watched them with hard, suspicious stares. When Erwin took a longer look at their uniforms, he saw the unmistakable White Shield and Key emblem of the royal family sewn into their uniform sleeves. The White Shields were elite, years-experienced members of the Military Police, entirely self controlled and largely removed from the jurisdiction of the rest of the services – their lives were solely for the service of the King and his family, and no other.

“They don't seem to like us being here,” Levi muttered, the cant of his head to one side letting his voice filter back towards Erwin despite its low volume. “Are you sure about this?”

“It's just because we're unannounced,” Erwin said, lifting his eyes up to the little palace. He was more or less certain that this was the case, and did his best not to imagine he felt Frisk lurking somewhere just out of his range of vision, waiting to pounce the moment he let his guard down.

The drive's entryway gate was flanked on either side by two life-sized, delicately sculpted stags, their heads lifted in alert, prick-eared attention towards anyone who passed between them. As they came through the gate, two more White Shields, each of them carrying ornate halberds, came towards them from either side, the leftmost one lifting his hand in a gesture for Erwin and Levi to halt immediately.

“Sir,” he said, his eyes dropping and then lifting again as he took in Erwin's soaked cloak and uniform, and the general disarray of his person, “Do you have some business here? If you have an appointment to meet with His Majesty, he kindly asks that you wait at the first guardhouse until you are summoned.”

“I have no appointment,” Erwin said honestly. “I'm an old friend, hoping to speak to the Prince regarding a personal matter.”

The White Shield exchanged a brief look with his partner, and Erwin could see the understandable doubt and wariness between them. He didn't blame them – the matter really was, after all, highly suspicious.

“Sir,” the first Shield said, “I will have to ask you to return to the first guardhouse and wait there for an official summons. There is no reason for the Prince to see any visitors so early in the morning.” He tapped the heel of his halberd on the sett-stone in a smart, sharp ringing sound. “Please turn back.”

“Could you please at least go in and give the Prince my name?” Erwin said, aware they were on unsteady ground, and caught between frustration with roadblocks and a gladness that at least Theo was well guarded, so far from Sina. “He will know it, I assure you.”

“Turn back,” the Shield repeated, his demeanor even further chilled than before. “I will not tell you again.”

“Denisov?” a voice, light and feminine, called suddenly from the terrace level, just beyond the palace steps. “What's amiss?”

The Shield blinked, and turned in the direction of the voice, though his partner's attention remained fixed on Erwin and Levi. “Nothing amiss, my lady,” he called. “Some supplicants have come too early, that's all.”

“Perhaps I can be of some assistance?” the woman said, stepping out from around the terrace corner towards the steps. Erwin was struck by her beauty immediately; her eyes were wide and girlishly rounded, nose short and upturned, her mouth very full. Her skin was very dark, and so smooth that it gleamed faintly in the new sunlight, and she wore a simple but richly tailored dress in a flattering, slightly daring shade of lighter blue. Her black hair was swept back from her face and forehead in sleek, thick coils, which were pinned into an effortless looking chignon. When she smiled politely at Erwin and Levi, it only enhanced her overall aura of elegance, and despite himself Erwin found himself returning her smile.

“Perhaps you can, my lady,” he said. “My name is Erwin Smith – I'm a Captain with the Survey Corps, and I'm an old acquaintance of Prince Theobald's. As it happens, I have news for him of great importance--”

“Erwin Smith?” the woman repeated, her eyebrows lifting a little in genuine surprise. “Of course. I know exactly who you are.” She turned slightly. “Denisov – I'm going to have him come inside. He is one of my lord's childhood friends. A very dear one.”

Denisov nodded, and turned back to Erwin and Levi without any particular hostility. “Of course,” he said, and changed his halberd to the other hand. “Please allow us to take your horses, sir.”

“Thank you,” Erwin said to him, genuinely, and then lifted his head to address the woman as well. “And thank you, my lady. May I ask your name?”

The woman smiled again, perfectly poised.

“I am Charlotte Amanze,” she said, inclining her head slightly. “Duchess of Rose, and Prince Theobald's wife.”

***

“Wife, huh?” Levi said.

He was standing far to one side of the large bathing room, pressed close to the near wall with an odd shyness not normally of his character. He'd divested himself of his soaked cloak and uniform jacket, but his uniform shirt still clung, clammy and semi-transparent, to his body. When he looked up at Erwin the exhaustion was still upon him, hung heavy now like a mourning veil, and to Erwin's eye it did not entirely seem to be physical.

The Lady Charlotte had led them herself into the palace, her fine perfume wafting behind her in dizzying little waves as she walked, and even Erwin had felt himself a little humbled by the finery. It was not to say that Prince Theobald's lifestyle was particularly lavish – it was quite the opposite, both by Sina standards and by the expectations of a man of his station. The expensive furniture that populated the wide rooms they passed was also sturdy looking, hewn of expertly carved wood in a rainbow of tree breeds, clearly made for lasting comfort rather than delicate appearance. The art that decorated rooms and alcoves and hallways was surprisingly homey, usually landscapes and scenes of bustling town life, here and there a portrait of some important family member or another. The floors were of multi-hued marble, no doubt mined from one of the distant Rose quarries, but the rugs that covered it were woven in comfortable, welcoming colors, for all their obvious expense.

“The two of you must be absolutely miserable,” Charlotte had said, as they followed her through the palace halls. There had been real sympathy in her voice, and she had cast a brief, almost curious glance over her shoulder at Erwin as she spoke. “You rode here through the storm, I suppose?”

“We did, my lady,” Erwin had said, bowing his head respectfully. “The matter I have brought to His Highness could not wait another day.”

“I hope,” she said, “That it can wait another few hours, at least, so that you can both bathe and change into dry clothes?” A pretty smile glimmered on her lips, and Erwin had detected, beneath her well-bred exterior, the hint of a formidable sense of humor. “He has a few matters to see to first thing in town, anyway, so he won't be available until noon or so.”

“That's fine,” Erwin had said, hoping that it was, and hoping that counting on the protection of the White Shield guards posted all over the grounds and fairly spilling out of the palace rooms wasn't a foolish gamble on his part. “I think we can spare the time to make ourselves presentable.”

“Not that my lord will mind very much,” she had said. “He'll be overjoyed to see you.”

“My reputation proceeds me?” Erwin said, only half joking, as they came to the open door of what turned out to be a large, silver and platinum gilded bathing room, white gauzy curtains giving the entryway a hint of the hot steam to come.

Lady Charlotte had fixed him with a look that could only be called fond exasperation.

“You have no idea,” she had said, a bit flatly, and went on speaking before Erwin could ask her for further clarification. “You'll find everything you need within – I'll have my Giselle come by with fresh clothing for the both of you. We must have something that will fit you,” she'd added, with a sidelong glance at Levi, and then she was gone again, her melodious voice echoing like bells through the halls as she called for attendants to assist them.

After they'd been delivered clothes, and soaps, and towels, and every potential bathing need that the servants could think of, they'd be left alone at last, and the silence, combined with the stalled inertia of having come to the end of a fast and stressful journey, had wrapped them both.

“I knew he was married, of course,” Erwin said, half to answer Levi's vague query and half to try to initiate conversation that might penetrate Levi's obvious malaise. He reached over and turned on the faucets as he spoke. The water that poured out was steamingly hot – the palace evidently had its own water heating source, just as the Jaeger house did. “Lady Amanze – her grandfather became quite well known in Sina for his ability to grow all number of plants. The family's quite wealthy on fruits and spices. You can imagine.”

“Yeah,” Levi said, lifting his hands to pull a bit clumsily at the buttons of his shirt. He hadn't looked up at all, and Erwin felt his worry return. He dropped his own wet shirt on the floor with a thick plop and went forward, reaching out to take Levi's cheek in the palm of his head, tilting Levi's head up until he could look into his eyes.

“What's the matter?” he said, gentle. Levi blinked at him, his brow furrowed.

“It's not your fault,” he said. His cheek was still rain-chilled under Erwin's hand, his hair hanging in damp locks around his face; the slow drying of it had drawn the natural wave out, and his bangs curled at their ends in disarray.

“Tell me,” Erwin said, his fingers tracing down along the curve of Levi's jaw to the rise of the tendons in his neck. He felt Levi's pulse jump beneath his fingertips, and Levi's eyes flicked away.

“It's really stupid, Erwin,” he said, frustration rippling up through his words. “It's really, really stupid.”

“Tell me anyway.” Erwin let his hand rest there, at the joint of Levi's neck and shoulder. He felt the soft skin warming beneath his palm.

“I did all this shit to save you,” Levi said, his throat bobbing. “You know. I dealt with the devils and all of that shit. I told them I was one of them. I was ready to kill Frisk myself, Erwin. Not just because of how I feel about you, either.” He paused, obviously searching for words, but he didn't seem to be able to find them, and instead he only shook his head. “I thought I could really be what you thought I was.”

“A soldier?” Erwin said, ready to reassure him, but Levi broke in again, an anger in his voice that Erwin had not expected.

“A scourge,” Levi said, his pale eyes distant and aflame. “A weapon. A way to put an end to Titans forever. Like, like malach elohim, something that doesn't--”

“Élie.” Erwin took hold of his other arm, but Levi ignored him, spitting his words like snake's venom.

“Something that doesn't fail.

Fail?” Erwin repeated, incredulous and strangely angered by this estimation. “How in the world have you failed?

“Frisk is still alive,” Levi said, mouth twisting. “And here we are in a royal palace, so you can talk to your old friend who's a prince, so that he can sort this whole thing out and see you safe again. What the hell do I have to offer you or your cause, other than sentimental shit? I can't even fight Titans.”

“That's not true,” Erwin said, low-voiced now. “You've been on one short foray, during which, may I remind you, you protected me from a Titan while I dangled like a helpless idiot from a tree branch. Not to mention the night you followed Frisk into town after me – you kept him away from me. You ruined his chance.”

“I'm not—”

Erwin shoved him back, until Levi's shoulders struck the ornate wall moldings, with their swirls and delicately carved leaves and flower buds, and he pressed his hand over Levi's heart, over the scar across his collarbone, visible through Levi's soaked shirt, pinning him still like a mounted insect.

“And,” he went on, leaning over Levi, the edge of a growl in his words now, “You will rid yourself of the idea that the sentimental is somehow worthless to me, or to you. In this life we lead, Élie, we must take every ounce of sentimentality and love that we are given, whether by friends or lovers or otherwise. We could die at any time, either of us – I don't flatter myself with thoughts of immortality – and I do not intend to live whatever time God has graced me with behind some cold and silent facade where no one may ever touch me. You will not live there, either.”

“Erwin,” Levi said, suddenly weak, his hands gripping at Erwin's wrist as though he could somehow pull him closer still, and Erwin saw for a moment the frightened boy Levi had been, once, the boy who had begged him not to leave, the boy who had had no concept of his place in the world any longer, save that he was alone within it once again, with no family or keeper to help him navigate this world of love and loss.

“Élie,” he said. “Whatever you do – whether you fight, or do not fight, whether you are brave or you are frightened... you are good enough for me. You have purpose, to me. All that you have to do is live, Élie. Live, and be whoever or whatever you are going to be – I will love you.”

The words came free from his lips before he could seize them back, but he was given no chance to attempt to do so, as Levi lunged forward and upward and dragged him down into a rough, hot kiss. His teeth dug into Erwin's lip for a moment and then his mouth was open, demanding and slick, a hitching sound caught in his throat.

Erwin scooped him up into his arms and carried him to the steaming tub. It was a joint effort to peel them both out of what remained of their wet clothes, but they made short work of it together.

The tub was large, more than enough to accommodate Erwin's size and then some, and with Erwin's legs spread Levi fit nicely between them. His lower body pressed into Erwin's stomach as he rose up on his knees to fix his teeth lightly around one of Erwin's nipples – there was a hot little flare of pain as he dug in, and an answering shudder as their cocks rubbed together with the motion. Levi rose up again and gripped Erwin's cock in his fist, thumb rubbing and pulling at the foreskin as Erwin groaned in helpless approval, his body jerking in anticipation beyond his control. He had thought, initially, that he would do no less than cover every inch of Levi's body with his mouth – that he would bend that small and supple body back as far as he could, that he would draw every pitch of sound Levi was capable of from his pulsing throat and bury himself again in Levi's tight heat, but he was wrong. Once Levi was upon him he was like a wild beast with struggling prey, hands gripping so hard at Erwin's sides and thighs that they bruised, his teeth finding Erwin's neck, his chest, abusing the soft skin of his belly, just above his cock. Erwin looked down to see Levi's face pressed firmly into the golden hair that clouded between his legs, the little pink flashing of his tongue as he lapped and suckled, and the sight alone was enough to arch his back so violently that water sloshed over both sides of the tub.

At first he was so distracted by Levi's mouth that he didn't fully understand the feeling of Levi's fingers slipping into him, not until Levi made that unseen gesture he had shown Erwin the night of their first time, the parting and moving of his fingertips. Erwin moaned aloud, with more volume than he meant to, but he couldn't find the sense to worry about whether or not they were overheard, not while Levi's fingers were plunging in and out of him, steady and purposeful. This was not the exploratory motion of before, meant to demonstrate, he realized, and the realization drew another sound from him, this one higher than he had ever thought himself capable of.

“Élie, God,” he managed, as Levi pressed the blunt tip of his cock against his entrance, the hot water making it impossible to tell how much of his sweating was humidity or need. “Yes.”

Levi gave a low, heady growl as he pressed in, and there was a sharp, satisfying burn that followed the motion, a feeling of heaviness, of filling, and Levi's fingers were digging into his thighs so hard for purchase that Erwin felt his skin would tear. His shoulders pressed into the rim of the tub, his head tipping back over it without support. His cock came heavily down against Levi's stomach and he saw in a dim haze how large it was against Levi's smaller body, how ruddy and flushed against the porcelain tone of Levi's skin, and he knew he wouldn't last long like this at all.

“Fuck, you're too fucking big,” Levi growled at him, and Erwin laughed a little helplessly, higher and more breathy than before.

“Even like this?” he managed, wrapping a hand around his own cock and lifting it for Levi to see; Levi glanced down and then colored sweetly alone his cheekbones, biting down on his lower lip as he rumbled a warning that he was not to be teased at such a time.

“Fuck you,” he said, and seemed to realize what he'd said a second later, as Erwin found his laughter cut short by a particularly vicious thrust. Levi's cock was proportionally smaller, given his size, but he more than made up for it in the strength of his hips and thighs, and after another few thrusts Erwin could no longer manage laughter, only gasps. When Levi took his cock in hand and began to work it, up and down between their pressed bodies, Erwin closed his eyes and let go of himself, half to drowning in sensation.

When he came it was in a sharp jerk, one of his knees bending up so violently that it struck Levi across the side, earning him a grunt; Levi bent over and into him, and Erwin felt the hot and faintly sticky mess between them wash away with the next sloshing of the water. He sank back, the weight of Levi's body atop his own a comforting anchor point in the haze of heat and orgasm, managing only brief and clumsy movements of assistance as Levi extracted himself with a low huffing noise.

“Christ,” Erwin muttered, and then felt the weight of Levi's cock against the inside of his thigh again, still heavy and swollen with need; he opened his eyes and reached forward in a languid, certain movement to pull Levi down on top of him in full, pinning him against his chest. When he gripped Levi's cock Levi whimpered, panting with shameless open-mouthed want into his neck, squirming into his hand helplessly.

“That wasn't enough for you?” Erwin murmured, low and indulgent; Levi twisted a little, trying to lift his head to give some retort, but Erwin gently held him down, and gave his cock a rough, tight squeeze, pulling from the base all the way to the tip, and whatever words Levi had summoned disappeared into a long, wanting noise. Erwin quickened the movement of his wrist and bit his lip as Levi's writhing increased, as Levi's breathing grew more frantic, as Levi curled into him and smothered his cry of orgasm into Erwin's chest.

Both of them were still, afterward, Levi making no effort to lift his head and Erwin making none to free his arm from between them. The only sound was that of the water dripping from the rim of the bathtub where the overflow had been, the hitching of Levi's breathing.

Erwin looked down at him, moving finally to reclaim his hand so that he could touch Levi's hair. Levi's eyes were closed, the movement of the air from his nostrils sending little ripples through the water, his parted lips swollen with the work of Erwin's teeth, his body beneath the water pink-flushed and heavy.

“I meant what I said,” Erwin said, after a moment. Levi stirred slightly, but didn't open his eyes.

“Freshen up the water,” he said, making no movements of his own. “Then wash my hair, will you? I want to try that rose scented shit they brought in.”

Chapter Text

As a child, Erwin had lacked any real reference for the sacrosanct regard in which the royal family was held. Even King Reginald – a figure upon whom men pledged their lives and livelihoods with a sincerity usually reserved for religious figures – had merely seemed a distant and imposing but familiar figure; a man not to be bothered by servant children, of course, but who could nonetheless be observed by certain sorts of lesser eyes going about his private life. Erwin had seen the King half dressed without care, had been held in the Queen's lap as a toddler, and he had had little reason to connect these experiences and their fellows with the imposing portraits and statuary that littered the Sina central cities.

It had been the same with the princes. Though the eldest, Reginald, was the very image of the father he was named for in both appearance and personality, Erwin had enjoyed close friendships not only with Prince Theobald, the youngest, but with Archibald, the middle prince, who was only a few years older. It had not been until Erwin's departure from the palace for service training that he began to understand the degree to which the royal family was venerated, that there were places within the walls where items they had hardly so much as breathed upon were considered priceless collectibles, that hundreds of thousands of people were going about their lives beyond the fine chambers and courtyards that had made up Erwin's small world for so many years, and that most of them would never even glimpse the level of finery and prestige that Erwin had lived around for much of his young life. Despite his own lack of proper inclusion in the elite ranks – at least, until his father had come along to complicate his status further – his exposure to it meant that Erwin had sincerely had no idea just how strange and fine a world it was that the royals lived in.

Now, however, with years of distance and hard-scrabble living between himself and that life, he felt himself almost a different man. As a child he had never given much thought to the pricelessness of the various resources that made a royal life so lush, but now, as he and Levi were led down one of the palace's gleaming hallways by a friendly-faced young between maid, he couldn't help but notice that even the un-ostentacious décor did not preclude the use of rare woods and metals in doors and fixtures, that there were flowers on tables and shelves that he had never seen before, and that the clothing they'd been given, though intended for servant use originally, felt as though it were made entirely from fine-sewn cotton. There was wealth here, even at Theobald's comparatively modest levels of living, that was so far beyond the capabilities of the average citizen that it was almost completely alien. It was alien to Erwin now, he realized, and his uncertainty began to bloom again. It had been a long time since he'd had any claim to even pretending at this kind of privileged existence. He didn't know yet what his next move would be, if Theobald was unwilling to hear what he had to say.

He fixed his eyes on the back of Levi's head as they walked. Levi seemed untouched by the décor, but Erwin supposed it was merely because Levi had little interest in the trappings of high society, or in the complexities of it. It was not, Erwin knew, some inability to appreciate refinement – Levi simply didn't care. None of the worlds Erwin had inhabited were the world Levi had been born into, and for all that his own was lost to him now, Levi seemed to have little interest in forcing himself into another.

Levi glanced back at him as they came upon an intricately carved wooden door. It was a deep, rich red, and some master woodworker had drawn an entire forest up from the surface, as though the tree itself had dreamed the long dead wilderness into its own skin. There were birds with perfectly etched feathers perched along tree branches, gentle forest flowers with their heads bowed towards the ground under the weight of their own crowns, and between the trees a family of deer, alert-eyed and sleek, staring out from the underbrush. There was a stag and a doe, and three small fawns clustered between them, their small hooves lifted in curious attention. The handle set into the door was set with a knob of deep green glass, matching the subtle color staining that had been added to the wood.

“Sirs,” the between maid said, bobbing her head. “This is His Majesty's personal study. My Lady Charlotte has asked that the two of you wait here until His Majesty returns.” She held the door open with one hand, the other extended slightly across her body so that her fingertips touched the underside of her opposite wrist, as though to hold it up.

“Thank you,” Erwin said to her, covering his momentary unnerve with his own head-bob; he remembered with sudden clarity his own mother making such a gesture, the demure lowering of her eyes as people who were ostensibly her betters passed by her as though she were nothing more than a door-stop.

He felt a sudden surging of sorrow in his breast, and he reached out and took the door knob on the other side of the opened door, holding it for Levi to enter. “Thank you,” he said again, and smiled. “Don't trouble yourself overmuch with us, Miss.”

“Oh,” said the maid, and she smiled back at him a little uncertainly as she let go. “Well, then... please, make yourselves comfortable.”

Levi said nothing to her or to Erwin as the door closed. He crossed the room instead, glancing down at the finely woven rug beneath his boots for a moment as he went.

“Bit fancy,” he said at last, padding over to the wide series of picture windows that lined the far wall. The study was situated so that it faced back out over the township below, giving the room's usual occupant a sweeping vista of both human and agricultural activity. Fitting, Erwin supposed, for all that he had heard about Theobald's intensive involvement in the community. From this vantage point one could see for miles around.

The maid's words had given Erwin the impression that there would be something of a wait, but both of them started nervously as the door swung open again with sudden and unannounced creaking. Erwin turned towards it instinctively, and saw Levi hem in to him on one side, as though to make clear his association.

As Duke of Rose, Theobald's personal heraldic charge was the stag, and Erwin could see now how well it suited him. The man in the doorway was dressed in soft riding trousers and high boots, a plain work-shirt and a pale grey double-breasted vest over it, his jacket folded and hung over one arm. He was a tall man, as Erwin was, though thinner, nearly to the point of being gangly. His eyes were deep set, his nose long, and his hair, a brown the color of mouse-fur, was pulled loosely back from his face into a sloppy tail, though much of it had escaped its ribbon in mussed waves. His eyes found Erwin immediately.

“It really is you,” he said, his voice as gentle as Erwin remembered it, though deeper now with manhood. There was no quiver in his words, but Erwin sensed the tension all the same, something between hope and uncertainty.

“It's me,” Erwin replied, swallowing, a sudden ache in his heart. “Your Highness.”

“I confess,” said the prince, in the same gentle tone, “that I nearly gave you up for lost.” He came into the study, his free hand touching the folded jacket unconsciously to smooth it. His fingers did not shake. His boots were clean and left no mark on the carpets, though there was a dustiness to them that said they had probably been cleaned elsewhere, before he'd entered the palace. He was ornamented only by a single ring, golden and set with a small green stone.

“For a while, I believe I was lost,” Erwin said honestly. “To myself, above all others.”

A thin smile touched Theobald's face. “That surprises me,” he said, hanging his jacket with absent-minded care across the back of his desk chair. “I thought if ever there were a boy – a man – to never need reminders of who he is, it would be you.”

“That's one of the reasons I've come to you.” He paused. “That we've come to you, that is.”

Theobald looked towards Levi, nothing but honest and polite curiosity on his face. “I see,” he said, and addressed himself to Levi, this time. “Are you a Survey Corp Cadet, then?”

“Yes,” Levi said, hesitating before he added, “Your Highness.”

“A friend of Erwin's?”

“I'm...” Levi looked to Erwin a bit helplessly, the familiar scowl of frustration with social matters he was not trained in beginning to form on his face. Erwin touched his shoulder reassuringly.

“I'm sorry,” he said. “I'll perform a proper introduction. “Your Highness, this is Cadet Élie Levi, of Survey Corp. Levi, this, of course, is His Highness Prince Theobald Eliott Andreas, Duke of Rose, and third son of His Highness, King Reginald II.”

He wasn't sure what he'd expected out of either of them, but to his mild surprise Theo leaned over the desk and held out his hand to Levi. After a moment's hesitation Levi took it, and together they shook as equals might, though Levi seemed much more awkward about it than Theo was.

“I grew up,” Levi said suddenly, “In Rose territory.”

Theobald lifted his eyebrows a little, releasing his hand. “Levi?” he repeated. “That's a Mystic name, isn't it? Are you from one of the Ashkenazi villages?”

Levi looked startled. “I was,” he said, the response slightly rushed as he worked not to trip over his own surprise. “It was – we called it Mokum Het. Further north than this. But it's gone, now.” Erwin could hear the uneasiness in his voice, and he squeezed Levi's shoulder lightly, trying to give reassurance without silencing him. Direct candor about his background was rare enough.

Theobald was frowning now, in a way that Erwin recognized from their schooling days spent with tutors and professors in the Sina palace towers. Something that Levi had said had stirred his memory, clearly.

“Ten years or so ago,” he said finally, and Erwin felt Levi stiffen a little more under his hand. “Is that correct?”

“Yes,” Levi said, quiet now. “Ten years.”

“The cholera outbreak – yes.” Theobald's eyes widened, and then his expression changed into one of visible dismay and sorrow. “I am so sorry. I've read the details in my uncle's papers. He held the Rose Dukedom before me. His actions – well.” He leaned back slightly; he'd been gripping the back of his desk chair very tightly. “Forgive me. You did not come here to be condescended to by a man like me.”

Levi shook his head a little, though he seemed rather at a loss for words. “I – it's appreciated. Your Highness,” he added, and then shut his mouth with an air of uncomfortable finality.

“Levi is a trusted friend of mine,” Erwin said, stepping in with care. “He is accompanying me for my own protection.”

“Your protection?” Theobald repeated, and then waved a hand slightly, drawing his desk chair out from beneath the desk. “Please, sit down. I apologize for my rudeness.”

They seated themselves in the lightly cushioned chairs arrayed before the desk. The seat padding was richly made, but had the faint paling and flexibility of a surface much used. Theobald reached into his desk and withdrew a heavy looking leather-bound ledger, which he opened atop the desk before taking up his quill. He scrawled a handful of numbers into one of the blank sections, made a brief notation, and then set his quill back in the well again, leaving the page open to allow the ink to dry. There was a grace and precision in his movements that was new to Erwin, the evidence of years of training and careful adherence to public image, and Erwin remembered how certain he'd been that Theobald would be of help to him. Now he felt as though he were a presumptuous stranger, come to upend this bucket of snakes he'd he so carefully gathered onto the lap of a man who had clearly moved on from childhood attachments.

He schooled his face into calm serenity. All I can do is try, he thought.

“There,” Theobald said, more to himself than to Erwin and Levi as he closed the ledger again and leaned forward to rest his forearms across the creased leather. “All right. Now... what matter has brought you here, out of the past and through the pouring rain?”

Erwin reached into his jacket and withdrew the slightly soggy leather-bound folder he'd brought along. He began to unwind the twine clasp as he spoke.

“I have a considerable volume of evidence,” he said, “that a number of highly ranked Military Police officers, along with several of Sina's influential landholders and members of the peerage, have been using the seals and signatures of both High Commander Zacklay and your father to make forgeries.”

Theobald leaned back slightly. His expression was impossible to read.

“What sort of forgeries?” he said.

Erwin drew the papers out of the folder and placed them on the desk, facing Theobald, for his perusal. “Nearly everything you can think of,” he said. “Land titles, criminal records, bonds of sale – innocent men have been sent to the gallows, and their properties transferred to people within these circles. A number of commissioned officers have had their papers approved through these methods. Several of the merchant guilds appear to have gained some monopoly over wheat and cotton production in various areas without any of it being brought to the King's attention. Look.”

He slid the stack forward, and Theobald took it up without speaking. He skimmed the top page, and then began to sift through the others slowly, his eyes moving back and forth as he read.

“This is my signature,” he said, withdrawing one of the papers. “Promising the Western Glassmaker's Guild exclusivity over windowing in at least half of Rose. I never signed such a thing.” When he looked up again there was a calm, measured anger on his face. “Your father's name appears in several of these, Erwin.”

“My father is highly involved in many of the goings on in Sina,” Erwin said, with an affected delicateness, unable to help himself. “As he is considered by many to be a pillar of the community.”

“Quite,” said Theobald, still eyeing him. “I was informed that he disowned you some years ago, as well. Something to do with some untoward heretical ravings, I heard.”

“That is the official story, yes.” Erwin smiled blandly. He didn't mistrust Theobald, not really, but Levi's circumstances were his own to speak of.

Theobald leaned back all the way in his chair, the offending piece of paper still in his hand.

“Why didn't you contact me?” he said, simply.

Erwin blinked, caught off guard by the forwardness of the question, but it was Levi who leaned forward and spoke instead.

“It wasn't safe,” he said. “Marshall Embry tried to drag Erwin into their operation, and he was stupid enough to say too much about it in the process. When Erwin said no, they sent him to Survey in the hopes he'd die. When he didn't die, they bribed some trainees to transfer out and kill him themselves.” He tipped his head a little, calm. “I was one of those cadets.”

“Hired – to kill him?” Theobald said, and Erwin was gratified by the note of alarm in his voice. “Good God. Are there others?”

“There were,” Erwin said. “Two of them came forward and confessed to me. The last is...well...”

“The last is out of his mind,” Levi said flatly. “Weyland Frisk. He probably followed us here.”

“He--” Theobald stopped his exclamation short, whether for reasons of good breeding or simply because he didn't want to shout. “I see.”

“I'm sorry, Your Highness,” Erwin said, not liking the incredulous look on Theobald's face. “We had no other choice.”

Theobald did not respond immediately, and when he spoke again it was to Levi, with an air of faint but firm apology.

“I'm sorry, Cadet Levi,” he said. “Could you possibly give us a few minutes to speak alone?”

Levi looked at Erwin immediately, tensed and ready to protest at the slightest sign of refusal from Erwin, but Erwin nodded to him, trying to convey reassurance with his expression.

“It's fine, Levi,” he said. “I'll be fine. Please. I won't leave you for long.” He regretted the somewhat telling intimacy of his phrasing slightly as the words left him, but there was no way to take them back. “You should go and see if you can rest a while.”

“By all means,” Theobald said. “Lucinda can show you to a room – I expect she's still outside.”

“Fine,” Levi said, rising with perfect grace, though his eyes lingered on Erwin with heavy concern, leaving him only once he was through the study door again and out of sight.

The prince rose from his chair.

“Erwin,” he said, tense, “Stand up.”

Erwin did as he was told, apprehensive. Theobald came out from around the desk towards him, frowning deeply.

“Your Highness,” Erwin began, but he swallowed the rest of his words in shock as Theobald stepped forward and took him into a tight embrace. There was strength in the prince's arms that his lanky build belied, and his matching height made it easy for him to press their heads together, Erwin's nose in Theobald's mousy hair and the prince's breath on the nape of his neck.

“You've been abandoned,” Theobald said, hardly more than a murmur. “Abandoned, and endangered, and terribly wronged, and still you've been too proud all this time to come to me for help. Erwin, good Christ, you can't live your entire life in a tower.”

“Theo,” Erwin whispered, a little overcome, and the prince huffed a thick laugh against his hair.

“Good,” he said. “That's better. I don't want titles from you.”

“It isn't that I don't care for you, Theo--”

“No,” Theo said, “it's that you're convinced your hands on the only ones capable of moving the mountains, as usual. I'm sure I can guess what your reasoning's been: you didn't want to endanger me in some way, you worried about my reputation or yours, something reasonable like that. And you've come to me now because you can truly see no other way to get out of this situation.” He drew back, but kept his hands clasped to Erwin's arms; his eyes were damp, but he was smiling. Erwin found himself holding Theo in return, a hand on his side, the other touching his extended arm.

“Theo,” he said. “You were and are my most precious friend. That hasn't changed. It's only that I didn't want to implicate you in any of my personal messes. I didn't want you to be the reason I achieved anything in life – it would have been easy to use our relationship to my advantage--”

“I am not so easily used, Erwin.” Theo squeezed his arms once and then let him go, stepping back to dab lightly at his eyes with his fingers. “And now here you are, in danger from more than just Titans. How am I meant to feel, that you've had so little faith in my ability to separate the duties of my birthright from my loyalties to my loved ones?”

“I suppose,” Erwin said, with a faint and apologetic smile, “That you're meant to be impressed by my independence and personal fortitude.”

“Well, I'm not.” Theo's lips quirked a little, and he looked away towards the closed door. “That Levi... he's special to you, isn't it?”

“Yes,” Erwin said. He felt no reason to conceal it. Not from Theo. “He is.”

