From the moment Levi next laid eyes on his husband, he knew something in him had broken.
It wasn't the physical wounds, though those were obvious and jarring, one eye swollen half-shut, chin black with bruises. It was the weight in his voice, his shoulders, the corners of his mouth.
"I think we need to ask your opinion, Commander," said Levi aloud, using the formal title he had never used in a military setting. You're still in charge. You're still the one I choose to follow. You are valued.
Erwin's lips curved into a smile, but his eyes were distant.
Levi found himself reluctant to leave Erwin's side during the battle against Rod Reiss. It wasn't right for a man so recently injured to be right back in the thick of battle.
Erwin must have felt the same, because he stood a little too close, leaned in a little too far when they spoke. When he handed back Levi's cravat - a moment that should have held great emotional importance - their fingers brushed, and that was it. Others were watching, and the titan was too immediate a threat to share a proper moment.
Without time to say anything personal, they were left with only formal discussion to convey their concern for each other.
"The cannons on the wall have a much better angle, and they didn't do shit," said Levi. "What's going on?" Did those MP assholes hurt you so much that you're too exhausted to think of a better strategy? Or is this really the best we can do?
"Look, this is without a doubt the best fighting force we could muster," said Erwin. I'm in my right mind. Trust me.
"The Survey Corps' strategy here is nothing more than a gamble, anyway," said Levi. "Just like everything you come up with." You're putting yourself in danger again. You need to stay off the front lines; you're risking too much.
But Erwin sent him to his position, and all he could do was give him one last glance back before leaving him unprotected yet again.
Gamble or not, the plan worked. Historia Reiss took down the monster that had been her father, rightfully earning her crown in the eyes of the public. That night, the Olvud military let them stay in the Garrison barracks for a celebration. They served the Survey Corps all their best provisions, including fish stew and ice wine for the officers. Levi stood by Erwin's wounded arm the entire night, ready to catch the falling pieces if the man crumbled. Erwin hid behind politeness, giving firm handshakes and smiles that must have seemed genuine to everyone else.
When they were on their third glass of wine, the cracks finally began to show: the Commander's voice hitched mid-sentence.
"I still have to give you my full report, Erwin," Levi cut in. "We should retire for the night."
"Aw, come on, Captain," said one of the soldiers. "There's still plenty more wine-"
"No, the Captain is right. We have much to do, and we'll need to be well-rested." Erwin tipped his head. "Thank you for your hospitality."
They strode to the room that had been set aside for them, Erwin's strides so long and fast that Levi struggled to keep up. The Commander paced around the desk to the chair, and sat.
Levi watched him for a moment, then locked the door. Slowly, he circled toward the desk, trying to gauge the stiffness of the spine, the flex of the knuckles. Seeing too much tension in both, he hung back against the wall. Finally, he could ask the question that had been eating away at them since their reunion. "What the hell did they do to you?"
"It doesn't matter," said Erwin quietly. His arm hung limp in his lap, his chin bowed.
"You shouldn't have had to give this much." Frustration rose in Levi's throat so violently that it almost choked him. "You do so much for those fuckers while they hide deep in the Walls, and this is how they repay you?"
A sharp blue gaze lifted to him. "What about you, Levi?"
"What about me?"
"How many people did you have to kill because of my selfish plans?"
His stomach dropped. "Don't worry about that. I'm fine."
"I turned you into an enemy of the people, forced you to murder-"
"I'm fine," growled Levi. "But look at you, Erwin. What the fuck did they do to you?"
The gaze flicked down, sheltered beneath blond eyelashes. "I lost the ring."
"The ring I was carrying. They found it. They..." Erwin looked away. "They wanted to know who it belonged to, threatened to find out..." He trailed off.
Levi swallowed hard. He approached the desk slowly, afraid sudden movements would startle the Commander in his vulnerable state. "Well, I know you didn't tell them a thing, because they didn't come after me." He didn't bother mentioning the MP's threat about hanging Erwin first. That wouldn't help anything.
Erwin's throat bobbed.
