It had already been a few months since Erwin killed his last titan. As far as they could tell, they had wiped them out; not a titan to be seen for miles in all directions around around them. The peace they received in the end wasn't as peaceful as they had expected. There were no more titans but there were people without places to go, homes that needed to be rebuilt, a whole world outside their walls that held countless more mysteries for them. He was still the commander but the scouting legion had evolved with the world around them and became something a little different. Now they were scouting the plains for suitable places to begin construction. He held the same title but now his position became more like that of 'head foreman' than 'commander'.
There were celebrations almost every day during the first month of liberation. The scouting legion, the members of the military police, the royal guard, veterans, and even trainees were treated as guests of honor. It was alright for the first week until it became more of a bother than an honor. Some scouts took off their jackets in public and hid their emblems just so they could go places without people crowding around them in the streets to thank them for what they'd done for them. The attention they received wasn't surprising, but it was also hard to accept sometimes because they remembered the way those same people treated them when they came back after suffering a loss. The people expected nothing but positive results. It would've been easier to graciously accept their praise and move along but there were enough scouts who felt too bitter about the civilians' sudden change in attitude to accept it.
There were a few people who were always conspicuously absent from any of those victory celebrations. After the first one, Erwin hadn't seen Hange attending them again. The titans were gone, yet she continued to study them enthusiastically with more gusto than ever. It became her new purpose to catalog all of her knowledge on the titans for the sake of future generations, to make sure that the goliath beasts never found a way to return to devastate mankind. She would see to it that their existence would never be lost in the annals of history. No sacrifice would be in vain. No loss would be forgotten. Centuries later, it was her hope that their descendants would remember their ancestors as brave warriors who fought to protect the future they held.
Armin Arlert, Mikasa Ackerman, and Eren Yeager... The three of them were now stronger than they had ever been. It was a shame that those three who were so young had been dragged through a hell that forced them to see the world with eyes beyond their years, but when Erwin looked at them, he saw something brilliant.
There was light surrounding them. They glowed brightly with an innocent hope for the future, a hope that they had never become jaded enough to abandon. They had seen hell and come back with the strength to laugh openly, holding nothing back. As they helped the people of the walls rebuild, for the first time since he'd met them, they looked like children. If they were to be the leaders of the future, then he was unafraid of what laid ahead.
He wouldn't mind letting them handle things for a while already, in fact. As the commander, he felt obligated to attend all of those parties and had become completely worn out as a result. If it weren't for a certain person who was there to hold him up, he was sure he would have collapsed from exhaustion a number of times already.
He was too proud to say it, but he could tell that Levi was just as tired as he was. They spent their lives fighting for this end but they never expected to see it with their own eyes, didn't know what to do with it once it was in their grasp. He was sure that Levi felt the same way, but it was only through his eyes that he could see how truly weakened he was. The world's strongest man had nothing left to fight.
Yet he continued to stand by his side.
From the beginning, he was a stray cat. Levi stayed with them, agreed to be a part of the scouting legion, but it was clear that he only intended to stay as long as he had a reason to be with them. Somewhere along the way, he grew attached to the others and began to see the men he fought alongside of as more than just disposable hands. They were his brethren. He understood that they were all just stray cats, scratching up the shins of something literally much bigger than they were.
They fought together, brought down the enemy together, and now Levi, like many others, was left with nothing. Without the 3D maneuver gear and the blades strapped to his sides, he seemed unbalanced, like he forgot what it was like to walk without their familiar weight. He spoke quietly, returned the praise from civilians with a hesitant tilt of his head, but never smiled. He was still uncertain whether he should be happy about their success when it came at such a price.
Erwin suspected that he continued to stay with him now because he had no idea what else he would do with himself. Return to the life he had before he joined the scouting legion? The person he was now wouldn't allow that, but he'd also never suspected that he would have a life after the scouting legion, either.
The future was a thing they dreamed of, intangible, but now it was real. It was theirs, and it filled them with anxiety.
The end made Levi distant. He still slept in Erwin's bed, but ever when he was only a breath away, he felt far away. When their lives hung in the balance, they clung to each other to keep from falling, but now there was ground firmly beneath their feet. There wasn't a reason for them to continue supporting each other.
That was the kind of thought that was probably going through Levi's head, Erwin thought. He was stuck trying to rationalize something that didn't need to be rationalized, spinning himself in dizzying circles that would never lead to a satisfying answer. For the sake of everyone else, he ignored his own desires; the deep ones that were dangerous to dream of in a life where tomorrow was never guaranteed.
He was still adjusting to tomorrow.
Little by little though, he was becoming warmer.
