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Armin dies on top of Wall Maria, what’s left of him cradled in Eren’s arms while the rest of the Survey Corps look on, grief-stricken, unable to do much other than stare. Eren cries, anger giving way to pain as Armin takes his last breath; Mikasa cries, too, but not nearly as loud, quiet sobs shaking her frame. Jean doesn't say anything, denial having seeped too deep into his bones, and Connie looks at the three of them, stunned into silence as he fawns over Sasha, too scared of her falling victim to the same fate. As he fawns over Sasha, who remains unconscious, muttering nonsense in her sleep. They’re going to have to tell her about Armin when she wakes; or when they make it back inside the inner walls; or, if the pain subsides, if the concussion eases on the way back home, maybe she'll put the puzzle pieces together herself and understand.

It doesn't matter—or it does, but not to Levi, not right now, not when he's too busy picking up all the pieces of Erwin, not when he’s just watched Erwin eat Bertholdt, not when he's just watched Erwin transform into one of the very monsters he's been trained to kill, one of the very monsters he'd been killing for the past decade. Dark red marks drip down Erwin’s cheeks, embedding themselves deep in his skin, and steam rolls off his body in waves. Levi ignores it, ignores the heat, ignores the way every inch of bare skin burns as he comes into contact with Erwin, as he holds him in his arms. The wound on his stomach has closed, his intestines no longer one wrong move away from falling out. His arm has regrown, too, from scalding, unbruised skin, looking as though it’d never been bitten off.

Levi holds him close, as close as he can. The heat is nearly unbearable and Hange’s going to no doubt chide him for the burns he can almost feel melting his skin—but Erwin’s alive. He’s alive, no longer holding on for dear life, no longer on the brink of death.

And so, the 13th Commander of the Survey Corps survives in the middle of Shiganshina, body cradled in Levi's arms. Levi holds him close and, as he prepares to heave him up onto the wall, presses his hand flush against Erwin's chest. His heart beats steady, strong, so unlike the weak pulse he'd had before the transformation, and Levi feels relief bubbling up his throat. He leans his head against the back of Erwin's, breathing in his hair. He's fine, he thinks, halfway there to delirious.

They made it.

 

.

 

“We can’t wait that long,” Jean cuts in. Levi and Hange turn to him in sync and he blanches, almost as though he hadn’t even realized he spoke. Still, he clears his throat, straightens in his seat, “we don’t know when Commander Smith will wake up and,” his voice quivers as he trails off, and Levi remembers he’s not even sixteen. Remembers more than half of the remaining Survey Corps isn’t even sixteen.

Still he presses, low on patience, “and…?”

Jean swallows, growing impossibly paler. “The quadruped Titan was unharmed,” he finishes. “I doubt the—I doubt Reiner will be able to heal and shift again before nightfall, but…”

“Annie Leondhardt healed quickly,” Hange fills in the blank. Their lips shift into a deep frown, brows pulling together as they fall silent. Levi thinks back to the mission to capture the Female Titan—thinks to the tragedy that came after it failed. They hadn’t accounted for just how fast Annie Leondhardt could heal, for just how effectively she could use every power that came with being a Titan.

If they make that same mistake again, the Survey Corps might not survive.

“With all due respect,” Jean says, “we can’t—the longer we stay here, the more casualties we risk.” Levi stares at him, and his eyes swerve towards the ground as he tacks on a hurried, “Section Commander, Captain.”

“He’s right,” Hange says, after letting Levi wave Jean away. The two of them pace the wall, stepping further away from the rest of the Survey Corps to Levi’s distaste; he’s not too keen on letting Erwin out of sight. “The Cart Titan—it was unharmed. It almost mauled me, when it was rescuing the Armored Titan. If it comes back…”

“It didn’t fight me,” Levi points out, not too eager to lose this. They’re deciding whether to wait for Erwin to wake before going to the basement; Moblit is a definite no-go, in a state similar to Sasha, but Erwin—he’s sacrificed so many things for this. If anyone should be there once the truth of the walls is revealed, it should be him, Levi thinks. “It might not be trained for combat.”

“It didn’t fight you because you’re humanity’s strongest soldier,” Hange teases, voice slipping into amused despite the situation at hand, despite the way their shoulders drag down with the deaths of tens of their soldiers. “It knew it didn’t stand a chance to begin with.”

“So there’s our solution,” Levi says. His fingers hitch on his ODM gear, on the blades he’d dulled earlier; he hadn’t gotten a chance to switch them out. They don’t have enough resources with them for him to even get a full set, but still: “we stay. If it comes back, I’ll kill it and we’ll have one less piece of shit Titan to worry about.”

“Levi,” Hange sounds chastising, almost veering off the edge into condescending. Levi hikes his nose in the air, turns the other way. “There’s no point in pushing you to your limit.” They pause, dwelling as they look over Shiganshina, over the wall, into the wilderness beyond it. “They could have reinforcements,” they say. “More intelligent Titans we don’t know about.”

Like there had been today, and Levi grits his teeth, thinking of the edge they’ve lost because of the new quadruped Titan. Of the people they’ve lost; if the other side hadn’t had time to prepare, maybe things could’ve gone different. Maybe the waste laid across the Survey Corps would’ve been lesser. Maybe the choice between Armin and Erwin would’ve never had to be made.

They’ll never know.