"They did all this to you, and you stayed strong. You overthrew the government and saved the wall from Rod Reiss. So fuck them." Levi leaned against the desk, within reach of him now. "The ring doesn't mean shit. It's just a ring. You're still my husband."
The word hung between them for a moment, then Erwin slowly reached out his arm, gripped Levi's waist, and pulled him in. Levi held the blond head close, felt the sharp nose press against his abdomen.
For several minutes, they stayed like that, unmoving except for Levi's hand slowly stroking the soft blond undercut.
"New hairstyle," he said, searching for conversation.
Erwin finally lifted his head; his face was blank. "Yeah."
"Shows off your forehead."
"It was time for a change."
"Hm. Maybe I should change my hairstyle, too."
Erwin brushed the hair off Levi's brow. "If you'd like, but I'm rather fond of this one. You're a constant amidst all this change."
Levi's cheeks warmed. "It's late, and we're both exhausted. We should get ready for bed."
He slowly undressed Erwin. A dark bruise blossomed across the man's breastbone, another over his kidney. They'd had the decency to leave his wounded arm alone, at least - that was healing well - but one of his testicles was swollen and bruised. Levi's breath hitched when he saw it, his vision clouding red.
"It's okay, Levi," said Erwin softly.
"Those fucking barbarians!"
"It's okay. I didn't say what they wanted to hear, so they applied more pressure. I could have stopped them at any time with the right words, but I chose not to."
"You're apologizing for them? Fuck, Erwin-"
"It's okay. The plan worked. That's all that matters right now."
Levi thought of Hange's threat to do the very same thing to their prisoner, and his stomach heaved. Would we have followed through if he hadn't cracked? We're better than them, aren't we?
They were silent as Levi cleaned Erwin's wounded arm and dressed it, then tended to a couple gashes on his back that looked suspiciously like they were caused by a whip or flail. All things considered, they had gone much easier on him than they could have, especially compared to what they had done to Minister Nick. He wondered if Nile had intervened on Erwin's behalf - he wouldn't have the power to stop the questioning altogether, but he might have been able to convince his captors to show some restraint. He should have stopped it entirely. This is an unacceptable way to treat a Commander. To treat anyone.
When the wounds were wrapped and he had administered a small dose of morphine, he said, "Would you like to debrief now, or wait until morning?"
Erwin's gaze had lifted to meet his again. "I haven't slept properly in days."
"Yeah. Okay." Levi strode to the bed; he fluffed the pillows and pulled back the covers, inspecting the sheets for stains or hairs. Satisfied they were clean, he began to undress.
Once they were both in bed, he reached for the lamp, but Erwin caught his arm. When Levi turned, he felt a mouth envelop his, warm with the breath he wasn't sure he would ever taste again. He leaned into it, a tear trailing down his cheek.
A hand ran down his chest, his abdomen. He broke the kiss.
"Hey, you don't have to-"
"Please," said Erwin, and he shifted down, beginning to follow his hand with an open mouth.
"You sure you're up for this?"
"Please, Levi." Kisses trailed down his abdomen. Erwin yanked down the front of his pants.
His mouth was pleasant and warm, but when Levi closed his eyes, all he saw was that swollen testicle and the suspicious marks on the broad back. After a few minutes, he gently pushed Erwin's head away.
"It feels good," he said helplessly, "I just-"
"It's not you. My body's just not-"
"I know. It's okay, Levi." Erwin kissed a line back up his abdomen, but stopped at his chest, nuzzling against it.
Levi raked a hand in his hair and held him close.
When Levi awoke the next morning, he spent several minutes studying Erwin's face. The bruising already looked better, but the furrow in his brows, even in his sleep, made Levi's chest ache. He had previously failed to protect Erwin's arm, then his entire body, and, it seemed, his mind as well.
Well, there was one way he could protect him now: by finding out what had happened to Kenny and his cronies. He enlisted the help of a handful of soldiers and rode toward the chapel where they had first encountered Rod Reiss.
