"We won," says Levi, quiet, as though victory is fragile, as though if he speaks too loudly it will break.
A few meters to his right, the younger members of his squad clearly have no such misgivings.
"Yes!" "We did it!" "Take that, you stinkin' bastards!" "Killed 'em all!" He watches them for a few minutes, or an hour, or a second. Levi can't tell.
He realizes he still has his blades out. He slides them back into their sheaths, disengaging the handle locks with a cold snick.
The air smells of blood. He wonders, dimly, if he's turning into Mike, if it's a law of the universe that at least one member of the Survey Corps is required to have a freakish obsession with smelling things.
"Yeah, we did," comes a voice from behind, sounding heavy as the earth and oddly light all at the same time, and Levi is startled by the hand that isn't on his shoulder.
"You know," continues Erwin, in that offhand tone that means he's saying something he thinks is terribly important, "they say that before all this," (before the Titans, thinks Levi, why won't you say so?) "humans used to have wars with each other. They had these things called countries, and they fought over land, sometimes, or oil, or religion." Levi nods. He thinks he understands – he's had to fight the urge to punch a Wallist many times before, but more than that he knows what it's like to be hungry.
"And their armies, they'd fight and fight and fight, but when one commander decided they'd lost enough, or that they couldn't win, they'd surrender." Erwin falls silent for a long moment, and Levi is seized with a sudden desire to touch him, to be closer, to be sure he's there. He tucks himself up against Erwin's right side, in the space where his arm used to be. Right hand man, he thinks, and almost laughs.
"They didn't all have to die," finishes Erwin, almost to himself. He's looking out, beyond Wall Maria, and Levi follows his gaze.
There are mountains in the distance, their peaks shrouded in faint wisps of fog. Suddenly, Levi wants nothing more than to climb them.
That's what you do with mountains, right? He's almost forgotten.
"It was worth it," he murmurs, resting his cheek on Erwin's shoulder. They're both tired, so very tired, but it's finally over.
Levi thinks back on all the promises he's made to so many dying men.
"You gave me strength," he whispers, and lets the wind carry it away.
For the first time in his life, he feels free.
Levi finds Erwin exactly where he expected to: swinging in midair. As he watches, Erwin skids to a stop with his body parallel to the ground, both feet and one grappling hook planted firmly on the inner surface of Wall Maria.
There's no hesitation to his movements now, no sign that Erwin Smith emerged from his mother's womb with two arms. He looks as though he's always been this way, a force of nature, unalterable.
But then, Levi thought that of him before, too.
"Levi! What is it?" Erwin backflips off the wall, each movement perfectly controlled, and slides to a halt barely half a meter from Levi. It's the sort of thing Levi's seen him do in combat any number of times, flinging his body through the air to avoid Titans or other obstacles with equal ease.
It strikes him now, though, because it's unnecessary.
"Having fun?" slips from his mouth, and a second later he realizes that's exactly what's going on. Erwin grins – actually grins, the wide, untainted smile of someone who's never seen a Titan, never watched a comrade die.
He leans in as though he's about to tell Levi the biggest secret of his life.
"You," he declares, "are not going to be eaten by a Titan. I am not going to be eaten. No one is going to be eaten ever again." Levi doesn't know what to say, is struck speechless in the face of this breathless, perfect euphoria.
He goes for a joke instead.
"About twenty percent of you already has been." Erwin glances at the air between his right shoulder and his hip.
"Twenty? That's ridiculous. Ten, if that." Levi shrugs. He's not going to debate it.
"Message from the Generalissimo," he reports.
"They want a ceremony," confirms Erwin, absolutely certain.
"Sometimes I wonder if you're psychic," mutters Levi. "Yeah, they do. And they want everyone there. All the MPs, all the Garrison, all of us." He can see it on Erwin's face, that half-second's hesitation – but the Titans, what if – and then: they're gone.
Levi knows it intimately. They've all been feeling it, these past few days.
"Right. When is it?"
"Left hand," whispers Sasha to Connie. "Pass it on."
"…and we must thank the military branches for their efforts to rid humanity of the Titans, and most especially the Survey Corps, led by Commander Erwin Smith, and…"
The king, thinks Erwin irreverently, is an extraordinarily boring speaker.
As he watches, the soldiers and trainees packed into the courtyard facing the stage rise as one to salute. Erwin follows suit, staring past the purple velvet figure at the podium and out at a sea of tan.