“I can take care of them,” but even he has his limits. He can feel the ache in his muscles, digging deep under his sore, burned skin. He’d exhausted almost all his energy taking care of the Titans around the Beast Titan and then chasing after him over the wall; it’s not easy to bring him down, but it’s not like he can be in multiple places at once. All it takes is a half-assed plan for the Cart Titan to come back and sweep Eren out from under their noses, especially now, considering they’re running low on equipment.

Especially now, when Eren’s not hurt, not physically, but his emotions are still running unchecked; a transformation may not work and he’s, undeniably, one of their best weapons against other Titans. There’s Mikasa, yes, but she’s distraught, as is Connie, the only other unharmed Survey Corps member. Jean could fight—but one-armed, without any practice. And Sasha’s still unconscious, muttering through her pain, as is Moblit. They have the Colossal Titan on their side, now, but there’s no telling when Erwin will wake up after his first transformation. If something were to happen now, they’d stand no chance.

Levi turns his head, looks over the wall, eyes catching on the dismembered bodies on the ground. He lets his gaze flit from them to the wrecks left of the houses in front of the wall. At this point, they’re just wasting time; there’s no point in staying here any longer than they have to.

He sighs, chest heavy. “Fine,” he tells Hange, unable to let the fatigue stop from slipping out his mouth. “Take Mikasa and Eren, go down to the basement. I’ll stay and watch the others.”

“You’re not coming?”

“We can’t exactly leave everyone up here unarmed, can we,” Levi says dryly. Both of them know that that’s not really why he wants to stay behind but, graciously, Hange doesn’t comment, instead pressing their lips into a thin line. “Take Jean with you; have him stand watch outside the basement. I’ll fire up a flare if there’s any sign of them returning.”

“Fire up one if they wake, too.”

 

.

 

Erwin doesn’t wake when Hange’s gone; no other intelligent Titans show up; Levi doesn’t fire any flares.

Instead, he spends the entire time they’re gone keeping watch by Erwin’s side, wanting to be there when he wakes, unable to do much else. It’s all too reminiscent of when Erwin returned from the expedition on which he lost his arm; he’d been bedridden, then, for more than a week, and Levi sat dutifully by his bed, feeling stress eat away at his skin.

At least now, Erwin looks peaceful, face clear, unmarred by the perpetual worry and guilt that weight it down, by the pain that flashes across it in waves whenever they’re alone in his office. His right arm rests at his side and Levi tracks the movement of his chest as it rises and falls with each breath Erwin takes, too worried about it stopping even now; what if something had gone wrong, what if he’s not going to be able to inherit the Titan form properly, what if—

“Captain,” Floch interjects, and both Levi and Connie look up at him in question. “Section Commander Hange fired a flare,” he explains, pointing off in the distance, and Levi follows the forced line of sight; sees yellow smoke propelling itself high in the sky. “They’re coming back.”

“Do you think they found something?” Connie asks, voice small. His hand is pressed against Sasha’s temple, his fingers swept in her hair. “If they’re coming back… it hasn’t been that long, has it? Do you think they’ve found something about the outside?”

Levi stares at the pale yellow smoke, at the caution in the wind, before his eyes dip towards Erwin in habit. “They’ll tell us when they get here.”

 

.

 

Everything they’ve been fed from the king is false, Grisha Yeager claims in his journals. The truth is this: there’s more people outside the walls, entire civilizations. There’s more technology outside the walls, more of everything outside the walls. There’s beauty outside the walls; Grisha Yeager describes the sea in detailed prose. There’s an entire world outside the walls, one they finally, finally have a chance of grasping.

The truth is this: there’s war outside the walls and they’re the main target. The truth is this: the whole world wants them dead, wants them persecuted because they’re children of Ymir, because there’s a possibility they can wield the power of Titans. The truth is this: the world outside is much worse than everything they’ve faced up till now, and if the Titans haven’t killed them, this will.

Hange tells Levi all this, showing him the three journals they’ve taken from Yeager’s study one by one, letting him skim through them. Showing him the strange object they’ve found in the books—“a photograph,” Levi says, testing the word out on his tongue.

“Those outside the walls—Marleyians, they’re the ones who made the Titans,” Hange tells him. “Out of people like us,” they add and Levi wants to vomit, wraps a preemptive arm around his stomach. “Do you think we could’ve…”

“Could’ve what?” he asks, daring Hange to say it was all for nothing. Daring Hange to say there was another way, one that wouldn’t have left their comrades’ bloody bodies strewn across the ground after every expedition. “There’s no cure,” he adds, if only to make himself feel better, despite knowing that’s false. 

The cure is a shifter; the cure was Bertholdt, the cure is Eren, the cure is Erwin. Somehow, Levi feels worse, feels unease crawling all over his skin as his stomach lurches dangerously.

“Maybe we could’ve found one,” Hange says. They’re far from their usual self—everyone is. Finding out the entire truth doesn’t feel better, doesn’t feel like an award, doesn’t feel like an accomplished goal. If anything, it only feels worse, pressing down on Levi’s shoulders, pushing his body down. “Maybe there was an answer other than this.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Levi says. It can’t, because if it does, it means none of them had to go through any of this. It can’t, because it’d make all of them murderers without reason. It can’t, because it’d mean all of their friends that died did so meaninglessly. It can’t, because Levi wouldn’t be able to take it if it did.

“We can move forward peacefully,” Hange insists, as if the other side hadn’t massacred nearly their entire organization. As if it hadn’t almost killed their commander. As if it hadn’t almost killed Erwin, who’s at once more and less than that.