Kenny had always seemed invincible, so it was a surprise to find a dying man.
He returned to Erwin's temporary office carrying a small leather case, a symbol of the respect from Kenny he had craved as a child.
Erwin looked up; the furrow was hidden behind his daytime mask. "Are you all right, Levi?"
Levi sat down across from him. "I screwed up."
"I put my own interests above humanity's. I found Kenny, and he was dying. I should have asked him about the Reiss family or the coordinate, but I asked him about my childhood instead."
Erwin's focus softened with understanding. Somehow, that soft gaze was even more concerning than the blank one. "I see. Did you find out what you needed to know?"
"Some of it. He was my uncle, on my mother's side. He left because he didn't think he could be a good father figure." He paused, considering all the trauma Kenny had left him with. "I guess he was right."
"Anyway." Levi shrugged. "I guess I have a family name after all."
"Yeah. Guess that's why it was so familiar when Berit said it - someone must've called him that around me at some point, or something."
"Does that mean you're related to Mikasa?" asked Erwin.
"Physical prowess must run in the family."
"I guess," said Levi again. He pulled out the leather case and set it on the desk. "He left me this. It's one of Rod Reiss' titan serums."
Erwin was silent for a moment, then he pulled the case closer and opened it. "This will turn anyone who receives it into a mindless titan?"
"That's the theory. And then they can eat a shifter to gain its powers."
"Incredible. We could use it to gain the power of the Colossal, Armoured or Bestial titan."
Erwin's eyes were alight. "So your father figure has given you a legacy as well, one that could shape the future of humanity."
The reverence in his tone made anger rise in the back of Levi's throat, hot and sharp. "Don't read too much into it." He stood.
Erwin's brows rose. "You're leaving? I thought we could do our full debrief over a meal."
Levi swallowed back his anger. His shitty childhood wasn't Erwin's fault. "Okay."
They accepted food trays from the kitchen staff, and the day's dinner, unlike the night before, was an unappetizing mix of grey vegetables in a globby paste. Levi settled next to Erwin's desk and poked at the mixture a few times with his fork, then set it aside and poured another cup of tea.
The debrief was mostly one-sided. Erwin was, understandably, quiet about the time he had spent in police custody. More surprising was that he was quiet about the moment the monarchy was overthrown. His silence suggested to Levi that he shouldn't pry. When Erwin was ready to talk about it, the mask would drop. It always did eventually.
They briefly parted ways while Erwin made plans for their return to Trost; Levi worked with Hange on the personnel reports.
He returned to Erwin's bedroom that night. When he entered, the Commander was curled tightly on his side.
Erwin rolled over and smiled. "I didn't hear you come in."
Levi glided to the bed and sank into it. Their eyes held. Erwin lifted his hand; Levi pressed a kiss into its palm, then another, then the inside of his wrist.
He let Erwin set the pace, conscious of his wounds; Erwin was soft with him, all smooth palm and slow movements, until Levi cried his name into the hollow between his collarbones.
He awoke three times that night to Erwin sitting bolt upright, shouting for his father. Every time, Levi held him, whispering assurances until he fell back to sleep.
The next morning, Erwin smiled and politely invited Levi to breakfast as if the nightmares hadn't happened at all.
The days turned into weeks. Erwin's external wounds healed, but the internal ones worsened, and no one seemed to notice but Levi. Aside from the nightmares, the wounds made themselves known in sad, distant gazes when he thought no one was looking.
"You okay?" asked Levi, on more than one occasion.
The reply was always the same: Erwin would blink, smile and change the subject to the progress on their upcoming mission. Eventually, Levi stopped asking. They were making good progress toward their goals, and their nights were, physically at least, as warm and loving as they had ever been. Maybe Erwin's behaviour was exactly what he needed to recover from the horrors he had survived.
But it wasn't what Levi needed. The more time passed, the more the knot in his stomach tightened. He began to notice the uncharacteristic immediacy of all Erwin's plans: everything was focused on this mission, as if there was no future beyond that. He knew Erwin was no longer fit for the field, and he knew Erwin knew that as well. Gradually, he began to admit to himself that Erwin wasn't expecting to survive.
