Something had gone terribly, terribly wrong. It started out as a simple recon mission, small enough to require only four members. They were told to see what they could find crawling around the Wall Maria. There were only supposed to be a few titans. Only a few.
Of course Levi was in charge of the mission. Of course he got to choose the remaining three members. Of course he chose Eren. Levi, Eren, Hanji, and Jean. Those were the only people he needed. They should've been enough.
He gave strict instructions not to engage unless forced. Especially Eren. That kid had a tendency to lose control over his emotions, get injured, and morph into his titan self. They weren't trying to attract more titans; they just needed to see what was out there. Erwin had learned not to send the entire Scouting Legion out after the last mission. That was why Levi was sent.
It went awry almost immediately after the gate closed behind them. They topped a hill and found a horde of titans instead of three or four. Levi gave the order, and everyone immediately veered left. But it was already too late; the titans had seen them.
Within moments, they had over a hundred titans chasing them at top speed. Jean was cursing outwardly as their horses sprinted flat out toward the only place Levi knew they'd have a chance of survival: the forest where they'd nearly captured the female titan. He didn't want to go back there, not after losing his squad the last time, but what other choice did they have?
Aside from a few choice words uttered by Jean, they were completely silent until they reached the forest. A few crashes came from behind them as some of the stupider titans rammed into the trees. The rest were simply slowed down.
"Switch to 3D Maneuver Gear," Levi ordered, no emotion slipping through his voice.
Lines were shot out from the gear, hooks ramming into the trunks, and soon the horses were running without passengers, as the four of them flew onto the branches.
"This won't work for long," Jean spoke up. "They figured out how to climb the trees last time."
Levi didn't respond. He was trying to figure something out that didn't involve four members – two of whom were still barely out of the cradle – fighting a hundred titans. He kept coming to the same solution, but no. Anything but that.
"Sir." It was Eren. "I can fight them."
"But, Corporal! If you just let me –"
"I said no."
"Levi." This time it was Hanji who spoke. "There are hundreds of them. Even you can't fight that many." She rarely called him by his name; only when it was especially important.
"And we won't be able to fight the others who come because of his scent."
Jean lost it. "Fucking dammit! What are we supposed to do then? Wait until dark? Hope we don't get any titan shifters hell-bent on kidnapping him?!"
"Calm down," Hanji urged, shooting a worried glance toward the Corporal. But Levi didn't care about what some blond little shit had to say. Ultimately it was his decision. And Eren would obey his decision. Wouldn't he?
A glance over at the brunet revealed the other raising his fist toward his mouth, an intense expression on his face. In a flash Levi engaged his maneuver gear, flying to the boy and slamming him back against the tree, confining his hands. "What the fuck are you doing, Jäger?! Have you hit your head and forgotten?! I am in charge and you will obey my orders!"
His eyes were no longer sporting their impassive, blank look but were instead flashing in what could only be anger. It was a look that intimidated everyone, made them back down. Everyone except Eren, it seemed. The boy was glaring back, an equally deep scowl lining his brows.
"My apologies, sir, but you don't seem to be making any sense." Brat.
"If you want to continue on as humanities greatest hope, then I advise you to listen to me."
"You're being unreasonable."
Levi lowered his voice to a growl, not wanting Hanji or Jean to hear what he said next. "I will not let you sacrifice yourself needlessly."
Eren's glare wavered, and Levi knew he must've let something slip into his expression. Why else would the brunet suddenly look so concerned? "I never said I would sacrifice myself." He spoke softly as well, his words ghosting over Levi's lips, causing the corporal to unconsciously lean closer to him. It must've looked strange to the others for them to be so close, but for the moment Levi didn't care.
"You didn't have to." Some emotion leaked its way into his words. If they made it out of this alive, Eren would never let him live it down.
"Levi…" Eren pressed his hand against Levi's cheek in what the grey-eyed man supposed was intended as a comforting gesture. It wasn't really working. He'd already lost so many; he couldn't bear the thought of losing Eren too. It was…too much.
"They're coming!" Jean jerked them out of the moment, and Levi turned his head to see. The fastest of the titans had finally managed to smell them out amongst the trees. Time was up.
The moment of inattention cost him everything; Eren took advantage of Levi's loosened grip to dart past the older man. "Eren!" The corporal called out. But it was too late.