“I'm glad.” Theo turned to pick up the paperwork from the desk again. “I never thought I'd see you with such a look in your eyes. Usually it's you casting a spell on other people. He is beautiful, though. Has quite a presence about him, despite the size.”

A thought occurred to Erwin then, one that had never truly crossed his mind before, one that made him feel suddenly terribly young, and terribly foolish for his own blindness.

“Theo,” he said, slowly, “I didn't bring him with me to rub him in your face, or anything like that.”

Theo looked up a bit sharply, and then he smiled, unsurprised and undaunted.

“I know,” he said. “That would be rather out of character, for you. You brought him here to protect him, clearly. Which won't be a problem.” He straightened up, slipping the papers back into their folder. “Of course I'll help you. This is a very serious matter, and one I think my father will be glad to be informed of.” He paused. “Weyland Frisk, he said? The name of the last assassin, that is.”

“Yes.” Erwin took the folder from him and tucked it back into his jacket, frowning a little. “Do you know him?”

“I might,” Theo said, furrowing his brow. “'Frisk' isn't a proper surname, you know. It's a very old military practice – a list of names distributed to soldiers who had the same surnames, to keep them apart in the unit. Frisk was one of those names.”

“An alias, then,” Erwin said, and Theo nodded.

“Yes,” he said, “But I do know of a Weyland who left a good family not long ago to join the military. A very good family, in fact... I don't know what sort of bribery would appeal to a man of such means.”

“What family is this?” Erwin said, following Theo as the prince crossed the study to the door. “Maybe it's one with ties to my father – a personal vendetta of sorts.”

“Reiss,” Theo said, as he held the door for Erwin to pass through. “I'm fairly certain the man you're talking about is called Weyland Reiss.”

Chapter Text

“You're certain you're all right?” Erwin gripped a bit of the coach's protruding paneling as he turned to look at Levi. The rumble seat was cramped, with both of them wearing full Gear, and Erwin himself taking up half again as much room as he had rights to. The rain had tapered off around midday, but the dusk was still chilly, and Levi, whether from exhaustion, stress, or some combination of the two, was paler than usual, his normally canny gaze glazed and distracted. He looked up at Erwin at the sound of his voice, wincing slightly as the coach cornered sharply, jerking them both from side to side with whiplash viciousness. He clutched at the back of the rumble seat for balance, and Erwin saw the whitening of his knuckles, like the clenching of a hawk's talons during uncomfortable shifts of balance, his small body swaying with regular clanks from the heavy blade sheaths at his hips. Erwin hated to see him so out of sorts.

“Élie,” he said, trying to be coaxing, knowing he was using the power of Levi's name against him a little and not caring. Levi's eyes narrowed in trepidation.

“I'm fine,” he said.

“You don't look it.”

“It doesn't matter.” Levi pressed his lips together, eyebrows furrowing. “Can't afford to go slow right now.”

“I'm still allowed to be concerned about your health,” Erwin said, mildly. “I would prefer it if you didn't collapse.”

“I'm not going to collapse, Erwin,” Levi said, his tone growing a little heated, and Erwin was pleased to see indignation sharpening the lines around his eyes and mouth and tightening his jaw, returning some of the familiar, stubborn life to his expression. “But I am going to shove you off this thing if you don't quit fussing over me, and then I guess we'll all be fucked.”

It had been decided that the four of them – the prince, Lady Charlotte, Erwin and Levi – would depart for the capital that evening, once the proper preparations were made. The information Erwin had brought was much too sensitive to be trusted to any courier, who after all were only human and could be bought as easily as any other; Erwin was to explain what he'd found first to High Commander Zacklay, and then to the King, with Theobald there to lend him legitimacy.

“I don't know, precisely, how much we'll be able to make of the information,” Theo had said, apologetic. “These are powerful people, after all, and many of them have been in their positions for decades, now.”

Erwin had expected as much, though it was still disappointing to hear that Theobald shared his opinion. Several of the connections between the forgeries and a number of the conspirators were more than a little tenuous, and much of Erwin's own certainty over the truth of their involvement was based around his own experiences in Sina, which at this point could hardly be called unbiased. Levi, of course, was also a witness, but Erwin knew his credibility would be minimal in these arenas.

“If nothing else,” he'd said slowly, thinking through the words as he spoke them, “We should give the impression that whatever we present is only a small portion of what we possess. If we choose our targets carefully – people like Marshal Embry, for example – I think we can make examples of them for the others to see.”

“A bluff,” Theo said, thoughtful.

“A warning,” Erwin had said, feeling suddenly a little warm in a way he hadn't expected at the thought. It was a tight, satisfied sensation, not unlike the feeling of a proper battle plan coming together. “A warning that if they continue to cross me and my associates, there will be more of this to come.”

There will be, he'd thought, to his own faint but grateful surprise. I have no intention of stopping here, or with this plan alone. If they will not allow themselves to be herded, or to be cowed, then I will simply have to apply something much more permanent.

Charlotte had surprised Erwin slightly, when she had emerged from her private quarters. She was as impeccable as she had been the first time he had seen her, only now it was in soft, finely worked leather trousers, a modestly feminine blouse and traveling jacket over top. It had not been her choice of clothing that had taken him off guard, however – it had been the gun-belt she wore around her waist, with the ease and familiarity of long use. She had smiled her lovely smile at him when she had seen him eyeing the pistol in its holster, and touched the grip lightly with her fingertips.

“My father does not believe that young women should have to choose only between soldiering and home-making,” she had said. “Or that the ability to fight is improper for a lady of status. If there is trouble along the way, I would like to be of use.”

Aside from Charlotte's weaponry, they were also accompanied by two of the White Shields, both armed with their halberds and rifles and their leery, suspicious attitudes; Erwin had the impression that both of them intended to watch him and Levi as closely as they did the dark forests and sleepy towns that lay ahead of them on their journey to Sina. The coach's interior had been too cramped to accommodate four people, so long as two of them were in full Maneuver Gear, and so Erwin and Levi were perched in the servants' seat at the rear, where every bump and and stone in the road made itself readily known despite the heavily stuffed cushion they sat on. It was, however, a more advantageous place for them to be, in the long run, should Frisk make his appearance at last, and so neither of them had made any protest. The White Shields were seated up front with the coachman, silent and alert.

They had been in motion for a little over an hour, by Erwin's estimation, and it was a strangely isolated ride, with the coachman silent and invisible in the front box seat and the heavy deciduous forest on all sides. The road had faded from cobble back to dirt when they had left the township behind, and the earth was still heavy and with the previous rain. Every hoofbeat fell heavy, stirring not the slightest bit of dust behind them to mark their passage, and there was a weighty ominousness to the air, as though the forest itself held its breath.

Erwin let go his own death grip on the swell of the seat's cavity with one hand and leaned over, touching Levi's cheek with his palm. His hand was big enough that the heel pressed light against the corner of Levi's mouth, and Levi's eyes lifted momentarily to Erwin's face before he turned his head a little; the feather of his lips against the pulse point in Erwin's wrist was as soft as snow, as warm as the brushing of fur from an affectionate cat. The apology in the gesture was apparent, and Erwin slid his hand up into Levi's hair, watching Levi's heavy eyelids lower in faint relief.

“I'm not calling you weak, Levi,” he said, gentle. “I'm not doubting your abilities. It's only that you've been through a great deal in a very short amount of time. Even the strongest of men would be affected.”

“I'm not even hurt badly.” Levi had leaned into his touch, however, like a flower craving warmth and sunlight; he didn't look up as he spoke. “A few burns and bruises, that's all.”

“Emotional distress can be as traumatic as physical,” Erwin said, as his fingers ghosted from of the shag of Levi's hair and brushed across the fuzz at the back of his skull, down to the nape of his neck where the emet scarring was visible between the gap of his collar and his skin. He paused, and then pressed his fingertips against the marked flesh, and Levi made a small noise, his shoulders rounding.

“Emotions can be controlled,” he said, with an air of faint frustration, as though this were a mantra he repeated to himself often. “I am in control.”

“You're not,” Erwin said. Levi's eyes flashed upwards, luminous grey in the low light, and for a moment he looked angry, as though this were some untoward accusation. He opened his mouth to reply, but Erwin interrupted him, placid and firm.

“You aren't in control, right now, and what I'm trying to tell you is that it's all right.” He let his hand become a weight against Levi's neck, a warm and solid presence over the exposed skin. Levi was silent, expression uncertain and slightly defensive, watching him. “You don't have to fight so hard. Not all the time. Not with me.”

Levi said nothing to this, and so Erwin went on, speaking slowly, trying to express what he meant as they bumped and jostled down the forest road.

“The point – the point of this... of us,” he said, “isn't it to trust each other? I don't want a fighting dog – I don't want some creature to bleed for me and then kneel at my feet, someone who can't look me in the eye as he chides himself for not being strong enough. Levi,” he added, and gave Levi a gentle shake as he spoke, “If what you want is for us to fit together the way I'm certain we're meant to, then you must surrender to it. To yourself. Not to me, darling – to your own needs.” He swallowed, the endearment a little unexpected, but saw the slight widening of Levi's eyes at the sound of it, and went on. “You have to trust more than me, Élie. You must also trust yourself. Trust your body, and your heart – trust that even if the wires won't catch you, even if I fail you, you will find some way to catch yourself. That won't be possible if you aren't honest with yourself about what you need.”

“You won't fail me,” Levi said, his voice a little rough, and his hand stole out across the cramped space to take Erwin's arm in a tight-fingered grip. “You haven't. Every time I've thought you might have, I've been wrong.”

“Then,” Erwin said, “let me be your control.”

Levi shivered, and swayed a little in a way that wasn't dictated by the movement of the coach. That strange and long ago single week, when Levi had been no more than a boy and Erwin himself hardly more, there had been times when Erwin's touch had stilled Levi completely, when a hand on his cheek or head or shoulder had relaxed every muscle in his small body and held him as though in some form of hypnosis, and his eyes had filled with a strange and expectant hope, as though he were merely a vessel into which Erwin could pour his will to see it done – as though such a thing was precisely what he wanted Erwin to do. He saw that same phenomenon now in the lax set of Levi's shoulders and the parting of his lips, the same willing pliancy, the hope that Erwin would be strong enough, could be strong enough for Levi to put away his defenses entirely and trust himself to another man's hands.

That was what Levi had been craving from the start, he knew now – the ability to give himself over entirely to Erwin's will and Erwin's touch, whether in stimulation or in salvation. He had chosen to trust, had chosen to try, and Erwin knew well what a gift such a choice was.

Try, for me. Live up to it. Live up to me.

“Rest,” he said to Levi, calm and gentle, and Levi folded into him, ignoring the discomfort of the bulky Gear between them to press his head into Erwin's arm. There was obvious relief in the motion, and Erwin allowed himself a small smile, curling his arm around Levi's slim shoulders. He was fairly certain that Levi wouldn't sleep, especially not during such a tumultuous ride, but this was good enough, for now.

The forest had grown darker, making distinguishing differences in the landscape difficult. Erwin gazed out at the dull silhouettes of trees, feeling his eyelids grow heavy and tired with the effort of looking. Levi wasn't alone in his exhaustion, or, if Erwin was being honest with himself, his emotional distress. He was worried, though he would admit it to no one. He knew well enough that this mad dash to the authorities was only one small strike against a much larger problem, one he had yet to decide how to deal with. Perhaps getting rid of Embry and his hangers-on would scare them enough to call off any further assassination attempts on Erwin himself, but he was certain it would do nothing to truly alter the status quo. After this maneuver, Erwin had no further plans, and it bothered him viscerally, made him feel naked and exposed.

He looked down at Levi, who stirred a bit, huffing a warm breath against Erwin's forearm.

“He's in love with you,” Levi muttered. “The prince, I mean.”

Erwin smiled a little. “How did you know?”

“It's pretty obvious to anyone with eyes.” Levi didn't sound particularly disturbed by the declaration. “I'm guessing you didn't know.”

“I had no idea,” Erwin confessed, a bit rueful. “He asked me about you, once you were gone – he seemed pleased for me when I said that we were... involved, but also quite sad. That was the first time it occurred to me. I feel a bit guilty, to be honest.”

“You're not responsible for things people don't tell you,” Levi said, without rancor.

“I suppose not.” Erwin looked out to the road ahead, squinting a little to try to make out some change in the ever-darkening horizon. “But still.” He paused, steadying Levi a little as the coach rocked violently again. “Does it bother you?”

“No.” Levi yawned, unruffled. “I don't care. Should it bother me?”

“I don't think so,” Erwin began, but suddenly Levi jerked upright, his eyes open wide.

“Do you hear that?” he said, in a low hiss. His eyes roved the forest.

Erwin straightened, trying to pull his consciousness out of the sleepy mire it had settled in in order to sharpen his ears. There was a distant, queer whistling sound, like the shear of wind off the edges of the Walls, and it was familiar in a way that he could not immediately place. It was only when he heard the dull thunk of of a spear-hook piercing wood that he placed it, and by then Frisk had already reached his downswing, surging out of the wooded darkness with his killing blades fully extended.

Levi lunged forward to press himself against the back of the coach compartment at the same time that Erwin ducked down, but Frisk's aim wasn't the two of them. He swooped past in front of them in a blur, impossibly fast, with only the gleam of the coach's side lanterns to mark him, and then he was gone into the trees on the other side of the road. One of the lanterns shattered in his passage, spilling oil across the canvas. Erwin lifted his head in time to see the two White Shield guards collapsing to either side – one of them had been cut apart from the neck joint to beneath the shoulder, and Erwin was too startled to gag in horror as the man's body slid apart in opposite directions in a burst of red. Blood gushed up and out, spattering the windscreen. The other Shield tumbled bonelessly from the box, too quickly for Erwin to see the damage, the body bumping beneath the coach wheels as they raced past. The coachman's body fell solidly back against the back-rest, listing slightly to one side, the reins dropping slackly to to the forward board. His head was gone.

One of the horses screamed, shying from the sudden movement and the smell of exposed fire, rocking the coach violently to the left. Levi leapt up, balancing along the back-bar with one arm outstretched, body swaying as he fought to keep his stance. He scrambled forward across the canvas and into the driver's seat, elbowing the coachman's corpse aside, and lunged over the bar to snatch at the reins. They slithered past his fingers and disappeared into the darkness beneath the coach, and Erwin heard him swear, high and panicky, as he nearly lost his balance.

Still a little in shock, Erwin half turned as the whistling of Frisk's wires came again. The nature of the sound made it nearly impossible to tell which direction it was coming from, and he drew one blade a little wildly, twisting around to try to get some idea about where the next strike would be. He could smell smoke combined with the scent of burning hemp, could hear Theobald shouting questions from inside the compartment just above the beat of the galloping horse hooves, but all of that seemed far away.

Where--

Levi spotted him a moment before Erwin did, and twisted around, firing off his own Gear into the trees and zipping up and out of sight into the dark branches, just before Frisk landed directly where he'd been with enough force to crack the forward board. He straightened up a little, and his pale blue eyes fixed on Erwin, and he smiled emptily, as though he knew the expression was one humans made to communicate but didn't fully understand it himself.

“Thanks,” he said, as flame began to lick up to the top of the canvas, casting orange glow like embers across his wind-whipped hair. “I knew you'd make this exciting.”

“Not on purpose,” Erwin said, struggling not to cough through the smoke. In another minute or so the compartment's canvas would be burned through, if the coach didn't crash, first, but he knew any move he made would be swiftly countered. “I don't suppose you and I could take this elsewhere, Weyland?”

“No,” Frisk said, without inflection.

“Killing members of the royal family is a much bigger issue than doing away with someone like me,” Erwin said, raising his voice in the hopes that Charlotte and Theobald would hear him inside the compartment. “Do you really want that sort of trouble on your head?”

“Honestly,” Frisk said, his gazed fixed on Erwin like that of a hunting snake, “I don't care at all. I suppose I should – it sounds like a reasonable thing to be worried about.” He jerked his head slightly to one side, narrowly avoiding a protruding branch as they raced along. “But I just can't.”

“You can't?”

One of the horses stumbled a little, and both of them were forced to duck down to re-orient their centers of balance. Erwin gripped the edge of the compartment with one hand, the other held out to one side in some combination of supplication and balance. Frisk shook himself, and when he looked up again he was as blank as he'd been before.

“No,” he said, and Erwin could hear the naked, unbothered honesty in his voice. “I don't feel much of anything, Erwin. I thought I said as much. I don't care. There's something wrong with me. I've known that all my life.”

His words raised an echo in Erwin's memory of Levi saying something not dissimilar. But I'm not normal. There's something wrong with me.

“I have to pretend,” Frisk went on, half lifting one of his exposed blades as though for emphasis. “Otherwise, people get really upset. I have to be other people, sometimes – make up personalities based on what other people want to hear.” He tipped his head, unconcerned by the fire that was creeping ever closer to him. “Aren't you the same? Don't you pretend to be this way and that, so people will leave you alone or let you do what you want? I thought you of all people would get it.”

“Weyland,” Erwin began, but then he saw movement out of the corner of his eye, and some deeper, soldier's instinct took over.

“Brace yourselves!” he shouted, and pressed his hands against the compartment with all his strength as Levi dropped down in a carefully timed strike, his feet extended for velocity, bellowing a wordless cry. He crashed into Frisk with tremendous force and the coach rocked hard to one side, teetering, and then rolled with frightening speed into the treeline, trailing fire and scorched debris as it went. The noise of it was towering.

Erwin barely had time to leap free, firing his wires as he went to swing gracelessly up and around a nearby tree trunk; he released and landed on the roadway clumsily, pain surging through his ankles as he hit the ground without bending his knees nearly far enough to properly absorb the shock. For a moment his vision swam, and he nearly fell, but caught himself on his palms instead, heart thudding drum-like in his chest and ears.

Levi.

Erwin staggered upright and into a gait that was half lunge and half lope, struggling towards the coach, which had come to a stop some yards into the treeline. One of the horses was dead, lying broken-necked up against the tree that had stopped its movement. The other was rapidly disappearing down the road, dragging the remnants of its harness behind it; the leader bar had broken on one side as the coach rolled, freeing it before it had been dragged down like its partner. The coach itself was upside-down, its wheels spinning freely still, bits and pieces smoldering wood and cloth scattered everywhere. The smoke and dust were thick enough to sting the eyes, but he could see movement from within the upturned container, heard Theobald and Charlotte coughing, and knew they were alive, at least.

He turned to scan the forest, and then looked up, searching the black branches and the endless tangle of leaves for any sign of motion, but there was none save the faint touch of the night wind.

Both Frisk and Levi had vanished.

Chapter Text

When Erwin turned back to the wrecked coach in vague desperation, he saw movement after a moment or two, and then a flash of color he recognized as Charlotte's traveling jacket, heard coughing as she crouched and reached back in through the broken windscreen with both hands. He stumbled forward automatically and knelt to assist her, and together they pulled Theobald, battered and reeking of smoke, out of the debris.

“I'm all right,” the prince was saying, interrupted only momentarily in his reassurances when Erwin slapped him heartily on the back. “I'm all – ouch, Erwin – all right.”

“I assume our people are dead,” Charlotte said, quietly. Some of her hair had come free from her careful chignon, and her jacket had ripped, but her eyes were calm. “Geoffrey, and the Shields.”

“Yes,” Erwin said, not elaborating. There was no need for either of them to know the brutality of their deaths. “I'm sorry.”

Charlotte nodded, closing her eyes for a moment as though to steady herself. “All of them had families,” she said. “Recompense will need to be made. Oh, Geoffrey. He was a good man.”

“The Crown will pay for their families to live for the rest of their lives,” Theobald said, and he reached out to touch Charlotte's cheek, his thumb pale against her smooth skin. Even distracted as he was, Erwin saw the fondness between them – not romance, not really, but a deep and loving trust, that of good friends of the heart. His own heart trembled at the sight of it.

Levi, he thought, and twisted around to look up into the dark and unfathomable branches crisscrossing over their heads. Where the hell did you go?

“What happened?” Theo said from behind him, and Erwin took a deep breath.

“Weyland Frisk – Reiss, I suppose – has attacked our coach. He's wearing Maneuver Gear. Levi engaged him – I assume they're in the trees.” He squinted, trying to sharpen his ears as well as his vision. Distantly he could hear rustling, a little too vigorous to be the touch of the night wind. “Northwest, I think.”

Charlotte stood, pulling Theobald up with her, and steadied her husband with one hand. “I can stand guard here,” she said, drawing her pistol, her chin set firmly. “Go after them.”

Erwin hesitated, meeting Theobald's eyes. Theo smiled at him, weary.

“Go,” was all he said.

As though the word were a trigger releasing him, Erwin turned and fired off his wires, soaring up into the dark foliage.

The first bough he landed on had much more give to it than he would have liked; the second was no better, and his balance wavered badly. He had wondered, more than once, why Survey did not conduct excursions at night, when Titans were immobilized by the lack of light, but now he began to understand – the darkness toyed badly with his depth perception, with his ability to measure distance and space, and made it much more difficult to determine what was safe perch and what was merely shadow. For the first time since his training days Erwin had to focus closely on his maneuvering, had to actively remind himself to depend on his balance and the wire, rather than on grabbing handholds as he moved. Leaves and twigs stung his face every time he leapt, and once there was the uncomfortable, ghost-tickle of spider's thread across his nose and mouth, like the uninvited brushing of a stranger's fingertips. There was no sign of Levi or Frisk, but Erwin didn't dare call out, for fear of bringing Frisk down upon his head while he wobbled, disoriented, on a swaying birch branch. Instead he peered through the clawed shadows that flashed by him as he climbed and swung, searching for something familiar.

His boots came down onto a wide oak branch and abruptly he sensed something human-sized, moving just out of the corner of his vision; his officer's pistol was nearly clear from its holster by the time Levi's hand had snaked into his jacket to seize him by his uniform shirt and yank him, hard, against the trunk of the tree. The branch was wide enough here for both of them to stand on, and Erwin momentarily found his balance again.

“Le-” he began, but Levi yanked him down and pressed the heel of his hand across Erwin's mouth. His pale eyes were luminous in the dim.

“Be quiet,” he hissed. His grip on Erwin's shirt was like iron, his fingers cold from exposure to the night air. Erwin shuffled obediently closer to him, until they were both pressed against the tree trunk. After a moment, Levi took his hand away from Erwin's mouth, and looked up at him, expression hunted and angry. He had a vicious cut along one cheekbone, and blood had trickled down his face and curved up under his chin.

“Are they alive?” he said, so quietly that his voice nearly disappeared under the hiss of the stirring leaves.

“Yes,” Erwin said, glancing involuntarily towards the ground. “And unhurt.” He freed one hand from Levi's powerful grip to touch his fingertips to the blood on Levi's face, and Levi flinched a little, though some of the heightened fury faded from his eyes. He tried to pull away, and Erwin could sense the killing rage thundering through him, the bright, silent danger that turned everything kind and soft about him into a murderous edge, sharp enough to cut even Erwin to the quick if handled incautiously. His internal sense of his own power had been violated by the swiftness of Frisk's attack and by the sudden deaths of human beings, close enough for them to smell the blood and bowel, and he had no concept of how to reorient himself.

He reached around and gripped Levi by the scruff of his neck, touched the underside of Levi's chin with the other hand, and lifted his head up so that Levi was forced to meet his eyes.

“Calm,” he said, putting as much certainty as he could manufacture into the word. Levi's eyelids flickered, his nostrils flaring, but he canted his head upwards and stilled the impatient motions of his body with obvious effort.

“Sorry,” he murmured.

“He's going to find us,” Erwin said, slowly. He had a gradually growing suspicion that this prediction had already come true – there was a strange silence about the forest, a lack of night animal rustling, of frog-song and the sound of little claws scrabbling through leaves and branches. Erwin had hunted before, had come to know the movements of animals through trees and brush, and knew that no human hunter, no matter how strange or silent they were, could truly disappear into a wood teeming with small lives that did not recognize them.

“We shouldn't be hiding from him like frightened rabbits,” he went on, and lifted his head, turning slightly to let his ears absorb the full range of the silence. “Should we, Weyland?”

Erwin felt Levi stiffen in surprise and dismay, and held on to him anyway, waiting through the pregnant pause that followed.

With hardly more than a breath of sound, Frisk dropped from the higher branches of a tree that would have been no more than twenty paces away, had they been on the ground, and landed on an outstretched limb in an easy crouch. Levi hissed, for all the world like an actual cat.

“It won't help,” Frisk said, as conversational as he'd been before.

“I expect not,” Erwin agreed. “As such, perhaps we should dispense with all of this cat and mouse. Don't you think?”

“Erwin,” Levi said, urgency and warning in his voice. He had his hand on his his sheathed blade, his eyes trained on Frisk. One foot slid out along the branch, steadying, preparing to attack again.

Frisk tipped his head slightly to one side, glancing vaguely at Levi as though he held little real interest, and then back to Erwin.

“All right,” he said, and rose up into a weird half hunch, pacing down the length of the limb towards them.

Erwin turned, jerking his hips to the right so hard that pain sang through his joints, and shoved Levi off the branch. Levi toppled over with a yelp, a sound that would have been comical under any other circumstances, but Erwin didn't look to him. Levi would catch himself, he was certain, and be spared at lest the first of Frisk's lightning fast attacks. He raised his left trigger and fired across the trees, leaping off his perch in the same motion and into flight. Frisk jumped after him, a half second too late, and Erwin heard his loud huff of surprise before the wire caught him and his velocity increased as he went into his downswing; it was followed by the sharp retort of the branch he'd just been standing on snapping in half under the sheer force of Frisk's landing. It was impossible to tell if the sudden hissing of wires came from behind or below him, but Erwin made no attempt to discern; he landed sideways, his bootheels scraping the trunk of the tree he'd fired at, and leapt off again, bounding and swinging from tree to tree in a loosely circular motion, his stomach roiling.

Draw him away from the others. Get him alone--

There was a flash of movement out of the corner of his vision; it was the only warning he had before Frisk slammed into him from the left. Pain bloomed through his hip and side, hot and flaring. He felt the shudder down one wire as the housing snapped away from his harness, totally severed, and realized with dizzy certainty that Frisk had cut his harness right at the crosspoint, cleanly enough that it was coming off.

He was falling.

Erwin twisted desperately, snatching at at the bit of harness still attached to the opposite trigger before it could slither away. Cursing his height and the limitations it placed on his acrobatic ability, he braced himself, and flung out his right arm with the wire trigger in his palm, firing blind at the crazily tilting blur of trees.

The wire sang out for a moment, then shrieked abortively as it caught some malleable surface, and Erwin cried out as he was jerked around upright again, all of his weight on his arm and shoulder; he felt something inside him tear in a ripple of agony, and bit back another bellow of pain as his back thudded against a tree trunk. His vision blurry and greying at the edges, he craned his neck to try to gauge the distance between his feet and the ground through the darkness, but there was an awful numbness spreading up his arm from his shoulder, his fingers growing weak and nerveless – he managed to hang on for only a moment more before he lost his grip and dropped heavily the last couple of meters to the forest floor.

He landed hard on his right hip, the impact sending lightning bolts through his injured shoulder. For a moment he could only sprawl there, gagging for air, tasting bile in the back of his throat; when he pressed shaky fingers to his left side he found a deep cut there, his trousers already damp with blood.

“Erwin, jeez.”

Frisk landed gently in front of him, as graceful as a cat in his movements. He had a naked blade in his hand. Erwin noticed, with a weird hyperfocus born of shock and exertion, that he'd tied his hair back carefully at some point beforehand, that there was blood smeared across his shirt at the level of his stomach that was clearly not his, that his eyes were very blue, and that there was a strange confusion in them, as though Erwin's fall, his spilled blood, made no sense to him at all.

“I thought we were friends,” he said, though the words were not flavored in the way they might have been, had they come from another person. There was no indication of heartbreak or betrayal, no resignation nor hurt; he spoke as though he were a school pupil who had recently been corrected at his maths. “I realized you probably never thought so, though. I mean, maybe.” he tipped his head, winsome and beautiful, blinking slowly. “Maybe you did. What does it mean to be friends with someone, anyway?”

“Not this,” Erwin croaked, getting his elbows underneath his body, enough to lever himself back into a somewhat upright position.

“I thought,” Frisk went on, frowning slightly, “That you'd like Weyland Frisk. He's a pitiable thing, isn't he? He tries hard, but he's always just a little too clumsy, or too slow, or awkward. Those are endearing traits, aren't they?”

“Yes,” Erwin said, strained, “But you aren't Weyland Frisk. You're Weyland Reiss. Weyland Frisk never existed.”

“I studied you, you know. When my father told me what he wanted me to do.” Frisk smiled then, just a little, without menace, as though it was a fond memory. “At first I thought you'd want to meet someone who was a little more like you, so I practiced you for a while. I talked to people who'd known you in Sina. I even read some official reports about you. It turned out pretty well.”

Erwin opened his mouth to ask what he meant by that, but Frisk straightened up abruptly, changing the set of his shoulders, the spread of his legs, shifting muscles in his face until there was something frighteningly familiar about the angle of his lips and eyebrows, something in the movement of his eyes and the cant of his head that Erwin had seen many times before, in hallway mirrors and still pools of water.

“I got quite good at it,” Frisk said, Sina accented, jovial, smiling as he mimicked the cadence of Erwin's voice effortlessly. “As I think you can see.”

“Christ,” Erwin said, chilled by more than the night air and blood loss. “Jesus Christ.”

“I'd heard you were a bit of a narcissist,” Frisk went on, “So I assumed you'd want to be close to someone who was more like you. But then, I heard about you and Levi. And I guess it turns out you like stray, pathetic things. Little lost sheep caught in rainstorms. Baby birds fallen from their nests. That sort of thing. That's where Frisk came from. It seemed to be working pretty well, until Levi showed up.”

Erwin drew in a deep and heavy breath, and heaved himself to his feet again. His right arm dangled, numb and aching, too painful to even try to move, but he reasoned that at least the cut in his side wasn't too deep. There was still a chance – he had one good arm, after all.

“Levi has nothing to do with this,” he said. “You came here for me.”

“Yes,” Frisk said, nodding, once. “I did.”

He lunged at Erwin and Erwin sidestepped clumsily, turning to bring his fist down onto Frisk's back instead. Frisk snarled, staggering, and twisted sinuously, bringing the blade up and around, but there wasn't enough distance between them to strike. Erwin lashed out with one foot and felt the satisfying crunch of breaking bone as his boot heel struck Frisk across the nose.

Erwin reeled back, trying to regain his balance well enough to draw his pistol – and stopped short as a shadow passed overhead. Levi plummeted down from above as he had before on the road, slamming into Frisk with skull-cracking force and driving him to the ground. Frisk went down heavily, his blade dropping from his hand. Erwin felt Levi's name rise to his lips like a prayer, but swallowed it in his surprise.

Frisk's eerie, unfeeling calm melted away like sun-touched ice. He shrieked with fury, jerking to one side as Levi tried to snatch a handful of his hair, blood pouring down his chin from his broken nose. His eyes blazed with inhuman rage. Levi answered his shriek with a curse of his own in his rolling, fluid language, half words and half angry spitting, and dropped his knee into Frisk's stomach as he was dragged to the ground himself.

Erwin drew his gun with his good arm and raised it to aim, but his hand was shaking so badly that it was impossible. He watched helplessly as Frisk hooked his elbow around Levi's throat and yanked him close, rolling and turning until Levi was facing Erwin, effectively a shield between Frisk and Erwin's potential shot. Levi was choked, his fingers groping for the discarded blade, his pale eyes wide and wild, small body twisting with anger and desperation. He dug an elbow into Frisk's ribcage, but Frisk seemed beyond pain now – he was glassy-eyed, saliva glimmering on his lips, his gaze fixed on some point past Erwin's shoulder.

“I've never liked him,” he said, almost dreamily. His voice was rough from his yelling. “It's a strange feeling – hate is. I don't think I'd ever experienced it until I met him.”

“Don't kill him,” Erwin said, before he could stop himself. His fingers were loose around the gun's grip, his heart hammering, his eyes on Levi's face as he struggled to breathe. “Please.”

“I don't make deals,” Frisk said, lightly putting his free hand on top of Levi's head, bracing his grip on Levi's neck in a motion Erwin had seen a thousand times over in the palace kitchens when the cooks prepared their fowl. Levi was still struggling, but Erwin could see the weakness coming over him, the heaviness of his limbs and head.