During their final Officer's meeting, two nights before the mission to Shiganshina, he found himself unable to hold his tongue.
Humanity needs you alive. He tried to reason with him, using the missing arm as an excuse, but the mask went up in defense.
Frustrated, Levi tried to threaten him - softening it with humour, of course, because when could he ever truly threaten the man he loved?
Erwin laughed so heartily that, for a moment, Levi thought he had finally broken through. But then the sharp face hardened again.
"I must be there for the moment we find out the truth about this world."
Levi squinted. He couldn't tell anymore if this was a mask, or if he had accidentally peeled down too many layers and reached a core he had never seen before. Even after all these years, even after all they had been through, he still didn't know Erwin Smith, not really.
"It's that important to you?" he demanded. "More than your legs? More than humanity's future?"
"Yeah," said Erwin, his voice gentle, but his face stern.
Their gaze held, and this was it: the perfect time for the hypothetical they had talked about all those years ago.
You said once that if I had been Marie, if I had asked you to leave everything behind for a life with me, you probably would have agreed.
But even though Levi was desperate, even though there might never be another opportunity for them, the words caught in his throat. He told himself it was because humanity needed Erwin more than he did; he couldn't risk taking away the Commander when they were on the cusp of such an important mission.
The truth was, deep down, he was too afraid the answer would be no.
"Fine," he said. "Erwin, I'll trust your judgement."
He slammed the door behind him.
His fists tightened as he strode to the dining hall. Fucking asshole and his fucking death wish! Doesn't he understand how important he is to humanity?
He could hear a commotion from the closed double doors ahead of him - what the hell were the soldiers doing in there? All he wanted right now was a mug of ale and some peace and quiet.
He threw the door open in time to see Jean and Eren beating each other.
Fucking children. He strode forward. A punch to the gut, a kick to the chest; it felt good to vent a bit of his anger. "All of you, you're being too rowdy. Go to bed."
He strode to the keg and poured a large ale. Hange came up beside him.
"Fine," he said.
"It looked like you were going to have an important talk with Erwin. Did something happen?"
"No," he lied. He drained his mug, then poured another. "Why did you let these brats beat the shit out of each other? We have a mission in two days; they could have injured themselves. We don't need any more dead weight on the field."
"Ah," said Hange, as if he had just revealed some great truth.
"Don't do that." He drained the mug again, then poured a third. "Keep a better eye on these shits."
Hange's face softened. "You're worried about him."
"Of course I'm worried. This whole time, Erwin's talked about one of us dying at Wall Maria." He hadn't meant to reveal that much, but he wasn't in control of his words. "Now he's flying into battle one-armed. I'm supposed to be okay with that?"
"He'll be on top of the Wall for most of the battle, if all goes according to plan."
"Nothing ever goes according to plan." He was dancing around what was really bothering him, and he could tell Hange knew: those brown eyes were probing a little too deeply. He turned away. "No more fighting among the soldiers, all right? I'm going for a walk."
He originally planned to go to the roof by the stables - the guard tower was too heavy with memories right now - but as he was leaving the barracks, he overheard Armin's voice. Something in it made him pause: hope. It was a welcome change from all the grim discussions that were routine these days.
He sidled up to the wall and peered around it. Eren, Mikasa and Armin sat together, the two boys speaking excitedly about the ocean. Armin's blue eyes were alight with youthful optimism that reminded him of Erwin when he had shared his father's book at Christmas. That seemed so long ago now, even though it had only been half a year. Nostalgia bloomed within him, warm and tingling.
He studied the trio. Mikasa's casual disinterest reminded him of himself, those nights when he, Farlan and Isabel had sat by a campfire, looking up at the glowing rocks speckling the Underground cavern. He had been content to observe his friends talk excitedly, happy to just be. When was the last time he had found that kind of serenity? Was it that trip to the hot springs in Utopia district? That felt like another lifetime ago.
