The first thing she hears is that was a close call.
The second, what a crying shame.
Petra wakes to blurred faces and hazy voices, to the rustling of her rough, bloody shift against hard wood and the setting sun casting long shadows on Hanji's downturned nose, vaguely aware of the clatter of hooves against solid ground and the occasional bumping of the wagon. Instantly, her eyes snap open, and she jolts upright – "Squad Leader! What's going on? What happened to the mission?" Pain shoots to her head, and she can feel someone forcer her upper body back down, putting a pillow under her neck.
Hanji's eyes are far away, and her usual spirited glimmer is nowhere to be found. "It failed," Hanji says, very quietly.
Suddenly, Petra remembers, and she forces herself upright again. "Where's Gunther? Where are Eld and Auruo? Where's the Captain?"
The realization hits her like a sledgehammer, and all of a sudden Petra forgets how to breathe. "Hanji?" she says slowly, her eyes instantly brimming with tears. "Why can't I feel my legs?"
Hanji's eyes gleam. "Get some more rest, Petra."
Mike has to carry her off the wagon himself, and Petra turns bright red and stutters and insists that Mike Zacharius has better things to do than carry a broken girl off a wagon.
When she says that, Mike looks at her incredulously and leans in so close Petra thinks he means to sniff her. "You aren't broken, Petra."
Petra drifts in and out of consciousness like a drowning man gasping for air, learning to disregard time. Always, someone is in her room attending her; often she can make out the hazy outlines of one of the young recruits, sometimes it is Rene or Hanji or Mike or even Erwin, the sunlight making his hair shine like flame.
She does not see Levi.
No one has yet told her of Auruo, Eld, and Gunther, but she knows in her heart that they are gone, killed in action, nameless heroes in the endless battle against the Titans left to the appendices. She can tell by the deafening silence in her room, the lack of noisy chatter compounded by the empty feeling in her heart, pitfalls of loss she cannot quite place.
She wonders what will happen to their families, to Auruo's bright-eyed, ruddy-cheeked younger brothers, to Gunther's parents' kindly smiles and to Eld's beautiful lover singing ballads in her high, sweet voice. She wonders who had to tell them, if Levi had to tell them himself. She wonders what they think of her, alone but alive.
"Do they hate me? Do they wish me dead so the others could live?" she asks out loud during the rare hours her room is empty, her desperate voice bouncing off the walls, her eyes locked on the ceiling. "Am I grateful I am alive?"
One day she wakes to find Eren sitting beside her bed, his hands balled into fists at his sides.
"Eren," she says softly. "How many days has it been?"
"I'm sorry!" he blurts out, his green eyes gleaming. "It's my fault. It's my fault they're dead. That you're like this. If only I'd acted sooner."
Petra says nothing, instead glances at her useless legs under the thin sheets, sees how strong and toned they were just a week ago, wishes desperately that she would wake up under the tree and able to get up herself. "It isn't," she says, smiling weakly. "None of us saw that coming. The Titan was strong. It put up a good fight, but the Survey Corps got it eventually, right?"
"We got it too late," Eren mutters. "Too many people died."
Neither of them say anything for a while, Petra's hands wrinkling the sheets in consternation. She remembers suddenly the icy blue of the Female Titan's eyes, of the way its jaw crinkled as it killed yet another soldier, its smile before its leg swung towards her – "Captain Levi would say their deaths were not in vain," Petra says finally, swallowing deeply. "That, if anything, they should give us a reason to continue fighting."
Eren looks at her very sadly, then, eyes her limp legs and weak smile, and his eyes fill with tears. "I'm sorry!" he yells again, leaning in to hug her. Petra embraces him readily, pressing a kiss to his brow.
"It's not your fault, Eren," she murmurs, stifling the anger rising in her throat. "It's not your fault."
If anything, it's mine.
They have a special wheelchair brought in from the inner districts for her, and Erwin gives her leave to wander around Headquarters freely until her discharge can be processed – "Only a few more days," he promises earnestly. "Just until we finish processing those who died."
A few more days until Father, she tells herself. Until home.
But the Survey Corps is home.
Learning how to get around with just her arms is difficult. She tires easily, her back leaning against the chair's cushion; she drops things and can't bend to get them. Even going to the bathroom is a chore, and those are the times angry tears spring to her eyes and her fists clench, wishing for her legs back, for death, for anything but this.