“Please,” he repeated, “Don't-”

A shot rang out, echoing off the trees like violent birdsong. Frisk's arms came free; Erwin saw the blood blooming down from one shoulder, Frisk's mouth open with surprise and pain as he struggled to his feet, and over his shoulder Erwin saw Charlotte through the trees, her arm outstretched and her face grim, and behind her was Theobald, his short sword drawn and ready.

Erwin lunged forward, his fingers closing around the handle of the discarded killing blade.

“You-” Frisk began, and then stopped, one arm outstretched, as Erwin drove the blade through his chest.

It was nothing like the killing of Titans. There were bones within, a proper ribcage meant to protect fragile human organs, and Erwin felt them snapping like twigs as he shoved the blade forward, felt delicate flesh cleaving away under the power of his thrust. He felt Frisk begin to fall and he let go the hilt, frozen by the sudden acrid smell of urine and the awful squelching noise as Frisk hit the ground and the blade shifted within him.

“Oh,” Frisk gurgled, his eyes rolling. There was terror on his face, childlike and confused. He gripped feebly at the blade impaling him, opening wide cuts in his palms and fingers. “Oh, go, God.”

Levi got to his feet, and his movement drew Erwin's attention. He was covered in grime and splatters of blood, his hair tangled with twigs and needles of pine. His uniform was badly ripped in places and fire-singed in others, and the cut on his face had been joined by a gradually swelling eye. He paced forward, and his eyes lifted to Erwin's face. There was a coldness in him that Erwin recognized, a chill light that had yet to be extinguished, and Erwin knew that this had been within him all along, this capacity for terrible things and for blood; he knew that to deny this part of Levi was to deny Levi himself.

When Levi gripped the hilt of the blade, Erwin made no move to stop him.

Levi pulled the blade free in a single motion, drawing a hurting cry from Frisk, something between a plea and a moan. He spun it around once, gaining control of the balance, and then he brought it down across Frisk's neck in a single, swift strike. There was a brief spurt of arterial blood from the decollated body, and then nothing more.

Levi dropped the blade to one side, staring down at his handiwork for a long moment. When he looked up at Erwin again he was calm, even with Frisk's blood on his lips and his cheeks, a predator finally whetted by the gore of its prey.

Erwin held out his good arm to him, palm upward.

“Well done, Levi,” he said.

***

“Captain Smith, sir?”

The voice was accompanied by a light knock. Erwin looked up from the papers stacked around Commander Nilsen's desk blotter. He'd been attempting to put some order to the mess of discarded and long ignored paperwork that filled the office; despite his dislocated shoulder, he was the only ranking officer who had any knowledge of the filing systems or the proper form allocations, and much of his recovery time had been spent sorting, stacking, burning and filing items that should have been seen to months ago. It was mind numbing work, just as it had been before, but now, at least, there was an end to his desk duty in sight.

The soldier in the doorway was young and sandy haired, his eyebrows set into an expression of natural dismay. He saluted briefly, movements sharp and perfect.

“I'm sorry to interrupt, sir.”

“It's not a problem, Berner,” Erwin said, giving him a brief smile. “What can I do for you?”

“Commander Shadis says not to worry about the patrol reports for tonight, sir – he can take them in the morning. Also, there's a girl here from the village who wants to see you.” Berner frowned a little. “She said her name was Rani – that you'd know who she was.”

Erwin blinked and sat up a little, ignoring the little twinge of pain in his shoulder as the movement stirred his arm sling.

“I do, yes,” he said. “Please tell her I'll be just a moment.”

“Of course, sir.” Berner disappeared from the doorway again.

Erwin leaned back in the Commander's chair, exhaling slowly. It had been hardly more than a week since the frantic race through the dark to Theobald's Rose estate, but it felt like much longer.

The four of them had staggered back to the road, Erwin leaning heavily on Theo as they did so, and it had not been long before a friendly farmer had come upon them, pulling a sturdy cart back from a visit to Sina. Once the poor man's shock over seeing the prince emerge from the woods like a faun had faded, he was more than helpful, and Erwin had drowsed among his remaining pumpkins and squashes all the way back, with Levi cuddled up under his good arm and gripping tightly to his uniform shirt. Once they'd reached the castle there had been more baths and a slightly frazzled and rumpled town doctor in his nightshirt and coat, who had poked and prodded at both their wounds until he had satisfied himself with his diagnoses. Erwin had torn some muscle in his dislocated shoulder, but it would more than likely heal, the doctor said, so long as he took care not to overexert himself. The cut along his hip had been stitched closed, with him none the worse for it.

Levi had been largely uninjured save for bruises and small cuts, and he had hovered close to Erwin throughout his examination, in the manner of a house cat attempting to designate its territory. When the doctor had gone, leaving Erwin's head swimming with laudanum and his senses dull, it was Levi who had tucked him into bed, who had smoothed a hand across his brow when he whimpered with pain, and Erwin had slept with the warmth of Levi's body curled up against his own, one of those small hands flat and steady against his heart.

“You're alive,” Levi had whispered into his ear, as though Erwin had won a great war, and in that moment, dizzy with drugs and the silk of Levi's hair against his uninjured shoulder, Erwin felt a little as though it were true.

Theobald had gone on to Sina himself the next morning with a full escort, Erwin's evidence papers tucked under his arm. He'd come into the guest room before his departure, where Erwin lay awake, listening to Levi's tired half-snores that were mostly muffled by pillows, and he'd leaned over and kissed Erwin's forehead with tremendous tenderness.

“I love you,” he'd said, smiling, his eyes clear and sweet. “And I have always loved you, and now you know. But I am happy where I am, Erwin – I'm happy with Charlotte, happy to have your friendship again, and happy to see that you've finally given your heart to something other than honor and cause.”

“Theo,” Erwin had said, hoarse, wanting to apologize, but Theo had touched a finger to his lips, light and gentle.

“He is beautiful,” he'd said, “And should not be loved with guilt. I mean what I say. Only promise me that we'll be as we were – like brothers again.”

“I promise,” Erwin said, trying to invest all the emotions he felt into those two words. “I promise.”

They'd left for Zhinganshina two days later, and the courier from Sina had caught them halfway there: the king was furious over what Erwin's papers had proved, and Marshall Embry, along with several of his closest associates, had been arrested and charged with treason.

“It is most certain that all of them will hang,” Theo's letter had said, “Though they are the only ones. Father is demanding an investigation be conducted, but I have doubts that it will produce any fruit. Regardless, I have told him these findings are your doing, and he has instructed me to reward you later, as you see fit. I'm sure you'll come up with something creative.”

“I don't suppose you could demand he make you Commander,” Levi had said. “The position's still kind of open.”

“No,” Erwin had said, amused. “Captain Shadis will do fine, I think.”

“For now,” Levi had said, and had offered no further comment.

Shadis had, indeed, risen to the task admirably, though with his customary curmudgeonly attitudes. The procedural messes Nilsen had left behind vexed him to no end, and it had been he who had elected Erwin to sort everything out. Erwin, bored as he was with the task, hadn't truly minded, as it had given him time to think, and to recover.

It wasn't over, that much he knew. Embry's arrest would be a warning shot, as he'd predicted it would be, but he knew that it wouldn't be enough to dismantle the corruption entirely. He thought, too, that it was likely things could become even worse – the beast had been spooked and wounded a little, as it were, and a wounded beast always fought harder than a hale one. There would need to be other plans and other maneuvers, bigger ones, things more impressive and more frightening. Erwin had a small inkling of the shape those plans would likely need to take, and it was an unsettling one, but instead of pushing it aside, he held onto it, turned it around in his head during his free moments and examined it from all angles.

Things cannot stay the way they are. Power will not shift unless it is forcibly pushed. Nothing will change if we turn away in fear from drastic action.

Erwin knew, now, what the look in Levi's eyes as he'd loomed over Frisk had been. It had been the look of a man who had killed before, who would kill again, if necessary. He recognized it now because he felt it himself, deep down beneath his breastbone like a small cancer. He had been as much a part of Frisk's death as Levi had been, and though Frisk had been hardly more than a strange and rabid animal in a human-shaped skin Erwin felt the weight of it still. He, too, had killed, and knew he would do so again, when the time came. He felt no discomfort with the knowledge; he thought, perhaps, it simply meant he was finally growing up.

Erwin left the office to meet Rani with such thoughts still in his mind, and when he spotted Levi, lingering with their guest near the stables, it took him a few moments to shake them away and affix a smile in place. Once he did, however, he knew it was convincing.

“Rani,” he said, lifting a hand in greeting. “It's been some time. How are you?”

“Busy,” the girl said, tucking her curls back from her face with an absent hand. She had a wide straw basket in one hand; Erwin could see bits of cotton and twigs lining the interior in some kind of careful arrangement. “I've just come to make a delivery.”

“A delivery?”

Levi murmured something in their lilting tongue, and Rani laughed, her eyes flicking towards Erwin in such a way that he understood that the comment had been about him.

“I bought you something,” Levi said, nodding towards Rani's basket. She grinned, and held out the basket by the handle for him to take. Beyond curious, now, Erwin peered inside.

In the center of the basket was a wobbly, fuzzy creature, white with the glow of tender pink skin beneath down. A small, bobbing head, tipped with a tiny hooked beak, waved back and forth like an uncoordinated snake; beneath the misshapen little body he saw the small claws, gripping awkwardly at the nest beneath it.

“She's a goshawk,” Rani said, as the baby bird's head clumsily tracked Erwin's movements. “She's not quite two weeks old. You'll need to keep her warm, and feed her on the regular.”

Erwin touched a fingertip to the fluffly head, light and gentle, and the little creature peeped at him, nearly tipping over in its attempt to see if that touch meant food was coming. Her singled-minded determination warmed him, and he smiled, looking up. Levi's lips were faintly curved, but he looked away before Erwin could get a good look at him.

“She's lovely,” he said to Rani, instead. “Thank you.”

The girl nodded, grinning her wicked grin. “Sure,” she said. “You come for me if you need help. You're gonna want to buy your hunting equipment from Samuels, down in the village – he does the best leather and he knows how to fit a hawk proper. Keep her close to you until she's four to six weeks – she'll be a little lady by then, but she'll know you're Mama.”

“I will,” Erwin said, feeling oddly touched. “I'll care for her as though she were my own child.”

“Then I expect she'll hunt for you well,” Rani said. “I have to get back to help my brother with the chores. L'hitraot,” she added in Levi's direction, waggling her fingers. They both turned to watch her as she strode off towards the village, her strides long and confident.

“I thought you'd like her,” Levi said quietly, when they were alone. “A bird like that suits you.”

“She does, yes,” Erwin said, glancing at him. “I have great respect for any creature so finely created for hunting.”

Levi's eyes flicked in his direction, and then away again, a hint of rose flaring along his cheekbones.

That night Levi came to Erwin's private single room, his small bag of belongings over his shoulder, and before they climbed into bed Erwin watched him slide the little herb pouch that Eren had given him under his pillow with ritualistic care. “I need all the luck and love I can get,” he said, when he saw Erwin watching him, and he smiled, a real, full smile, tired and a little sad but full of the awareness that now, here, with the two of them alone, he was home.

They both were, Erwin thought, as he ran his fingers down the length of Levi's back, feeling the solidity of him, the warmth of him, the way his heartbeat quickened and his eyes flashed. Their lives could be short and painful, he knew; the world was cruel, and dangerous, and made no distinctions between evil men deserving of quick ends and two scarred hearts clinging fast to each other with all their might.

But that was a small price to pay, for Levi.

*

the universe just vanished out of sight
and all the stars collapsed behind the pitch black night
and i can barely see your face in front of mine
but it is knowing you are there that makes me fine

(but the universe is just an empty space
and all the stars can disappear without a trace
and i'm so glad that this has taken me so long
'cause it's the journey that made me so strong.)

end: 2/3

Chapter Text

The scene was familiar enough to give him pause, where not very much gave him pause of late.

To his eyes it was the Sina Undercity, brought forth into the inappropriately cheery sunlight from under the shadow of the city's rocks and the elite's disgust. People clustered along the streets, huddled into ill-gotten blankets, some filthy, some bloody, nearly all hollow eyed and shaken. Despite the autumn air, the city square simmered with the heat of hundreds of thousands of sweating, suffering human bodies, all pressed too close for any degree of comfort. Levi could sense the silent, invisible festering of disease beneath the surface, the general filth of a collective of people whose government was not and had never been ready for them to need real help. He imagined he could feel his skin tingling with clinging sickness every time an errant arm or sleeve or hip brushed against him, and despite the occasional whispered apologies that followed it was difficult for him to hold on to his calm. There was little else any of them could do – there simply was no room for so many people to move.

A few people took notice of him as he made his way down the streets, though he knew it was his cloak that caught attention, rather than some kind of real recognition. With an effort, he avoided eye contact – dull unease had settled in a heavy lump just below his gorge, and he had no intention of letting the slightest inch of it show. Every glimpse of Wall Rose made his heart jump a little; against his will he imagined he could hear and feel them, the teeming and mindless Nephilim, as the rabbi had once called them, with their giant's hands and empty soulless eyes, clutching and scratching and gnawing at the stone. He hated the degree to which their existence evoked old fears and haunting stories, images and sensations that had been sewn long ago into his mind and heart by people who were no longer there to reassure him.

Levi had been among them himself, by now, had climbed their backs and torn their flesh as David had done to Goliath of Gath, and the terror of that act had never fully left him. But this was another sort of terror, a thing more insidious and soul invading – the knowing that Walls, just like people, were fallible. It was one thing to suspect it was true, to cry out that nowhere was safe in moments of weakness and fear, and quite another thing to be proven right. He derived no satisfaction from this.

He moved between the teeming people on light and careful feet, ignoring the occasional voice that called out to him in question. He had a target fixed before him, and an order in his head, and nothing would keep him from either.

There was a now-dry fountain in the center of the square, and a mixed handful of Rose-assigned Garrison soldiers and MP officers were milling there, giving each other sidelong looks with mixed airs of suspicion and belligerent exhaustion. There was a great deal of space between them and the mass of Maria refugees, and he surmised with the cynicism of experience that the distance had been encouraged by the soldiers, and probably not very kindly. One of the MP officers glanced over as he approached, and his lip curled visibly.

“What, kid?” he said, turning and squaring his shoulders in a posture of defensive aggression. His accent was purely Sina upper class. “Are you a courier, or what?”

“No,” he said, and drew the carefully bound folder out from under his arm. He held it out, not bothering to correct the MP – what he'd brought would suffice for that well enough.

The man sighed and opened the folder, slipping the papers free, and then paused as his eyes caught the lettering on the first page. He looked up, and then down again.

“You're Lieutenant Levi,” he said at last, his tone somewhere between embarrassed and apprehensive.

“Yeah,” Levi said, grimly enjoying his dismay. “Are you assholes this rude and insubordinate to your own officers, or what?”

“No, sir,” the man said, glancing back down at the papers with a frown. His attitude had not grown simpering or apologetic, as others had in the past in similar situations, but Levi hadn't expected any displays of humility from the MP, and something of that sort wouldn't help him now, anyway.

“Carla Jaeger,” he said, watching the man's eyes move back and forth across the page. “These are copies of her official papers. Is she on your list?”

The MP looked up, and then took a small leather-bound booklet from his jacket pocket. When he opened it, it was heavily creased, and had obviously seen a lot of use.

“No,” he said, after a moment's pause. “A Garrison soldier saw her die.”

A part of him had expected this – a part of Levi nearly always expected the worst. But the dull ache began in his chest nonetheless, buried so deeply that he knew he would be unable to bring it to the surface even if he wanted to. The woman had been a friend to them and the service until the outpost had relocated to Rose territory a few years ago, and had tended his wounds more than once.

“Her children, then,” he said, returning his focus. “Her son, Eren – and the family adopted a little girl not long ago, Mikasa Ackerman. Their papers are inside, also.”

“They're on my list,” the MP officer said, frowning at his book.

“Where are they?”

“It's not my job to babysit,” the man said, snapping the book closed and tucking it away again. “Documentation says they're here. If you want 'em, find 'em yourself.”

“You left something out of that sentence,” Levi said, compressing his frustration into a low growl, “You spoiled little fuck.”

He saw the outrage flicker across the man's face, saw his lips twitch as though to retort and dismiss, but there were Garrison soldiers watching the exchange, now, and all of them were frowning.

“I'm... sorry, sir,” he ground out at last, averting his eyes. “My commanding officer has stationed me here, sir. I am unable to help you search for orphans, sir.

“Fine,” Levi said, reaching up to take his papers back from the man's loosened hands. “You'd cock it up anyway, no doubt.”

He turned away, drew in his breath to try to steady himself, and plunged back into the roiling crowd.

Some hours later he extracted himself again, weary with exhaustion and resignation. There was no sign of Eren, or even of his small blonde friend; no one had seen them. A few people mentioned seeing the girl Mikasa, owing to her apparently rather distinct features – “she looked a little like you,” one woman had said, and Levi had bitten back his irritation all over again – but it had been some time. It was as if all three children had simply vanished. There would be no homecoming, no way to return what Carla had done by saving her children from the upheaval they knew was still to come. Of course the idea of adopting them had been a little far fetched; Survey Corps was no place for children to grow up, after all. But a Titan invasion into the walls had once been the same. Nothing would ever be absolute again.

He hoped that, wherever they were, it was peaceful, and free of pain. It was the most anyone could ask for, now.

Levi mounted his horse, and turned a little in the saddle to survey the cold grey Wall looming overhead. Rose, too, was pock-marked and cracked in places; he saw potential footholds, crevasses for fingers, dents, and discolored stone. He thought, with unhappy calm, maybe they're better off dead, anyway – it's only a matter of time before this one goes, too.

Levi bit his lip, and nudged Chaviv into a trot. It would be a long ride back to the outpost.

*

if you know the enemy, and you know yourself, you need not fear the results of 100 battles.
if you know yourself, but not the enemy, for every victory gained, you will also suffer defeat.
if you know neither the enemy, nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

treat your soldiers as your beloved children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys.
to defeat your enemy, you must pretend inferiority, and encourage your enemy's arrogance.
making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory;
for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.

the general who advances without seeking fame, and who retreats without fear of disgrace;
whose only thought is to protect his country, and to service for his sovereign
is the jewel of his kingdom.

it is only he who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war
who can thoroughly understand how to profit from waging war.

Chapter Text

there will be blue skies
above the green and verdant plain
churns will swell with fresh butter
there will be an abundance of sweet grain
and we will rise from our sleep
we won't have time to choose what things we'll keep
and rivers will all turn to blood
frogs will fall from the sky
and the plague will rage
through the countryside

there will be cotton clouds
above the fields as white as cream
there will be loud singing
in the churches
as we all come out to take one for the team
and all our great schemes and plans
will slip like fishes from our hands
and rivers will all turn to blood
frogs will fall from the sky
and the plague will cover
the country with its anger.

*

The mood in the vast and well lit ballroom was one of celebration and carefree indulgence, gently enhanced by the murmur of human voices and the lilt of quiet stringed instruments, the clink of glasses and the shuffling of dancing feet a constant, soothing roll of sound. Erwin was watching the dancers, but he was not truly seeing them. Despite the expression of serene good-nature he'd fixed on his face and the occasional friendly lift of his glass as he made eye contact with someone he knew, his thoughts were far away, sharp and streamlined, like arrows knocked and aimed at distant targets.

The dancers were engaged in a rapid cotillion, soldier and noble alike; in their midst he saw Lia Kaiser, laughing, her silky brown hair tucked up to the back of her head in graceful waves, stunningly lovely in the pale blue gown she had forgone her dress uniform to wear. It had been the right choice, Erwin thought, his fondness for the girl softening the heaviness of his brow as he watched her. She was vibrant with the admiration of so many people, a far cry from the shy and uncertain young woman he had met five years ago, and it gave him no small amount of pride to know that his guidance had some part in her blossoming. Kaiser had a natural aptitude for tactics and planning, and was particularly adept at gathering and retaining useful information, and he had come to depend heavily on her smart and precise evening reports. He knew, now, how Captain Hamlin had felt, knew the satisfaction of taking a young soldier under his wing and slowly coaxing free the true capabilities that lay within them. Kaiser’s success in the field was sometimes the only balm he had for the wounds the work left in him, and he did not take it for granted.

Levi never needed such things from you, he thought suddenly, and winced, looking away from the dancers pointedly, instead taking in the view through the ballroom windows.

The Aldenberg Estate was relatively typical of the more grand homesteads that dotted the exclusive Sina countryside. The main house was a large manor, sprawling gracefully amid carefully cultivated gardens and private greenhouses, and through the ceiling to floor windows Erwin could see the westernmost channel of Stohess's largest river, flowing down through the hills towards Wall Sina, which rose up out of the dark dizzyingly. If he squinted, he could just make out the bobbing flecks of yellow and white hand-carried lanterns along the rim, moving slowly in a never ending line. Guard duty on Sina and Rose had been tripled for nearly two weeks, now, day and night, for whatever good it might do.

“Commander Smith?”

Erwin turned, smiling a broad and automatic smile. Lady Aldenberg had joined him by the refreshment table, her expression politely inquiring; there was a hint of careful distance there, as though she was not simply pretending their previous encounters had not occurred, but had truly put them out of her mind. It would not have surprised him if she had. The last time he had seen her, she had been planning to have him killed.

He summoned his armor with the ease of long practice. “My Lady,” he said, bobbing his head respectfully. “May I compliment you on a perfect evening.”

She smiled, lifting her fan to flutter it close to her chin. “Oh, it's much duller than my usual parties,” she said, though it was clear she was pleased. “The usual accoutrements were nearly impossible to come by, considering the way things have been. The shortages, and such.”

“Yes,” Erwin said, with perfect, gentle serenity, glad that it was he and he alone here to receive this translation of thousands of human lives lost, civilian and soldier alike, into such blasé terms. “I expect there have been quite a few. Still, it's a fine ball. I'm most grateful for your invitation.”

“Of course, of course!” She waved her free hand a little, lifting it high enough for Erwin to see the perfectly hemmed lace that accented the cuff of her wrist-length gloves. The gloves themselves were obviously silk, and he thought, with a grim sort of amusement, I doubt you'll be able to buy another set of those anytime soon. Much of humanity's silk production, along with a tremendous percentage of its other food and goods, had been centralized in Maria territory. Erwin knew a number of Sina nobles would shortly be forced to go without their favorite frivolities. It was a petty thing, in truth, but he would take whatever vague sense of control and superiority he could get.

“I'm only sorry that we couldn't throw you a proper party, to celebrate your promotion,” Lady Aldenberg went on, looking out briefly over the dancers and other mingling folk. “I do believe you are the youngest military commander the Crown has ever seen. Isn't that right?”

“I believe so, My Lady.” Erwin allowed himself a brief note of self-depreciation. “Of course, I was afforded the honor only because Commander Shadis retired... and Captain Zacharius refused the position, as well – he would have made a much more capable commander than I do, I think.”

“I doubt that very much,” Lady Aldenberg said. There was a motherly, reassuring warmth in her voice, and Erwin was unable to keep from conjuring an old memory in his mind: a bruised and battered teenaged boy, feverish, hung up like an animal to be butchered and sentenced to die in a rainy courtyard only a few blocks away, entirely on her behalf. A faint chill went down his spine, but he concealed it, lifting his head to look out over the floor himself.

Across the moving, drifting heads of the dancers, between their dipping and swaying bodies, he caught a flash of fluttering blue and gold, and then Levi was there, an eternal small thundercloud on the horizon. His black hair hung loose around his face, grown long enough of late to show the faint natural wave it held, and it gleamed silken by the light of the expensive candles. The dress uniform had been tailored directly to him, and the vest and jacket hugged his small, powerful body so closely that, if Erwin held himself still, he could see every breath Levi drew. The uniform’s attached cape was cut at the sides and the middle, into an artistic impression of the pinion feathers of a hunting bird, and they lifted and swayed as Levi moved, as though he were prepared at any moment to leap into flight. Erwin’s stomach ached at the sight of him, and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to call Levi back to his fist, to forgo this party and the fool’s errand he had come here to see to, to disappear into the night with him and perhaps to never return, not to Sina, not to Survey, not anywhere. Levi had told him, once, that he had been born outside the Walls, and even for a man as clear-minded as Erwin such a thing seemed impossible, but there were times when he wondered what it might be like to return with Levi to that unknown wilderness.

Such freedoms were not his to ponder any longer, he knew. Not now. Not now, that Levi’s predictions had finally come true.

I’m sorry, Erwin thought, but for now, you must obey me. You must.

Levi lifted his head, as though he had sensed Erwin’s thoughts, and he turned, his pale eyes finding Erwin’s face. Erwin could see the anger and frustration still in him, marks as visible as any loving and tender bruise Erwin had ever left on his body, and Erwin knew he would find no quarter nor comfort there. Not yet.

“Commander Smith?”

Erwin turned away with an effort, but not before he saw Levi’s scowl deepen. Lady Aldenberg was peering up at him, her expression expectant, genuine, and curious, and Erwin felt a momentary wave of real hatred wash over him, so thick and heady that it almost made him dizzy. He wondered where she and her fellows in the peerage had been on that cold, wet morning, what business had occupied their attentions as Zhinganshina was crushed beneath the rubble of its own protective wall, as the people who farmed their food and wove their cloth fled their homes, or died in them. Had they been fussing over their meals while Garrison soldiers faced Titans for the very first time and were found wanting? Had they been about their afternoon teatimes and their garden parties as that hole opened wide in Maria's rock face, as Titans staggered and roared through, snatching up people too innocent and too sheltered to know how to run away from giants?

They were, he thought, and smiled at her again, as a dog might bare its teeth. They most certainly were. They still are, after all.

But remember why you accepted the invitation to this ostentatious display in the first place. There is more at stake than your own morality.

That seems to be the theme, these days.

“I'm sorry, My Lady,” he said, turning towards her in full. “You must forgive me. We've been so terribly busy, recently – I'm afraid I'm a bit more tired than I thought.”

“Poor boy,” Lady Aldenberg said, pursing her lips, giving every impression of true sympathy. “Has it been very difficult? The recovery efforts?”

“Very, yes,” Erwin said, his tone droll and good-natured, while his mind whispered, with poisonous outrage, that depends on what you mean by difficult, Lady. Is it difficult, combing through rubble for survivors, and finding only body parts? Is it difficult, trying to document and identify human beings by the scraps of clothing and hair left on the debris that killed them? Doing all of this while protecting the few who have survived, bleeding, crying, and traumatized? While struggling not to die? Sleeping for only an hour or so at a time, keeping round the clock watch shifts to stay alive, using the night for cover, weaving your way between the dumb and docile monsters, any one of whom might prove to be a little more awake than their fellows?

“Very difficult.” He smiled. “But that is, of course, the duty of the Survey Corps. To push forward, always, in the name of humanity and the Crown.” He paused, and, seeing her faint nod of approval, he began to lay out his cards.

“Part of the difficulty has been an issue of funding, you know,” he said, lifting his wine glass to eye the pale liquid inside. It was his second, though he felt no comforting fizz on the back of his tongue or tell-tale lightening of the head; there were times when no amount of carousal could steal a man's sobriety, and he had known, going in, that this was one of them. “We've lost a great deal of manpower to this disaster, and many of our usual patrons have backed away – and,” he added, lifting his voice slightly in well-bred outrage that he did not at all need to fake, “And, there's talk now of dissolving the Survey Corps entirely.”

“Is there really?” Lady Aldenberg said, widening her eyes. It was difficult to gauge her sincerity at his current angle, and so he didn't waste time trying.

“There really is,” he said, nodding. “The idea is, I believe, to simply integrate us into the Garrison as a sort of special operations unit – to save money and resources, I suppose, but really, if Survey is dissolved, who will be there to stop the Titans from breaking through Rose, and Sina?”

Erwin sipped his wine, letting the words hang, and watched as Lady Aldenberg's expression moved from polite interest and into dismay and faint alarm, her fingers tightening around her fan so hard that the fine wood squeaked softly. He felt no particular shame about his scare tactics. A breach of the other two Walls was, after all, perfectly possible, and this was a woman who had lived her entire life in the secure knowledge that, should the Titans finally come, there were hundreds of thousands of other people between her and them, to slake their mindless hungers before they ever reached her.

“As such,” he said, smiling at her, “I'm hoping that tonight I can find a few civilly minded people, who are willing to make the same degree of sacrifice that we do – as patrons, of course, not soldiers.”

“Patrons,” Lady Aldenberg repeated, her voice a bit faint. Her gaze shifted away from his face, back towards the room, where the dancers were changing partners in a whirl of color and silk. “Oh. Well, I wish you the best of luck, Commander Smith. I'm so sorry – I must leave you, Baron Laurent has just arrived.” Her fan snapped out, fluttering close to her face as she turned away. “Please enjoy the rest of the evening!”

Erwin turned to watch her flit away across the edges of the dance floor, feeling nothing in particular, not even disappointment. It was as though his very capacity for fear or trepidation had receded, like a tide drawing out, and in the space left the cold and factual horror of what had happened to Maria had poured in, like molten metal into a mold, cooling and hardening into a permanent replacement of steel. He knew his enemies more intimately than any of them would ever suspect, and he had come prepared for refusal, and for compromise; this was only one failure of what was certain to be many. For better or for worse, the life of Survey Corps – and the lives of its soldiers – were in his hands, and he had no intention of shying from the responsibility.

Erwin drew in his breath and touched his wine glass to his lips, letting the fine and heady sensation of delicate fruit and flower waft up his nose and down his throat. When he looked up again, Hanji was coming towards him, the swishing of her dress uniform as she moved audible now that the music had paused. She had combed out her normally stubborn hair just enough to pin it back with more finesse than was her usual custom, but the glasses she wore were her sturdy and well scratched field pair, held on by tight leather straps that looped over and under the lobes of her ears, and the doublet she wore under her dress jacket had a large scorch mark across the bosom, as well as a few missing buttons near the bottom.

He lifted an eyebrow at the sight, and she glanced down, then grinned carelessly. “Research doesn't care about laundry day, and you can't exactly play with chemicals naked,” she said, by way of explanation, then reached out without hesitation to grip his shoulder companionably. “I guess it's not going so well, huh?”

Erwin smiled wearily. “At least she was polite about it,” he said.

She snorted, giving an eloquent roll of her eyes, and he felt the swell of his affection for her, and her innate ability to express their shared opinions when he found himself unable to. “Good manners won't help us. I've been working them over the best I can, but nobody seems terribly interested in talking to me for very long.” She touched the first two fingers of one hand to the bridge of her nose in an unconscious adjustment gesture, one of her very few nervous tells. “I can guess why.”

“Because they don't appreciate progress or true brilliance.” Erwin looked out over the crowd, but caught her ruefully appreciative look all the same. “How are the others?”

“I don't think Mike's said a word all night,” Hanji said, rolling her shoulders in vague speculation. “Nanaba's managing all right, but only because nobody here can tell how pissed off she is. Petra's all right, though I'm ready to start prying some of these men away from her by whatever means necessarily. I haven't seen Radic since we arrived, but Kaiser's obviously charming the trousers off anyone who gets within about two meters of her.” She paused. “Levi is, ah...”

“Angry,” Erwin said, with careful neutrality. “Yes, I know.”

They were both silent, long enough for the new strains of the violins returning to life to rise up around and between them. This was a gentler, more mournful piece of music, meant to accent conversation rather than quicken the blood at the dance, and Erwin could sense it seeping through his careful internal defenses like water through porous stone.

“If you give him what he wants,” Hanji said at last, not looking at him, “I'm completely certain that he'll take Petra with him.”

Erwin only nodded his agreement, not wanting to speak just yet; it was obvious enough.

“Why,” Hanji said, lifting her head slightly, “Do you keep saying no?” Her tone gave no indication as to whether or not she felt he was in the right, which he was distantly grateful for.

“Because,” he said slowly, “I need things to remain static in some regards, at least.”

“Do you?”

He turned towards her, hearing the faint and uncharacteristic challenge in her tone, and she smiled, unafraid of him as always, more than aware she was his match even despite his recent total authority. But the frustration he felt had little to do with his capacity as a commander, and everything to do with those parts of him that his new title was meant to overshadow, and it made him feel small, and petty.

