There is a bird singing not far away.
It's on his blind side and Levi has to turn his head a little more than he expected to spot the sparrow, half-hidden in between the leaves. Just beside the bush is Mikasa, in civilian clothes – the fabric of her pants is just a bit too tight around her muscular legs. It's unclear if she's waiting there for something or someone, pacing because she feels restless, or if she's slowly wandering around the headquarters.
Her eyes seem glued to the sandy ground, but eventually, she raises her head and notices him. She hesitates for a second before making her way towards the bench he's sitting on.
He scoots over to leave her the other side of the bench. His crutches click together, disturbed by the motion, and one falls to the ground. He ignores it. Mikasa eyes it then opts to carefully sit on the old wood.
"Armin is at a meeting."
She says it as if it explains her presence here – in a sense, it does. They are never seen far from one another these times. Even at night, they sleep in the same room; Annie and Armin share one bed, Mikasa takes another, and the two other bunks are left empty. To any civilian, it would be an awkward arrangement, but soldiers are used to sleeping in shared barracks – it saves up room, and the loss of privacy is a small price to pay if it means not being alone.
"They will decide what will happen of the Scout Regiment," she adds. "Or so Armin said."
"How many of us are left anyway?"
"We could get recruits. Like after Shiganshina."
"For what? Exploring outside of Paradis? Most here hate everything that relates to the rest of the world. They are no better than them."
"They don't know," she points out.
"… I suppose so."
A memory of a conversation with Hange flashes in his mind. It was years ago, before they even discovered that humans could turn into Titans, a few weeks after they met in fact. Hange was bouncing on their heels, eagerly waiting for the leader's signal to approach the Abnormals they had spotted, not bothered in the slightest by Levi's glare.
"You're crazy," he hissed between his teeth.
Their eyes widened almost comically behind their glasses.
Their genuine tone only made his anger flare up.
"They are monsters," he spat, pointing at the grotesque bodies of the nearby Titans.
Hange hummed thoughtfully, their head slightly tilted.
"Any normal fucking person would be scared."
"But I'm scared," they said. "That's why I want to know more about them."
To that, he didn't know what to say.
Throughout the years, they had talked about it, again and again, of Hange's passion for what the rest of the world considered – with reason – as their demise. (Well, the rest of Paradis at least. The others, they knew of the truth, and contrary to what the scientist believed, it didn't save them from hate and fear.) Anyway, Levi understood their reasons, valued their unique approach to the greatest threat humanity has been faced with – but could never bring himself to see the Titans as they do. In fact, that's one of the many reasons he respects them.
Mikasa's voice brings him back to the present.
"I asked if you knew what you will do after… after… you know."
Giving up on finding the right word, she resolves to a vague gesture.
"No," he admits. "I have no fucking idea."
Levi looks at his bad leg, his crutches. He's pretty sure he isn't fit to be a soldier anymore, not that it bothers him. He's tired of fighting. But truth is, that's the only thing he's good at. That, and filling paperwork maybe. And cleaning. He could be a janitor. Most would find it degrading, especially for someone that was once regarded as the strongest soldier alive, but he doesn't think he would mind.
Another memory – they are particularly demanding these days. It's with the other veterans, most long gone – Mike, Nanaba, his squad – and, of course, Erwin and Hange. They had gotten drunk enough to talk about the future or, rather, about a future no one really dared to dream of at this time – a future without Titans. (They didn't quite know then what it would encompass.) They took turns asking what they would do if they didn't have to fight anymore – medic, teacher, farmer, simple enough dreams – and when they looked at him expectantly, Levi didn't quite know what to say. He uttered the first thing that had come to his mind; that he would open a tea shop. It had made the others giggle.
He can almost hear them. Somehow, it feels more real than the garden around, bleak and dull under the gray sky.
He turns his head so that Mikasa's face is in his field of vision once more. She's looking straight ahead, but her eyes are slightly glassed over. He wonders what she's reminiscing about.
"… Hey, kid."
She stays quiet, a spare glance the only sign she has heard him.
"You okay?" he asks.
She lets out a sound that's half a laugh and half a breath, threatening to turn into a sob if she isn't careful. (But she is. She has held strong ever since they got back. Anyone who doesn't know her well enough would say she is unaffected, though it couldn't be farthest from the truth.)
"I'm not," she says, and the silence drags on after that. "But I will be. I have to."
"You know, Captain… the first time Eren ever turned into a Titan…"
"Yes. I thought he has died. Armin told me so. I mean, he saw him being swallowed whole… I went headfirst into battle without thinking and I quickly ran out of gas. I was cornered in an alley and a Titan was closing in. I nearly let it grab me, but something urged me to keep fighting. If at that point, I was able to go on, why would today be any different? I'm stronger now."
Her hands are balled up into fists, trembling on her lap.
"And he's not my only family anymore," she adds. "I can't make Armin lose me too, I can't do that to him. And also, I have to stay alive so I can at least remember him – remember Eren. I owe him that after I…"
Her voice quivers and she has to brace herself to continue:
"After I killed him."
"We all. Whether Eren made the right choice or not, at least he believed it was and he devoted himself to it selflessly. And you did too. There is nothing to regret."
He can feel Mikasa's eyes on him, but he doesn't turn to meet her gaze.
"And you, Captain? Don't you have any regret?"
Hange's face flashes up in his mind. The last time he talked to them – their eye shining with unshed tears, their shaky smile, the silent plea all over their face – a plea to let them go or to hold them back, he wasn't entirely sure. He chose the former. For the sake of humanity.
He knows that has he refused to let them go, they probably would have stayed – and Hange would have been alive today.