His spirits weren't the only ones lifting. Even Eren, who also had a broken air about him these days, seemed to be coming alive as Armin spoke.
I used to be able to pull Erwin back from his sadness like that.
And suddenly, in the face of this youthful optimism, Levi understood: they were old and weary, he and Erwin. They had lived abnormal lives, seen too many abnormal things. It had worn them both, bit by bit.
He looked down at his hands and saw wrinkles around the knuckles. The skin's texture was more leathery than it had been a few years ago, sunken in around the bones. He thought of the white hairs he saw in the mirror each morning, now so prevalent along his scalp that he didn't bother to pluck them anymore.
His shoulders stooped with sudden weight. He struggled to his feet and made his way to Erwin's office. As he had suspected, the cracks around the door glowed with light.
He pushed into the room and stood in the doorway.
Erwin looked up. He was beginning to show his age, too, his cheekbones more prominent, the creases around his eyes more pronounced, especially in the lamplight. He held a glass of amber liquid; his hand wasn't as worn as Levi's, but these days, it had a tendency to shake when he thought no one was looking.
In front of Erwin was his father's book, open to a page in the middle.
"You shouldn't be reading that with the door unlocked," said Levi, nodding at it.
Their gaze held, then Erwin slowly sat upright. "Would you care to join me for a drink?"
Levi shrugged. He locked the door and settled into the chair across the desk from him.
Erwin poured him a glass and slid it across the table, not making eye contact. For a moment, neither of them spoke; they busied themselves with sipping the liquor. It had a strong, leathery taste that warmed Levi's throat. He felt the knot in it begin to loosen.
"All I could think the whole time," said Erwin abruptly, "was that I had subjected my father to the same torture. Maybe worse, because he wasn't a high-ranking military officer. And I-" His voice cracked, and he stared into his drink. "I wonder how long he stayed strong for."
Levi studied him. The lines on the sharp face were deeper now, especially in the corners of his mouth. He was afraid to speak in case he derailed the sudden outburst of honesty, but he couldn't let Erwin blame himself for something he had done as a young child. "You aren't responsible for what anyone did to him."
"Yes, I am." Erwin's throat bobbed. "You don't understand, Levi. If I'd had the sense to keep my mouth shut about his dreams, I wouldn't have been overheard, and they wouldn't have taken him away. My mother always blamed me; she was right..." His voice trailed off. He took another long sip of the liquor.
Levi waited, not wanting to push him.
"I forgot about everything else, in those moments," rasped Erwin after a moment. "The Survey Corps, the titans, even you. I could only think about my father, about how he had felt every bit of what I was going through, how he had known it was my fault the entire time. I don't... I don't know how I managed to keep from telling them everything. I just kept repeating the same phrases, over and over. I didn't know what the words meant anymore." His head ducked, and he shielded his face with his hand, but not before Levi saw his face twist into a grimace. "I wonder, Levi: did he hate me for it? Did he regret telling his idiot son-"
"Hey," said Levi. "Stop."
"All I've ever aspired to is to be good - a good son, a good Commander, a good husband. But I'm so tired, Levi. I'm so-"
"Stop." He gripped the broad wrist, trying to ground him. "Delay the mission. You need to heal."
"There's no time to heal. Besides, I don't know if I can. I..." Erwin took a deep breath, his shoulders shuddering. "I'm sorry. I drank too much."
He was sober, and they both knew it, but Levi let him have his dignity. "You shouldn't get drunk on liquor this expensive. It's a waste." He withdrew his hand and picked up the book, leafing through it. Maybe he could spread some of the hope he had just experienced. "I overheard Armin talking to Eren about the ocean."
Erwin's head lifted. "Oh?"
"Not sure how he knows about it, but seems you aren't the only one set on learning more about this world." He turned the page and saw giant ships not unlike the ones that ran the waterways within the Walls, but at least five times larger. "I bet the ocean is fucking huge. Look how big these ships are." He randomly flipped to the centre of the book, and found the page Erwin had shown him at Christmas, with the diverse group of people. "You still think they're out there somewhere?"