“What,” he said, with all the brittle dignity he could muster, “are you implying?”

Hanji's face softened, and she took his arm again.

“I'm sorry,” she said. “That was out of line.”

“You know I have no issue with any of you questioning my decisions--”

“Out of line as a friend, not a subordinate.” She shook her head. “I get it. I do. I just hope you're... I don't know.” She shrugged her lanky shoulders. “I hope you're keeping it in mind.”

“I am, yes.” Erwin glanced automatically in the direction of some party-goer's sudden burst of laughter. He could no longer see any sign of Levi, and he half wondered if Levi had managed to make some kind of escape without anyone noticing. “It's rather difficult not to think about.”

Hanji made a low humming sound of neutral acknowledgment, and mercifully changed the subject. “Well, anyway – I overheard one fellow going on about taking a 'renewed interest' in Survey's doings. Over there.” She looked around briefly, and then gestured towards the far edge of the dance floor, where a number of men in finely tailored, archaic Military Police dress uniforms. They were markedly different from those that currently enlisted officers wore and Erwin recognized their affiliation only by their capes, which were the familiar green-blue, gathered neatly at the middle of the back and tied off with gleaming golden braided cord to give the impression of a unicorn's tail dangling down. All of them wore varying signals of high offices – stripes and tassels and the occasional star.

“Retired Military Police?” Erwin said, with faint trepidation. “Why in God's name would any of them be interested in funding us?”

“Don't know.” Hanji rolled one shoulder. “But I heard what I heard. You should wade over there and see what that was about.” She saw his hesitation, and grinned. “It's got to be better than standing around waiting for Lady Aldenberg to come back for more uncomfortable small talk, right?”

“I suppose,” Erwin murmured, glancing down into his wine glass to find it sadly empty. “It couldn't hurt. But,” he added, looking at her, “I'm counting on you to keep an eye on me. Make sure I don't throw any punches or the like.”

“You won't,” Hanji said, grinning, and slapped him heartily on the back. “Go on, Commander. Do what you do best.”

Erwin suspected that Hanji was rather overestimating his ability to be charming, given that she was both fond of him and had a rather skewed idea of what constituted “charming,” but it didn't matter. He turned, set down his empty glass on the refreshment table behind him, and began to make his way through the throng towards the officers.

One of them, a heavyset man with impressive, Sina-fashionable mutton-chops, looked up from his fellows as Erwin approached; he smiled in greeting, but Erwin saw his mouth moving in low toned syllables, and one by one the others turned to look at him, wearing varying expressions of blank pleasantness. Erwin was suddenly and uncomfortably reminded of Titans, with their empty smiles and unassuming doe-like eyes, and he felt his hands curl into fists at his sides, unbidden, though he returned their indifferent regard with as much serenity as he could.

“Gentlemen,” he said, and bowed deeply, his right arm folded across the breast of his uniform, remembering his etiquette lessons at the hands of the royal tutors. It was proper to greet an enemy with all cordiality, and Erwin had no intention of slacking in the area of poise. “I hope this fine evening finds you all well.”

“It certainly does,” replied the mutton-chopped man, with all appearances of polite friendliness. His Sina accent was lilting and a little unfamiliar; Erwin supposed he had come from one of the further flung districts. “It does an old man good to see a handsome young face wearing the old emerald cord. How does the position find you so far, Commander?”

“Tryingly, sir,” Erwin said, with dry good humor, and the men chuckled with mild appreciation. “But I'm no less honored, of course.”

“Of course,” the man echoed, and then, in a gesture of surprising friendliness, held out his hand for Erwin to shake. His palm was soft and doughy, fingers thick, but his grip was strong and to all appearances the gesture was meant genuinely.

“I'm Abraham Dawk,” he said, smiling, “But call me Bram, please. I'm lord of a bit of land called Gyurne District, over in Eastern Rose territory. Perhaps you're acquainted with my son?”

“I'm afraid not, Lord Dawk. Not personally, that is.” Erwin had, of course, both heard of and had brief written correspondence with Commander Nile Dawk since his appointment, but there had been no opportunity to meet with the man in person as of yet. Dawk was a few years and a trainee generation older than Erwin was, but his promotion to Commander of the Military Police had nonetheless caused nearly the same degree of social murmuring as Erwin's own, some four or so years prior. Dawk, too, was considered quite young for the position, though Erwin noted that the talk surrounding Dawk's appointment had consisted far more of assertions of Dawk's apparent prodigal leadership ability, unlike the whispers of sneaking manipulation and backhanded maneuvering that had risen up around Erwin's. They weren't entirely inaccurate, in Erwin's case – and he felt no particular shame about that – but he had wondered more than once about Dawk. The man was generally described in terms such as “upright” “disciplined” and “discerning,” which in Erwin's experience often translated to “stubborn, given to prejudice, and unwilling to compromise.”

Lord Bram, however, carried himself with the affable, likeable easiness of that particular breed of noble more familiar with the names and families of the household staff and the needs of the villages and towns than with whose bloodline intersected with whose. Erwin wondered if perhaps he was wrong about the son, after all. Gyurne District was in Rose, he'd said, which meant Lord Bram answered directly to Prince Theobald, and Theo did not tend to suffer the unwise with complacency. That was doubly true now, as all of Rose scrambled and stretched and penny-pinched to make room for four hundred thousand starving Maria refugees.

Erwin allowed himself a genuine smile. “We have spoken in letters, however,” he went on. “Commander Dawk seems to be a most capable man. I hope he'll allow me to look to him for guidance.”

Lord Bram laughed, nodding, and Erwin saw the twinkle in his eye. “Nile can be a bit stiff,” he said, “But he's a good lad. A lot like his grandmother – she flew with Survey, you know, decades ago. Back when the Gear was still experimental.”

“Did she?” Erwin said, genuinely impressed. “She must have been quite a soldier. Losses then were even higher than they are now.” He said the words before he gave them real thought, but once he heard them aloud he realized they had been the wrong ones. The men on either side of Lord Bram gave him strange looks, sickly combinations of disbelief and amusement; Survey Corps's body-count was not a topic ever addressed in polite company, and it was decidedly not a subject to bring up while in the midst of trying to drum up financial support. No one would want to invest in a failing project, after all.

But it's true, damn it. We die so easily. We take such risks. Why shouldn't that be discussed and respected? Wouldn't it mean that greater public support could keep more of us alive? Why shy away from the truth?

Truth, Erwin thought, or death. “Emet.”

In many ways, Levi was much wiser than he was.

“However,” he said, deciding to be bold, as Levi would want him to be, “Our losses are definitely reaching a point of competition.” He smiled blandly back at the other men, and watched with pleasure as the mocking looks withered on their faces. “As such, Lord Bram, gentlemen, let me be frank – if we are to continue as we have, as the only military branch with Titan fighting experience, we will need financial support. A massive amount.” He paused to gauge their expressions; Lord Bram was nodding gravely in agreement, and one of the other men was looking thoughtful, but the rest of them had gone stoney and impassive, immediately sealing away their vague overtures of polite interest at the first sign of real need. Erwin did not flinch. He had expected it.

“Truly, I would love to be of assistance,” Lord Bram said, and Erwin could hear the honesty in his voice, the pride and sorrow in his eyes, and knew him to be a man who had seen first-hand the sorrow and fear that went hand in hand with a life lived within and beside the Survey Corps. “I truly would. Unfortunately, nearly all of my assets are tied up in refugee support and food production now. Prince Theobald has asked his landholders to devote their monetary efforts to the tragedy, and I was happy to oblige him.” He smiled at Erwin, sadly. “He's poured as much of his own money as he can afford into the work, of course – as you'd expect of him. He's a fine administrator.”

“Yes,” Erwin said, smiling back with the same melancholy understanding. “He truly is.” He had known from the outset that Theo would be unable to assist them, and he did not begrudge his friend that inability. Theobald's duty was to his people, after all, just as Erwin's was, and in the short term the ability to put bread into the mouths of starving orphans was more important than keeping Survey alive. Erwin was proud to hear that at least one of Theo's landholders recognized the wisdom and sacrifice of his work.

But as a matter of fact,” Lord Bram said, moving forward to grasp the shoulder of the thoughtful-faced man, his tail-cape fluttering, “Lord Laconi here was just telling me earlier that he has an interest in your financial difficulties – weren't you, Laconi?”

“I was, yes,” Lord Laconi said neutrally, looking at Erwin with an oddly scrutinizing expression. “The fact is, I had a number of land holdings in Maria territory. Goods storage, mainly. I'd thought it all lost, but, you and your people would be capable of retrieving it, wouldn't you?”

“Most certainly,” Erwin lied, with perfect composure. “Assisting the merchant guilds in goods retrieval is one of our current primary goals.”

“Well then!” Lord Bram exclaimed. “I think the two of you should discuss the specifics privately. Come on, lads. Let's see what else there is to drink around here.” He smiled at Erwin, and Erwin returned his smile with a warm one of his own, trying to convey his gratitude. Even if this particular opportunity didn't pan out, the fact that there were people among the Sina peerage who still thought well of Survey was heartening.

When the other men were gone, Lord Laconi turned to Erwin, that strange and thoughtful look once more on his face.

“I have another condition,” he said.

Erwin sensed the hesitation in the man, and further sensed that it was not a reluctance born of shame or uncertainty. Rather, it was a watchful sort of pause, as though Laconi was attempting to gauge something unsavory about him. It put Erwin's back up immediately, though he was careful not to let it show.

“By all means, ask,” he said, pleasantly neutral.

Laconi nodded, once, and leaned in closely.

“I want,” he said, as calmly as if he were commenting on the weather, “the opportunity for a private congress with your little Mystic.”

Chapter Text

There was no mistaking what Laconi meant, despite the polite wording. Erwin was so repulsed, both by Laconi's demand and by the calm and casual air with which he delivered it, that for a moment he couldn't even form words to refuse. “I'm – sorry?” he managed, after a moment of staring. “You want... what?”

“I'm told,” Laconi said, not appearing to sense anything amiss in Erwin's response, “That the boy is completely obedient to you.”

“He... is not a boy,” Erwin said, struggling for neutrality. “He is twenty-five, as of this winter.”

“It matters little the actuality,” Laconi replied. “He looks the size and part of a boy, doesn't he?”

Erwin tried to smile, more to disarm his own rising temper than for Laconi's benefit. His anger was only a small percentage to do with his own personal feelings of possession over Levi; he was outraged, as well, that it had even been assumed he would trade any one of his soldiers' bodies for the sake of funds, but further than that, he felt a cold, creeping fury over the certainty that this conversation would never have happened, had Laconi not presumed by the nature of ethnicity that Erwin would feel the same towards Levi that he did.

“I suppose he does,” he said, swallowing his personal feelings. “But I'm afraid I cannot do such a thing.”

Laconi eyed him, speculative and unmoved. “No?” he said, simply.

Erwin shook his head slightly. “My lord, Lieutenant Levi is – his health and well being are paramount to our continued success in the field. Such a – distraction would be--”

“Oh come now, Commander.” Laconi lifted his eyebrows a little. A faint, odd smile was appearing at the corners of his mouth, strangely sour and unkind. “It isn't as though I intend to force myself upon him. I only ask for a chance to persuade him.”

Erwin had learned long ago the signs and warnings of a dangerous liar, and he saw a number of them here, now: the excess of detail regarding the man's intent, the attitude of reasonableness in the face of implied silliness, the inability to hear a polite refusal. Levi's capabilities of self-defense aside, it was apparent enough to Erwin that Laconi would not hesitate to exploit whatever opportunity was presented to him.

He paused, and then began to undo the cuff of his right sleeve with careful fingers. Pulling the fabric up gently, to avoid wrinkling it, he turned his wrist, showing the long, ugly scar along the vein there.

“You won't persuade him,” he said, watching Laconi's eyes widen a little at the sight of the mark. For the first time, he began to look a little hesitant. “He does nothing he does not wish to do, and he expresses his lack of desire with great eloquence.”

“He did that to you?” Laconi said, voice gone a little hushed.

Erwin smiled. “Truthfully,” he said, rolling his sleeve back down again and re-buttoning his cuff, “I would be concerned for your safety, my lord.”

“I see,” Laconi said, rather nervously transferring his wine glass to his other hand. His freed fingers came up to tug delicately at his high, laced collar. “Well, I do appreciate your candor. It's certainly not what I had heard, but...”

“What, precisely, have you heard?” Erwin's smile remained in place; he could feel the muscles of his face stretching taut and aching. Laconi wasn't looking at him anymore, instead half turning to look out over the newly crowded dance floor, as though seeking a polite escape.

“That aside from his fighting prowess – which is to be expected in the breed, I suppose – he isn't much more than a bedwarmer.” Laconi's fingers were still at his collar lacings. Erwin stared at them intently, seeing in his mind his own hands lifting, taking hold of the delicately filigreed draping of official aiguillette that linked his throat and shoulder, and winding the whole mess around Laconi's neck in a gleaming golden noose.

“The breed?” he said, softly, menace flowering in a violent blossom around his heart and through his head. He was still grinning like an idiot, and a part of him half fearing the skin around his lips would tear under such furious tension. “I'm afraid I'm not entirely certain what you mean, my lord.”

Laconi opened his mouth, and Erwin tensed to receive the response that he knew would finally drive him to a loss of temper and control, but both he and Laconi were saved.

“Commander Smith!” Lia Kaiser cried, gliding towards them both from where the dancers were bowing their partners back to the sidelines in thanks. Her dress fluttered around her in a silky mist of gauzy blue, and she was smiling, but when Erwin met her eyes he saw awareness there. She had overheard, and was coming purposefully to save him. He took her assistance with gratitude.

“Lieutenant Kaiser,” he said, with warmth he did not have to fake, and took both her hands to lean over and kiss her cheek. “May I present Lord Laconi.”

Kaiser beamed at him, releasing one of his hands to turn to Lord Laconi, whose indifference had turned into a pleased look of his own. “Well, Lieutenant,” he said, his eyes roving from her face to her bodice. “It seems that Commander Smith here has quite an army of beauties at his beck and call.”

Erwin felt the tingling resurgence of his anger at the implication, but Kaiser only laughed gayly, tossing her head so that her hair fell over her shoulder.

“Isn't he a beauty himself?” she said, merriment twinkling in her eyes as she laid her hand atop Erwin's arm, as a daughter might. “It stands to reason. My apologies, however, my lord – I came to steal him from your company.”

“Is there a problem?” Laconi looked from Kaiser to Erwin, though he found no explanation in either of them. Kaiser shook her head.

“No, no. Just a bit of official business for our Commander to see to.” Her light touch on Erwin's arm became a strong grip, though by the way her body leaned close to his, the force of it was not apparent to the eye. Erwin felt the warning in her fingers, and forced his body to relax. “But my lord, you should go and join the dancing! There are a few ladies on the sidelines who've seen no suitors all evening. And that won't do at all, will it?”

“No,” Lord Laconi murmured, sounding interested, “It certainly will not. Well, then – Commander, if you'll excuse me.”

“Of course,” Erwin said, and then added, before he could fully stop himself, “But about your interest –“

“I'm afraid it's not plausible at this juncture, Commander,” Laconi said with a small, untouched shrug. “I wish you the best of luck in finding the support you need.” He bowed politely to Kaiser, and left them.

“You looked fit to pull his head from his shoulders with your bare hands,” Kaiser murmured, once Laconi was out of earshot. Her hand remained on his arm, though her tight grip relaxed a little. “I suppose he wasn't cooperative?”

Erwin paused, trying to decide how much to say to her. There was a strange and uncomfortable feeling of embarrassment creeping over him, with something like guilt mixed in, as though the nasty motivations behind Laconi's interest had been his fault, or that perhaps he should have straightened himself out, internally, and pressed his own advantages until Laconi's demands became more palatable. He wondered, briefly, if Lord Bram had known what Laconi would ask him, though his instincts about the man indicated that the answer was probably no. Lord Bram had struck him well, despite it being only a first impression, and Erwin was well practiced at reading people on all battlefields, even those lit by low candlelight and accented by refined music. Laconi, he suspected, had made his choice alone.

Kaiser was looking at him expectantly, and he gave her a wan smile. “His assistance carried a price I am not willing to pay,” he said, and then added, after a momentary hesitation, “Have you had much luck?”

She fluttered her fan in front of her face. “Some, I think,” she said. “A few of the minor gentry have promised to contact you over the next few days with their offers, though I don't know how many of them are being honest.”

“And none of them have demanded anything uncouth of you in the process?”

Kaiser looked up at the sharpness in his voice, her brow furrowing a little. “Uncouth?” she repeated, and when he did not elaborate, she went on. “No. There's been flirting, of course – but most of that has been on a... from a personal angle.” A little color rose to her cheeks, though she was frowning. “Is that bad, sir?”

Erwin sighed. “No, Lieutenant,” he said. “I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to chastise you. I only want to ensure that you – that all of you – are safe.”

“Safe,” Kaiser echoed, and some degree of understanding filtered into her eyes, thinning her painted lips severely. “I suppose Lord Laconi's request was something you'd deem unsafe, then?”

“Yes,” Erwin said, and put his hand gently against her back. He watched as Laconi re-appeared across the room, engaging some young noble's son in a conversation far more animated than the one he'd had with Erwin. “It was.”

“I'm sorry, sir.” She closed her fan with a practiced little snap, and drew in a breath, as though bracing herself for something unpleasant. “Well, I may have a distraction for you, in that case.”

“Yes?” Erwin resisted the urge to hold his breath in anticipation of what new complication he would have to see to.

Kaiser gave him an unhappy, apologetic look. “Lieutenant Levi has left the party, sir,” she said, as Erwin's stomach lurched in uneasy irritation. “So far as any of us can tell. Captain Zacharius says he doesn't think he's gone far, but he thought you should know as soon as possible.”

“Thank you,” Erwin said, his eyes roving unintentionally upwards towards the ceiling, as though he thought he might see Levi there, pressed against the cream-colored moldings among the delicately painted fresco scenes, balanced precarious and glaring at him. “I'm sure he hasn't gone far.”

Erwin had grown accustomed to most of Levi's tendencies and personal habits, over the last five years, and he flattered himself that he could guess, most of the time, as to what direction Levi's somewhat off-beat internal compass pointed him in. Levi would not have left the estate grounds, nor would he have put himself voluntarily into any kind of situation that might endanger Survey's tenuous reputation. He doubted, also, that Levi had met with any sort of violence or force. He was still small, yes, the top of his head barely reaching Erwin's own shoulder, but he boiled with power and tightly coiled menace, a blade forged with specific purpose in mind – not a sword meant for glorious battlefields or for knighting lords, but a small, sharp-angled blade, not meant to be seen as anything more than a flash of silver between some unwitting victim's ribs. Levi was and had always been more predator than prey, and Erwin knew that any man who pursued him with violence in mind would most assuredly find himself a violent and ignoble end.

Erwin was not worried about Levi being in some kind of trouble.

He touched Kaiser's shoulder with light fingers. “I'll go see about tracking him down,” he said. “Try to enjoy the party.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, but he saw the brief understanding in her eyes before he turned away.

Thick red velvet ropes had been strung across the doorways that led out of the ballroom and into the interior of the manor, and Lady Aldenberg seemed to have decided that they would do well enough on their own to keep the guests from meandering through her house, as there were no signs of guard or house staff attending them. It was easy enough for Erwin to step unobtrusively over the ropes and into the darkened hallway that led towards the manor's proper foyer.

He was angry, he decided, as he strode through the hall, the fine carpet muffling the sound of his boot heels nicely. Angry that Levi had abandoned him to the wolves of the capital, to stand there empty-handed while trying to convince a hostile room of Survey's potential glory. Angry that Levi had defied him, as a subordinate officer, an angle of their relationship which remained firm and important no matter what other forms they took for each other. Erwin had imagined himself gliding about the room, with his most famous and most impressive soldier at his side, the two of them combining their respective skills for prowess and silvery-sweet talk, Levi's presence a solid assurance that Erwin had not exaggerated his killing power. He had pictured himself proving once and for all that any efforts made for Survey's continued survival were efforts made for humanity's sake, with Levi's cold eyes and strong small shoulders and his undeniable record right there on hand to be presented for their pleasure.

Erwin did not relish Levi's rising symbolic status, not truly; he was too close to Levi not to see the cost it exacted from Levi's already tightly wound psyche, how heavily it weighed on his shoulders and his bowed head. But there were advantages to be had, all the same, and in the current social climate Erwin knew that all advantages needed to be taken.

He had thought that Levi knew it, too.

Instead, Levi had deserted him, both in defiance of that knowledge and of direct orders; it had been one of the only conversations between them since that morning, in the carriage ride to the estate. “Stay visible,” Erwin had said, to Levi's feigned indifference, feeling a crushing sort of frustration that he could not fully control. “Impress them, Levi.”

“With what?” Levi had said, ridiculously, but his tone had been so neutral that Erwin hadn't pushed him further. He had trusted, instead, that Levi would do as he was told.

Erwin hated to be wrong.

The foyer opened before him, a circular room with a number of sculptures bordering on tasteless in their grandeur. The rug ended along the curve of the room, and Erwin had to step lightly on the bare marble to avoid making too much racket. A double set of stairs rose up in slow, graceful spirals at either side, and after a moment Erwin turned and mounted the left-most stairway to the second floor.

There were low lights along the upstairs wing hallway, and Erwin paused there, surveying the closed doors before him; they were arrayed in a way that was familiar to him, servant's child that he was, and after a pause for thought he turned towards a set of finely carved oak doors on the left, opening one with a slow and heavy hand.

The master bedroom showed the obvious signs of a space that had once belonged to two people, but was now more or less overtaken by an aging widow. The dressing table was made of dark, polished wood, though its surface was covered in small jars, bottles, and tins, many of which loudly broadcast their contents via carefully illustrated labels, with names like Dr. Reiter's All-Tonic, Wooley's Promised Liniment Cure, Culpepper Bitters, Gadley & Winslow's Finest Paregoric, and Pure Cocaine Tooth Drops. A corset, minus its lacings, was draped over the back of the toilette chair, and a pair of thick evening slippers sat neatly beneath the mirror. The window drapes were dark and thick, most likely to shut out the morning sun, but the bed canopy was light and gauzy, a pale yellow that did not hide the bed's interior.

Levi was sprawled on his back on the bed, an arm draped languidly across his stomach. His boots were still on, but he'd removed his jacket and cape, and both lay crumpled across the surface of the old hope chest that sat at the foot of the bed. He was watching Erwin with the measured, neutral thoughtfulness of a powerful animal unexpectedly confronted by prey. His hair lay across his cheeks and forehead in mussed waves, as though he'd flopped down in a single movement there and hadn't moved since. There was a visible flush in his cheeks and down the exposed bit of his throat, between the gap of his collar buttons, and he was terribly, angeringly beautiful to Erwin in his state of disarray.

Erwin could, however, smell the wine on him from where he stood, and it disrupted the spell. Levi was not a heavy drinker, having no real tolerance for wine in any significant amounts, but it was clear that tonight he had made an exception. Erwin gazed at him for a moment, then closed the door gently behind himself. He went round to the side of the bed, and tucked both his hands against the small of his back, drawing himself up straight.

“Lieutenant,” he said.

Levi's eyelids flickered, and Erwin saw the faint, combative curve of his lips as he rolled his head in Erwin's direction.

“Is this how it's gonna be?” he said, without particular rancor. “I guess I'll have to find another place to hide.”

“You will not,” Erwin said, quietly. “You will return to the party immediately, and you will remain there, as you were ordered to do.”

Levi didn't reply immediately. He sat up, instead, turning towards the heavily draped windows, from which the deep winter cold radiated despite the thick material of the curtains. Then he began to remove his boots.

“The last time I was in this room,” he said, “I had about ten pounds worth of bullion tied to my back, and another five in jewelry, and I broke this window, right here – the one close to the head of the bed. I had to use the eiderdown to do it. I still cut myself in a few places, crawling out.” His words were a little slower than usual, and had taken on a rolling quality, with certain sounds emerging from the back of his throat and tongue as though they were being swallowed. Erwin had heard his accent before, when Levi was too tired or injured to smooth it away with the more familiar nasality of a common Rose pronunciation, and he carefully controlled the part of himself that wanted to soften at the sound of it. He knew well enough that Levi was distressed. It did not change the issue at hand.

“And now,” Erwin said, “Here you are, to prove to that woman downstairs that you were not some garbage to be thrown away for her own fulfillment, are you not?”

“That's not why I'm here,” Levi said, dropping his boots on the floor. He looked up, expression inscrutable, and added nothing further. Erwin was reminded of their first days together, of a Levi who had been a maddening, frustrating mystery.

“Yes,” he said, “it is. It isn't your place to decide why I direct you where I direct you, nor is it your place to disregard my instructions just because you don't like them.”

“It was fucking uncomfortable, Erwin,” Levi said, his eyes narrowed. “For fuck's sake. What was I supposed to do? Make small talk? Let you lead me around the room to smile at and be fawned over by people who've tried to murder both of us twice?”

“Yes!” Erwin exclaimed, his voice louder than he intended it to be, and Levi stilled. “Yes, God damn you, that is precisely what you were meant to do!” He caught hold of himself and let out his breath in a short sharp huff, then drew it in again, closing his eyes for a moment. He only opened them again when he felt he was calm enough to continue.

“Yes. You were meant to go among them, to show that we have value, and power, and most of all, that my control over what's left of us is not in question. You were meant to show them your loyalty, and your faith in me. You were meant to show them that you really are truly everything I believe you are. And instead, you abandoned me.”

Levi was silent, for a moment, and then said, a little unsteadily, “It wasn't personal. I didn't know what else to do with myself.”

You should have come,” Erwin said, “to me.”

“Even if we do get their funds, what are we going to do when they get sick of us? Or when they decide to extort us for their own personal bullshit like they do with the MP?” Levi rose up from the bed, but his eyes were on Erwin now, as though he were a particularly dangerous sparring partner. “It's not a solution.”

“No,” Erwin said, noting the way that the faint light beneath the door from the hallway cast appealing shadows along the lines of Levi's face and body, and finding himself truly, properly calm, suddenly. “But that is also not your concern.”

Levi came around to him, almost slinking, and Erwin watched the sway of his hips and the movement of his shoulders beneath the thin uniform shirt, and when Levi was within striking range he reached out and took hold of his chin, pulling his head up firmly. Levi made no sound, nor any attempt to free himself; when his pale eyes met Erwin's they, too, were calm.

“Why?” Levi said, voice low and husked. Erwin knew what he was referring to, and it had nothing to do with his insubordination. His throat bobbed, and Erwin let his hand slip down, fingers trailing along the soft skin of his neck. Levi remained as he'd been positioned, his chin lifted, spine straight. Erwin brushed his thumb across Levi's adam's apple, felt the flutter of his pulse there, and felt the now familiar chill go through him, morbid and certain.

He closed his hand around Levi's throat, and watched Levi's eyes close with perfect willingness and anticipation, saw his mouth slacken, felt his muscles relax in honest surrender, and he felt his anger fade away, like a malevolent spirit banished back to its grave.

“Because I'm not ready, darling,” he murmured. “I'm not ready to give you what you want.”

He pushed Levi back, and Levi stepped with him, just like the dancers on the ballroom floor. He could feel Levi's heartbeat thrumming fast beneath his heavy palm. Levi was pliant, serene as Erwin bore him down to the bed, his hands lifting, fingers tangling in Erwin's collar, pulling at his jacket with great insistence.

“I'm sorry,” Levi said, hoarse and strained, when Erwin relaxed his grip enough for him to speak. There was no sarcasm in him now, but nothing properly contrite, either; he was bright-eyed and self-possessed, with that particular air of utter emotional discipline which Erwin had come to think of as uniquely Levi's. He was apologizing because he knew he had done Erwin a wrong, a factual acknowledgment of his fault – no more and no less.

Erwin wanted no supplicated begging from him, in any case. Levi's pride was not a barrier he wanted to break.

Fighting prowess... which is to be expected in the breed, I suppose.

The malevolent ghost rose again, summoned by the echo of Laconi's hideousness, and something of its haunting must have shown on his face because Levi's eyebrows lifted, familiar, merciful tenderness filtering across his fine features. He pressed one hand to Erwin's cheek and stroked him there, as one would a beloved dog, and for a moment Erwin surrendered to it, turning his head to nuzzle his nose into Levi's palm.

“Remove your trousers,” he breathed, closing his eyes, holding himself still as Levi paused and then began to squirm beneath him, the side-to-side shimmy of his hips, sinuous and purposeful, was maddening. The sound of the fabric brushing down the length of Levi's body made him shudder, and he opened his eyes again, turning in a single movement to capture Levi's mouth with his own, pinning Levi's arms with the weight of his torso. Levi lifted up into him, his arms folding around Erwin's neck, and Erwin felt the feather-light brush of his cock against his thigh.

Erwin drew back to kneel at the side of the bed, between Levi's dangling legs, and pressed his thighs apart roughly with both hands. He kissed Levi once, there at the fold of leg and torso, the wiry black hair growing there tickling at his chin and cheek, and then bit him, the soft skin bunching between his teeth. Levi jerked against him, gasping, his cock twitching in a surging motion.

“Erwin,” he said, lifting himself up on his elbows, and Erwin was pleased to hear the vague caution in his voice, the inquiry, the questioning “o” of his mouth. He smiled, smoothing one hand down Levi's flat belly.

“Yes,” he said. It was a confirmation, not a question. Levi nodded slightly, and then lay back again, lifting his arms up over his head and crossing his wrists. His eyes were still open, but Erwin knew that wouldn't last.

Levi's entire body jolted as Erwin took his cock into his mouth, and then he moaned in a long, low exhale, one thigh pressing against the side of Erwin's neck. Erwin slapped it away, and Levi grunted, shifting, and then obediently held his legs open, wide and perfectly still, resting them over Erwin's shoulders.

Erwin thought, fleetingly, of another man in his position, of someone else's mouth and hands on Levi's body, and Levi cried out, his spine arching wantonly, when Erwin pressed his teeth into his cock, nearly hard enough to break the skin. He dug his fingernails into Levi's thighs and felt blood welling beneath them as he scraped, Levi writhing and mewling and given, for now, to no cause or title. Only to him.

I will hold out as long as I can. No matter how angry it makes him.

I cannot let him go.

*

When the Survey entourage left the party close to midnight, Levi walked at Erwin's side, ignoring the curious looks of the last of the milling party-goers, and when no one was looking Erwin put his hand to the back of Levi's neck, where he knew Levi's mark of truth lay.

Lady Aldenberg stood by the open door, through which the waiting carriages were visible, their torches twinkling against the night sky, the breath of the horses and the drivers pluming white and frigid in the cold air. Erwin took her hand and kissed it as they passed her, thinking of Levi squirming and gasping in her fine sheets, sweaty and spent.

“Thank you for a fine evening, my lady,” he said, smiling at her. “You've been a most generous hostess.”

“My thanks, Commander,” she said, her eyes roving sideways and down towards Levi, her careful neutrality still in place. “I'm so glad to have been allowed to make the efforts, however humble they might have been.”

To Erwin's faint surprise, Levi, too, took her hand, and kissed it with perfect politeness. “Thank you,” he said, and Lady Aldenberg blinked, once, her mouth coming open slightly, but he released her before she could come up with a suitable response, and followed Erwin down the wide stone steps down to the carriage path.

At the carriage, however, Levi paused, and Erwin, already halfway inside, turned to look down at him in confusion.

“What is it?” he said, quietly, but Levi ignored him.

“Lady Aldenberg?” he called up the steps. She turned to look at him, uncertain.

“Yes?” she called back.

Levi smiled, cold and knife-sharp, white steam curling up around his face.

“You've changed the décor around since the last time I was here,” he said. “I like it.”

He turned around, and climbed calmly into the carriage without another word, but Erwin saw the shock on Lady Aldenberg's face, shock that quickly twisted into real, hateful anger, just before the driver closed the carriage door.

Chapter Text

The day that Wall Maria falls begins with a torrential mid-winter rain, cold and bone-chilling.