Or all of them would be dead, crushed by the Colossals.
It's no use to try and rewrite history. No one – except maybe Eren – could have foreseen what the outcomes of their actions would be. By the Walls, for all they knew at the time, they were trying to stop, to kill, the only person able to save Paradis. And it was Hange's choice, ultimately. He didn't have the right to meddle with it.
The only thing he regrets is not telling Hange he loves them when he had the chance.
He remembers vividly Erwin's words from that damned expedition. "When you begin to regret, you let others make decisions for you. And the only thing left for you to do is to die." Something like that. Levi isn't sure what to make of it now. He knows how to deal with the calls he makes in the heat of the moment – in the middle of a fight. The rest… Fuck. He has never been good with that – with the only people he has ever been close with, said-closeness has never been of his own initiative. More so, they came crashing into his life, forcibly made a place from themselves in it, and then left forever.
He quickly looks at Mikasa, then back down at his hands. He doesn't know how to answer her question.
"Did you love them?"
"What?" he utters, taken aback.
"The Commander. Did you love them?"
Four-eyes. Here, I said it. Were you listening?
"Figured," Mikasa says, nodding pensively. "You know, we had a bet going on, with the others."
"We tried to guess whether there was something else than work or even camaraderie between you and the Commander. I think the price was that the losers would treat the winners to dinner in town."
Levi never thought his private life would be brought up – worse, bet upon – in one of the kids' conversations, but apparently, it was. He doesn't know if that's amusing, irritating, or slightly horrifying.
"Sasha, she…" The tremor in her voice as she speaks her dead friend's name is audible. "She concluded by saying it would happen at the same time me and Eren finally 'dealt with our feelings'. Her words."
"Guess she was right."
Hange is back to Paradis.
They know this place by heart and even if their brain is still reeling to make sense of what is happening, their feet lead the way on their own. They nervously reach to adjust their glasses out of habit, nearly stops when they remember they aren't there anymore, but somehow, they are and Hange knocks them back into place so hard that they bump into their forehead.
"Okay, that was weird."
"Back to talking to yourself?"
Levi's leaning on the door frame, looking at them with a raised eyebrow and his usual bored expression.
Right. They were walking to his door.
"Ah, I just- eh…"
They freeze as he reaches up for their glasses, slowly sliding them off their face, then angling them so the sun catches on the lenses. They wince when they notice what is definitely a fingerprint on the left one.
"Tch, you managed to put your dirty fingers on them again…"
He whips out his handkerchief and begins to clean them. Hange just watches him – the whole scene is so achingly familiar that they barely dare to breathe in fear of breaking the charm.
At some point, they don't exactly know why, but they look down at their hands. Their heart sinks in their chest as the realization dawns on them. They have examined them enough these last couple of weeks to know their hands are covered in burns – scars that are currently blatantly, obviously missing. The same goes for Levi, they realize at they glance back up at him. Both of his eyes are intact, silver glistening with sparks of blue under the morning sky, and there are no more slashes across his face.
This is a dream.
On a whim, Hange decides to make the most of it. They push Levi into the wall, ignoring his undignified yelp, and crash their lips against his. Real or not, they want the memory of his touch.
Much to their dismay, he pushes them away.
"What are you doing?"
"I- Kissing you, Shorty. What did it look like?"
Levi doesn't answer.
Dreams can be as cruel as reality – and, as that often happens in dreams, Hange gets the feeling something is horribly wrong before they even notice the blood.
So much blood.
The scene comes from a place of their mind they try very hard never to wander in – it's where their memories lay. One in particular; Levi's body limp in their arms, his head rolled to the side, his face and chest covered in red. Barely alive at this point. They can still hear and feel the rain.
This time, though, it's obvious he's way beyond saving. The gaping wound over his stomach says as much. He's bleeding out, quickly. His blood is horrifyingly warm and sticky against Hange's skin, it has already seeped through the fabric of their pants. They search for his eyes, but they are seemingly unseeing, blown impossibly wide as he gasps and struggles for breath. His familiar features are twisted in agony.
And Hange knows – fucking knows it's not real, but the pain digging its claws into their heart definitely is. They pray they will wake up, but it doesn't come, and they have to watch the man they love die before their very eyes.
It's not the first time it happened as well, but usually, they could just get up as soon as they woke up and walk up to his door, doing their best to ignore the sick feeling deep in their stomach. It's not like Levi sleeps much anyway, so most times they just found him curled up in his armchair with a cup of tea nearby. They will take anything as an excuse – "I heard a noise", "I need to talk to someone about this theory I have", or "what do you think of this idea?" – but really, it's just to see the slow rise and fall of his chest as he breathes, and they think he is well aware of that too. He just has the mind not to bring it up. (Furthermore, it's not like he never invites himself in their room in the middle of the night for no good reason either.)
Now, Hange is back in what looks like the Paths world.
They still don't know if it's real or it's just their mind that latched onto that eerie imagery – and their hope that, since it supposedly links all Eldians back together, they will be able to see those whom they miss so much. They are on all fours, hands digging into the sand that avidly soaks up the blood still on their skin. And, of course, they are alone.
They get up and kick the sand in anger, scream and scream until their throat feels raw. There are no tears this time, they have cried enough for a lifetime; their eyes remain dry.
When Hange finally emerges from the nightmare, they latch onto the first thing they can reach – an empty glass – and sent it crashing against the wall. It shatters. It doesn't make them feel better.
So yeah, as I said before, I like angst a bit too much so I'm apparently going to drag out that wait - but in the mean time, have this "fake" scene with the both of them (which turned into more angst because I'm an horrible person, I know, please forgive me)