The entire military is here. It's astonishingly small, really.
They've lost too many.
It's a faded, worn-out grief by now, and it's easily chased away. Hasn't he been the one telling them it's worth it all along?
Even months later, Erwin still expects to feel his fist hitting his chest. It's the first thing any soldier learns: offer up your heart!
Maybe if he thinks very hard about saluting, no one will notice. It's ridiculous, but better than standing on stage like an idiot, so he – what is Levi doing? Scratch that, what is the entire Survey Corps doing?
Hanji winks at him as all 250-odd members of the Survey Corps break the first rule of the military, snapping to attention with their left fists over their chests.
Pride blossoms in the back of Erwin's throat, and as the Military Police, the Garrison, and even the king stare at his soldiers in confusion, he follows their lead, pulling his arm in towards his chest and trying harder than he's ever had to not to smile.
He's not entirely successful, but the Generalissimo shoots him an understanding look and Erwin thinks it doesn't really matter anyway.
The Survey Corps won the war for them. They can salute however they damn well please.
"Thank you," he says to Levi, when they're back in their temporary camp (temporary, because things can be permanent now, he reminds himself: it's okay to get attached). Levi snorts.
"It was Hanji's idea," and then, before Erwin can say anything else: "I said we shouldn't salute them at all, the blueblood pigs." It's such a Levi thing to say that Erwin almost laughs out loud.
"Well, thank you anyway." Levi shrugs.
"I figure, you're just as dead if you offer up your right lung. I mean, Titans aren't really known for their precision."
His eyes never stray from Erwin's face, and for that Erwin is grateful.
The first Survey Corps expedition outside Wall Maria is an unqualified success.
Levi keeps one hand on his blade hilt the entire time.
"We should leave," says Levi one afternoon. He and Erwin are lying back against a grassy hillside just outside Wall Rose, waiting for a scouting party to report.
"Hmm?" Erwin props himself up on his elbow so he can look down at Levi's face.
"I mean, someone's gotta go explore at some point, yeah?"
"And you think it should be us." It's not a question: Erwin knows him too well for that. In fact, Levi would bet a month's pay Erwin already knows everything he's going to say – but then, it's always like that.
Plans within plans, or, as Hanji often says to new recruits: "Don't mess with the Commander. His thoughts have thoughts, and then those thoughts go have little baby thoughts that can see inside your head and screw you up. Seriously. You're better off just being my new research assistant."
That's long past being an option, so Levi says the first thing that comes to mind.
"I heard that a long time ago, a man walked on the moon."
Erwin doesn't ask for clarification. They both know what Levi means.
The silence between them is as well-worn and familiar as Levi's favorite boots. Erwin drops back to the ground, his shoulder resting on the edge of Levi's cloak. Levi puts a hand up to shade his face, twisting his fingers absentmindedly into the shapes of animals: a goose, a rabbit, the head of a deer, and now something he's never seen before, with a wide mouth and a long tail.
He wants to see if it's out there. The world is round, he knows, but it feels flat to walk on. Levi can't imagine how big it must be, but he wants to see all of it.
"And who would replace you?" Erwin's not quite smiling, the planes of his face highlighted by the sun in dusty gold.
"Ackerman," replies Levi without hesitation. Erwin nods, clearly expecting this answer. "And you?"
"Is he ready?" Can he do what you do?
Predictably, it's the second, unspoken question that Erwin chooses to answer.
"He's not a monster." And then, obvious in the set of his jaw, the look in his eyes: He's not me.
Levi thinks of Petra, and doesn't try to comfort him.
"Kiss him already!" shouts Hanji. Levi looks at Erwin. He can't pretend he's never considered it.
That night, a symbol goes to bed with a monster, and for a few precious hours neither has to think.
"Sir!" Erwin walks over to where Armin stands, grooming his horse. His bolo dangles from his fingers, and his footsteps are surer than they have been in a long time.
He's made his decision.
"How would you feel about command?" Armin's startled, but he meets Erwin's gaze with his chin high, unblinking. Yes, he's making the right choice.
"I don't know what you mean by that, sir." No, Armin doesn't know, but Erwin can tell he's got a pretty good guess: he's thinking my own squad? and Erwin almost laughs at the surprise he's going to get.
He hands him the bolo. Armin stares at it for a moment.
"Is this a joke?" Erwin doesn't answer, lets him figure it out for himself. Armin doesn't disappoint. "But… why?"