Levi doesn’t get a chance to retort anything, to tell them that dwelling on it isn’t a good idea, because Erwin wakes. Levi’s not at his side, but he turns immediately at the sound of his voice, the sound of his cough, rough against his throat, the sound of him being alive. Hange does, too, instinct leading their muscles.

Erwin’s sitting up, staring at the mess of bodies that remains on the other side of the wall. At all the newest recruits who died in order for him to live; all the Survey Corps members that he led to their deaths. Levi feels his blood freeze, feels his veins threaten to shatter.

“What happened…?” he asks, voice harsh against the air. None of the Corps respond; Eren pointedly turns his head to the other side, tears already pushing against his waterline. Mikasa remains silent, but she hangs her head; as does Connie; as does Jean. Levi barely notices. “I can only remember the…” he furrows his brows, coming up at a stop. “I don’t remember arriving here,” he says, finally.

“It worked,” Hange says, once they’ve fallen out of their stupor. Levi’s mouth, throat, chest are still locked; as is the rest of his body. He finds himself unable to move, unable to speak as Erwin turns to look at them, eyes briefly stopping on Levi before they trickle up to Hange. “It worked,” they repeat, before forgoing all professionalism and surging forward, hands coming down on Erwin’s shoulders. Because it’s Hange, they first slide their fingers down both of Erwin’s arms, grabbing his hands. They stare down at them—as does Erwin, for the first time realizing he’s no longer missing his right arm—before looking up to stare at his face.

“It worked,” they repeat one more time, letting go of Erwin’s hand to wrap their arms tightly around him.

Erwin doesn’t return the gesture, letting his arms hang limply at his sides. He meets Levi’s eyes over Hange’s shoulders; his eyes is dull, even though they’re bathed in the deep sunlight. He doesn’t say anything, turning his head back towards the horizon, and Levi doesn’t either, quietly following his line of sight.

 

 

Hange’s the one who clues Erwin in. It should be Levi, because he was there, because he saw everything that happened as it went down, but he can’t bring himself to do it. Worry brews deep in his stomach as he eyes Erwin, who seems—who seems as though he died anyway, somewhere down on the battlefield.

Erwin nods when Hange finishes, pensive, quiet, shoulders heavy. “Did no one else survive?”

“Floch did,” Hange tells him. “He brought you over the wall to Levi.”

He turns his head, then, catches Levi’s eyes from where he’s standing nearby. He presses his lips into a thin line; “was no one else alive?” he asks, still looking at Levi. “Was no one else…”

“There was Armin,” Hange says. Their voice doesn’t falter but Erwin looks uncomfortable anyway, swallows as he turns to face her, eyes slipping off Levi without a second thought. Levi exhales, the weight gone off his chest. “He was on the verge,” they add, “like you. Levi made the choice to bring you back and let him rest.”

“Right,” Erwin says. He doesn’t look at Levi again, doesn’t look at Mikasa and Eren, who’ve curled in on each other. Doesn’t comment on Hange’s choice of words, either. Then—the light catches on a glint in his eyes, pulling all the air right out of Levi’s lungs, and Erwin asks, almost breathless, “and the basement? Have you gone there already?”

“Yes,” Hange says, tone just shy of a grin; it’s the most excited they’ve looked since everything went down. “You’ll want to see this.” 

And, as they tell Erwin what they’ve managed to gather, all the information they’ve managed to find, his eyes gradually pale, eventually almost falling into gray. Levi pretends not to notice.

 

.

 

The journey back home is bad. It’s worse than that after their failed operation to capture the Female Titan, worse than the journey to Shiganshina, when the air was buzzing with stress and the foreboding of grief that dragged behind their horses. Now, the Survey Corps are cloaked in a rag reeking of death as they pass the haphazardly cleaned up bodies from the charge, as they head further back towards the inner walls. The only noise around them is the monotonous trot of their horses paired with Sasha’s pained wails, her injuries still not letting up enough to allow her to remain conscious for more than a few moments at a time. Morbidly enough, her and Moblit’s wrecked bodies rest along that of Armin’s, covered by Eren’s cape.

It’s not even Armin’s body, really; the steam from the Colossal Titan burned him so much that he’s unrecognizable, his corpse nothing more than the husk that remained of him. It made little sense to bring him back when they’re this low on resources, when it means cramming his body next to Sasha and Moblit. Even so, Erwin allowed it, gave Eren a pitiful look before he waved a hand and accepted his begs.

Levi didn’t comment when it happens, held his mouth shut, despite knowing that bringing back only one body out of the hundred or so soldiers that died would only end in a harsher criticism of the Survey Corps. And the criticism is already going to be rough; it always is, the journey into the walls always something Levi dreads. The criticism is already going to be rough—even though the expedition was successful, in theory. They’ve accomplished their task of sealing both the inner and outer wall, meaning once all the Titans inside are exterminated, people can be relocated there. They’ve managed to get one more Titan on their side, too—Erwin—but the thought leaves a sour taste in Levi’s mouth.

It’s a successful expedition, forgoing the tens of lives they’ve lost, but the Survey Corps are quiet, somber, as is Erwin. He’s not a man of many words usually, but the air around him seems different, now, on their way back; though he holds his head up high, shoulders straight, he feels almost undignified. Levi eyes his back, watches him lead the ten remaining members of the expedition back home, before he can’t stand the sight and averts his eyes. 

 

.

 

Aside from short commands, Erwin doesn’t speak to him once all the way back inside the walls. He doesn’t speak to him as he slinks away to his office, forgoing the coming back meal, waving Hange away when they ask him what should be done about Eren and Mikasa. There’s meetings to arrange for the following week, but Levi knows that’s not what Erwin busies himself with; no, he can practically imagine him seated at his desk, writing letters back to the families of all their casualties.