His name was the first thing from Erwin's lips one certain morning. The room was enveloped in warm sunlight and he could hear birds and the voices of the early construction shift outside. For the first time in a while, he awoke with Levi's head pillowed on his chest, right where he remembered him falling asleep the night before. His brows furrowed and his eyes squeezed shut even more tightly when the sound of Erwin's voice threatened to wake him from what appeared to be an uncommonly peaceful sleep.
"Don't worry," he said, rubbing a hand over Levi's back. "They know what they're doing today. It'll be enough for us to check up on them every now and then."
"Good," Levi mumbled, rubbing his face into Erwin's chest. Erwin could tell that he had more to say, but he paused first to stretch out his legs and yawn widely. "I could use a fucking break."
Erwin scratched his nails lightly between Levi's shoulder blades, pondering for a moment while his body and mind struggled to fully emerge from sleep. "Are you alright, Levi?"
It was straightforward enough. He contemplated whether or not he should say it, but it felt right once he heard the words with his own ears. Levi had clearly heard him, but he pretended that he hadn't, turning his head away so Erwin couldn't see his eyes.
He huffed, a quiet admission of defeat. Levi knew that he couldn't lie to him. "Who would be okay after that?" he asked.
He was quiet again after that. It was still too early for him to get talkative. Erwin knew that there were things he could help Levi with and things that were beyond his control. For all those other things, pretty soon, he was going to look into finding a doctor Levi would be willing to talk to – perhaps, after he found one for himself.
"Erwin." Levi picked up his head and sat up slowly and Erwin looked up curiously, waiting. Lowering his eyes, Levi tentatively placed a hand over Erwin's chest. "Can you say it again?"
Letting his eyes close, Erwin rested his hands gently over Levi's. "I love you," he said, opening his eyes, looking straight at Levi.
Something seemed to have changed in him that morning. Many days had turned to night before then, but it was like that morning had been the one to awaken him. His hand felt warm beneath Erwin's and its warmth spread to his heart as he witnessed a quiver in Levi's still expression. While Levi had yet to repeat the words, he'd never rejected them, and Erwin felt content that he was interested in hearing them as many times as he was willing to say them.
His reaction to them varied each time. He seemed fascinated by them; surprised, because he'd never expected to hear them.
Looking away, Levi weathered a heavy sigh and pulled away from him to get up from the bed. "We should get up already. I don't even know what time it is right now."
Erwin rolled over to grab his watch from the nightstand and was horrified to find that it was well after noon. They dressed quickly and Erwin had to fight the lingering instinct to reach for his other gear. There was no point in wearing it anymore. It felt strange not to, but it was something he was going to have to get used to. He'd figure out a new place to store it later.
They left Erwin's room and grabbed a cup of whatever coffee they could find. Even though it tasted at least a few hours old, neither complained, sipping it in pleasant silence. When Erwin finished his cup, Levi suggested that they go shopping. A day out in the sun sounded like what they needed, so he agreed and they left as soon as Levi had finished his coffee.
A group of scouts-turned-reconstruction hands greeted them cheerfully as they left the base. Half of their own building had taken considerable damage and was still undergoing reparation. There was no reason for him to be quiet about his relationship with Levi any longer, but apparently they were as obvious as he'd suspected, because it appeared that all of the others already knew. Behind their backs, they were supposedly known as the 'squad mother and father' – Levi being the 'mother', much to his chagrin. Erwin reasoned that it was because of his cleaning habits, but that didn't change Levi's opinion of his nickname.
They headed into town together and, as usual, found themselves attracting a lot of attention. They approached a bakery and anyone following them had the decency not to follow them as they dipped inside. Levi had a secret taste for the pastry at that particular establishment, but it didn't last as a secret for very long when there were women in town who dedicated themselves to finding out every inane detail of their lives.
They'd always had fan clubs but their female fans became even more enthusiastic after they helped bring down the titans. They suspected that the owner of the bakery was the leader of one such club because of her unusually preferential treatment of them. The second she saw them enter her store, she tossed anyone else out to let them browse the selection without interruption.
Once she had anyone else out, she scurried behind the counter and disappeared into the back room, appearing again seconds later with a pan of fresh pastries in her hands.
"The tarts just came out of the oven!" she said proudly, placing the tray on top of the counter.
Levi pretended to be interested in the rack of day old bread, but Erwin knew that he was weak to the smell of hot pastries.
"What sort did you like best?" she asked.
Levi glanced over. "Are those cherry?"
He tapped the front of his boot on the floor, then slowly moved to the counter to have a look. Though his eyes remained as impassive as ever, his nostrils flared as he looked down at the bite-sized baked item. "I'll take four." He looked up at Erwin. "You want one?"