Erwin wakes to the sound of the downpour against the window by the bed, the gentle weight of Levi's arm resting light across his hip, and the familiar tangle of their legs. Levi is soundly asleep, and Erwin is glad for it; the months before have been hard, and Levi carries more of Survey's burden than many do. The recent depth of his sleep at night is impressive and faintly alarming, and this morning he is heavy and soft and fever-warm in the crook of Erwin's elbow, his head tipped forward on the pillow and mouth open slightly, strangely innocent in the dim grey light. Erwin lies there, languid, and listens to the rainfall against the window's glass as it combines with Levi's faint snores, and he allows the knowledge that both of them have lived to see another day wash over them. Five years is a long time to survive in Survey Corps, and no day goes by that Erwin does not mark as lucky.

He slips his hand up beneath the tail of Levi's sleep-shirt, running his fingers slowly up the length of Levi's spine. He finds old scars, and newer ones, all of them familiar and oft-kissed and suckled. Levi sighs, and his eyes come open a little, the corners of his mouth lift just enough to show he is pleased.

“Going to be a wet day, I guess,” he mutters, and presses his nose into Erwin's chest, his legs shifting between Erwin's with the faint damp of sweat and rough hair. Erwin feels Levi's cock, blood-warmed and relaxed against his thigh, and he smiles, pulling Levi's head down a little further to kiss the lettered scarring across the nape of his neck. Levi allows it, butting his forehead gently into Erwin's collarbone, a cat demanding further petting, and Erwin obliges him with pleasure. He has come to know Levi's body well, every roll and roil of tightly packed muscle, every limber stretch of sinew, all the places where his skin is still soft, untouched by the ravages of battle and accident, and he has yet to grow tired of any of it in the slightest. He rakes his nails gently up the back of Levi's neck and Levi sighs with approval; his lips feather across Erwin's skin, and the brief, possessive scrape of his teeth makes Erwin shiver.

They linger this way for several minutes, reluctant to leave the warmth of the eiderdown and the wood stove in the corner for the wet misery that awaits them, but eventually Levi begins to grumble at him that they'll make the formation late, and so they rise, dress, and ride out beyond the Wall, into one of the most devastating expeditions in the history of the Corps.

The death toll is so tremendous that Commander Shadis trembles with it as they ride back, as though it is a physical object he carries, his shaking visible only to Erwin in his customary position at Shadis's right hand. The man's entire personal squad has been lost, five young men and women trained and nurtured with his own hands reduced to stray body parts and blood smears directly in front of him, and Erwin contains no words of comfort or reassurance. He has been five years under Shadis's command, and Shadis is a calm and compassionate commander, and more than capable in the field, but his heart is a soft one, deep beneath the gruff surface. Erwin would not say that his own heart is cold, not at all, but death leaves marks on Keith Shadis that neither time nor duty nor even success has ever erased. One of the dead is a young man as dear to Shadis as a son, and Erwin had watched in a mixture of horror and understanding as Shadis carefully wrapped the young man's severed forearm into a bit of spare cloth. It is the only piece of the man left.

Even Levi is injured on the expedition, though none of them realize how badly until Zhinganshina's gate creaks shut behind them. Erwin turns back towards the formation at the sound of alarmed shouts, expecting to see a Titan bearing down on them from above, but instead he watches, helpless, too far up the column to do anything, as Levi tips sideways out of his saddle. It is Mike, blessed, gentle, sweet Mike who catches him, half diving off his own horse, one of his big hands the only thing stopping Levi's head from striking the ground. Levi, pale and wide-eyed, blinking in dizzy surprise at finding himself suddenly so close to the ground, doesn't protested the assistance. He allows Mike to help him into one of the wagons with a bit of spare room, and he sleeps there the rest of the way back to base. Worried as he is for Levi's health, a part of Erwin is glad for his insentience, as a number of the townspeople have come out of the shops and homes that line the street to stand in gape-jawed disapproval as what remains of the Survey Corps straggles past them.

Erwin turns to look at those neutral and unimpressed faces only once, in a motion much closer to the automatic scrutiny of a soldier in hostile territory than to real acknowledgment, and his eyes find Eren Jaeger as though drawn to him by magnetic force. The boy is standing at the back of the crowd, up high enough that he must be perched on a crate or a barrel of some kind, and there is raw adoration in his eyes, his smile wide and sweet and genuine. Erwin cannot say if the boy recognizes him properly or not; it has been some years since he has been, personally, to the Jaeger house, and there is such a wide cognitive difference between five years old and ten, but it doesn't matter to the icy stab of sudden shame and self-loathing that lances through his gut.

It is here, usually, that memory and dream diverge.

He turns away from the smiling child, but when he looks forward and down from atop his horse Eren is there again, in front of him, standing in the street directly in his horse's path. He is no longer smiling; his mouth gapes open dumbly instead, blood and saliva dribbling in small rivers down his chin and neck. One side of his head has been staved in, bits of skull and internal matter clinging to what hair he has left. An eye dangles from its socket, jarred loose by whatever terrible impact he has suffered. The arm on that side is a crushed pulp of skin and bone fragment.

“You could have done more,” he says, voice a sibilant whisper, somehow perfectly audible despite the crowded street. “But you were selfish. You were selfish. Now look at me.” As he speaks his face contorts, teeth showing beneath torn lips in strange and terrible sharp double rows.

As if in answer Erwin tastes blood himself, along with a sharp and pricking pain. Gagging suddenly, he topples from his horse, rolling in the dust at Eren's bare and bruised feet. He fumbles at his lips, getting two fingers into his mouth at last, and grasps at the alien thing piercing his cheek and tongue.

His fingers come free, and clenched between them is a wet, crumpled, red-stained feather.

“Look at me!” Eren hisses, his destroyed face looming over Erwin, dripping gore. “Look at what you've done!”

When Erwin opens his mouth to cry out, Eren's small hands wrap around his throat in a killing vice, before he can make the slightest of sounds.

***

Erwin lay still, staring up at the ceiling, for some time after he woke.

It was still dark, but the vague grey of a cloudy winter dawn pressed at the window behind the curtains. Erwin suspected that it had snowed again. Levi was curled at the other side of the bed, turned away from him, his body tucked small and protective. He'd fallen asleep in his undershirt without changing, and Erwin hadn't had it in him to wake him. Erwin put a hand out automatically to brush the back of Levi's head with light fingers, feeling heavy and melancholy. The bed was significantly larger than the one they shared in the Commander's quarters back at the Rose outpost, and Erwin felt the physical distance as a sort of manifestation of the emotional one that lay between them now.

After a moment he rolled over, slipping his arm up under Levi's shoulders with the ease of long practice, and pulled Levi to his chest, tucking his head down against the crook of Levi's neck to inhale the clean, familiar scent of Levi's skin and sweat. Neither of them had taken much interest in the recent fad of rubbing deodorizing zinc creams under their arms and elsewhere to mask what Erwin thought were perfectly natural human smells; it seemed quite alien to him, to attempt to pretend that living did not come with signs of exertion attached. He enjoyed Levi's smell, even after hard days in the sun and the rain, and it was a comfort now.

Levi shifted a little, mumbling, as Erwin moved him, but he had long outgrown his old sensitivities to Erwin's own night time movements, and he subsided again once Erwin was still, his shoulder blades pressing comfortably into Erwin's chest. Erwin let out his breath in a long, low sigh.

There was no danger of Levi leaving him – the issue was not one of endings or finalities. Rather, it was an uncomfortable gap in their bond, like a missing stair or a door without a knob, preventing access to a place that Erwin feared to go.

He felt the phantom pricking feather shafts against his gums, and he shivered, deciding abruptly against trying for his last two hours of available sleep.

He slipped his arm out from under Levi again, and turned him with gentle hands, leaving him slumbering, pillowed in the warm space Erwin's body left in the sheets. Erwin dressed quickly in his everyday uniform, pulled his winter coat on over it, and went downstairs.

The small house was a neat, pale cream structure tucked comfortably into a little crowding of trees, just on the outskirts of Greater Stohess district, in a neighborhood where the especially well to do could enjoy some semblance of private country-side living, and expect to come and go without bother. It belonged to Prince Theobald, who generally used it during his visits to Sina, and he had been more than happy to lend it out to Erwin for the trip inward. The offer had come as a relief to Erwin, as it had, among other things, allowed him to bring along personal effects he would otherwise have needed to find a caretaker to look after in his absence.

He lit the lamp at the bottom of the stairs, and smiled at the gentle sound of bells chiming together.

“Good morning, beauty,” he said, keeping his voice soft to avoid jarring her.

In the middle of the downstairs sitting room, the goshawk swiveled her head, her bright yellow eyes fixing on Erwin with detached recognition. All of the fine furniture had been moved back to make room for her portable block perch, to which she was lightly jessed. Erwin had been concerned to some degree about leaving her alone for very long in such an arrangement, and he'd brought her hoods along just in case, but Lady was by and large a calm and even tempered bird who endured transportation and handling with serenity and patience, and thus far his worries had been unfounded.

She croaked at him as he came near, and shifted her weight with casual disinterest, setting off another light jingle of bells.

“I'm sorry, I know it's a bit early,” he said, retrieving his glove and the hunting sack from the baggage they'd left by the entryway door. She didn't much seem to mind the interruption, however – she watched his movements with sharp interest, and when he turned back around with the sack in hand and the glove on, she straightened up, the fine small feathers around her neck flattening, and began to shrill her familiar begging call – a high, elongated peeping that opened her beak comically. She was well and truly ready for a hunt.

Erwin knew better than to try to shush her, even for the sake of Levi's sleep. Lady was comfortable in her captivity, and trusted him well, but no hunting hawk was ever truly tame, no matter how close to the egg they were raised. They did not obey, nor change their behaviors to please their keepers, and they learned no tricks. They expressed neither affection nor gratitude – a bird's positive feelings towards it keeper lay only in its willingness to return to the fist after a kill, and even that was contingent on the fact that the fist meant a life of easy, readily available food, and safety from bigger predators. Lady was no different, and Erwin's love for her was no less because of it. He had reared her himself, first in a small wooden box filled with fluffy duck down and twigs, feeding her morsels of raw meat with fingers and tweezers, and then in the carefully converted horse stall that was her home mews. He had tended to her every need with meticulous care, and had understood all the while, as he understood now, with the experienced austringer's heart, that she could choose to leave him at any time. It was only her trust in him that kept her on his glove, and it made every moment that she choose to remain with him all the more meaningful to him.

Certainly there's a metaphor there to be found, Erwin thought with a kind of grim amusement as he carried Lady out of the little house and into the chilly pre-dawn, her slight weight a little heavy still for his sleep-wearied muscles. Levi would call me ridiculous for it, I expect.

It had indeed snowed in the night, and Erwin's boots sank into the virgin drift up past the ankle as he made his way towards the treeline, the light grey and thick. Winter that year was already showing signs of being particularly vicious, which Erwin tried not to think about in conjunction with the plight of the Maria refugees. The colder seasons were cruel enough under normal circumstances, when there were houses and food enough to sustain the population, when barns and silos still bulged with grain and farm animals were well fattened off the autumn harvests. Maria territory had been the source of much of humanity's foodstuffs and textile crops, and the effects of the loss were already apparent mere weeks after the Fall, at least outside of the circles of the Sina oligarchy. It wasn't only the civilian population, either – Both Garrison and Survey felt the lack keenly, with reduced food rations being only the first of many cutbacks that were sure to follow.

It was here, however, that Survey's smaller numbers had become an advantage, and that Lady's presence had become more than merely Erwin's personal hobby. Military officers were awarded a number of perks for their service, and among them were special weekly and monthly rations of meat and other goods not often acquirable on an average soldier's salary. Erwin's allotments – as well as Mike's, Hanji's, and Levi's – were currently allocated directly to Survey's standing population. Erwin's soldiers, at least, were eating well for the moment. The officers, meanwhile, were living off of Lady's kills.

Erwin reached the treeline as the first hints of red light touched the horizon at his back. He had no hound or beater to accompany him in order to flush game, but he was fairly certain it wouldn't be an issue at this time of day, when small animals both diurnal and nocturnal were up and about. He looked at Lady, raising his other hand to gently ruffle her breast feathers with encouraging affection. She ignored him, proud but tolerant, and peeped softly.

“Well, my love?” he murmured to her, his eyes scanning the snowy trees. “What do you see?”

He held her up, and the light of the dawning sun touched her speckled feathers beautifully as she spread her wings for balance, her head twisting this way and that. The slightest flicker of movement, Erwin knew, would be all she needed, and he held still, letting her listen, and look.

The silence of the snowy wood closed in around them, thick as fog. It wrapped him in its isolation.

A gradual sense of unease began to creep over Erwin, unbidden, raising goosebumps along his arms despite the warmth of his coat. The sick dismay of his dream still lingered, like the echo of a tensed wire plucked by a brutal and unmusical hand. He felt his body tensing, his ears straining instinctively for the sound of impossibly heavy footfalls and mindless, hungry grunting, for the noise and the tremble of trees cracking, of branches moaning under terrible impact. The inviting dim of the early morning suddenly seemed anxious and threatening, no longer welcoming and private but instead an easy disguise for huge and distended bodies to stand in in secret, unseen, until one was much too close to escape their clumsy, loutish hands.

His skin began to feel hot and too tight beneath his coat, and he closed his eyes, recognizing now the familiar chilling dread, and cursing himself inwardly for his loss of control. Afterthroes, some of the other soldiers called them, while others named them things like field spells or simply the echo. There was little a field soldier could do to combat the experience, save for developing steel-hard self control, sharp enough to cut the illusive memories away again. Erwin let out his breath in a long, slow exhale, trying to focus on the familiar weight of the bird on his arm, in the cold against his face and the soft serenity of the snowy forest, but it did him little good; huge and misshapen faces loomed towards him even in the dark behind his own eyelids, open-mouthed, their tongues wagging seekingly, scraps of uniform fabric and stolen chunks of flesh wedged between their blunt teeth.

Come on, Smith, for fuck's sake, he thought angrily, gritting his teeth. You've no time to collapse in fits. You've no time. What's more important, your own cowardice or the lives of your people?

Your own comfort, or whether or not those refugees live to see the summer?

Your life, or the lives of all humanity?

In his mind's eye, the Titans bore down on him, gaping and glass-eyed, their faces those of every person he held dear –

– and then the sweet, familiar jingle of Lady's ankle bells as she launched herself from his slackened fist broke through, like clear piercing rays of sunlight, and Erwin's eyes snapped open just in time to watch her swoop down horizontally along the treeline, peeping with excitement, a fat rabbit wheeling and turning through the snow in a last desperate attempt to escape her talons, to no avail. Lady screeched her pleasure as she collided with the rabbit, her cry mingling with its shrill dying screams, and Erwin was moving, walking shaky and automatic towards her, trying to force saliva enough into his dry mouth to cluck his tongue at her.

She didn't bother to look up at him as he approached; she pulled and yanked at the dead rabbit's fur, tearing out great tufts of it in order to get at its meat, her wings mantled out to either side in the instinctive attempt to conceal her prey from any potential thief. But Erwin was not marked for a thief, to her perception, and she allowed him to come close, enough so that he was able to cut a bit of flesh away from the rabbit with his field knife. Clenching it lightly in his fist, he clucked to her again, softly, and held out his glove. The motion and the glove were both well familiar to her, and she lifted her head, obviously considering.

Erwin held his breath, his earlier tremor forgotten. This was a crucial moment for any austringer, one both nerve-wracking and exhilarating, a test of the years of work and service put into the relationship. It was always possible that the thrill of the hunt, the feeling of fresh meat and warm blood between its talons, would be enough to remind the hawk that a human partner was not necessary after all. Lady was utterly untethered to him, or to anything else; it would be easy enough for her to take her leave of him once and for all.

But she had never known hunger, nor desperation, and the sight of the meat in Erwin's glove had always meant a full crop and a safe environment in which to gorge herself, and after a moment's thought she reached out with one powerful foot, as delicate as any high-born maiden extending her hand for a gentleman's kiss, and stepped up onto his fist of her own accord. She gave a few brief flaps of her wings, and then settled eagerly to her breakfast, ripping and tearing at the morsel of rabbit with gusto.

“There you are,” Erwin said, relieved and gratified. “Well done.”

He took up the rabbit by the neck, and reached around behind himself to the small of his back where the lip of the soft leather game sack gaped, slipping the small body inside with practiced ease. When he stood, he glanced down at his hand automatically, and for a moment the red smear of blood between his fingers brought the reminder of his earlier nausea back to him.

He shook it off, and, murmuring encouraging words to Lady, tramped off across the field close to the treeline in search of further game.

Erwin had only been at his hunt for an hour or so, just across the fields on a hilly ridge overlooking the little house, when a high whistle rang out. Lady grunted with displeasure, her head swiveling, but Erwin turned in the direction of the sound, an automatic smile on his lips; he knew the pitch of that whistle very well. Levi was picking his way up the snowy rocks with light and cautious steps, his small figure nearly swallowed by his winter coat. He looked up at Erwin, their eyes meeting, and then, to Erwin's surprise and gratitude, he smiled, his familiar calm and vaguely exhausted smile, the one that narrowed his pale eyes near to closing and made him look again like the boy Erwin had once known.

“Élie,” Erwin said, both greeting and affirmation.

Levi hummed at him in non-committal tones, stepping up over the last of the rocks that lined the ridge. “I brewed some of that tea your mother sent,” he said, holding up the sealed tin pitcher he was carrying, two rough clay mugs dangling from his fingers. “And some sugar. There's no milk, but I figured you wouldn't give a damn.” He eyed Erwin consideringly. “I also brought you one of those venison pastries, because I'm pretty sure you didn't even bother with breakfast.”

“I'm afraid not,” Erwin said, giving him a sheepish, scolded look. Levi snorted, but Erwin could see the affection in his expression as he brushed the powdery snow from the top of one of the taller rocks and set his things down to arrange them properly. Lady, uninterested in Levi as always, went back to swallowing bits of the pheasant she'd flushed and landed shortly before.

“Hanji sent a courier late last night,” Levi said, holding out one of the steaming mugs of tea to Erwin as he spoke, the half wrapped pastry in his other hand. “Apparently a Lord Abraham Dawk tracked her down after the party in kind of a hurry.”

Erwin sipped his tea, finding the balance of sweetness perfect, as it always was when Levi prepared it. “A hurry,” he repeated, frowning slightly. “Why? What did he want?”

“To apologize, she said.” Levi frowned also, though his expression was more suspicious than concerned. “For 'the grievous and unwarranted offensive behavior of my associate,' is apparently what he said. Do you know what that's about?”

Erwin looked down into his cup, expressionless, the taste of the sweet tea still on his tongue. He thought of Levi, sleepy-eyed and ruffled, lurching out of bed to set the kettle over the fireplace for boiling water with his small careful fingers. He thought of Levi tucked against him in their bed back in Rose, the way he'd rub his hands idly up and down Erwin's back with some kind of uncanny sense for where all the tense and throbbing muscles were, the thoughtful frown he always wore when he was gauging a new recruit's field potential; how sometimes he would teach Erwin words in the rolling language of his people, patiently repeating the new sounds until Erwin mastered them close enough for clarity, but refused always to translate the words he whispered and moaned into Erwin's ear when they lay together. He thought of this Levi, his Levi, the young man who had fought and wept and bled for him and his heart, and for a moment he could see, clearly, the damage and misery a man like Laconi would wreak on him, merely for some base satisfaction.

Erwin took another sip of his tea, shifting his weight a little to ease the ache in his arm from Lady's weight. “I've no idea,” he said, with perfect steadiness.

Levi looked at him a moment, as though trying to gauge his sincerity, and then he only shrugged. “Well,” he said, “Aside from that, she said there haven't been any funding offers, at least not ones without conditions she knows you wouldn't agree to.”

“Perhaps we'll give them another day or two to consider their options,” Erwin said. “One or two of them may come around.”

“We both know that's bullshit,” Levi said, holding his hand out expectantly for Erwin's tea mug so that he could replace it with the pastry, preventing him from having to juggle breakfast and bird. “Don't gild it like it's worth something.”

“I should hope,” Erwin said, with a dour note of humor, “That by now you would know I am not a man who gilds anything.”

“All the more reason not to start now.” Levi took a bite of his own pastry, staring moodily out over the snowy field and trees. He chewed, and swallowed, and said, “What the fuck are we going to do, Erwin? The fucking Titans are invading, and these assholes are ready to dismantle the only military branch that has any idea how to fight them properly because us needing proper winter uniforms and occasional food and medicine makes us too goddamn expensive.”

Lady had finished her meat by now, and Erwin could tell she was a little restless, her feathers slicked close and tight to her body, ruffled only by the faint, chilly breeze that had begun to touch the plain.

“I don't know,” he said. “But I'll think of something.”

He thought at first that his words had somehow offended or angered Levi, as he didn't respond immediately, but then Levi rose abruptly to his feet, his eyes fixed intently on some distant movement as keenly as any hawk's.

“Someone's at the house,” he said. “Not one of ours.”

He stepped down off the ridge onto the rocks below, and Erwin saw his hand hovering close to the belt knife he still wore, tense and ready as he craned his neck forward.

“Erwin,” he said, momentarily. The tone of his voice was strangely high strung. “We need to go back now.”

“Who is it?” Erwin said, having no interest in questioning Levi's instincts – he only wanted to be prepared.

Levi glanced at him, and Erwin saw the uncertainty in his eyes, young and hesitant.

“It's your father,” he said.

Chapter Text

The little house had a relatively large coach house for a structure of its size, a reflection of the royal processions that usually required care and stabling on the property. There was space inside for several carriages, stabling for multiple horses, and two small servant's rooms above the stalls, where a hostler or footman could keep an eye on the horseflesh during the night and still catch a bit of sleep in the process. After so many years spent living a sparse soldier's lifestyle, Egon's entourage seemed ostentatious. Two footmen had walked the carriage up the long and secluded road to the house, and a man that Erwin recognized as his father's long-time manservant was riding up front with the driver. There was additionally a young man with light brown hair accompanying Egon within the cab, who Erwin supposed was a page of some kind, though his face was vaguely familiar even from a distance.

He observed all this subtly through the front window of the house. His first instinct had been to greet the carriage at the coach house, but good manners dictated that an unannounced visitor should direct himself to the door alone, and Erwin was no longer a lowly bastard son, scraping about in his father's wake for social approval. He had gone inside, instead, to wait, and to gently make his point about his his new status. Whatever anyone's opinion of the Survey Corp happened to be, Commander Erwin Smith did not greet uninvited guests in the drive.

“Maybe he's come to apologize,” Levi said from behind him, where he was cleaning Lady's nighttime mutes from the edges of the burlap that Erwin had laid down beneath her perch to prevent damage to the flooring. His tone was neutral, but the sardonic intent of it was clear by his words. Erwin smiled without turning, very slight.

“Wouldn't that be a fine trick,” he murmured, letting the curtain he'd been holding fall back into place. He glanced back towards the close door of the rear parlor, where he'd relocated the now faintly agitated Lady; the rush back to the house had not pleased her. Erwin had left her with a few morsels from her kills, enough to fill her, and she had tucked into them eagerly, but she started and squawked at the sounds of floorboards creaking and doors closing, her feathers flat, and he knew it would take her some time to calm down again. It was better to leave her alone, away from what was about to become a rather crowded room, and let her forget her nervousness with bloodlust.

“Levi,” Erwin said, “Can you put some of that black tea on, the sachet Charlotte sent, with the cardamon and ginger and so forth?”

“Shit's expensive,” Levi muttered, as he nevertheless dutifully rummaged in their packs for the tea. “You know he won't drink it.”

“I know that we will,” Erwin said, a little mollifying, “Cold or hot, and frankly I would like to give him the reminder that I have my own important friends.”

“You want to make him uncomfortable, you mean,” Levi said.

Erwin, still facing away from him towards the window, smiled slightly. “An uncomfortable man is a vulnerable man.”

“You get that from one of your books?”

“No,” Erwin said, straightening the jeweled tie of his office just so. “From experience.”

A surreptitious, polite servant's knock sounded from the door. Erwin drew in a breath, slowly, and then looked at Levi, not moving from where he stood. Levi looked back at him, the kettle in his hand; then comprehension dawned in his eyes and he hung it over the hearth, turning to get to the door.

Egon Smith had never been a man inclined towards rising and falling trends of fashion. He, and his man Burgess, were both dressed plainly in tailored trousers, traveling boots, and double-breasted winter trenches over their shirts and waistcoats, though theirs were not the sort made for deep snow and cold as Erwin and Levi's were. Egon wore a tall derby, which he removed with accustomed politeness in the foyer, handing it and his coat to Burgess without looking at the man at all. He had much more white than gold in his hair and beard, Erwin could see, and there was an unhealthy sallowness to the skin beneath his eyes. Much of the strength of his jawline, which Erwin had inherited from him, had softened, the skin beginning to loosen with his age.

“Erwin,” Egon said, polite enough, bobbing his head and stepping aside to make room for the young stranger who had accompanied him.

In contrast to the other two's subdued and gentlemanly apparel, he was dressed to the very height of upper class fashion. He had a neatly trimmed mustache, not too ostentatious, which was the same dark sandy blond as his well-oiled hair. He had a fine, woolen overcoat on, unbuttoned just so to show off the slightly daring blue of his expensive silken waistcoat. His boots were trimmed in gleaming steel at the toes and heels, and his hat was a fine and handsome top, which he took off immediately as his eyes found Erwin. A pleasant smile lit his face.

“Commander Smith,” he said, in a friendly, interested tone. He came forward, holding out one hand at full arm's length. “I have so wanted to make your acquaintance properly.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Erwin saw Levi's eyebrows go up in vague bemusement, but he ignored him, and took the young man's hand to shake.

“I would like to say the same,” he said, allowing a touch of amusement through the cool exterior he had erected, “But I'm afraid I'm not sure of your name, sir.”

“Oh,” the young man said, apparently undaunted. “That's quite all right. It's Konrad.”

“Konrad,” Erwin repeated, though the given name offered him no further information. Egon snorted, apparently displeased.

“Konrad Smith,” he said, with a slight emphasis on the 'Smith.' “My second youngest son.”

Erwin turned back to the young man, and looked into eyes as blue as his own with amazement he couldn't quite hide. “Your son,” he said, as Konrad beamed, nodding.

“Your half brother,” Konrad added, without any apparent trepidation, despite the unmistakeable dark look Egon cast at him. Erwin hadn't missed the fact that Egon had carefully refrained from naming that connection. A bastard son was no proper brother to a fully named and titled heir, especially one so firmly disowned. Konrad, however, seemed to take no issue with the circumstances of Erwin's birth, nor with their father's opinions on such. Erwin could detect nothing false in his eyes or his smile.

All of them sat, save for Levi, who came around the low sofa to stand at the arm closest to Erwin, his hands tucked together securely at the small of his back. Erwin suspected it was merely because he was deeply uncomfortable with the idea of sitting down with a man who had tried to have him killed on more than one occasion, but combined with Levi's naturally severe demeanor it had the overall effect of making him seem like a beast well trained to heel at Erwin's whim. He saw Egon eyeing Levi with open uncertainty, and he hid his smile.

“To what do I owe the visit?” he said, pressing his knees together to avoid the now natural instinct to cross them for better comfort; crossed legs were still considered rather uncouth in a man's behavior among the upper class.

Egon did not respond immediately. He seemed to be gathering himself for something unpleasant. Even Konrad looked abruptly a little subdued, gazing down at his own crossed knees and tapping his fingers against his thigh. Burgess, of course, was the very picture of a man accustomed to being relegated to the status of mobile furniture; nothing showed on his face but a general, vague air of attentiveness, as though he were waiting to hear a very small voice from somewhere far away.

“I've heard,” Egon said at last, “About your recent... social activities.”

Erwin smiled just slightly, inclining his head, but didn't speak. It was another trick he'd learned some time ago, when it came to needing information and cooperation from difficult people. “Most people,” Captain Hamlin had told him once, “Aren't comfortable getting right to the point when they want something from you. They'll start out hemming and umm-ing and trying to make all sorts of bullshit pleasantries with you, trying to get you to lead them to the heart of the matter without them having to give anything away. But if you want control over the conversation – and over them – all you have to do is stay quiet.” She'd grinned, rakish as always, with the experienced certainty that made her so fearsome. “Let them talk. You smile, and nod, and keep your mouth shut, and eventually, they'll tell you everything you want to know.”

He could see it working already. Egon's eyebrows furrowed with vague and undirected frustration. Erwin supposed he'd been expecting some kind of explanation, an apologetic excuse the like of which he might have received years ago, when Erwin's standing still depended on Egon's good favor. The silence visibly unnerved him.

“The parties, and so forth,” Egon went on, leaning forward slightly. “I heard that you've recently made the acquaintance of Lord Dawk, as well. His son is the current commander of the Military Police, of course.”

“Oh, Nile,” Konrad said abruptly, the easy grin returning to his face. “Nile's a good chap. Little fussy, you know, but that's pretty common in our circles.” His eyes met Erwin's, and Erwin struggled not to return his good natured look. “I suppose you'd know.”

“I've heard stories,” Levi said, calm, with not a bit of deference in his voice, which only widened Konrad's grin, and deepened the lines between Egon's eyes even further.

“Yes,” Egon said, stiff. “Commander Nile Dawk. A fine young fellow, despite his rougher inclinations.”

“Married a barmaid,” Konrad said, cheery. “She's lovely, though. Miriam, I think.”

“Yes,” Egon said, as though Konrad hadn't spoken at all. “A man who has done well with a less than ideal place in the world.”

“Lord Abraham Dawk answers directly to Prince Theobald, doesn't he?” Erwin said, with careful neutrality. “It seems a fine enough place for a military man to begin.”

He saw Konrad open his mouth again, as though he had more to say on the topic of the Dawks, but Egon, his face set like stone, spoke up first.

“That aside,” he said, “there are more important matters that you should be aware of, Commander.”

The tone was barbed, but Erwin didn't flinch. From the corner of his eye, he saw Levi's mouth lift, curving into a nasty little smile, and it was reaction enough for him.

“Yes?” he said.

The kettle over the fire began to whistle. None of them moved immediately, not even to startle. Levi turned away from the sofa and went to attend it, and Erwin let the soothing, familiar sound of hot tea being poured into sturdy mugs wash over him as he listened to his father's voice. The heavy, heady smell of cardamon and nutmeg wafted beneath his nose, mingling with the faint scent of feather dust that still lingered in the sitting room.

“Roderick Reiss is most grieved by the loss of his nephew,” said Egon, and the name dropped like a weight into the quiet of the room. Erwin felt the skin around his eyes and mouth tighten, involuntary, with sudden, tingling disquiet.

“Weyland Reiss,” he said. Egon nodded, once.

“True,” he said, with no particular emotion, “The boy was troubled. Lord Reiss acknowledges this. But the fact remains that he was a Reiss, and family.”

Erwin heard Levi's quiet feet from behind him, and he lifted his hand automatically to receive the steaming mug that Levi handed down to him from over the sofa's backrest. He stared at his father, trying to make sense of the news and of Egon's part in delivering it, as Levi offered mugs to their guests. Egon lifted his hand slightly, as one would dismiss a servant. Burgess acted as though he hadn't even seen Levi. Konrad took one, however, and sniffed it with apparent interest. The sofa creaked lightly as Levi returned, and sat upon the arm with perfect balance, his mug between his hands.

“I don't know,” Erwin said, at last, “That I am fully acquainted with the Reiss family's station, within our aristocracy. I've heard the name, of course, but Weyland was the only Reiss I ever had the opportunity to meet.”

He expected some bluster from this, perhaps – some indignant, defensive explanation of the importance of each family of the peerage in the grand scheme of their society. The Reiss were landowners, perhaps, or barristers; maybe they were bankers, keepers of the royal treasury houses, or even well-to-do merchants. But Egon's blank expression didn't change, and Erwin felt a slight chill go down his spine.

“It doesn't matter. Lord Reiss is well acquainted with you, and your – various positions.” Egon's gaze moved slightly to one side, as though he had become too uncomfortable to continue to even look upon his bastard son. “He has been for some time.”

“Has he,” Erwin said, with no question in his tone. He studied his father's face, saw there were lines in places there had not been before, saw the faint and glistening damp of sweat forming at his temples and along his hairline despite the comfortably warm temperature of the sitting room. He saw something in the set of Egon's mouth and in the stern, uncompromising countenance that he had never seen before. Beside him he felt Levi lean forward, slightly, like an animal scenting prey, and it was that movement that finally gave him the words for what he was seeing.