Eren was darting from tree to tree, running toward the titans, and Levi could swear he heard the boy call out "I'm sorry!" before he flew off the last branch, biting his thumb. There was a flash of lightning, and the rogue titan stood before them, blocking the oncoming titans from reaching the remaining three. Levi was having none of that.
"Hanji, Kirschtein, prepare to engage." His own blades were out and ready.
Jean looked shocked. "What? Aren't we going to escape while we can?"
"Listen, you little shit." Levi had heard more than enough from the blond. "I'm not about to let the military's greatest weapon, let alone another member from my squad, die here to protect a brat like you. So unless you really are a fucking coward like those pigs in the inner district, then I suggest you pull your blades out and prepare to fight."
The blond's mouth open and closed like a gaping fish before he grumbled something and grabbed his weapons. Good. He barked out his orders. "You two will go to the left of Eren, but stay close to him. Make sure none of them attack his weak spot. I'll be on the right. Use your gas sparingly if you can; the horses ran off with all our spares." He turned to Hanji. "And one last thing. I don't plan on losing anyone today, so be sure to watch each other's backs." He fired the grappling hook and flew toward where Eren was already fighting.
In a way they were lucky; not all the titans had managed to make their way through the trees toward them. He knew the rest would manage to get there eventually, but if they could fight off a dozen at a time, then it significantly improved their odds. It also helped that Eren seemed to have complete control over his titan.
Humanities strongest soldier displayed his ability by taking down three titans in one round, using his maneuver gear to fly around the back of all their heads, slicing as he went. They fell steaming, and four appeared in their place. He repeated the action in reverse, but only managed to take out two of them; the other two were of a shorter class. He took out those by hooking onto a larger titan that had just appeared and swinging down, cutting open their necks, before flying up and onto the back of the titan he was attached to. He sliced that one's weak spot open just as it was about to slap him off its shoulder. Levi landed back on the tree branch and looked about to see how the others were faring.
Despite his doubts, Hanji and Jean were an effective team, taking down titans one after another, with military precision. He made a mental note to himself in case they made it back alive. It also seemed as though they had taken his advice on the gas seriously, using the trees to their advantage. Perhaps they would have a chance after all.
Then Levi looked around for Eren. The rogue titan was somehow meters and meters ahead of them and seemed to be struggling in the trees. Something about his size and smell drew more titans to him than the other three, and he was trying to fight off titans from all sides. Levi's eyes travelled downward and he realized a couple of the smaller titans had lodged onto his legs and were knawing on his hips. Eren stumbled back against a tree and was immediately attacked by the larger ones. He was trapped.
Levi shot his hook out and flew toward Eren. He had to get there. He had to help before…Before something bad happened. He engaged the hook on the other side and it buried itself into a tree trunk allowing him to continue toward Eren. But the third time, his hook didn't come out. Gas flew out the back of the gear, and he heard a whirring noise. It was jammed. Just his luck. He'd already released his hook from behind him, so he flipped around, hoping to at least land on his feet. No such luck.
A shorter titan waited below him, its mouth open and ready for a snack. Levi put his blades in front of him, managing to jam the titan's mouth open so he could use its face as a landing pad. As soon as his feet touched, he was jumping again. He would cut through this one's Achilles so it would fall and he could dispose of it from the ground. But midair without maneuver gear was a dangerous place. Eren's flailing foot – just trying to remove the smaller titans – nailed Levi in the stomach, and the older man was thrown against the nearest tree, sinking down to the ground.
His chest hurt; he was absolutely certain some of his ribs were broken. Eren would pay for that later. Levi struggled into an upright position, an involuntary hiss of pain forcing its way out of his mouth. Oh yeah, the kid would definitely pay.
The shorter titan he'd been meaning to dispose of earlier lumbered toward him, and Levi continued trying to force himself to stand up. He could barely breathe.
Hanji and Jean had just noticed the situation. Their screams drew Eren's attention. Levi watched in a sort of detached horror as the boy's titan form jerked forward, squishing the short titan under his foot. With some kind of renewed energy, Eren roared and flung his body against tree after tree, breaking the titans off him, but not killing them entirely. As they regenerated, he leaned down and picked up Levi gently. The corporal vaguely noticed how carefully the boy held him before he was set on the branch the other two were now standing. The boy stared at him a moment, the words 'go now' clear in his eyes.