There’s no letter to send for Armin, he thinks as he stands watch over the tea he’s brewing, as the tea seeps into the warm water and stains it amber. His family is dead, parents murdered by the Military Police, grandfather by the government. All he had were Eren and Mikasa and Erwin won’t give them an envelope full of empty words.

Levi wonders if he’d want one, if he was in Eren and Mikasa’s place, if it was Erwin who died, if it was he who failed. He hadn’t received one when Isabel and Farlan were slaughtered. He pushes the thought out of his head as he rounds on the corner of the hallway leading up to Erwin’s office, too afraid of what would happen if he let his mind drift. He lets himself inside without knocking by force of habit, and Erwin doesn’t even notice; he’s sitting at his desk, yes, but instead of filling out the blank paper in front of him with almost meaningless words, he’s staring down at it, every muscle still. The candle lit on his desk flickers carefully in the otherwise dark room, splattering light on his face that looks too reminiscent of the Titan marks his transformation left behind.

“Erwin,” Levi says, suddenly uncomfortable. He has to focus on keeping his hands steady as he makes his way to Erwin’s desk. “I’ve brought you tea,” he adds and that finally makes Erwin look up; he watches the tea as Levi places it down on his desk and says nothing.

He’s tired, Levi rationalizes, taking his own tea to the chair he claimed as his, setting it down on the table by it. After expeditions, he sits there, drinks his tea, reads, sometimes, while Erwin works on the letters, on the report, on whatever else he’s to do. It’s tradition, it’s how they work. It’s draining to be alone after an expedition, Erwin had told him once; the journey home, the pile of corpses, the pile of letters to their families that never seems to end. Everything about an unsuccessful expedition is draining and the silence only presses on each corner of Erwin’s mind, making guilt rear its head and threaten to swallow him whole.

“It’s draining to be alone after an expedition,” Erwin had told him once, shortly after becoming commander. He looked up, caught Levi’s eyes over the blank paper. “If you have nothing else to do…”

The rest of his sentence had been obvious, then. Stay rung out through the air and it’s not like Levi could ever refuse.

And yet, now, Erwin says, “you should join the others,” his eyes already focused on the empty letter, “or go rest for the night. There are no more duties left for you to fulfill.”

“Precisely why I’m here,” Levi says. He doesn’t sit, instead turning to half face Erwin. “I can help you write the letters,” he adds, though he knows Erwin will refuse. The only time he’s ever written letters was when Erwin was bedridden and lost his dominant arm, and even then Erwin had seemed almost unwilling to have him do it. Even so, Levi’s nothing if not persistent, and he waves a hand, continuing, “write the report, arrange the meetings. I’ve gotten used to some of it, after…” his mouth runs dry, tongue cotton in his mouth, and he barely manages to finish his sentence, “after you lost your arm.”

“It’s not exactly lost anymore, is it,” Erwin doesn’t lift his eyes from the empty paper, despite the fact that Levi’s staring holes into his skin and he must feel the weight of his gaze. “Go rest,” he repeats instead. “The media attention we are going to get—the critique we are going to be under when this all goes public is likely to be overwhelming. You should rest now, while you still can.”

“I should be telling you that,” Levi says and Erwin looks up at him for the first time since they’ve gotten back inside the walls. He quickly averts his eyes, sigh slipping out of his mouth, and Levi grits his teeth. “You’re going to get the brunt of it,” he presses on, anyway, striding over to Erwin’s desk. “If anyone needs rest, it’s you.”

Erwin’s hand darts out over the blank paper just as Levi reaches for it. “No,” he says.

He doesn’t say anything else but the effect is immediate, anyway, with Levi retracting his arm as though he’d been burnt. Erwin doesn’t elaborate, doesn’t look up to meet Levi’s eyes, doesn’t backtrack. It feels worse than it had after he lost his arm. After the failed expedition to capture the female Titan. After tens of previous expeditions, where half their comrades died for a cause that seemed impossible to reach. All of those times, Erwin could at least look at him. He could at least stand looking at him, stand being in the same room as him. Now—it’s as though the very sight of Levi, his very presence, nauseates him.

“Why not?” Levi asks, just barely able to keep his cool. It’s irrational, maybe. Maybe Erwin needs time to adjust to everything, to the truth, but that’s clouding Levi’s head, too. That and the fact that he held Erwin—that he held a bleeding out Erwin, praying that he doesn’t take his last breath before he manages to inject the spinal fluid into his veins just earlier that same day. All he wants is to make sure Erwin’s fine, that he’s still Erwin, insane as that may sound; that he’s the same person he was before the expedition. All he wants is to talk to Erwin, as he’d been keeping his distance all the way back from Shiganshina.

Still: Erwin doesn’t humor him, remaining silent. Levi stands over his desk, antsy the longer Erwin won’t face him. None of it was ever easy—not the guilt after every expedition, the deaths of their soldiers weighing down their shoulders, not the return to the walls with the townspeople nearly so much as spitting in their face, not the possibility of dying on each mission. None of it was ever easy but they at least had each other’s backs and it never felt like this, with the room so quiet it was suffocating.

Levi stands over his desk, antsy, until the nerves break into irritation and low anger brews in his stomach. “Can you not even fucking look at me? Spare me the time of day?”