Egon was frightened.

“I see,” Erwin said, struggling to buy himself a little time to decide how to react. His father was – warning him? Cautioning him? He could think of no reason at all as to why Egon would take an interest in his welfare now, unless –

“I suppose,” he said, slowly, “That Lord Reiss mentioned this to you himself?”

Egon shifted, just so, and said, in a voice slightly clouded, “He did, yes.”

“He thought, perhaps, that you might speak to me about it.”

Egon went silent, his jaw tight, something like hatred blazing in his eyes. Beside him, Konrad had gone still, and was looking between them with confusion and dismay.

Erwin smiled, and leaned forward, hearing the faint catch of Levi's breath, sensing that he, too, had caught on to the real issue at hand.

“Father,” Erwin said, with a terrible gentleness that he scarcely recognized as his own voice, the weight in the title heavy and firm and unkind, “If Lord Reiss is powerful enough to frighten you into speaking with your own discarded bastard, after nearly a decade of silence and more than one assassination attempt, then I'm not at all sure what it is you think I can do to help you now.”

“You can beg his forgiveness, Erwin,” Egon hissed, his control leaving him; red spots appeared in his cheeks beneath his whiskers even as his lips paled to corpse-shades. “You can beg his forgiveness, and let it be known that your sins are not mine, and that I have done everything in my power to cleanse your stain from my name.”

“Pathetic,” Levi murmured; when Erwin glanced up at him his pale eyes were as fixed and intent and pinned as Lady's. “You can't even plead for your own salvation properly. Why the fuck should we do it for you?”

“You don't know what it is you consign us to,” Egon said, rising to his feet, his voice lifting nearly to a shout. He gestured at Konrad, who sat frozen, wide-eyed, caught in a cross fire he clearly hadn't expected. “Not only me. My wife. My sons. You never cared for me, of that I'm well aware –”

“Was it my love you wanted?” Erwin said. He didn't move; he felt he couldn't. The calm he felt shocked him, an utter lack of personal emotion that left behind only the rational, the thoughtful, the truth. He heard himself speaking, in tones of maddening reason, as though from somewhere far away. “My apologies. I have never been capable of gratitude under duress.”

He watched Egon lift his hands as they balled into fists, watched Burgess rising, for the first time with a proper expression on his face, to attempt to calm his master before he lost the last of his control. He felt Levi at his elbow like a weapon, an arrow nocked to a pulled bow-string by a steady and unwavering hand. It was his hand, he knew, his hand that held Levi back from the killing stroke, and his hand alone.

He looked at Konrad. The young man was pale, and obviously unbalanced by the sudden and vicious turn of the visit, but there was something else in the look that he returned to Erwin, something helpless and resigned and knowing. Something Erwin found suddenly, painfully familiar.

He rose to his feet, splaying out one hand in Levi's direction, a caution against further movement.

“That's quite enough,” he said, quietly. “Egon.”

Egon turned away from Burgess to fix him with an incredulous look, gobsmacked by such familiarity, but Erwin spoke before he could.

“I understand the situation you've found yourself in,” he said. “Believe it or not, I am not unsympathetic. The fact of the matter is that, yes – what happened to Weyland Reiss was my responsibility. Despite the fact that he treacherously murdered his commanding officer, or the fact that he attempted the assassination of a sovereign prince – I am the one who dealt him his death. I am not ashamed to say this. If Lord Reiss is interested in ensuring that someone understands the pain of his loss, then I will tell him myself that it is my responsibility, and mine alone.”

He glanced at Konrad, brief, before going on. “Whatever else I may be – I am Commander of the Survey Corps. I have not come to this position by shrinking away from necessary death in the name of protecting humanity. I do not intend to lapse now. But understand this, Egon Smith,” he added, drawing himself up to his full, straight-backed height, “None of this is for your sake, or at your behest. You have your own sins to answer for, after all.”

Egon was trembling slightly in his outrage, his hands still curled into tight fists, but he pressed his thin lips together in silence, and raised no protest.

“For the sake of your wife,” Erwin said, “And your sons.”

“Yes,” Egon said, the single word hardly more than a hiss.

“I will speak to Roderick Reiss myself.”

Egon looked at him for a moment longer, the loathing not at all gone from his eyes, but he said nothing further. He turned instead, in a jerky, unsteady movement, and stormed towards the foyer, Burgess trailing uncomfortably in his wake. From the hall there were the sounds of the coat rack clattering beneath rough and hurried handling.

Erwin let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding, but caught it again as Konrad rose, a little unsteady, and came towards him. He looked terribly young, despite the mustache, and his smile was lopsided, accompanied by the nervous dart of his eyes in Levi's direction.

“You may recall my mother,” he said softly, wincing a little at the sound of the door knob squealing in its bolts. “She certainly recalls you.”

Erwin did, of course, recall the Lady Eleanor – during the few years he had lived in his father's house, in that liminal social purgatory between servant and acknowledged son, she had been there, attending the household and all matters social, as any good society wife did. She was an attractive woman, more delicate than his own mother, but she had worn a strange sorrow about her always, like a lingering ghost, and she had given him no indication one way or the other how she felt about living alongside the product of her husband's infidelity. She had never been rude, nor had she been warm, and Erwin had taken her distant cordiality as a kindness extended to him, and had responded with every effort to stay well out of her way. It was strange to think of her now, and for a moment he wasn't certain as to how he should respond.

“I – do, yes,” he said at last, a bit awkward. “I hope she's well.”

“She is,” Konrad said, and Erwin heard the warmth of real love in his voice at the mention of her. “She ages gracefully. She always has.”

Erwin, at a loss, only nodded, but he was saved from trying to find further conversation. Konrad reached into his waistcoat, and withdrew a folded, wax-sealed letter; when Erwin took it, the faint hint of a lady's expensive perfume rose up from the finely pressed paper.

“She asked that I come today,” Konrad said, “And to give this to you.”

“Why?” Erwin said, before he could stop himself. “Why would she – what interest could she have in me?”

Konrad smiled, a little mysterious, and Erwin recognized the expression as one of his own, down to the faint dimpling of the cheek and the narrowing of the eyes.

“She only said she thought I might benefit from meeting you,” he said, and he touched Erwin's shoulder lightly, with clear affection. “Now that I have, I see that she was right.” He released Erwin, and looked at Levi, giving him an awkward nod of acknowledgment. “I should go, before he starts bellowing for me.”

“He does rather bellow, doesn't he,” Erwin murmured, bemused.

Konrad grinned. “I hope we can speak again soon, Big Brother,” he said. “I tend to hang about on the fringes of Prince Archibald's entourage. Perhaps we'll run into each other there. He seems to have a rather high opinion of you, himself.” He didn't wait for further response; instead he only bobbed his head again, and saw himself out into the hall to fetch his hat and coat.

When the door closed behind Konrad, and the sound of his boots clattering on the walk faded away, Levi made an audible sound of put-upon annoyance and flopped solidly down on the sofa.

“I don't trust any of them,” he said. “That kid was way too friendly.”

Erwin didn't respond immediately. He was looking at the letter. The seal was done in white wax, an elegantly lined windmill imprinted within.

“Levi,” he said, as he slipped his thumb beneath the envelope's fold, “Do you know much about the Reiss family?”

Levi hesitated, long enough that Erwin looked over at him with expectant surprise; Levi blinked at him, then frowned faintly and looked away.

“We had rules,” he said, finally. “My crew and some others. Rules about who got hit, and who got passed on. People we passed on had usually paid up somewhere along the line, enough to keep us rats out of their cellars and attics.”

Erwin nodded, to show he was listening, as he slipped the letter out of the envelope. It was written in a neat and swirling ladies' hand, the sort of calligraphy that came about only after years of careful, disciplined instruction.

“We never hit Reiss. They never paid up, as far as I know, but we left them alone. I thought it was pretty weird at the time, to be honest. They've got a half dozen estates all through the Territories. Fat ones, too. But we were told –“ Levi paused, lingering over his word choice, and then went on, “ – we never tried for any of them. I still don't know why.”

Erwin glanced at him again, and saw uncharacteristic discomfort in the set of those small shoulders. Levi was looking away from him still, staring at the far wall with the closed door that led to the room where Lady had been moved.

“Levi,” he said, quietly, and Levi looked up at him, a look in his eyes that Erwin had never seen there before.

He looked guilty.

“It's fine, Élie,” Erwin said, intrigued and distressed in tandem by that unexpectedly hunted look, but concealing it for now. “It's more than I know. Here.”

He turned round and sat on the sofa next to Levi, holding the letter out in front of both of them, so that Levi could read along. He felt Levi's leg press against his, one of his many small gestures of seeking reassurance, and he let his free hand fall heavy onto Levi's thigh as he turned his attention to Lady Eleanor's letter.

Dear Commander E. Smith, it read, I suspect this correspondence may find you off your guard, for which I most sincerely apologize.

The circumstances of our acquaintance are uncomfortable for us both, though I will say that this is not due to any fault within either of us. I am sure you take my meaning. As such, I pray this letter will find you with the good faith in which it was written. While I am aware it is highly uncouth to speak of financial difficulties in writing, I believe you will agree with me that it would be impossible for us to have this conversation in person, as would be proper.

I have heard from my acquaintances that your military is in dire circumstances, financially speaking. While I am, of course, most rightfully tied in nearly all matters to the Smith Estates and family name, it is also true that I am my late father's only child and heir. Before his passing some years ago, my father, Lord Windham, saw fit to bequeath a sum of his estates directly to me. It is by no means the sum which I am sure is necessary to do more than feed and clothe your soldiers, and to perhaps see their horses fed and shod for a few months more. Nevertheless, I believe the proper use of these funds lies with the Survey Corp.

This must confuse you terrible, Commander, and for that I am sorry. But the truth is that not all of us here, within our ivory tower, are certain of our safety from the Titans; nor, in truth, are we certain of our safety from other, more insidious sources. I myself am not a woman born to fight wars, as many women are. From my girlhood it has been made clear to me that my protection is dependent on the men I know, and in whom I place my faith. I place my faith, here and now, in you, Commander. My small contribution will not save you, of that I am aware, but it is my hope that you will take it as you took my silence towards you during those years we lived in the same house: It is my own small and powerless way of wishing you well.

A son cannot choose his father, and all too often, a woman cannot choose her husband. In this, you and I share a similar bond.

The funds will arrive within a week of this letter's delivery, by my prediction. To you, Commander Erwin Smith, I say, good luck, and God go with you – and with your companion, the Lieutenant Levi, of whom I have heard many interesting stories.

Regards,
Lady E. (Eleanor Windham) Smith

“You believe all this?” Levi said neutrally, once he'd finished scanning the letter himself. His eyebrows were lifted, but there was no hostility in him, only genuine uncertainty.

Erwin leaned back against the sofaback, setting the letter aside on the cushion beside him and folding his arms across his chest. He was remembering something Jonas Rademaker had said to him years ago, on that fateful day of pain and proving, the day Levi had flown from his fist for the very first time, and nearly for the last.

“You're a good man, Erwin Smith. Trust that you have friends you don't have to manipulate, too.”

I'm not certain about 'good,' Jonas, he thought, closing his eyes and reaching out for Levi, pulling him into the crook of his arm without care for the vague grunt of displeasure Levi uttered.

“Yes,” he said, as Levi adjusted himself, his cheek pressing warm against Erwin's breast. “I do believe it.”

But you seem to be right, one way or another. How strange.

How very strange indeed.

Chapter Text

Some days later, there had still been no word of further patronage. Erwin gathered his dignity as best he could, and led his officers back out into Rose territory, Kaiser and Levi riding on either side of him at the rear. Lady, jessed lightly to a crossbar attached to the cantle of his saddle, was fussy and aggressive for much of the ride, her wings jumping in little starts and tics with nearly every movement Erwin made, her voice rising at regular intervals in shrill displeasure at the indignities of transportation in the cold. By the bite in the air it was clear that winter had gripped the land in full, and by the time they arrived back at the Survey outpost, it had begun to snow again, heavy and relentless.

The sight of the Caelarc's rising spires and solid stone walls crowning over the rolling hills of the eastern farmlands and pastures, the flags of Survey Corps and the King waving gentle in the snow and wind, put no surge of patriotism into Erwin's heart. He felt only weariness, remembering the papers and maps still stacked upon his desk in the north tower, the chill of solid stone sunk deep into the earth, the organizing and letter-writing and hunting still left to be seen to.

The Caelarc itself had once been the summer palace of Prince Theobald's uncle Ambrose, who had been the Duke of Rose until his death a year before Theo's majority and inheritance. Theo had no use for a summer estate, as he preferred to live within an accessible distance of Rose's larger towns and villages. The only other home he kept was at the north end of the territory, and he traveled there once a year to meet with the minor lords and mayors who could not make the journey all the way to the south. Caelarc was set away into the Rose country-side, the nearest village only a homey silhouette on the next hill over. Theo had offered it for Survey's temporary use some few years past, while a new Maria outpost was constructed – the Zhinganshina outpost had no longer been considered strategic at the time, which Erwin now found darkly humorous – but the construction had dragged somewhat, thanks to flagging interest in Survey's work.

Then, the Fall had come, and by necessity Caelarc had become Survey Corps' permanent home.

It was not an ideal fit, by anyone's standards. Much of the surrounding land was hilly and heavily wooded, and digging a training pit in the rich, soft soil had taken an unconscionable amount of time. The pit, roughly one hundred and fifty meters along each side, was by necessity located more than a kilometer and a half from Caelarc itself in the shallow dip of two of the nearby hills, an inconvenient distance. The forests of Caelarc did not serve as an alternate training ground, either – the trees were thickly pressed, twined all through with heavy brambles and underbrush, leaving no room for maneuvering, and barely any room for more than a single person to pass through on foot. There were good, solid dirt roads, at the least, though during rainfall these grew thick with mud that sucked at boots and hooves alike; since their relocation four horses had been lost to broken legs, thanks to the mire. After the fourth Erwin had set some of the hostlers to cutting ash boards, and had seen them laid about in neat rows along the deeper laden parts of the track.

The roads couldn't be avoided, in any case, as they remained the only proper access to the nearest town, a medium-sized community of farmers and textile artists called Roeld. Roeld was friendly enough, and its people more than willing to sell supplies and other goods to Survey's soldiers, but it didn't have nearly the resources that the Zhinganshina township had had, and they felt the lack in places both expected and not. Uniforms, for example, were easy to come by and to repair. Metalworks, on the other hand, now had to be carted in from Trost, costing nearly more than Survey could afford in transportation and construction.

Erwin had been told that there was another small hamlet somewhere in the nearby hills, but when he had asked about in Roeld, the townspeople had been strangely unwilling to indicate its precise location. Frustrated by their inexplicably coy responses and outright refusals to explain, Erwin had sent Levi to investigate further. When Levi had returned, calm and carefully devoid of expression, he had informed Erwin of what should have been obvious from the start. The village was called Zev-Ge by the people of Roeld – Levi had enunciated the sounds with deliberate and scornful clumsiness, in the manner of all native speakers who have heard their tongue butchered by the ignorant – and it was a Mystic community, one of the last remaining in the inner circle of Rose.

There had been sickness in Rose territory, Erwin knew now, when Levi had been a child in Mokum Het, one little boy among three equally dark-haired and pale eyed sisters. Cholera had swept the towns and villages, poisoning water supplies and neighborhoods. Duke Ambrose had responded admirably, according to all talk in Sina and other lands of Rose, by distributing generous supplies of salt mixed with rare and precious sucre, accompanied by instructions to combine them in measured amounts into clean water. Rose had staged a miraculous recovery – save, Erwin knew, for its once thriving Mystic communities. Duke Ambrose was as bigoted as any peer of the realm was, and the Mystic shtetls had been declared untouchable quarantine zones, under the official decree that the Mystics themselves had been responsible for the sickness in the first place. Cut off from clean water and administrative assistance, people had died in the hundreds.

“Roeld is protecting them,” Levi had said, carefully avoiding looking Erwin in the eye. “Apparently they feel it's the least they can do. Ze'ev Gae –“ he had enunciated it properly, here, with a strange hurt that made Erwin wince to hear, “ – doesn't want to be found.”

Erwin, as always deeply sensitive to Levi's unhappy discomfort, had dismissed him, and let the matter drop.

But the incident lingered uncomfortably in his mind still, as a reminder that no matter his own intentions towards humanity under the title of a military commander, he was and would always be just another weapon wielded by the government. Neither he nor Survey belonged here, in these halls that had sheltered and entertained the man who had seen so many dead with nothing so much as an afterthought. Caelarc was no home to him, nor to any of them.

Most especially not Levi.

The stable courtyard was already mostly shoveled by the time they returned, and Erwin smiled his thanks at the soldiers and hired hands who were neatening the drifts up against the far end of the building. If nothing else, he thought, at the very least the people of Survey Corp were universally keen, hard-working, and eager to be of help in all matters. One could overcome a great deal of hardship, with such willing help.

One of the hands came to take Nuit's reins as he dismounted, a flurry of light drifted snow rolling off his cloak with the motion. He glanced around until he found the nearest soldier, and nodded to him.

“Jinn,” he said. “Anything to report?”

The young man saluted him neatly, stepping forward. “No urgent messages, sir,” he said, ignoring Lady's angry shriek at his close proximity. “Your weekly correspondence from Commander Dawk is on your desk, awaiting your response. Schultz and I took the liberty of receiving the requisitions that arrived this morning – Schultz assumed that would be the best course of action.”

“It was,” Erwin said, reaching to untie Lady's jesses from the crossbar. “Thank you. I've no idea why they came so early, but – ouch!”

It was only by supreme force of will that Erwin prevented himself from automatically jerking his hand back. Tired and distracted, he had foolishly put his ungloved hand within the range of Lady's sharp, curved beak, and, as any agitated wild animal would do, she had bitten him hard, piercing into the soft meat of his palm. Her wings were spread halfway, fanning, close to baiting, and her fearsome yellow-orange eyes, devoid of anything other than feral focus, were fixed on him, waiting for his next movement.

“Sir,” Jinn said, worry apparent in his tone, and Erwin saw Kaiser coming toward him, wide-eyed, but he lifted his free hand slightly and gestured for them to stay back.

“That hurts, beauty,” Erwin said softly, reaching into his saddlebag for the heavy leather glove with slow and careful movements. Lady watched him cannily, shifting her taloned grip on the crossbar, and slowly relaxed her beak's grip, releasing his hand and straightening back up, though her wings folded only loosely to her sides. Erwin drew his hand away in a gradual movement, and slipped the glove on. Blood began to stain into the leather immediately, and he could feel it trickling down his wrist all the way to the bend of his elbow, rivulets of blood joining in tandem with the long scar that already decorated his flesh.

“Here,” he murmured, offering the glove to Lady. She twisted her head slightly, imperious as ever, and then stepped onto his fist with an indignant croaking noise.

“Sir, are you all right?” Kaiser said softly from behind him, and when Erwin looked up at her he saw Levi at her side, calm but attentive, his pale eyes fixed on the blood dripping slowly down Erwin's arm.
“Fine,” Erwin said shortly, though his hand ached. He was fairly certain there had been no serious damage to nerve or tendon. “It was my fault.”

“Sir,” Kaiser said, her tone a little doubtful, but she didn't argue.

“Put her away,” Levi said. The direction of his gaze hadn't changed; he seemed strangely distracted. “I'll see to the horses and everything else.”

“I – yes.” Erwin pressed his lips together. His hand throbbed, and he felt foolish and unbalanced, as though he'd stumbled on a missed stair. “Thank you. I would appreciate that, Lieutenant.”

Levi tipped his head slightly, meeting Erwin's eyes, and for a moment Erwin felt the old, long gone surge of tense uncertainty, the sensation that he was looking at a predator in the process of determining him food, foe, or unimportant. He had forgotten that Levi had ever looked at him with such an expression. A chill went through him; he remembered, now, what the conditions of keeping Levi's heart were.

Take control. Don't flinch. Never, ever flinch.

Erwin lifted his chin.

“When you're finished, Lieutenant,” he said, “I'd like you to wait right here for me to return.”

He watched thoughtfulness slide across Levi's chilly features, the considering weight creeping into his empty eyes, and did not relax even when Levi nodded, once, showing his obedience.

“Sir,” Levi said, without salute. He took the reins of the nearest two horses and turned them towards the stable. Kaiser shot Erwin another brief glance, and then followed Levi instead, clearly intended to make herself useful as well.

Erwin went into the secondary stables, where Lady's mews were.

She was calmer by the time he set her on her perch, her feathers no longer held so tightly against her small body. She growled softly at his back as he crossed to the little stove by the door and lit the fire that would warm her, and melt the ice on the wiring that kept her enclosure secure. The movements made his hand hurt, but he ignored it, listening instead to the soft, familiar low grinding sound of Lady rubbing her beak along her perch, croaking to herself like a child muttering under its breath. They were soothing noises, Erwin knew, small thoughtful sounds she made to calm herself, and re-establish her internal sense of routine and control. He turned to smile at her, slipping the hawking glove off – the blood had dried down his arm by now, but the wound had stopped flowing so openly.

“Better now?” he said.

She puffed her feathers a little as if in response, giving him a disinterested look before turning to preen herself with that wicked sharp beak. He chuckled, folding the ruined glove and setting it atop the trunk against the wall by the stove. He'd need a new one, no one's fault but his own. His vigilance had lapsed, and she had reminded him, with the swift and merciless sensibilities of all raptors, that he could not afford to lose his focus.

Erwin was no fool, though he'd been made to feel one more than once over the last week. Birds were deeply sensitive creatures, at least so far as their perceptions went. The people of Northern Rose, he knew, bred small, colorful songbirds, and carried them in delicate cages into the coal and iron mines that dominated industry there. The birds were fragile things, with tiny lungs and delicate constitutions, and when a badly planned tunnel or furrow uncovered the invisible, killing monoxide gases that lurked in deep pockets in the earth, it was they who succumbed first. Miners knew to watch their birds for signs of distress, for the silencing of their bright bubbling songs. It was always a portend that danger was to come.

But Erwin was a falconer, and hawks did not sing out their warnings. One did not reason with hawks, or expect them to understand unspoken selfishness. They taught their lessons with screams, with talon and blood, and it was to the austringer to endure, and to understand.

He was failing, he knew, with Levi. Somewhere, he was failing.

He lifted his head. The company stored much of its spare tack and horse equipment in the stalls across the breezeway from Lady's mews. There were saddles balanced along the hanging bars, blankets folded and piled up in crates, whips and crops sitting in an old umbrella stand – Survey horses rarely required excess spurring, and those few who did were usually sold off for other uses. By necessity a Survey horse had to be sensitive to the slightest touch or shift of weight from its rider. Still, it was good to have such things at hand, just in case.

Erwin narrowed his eyes, thoughtful.

When he emerged from the mews once again, the horse-yard was empty, the soldiers having dispersed to their posts or their personal business. Only Levi was there, just as he'd been told to be. He was standing off to the side, out of the way. His back was straight, but there was an air of exhaustion about him, something heavy and hanging. Erwin watched the tired shift of his weight from one foot to the other, seeing the stiffness of his black hair and the weary darkness around his eyes as Levi turned and looked at him with an expression off blank expectancy. They were alone in the yard, save for the steadily swirling snow and the distant, background sound of buckets rattling and oats shifting as the horses fed. Erwin understood that their argument the night of the Aldenberg party had not truly ended, not really. It had only been put on temporary hiatus. That hiatus was now ended.

“Your hand,” Levi said, but he didn't reach for it as he might have, before. He only stood there, head slightly cocked, arms loose at his sides. “It needs bandaging.”

“Levi,” Erwin said, quietly, and then: “Élie,” as a man testing frigid waters for safe passage. Levi stiffened just slightly, the tightening of his jaw and the flare of his nostrils an obvious warning, and lifted his head, as imperious and cold and untouchable as Lady ever was.

“Shall I do it?” he said, with faint, mean mockery tainting the words, and Erwin felt his temper, formerly beaten into submission by uncertainty and exhaustion, stir.

“No,” he said. “Go upstairs to our quarters. Light the wood stove. Bathe, and then –“ he paused, only for a moment, but Levi was looking at him closely now, poised and alert, waiting to receive, “ –and then kneel by the bed, Élie. Until I return. Don't move an inch. I trust you're capable of that, at least as a matter of personal pride.”

He poured his hurt and frustration into the words, until each one was as sharp and precise as surgical steel, and he watched Levi's shoulders lift, watched his mouth come slightly open, watched the furrow of his eyebrows disappear. He thought of Lady, content and mumbling to herself, comfortable to have been put back in the place she felt she belonged.

“Am I understood?” he said, merciless.

Levi's throat worked for a moment, something strangely like relief in his eyes.

“Yes,” he said, “Erwin.”

“Then you need no further direction, I hope.”

Levi's lips parted again, his eyes half-lidded, and he smiled, brief and with such sweetness that Erwin felt his heart clench in his chest with love and with hope.

“No,” Levi said, and turned to the entryway arc with measured, confident strides.

***

Erwin returned to the commander's tower an hour later, his hand bandaged, his uniform jacket folded nicely over his arm. The tower was three flights high, a private lavatory fed by Caelarc's water pipe system on the bottommost floor and a wide, open space at the top, which he had divided with paper screens into a combination of bedroom and private library and sitting room. His office was on the second level, accessible from both the main flight of stone stairs and from the bedroom via a smaller, half-hidden door tucked away to one side of his bookcases. It was a cozy arrangement, and one that afforded him the level of privacy and solitude he desired. His relationship with Levi was an unspoken fact, known to his soldiers but never mentioned. Survey was particularly good at staying out of its own private business, and soldiers who met Levi ascending the tower steps at night from his own office across the wing never offered him anything but a polite good night.

The bedroom was silent as Erwin walked into the sitting room to fold his jacket over the back of the smoking chair by the fireplace. He could smell the ash smoke of the wood stove from across the room, as well as a fresh hint of peppermint and lavender, the scents of Levi's favored soaps. Through the screen, by the light from the stove on the other side of it, he could see the small silhouette, kneeling straight-backed, head held up so that Levi's petite features were outlined in perfect profile. Erwin was certain Levi had heard him come in, but he hadn't moved at all.

He smiled, faintly, to no one but himself, and went to the sidebar, where he retrieved a brandy glass and the bottle of young calvados that Commander Pixis had gifted him upon his appointment. When he cracked the bottle, the heady, crisp aroma of fermented apples slithered out into the room, mingling with the scent of soaps and then swiftly overpowering them.

He put the riding crop down on the bar as he poured himself a measure, taking his time. The bottle tinkled musically against the rim of the glass, and Erwin looked up, curious, towards that motionless silhouette, searching for a twitch of movement. When there was none, he lifted his glass and wet his lips.

“Levi,” he said, once he'd lowered it again. He didn't raise his voice, but he knew that Levi would hear him perfectly well. “I realize I've been unfair to you.”

There was silence from the other side of the screen, and then Levi's voice emerged, calm and low.

“We've been unfair to each other.”

The calvados was warming him. He sipped it, taking in a somewhat larger mouthful, and then turned to pick up the riding crop from the bar again with his free hand.

“Yes,” he said, agreeable. “I think we have. I've softened in places I shouldn't have, I know, and I've grown sharper in others just as inappropriate.”

There was a pause, and then Levi said, “Yes,” the word weighted by stipulation, but Erwin didn't let him continue.

“But,” he said, “You've done the same to me. Haven't you, darling?”

“Yes,” Levi said, this time without hesitation, and Erwin heard his regret clearly. “I have.”

“Truly,” Erwin murmured, “Neither of us knows precisely what we're doing, when it comes to – the nature of us.” He touched the brandy glass to his lips, and closed his eyes, draining it off, savoring the liquor as it burned pleasantly down his throat. From Levi there was no excess of sound, though at last Erwin saw him shift a little, easing his cramping legs.

Erwin set the glass on the side bar.

“I am tired,” he said, “of living defensively. Aren't you, Élie? Aren't you tired of this desperation? Shouldn't we trust each other absolutely? Without words, without effort? It's never been more certain to me that we'll come to terrible ends.” He swallowed, only because the taste of the alcohol still lingered in his mouth. “We're dying, Élie, all of us, and you and I are doing it much faster than most. That fact alone should be enough reason for us to put aside our childish boundaries.”

Levi didn't respond to that, not immediately. Erwin stood still, listening to the gentle tick of the clock on the bookshelf to his left, slightly too slow. It needed winding.

“I feel,” Levi said at last, with more care than Erwin had heard from him in weeks, “That you're being selfish.”

“I am,” Erwin said, without the slightest flinch. “I am, yes. You cannot begrudge me that.”

“I don't,” said Levi, continuing quickly, so that Erwin couldn't interrupt him. “I don't, Erwin. I know why. You're scared. You're scared out of your goddamn mind. You don't want to lose me. Believe me – I don't take that lightly.”

Erwin waited.

“But...“ And here Levi's head turned towards him finally, the fine profile disappearing into shapeless shadow. “But this is what you claimed me for. You'll never be the leader you're meant to be until you're really willing to sacrifice the man you love.” He said the words with terrible serenity, as absolute fact. “You have to let me go. You have to live with it.”

Erwin felt the old anxiety rippling to the surface, riding tidal on the gentle waves of inebriation that were lapping at his consciousness. His fingers tightened around the riding crop's handle, painfully so, and he squared his shoulders against the tremor of helplessness that threatened to erupt.

“You're right.” His own voice sounded queer and foreign to him, someone else's voice ringing through his ears. “You're right. I'm sorry.”

He left the bottle where it was, and came around the screen.

Levi was kneeling at the wide foot of the bed, his knees arranged neat on the thick sheep's wool rug. He was naked, his skin pinked and goose-prickled at intervals from exposure to the cool air that the wood stove had yet to touch. The firm swell of his buttocks rested against his upturned heels, and he was bowed forward, the shaved black hair at the nape of his neck giving way to the deep, careful scarring just below, the Mystic letters starkly concave by the firelight. His shoulders were broad, by the standard of his size, and there was powerful muscle outlined beneath his scar-crossed skin. He didn't lift his head, though it was clear he knew Erwin was there. The sight of him, bent and small and fairly roiling with contained power and grace, made Erwin's stomach surge dizzyingly.

He swallowed, searching for his words, and finally said, “The first measure is trust.”

Levi nodded just so, black hair hanging loose and waved about his face.

“You told me, once, that you could kill me, as easily as you breathed, if I didn't serve you properly – you proved to me more than once how little power I truly held over you, if you chose to withdraw your permission. You had no issue in demanding what you needed from me.”

The crop was loose in his grip, reassuringly solid.

“Why are you hesitating now?”

Levi shuddered, his shoulders bunching, and when he spoke there was frustration and uncharacteristic self-loathing in his voice.

“Because,” he said, his teeth gritted by the sound of it, “I'm scared to fucking death.”

Erwin caught his breath as though it were a small bird escaping a cage, and held it, hearing his pulse beating its wild wings through his veins, through his head. He held it for so long that he began to feel light-headed, and when he released it again it burned at his lungs just as the brandy had done.

“We will not die passively,” he said, his voice cracking beyond his control. “We will not go, helpless and sniveling. None of us will. Not you, my darling. Most especially not you. I won't let you.”

He knelt, and reached out, running his hand along the ridge of Levi's spine, and Levi shivered again, his head coming up slightly, turning just enough for him to look at Erwin from the corner of his eye. He looked at the crop in Erwin's other hand, and then up to Erwin's face, and he looked so much like the frightened, uncertain boy Erwin had fallen in love with so long ago that Erwin felt his eyes begin to sting.

“But,” he whispered, his hand trailing down to the small of Levi's back, “I will free you to die for my cause. That should be enough.”

“Erwin,” Levi said, voice hitching. Erwin leaned forward and kissed the skin just above Levi's buttocks, tender and lingering, and he felt Levi's hips jerk, just a little.

“I'll give you your title,” he murmured against Levi's flesh. “And your squad. Captain Levi. I officially promote you. I've kept you bound to my side for no reason other than selfishness. You warrant much more. Forgive me.”

