chapter three

*******

let me be that I am and seek not to alter me

*******

It was a bit odd, finding a pattern to his days after spending over a decade on the run. Ever since Levi had taken him in, Eren would make breakfast and spend part of the morning cleaning, and now there was the addition of the magic lessons. It was a far cry from either being in constant motion or huddled somewhere as he waited for the danger to pass.

And now there was the fact that Levi was his lover, which not only meant having some sort of weird rhythm to his day but someone to share it with as well, someone to drag him out of bed and shove him toward the kitchen, to bitch at him to dust right and poke at him until he got the handle of wards.

It was… it was so *weird* and yet Eren found himself settling in with a happiness that was tinged with a sense of guilt that Mikasa and Armin weren’t here to share in with this rare sense of domesticity. Though yeah, *Mikasa*. Busy washing up the breakfast dishes, Eren shivered a little as he thought about how his sister would take to finding out that he not only had a lover, but that said lover was Levi – was someone a good bit older than him and didn’t have that reputable of a job. She’d been so overprotective of him the couple of times he’d tried to return someone’s interest, to the point that between her breathing down his neck and his own talent kicking in at the worst time that he’d given up on any chance on dating.

“You done yet?” The feel of Levi’s magic settled around him like a shadow on a hot day, cool and refreshing and an almost intense sense of relief.

“Hmm?” Eren shook water from the bowl in his hand and set it on the drying rack. “Just about.” He smiled at Levi as his lover poured a fresh cup of tea from a pot shaped like a skull. “So what’s on the agenda for today?”

“We’ll have you cast some wards outside – I want to see if you can do it while you’re shifted.” Levi paused to blow on the hot tea as he eyed Eren up and down, radiating calm and a low burn of attraction. “You fight in anything other than that giant shape of yours?”

“I’ve a couple of forms that I find comfortable, though I can shift into whatever works best at the moment.” Eren fished for the last of the silverware and wiped them clean as he told his hormones to settle; just because he finally had a lover didn’t mean they were to be indulged all of the time. Unfortunately. “I’ve a more human form with hardened skin for when I’m stuck in a crowd, and can shift into something similar to a hybrid were form as well.”

Levi grunted and took a sip of tea. “Good, we’ll have you try them out while the ward’s up, see if it affects anything, and then I’ll hit you with that spell I was talking about. I might tinker with it some, too, since we don’t know if the enemy has something that’ll freeze you while shifted.”

Done with the dishes and his ardor cooled off a little now that they were talking about ways to mess with his magic, Eren let the dirty water drain out then dried his hands. “It’s not often that I shift into something small and harmless, but there are times when it helps with escaping.” Or if someone influenced him along the lines which Levi was doing right now, though usually without all the fun emotions.

“That or they lock you into your current form.” Levi reached out with his left hand to brush his fingertips along Eren’s face; Eren had pulled his bangs back with a clip he’d borrowed from Hange while he’d cooked to keep the strands from falling into his eyes. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that your enemies are going to do their best to take away all of your advantages during a fight so plan accordingly.”

There was a flatness to Levi’s voice and emotions just then, a hardness to his grey eyes which told Eren that the necromancer had experience to back up his words. Shivering a little, Eren stepped forward as he reached for Levi’s hand and pressed it against his cheek. “How do you stop a necromancer?” As soon as the question slipped free, he wondered if he should have asked it.

Yet all Levi did was set his tea aside and wrapped his right arm around Eren’s waist to pull him in even closer. “You try to be all smart and lure him into an area wiped clean of all spirits and any remnants of the dead, but there’s a trick to that.” He leaned in to nuzzle Eren’s left ear as his emotions warmed up with a bit of lust. “You have to take him out quick, because all he needs is one slip, one new death and the board’s leveled.”

Eren could easily imagine Levi creating that ‘slip’ immediately. “They underestimated you, huh?” He brushed his fingers back and forth over the shaved undercut of his lover’s hair, and smiled a little at how Levi shivered in reaction.