Erwin looks up at him, then. Levi almost doesn’t recognize his gaze, can’t make sense of the eyes that look at him. There’s nothing inside of them, no more of the dream that’s carried him through all these years, no more of the dream that pushed Levi into pledging his life to him. Levi hears his uncle’s words pass through his mind and feels all the power drain out of his body.

“Go rest, Levi,” Erwin repeats.

It’s as much of a dismissal as it was before. Levi blinks. He hesitates, hand going to—to what? To touch Erwin’s, to slide over it, only for him to reel away from the touch? Letting his hand fall back down, Levi turns on his heel and leaves without another word.

In the morning, he passes by Erwin’s office to find the tea he brought him untouched.

 

.

 

Titan shifters live up to thirteen years after they gain the power of a Titan, Hange tells him.

“Thirteen years,” they say. “Eight for Eren,” they add, and the thirteen for Erwin burns itself into Levi’s mind. He’d saved him, only to trouble him with another expiration date, he thinks, watching idly as Hange scribbles the numbers down on one of the papers strewn around their desk. They’d forced him into their office for the conversation, and he’d resisted until seeing Mikasa and Eren already sitting inside.

“Is there no go-around?” he asks. Hange shakes their head, readjusts their goggles. He wonders if they would’ve saved Erwin, too, or whether they would’ve let him rest. He isn’t sure he wants to know the answer. “We’ll find one, then.”

“It’s the Curse of Ymir,” Eren says. His head is hung over his lap and it’s not like Mikasa looks much better next to him. They’d initially been jailed for insubordination but the thought of it made Levi’s skin crawl and he’d released them against Hange’s direct wishes. “There’s no go-around.”

He sounds drained, Levi can tell that much. He sounds drained, shoulders slumped, and Levi should feel bad. He does; knows the way in which Eren’s heart grieves for Armin, knows the way his own would’ve if it had been Erwin. Knows the way his own did when it was Farlan and Isabel, when it was his former squad. He does and yet he knows that, if it had been necessary, he’d go to inhumane lengths to give Erwin the syringe. He almost had, by any chance, before Hange helped hold Eren and Mikasa back.  

He sounds drained, in the same way Erwin does. He sounds drained, voice empty, head heavy on his shoulders. Both of them do.

Levi tries not to pay attention to that.

"We'll find a go-around," he insists, and Eren looks up at him, mouth drawn into a thin line. "It'd be no good to lose two of the most important assets," he says by way of explanation and figures none of those in the room buy it. "If the world outside is much more advanced than us—Titans are all we have."

“It must be,” Hange says, a sigh slipping out their lips. “By any case, the power of the Titans can be passed on. As we made it happen with…” their eyes swerve up, meeting Levi’s, and they clamp their mouth shut.

“As you made it happen with the Commander,” Eren finishes, the distaste for their actions coming through even his monotonous tone.

“Right,” Hange says. “As we made it happen with the Commander.”

Levi’s chest feels heavy. “We’ll find a go-around,” he insists again, waving a hand. Even so, the words ring false through the air, even to his own ears; if the Marleyan warriors who’ve been aware of the Titan powers for much longer than they have haven’t found a solution—if the Reiss family hadn’t, then their own chances are bleak. There’s nearly no doubt in Levi’s mind that in thirteen years, they’ll be chaining Erwin up to the wall, turning one of their own into a pure Titan and watching them consume Erwin, in the same way that he had Bertholdt. 

There’s nearly no doubt in Levi’s mind about it and the mere thought infuriates him. He sighs, reaches to tap against Hange’s desk, once, twice. “What else do I need to know?”

 

.

 

During the hearing, Erwin reports their wins and losses, reports more than a hundred casualties, reports the journal they’ve found. “We’ve discovered the truth about what is outside the walls,” he says. “We’ve gained the power of the Colossal Titan.”

“Gained the power of the Colossal Titan,” Pixis repeats. “Who wields it, now?”

Erwin looks moment away from hanging his head in shame. “I do,” he says. Pixis stares before he gives him a nod, and Levi fixes his eyes on the table in front of him.

 

.

 

He doesn’t see much of Erwin in the passing days; in private, that is. He’s by his side at the hearing, at the countless meetings that follow, at the award ceremony, but the moment they return to the Survey Corps headquarters, Erwin retreats to his office. When Levi tries to follow him, he’s dismissed like an unwanted dog.

It stings, but Levi pretends it doesn’t, turns his head the other way. It’s not as though the situation wasn’t similar after Erwin lost him arm, after he came back to Levi after the expedition and wasn’t able to do anything alone. He’d grown uneasy then, too, declined Levi’s offer of helping him with everyday tasks, with anything; except filling out the letters. Hange had been the one to write out the report but it was by Erwin’s wish that Levi be the one to write the letters and so he did just that; that, and he cleaned, and he looked after, as much as he was allowed. More, even, pushing on the limits of Erwin’s patience until it snapped, but even then he wouldn’t tell Levi off.

Even then he’d let him stay in the seat by the bed, let him drift off there, instead of retreating to his rarely used living quarters for the night. They were only his by name; in truth, he spent his nights falling asleep to the sound of Erwin’s incessant writing in his office or—if he has any luck forcing him to rest—in Erwin’s bed, the two of them fitted there together almost uncomfortably; anything was kinder than being alone.

And now, he can’t stand being in his own living quarters, not when Erwin’s shut the door on him. Instead, he spends his nights going to brew himself tea after tea, stewing around the headquarters. Embarrassingly enough, Hange finds him asleep in the dining hall more than once, head hung low in front of him, making his perpetual back and neck aches even worse.