Levi's shoulders slumped as though he had been released from a great weight, and he made a short sound that might have been a laugh, under other circumstances. “Thank you,” he gasped. “I've been – cruel to you.” There was a note of faint and needy hysteria in his words. “For reasons you don't really deserve.”

Erwin slipped his arm around Levi's middle, pulling him gently up to his feet, and he pressed the crop softly across the emet laid into Levi's neck, bending him over at the waist. Levi reached out automatically, pressing his hands into the mattress, his ass lifted up without shame, head lowered once more. He steadied himself, and Erwin drew back again.

“It doesn't matter,” he said. “This is the end of it. Let us prove our trust to each other once more, Élie.”

“Yes,” Levi said, words hardly more than a grateful whisper. “Please.”

The crop whistled shrilly as it came down across Levi's ass, painting a white and bloodless blotch across his flesh with a meaty smack. Levi cried out, his head lifting, and Erwin struck him again, watching Levi's cock jerk with badly suppressed want.

“God,” Levi said; his eyes were closed, nostrils flared. Erwin struck him hard enough to stagger him a little, and he whined, lifting his ass up, bracing himself against the bed. Erwin knew the proper measure of giving him pain, thanks to long practice, and he counted the space between each stroke, allowing time for the heat and the sting to settle in, for Levi's body to register the assault. He felt unbalanced himself, his lips and mouth much too dry, the churn of his gut rising and falling with each blow. It was too hot, in that chilly room; he watched Levi's ass lift again and again for more, and he felt the sweat beading thickly at his hairline and the back of his neck, felt the gradually swelling discomfort of his erection rising within his trousers.

Each time Erwin struck him it drew a sound from Levi's lips – at first low, and eager, then rising, growing higher and more helpless. He whined and writhed, and Erwin watched him through a red, soothing haze, feeling detached from his body and his actions. He felt calm, he realized distantly, for the first time in weeks, as though he'd been living his whole life askew, only to be set suddenly upright again. Levi's buttocks were a rapidly spreading sea of angry pink skin, slight welts beginning to form in the centers, and the only word he managed, when he managed words at all, was a high, keening, “Yes.”

He would die like this, Erwin knew, if Erwin allowed it; Levi would ask for this pain until it killed him. It was Erwin's responsibility to keep him alive. It always had been. This was no different. Erwin would draw him back from the edge, always, but it was to Erwin to push him there in the first place.

Truth, he thought, a little wildly, of self. Or death.

Levi's cries were beginning to soften, and when Erwin looked again at his face he knew they were nearing the end. There was a point beyond the pain, beyond the sensation, where that uncanny serenity reached Levi as well, when he grew loose and docile in ways he never was otherwise, and Erwin could see the signs of it now. His eyelids were heavy, mouth hanging open, saliva on his lips, tears of pain and sensation brimming in his eyes. Erwin's cock ached at the sight, but he held himself in check.

“Élie,” he murmured, holding the crop away. Levi moaned, trying and failing to lift himself back to his hands again, and Erwin dropped the crop to one side, reaching forward instead to draw him up, to grip his cock tightly, to squeeze. Levi surged back against him, fighting to regain himself, clutching at the arm Erwin had locked tightly around his small waist as though he had no idea what else to do with his hands.

“Élie, Élie,” Erwin breathed into his ear, and Levi came into his hand with a choking, stuttered gasp. Erwin hissed as Levi's bruised ass pressed hard into his groin, his grip on Levi tightening near to crushing as his own orgasm rippled up from cock, threading through his stomach in twitching spasms. His head swam, and he found himself sinking forward, nearly on top of Levi, suddenly clumsy. They tangled together on the floor, Levi grunting with weary irritation at the sudden excess of weight.

Erwin fought his way back through the fading red haze. He reached for Levi, and found him; he drew Levi against his chest and between his legs and held him there, Levi's head lolling back against his chest and his arms dangling awkwardly.

“Stop,” Levi muttered, without force, and turned his head to nestle more comfortably into Erwin's grip. “Fuck. Stop pawing me for two seconds.”

“No,” Erwin said, nosing his ear, and began to laugh, a little helpless. He was giddy with relief and endorphins, so much so that the mess in his trousers didn't even bother him. “No, Captain, I will not.”

Levi stilled a little, then lifted his head to look into Erwin's face properly. He was smiling, slight but sure, and his eyes were soft and warm with afterglow and affection. “You're always so damn useless after you come,” he said, not unkindly. “Commander.”

Erwin pressed a kiss into his hair, exhaling, and felt Levi relax against him in tandem.

They were silent for some time, resting; Erwin was near to dozing right there on the floor when an idea crashed into his head, with all the sudden violence of a lightning strike. He sat up, staring forward, Levi's irritated protests at the discomfort of the new position only background noise.

“I know what we need to do,” he said.

Levi pulled free of his arm with a dark expression, clearly unimpressed by Erwin's abrupt change of gears. “What? You almost crushed my cock with your knee, you fat plow horse.”

Erwin kissed him on the cheek with absent apology, and got up, going to the bed trunk to retrieve his book of notes and a pen.

“I know what we need to do, to save Survey,” he said. He sat down on the edge of the bed, and began to write, the circumstances of the evening and the rest of the world forgotten entirely.

After a moment, Levi rose, wiped himself clean with one of their spare cloths, retrieved his trousers, and returned to sit beside him on the bed without another word.

Chapter Text

“Well, honestly,” said Hanji, absently brushing a thick layer of dust away from one of the piles of books on her rickety desk without looking up at him, “It sounds bloody mental to me, Erwin.”

They were gathered in the chilly but cheerily lit underground space that made up Hanji's workshop and laboratory, surrounded on all sides by bookshelves, expensive glass tubes, carefully sealed crates, tools both lethal and benign looking. The workshop didn't afford much in the way of insulation, and the heavy winter snow drifts had long since leeched their dismaying cold into the limestone walls. Half the pipes in the Caelarc were frozen solid, and a dozen Survey soldiers were currently feeling their way along the ice-cold interior walls, searching out the plumbings' pathways and openings in order to slide open-capped oil lanterns beneath the frost-scaled pipes in the hopes of breaking up some of the stoppage. Water for breakfast had been garnered by melting bowls of the new fallen snow from the courtyard, and the stable hands had set out an hour earlier than usual, barn-axes in hand, to chop the ice in the horse troughs.

Erwin could feel sweat beading along his brow.

Beside Hanji, Mike snorted into his mustache, though his shoulders were stiffly bunched, still. Erwin had watched, throughout his elaborations, as Mike's posture had grown more and more tightly wound with every word, the only sign of fear he'd given. Nanaba had her arms folded, and she stared at the workshop's far wall with a deep and distant frown, her slim hip lightly cocked to one side against Mike, as though to reassure him by contact alone. Petra Ral was crouched over the half-finished map canvas that was spread out across the workshop's floor, staring down at her painted lines and impressions of mountains and rock formations with haunted distance.

Levi was perched nearby, on the railing of the low wooden catwalk that lined the workspace floor, his ankles hooked easily into the balusters on either side of him for balance. He hadn't spoken, nor registered any kind of outward reaction to Erwin's description of his plan, but he'd already known what Erwin had come to explain in the first place, and had had time and space to leash his emotions. If he was feeling any physical sensitivity due to the previous night's exertions, he showed no sign; he rarely did. The careful outward suppression of his natural reactions to lingering pain, the concealing of winces or limping or sharp exhalations, was only a continuation of the experience, and one he pursued entirely of his own volition. Erwin certainly wouldn't have minded attending him further, nor would he have blamed Levi for his occasional cringing as welts and bruises were jarred or pressed, but beyond that liminal time period directly after the administration of marks and of hurt, Levi contained himself with studied self-discipline.

Always afterward, Erwin held him, murmuring words of praise and adoration, and felt Levi's heart beating as wild as a netted bird, the only part of his body that still seemed to contain the strength to move at all. Always, Levi was boneless and trembling, clumsy-handed and heavy-limbed, his head hanging against Erwin's chest and his cheeks damp with tears of pain and relief and release, truly and wholly helpless in that moment, to a depth he had sought for much of his life but had not found until Erwin had taken him down off the gallows. Sometimes Levi spoke to him in his first tongue, mumbling his way through curling vowels and gently swallowed sounds, and when Erwin closed his eyes he felt as though he were in a small boat, rocking upon soft waves over unfathomably deep water. There was a wonderful fluidity to Levi's speech in the Mystic tongue that matched his motions in flight, something instinctive and intrinsic and comfortable in ways a second or third language could never be, lacking all awkwardness of internal translation.

In those moments, all of Levi was laid bare, and it was all Erwin could do to hold him.

The point of the experience, Erwin knew, was control; this was true for both of them. But Levi needed something to fight against, something inside himself to discipline, and so he bore the pain of his marks with gravity and willingness. The satisfaction, after all, was in the struggle.

The memory calmed him, though it was only a momentary calm.

Erwin had known, going in, that his plan would be an exceptionally difficult sell. There was a tangible aura of tension in the air, a soft electric crackle of nervy energy that stretched between them all; the seeds of terror and helplessness, beginning to bud, pushing their way up through the soil of the soul.

Erwin had rounded them up that morning after breakfast – Hanji, Mike, Nanaba, and Levi – to gauge their thoughts. It happened that the workshop also facilitated cartography; he and Ral met there frequently to finalize the maps that Survey depended on in their excursions, and they had arrived to find her already at work on their most recent project, her paints and sketching charcoals arrayed around her like armaments.

The space had been the castle's cistern at some distant time past, but whatever underground reservoir had once fed it had long since dried away, and rainfall alone was not enough to keep the waterline to useable levels. Caelarc got its water now from two well-tunnel systems, which Lady Charlotte called qanats; Hanji had nodded with admiring interest upon seeing them, and named them galería. They were ancient marvels of engineering, no matter what they were called: vertical shafts into the earth, from which deep-buried ground water rose as if by magic, spilling into clean stone holding pools within the castle's grounds. Erwin didn't fully understand the physics behind the process, but Charlotte had confided privately that qanats were a good percentage of the reason her father's greenhouses were so greatly productive, and that had been proof enough for him to trust them.

“You don't think it's possible?” Erwin said, glancing back at Hanji. She looked up from her desk, and he caught the flash of sick uncertainty on her face, the little downward tug of her lips that so often proceeded a manic grin. She shook her head once, the bright lamplight reflecting off her glasses.

“Capturing a Titan alive? I know it's possible – the initial part, anyway,” she said. “I've seen it done. Once. At Grace University.”

“Once,” Levi repeated softly, but his tone was neutral.

“And that time, it was bound up – by the neck, and wrist to ankle, and around the waist, and they had it stuck down in this – this –“ Hanji waggled her fingers, squinting as she searched for the word she wanted. “This, you know, this prison hole, trap door–“

“Oubliette,” Levi said.

“This oubliette,” Hanji said. “So even if it had broken free, it wouldn't have had anywhere to go. And anyway, it was small. Five meters, give or take.”

“What was the point of bringing it back in the first place?” Nanaba said, her voice sour. “It couldn't even be studied, tied up and stuffed down a hole like that. What happened to it?”

“Well,” Hanji said, with surprising delicateness, for her, “Eventually, it died.”

“Eventually?” Nanaba eyed her. Hanji shrugged, dismissive.

“Someone killed it,” she said, absently. “Before anybody could really study it properly. Grace never knew who. It was really a shame, they had all sorts of experiments in mind. Personally I had some suspicions about sunlight sensitivity, pain tolerance, that kind of thing, you know, do they have nervous systems? Internal organs? And I'd been hoping my professor would–“

“Hanji,” Erwin said, gentle, and she returned to the train of thought she'd drifted away from without even a blink.

“Anyway, it was definitely killed on purpose. Whoever it was, they must have known exactly what it takes to kill a Titan. But God knows how they got down in that hole to do the deed in the first place.”

For some reason, Erwin found his gaze drifting towards Levi. Levi was watching Ral go about her cartography – the girl was clearly attempting to keep her hands busy as she listened – but there was an air of strange disinterest about him, despite his usual fear-induced hyper-focus when it came to the subject of Titans. He didn't seem to sense Erwin's eyes on him at all.

“In any case, Erwin, we don't even have a hole – an oubliette,” Hanji said, lifting her voice a little to get Erwin's attention. He looked at her, blinking.

“Well, no,” he said. “But I know of a parcel of land, close to Wall Rose South, with a great deal of open space, and no towns or villages for miles. It borders one of the royal holding forests – and there's a rise there, with a fire watchtower.”

“It's Crown property?” Mike said. Erwin nodded.

“Yes – but I'm certain I can secure permission to use it. The royal family uses the land mainly for pleasure hunting, or at least it used to. And I believe there's room enough for Levi to slay a Titan there, while our guests watch from the tower.”

“If he can't?” Nanaba said, narrow-eyed. “If he misses, or it kills him?”

Erwin didn't look to Levi again, even as he replied. “He won't. But just in case, all of Survey will be on standby to take it down before it gets too far.”

“Like a Tiberian coliseum,” Hanji said, tense but thoughtful. She drummed her fingers on the desk. “Gladiators and lions, for the pleasure of the emperor.”

“Not for pleasure,” Erwin said. “For fear. For fear, and to ensure they understand precisely what stands between them and that fear. The fall of Maria wasn't enough for the nobility. All of those deaths are an annoyance, to humanity's wealthy and powerful. An inconvenience. Just as Survey is. I believe that this attitude will not change until they have seen, heard, and felt what we feel.” He paused, swallowing, and for a moment remembered little Eren Jaeger, his stubborn-set chin and his sweet hazel eyes, now gone forever. “What the people of Zhinganshina felt.”

“Christ,” Nanaba muttered, looking away. “Christ, Erwin. That's insane.”

Erwin smiled thinly. “I know it's an unsettling idea. Believe me, I do.”

“He does,” Levi said, dour, without looking round. “He wrote it out in his notes, even. I saw him. 'This is fucking madness,' right at the top of the goddamn paper.”

Mike huffed a low, grim laugh, giving his head a shake. “At least he's self aware,” he said. Erwin was warmed by the fondness in his tone, despite his obvious discomfort with the plan. They were nervous, his friends were, and uncertain, but he hadn't lost their faith with this. Not yet.

“Still,” Hanji said, folding her arms with a frown. “How do you expect to get permission for this? For –“ she waved one hand free, as though the entire idea were too vast to be summed up in succinct words. “–for this exercise.”

“I know of someone who will be more than happy to ensure we have everything we need.” This aspect of the plan had been one of the very first pieces of the puzzle made clear to him. “And I can promise the Sina and Rose elite will come to see the spectacle.”

“We'll have to figure out a way to restrain it until the time comes,” Ral said suddenly from the floor. She was still bent over her mapping, and her right arm was poised outward, a stick of charcoal balanced between her stained and dusty fingers. “That's not going to be easy, sir.”

“I'm open to suggestions,” Erwin said, mild.

Ral glanced up at him and smiled, somewhere between uncertain and stubborn, but undaunted nonetheless. She wasn't afraid of him, nor of his rank, despite the wide gap between their positions. She had splinters of Levi in her now, like shrapnel embedded under the skin, the consequence of combat and loyalty. There was very little that would frighten Petra Ral ever again.

“You think we should capture a Titan alive,” she said, voice steady. “Alive, and unharmed. And it'll need to be kept that way until the – performance.” She rose to her feet, her map-book in hand, and began to skim through the pages within, finally pausing about halfway through and flattening her ink-stained palm along the open spine. “Here.” She came forward, holding the book up over the railing for Erwin to take. She'd opened the page to her land-survey etchings of Wall Rose South, the open field shaded lightly with a gentle touch of charcoal. The watchtower was a small box shape, set atop a short rock formation. “The rock's granite – we could get Gear hooks into it without too much trouble, use the wires to tie down the Titan, and set a round the clock watch in the tower. If the Titan were to get free, the height from the observation platform would be enough to get a killing momentum.” She touched a few scribbled numbers next to the images – measurements she'd taken in the field. “See?”

“Oh,” Hanji said, interest overriding the tone of trepidation in her voice for the first time. “Oh, you know. That might just work.”

“There aren't any trees or buildings here, aside from the tower,” Mike said, craning his neck over Erwin's shoulder to peer at the sketchbook. “What's Levi going to anchor off of? Open ground combat in Gear is suicidal.”

“The ground?” Hanji said, leaning over Erwin's other shoulder with a frown. “Maybe?”

Ral shook her head. “Our soil samples from the area were all really soft. Good for growing, not so much for building or holding.”

Levi said, from where he was still perched on the rail, “The Titan.”

They all turned to look at him. Erwin lifted his eyebrows, and Levi scowled.

“I could anchor off the Titan,” he said, disgust in his voice, flashing bared teeth with every other word. “The flesh is tough. It holds. I've done it before. So long as it's not an Aberrant, or one of those nasty quick ones, it won't be fast enough to catch the wire.” He rolled one shoulder, staring back at them, almost defiant. “In some ways it's kind of advantageous. You can get an upswing that's almost vertical. Come right down on the neck.”

“You've done this before?” Erwin said. He could remember no such maneuver during their field excursions. Levi's pale eyes shifted towards him, then away again, and he nodded. He was gripping the railing under him with one hand, Erwin could see, the knuckles of it white and tightly clenched.

“Yeah,” Levi said, cold and uncompromising. “I have. So don't worry about what I can or can't do. Just figure out how to get the filthy thing into the field so I can put it down in front of your father and all his asshole cronies, and we'll see if they open up their purses after that. Or take it up to Sina and just let it loose. It'd be pretty hard for them to keep on not giving a shit then.”

He didn't laugh. Neither did any of the others.

“Well,” Hanji said, into the silence, “I guess this means we're going ahead with it, then.”

“I guess it does,” Nanaba murmured. Ral smiled, the expression thin and grim, and took her book from Erwin's loosened fingers.

“Well,” she said, “Are we the hunting party?”

“No,” Erwin said, sensing the sharpening of Levi's attention again, knowing he was remembering the night before, and his victory. “You and Levi will remain here.”

“Erwin,” Levi said. Erwin felt the pressing chill of Levi's temper in the measured enunciation of his name, and restrained any instinctive sign of flinch or shiver. He met Levi's eyes, not defiant, only firm, undaunted by the angry stiffening of his shoulders.

“Captain,” he said, “I'll need you to remain here, when the time comes, so that you can decide on your squad members. You'll need to get started on training them together as soon as possible. I want them selected and in presentation shape before the performance.”

Levi blinked, pulled up short in the beginning stages of his argument, and Erwin was faintly amused to see confusion flicker across his set expression.

“Sir,” Levi said, his tone one of accession, and Erwin turned towards him fully, bearing down with the weight of his own authority.

“Choose them carefully, and train them well,” he said. “They are going to be your direct backup in this exercise. Your life may depend on them. Theirs most certainly will depend on you. I trust you will keep in mind the grave responsibility that this rank entails.”

“Yes, sir,” Levi said, clearly neither chastised nor angered by Erwin's display of superior jurisdiction. Rather, he was calm again, almost thoughtful, the texture of his voice oddly velveted. “On my offered heart.”

“Good,” Erwin said. “Now, if you'll accompany me on an errand? I need to meet with an old friend of mine.”

***

The tavern was called the Hogstail, and the name suited its ambiance well: it was located down a narrow flight of stone steps, on the subterranean level of an old clapboard row-house, which had once been apartments but was now a ragged assortment of shops and game-halls, at least one of which, Erwin knew, operated simultaneously as an opium den. The Hogstail had taken over the space that had once been the cellar of the herbalist on the first floor, and beneath the mingled smells of tobacco and cannabis smoke the unmistakeable odor of camphor lurked, giving much of whatever was consumed in the tavern a vague medicinal air.

It was one of several drinking establishments in the town of Sullenpool, a relatively well to do community in West Rose whose chief areas of employment were in iron mining and steel smelting. Coal fires burned night and day in the ironworks that bordered the township, and much of Sullenpool was covered in a dreamy grey haze, its buildings smudged forever black and dusty by years of coal dust. The snow that blanketed the streets and rooftops nearly a foot deep was a dingy, sick beige color, the combination of human industry and human waste. Sullenpool's citizens were much the same, and as Erwin and Levi made their way through the busy streets it was impossible to ignore the cacophony of loud, wracking coughs that seemed to echo from every corner of the town. Sickness of the lung was terribly common here, among the usual hazards and injuries that went hand in hand with any sort of mining work, and a good number of the people they passed showed obvious signs of coal's dark and killing touch. By the time they'd reached the Hogstail Erwin imagined he could feel that black cloud creeping down his own throat, sticking to his skin like plague. The snow that spiraled endlessly from the sky was dark before it even hit the ground, and Erwin reminded himself to drink nothing here that had not been prepared somewhere far away from those terrible fires, no matter what was offered or by whom.

Erwin felt a little guilty, if he was honest with himself, for bringing Levi of all people with him to such a place. He was better acquainted than most with Levi's obsessive drive to keep clean and the experiences behind it, and entirely sympathetic besides, but Levi bore it with careful stoicism. He made no eye contact with anyone as they picked their way down the aptly named Dun Street, despite the occasional friendly voice raised in greeting at the recognizing of the Survey patches sewn into their winter coats. He kept his thick muffler pressed over his nose and mouth with one hand, and above it his eyes were stony and distant, only growing more so as they descended the snow-thickened steps into the fire-warmed dim of the tavern.

“I don't know who you expect to meet in a place like this,” Levi said as they tucked themselves into one of the narrow wooden booths along the tavern's far wall. The mounted head of a boar loomed over their heads, its tusked mouth open in an ugly porcine snarl.

Erwin shifted uncomfortably in his seat – the booth was made for men somewhat smaller than he was, and he briefly envied Levi, who appeared to have leg room to spare, his compact size. “He enjoys this place,” he said, glancing towards the door, where grey and half melted snow swept in through the gap. They were, at least, seated close to the fire. “It makes him feel quite adventurous, I think.”

“Who?” Levi said, the edge of irritation in his voice not at all his usual fond displeasure. His eyes gleamed in the dim, narrow and nervous.

“The Prince,” Erwin murmured, turning to watch the door.

“Who? Theo?” Levi snorted. “Why the fuck would he want to meet you in this hole?”

The door opened, snow and cold sweeping in with a chilly swirl, and Erwin smiled, rising to his feet as he recognized the pair of newcomers stamping their boots on the straw mat.

“Archie,” he said, and strode across the room with his hands extended.

The taller of the two turned, and a wide, genuine smile broke across his face. “Erwin!” he cried, his voice booming in the small space, though none of the other tavern goers paid him much mind, as though this were a common enough occurrence. “My God, man! It's really you!”

They met in the middle in a brotherly embrace, Prince Archibald pounding him solidly between the shoulder-blades with a deep and hearty laugh. They were of a height, and Erwin smiled discreetly over Archie's shoulder as the second man came up quietly behind him, a look of amusement on his face.

“Devon,” Erwin said, extracting himself from Archie's tight grip to take the other man's hands in his own in greeting. “It's been such a long time.”

“It has,” Devon said, his smile gentle and secretive. He was a slender man a few years Erwin's senior, dressed in fine but practical traveling clothes in shades of blue and grey that flattered his tanned complexion. Despite the years that had passed between them, Devon seemed unchanged; he had been a prettily handsome boy, then, and he was a prettily handsome man now, his brown hair cropped close to his skull and his dark eyes touched by laugh lines and the slightest hint of the beginnings of crow's feet. His grip was firm and calloused, and Erwin saw the fine sword he wore at his hip, a serviceable weapon meant not for ornamentation, but for use.

“Devon's going to be my shadow until he dies,” Archie said cheerily, sliding an arm around Devon's shoulders with companionable roughness. “And I intend to let him, if only because he spent so many dammed years getting knocked around on my behalf.” His hazel eyes were fond. He was dressed simply himself, in dark brown, a tall and pleasingly built figure, his chestnut hair cut short and his mustache neat and well trimmed. Erwin thought briefly of Konrad, and remembered that he was a part of Archibald's lordly entourage.

“I'm afraid I've not been nearly so loyal to your brother, Archie,” he said, stepping aside and holding out one hand to indicate the booth he'd chosen, where Levi huddled, glaring baleful and suspicious across the room at them. “Come and sit. Let's catch up.”

It was a tight fit, the four of them in such a small space, but they managed, with Devon squeezing in politely to Levi's right and Archie nearly in Erwin's lap on the opposite side. Erwin watched as Levi gave Devon a subtle, considering look, and then apparently decided that he wasn't crawling with filth and disease like the rest of the people they'd encountered; he relaxed a little, and shot Erwin a brief and faintly apologetic glance. Erwin smiled at him, warm, as Archibald's friendly grip on his arm jostled him from side to side.

“Right, right,” Archie said, glancing over towards the tender, an older woman who was placidly sweeping up around the front of the oaken bar. “Beers, my good woman. And a bit of cheese as well, would you please?”

“Of course,” the tender said, bobbing her head; she looked more than a little amused, and Erwin understood that Archibald was a frequent and well tolerated presence in the Hogstail. He must have been recognized, to some degree, if not on the merit of his behavior alone, but it seemed that Sullenpool was more than happy to let one of humanity's princes mingle among its common folk, so long as he kept his airs to himself, and that was easy enough for Archibald. So long as Erwin had known him Archibald had been much more interested in the lives of the ordinary and the adventurous; when he'd reached his majority he'd set out to explore the Walls, rarely traveling with more entourage than his gaggle of lordling friends and the always-faithful Devon.

“So,” he said, nudging Archie lightly in the side with his elbow, “This is your current favorite haunt, is it?”

“Oh, one of them,” Archie said, reaching with deft fingers to his belt purse to withdraw a heavy coin as the tender brought them foaming mugs of amber colored beer; he held it up to her with the ease of long practice. “One of them, yeah. Melinda here is terribly generous with her time and her patience.”

“Terribly patient with your coin, highness,” Melinda replied with a faint smirk, and left them to fetch the cheese.

Erwin chuckled. “Have you spoken to your younger brother recently?”

“Theo? Of course.” Archie nodded, watching Erwin's face with the air of a man reunited with a favorite and much loved pet. “He's had quite a lot to say about you, as expected – I have to say, I'm awfully jealous – oh, well! You're a Mystic, aren't you?”

He'd turned suddenly to look at Levi, as though only just realizing he was there, and the words had left him before any of them had time to react. Erwin tensed a little, watching the chill creep into Levi's eyes, the subtle squaring of his shoulders, and the proud, slight lift of his chin.

“Yeah,” he said, meeting the prince's gaze with calm return. “I am.”

“Well!” Archibald repeated, and then his grin returned, his eyebrows lifting. “Shalom, isn't it? Spent a few months a year or so ago shoveling stalls for a nice family in Maria, Chabat was their name. They raised some very fine horses. Didn't want to sell to a stranger, so I hung around a while, got to know the village. Lovely people, really lovely.”

Levi considered him, and this barrage of information, his expression opaque and carefully neutral; Erwin could see that his tension remained, not at all eased by this tale of golden-hearted free-spiriting from one of the most wealthy and titled men in all the realm, nor by his apparent overture of understanding and ability to repeat a word of basic greeting. Levi was in no way ashamed of who he was, Erwin knew – the scars across his neck were testament enough to that – but he hated to be identified on the terms of others like this, as though he were some rare and out of place object to be discovered and plucked, held up to light for scrutiny, or to have vague familiarity with his ethnicity dangled in front of him in some kind of request for validation of good intentions. Whether that was Archibald's intention or not – Erwin was fairly certain it wasn't, as he knew Archibald well enough to know that he didn't have a cunning bone in his body – didn't much matter. Levi had lived too much fear and pain to trust an outsider's intentions towards his people based on a single showing of personal interest.

Erwin didn't blame him in the slightest. He waited, saying nothing, revealing nothing, and at last Levi nodded once, though his eyes remained hooded and distant. “Sholem aleichem,” he said, and added nothing further.

“Captain Levi is one of my primary second commanders,” Erwin said, seizing control of the conversation once more with diplomatic ease. “He is one of my finest soldiers, and he's a part of the reason I've come to meet with you today, Archie.”

Archibald's expression held nothing but genuine interest. He took a swallow of his beer. “Really? Do tell.”

Erwin drew a deep breath, and said, with Levi's wary eyes on him burning, “How would you like to finally see a Titan up close?”

Chapter Text

A week later, Erwin stood atop Wall Rose with his boots planted no more than half an inch from the edge, looking down into the smiling, mindless faces of the handful of Titans clustered against the thick stone.

There were three of them directly beneath him, small ones in the five to eight meter range, and another four milling around on the next hill over, grunting and coughing amongst themselves. The three below him had their arms lifted, scraping their fingers and palms against the Wall in slow, irregular motions, climbing gestures with no thought of grip or leverage. As Erwin watched, the largest one dragged its stubby fingertips down the Wall's surface, and one thick fingernail caught between two stones where the mortar had long since worn away; it tore free with a nasty sound of ripping meat. The Titan lowered its hand and held it close to its face without blinking, steam rising up from the wound with a hissing sound of long released pressure. It gazed at its hand for several long seconds, and then reached up again, slowly, to slaps its palm against the Wall, with enough force to make the stones beneath Erwin's feet shudder.

Erwin squared his shoulders.

There had been a village here, once, in the shadow of the Wall. Erwin hadn't asked for its name, nor had anyone offered it. The nearest buildings, small and sturdy hamlets with wood-shingled roofs, were close enough that, had Erwin jumped down from the Wall, he could easily have landed atop one. The windmill still stood, albeit shakily, creaking gently as it turned; one of its arms had been burned to a stub, and the two on either side of it were singed and blackened. The remnants of fire were common among the ruins in Maria territory – many people had been caught unawares by the advancing Titans, and what buildings still stood bore the evidence of dropped lanterns, spilled candles, furnaces left to burn until they exploded. At least, Erwin thought, his eyes narrowed against the sun's glare over his left shoulder, there were no immediately visible streaks of blood, or discarded human parts too small to be of further digestive concern. This close to Rose, there had at least been some scattered efforts to clean up.

“Erwin.”

He lifted his head, the still rising sun burning into his exposed flesh. Despite the bitter cold the light bounced off the surface of the deep snow where ever it lay, making vague spots appear before his eyes and setting an unpleasant itching feeling into his sockets.

Hanji didn't smile – her concentration now was far too deep for her to concern herself with ordinary pleasant facial expressions – but her eyes were soft.

“Here,” she said, holding out a strip of black-dyed cloth. “Tie it around your head and cover your eyes. Otherwise you'll burn your corneas. Your eyebits,” she added with faint impatience, seeing the frown that crossed his face as he tried to place the word's meaning. “Snow and sun are a bad combination.”

“What about you?” Erwin said, quietly.

She unhooked her spare flight goggles from her belt and showed him where she'd blackened the glass with soot and black tar, leaving a thin slit in the center of each lens for vision. “It's going to destroy my peripheral vision,” she said, twirling the goggles idly around one finger. “But it'll be better than going blind in the middle of the fight.”

“I should be joining you,” Erwin said, unable to keep the faint note of thwarted frustration from his voice. “I put you in charge of this capture because you're the closest thing we have to a live Titan expert –“

“I am the world's only live Titan expert,” Hanji said, placid and unmoved, “And you're Survey's Commander. If this fails, we'll need you. There's nobody else who can take your place. That's why you're going to stay up here with our guests, being charming and witty and dashing. Pretend you're supervising us if you're really that upset about it. But as you said, you've put me in charge of the capture, and my first order is for you to stay out of the line of fire.”

Erwin exhaled, having no immediate response to that. She wasn't wrong, he knew, but that didn't stifle his anxiety, or his shame. He had spent his short but violently marked tenure as Commander battling against the legacy of cowardly sloth and inept absence that Nilsen and his predecessors had gifted to the position. In campaigns he rode at the fore behind the scouting lines, and spent as much time off his horse and in the air as not; there were more than a few soldiers among their ranks who owed their lives directly to the swift strength of Erwin's blades. He had lost track, truly, of the number of Titans he had killed himself, of the number of giant tendons he had cut, the huge and grasping hands he'd severed. He understood perfectly well the symbolic and strategic value of his continued existence – not the least of which was the impact his loss would have on their greatest living weapon – but he had always felt that said value could be directly attributed to his willingness to hurt and bleed and struggle just as close to the quick as every other soldier. To stand back from a battle, especially one of his own express making, while resting on the laurels of his office's importance, stung him more badly than any wound ever could.

