It took them a surprisingly short time to reach the sea.
As expected, the other Scouts had left the survivors of Shiganshina alone in a creek – despite the months spent living together in the abnormally empty barracks, the two groups hadn't quite mixed. So, on this very special day, it was only the eight of them, again. The kids were still in the water, boots discarded somewhere on the sand and white pants rolled up to their knees. After Hange had had the brilliant idea to grab a sea urchin, Levi had dragged the reluctant scientist to the rocks nearby and had forced them to sit down. Miraculously, once he had removed the spine stuck in their hand, they hadn't run away again. They were sitting next to him more or less quietly, their bare feet slowly moving through the water as they watched in amazement the foam glistening around their shins. A dash of silver somewhere in the deep blue caught their attention and they leaned forward, eyes widening in excitement, until they were almost bent over in half. Their fingers were squeezing the edge of the rock to keep them from diving straight into the sea.
"Hange. Don't count on me to fish you out."
They ignored the stern warning, too fascinated by the swarm of fishes that had swum by.
"They are amazing…" they whispered.
"Have you never seen a fish in your life?"
"But they have so many different colors! I wonder what it's for? Maybe it's for reproductive purposes, you know, like birds? Or is it because it's darker here because the water is deeper- so they could- oh, no, maybe it's to better merge in their surroundings? Do you think there are colorful plants underwater too?"
"Or it probably means they are venomous. You know, like that kind of orange butterfly."
"You're no fun," they retorted, frowning.
"And you're an idiot, four-eyes."
"Why do you listen to me then?"
"The butterfly part. I remember vividly talking about it like, months ago, yet you remember."
"It's not like you'd leave me in peace either way."
"I know you secretly like it."
"Not a chance in the world."
"Since that time you let me ramble about Titans for, like, two days straight, I'm sorry but I can't believe that."
They tried to elbow him playfully but he dodged.
"Don't touch me when you're covered in saltwater. It's tacky."
Hange toyed with the idea of splashing a bit of water at him and finally decided against it with an internal sigh. They know Levi could put with a lot of their shenanigans, yet he still had his limit, and they didn't want to drive him away, especially not today.
They looked with envy at the kids that weren't burdened with a clean freak as a friend, feeling a smile tug at the corner of their lips as Connie screeched when Sasha returned the favor and splashed very salty water in his eyes. Jean was apparently still trying to cope with the burning feeling in his throat – who the fuck try to drink salt water anyway? Hange thought, wondering how someone with so little common sense could have made it that far as a Scout. Even the inseparable trio seemed to have relaxed a bit, their gazes off the horizon and its threat for now. Armin was making Eren listen to a shell – Hange made a mental note to try it later because it piqued their interest – while Mikasa was trying to keep her balance despite the current, eyes wide as each wave crashed against her legs. For once, she looked like the child she never had the chance to be after her parents' death.
"Don't our kids look good?"
Levi shot them a sideways glance.
"They aren't kids anymore," he said after a few seconds of silence.
Hange hummed as they felt their heart clench slightly. Of course, they were well past childhood now. They had to mature faster, with all the shit that life had thrown at them in the span of a few years. And it was far from over.
They shook their head, their ponytail swaying wildly in the process. Now was not the time to think about that – their little group had reached the ocean, they had their feet in its water, for the Walls' sake! A mere months ago, it had been nothing more than a dream, something Hange didn't think they would see with their own two eyes in their lifespan. Well… one eye, now. Somehow, the thought made them crack a smile again.
"Oi, shitty-glasses. What's with the grin?"
"I'm just glad we're there. It's- ah, it's…"
It was unusual for them to be at a loss for words, but the sight in front of them, it transcended any words they could ever find. That much, they were sure of.
They shot an incredulous look at their friend.
"Oh come on, is that all you have to say?" they protested.
Come to think of it, Levi hadn't seemed that much enthralled by the sea up to now, hadn't even tried to touch the water. He was still wearing his boots and had chosen to sit at a safe distance away from any possible splashes, his knees drawn closer to his chest. Granted, it was Levi they were talking about – but they knew better than to think he was actually as cold as he liked to appear.
"Listen, for once in your life."
His voice jolted them out of their thoughts. They cocked their head to the side, slightly confused, then complied. The squeaking of large white birds mixed with the voices and occasional squeals of the cadets, and there was the whistling of the wind, heavy with foreign, strong scents, and… They closed their eyes.
It was loud, indeed, but saying that didn't even begin to encompass it. It felt like a breath, like a giant heart was beating, slowly and steadily, nestled somewhere deep under the waves. Now that Hange was focusing on it, it seemed that it could fill their entire world.
"I thought it would just be this big, salted lake… but it's so much more."
Something in his voice made them open their eyes again. They were right – he was smiling. It was a sight rare enough that they paused to take it in, before shifting their gaze back to the seemingly endless ocean.
"Is it how you felt when you got out of the Underground City?"
The silence stretched between them and Hange peered at him. His head hung low, his bangs covering his eyes, and all of a sudden, they wished they had kept their mouth shut for once.
"Sorry- I didn't mean to-"
From the corner of their eye, they saw him getting his boots off and raised an eyebrow. They were about to ask about it when he spoke again:
"Yes. Yes, this is how it felt. It's not something totally new, because they were holes in the ceilings of the Underground, because there are lakes and rivers inside the Walls, but… it's just so much more, that it's a completely different thing. It's something I didn't quite think I would see, despite working towards it, and yet… it's there. Because we made it."
They saw the corner of his mouth twitch when he said "we", a glint of sadness shining in his grey eyes. They thought about his friends, the small redhead, and that lanky blonde guy they had trouble recalling the name of at first. They remembered gazing down at his half-eaten body and thinking "Farlan", then "it's too late now", as Levi's shouts and Erwin's deep voice, trying to calm him down, echoed behind them. They always wondered how old they were, him and Isabel. Never dared to ask.
"I remember them saying the three of us would go up to the surface," Levi continued, "and then, when we joined the Scouts, get past the Walls, together. At nights, they talked about the open sky and the endless sea."
It was rare that he opened up about them, so Hange didn't really know what to say – nor how to react when they felt a hand on top of theirs, uncharacteristically hesitant.
"Shit, it's cold."
One glance told them he was carefully testing the water, his foot arched so only his toes were immersed.
"What a fierce soldier," they teased, "complaining about water's temperature like a five-year-old…"
He groaned what sounded vaguely like an insult and finally put his two feet in the waves, shivering in the process. Hange snickered, then their gaze fell on his hand, still resting on top of their, and they wondered what he was thinking about.
"I'm glad I could see it with you."
There was their answer – and more than they could have hoped for.