He'd stood there too long. The newly regenerated titans mobbed him, teeth sinking into different parts of his body. Eren let out a head-splitting roar, knees giving out as his Achilles tendons were torn out by the smaller titans.
"Corporal, we need to go now," Hanji urged.
Levi stood unsteadily. "No. We need to help." His voice was almost as unsteady as his legs. He tried to take a step forward, only to fall against Jean. The blond and Hanji shared a look, before Jean lifted Levi over his shoulder.
"Set me down!" It was as much a scream of pain as an order. But Jean didn't obey. None of the graduates from the 104th ever listened. Rebellious brats, the lot of them.
Eren let out another roar as the titans dug into his back. They were precariously close to the weak spot; to where the real human was.
"Eren!" Jean was already flying through the air, trying to get as far from the place as he could.
A chunk of flesh was torn out of the rogue's neck, and the roar ceased. Levi was in a panic now. Despite the pain in his ribs, he thrashed around, nearly causing the blond to drop him. "Dammit, stay still," the kid muttered. But Levi ignored him.
One of the fourteen meter class titans was pulling something – a body – out of the place that had just been torn out.
"Put me down, Kirschtein! That's an order!"
A more human shout sounded out behind them. Eren's human form was thrashing about in the titan's hand. Jean and Hanji were still too close; Levi could see and hear every detail.
The kid's eyes met his, blue swimming with tears. At that moment they both stopped moving. Time stopped entirely.
"Levi, I'm scared to die." He must've barely whispered it, but Levi heard the words as if they were spoken into his ears. His eyes widened in horror as the boy was raised into the air and dropped into the titan's mouth, teeth crunching down.
"EREN!" Levi screamed as time caught back up, and he was whisked away, the trees closing the scene to him.
Hanji's voice sounded far away when he next heard it. "Jean, take him with you and hold him down. We're going back." They'd made it to the horses.
"Yes, sir." Levi was gripped about the middle, legs on either side of a saddle, back flush against something that could only be his subordinate. "Please stop thrashing around, corporal."
The ride back to the gates was a blur. They might have seen more titans, or perhaps the way home was clean. He wasn't sure. All he could see was Eren's eyes – the blue-green orbs he'd drowned in time and time again – and how they looked when he'd whispered those words. "Levi, I'm scared to die." That wasn't supposed to happen. Those weren't supposed to be his last words.
"What's wrong? What happened?" That was Erwin's voice. So they were back inside. When had they made it back?
"Levi, I'm scared to die." Stop it. Enough.
"What's wrong with him?" Erwin again.
"I don't know. I think he's in shock."
"He broke a few ribs too from what I can feel." Hanji and Jean.
"Get him to a hospital."
The world was flashing in front of him. He could see buildings and horses and people staring at him. But then he would blink and Eren was in front of him again. Smiling, laughing, panting beneath him. Then his face twisted into that look of fear again. "Levi…"
Then everything went white. At first Levi thought he'd finally done it; gone crazy at last. But no, he was just in a hospital. And there was something wrapped around his chest. Bandages. "How are you feeling?"
He blinked, his eyes focusing for the first time. "How long was I out?" His voice blank, empty.
"A few days," Erwin replied softly. "Do you remember anything?"
Levi blinked again, all the images playing out at once. "Everything."
"I've placed you on leave. At least until you're back to normal."
He stared hard at where his hands were wrapped around the white sheets. It looked wrong. The whole thing looked wrong. "Nothing about how we live is normal."
"He promised he wouldn't die, Erwin." I never said I would sacrifice myself. "He lied."
"Levi," for the first time the other's voice held concern. "No one can promise something like that." Yes, Erwin had suffered losses before. Levi knew. So had he. But none of them hurt. Not this much.
And he still couldn't look away from his hands. He was afraid of what would happen if he did. "Does it get better?"
There was a creak of a chair moving backward, and when Erwin spoke his voice came from above. "No. It doesn't." Footsteps moved away from the bed and stopped. There was a sharp intake of breath, as if the man were about to say something, but then he must've thought better of it, because when Levi looked up he was alone.
I can't decide if I want to leave it like this or somehow try and make it happy.