But Hanji knew all of this the same as Erwin did, and much as he wanted to he could find no feasible argument to fault her choice. Erwin had, after all, grounded Levi for not unrelated reasons.

“Well,” Erwin said at last, turning to look back out over the wall, “That's not entirely true, in any case.”

She looked over at him, uncertain and wary, clearly prepared for an argument, but he shook his head. The sun burned into his thick winter coat, and he felt sweat trickle down his spine and into the seat of his trousers, uncomfortably damp.

“You could lead just as well as me.”

Hanji's mouth came open a little. Her eyes were wide behind her glasses.

“Well,” she said, after a brief pause, “At least you've still got your sense of humor.”

“I'm not joking,” Erwin said. “You'd make a perfectly good Commander. If something should ever happen to me, it's my hope that you'll step up in my place.”

Her smile was nothing more than a brief spasm of muscle. “Are you anticipating trouble in the future, Commander Smith?”

“I anticipate as many possibilities as I can imagine,” Erwin said, looking at her with all the frank and stoic certainty that hung from his spirit like a stone around the neck. “And as I am a relatively worldly man, I find my already generous imagination expanding more and more with each passing day.”

“Commander,” Radic called, approaching along the western Wall edge. He had one of Hanji's slitted blindfolds tied around his eyes already; Erwin could see no trace of them beneath the black. “The Prince and his entourage are on the lift. Lieutenant – Captain Levi is with them, sir.”

Erwin turned towards him. “Very good, Radic, thank you. Was there any trouble?”

Radic smiled a little, the tension of the impending operation hovering visibly along the lines of his face. “Not really, sir,” he said. “Prince Archibald gave up his, uh, refreshments most agreeably. Even declared it a gift to Survey for the experience.”

Hanji snorted. “The man tried to bring wine up the Wall? Better not let the Wallists hear about that kind of sacrilege. We'd be short a prince in a fortnight.”

“Already too many of them anyway,” Radic said, then glanced at Erwin a little guiltily. “The, ah, the elder two, I mean. Of course.”

Erwin said nothing; he was more than aware of Archie and Reginald's well earned reputations as wastrel and Wallist puppet, respectively. “When they reach the top,” he said, instead, “Please bring them to me, then tell Zacharius and Nanaba we're almost ready for them.”

“Yes, sir,” Radic said, tapping his fist to his heart in a single, automatic motion. “Kaiser and Baner are testing the equipment as we speak.”

“Very good.” Erwin nodded in dismissal, and Radic turned smartly on his heel and went back in the direction he'd come.

“You made Levi babysit?” Hanji said, the first real hint of genuine amusement coloring her words. “What did he do to you?”

Despite himself, Erwin chuckled. “Nothing,” he said. “It's only that I trust his ability to firmly and succinctly explain to Archibald the seriousness of this operation, without resorting to any form of flattery or verbal excess.”

“Oh, true,” Hanji said, grinning widely. “Yeah. Levi's pretty good at succinct. Let's hope the lift gets here in one piece.”

The manually powered lift and pulley systems utilized along the Walls were largely for repair work, the moving of equipment, and other related activities, but they were largely the only transportation option for those untrained in Gear use. The team of soldiers Erwin had set to operating the winch had looked more than a little nauseated at the idea of their physical strength being the only thing standing between the second prince and certain death, but he wasn't overly concerned – Levi would be more than capable of preventing a fatal fall, he was sure.

His primary concern was the capture. It was, after all, the opening act of their performance, and certainly the most crucial component.

He needn't have worried, in any case – some fifteen minutes later, Prince Archibald was striding towards him, a gaggle of six other young noble sons trailing uncertainly in his wake. Aside from Devon, who was positioned serenely at Archibald's right, not a one of them looked particularly eager to be atop the Wall. Erwin spotted Konrad among them in a fine double-breasted coat lined at cuffs and collar with fur, looking just as green-gilled as the rest, and felt a little sorry for him.

“Hello, gentlemen,” he said, straightening up with a broad smile. “Good morning. I'm sorry to bring you here at such an early hour, but as I'm sure you know, most Titans are less active at dawn and dusk.”

“Why not go about the errand at dusk, then,” one of the other young nobles muttered, looking sideways and away from Erwin. He had rich brown hair tied back with a ribbon, the blue of which matched his eyes, and he was lean and pretty in a way that was uncomfortably familiar to Erwin, so much so that he felt his smile falter slightly.

“Oh hush, Cecil,” Konrad said, loud enough for all of them to hear. “Erwin's the damn Survey Commander. He knows what he's about.”

“So I've been told,” Cecil said, meeting Erwin's eyes, his lip curling a little. “But in my family, we prefer to judge by our own standards.”

“My family's the same as yours, Reiss,” one of the others said with apparent annoyance, a slim young man with a thin face and dark hair, and it was a mercy that his voice drew the attention of the others away from Erwin's face, preventing any of them from noticing the flicker of cold shock and dismay that moved over it. “But a Dawk holds himself to a higher standard than anyone else, and he certainly doesn't enter the arena with presuppositions already in mind. Give the man a chance.”

“Hear, hear, Rufus,” Archibald said, unconcerned by any potential clashing of old grudges at such a precarious altitude. He reached over to clap Erwin on the shoulder, hearty and rough. “This is a great man. You could learn a thing or two from him.”

“My cousin certainly did,” Cecil said, smiling broadly, malice dripping from every syllable. “I wonder how many of us will die for today's lesson?”

“So long as none of us try to murder anybody,” Konrad said, his voice rising, “I'm sure we'll be fine.”

Cecil whirled on him. “How dare you –“ he began, but then his expression shifted from fury to uncertainty, and he stepped back and to the side as Levi appeared, elbowing between the young nobles as though they were crowding vendors at a street market.

“Commander Smith,” he said, tapping his fist to his heart, uncharacteristically formal in the presence of so many important strangers. “We're prepared.” His expression was neutral to the untrained eye, but there was a tension around his brows that spoke of his already towering irritation.

Erwin resisted the urge to smile at him reassuringly, and instead merely nodded. “Thank you, Captain.”

“Oh, wait a moment,” Archibald said suddenly, turning around. “Wait, wait – Devon, where's the thing? Let's show it to him. I want to see his face.”

Erwin blinked, and glanced at Levi again, who looked back at him stonily, his mouth a thin and unhappy line. Devon produced a folded paper, which, as he unfolded it, turned out to be a large poster, nearly as wide as Levi was. He held it up for Erwin to see, smoothing the creases in the paper as he did so.

Erwin stared.

WITNESS! it read, in large, ornate block letters. 'HUMANITY'S STRONGEST' – THE MYSTIC LEVI, WHO WILL SINGLE-HANDEDLY SLAY A TITAN BEFORE YOUR VERY EYES! Beneath the lettering, there was an illustration which was clearly meant to be Levi, tall and thickly muscled, a grim smirk upon his square-jawed face. His hair had been rendered so thick it looked curly, stirred up around his face as though blown by an unseen wind. He stood with one booted foot atop a relatively crudely rendered Titan, its head turned about so that a long, comical tongue dangled from its gaping mouth, one malformed arm reaching up to the sky as if in supplication. There was a Titan blade, the trigger handle still attached, impaled through its chest.

ROYAL CROWN FOREST EAST, ROSE – ONCE ONLY! It read, beneath the drawing, and below that was Archibald's personal sigil, a boar with its snout raised, beneath which had been added in smaller lettering, HOSTED BY HRH PRINCE ARCHIBALD EVANDER ALWIN, DUKE OF SINA.

“These are all over Sina and inward Rose,” Archie was saying, patting the paper with one hand as he spoke. “We had them put up yesterday.”

“Oh,” Hanji said, a tightness in her voice that spoke either of carefully suppressed laughter or anger. “Looks just like him.”

“Humanity's strongest,” Erwin said, unable to keep himself from looking over at Levi. Levi had his arms folded in such a way that seemed less a resting position and much more an attempt to keep some part of himself from coming loose.

“The hair's a little extreme,” he said quietly, his jaw tight. Archibald had turned to present the poster to the others for what was likely the millionth time, clearly pleased with himself on all fronts. Levi's eyes met Erwin's, and Erwin read the tired, resigned hurt in them with the ease of years' practice, the hollow, placid acceptance that outsiders would not and could not ever begin to understand the myriad ways in which society's bias against Levi's people spilled over into the smallest actions.

Chaviv,” he said softly in return, a name he never used for Levi otherwise – he used no Mystic words Levi did not offer him deliberately – but one he knew to mean something close to one he did use, one that would not be understood by the rest of their company. Levi had called his faithful gelding after it, betraying the internal sweetness he hid with such care.

Beloved.

Levi blinked once, his eyebrows drawing together for a moment, and then he shifted, his weight and his hips swaying in Erwin's direction, an unexpecting little smile touching his lips and softening the harsh set of his jaw. Erwin suspected he was charmed as much by the misuse of the word than anything else.

“Shut up,” he muttered, without venom, and tossed his bangs out of his face with a little flourish of his head.

“Well,” Hanji said, bright and a little over-loud, “That was fun. If you gentlemen don't mind, though, I'm going to go ahead and get this hunting party under way. Don't forget to put your snow blinders on. I'm not going to be responsible for any of you toppling off the Wall.”

“Of course,” Rufus Dawk said, with all apparent signs of genuine politeness. “Good luck, Captain.” He straightened, and to Erwin's surprise he pressed his fist to his heart in a subordinate's respectful salute. Hanji, however, seemed to take the gesture in stride; she grinned, and leaned over to clap the youth heartily on the back.

“Don't need it,” she said, “But thanks.”

“Good luck,” Konrad echoed, his eyes sliding first towards Rufus and then towards Erwin as he attempted the salute himself, a sheepishly good natured smile on his face. “Even if you don't need it.”

“Good luck,” the other young men repeated in a faltering chorus, even Cecil Reiss, though he made no move to salute or towards any other gesture. When Erwin glanced at him, the young man's icy stare was still fixed on his own face, narrow and dangerous, and even as he turned round to embrace Hanji in farewell, he felt those eyes on him still.

“The advance team's ready to go,” Levi said, once Hanji was gone and the young nobles had wandered away a few yards to chatter amongst themselves. He'd stepped up onto the lower ridge of the other crenelation, balanced on his toes with his boot heels hanging off the edge, nothing between him and the tremendous drop before him but air. “Hanji had me pick them out. It's Wainwright, Ferrell – those guys.” He glanced back at Erwin over his shoulder, the scrape of leather across stone underlining his movements. “If this starts to go wrong, Erwin – I want authorization to go down and help.”

Erwin noted, as Levi most assuredly intended him to, the demand for permission. At another time, he knew, it would have been a flat announcement, no need for Erwin's approval needed.

He stepped up next to Levi, balancing himself with ease, and gazed down at the grass and ruined housing hundreds of feet below them. He felt the familiar vertigo threaten to come down upon him, the sick little coiling in his stomach as though he were being pulled in two directions at once, and he mastered it in the next breath without effort. Below them, the waiting Titans shifted, their vast hands fumbling and flattening against the Wall as though they meant to pull themselves along it, to be in just the right position for catching anyone foolish enough to slip and fall. The one Erwin had noticed before had healed entirely, so far as he could see; as he peered down at it it tilted its head back and stretched its mouth open, wider and wider, its cheeks splitting unnaturally up along their sides to its small and malformed ears. A long, moist tongue flopped out across its blunt teeth, and it made a heavy, wet grunting sound, so guttural it was almost a roar. The wind of it, the foul stench of it, wafted up against their faces.

Levi did not shudder, but Erwin felt his tension nonetheless, and knew it to be a combination of Levi's inherent terror and the anticipation of losing soldiers to a foolish gambit while a prince and his coddled friends watched and clapped with the pleasure of it.

As Tiberium emperors did, Erwin thought, recalling Hanji's remark. In some of the oldest history books – books of the sort that led to dank and unlit gaol cells and bright, terrible mornings at the gallows stand – scholars spoke of an ancient nation born free from the Walls, one whose name had long since been struck away from the chiseled face of the past. Tiberium, those who dared to speak of it had named it, where citizens studied all the truths that life had to offer, where free people spoke out against injustices against their fellows, and where the largest threats anyone concerned themselves with was what sort of meal to serve at the next holiday feast. Erwin supposed such things could be true, but he harbored his careful doubts about it all the same; like Hanji he, too, had read about crowds gathered to watch men die beneath the heavy paws of bears and massive wild cats whose names were no longer known, and he suspected that any civilization that sought death for its entertainment could not be nearly the pinnacle of righteousness the old books claimed.

“You have my authorization,” Erwin said, after a moment. Levi nodded his head, dark waves falling against his cheeks. Erwin was reminded again, with absent distraction, how in need of a haircut he was.

Behind them and below, within the safe cocoon of Wall Rose, he could hear the gate cranks beginning to turn, the familiar shuddering of massive machinery that shook the great stone to its very foundations. He heard the nervous sounds of laden horses and soldiers with doubts, voices cracking and whispering like the anxious baiting of wings. Archibald and his friends didn't seem to have noticed, save for young Rufus Dawk, who had turned away from them to watch down the Wall's inner side; his eyes were wide, his hands clenched at his sides.

The gate settled into its lowered berth with an echoing boom. A horse squealed in surprise. Beside Erwin, Levi crouched, the waiting hawk perched atop its snow-coated cliff, searching for the first sign of prey at which to stoop.

Mike's voice rang out, the words lost by the great distance, but the tone unmistakeably a command.

The advance charge sprang forward, their horses jarred from standstill to gallop in the space of mere seconds. Erwin recognized Eleanor Wainwright by her head of black, tight braids, at the head of the leftmost point; she was leading her strike team sharply to the east and veering closely to the gathered Titans in the process, shouting all the while. Adolphus Ferrell drove his team directly towards the Titans clustered at the wall beneath Erwin's feet, slowing, dancing his dappled mare in a showy circle as the giants turned their dull interest upon his squad and began to lumber back from the Wall in pursuit of suddenly more attainable prey.

Erwin watched, feeling heavy and high strung. The sunlight began to bite at his eyes, sharp enough to remind him of the mask Hanji had given him; he tied it on with shaking fingers and adjusted the black cloth over his eyes as best he could. It lessened the painful snow-glare tremendously, but his vision narrowed beneath it, leaving only a bright tunnel before him and no means through which to see what came from the sides or behind, and the action below took on a strangely dreamy feeling of distant tension, as though he were watching a stage-play from the very back of the theater. He had to turn his head completely to the side to see Levi at all, though the distance between them was minimal – he saw that Levi, too, had tied his mask into place, and was leaned so far forward over the crenelation that he'd put both his hands down on the cold stone to stay balanced. His mouth was open, steam pluming in thick white clouds, and Erwin could see the faint flash of his teeth. He looked feral, as though given the chance he would descend from the wall with empty hands and snarling lips, to rip and tear and bite until nothing remained of the Titans but smoking, foul-smelling blood and pus.

The advance teams, at least, seemed to have things in hand. The Titans were herding away from the Wall in groups, pursuing Farrell and Wainwright's squads, wobbling and bumping into each other with short, concentrating grunts. Erwin saw Wainwright circling back around one of the stragglers, her left hand extended to signal her team to continue to ride the others away. The slower Titan looked to be about seven or eight meters, one of its arms strangely shriveled, its head tucked permanently to one side. Its mouth was much too large, and it gaped open, tongue flapping wet and loose with each movement it made.

“That's the one,” Erwin said, remembering his audience, but he received no reply. None of Archie's entourage had come forward with him to see, not even the prince himself.

Levi snorted from somewhere nearby, invisible to Erwin's eye by the black of the mask. “Not too big,” he said, scoffing. “And that head tuck really opens up the strike point. It's a good choice on Wainwright's part.”

“It is,” Erwin agreed, feeling the young nobles staring at them both, sensing their disbelief that anyone could be so calm so close to certain death. “She has quite an eye for detail.” He turned around to smile at their guests, angling his head until their faces appeared in his tunnel vision. Prince Archibald was craning his neck to see over the edge of the Wall, his brows furrowed and his mouth slightly open; it was the expression of a man being asked to read lines in an unfamiliar language. Rufus Dawk was frowning, turned away to watch the preparations of Mike and Hanji's squads below them. There was a slight tic of muscle in his jaw, a tension that his cool demeanor couldn't fully hide. Cecil Reiss wore a look of unsettling boredom as he stared off across the horizon, his arms folded across his silk shirt.

Konrad, however, met his look, and offered Erwin an encouraging, if slightly tremulous, smile.

“You're good at this,” he said softly. “At – this. Leading.”

“Oh,” Erwin said, taken slightly aback by the naked honesty in his voice. “Thank you. I – I like to think so.”

Konrad stepped forward, the smile still on his face, and his hand came down warmly onto Erwin's shoulder, squeezing, companionable and affectionate. Brotherly.

“Father won't live forever,” he murmured, leaning close so that only Erwin could hear him. “I hope you know that in the future, you'll be able to count on at least one branch of this family for support.”

Erwin looked into his brother's eyes, as blue as his own, and saw the sweet hope there, the faith that had grown unsown by his own hand, as beautiful as a wild flower blooming in the forest.

“I do know,” he said, and as Hanji's squad rocketed out of the gate and towards the ambling, ungainly Titan, guns and spears raised and heavy netting streaming out behind them between half a dozen pairs of hands, as the transport wagon rumbled loud across the fade of the cobblestones into wild grass, Erwin reached up and pressed his hand to the back of Konrad's head, ruffling his fingers gently through his hair.

“Thank you.”

Chapter Text

“We ought to go hawking, sometime,” Rufus Dawk said. His voice was one of those with a natural projection, a low frequency enabling him to speak at normal volumes and still be heard. He was leaning elbows first against the bright ashwood bar that rounded about a third of the tavern's floor space. Trost was a bright and bustling district, its streets clean and evenly cobbled, shops and family homes mingling together in sturdy multi-storied rows. Even the bar was clean, despite the dozens of soldiers and citizens crowded into it, the volume of their mingling shouts and conversations nearly ear-splitting. There were nobles here and there as well, both of Prince Archibald's entourage and others Erwin recognized from years ago, holding slopping mugs of beer and ale and laughing alongside the commoners as though all present were old and beloved friends. The Survey soldiers mingled just as comfortably, and it was evident that more than a few of them were well and deeply into their cups.

Erwin smiled at him, lifting his glass. The beer fizzed nicely on the back of his tongue, and he felt the damp warm prickle of spirit sweats beginning at the nape of his neck, the herald of intoxication to come. He welcomed it, tonight.

“We ought to,” he agreed, and swallowed a heady mouthful. “Do you often go in groups? With hounds, I suppose?”

“No,” Rufus said. “I quite prefer the solitude.” He paused, his shoulders lifting, tense, and then added, “Though when I was younger, I went often with my brother.”

“Commander Dawk.”

Rufus laughed in a short, sharp bark. “Yes,” he said. “Commander Dawk. If you think I'm a dour presence, you haven't truly spent much time in his company.”

“I haven't,” Erwin said, “Not as of yet. We've exchanged a number of letters, however, coordination efforts and so on.”

Rufus was nodding as he lifted his ale mug and took a long drink. Someone shouted from across the room, an incoherent string of syllables, and there was a wooden-sounding crash followed by cheers. Erwin didn't look round, and neither did Rufus; Erwin sensed the same heavy, uncomfortably fluttery sensation in the young man as he himself felt now. The electric excitement that seemed to have taken hold of everyone around them had touched neither of them. Erwin knew why.

The captured Titan had been nailed down only a few hours ago, out in the great field, with massive metal spikes driven through its hands and feet and the meat of its limbs to join it to the rocky outcrop at the far end. There had been no deaths, nor even catastrophic injuries.

It had been a near thing, as Hanji and Nanaba corralled the lopsided Titan towards the heavy cannon wagon; when Mike swooped in to slice through the Titan's tendons to bring it down, the monster's shriveled arm had proven quicker than they'd expected it to be, and Mike had only narrowly escaped a swift and awful beheading as it swung down into his flight arc. The Titan's posture, however, had left it exposed and distracted, and Wainwright, snarling a battle cry so loud they heard it atop the Wall, had leapt in to take the shot herself.

When the Titan toppled over and onto the loading platform, the cheer that erupted along the Wall had drowned out the sound of dozens of Gear hooks firing to tie the thing into place.

In his five and then some years in Survey Corp, Erwin had not once taken part in a foray without causalities. Once or twice, all heads had returned to the Walls accounted for, but many of those heads were no longer attached to limbs, and the soldier was lost all the same – the nature of Survey's work required all arms and legs in good working condition. Death and loss had become the norm, and Erwin and his soldiers lived their daily lives with the stench of blood and the faded ghosts of their fallen comrades. The absence of tragedy left an uneasy hole, a sense of dark business unfinished, yet waiting to take the unwary by surprise at first chance. Rufus Dawk, the son of a Military Policeman and the brother of another, was clearly familiar with the sense of unfairly averted tragedy.

“He's a man you can trust, though,” said Rufus. He was watching the noisy throng, his eyes distant and a little watery from the smoke crowding the room. “My brother, I mean. Most of Sina considers him just as upjumped as you are – all due respect, of course – and it doesn't sit well with them that he doesn't take kindly to bribery or social pressure. Nile doesn't like to play games.” He glanced over at Erwin. “Though I'll tell you now, he won't play yours, either.”

“Is it said that I play games, then?” Erwin said, mildly. “That's a shame.”

“A shame,” Rufus said, “And a truth.” His lips curled. “Sadly, Nile doesn't have my sense of humor, either. But he is steadfast, and very stubborn when he believes he's on the right path. Your only difficulty will be convincing him that you are.”

“Is there a particular reason,” Erwin said, watching the young man's face as he spoke, “That you feel I need to win your brother over at this time? It rather sounds as though you believe there is.”

Rufus paused, and the somewhat shifty look he gave Erwin in response spoke volumes, but Erwin waited for him to speak anyway.

“Yes,” he said at last, though there was a hesitance in his words that had not been present before. “There are sides behind these Walls. Some more prudent to ally with than others. My brother is one of those.”

“I see.” Erwin looked away, and sipped his beer. Some enterprising local had brought a fiddle along, and there was music, stamping feet keeping time as people shoved tables and chairs aside and paired off to dance. He saw Kaiser laughing, her long brown hair loose and swinging about her shoulders as she whirled in a circle, pulled back by the wrist by a short Garrison soldier with glasses, pale blonde hair, and a severe expression. He saw Hanji and Ral, clustered together at the other bend of the bar, their eyes on each other and secretive smiles on their faces. Mike sat at one of the booths, Nanaba perched slim and upright on the table itself, one hand atop his head. His soldiers, for once relaxed, calm, even happy, the spirit of relief and celebration capturing them all.

He did not, he realized suddenly, see Levi.

That fact did not alarm him immediately. It wasn't uncommon for Levi to appear and disappear at social gatherings by turns, as mysterious and suspicious as a house cat; he would emerge, usually, at times of lull, when the crowds that of late increasingly surrounded Erwin thinned, to brush against his shoulder as though marking his scent there, or to huddle in consternation in his shadow. Levi did not enjoy large gatherings, nor the social obligations that came with them.

It had, however, been some hours since Erwin had last seen him, and he frowned slightly. It was still no immediate cause for alarm, not really, but something about Levi's conspicuous absence seemed different, this time. Erwin had stayed alive this long by listening to his gut instincts alongside his more logical brain, and he had learned a healthy respect for those sudden, animal moments of realization that some undefined thing was not, in fact, right.

“Thank you,” he said to Rufus, setting his drink down on the bar. Rufus looked up at him, faint confusion on his face at the tone of departure in Erwin's voice. “I do appreciate the advice.”

“Well,” said Rufus, eyeing him, “It's honest advice. Do you get much of that, these days?”

“Captain Levi provides me with more than enough,” Erwin said. “Speaking of which, I should go and ensure Prince Archie's not trapped him in a corner somewhere to try out his new Mystic vocabulary.”

Rufus nodded, though there was uncertainty in his eyes still, as Erwin took his leave. Erwin did his best to ignore it.

Instead, he pressed his way through the people crowded on the fringe of the impromptu dance floor. The music and mirth that surrounded him had a strange, contagious effect, and he found himself smiling an uncomfortable little rictus smile as he pushed past people, an almost mad expression of over-enthusiasm. Quite a few revelers met his look and smiled in return, though Kaiser noticed him as he moved past her, and the look of confused wariness on her face told him all he needed to know. He schooled the bizarre grin from his features as he emerged on the other side.

Hanji and Ral were still propped against the bar, their hips touching lightly in a subtle but firm show of mutual possession. They looked up in unison as Erwin came towards them, both a little cat-eyed and secretive, but Ral straightened obediently into a somewhat more respectful posture. Erwin waved his hand in dismissal, shaking his head.

“Don't mean to disturb you,” he said, leaning close to them so that he could speak at a relatively normal volume, “But I can't seem to find Levi.”

“That figures,” Hanji said, crossing her arms. Her mug dangled by its handle from one hand. “That prince of yours was grilling him pretty hard, round about until his fourth drink.”

Erwin blinked in disbelief. “Whose? Archibald's?”

“Levi's.” Hanji began to nod as Erwin's eyebrows lifted higher. “Yeah. I was pretty surprised, too. But I saw him.” She paused, as though debating some addition, and then just grinned. “Maybe he's waiting for you somewhere.”

“I doubt that very much,” Erwin said, ignoring the innuendo. “Did he seem drunk? Tipsy at all?”

“He didn't.” Ral worried her lower lip between her teeth for a moment. “He didn't at all, sir. I've – well, I've never seen him drunk before, to be honest, but I've also never seen him drink much at all. So maybe –“

“I have.” Erwin frowned, his gaze straying back up again, roving the crowd. He saw only soldiers, citizens, those young nobles in the throes of the excitement of lowering themselves to mingle with the ordinary. “He shows it.”

“He dumped his last one out,” Hanji said suddenly.

Erwin turned back towards her like a snake striking. “Did he.”

“Yeah.” Hanji met his eyes, cool and considering. “But not in a way anybody'd see. I was standing at the wrong angle for it to work properly on me.”

“For what to work?”

“Sleight of hand.” Hanji set her mug down. “He was over by the wall there, where the plumbing leaks a bit. The boards are damp. He was talking to one of the prince's people – that Reiss kid, I think.”

Erwin put aside the thrill of shock that went through him at the name. “Yes? And?”

“And while he was talking, he switched his pint to his other hand, did this little flick of his wrist, and then –“ She attempted to imitate the gesture, to little success. “The whole thing was empty. Less than a second. Honestly, Erwin, I'm betting the same thing happened to all his other drinks.”

“He was pretending to drink?” Ral said. “Why?”

Hanji shrugged. “He wanted to be polite is what I would say if it were absolutely anyone else but Levi.”

“He wanted someone to assume he was drunk,” Erwin said, quietly. “Someone here.” He could think of no other reason. Levi cared not a whit for social propriety; if he wished to abstain, he simply did it, without comment. He wasn't given to theatrics.

Several possibilities rose to his mind, but only one seemed truly plausible: there was someone at the party whom Levi considered a dangerous threat.

Hanji seemed to be coming to the same conclusion. “Should we be keeping our eyes open?” she said, her eyes flicking over Erwin's shoulder to the crowd beyond. “In case somebody out there steps out of line?”

“Please.” Erwin straightened up. Searching for Levi directly would be useless now, he knew – when Levi wanted to disappear, he stayed gone – but he thought if he found a less crowded place to wait, Levi would come to him. “I'll see if there's anything further I can find out.”

“Be safe,” Ral said, her hand brushing his arm lightly. Hanji nodded, grinning her absent, ferocious grin and fingering the straps of her harness, beneath which, Erwin knew, she carried a formidable hunting knife.

He left them, moving slowly and a little aimlessly, his mind working overtime. Outside, he thought, glancing to his left as a voice called out his name in appreciative greeting. Outside it'll be less crowded. Quieter. Safer.

“Commander!” the voice called again, its owner pushing through the throng of people ringing the bartender in hopes of refills. “A moment, please?”

Erwin turned his back on the tavern door, schooling himself into patience as best he could. It wouldn't do to alarm anyone, if there truly was a danger lurking here among the revel.

“Yes?” he called back, smiling as the man emerged. He was tall and on the sallow side of thin, cheekbones concave either with age or long passed sickness. There was a rather unfashionable black beard sprouting from his chin and down along his neck and jawline, with no mustache to match it, and his eyes were narrow and dark, mouth too wide to match the rest of his face. He was smiling, though, friendly, and his hand was extended towards Erwin open-palmed as he approached.

“Commander Smith,” the man said, clasping Erwin's hand in his own and gripping his elbow as they shook. There was surprising strength in the thin, boney fingers. “I'm sorry to bother you. I just wanted to congratulate you on a marvelous success.”

“Thank you very much,” Erwin said, hiding his bemusement. The man wore a short black dress jacket with the MP unicorn along the shoulder, but it was no uniform he recognized. “You'll forgive me if I'm a bit out of sorts – I have a great deal to organize, tonight and tomorrow.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” said the man, nodding, genial. “I won't take up any more of your time. I'm Kane Ackerman – special officer for the Military Police.” He grinned. “They really don't know what they lost when they let you go, Erwin Smith.”

“I wouldn't know, truly,” Erwin said, discomforted by the broad friendliness of Ackerman's smile and his praise. “We're all merely trying to do our best for humanity's sake, I think.”

“Oh, that's true. That's very true.” Ackerman took hold of his arm again, and Erwin again felt the strange power in the man's hands through his shake. “You of all people, I believe. You and your Captain – Levi, wasn't it? Yes. You and Captain Levi. The best to you both. Drink well, Commander.”

He let go, clapped Erwin on the shoulder, and stepped back into the crowd, touching shoulders and calling greetings as he went. Erwin stared after him for a moment, then pushed the encounter to the back of his mind, and made his way to the tavern's door.

It was snowing outside, thick, cluttered flakes already beginning to pile up, and it took a slight amount of pushing to open the door against the drift that had begun against it in the interim. Erwin stepped out into the frigid cold, and was glad he'd plucked his heavy winter uniform coat from the rack before he'd gone out. His ermine fur gloves, the product of a successful hunt with Lady a few winters prior, were barely enough to keep the cold from his fingers, and he rubbed them together, lifting one hand and then the other to breathe hot steam beneath the fur in the hopes of hurrying the warming process.

He couldn't remember a winter this cold, not in all his thirty-four years. People were predicting that it had only just begun, that terrible blizzards and record-making freezes lay ahead, and it was almost difficult to believe, given how bad it had already become. So far as Erwin knew – and he knew a great deal, as he communicated regularly with local farmers and animal husbandries – humanity stood to lose a frightening percentage of its food crops for the year or so to come, thanks to the freeze, and the greenhouses of Sina would not be enough to make up the difference. It wouldn't have much mattered if they were, he thought, as it wasn't likely that Sina harbored any ideas of sharing its bounty with the people outside their Wall.

They had lost a terrible number in the fall of Maria, Erwin thought, and here they stood, poised to lose it all over again. Only this time, instead of the gruesome but relatively quick work a Titan could make of a human being, they faced the slow, lingering malaise of starvation, a killer of hope and courage as surely as it was of people. He knew what would happen once the severity of the food situation became apparent to the general population, too: enlistments would rocket skyward, young cadets assured that membership in the military meant a guarantee of food and a safe bad to sleep in. It wouldn't take long for them to discover that promise for the lie it was, for them to see the empty larders and cellars of the Garrison and Survey, and then, well...

Then the entire system will fall apart. And what will we do then? What will stop us all from devouring each other like Titans ourselves?

Erwin looked up into the snow-dark sky. Flakes began to cluster along his lashes, to tickle down the bridge of his nose. From somewhere down the lane he heard the half-hearted barking of dogs, and in the distance there was a shrill horse whinny. There were no people on the street, not at this hour or in this weather, and all the carriage and cart tracks in the previous snow's fall had long since been covered over by the new. In the cold and whispering dark, Erwin felt alone, isolated, as though he were the last man left alive. The last man in all the world.

He didn't know how long he stood there, staring blankly into the night, but when Levi's hand found his arm it did not startle him