If he felt any better, it’d be amusing. It’s not like he hasn’t found Hange in similar positions, not like he didn’t have to be the one to intervene when Hange was on their feet for the fourth, fifth, sixth day without pausing to rest, forcing them to bathe and at the very least nap. But: it was lighthearted, then. It was annoying, yes, but Erwin always found it amusing, sharing private smiles with Levi when he’d caught him dragging Hange to the washrooms.

“Levi,” Hange chides, snapping him out of his near unconsciousness. They pour him a cup of tea, hot in the cup in front of him, then pour one for themselves, then sit down in front of him. It’s early in the morning; before sunrise still. Hange likely hadn’t even bothered to go to sleep, as hadn’t Levi. “You’re going to wear yourself out like this.”

“You’re one to talk,” he tells them, but it lacks all of his usual bite. They notice—he does, too, and the fact only makes him sulk. Like a child, he points out, “you’re awake now, too.”

“I’m not falling asleep in the dining hall,” Hange says. “I think that sets me as faring slightly better.”

Levi doesn’t reply, scoffing as he takes a sip of his tea. Hange rolls their eyes and wraps their hands around their own cup.

“Do you want to talk about it?” they try. Levi also doesn’t grace that with a reply. “Well,” Hange leans back in their seat, “you’re going to have to snap out of it, one way or another. You’ve a squad to command.”

A squad to command: two injured with a long way to go before they can return to training; two still deep in mourning, having lost nearly all there is to lose; a newcomer who Levi can barely stand the sight of; and one who came out of it all nearly unscathed. It’s not much of a squad, not one he can do anything with, now. Not like they have any missions planned for the near future, letting the Titan guillotine take out the Titans inside of Wall Maria.

Now, the plans are spreading the truth and deciding what to do with it; what to do with the world outside that wants them dead. It’s not something Levi wants to think about—not something he imagines Hange does, either, unless the possibility of further research into what the world outside entails. Nor Erwin, really, and he’s the one who shoulders the weight of most of it.

He clears his throat, uncomfortable. “How’s Moblit?” he asks, the effort to shift the conversation off his back clear. Thankfully enough, the diversion works. Whether consciously or not, Hange straightens in their seat, a hint of a smiling across their lips.

“He’s getting better,” they say. “The recovery—it’s not going as well as we could’ve hoped, but given the injuries he sustained from the Colossal Titan’s blast, it’s a wonder he’s alive in the first place.” They push their goggles up, fingers skimming the black eyepatch covering their own wound. “I’m hoping he’s back up and running in time for the Colossal Titan research.”

“…the Colossal Titan research?”

“We don’t know what Erwin’s capable of,” Hange says. “Spreading the truth takes priority now, obviously, but we need to find out what he’s capable of. If he can control the transformation blast, if he can harden, like Eren. If he has some sort of communication abilities, even. If there’s a limit to his height, to how long he can stay transformed, how many times.”

“Right.” Levi hadn’t even considered that, hadn’t had the research that Erwin will have to go through pass through his mind. At the time, everything was secondary to getting out of Shiganshina with Erwin alive; what the truth might be, what the consequences might be. “And that’s to start when?”

Hange hums. Levi frowns, narrowing his eyes, and Hange drums their fingers on the table. “I don’t know,” they admit. “Erwin hasn’t cleared it, which normally I’d ignore, but seeing as he’s the subject of this research…” they trail off into a sigh. “He hasn’t cleared much of anything recently. We need to start making plans about what’s to come and how we can make it out of this situation.”

“A war,” Levi says. “That’s what’s to come.”

“One we need to prepare for,” Hange insists. “Besides, we don’t know whether the—the warriors,” they make a face, and Levi figures the newfound terms they’d learned from Grisha Yeager’s journals are as foreign to them as they are to him, “will return. I’d assume yes; now would be the best time for another attack, when we haven’t finished clearing out all the Titans in Wall Maria, when we’re at our lowest. We took their Colossal Titan, but they still have three shifters. More, possibly. Sitting here, now, idle is about the worst thing we can be doing.”

There’s no good response to that, Levi decides.

 

.

 

Releasing the truth to the masses goes about as well as anyone would expect it to. Once the news is published, it’s difficult for the Survey Corps to maneuver their way around town, people fleeting to them to pester them with questions. Levi ignores them in strides as he’s grown accustomed to doing after expedition, but Erwin seems to have forgotten who he was before the return from Shiganshina.

“Is it true?” a woman asks, as the three senior members of the Survey Corps head for a carriage, on their way back to the base. The meetings in the city are endless and Levi dreads each one. “The people outside—are they waging a war on us?”

Levi ignores her, ignores the paper she’s waving in his face. Hange does, too, bringing a hand up to cover their face as they pass her. But Erwin stops, almost shocked.

The woman jumps on the opportunity immediately. “Is that what awaits outside the walls?” she asked, voice uncomfortably shrill. “Is that thousands of soldiers sacrificed their life for? Another war? Another enemy.”

It’s only when Levi reaches the carriage, when Hange’s already climbed inside, that he turns, finding Erwin not at his side, and watches him stare at the woman. His mouth opens and closes with a single word; gone is all of the charm he held, all of the charm he used at the numerous fundraisers, the charm he used at his hearing.

“Commander,” Levi calls out, moments short of dragging Erwin to the carriage himself. The word drags itself out his hoarse throat, and he clears it when Erwin doesn’t turn to him, when he doesn’t even seem to hear him. “Commander,” he tries again, this time louder. “We’re going to be late.”