"I do," said Erwin.
"I bet they have those answers you seek, huh?"
He had pushed too hard; Erwin gave him a polite smile.
So that's how it's going to be. Levi closed the book. "I hope the answers are worth it."
The smile faded. "You're still angry."
They drank in silence for a few minutes, and Levi searched for a conversation topic that didn't remind him of their argument. It was no use; everything always brought him back to Erwin and his sudden shortsightedness. Maybe they needed to address it head-on instead. He cleared his throat and leaned forward. "This reminds me of the first time we drank together."
"Hm?" Erwin looked up, puzzled.
"You know, the night I got promoted to Squad Leader, when we interviewed four-eyes. Tension we don't want to acknowledge, awkward silences."
To his surprise, Erwin chuckled. "I suppose you're right. That was when I told you about Marie and Henrik, wasn't it?"
"You tried to guess details about my background."
"I was mostly wrong."
Erwin chuckled again, but then his smile faded. "This past month has been difficult."
"I'm sorry, Levi. I've said it from the beginning: I'm not an easy person to love. I don't..." His voice was soft. "I don't blame you if you're wondering if it was worth it."
Their gaze locked. Levi drained his glass, then stood and padded around the desk. His hands slid across Erwin's temples as he drew him in, pulling the man's ear to the centre of his chest. He held him close.
After a moment, Erwin's arm wrapped around his waist. "Are you?"
"What? Wondering if it's worth it?"
"Yeah. Do you regret-"
"I can hear your heartbeat. It sounds strong. Like you." Erwin nuzzled against his chest. "Levi."
"I know you don't believe in an afterlife, but if we get to the other side and discover there is one, promise me we'll find each other."
With a wounded husband going into battle, Levi found he could almost convince himself there was an afterlife. "Okay. We'll find each other."
"I know I deserve hell," whispered Erwin. "But maybe whatever afterlife we find will be peaceful instead. Maybe we can just...forget all this."
Levi clutched him tighter against his chest.
Erwin lay back on the bed, his naked body lit by striped moonlight from the curtains. His hand lingered on Levi's chin, thumb on his lower lip.
For a moment, Levi watched him, then followed him down. Their lips found each other, their bodies sliding together. They rolled across the bed once, twice. Under Levi's touch, goosebumps rippled across Erwin's back; he traced down the spine to the soft hair at the base. The man suddenly curled around him, clutching him so tightly that Levi's breath escaped in a sharp cry.
"Please," whispered Erwin, breath hot in his ear, "I want you inside me."
Levi shivered. He rolled Erwin onto his back again, studying that striped moonlight, straight edges against the curves of his collarbone, chest and ribs. All those years, he had seen this body as perfect and ethereal, but now it seemed too human, just flesh and bone that could be torn apart with a single titan bite.
But that was freeing, in a way. Here, they were just two men, bodies sliding together as millions of lovers had done before them, expressing the only thing worth saving in this ungrateful world. No military roles. No legacies. No dreams. Just two imperfect, fragile men.
He slid into him, and Erwin arched, his erection throbbing against Levi's abdomen, hands clawing the sheets. The knot in Levi's throat tightened again.
"I love you," he whispered.
The words must have thrust deep into Erwin; he tossed his head back and cried out.
They stretched out their lovemaking as long as possible, changing positions, pausing for slow kisses, until they were too impatient to delay any longer. Levi felt them rise together, and their moans were probably loud enough to be overheard, but what did that matter now?
"Levi!" Erwin's voice was frantic. Levi wrapped around him, fingernails clawing into skin. They shuddered against each other as the waves drowned them both.
The world came back to them too quickly. Weight was settling on Levi's shoulders again, and he wanted none of it. He clung to the freedom they had in each other and found in it the courage he had lacked before.
"Erwin," he whispered, "run away with me."
But the Commander's eyes were closed, his breaths deep and even, and he looked so peaceful, for the first time in weeks, that Levi didn't have the heart to wake him.