Erwin laughed. So he wanted four just for himself... "One will be fine for me. I'm surprised I haven't tried them yet. You really like these, don't you?" Levi gave him a look that told him to be quiet. "Do you have any whole cherry pies ready yet? Something tells me it would be a better deal to buy a whole pie than a handful of little tarts. They're basically a small version of a pie, aren't they?"
Levi looked at him as if he had said something ludicrous. He could be unreasonable about such unusual things...
"I don't have any pies ready yet. I'm sorry," she said, resting her cheek in her hand. "However..." She turned and slid a fresh loaf of bread off the shelf into a paper bag which she then held out for him to take. "It may not be pie, but how about a hot loaf on the house? For my favorite couple."
Next to him, Levi sputtered. What she said seemed to ignite something in him. In such a rush to leave, Levi bumped into Erwin's side as he sped out the door and he didn't even had a chance to ask him where he thought he was going before he completely disappeared. The baker looked concerned but he assured her that she shouldn't worry about him. Against her protests, he paid for both the tarts and the loaf of bread and slid out of the bakery to look for Levi.
He spotted him up the street, heading quickly in the direction of the base. Erwin chased after him, but with so many people impeding his way, he didn't catch up to him until he was nearly there. Once he caught up to him, he grabbed him by the shoulder and Levi immediately stopped.
"What got into you back there?"
He brushed Erwin's hand off his shoulder and kept walking. At least he wasn't trying to run away, but he didn't want to stay there either. Whatever he had to say, it seemed that he didn't want to say it where anyone else could hear. Holding their bag from the bakery in one arm, Erwin curiously followed him through the front gates. He would've asked where they were going, but he didn't think Levi even knew.
Once they were back inside, Levi turned around and Erwin slowly came to a stop in front of him. Levi came closer and guiltily took the bag from his arms. "Sorry. I don't know."
Was that his answer? He knew. He just didn't want to say. "Do you not want to stay with me any longer?"
That wasn't it. The panic-stricken expression his question evoked definitely indicated otherwise.
The paper bag crunched in his fingers.
"Let's go for a ride," Erwin suggested. "Go set that down and meet me out back."
After seeing Levi's weak nod, he gave him a pat on the shoulder and parted from him.
He headed out back to where they kept the horses stabled and his horse seemed quite excited to see him when it noticed him coming. Now that things had changed, they didn't need to take the long rides outside the wall that they used to and the horses seemed to miss all the attention they used to receive. He rubbed its nose when he got close to it and it huffed lazily and clopped in place. He grabbed his saddle off the wooden rack nearby and placed it on its back, then eyed it and silently wondered if it was big enough for two people.
Levi returned shortly and Erwin stopped him before he went for a saddle.
"Don't bother with it."
He looked at him askance. "We're only taking one?"
"You've ridden my horse before. You know he likes you." He gently pet the side of his horse's neck and slid back in the saddle to give Levi room. "Come on up."
He still seemed a bit uncomfortable with the notion of riding on one horse, but he came over and pulled himself up onto it without accepting any help from Erwin. Once he was settled in, Erwin reached around him and picked up the reins to get them moving. With everyone else busy, there was no one around to see them leave out the back, and he was sure that Levi was grateful for that.
"So where are we going?" Levi asked a few minutes down the road behind the base.
There was no particular destination in mind. A wild, irrational part of him wanted to just keep going forever, to take Levi far, far away with him to reaches they'd never seen, somewhere where it would only be the two of them. There were people who still needed them, though. He wanted to be irrational but the responsible part of him was too strong to argue with.
"Get comfortable. We're going outside."
It was a few more minutes before Levi complied, relaxing bonelessly against Erwin's chest. Erwin wrapped an arm around his waist and loosely rested the other holding the reins in front of them. He avoided all of the main roads to keep from running into anyone they might not want to chat with and kept going until he reached the nearest gate. It felt unusual to pass through it without question and even more unusual to enter what was once titan-infested land without their gear equipped.
"Gives me the creeps," Levi muttered as they rode over the worn path that led to the forest.
Erwin looked down at him. "What does?"
"Being out here without my blades."
"I was just thinking the same thing," Erwin said with a soft laugh. He nudged his cheek against Levi's affectionately, trying to get him to calm down. He'd been tense since he woke up, but that same tenseness hadn't left his shoulders since the moment they vanquished the last titan. "Everyone else is adjusting, though. I think it's about time we let ourselves relax too, don't you?"
Levi frowned deeply, a frown that twisted his whole face.