That’s a blatant lie; besides their business in the city, the Survey Corps aren’t doing much of anything. Erwin isn’t doing much of anything, as Hange said—he’s yet to plan an expedition outside the walls, yet to ask the Premier for resources and morale. And yet it works, because Erwin turns to face him. He closes his mouth, holds Levi’s gaze, before his own melts into a sorry mixture of guilt and defeat.

“Excuse me,” he tells the woman, ignoring the rest of her words as he joins Levi and Hange. As soon as he climbs in, Levi pulls the doors to the carriage closed without a word, taking his seat and staring out the window.

Hange’s the one to break the silence, as they are usually. “We’re going to have to start tests eventually, Erwin,” they say, clearly part of a longer conversation Levi was not privy to. “The Colossal Titan… if the passing down of its power worked, then we stand a chance.”

A chance against the world; against Marley; against the warriors. Levi’s head pounds and he rubs his temple, wanting nothing more than for the rest of the ride home to continue in peace.

“We’ll start the tests on the expedition,” Erwin says.

“The expedition is months away,” Hange presses. “We’re losing valuable time. If the Beast Titan returns—if any of them do, we need to at least stand a fighting chance. They have at least three Titan shifters. Six, according to Grisha Yeager.”

“The colossal Titan is sixty meters high,” Erwin says. “We have to account for possible destruction, in the case of something going wrong.”

“The sooner we start testing the better,” Hange argues, leaning forward in their seat. Levi gives them a look, trying to force them into dropping the topic—the tense air is making it hard to breath—but Hange’s nothing if not persistent. “What if the ability wastes over time?” they ask. “What if they come back and you have to transform for the first time on the field? What if—”

“It’s best to do it on the expedition to the sea,” Erwin cuts them off. “We’ll try it out then. In safer conditions.”

His tone doesn’t leave any room for discussion; even Hange sees that. They huff, clearly unsatisfied, but don’t try anymore, likely planning to give it another go later. Levi holds back his own sigh, turning to look back out the window.

 

.

 

They’ve had lapses like this in their relationship before. It’s happened; of course it has. As blunt as he is, Levi’s not much of a communicator, but Erwin’s always understood. He’s always been attuned to him, to his silent gestures, able to read in between the lines of his oft harsh words. Though when it comes to Erwin, Levi’s never been good at reading him. He’s improved and he’s better than visually everyone, but fo the most part, Erwin still remains largely a mystery to him.

As is the case now, when Levi hovers by his office doors. It’s silent, but he knows Erwin’s inside—that’s where he spends nearly all his time these days, going through paperwork and whatnot.

In the meantime, Levi’s been spending all his time avoiding the office, going anywhere but near it. He’s not dense enough to miss the message and not desperate enough to keep trying, though he still finds himself in front of the doors. He’s exhausted; it feels as though he hasn’t slept in weeks, which might as well be the truth.

He raises his hand to knock, changes his mind, and presses on the door knob, letting himself inside.

“Is it true?” he asks, the door shutting loudly behind him. Erwin turns to face him from where he was staring out the window, eyes flitting to Levi’s before dwindling to a spot on the wall behind him.

Erwin sighs. “Levi,” he says.

“Is it true?” Levi presses. The words ring out through the air and Erwin doesn’t respond. As he continues, the anger trickles out of his body and is replaced by nothing at all. “Are you going to resign?”

Erwin sighs again. “Hange told you,” he says and every cell in Levi’s body stills. “I’m not. The thought of it was nothing more than a lapse in judgement.”

“You’ve never considered it before,” Levi says. He takes a few steps forward, unsure, and Erwin meets his eyes, but he doesn’t tell him off, doesn’t appear revolted; and what does that say about them, about Levi, that this is what he’s afraid of? “Why now?”

The answer is clear; it’s everyone outside the walls, everything outside the walls. It’s every life sacrificed under Erwin’s command to discover the truth—every life gambled away on missions, be it a civilian’s or soldier’s. It’s the dream, the hope that’s held him high throughout the past years, one that’s just met its end.

Inexplicably, Levi still wants to hear it from him. He’s unwilling to give up, unwilling to yield until he knows that all hope is lost. Until he knows that the Erwin that stands in front of him is the one Kenny foretold, with nothing to push him forward.

“It hardly matters,” Erwin says. “I’m bound to the cause now, for better or for worse, due to my possession of the Colossal Titan’s powers. Whatever I may have thought about—”

“Why now?” Levi cuts him off, unable to stand there and hear his legal bullshit any longer. They’re supposed to be better than this.

“You’ve seen the journals,” Erwin says. He reaches a hand to rub at his temples, to shift through his hair, as he takes a deep breath, and Levi is powerless to do anything but watch. “You’ve read about the world outside. The people outside.” He pauses, hesitant, before adding, “it’s further than should be possible from anything I could’ve imagined.”

“So? What should it matter?”

“It matters plenty,” Erwin says. He sighs again, and Levi practically sees the carefully put together façade crumble in front of his eyes, sees Erwin’s shoulders fall as he drags his hands down his face, looking more exhausted than Levi’s ever seen him. “I’d been foolish enough to think that the Titans are the only obstacle we have to face before the rest of humanity welcomes us with open arms. I’d imagine the world outside would be…” he trails off, turns in the direction of the window, of the bright sky, the bright leaves, the bright grass; “I’d imagined it’d be everything but,” he says. “Grisha Yeager wrote in his journals that we’re nothing more than a small blip in a world full of those that despise us. Realistically, there is little chance we have of winning.”