“Yeah, they did. Mages are fucking idiots – all that magic and they never expect a damn knife in the throat.” There was a slight smirk to his thin lips as he flicked Eren on the ear he’d just nuzzled. “Which is why once we’re done with the magic practice, we’ll work on those fighting lessons.” There was a sense of smugness as well with the lust.

“Have I mentioned yet how much of a slave driver you are?” Eren scrunched his eyes closed as he rubbed at his abused ear. “Can’t I just like, shift into armored skin or something?”

“Not today and no, that’s just being lazy.”

When Eren opened his eyes, he found Levi giving him a bland look while reaching for the mug of tea. “I think you just like seeing me fail at things while rubbing it in my nose how perfect you are.”

Levi’s left eyebrow raised up while he sipped his tea, as good as an affirmation as anything. Eren sputtered and attempted to pull free, but in addition to being an asshole, Levi was also pretty damn strong. “No wonder everyone wants to kill you,” Eren muttered as he attempted to pry free from the hand wrapped around his hip.

“Amusing. It’s going to be fun to lob spells at your ass while you’re hiding behind that ward,” Levi drawled.

“Yeah, try to contain that sense of enthusiasm there, old man. You shouldn’t be so eager about attempted murder.” Eren allowed his nails to grow and dragged them along the back of his lover’s neck in warning.

“*Attempted* murder – if it works then you deserve it for being so pathetic, brat.” Levi narrowed his eyes and his emotions sharpened toward… *something*, but right about then, Erwin walked into the room and they shifted to annoyance instead.

“Is this one of those foreplay things?” Erwin glanced back and forth between Levi and Eren, his thick brows drawn together and a phone held in his right hand. “Because I don’t believe that the kitchen is an appropriate place for it.”

Levi sighed as he loosened his hold on Eren, only to drag him to stand at his side. “We were making plans for the day – Eren’s going to get his ass kicked in the name of self-preservation and education.”

“More like your sick sense of amusement,” Eren muttered as he jabbed his boyfriend in the ribs, which Levi ignored – nope, that got Eren’s right foot stamped on, hard, and sheesh, did Levi weigh a ton.

Erwin did that thing where he pinched the bridge of his nose, which Eren noticed he did a lot when around Levi and Hange, then sighed. “As heartening as it is to see you flourishing in a relationship, I have need of you this morning, Levi.”

“No, I already have plans,” Levi shot back without any hesitation.

As if expecting that answer, Erwin sighed again and held up his phone. “And I’m sure they’re very important plans, but this is critical; Mike found some bodies in… unusual conditions about forty miles from here.” He looked at Eren for several seconds before resuming his staring contest with Levi. “From the little he *can* tell, they’re Reiss.”

Levi was still for a few heartbeats and then cursed under his breath. “I’m driving that fancy car of yours – you’re like an old lady behind the wheel.”

“Fine, and I’ll even pay for our meals while on the road.” Erwin nodded at Eren. “I apologize for interfering with your plans for the day.”

Before Eren could say anything, Levi gave him a smack on the hip as he stepped forward. “You’ll practice with Hange, understood? No excuse for slacking just because I’m not here.”

“Oh, yay,” Eren ‘enthused’ as he followed his lover to the front door. “Fun times.”

Hange looked up from her desk as Erwin and Levi shrugged into their coats. “Oh, you’re leaving?”

“Yeah, and you’re going to play with Eren while I’m gone.” Levi appeared to reconsider what he said when Hange jumped out of her chair and cheered. “Just with wards and some offensive spells, you maniac. He better be in one piece when I get back or I’ll have the revenants chew on your intestines.”

“One of these days I’ll stop disposing of the evidence around here and leaving you some prime toys,” Hange complained as she came to a halt a few feet away from Eren. “Fine, you’ll barely notice any scratches or dents, happy?”