Sometimes one of the recruits assigned to care for her has to wheel her around. She doesn't mind, because all of them are positively darling; Krista makes wonderful tea, Sasha entertains her with stories of her hometown, Connie cracks bad jokes to break the ice and Armin updates her on the goings-on within the Survey Corps. But she can see the fire in their eyes and the steel in their smiles, and knows that they are talented, that, the gods allow, they will far outclass her.
"In four days we're going on a trip to the Southern districts of Wall Rose," Armin says, wheeling her around the inner gardens. "Inspection of the Wall, that sort of thing."
"That's great," she laughs. "We'll leave HQ at the same time, then." But I won't be coming back.
The day they are due to leave she is in her room, packing the last of her belongings into a satchel. The room is nearly empty, now, Erwin having commanded soldiers to move her chest onto a wagon. An officer will deliver her, and then he will rendezvous back with the rest of the formation once she is safely in her home. She suspects this is already special treatment, and hopes it is not out of pity.
She kisses the kids from the 104th goodbye and wishes them the best of luck and gives Eren a long, long hug. "Trust in your teammates, and trust in yourself," she whispers. "But most importantly, take care of yourself, Eren."
Hanji nearly barrels into her, falling over herself to lean into the chair and embrace her. "Petra!" she wails. "I'll miss you so much."
"And I you, Hanji," Petra laughs.
Nanaba helps her into the wagon. "You'll be missed, Petra," she says, lifting her chair onto the cart. "Someone will have to keep the peace around here."
"You'll manage," says Petra. "Always have."
Nanaba grins and hurries to join the rest of her squad, leaving Petra alone on the wagon, her legs dangling over the side.
"Petra. Are you ready?"
Her head snaps up. It's the first time she's seen Levi since the mission, and her heart breaks looking at him – at the barely shaved stubble, at the bags under his eyes. She opens her mouth to say something, anything, and the first thing that comes out is "Captain. Your leg."
It's true, he's limping badly – she had heard he had broken it during the mission, and instantly she feels bad for making such an apparent observation. He gives her a humorless glance. "I could say the same for you."
He's tired, Petra knows him well enough to see.
"It doesn't matter," Levi mutters angrily. "Not when this blasted leg won't let me do anything." His eyes widen imperceptibly. "Sorry."
"It's all right, Captain." Petra leans against the side of the wagon as Levi hitches the horses and climbs on. "Just a few weeks and you'll be back in the game again. We'll all heal."
He looks away. "You don't have to pretend everything's fine, you know."
She gives him a little smile. "I know," she says. "But wallowing about it won't do anything."
"You don't have to pretend you've fully accepted it, either."
Petra closes her eyes. "It's a big thing to accept. It's difficult, training yourself day after day to be a soldier and then one day – you're not."
Levi is silent for a while. "Have you ever thought about what you're going to do once you're home?"
"My family wanted me to retire and get married," Petra confesses, more to the empty air than to Levi. "I suppose I wanted it, too. But then, who'd want a crippled wife? Even one that was honorably discharged?" She laughs harshly, and hates herself for it. All of a sudden, she realizes that these are the last hours she'll ever spend as a soldier, and feels the urge to tell him everything. They said it was a shame when I woke up, she imagines telling him. I know they meant it's a shame I lost my legs, but I'm starting to think it was a shame I didn't die, instead.
But she knows better, knows Levi does more than his own share of mourning, imagines all the shock he had to burden telling Gunther's mother or Auruo's youngest brother the truth. She wonders if he'd spoken to her father, if her father had brought up her letters if Levi had. If he thought she was a failure for being unable to live up to her reasons for joining his squad.
"For what it's worth, Petra," he says finally, "I'm glad you survived."
"Thank you, Captain." Petra taps her fingers against her knee, and resents how she can't feel the tap. "If it's worth anything – I will do anything and everything in my power to ensure you guys are welcome in Canales."
"We can't all be part of the Recon Corps forever," Levi says, his eyes firmly on the road. "Settle down. You can find a husband, make children. We all have to move on somehow."
"Maybe." Petra wrings her fingers as her street comes into view. "I don't know, Corporal."
He sighs before pulling up to her father's house. "We're here," he says. "And drop it with the Corporal. I'm not your superior anymore."
Despite herself, Petra laughs, her giggles ringing in the clear air. "I'm not broken, Levi."
He gives her the tiniest hint of a smile. "I know."
Warmth blooming in her chest, Petra Rall wheels herself home.