“Grisha Yeager also wrote that there are people that’d be willing to side with us,” Levi points out.

Erwin laughs. It makes the hairs on the back of Levi’s neck stand, makes his shoulders tense. “He became fodder for his own son of his own accord,” he says, voice almost amused but not quite. “He also mauled a family full of children. That man was drunk on the dream of a future that’d never come to be. Forgive me if I don’t accept his words as gospel.”

Levi’s unable to do much other than stare at him. He’s nothing like the man he was before and Levi wonders, fleetingly, if the syringe should’ve been passed to Armin. Maybe it would’ve been better; with Mikasa and Eren not in mourning, fully cooperating, with Erwin put out of his misery, with Levi in both their places, grieving till the end of time for something that never was.

“So that’s it?” he asks. “You want to give up? After everything, after all the men you’ve led to their deaths? You’re telling me it’s all meaningless?”

“We’re going to fight a war we can’t win,” Erwin says. “One we’re destined to lose.”

“We’ve been in worse predicaments,” Levi insists. Blood rushes past his ears, gives way to silence, and his whole body feels weightless the longer Erwin doesn’t respond. He can’t stand it, can’t stand any of this, and so he repeats: “we’ve been in worse predicaments,” even if he’s not sure that’s the truth. “You’ve led the Survey Corps out of those, time and time again in the past. Why can’t you do that now?”

“What’s on the other side?” Erwin asks. Levi stares, opens his mouth, closes it, clenches his fists at his side. “Tell me. Say we find allies, wage a war against… Marley. Wage a war against their allies. Say, in some miracle, we win. What happens then?”

“We gain freedom,” Levi says. “Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“Freedom,” Erwin scoffs and doesn’t elaborate. Levi shuffles on his feet, uncomfortable, feeling too on edge. It’s reminiscent of his first months in the Survey Corps in all the wrong ways, and—and. “For as long as I have the power of the Colossal Titan, I’m bound to the cause. I’ll do what is expected of me, and lead those who’ll follow against Marley. I’ll shoulder the weight of the lives we’ll inevitably lose, promise those left that fighting this war is worth it.”

“What good will it do if you don’t believe it yourself?” And Erwin doesn’t answer, but it’s clear to Levi, anyway, that it won’t work. At Shiganshina, the only reason he’d persuaded the recruits into falling him in the suicidal charge was because he’d believed in it, himself, believed in the strategy he’d thought of. Believed in Levi and his ability to take down the Beast Titan.

He’d believed in Levi when he’d given him the syringe with the spinal fluid and, evidently, Levi has failed him.

“You have thirteen years,” Levi tells him, grasping at straws. Grasping at something to say, because he can’t leave Erwin like this, but just staying in the same room is making him sick.

“Yes,” Erwin says, waves a hand. “We should have figured there was a price to pay.”

“Don’t you want to reach freedom in these thirteen years?” Levi asks, and Erwin somehow looks even more exhausted than before.

“There’s no more freedom for me to reach,” he says and hearing those words alone makes Levi’s blood freeze, makes his muscles spasm painfully. He swallows, stares at Erwin, at what’s left to him, before he can’t stand the sight, and leaves the room without an answer.

 

.

 

They reach the ocean a few months later.

They reach the ocean; Hange leads experiments with Erwin’s Titan form; everyone else stands watch, makes note of the destruction he reaps. They make it to the docks where Grisha Yeager watched his comrades be turned into Titans, and Levi and Hange stand watch as Erwin and Eren destroy the ships there, as they destroy the port. Levi’s heart rests heavy in his chest, uncomfortable, swollen with blood and worry and dread, most of all, for what’s to come.

Once they’re to rest for the night—a long journey awaits for the next day—Levi finds Erwin standing on the beach, looking out into the dark sea, seeing something Levi can’t fathom.

“Do you understand now?” he asks. “There will be no end to this, not until we lose.”

Levi swallows. “There’s a chance we won’t,” he says. Erwin doesn’t even glance at him, eyes stagnant on the horizon, dark moon reflected in them, and it’s no wonder; Levi’s not even sure he believes it himself.

“Perhaps,” Erwin allows. “The only certainty I feel is that this will end the way it began; with the world fearing the power of the Titans. Whatever route we take, history is doomed to repeat itself.”

Break the cycle, Levi wants to plead, wants to pull on his hand like a child, wants to tug on the hem of his jacket. We can leave, he wants to say, we can leave and never look back; they can head out on one of the boats, brace the world outside on their own and hope for the best. By the time the rest of the Survey Corps realize what has happened, they’d be far out on the ocean, going wherever the wind takes them. For what’s left of Erwin’s life, they could explore, they could head out to different places, find out more about all the people beyond the walls that Erwin’s dreamed of for his whole life. Levi would gladly follow him, so long as it meant staying by his side, so long as it meant Erwin would return to how he was before Levi doomed him to live as a shadow of himself.

But: all the boats are destroyed; Erwin’s a man of honor, of duty; Levi knows, in his heart, that they can’t leave, knows they wouldn’t make it far out before being caught by Marleyian soldiers or whoever else is out there, over the dark waters. But: there’s a responsibility they have to all their fallen comrades, to make their deaths matter, and that’d come as close to casting them aside as little other things would.

But: Levi wishes, wants, aches for it to happen, nonetheless.

He sighs, folds his hands together, kicks at the sand. “Goodnight, Erwin,” he says, and returns to the rest of the Survey Corps, leaving Erwin alone on the beach.