“Uhm, *no*,” Eren insisted as he pressed against Levi’s side. “Can I come with-“

“NO.” Levi smacked him on the ass and grabbed at him as if to shove him away before tugging him in close instead. “Not about to ruin all of our hard work and let you past those wards, you idiot,” he muttered before giving Eren a kiss goodbye.

“Hmm.” Eren enjoyed the rush of passion and something warm and possessive that poured into him, and groaned when Levi finally did give him a gentle push away. “So… stay with crazy woman?”

“Yeah.” Levi rolled his eyes when Hange let out a loud protest. “See if you can’t remove her spleen for me and we’ll be back by dinner.”

“Okay. Have fun with… ah, whatever.”

“Bodies. Dead bodies, which we really need to go investigate. Hange, do try to behave,” Erwin urged as he opened the door and gestured for Levi to precede him outside. Eren waved as Levi left, the sense of the necromancer’s magic fading away with each step.

“Aw, you look as if someone just took away your pet puppy. Though considering it’s Levi, your pet pitbull?” She reached over to tousle Eren’s hair, which knocked the hair clip askew. “It’ll be okay, Erwin is, no pun intended, demonically strong when it comes to casting magic and will make sure that Levi comes back.”

Eren swiped back his bangs and reclipped them while looking up at Hange; dammit, he was getting used to being short, wasn’t he? “Just how strong is Erwin? He feels at almost the same level as Levi.”

Hange hummed a little as she headed toward the kitchen; Eren followed since he remembered that there’d been a pot of tea in there. “Yep, Levi’s got the edge in power though Erwin’s a Jack and several decades older.” Eren’s eyes widened at the news that Erwin wasn’t tied to an element or any specific skill or bloodline, but had a general mastery of spells – no wonder Levi seemed to defer to the older man. “I’d say it would be interesting to see the two of them fight, but it would be nasty as hell and they’re both friends.” Hange grimaced as she fetched two mugs from the upper cabinet, then handed one to Eren.

Since this was the first time other than the night he’d arrived that he’d been left alone with the blood witch, Eren figured he’d ask a few more questions; it wasn’t that Levi didn’t talk to him, it was just that he didn’t want to overstep any bounds and risk raising painful topics to his lover. “So, you’ve known Levi and Erwin a long time?” He tried to keep his voice casual while he poured the tea.

Unfortunately, Hange seemed to see right through him. “Aw, you really are utterly adorable, you know that?” She ruffled his hair again before laughing as she went over to the coffee machine. “I’ve known Erwin since I could barely curdle any blood, which is a long, long time.” She waggled her right forefinger at him as if to discourage him from asking just how long a time that was. “Erwin had been off with Mike and Nanaba when he brought back Levi one day… oh, about nine or ten decades ago, and the rest is history, as they say.” Her usual expression of demented cheerfulness slipped into something serious for a moment. “I know you feel guilty about the house and all, but you really are good for him – he’s spent too much time alone the last couple of decades. It’s difficult for necromancers, especially powerful ones like him. Too many people fear what they don’t understand, and you know what they do to what they fear.”

Eren stared into his tea as he nodded. “They either kill it or force it under their control.” There were times when he wished that the former would be his fate, that those hunting him would kill him if he ever got captured. It would be much better than to have his will stripped away by geas, to be a mindless thing that shifted into what anyone wanted again and again and *again* until no trace of his original self remained. As much as it had hurt to leave Mikasa and Armin behind, he’d done it not only so they’d have some chance at a normal life but also so they’d remember him as he’d been then – not as how he’d end up in his captors’ hands.

He started when he felt a foreign magic nearby and then a tentative touch to his arm and found Hange standing at his side. “Hey, don’t look so sad, okay? Levi’s not joking about that revenant shit.” She frowned as she glanced around. “Grumpy bastard probably has some spirits spying on us right now, so don’t give him any ammunition to use against me. Cheer up!” she urged. “Finish your tea so I can see if this one spell I have for amped up chicken pox can get past your ward.”

“Uhm, I’m not… that doesn’t… maybe I’ll just stay inside.” Eren hugged his mug of tea against his chest as if it was a shield. Wasn’t chicken pox really uncomfortable?