He was sure that the things he had to say weren't things Levi hadn't thought before, but they were things he needed to hear from someone else.
"You're allowed to think about what you want now. I'm sure there will always be people who need us, but now you can put yourself first. We've given everyone what they wanted, so I don't think they could expect anything greater from us, honestly."
He didn't expect Levi to respond right away. He was willing to give him as much time as he needed to think about it as long as he didn't start running away, which seemed to be literally what he intended to do. Keeping his arm tightly wrapped around his waist, he rode into the forest with him and slowed their pace once they were beneath the shade of the trees. The ones inside the walls seemed much shorter for some reason, as if all the trees on the outside decided that they had to grow taller to keep up with the absurd height of the titans. The titans may have ignored anything that wasn't human, but the rest of nature noticed them for sure.
At last, he heard Levi speak again, but his voice was soft while he keep his eyes directed at his lap. "I don't like being out here."
"I wasn't thinking. We should've brought the tarts and bread with us. We could've had a picnic," Erwin joked. That got a sliver of a smile out of Levi, which he accepted as a small victory.
He handed Levi the reins and let him choose where they would head to. The area around them was a familiar one, a place they had to cut through frequently during their expeditions to kill titans and gather information. The two of them knew the place like the backs of their hands, were familiar with each tree, recognized the places where they'd killed a titan, remembered where they'd seen comrades die. He could tell that Levi was thinking the same things he was. Whenever Erwin's eyes fell on a dark patch of bark, he couldn't help wondering if it were an old bloodstain. He tried to convince himself that he was only seeing shadows.
Keeping his eyes forward, Levi led them to a small clearing where the trees stood in a circle around a glistening, knee-high pond that joined a thin stream that ran through the forest. He slowed near it and the horse halted, dipping its head low to take a drink. Levi leaned back against Erwin's chest and rolled his head back onto his shoulder.
"You look like you could fall asleep right here," Erwin observed.
"I told you. I don't like being out here. There's no way I could fall asleep."
"You think a titan is going to appear?" He felt a faint shudder in Levi's shoulders. "They're gone now."
Levi scratched his fingers over the sides of his thighs where his blades would've been. "Gone, huh..."
Unable to sit still for any longer, he pushed himself up and hopped off the horse. Erwin followed, swinging his leg over the horse's side to get down. The forest felt especially quiet without the presence of any titans, without the sound of a dozen other hooves traveling behind them. The urge to break the silence was painfully tempting but he could tell that Levi was using it to think.
"I guess I just couldn't believe it. But we're out here and there are definitely no titans," he said distantly, looking up, toward the tops of the trees where the sun illuminated the leaves like a halo above the pond. "What I want..."
He understood what it felt like. They were living in a dream; a reality that was far beyond what they had expected for themselves. It was hard to believe, which made it hard to accept.
When Levi turned around to look at him, it looked like he was finally able to see their new world for what it was.
They were still there, together.
Levi put a hand to his face and Erwin came forward to wrap his arms around his shoulders. He wouldn't have said a word if Levi felt like crying, but instead, he simply sighed, like he felt all of his tangled, complicated thoughts were just too much of a bother.
He shifted in Erwin's embrace and lifted his arms up so he could hold Erwin's face between his hands.
His eyes stared into Erwin's, searching for an answer. "What am I supposed to do now?"
The answer rolled naturally off Erwin's tongue.
Levi continued to stare. "Are you sure?"
"Have you ever questioned me before?" he asked.
A growl of pain slid past his lips when Levi stepped on his toes, but it soon turned into a laugh, muffled as Levi pressed their lips together, using Erwin's feet to give himself a boost. Without breaking the kiss, Erwin put his hands on Levi's waist and lifted him up so he could gently place him back on the ground. In Levi's kiss, he could feel all of the familiar desperation that he felt whenever they reunited after an expedition; Levi's gratefulness, his pain, his love. It contained all the things he would never let himself say; the things he wanted to tell him the most.
He looked positively exhausted when he pulled away, but he also looked happier than Erwin could ever recall seeing him.
He nodded once to himself, then planted his face against Erwin's chest. "Erwin..." He repeated his name again happily and rubbed his face into the front of his shirt.
"I bet you have a lot you want to talk about now, don't you?" he asked, smiling down at Levi who looked up at him with his fingers curled in the fabric of his shirt.
That was what cherry tarts were for. When they got back, perhaps they could finally talk and have the delicate pastries with tea. Then, when they ran out of tarts, they could see if the kind woman at the bakery had any pies ready yet and inform her of their informal engagement by way of apology for Levi's earlier behavior.