Because it's time. Because there's a whole world out there. Because Levi asked me to.
"It's not war anymore. The Corps needs a commander who isn't jumping at shadows half the time."
Armin looks at him steadily, aware that that's not the whole truth but choosing not to comment on it.
This is the one, thinks Erwin; if there was ever any doubt, it's gone now. They need a commander who's always expected to win, and the former 104th cut their teeth on Trost, the first victory in a hundred years.
Armin isn't going to be another Erwin, no matter what Levi thinks, and that's for the best. Humanity's won the war, after all – the Survey Corps should be commanded by a man who's got some left.
"My own squad?" Mikasa looks at Levi like he's out of his mind. "Do you think I'm ready?"
"Ackerman, the Titans are all dead. Only an idiot wouldn't be ready." He smiles, all dark edges and teeth. "So yeah, your own squad. In fact, you can have mine."
"You know," remarks Erwin, sitting beside Levi in a wagon packed with yeast-preserved food and spare 3DM gas, "the word 'paradise,' it comes from this old language – Pergan? Perzan? Something like that, anyway." Levi nods absently, eyes on the horizon.
"Anyway," Erwin continues, "it comes from a word in this language. And it means 'walled garden.'"
Funny, that walls could be anyone's paradise. But then, Levi's never been the sort who likes to be confined.
He says as much, and Erwin tilts his head, eyes half-closed like he's rolling the idea around in his head, trying to see every side of it.
"I think," he says after a while, "that people always want what they can't have." He sits up and regards Levi thoughtfully.
"There's a whole world here," quiet, and then, almost worshipful: "Where do you want to go?"
"I," replies Levi, "would like to see the mountains."
"Erwin," whispers Levi, "they're roses, look" (and how pathetic is that, humanity's strongest soldier awed by a few flowers?).
Tiny, delicately pink, they form a vibrant clump at the base of a huge oak tree. Levi reaches out to touch…
"They have thorns!" Erwin chuckles, but Levi barely notices – he's entranced by these strange, small beings which are just as alive as he is.
There are roses within Wall Sina, dead red and sick, fat yellow, thornless and a hundred years too inbred to be beautiful.
"You can make tea out of their little fruits," comments Erwin. "They're called rosehips, I think." He waves a slim booklet at Levi in response to his obvious confusion. "Says so in here. It's a guide to edible flora and fauna, put together from records in the royal library. They're printing them in droves."
It makes sense. Everyone wants to go outside now.
They don't try the tea, instead moving on as soon as the horses are rested. They pass by forests of trees with low, sprawling canopies hung with lichen, and hillsides covered in tall stalks that look like feathers. There's a valley with a stream running through what must be a thousand wildflowers, and each of them thinks separately that it would be a perfect place for a house.
Sometimes they find ruined buildings or old roads, lined by rusted husks of metal with wheels like wagons. They note the locations carefully on the map they're making, to carry back to Hanji and all the other researchers hungry for information about a world deserted for a hundred years.
The canyon is unbelievably huge, a rip in the barren earth that goes down many times the height of Wall Maria. Levi throws a pebble over the edge, and it clatters down the side until it's too far away to hear anymore.
"Levi, can you help me?" He turns to see Erwin struggling with his Maneuver Gear harness.
"What are you… oh." This is a horrible idea, he thinks, but he tugs the straps tight across Erwin's chest anyway and pulls on his own.
Levi's fingers fumble with the buckles, unfamiliar with something that was once as much a part of him as his bones. Has it really been so long?
They're both yelling as they drop from the canyon rim, twisting in midair to fire their grappling hooks with the unerring accuracy expected of humanity's strongest soldier and his commander.
The speed leaves Levi dizzy and exhilarated in a way that fighting Titans never could, and he wonders: is this what it's like to be alive?
Picture this: the world is empty of humans save two, sitting in a wagon, wandering and doing their best to forget. They kiss each other hesitantly, and when they laugh, they laugh like children.
I used "Survey Corps" instead of the more official "Scouting Legion" because the latter always makes me think of the Boy Scouts, and it makes it difficult to take seriously.
The word "paradise" comes originally from "pairidaeza," old Persian for "enclosure" or "park," made up of "pairi-" (around) and "diz" (to form, in this case a wall).
Wild roses are probably more likely to survive an apocalypse than just about anything else. Those things are impossible to kill.
Don't pretend you wouldn't use 3DM gear on the Grand Canyon.