“Nope! We have our orders!” Hange laughed as she patted him on the shoulder. “I’m even taking it easy on you – just whipped up this really fun spell for gonorrhea, but Levi really will have my spleen if I try it out on you.”

The worst part of all of this? Levi refused to let him get drunk; Eren sighed as he stared into his tea and wished that he could spike it with whisky or something to help make all of this insanity bearable. “If I can fend off your spells, you’re breaking out that whisky from the other day, all right?”

Hange blinked in surprise and then grinned. “You got yourself a deal!” She picked up the mug that she’d set down on the counter and took a swig of it as if it were some sort of alcoholic beverage. “Now hurry up, we’re wasting daylight!”

“Let me just go grab a robe, okay?” Eren drank as much of his tea as he could before dumping it out in the sink and rinsing the mug clean. “I’ll meet you outside.”

“That’s right! I get to see some shifter booty! That’ll be… argh! I bet that grumpy bastard really did order some spirits to watch over us.” Hange glared as she slammed her phone down on the counter.

Having the feeling that it was going to be a long day, Eren hurried to the bedroom to change, intent on perfecting his wards as much as possible so he could at least get a couple of shots of whisky in before Levi returned.

*******

As soon as Levi stepped out of Erwin’s expensive as fuck sports car and onto the clearing of what looked to be an abandoned construction site, he knew something was off – there was a sense of magic gone wrong, of a deep unsettledness in his bones, of a desire to scratch at his skin until his nails tore at his nerves. Fuck. *Fuck*. “Just so you know, I hate you. So. Much. right now.”

Erwin paused in fussing with his fancy scarf for a moment to level a gaze that bore a hint of azure at Levi. “That bad?”

Levi hissed as he tore his fingers through his hair. “Shitty understatement of the century, EB.” He stalked to the center of the clearing and stood with his hands held out from his sides as he let loose his power, while Erwin knew best to remain by the car and watch on in silence. “There was another necromancer here, someone with more attitude than talent, the shitstain.” He could feel the remnants of their power along with the shredded tatters of the dead’ souls, the flickers of those spirits’ remains scattered about in the cold air as they hovered about their mangled bodies.

“The cocky shit either didn’t bother to check to make sure they’d finished the job or didn’t know how.” He clicked his tongue in disgust at such incompetence as he allowed his power to blanket the area.

Erwin leaned against the sleek hood of his car as he broke his silence. “You know the person?”

“Don’t lower myself to deal with anyone this stupid,” Levi scoffed as his magic ‘soaked’ into the dead, both the physical and immaterial. “Whoever they are, they’re young and not nearly as trained as they think they are – nor as powerful. Might have some potential in a few decades if someone showed them what to do, but too bad I’m gonna shred them instead.”

“Yes, it is rather fitting, considering the circumstances.” Erwin pulled out his phone and began tapping away at it. “Nanaba says that neither she nor Mike are having much luck in tracking down the killers, so it’s up to you to see if you can find anything here.” He nodded once at Levi as if to tell him to get to work.

Arrogant bastard, but what else was new. Levi grunted as he sent a pulse of energy and will through his magic, and those tattered remnants of souls flared bright in his vision, a multitude of sparks that slowly began to collate into several larger shapes. Choosing one that seemed the most cohesive, he focused on it and drove his magic in deep, let it ‘crawl’ into the spirit until they almost merged, until the spirit held some of his essence as well and then opened himself to the dead.

/Concentrate! There had to be some sign of the damn shifter, some trail to follow that-/

Too far back. Levi shifted for memories a little closer to the final trauma, to the moment of death.

/-tearing pain, claws and agony and-/

There, almost had it, now just a little sooner. Panting with the effort, Levi gritted his teeth and pulled back just a little more to distance himself from the agony the mage had suffered before dying.

/why wasn’t the spell working? How could they just bounce off that armored skin? What was this thing? What were they? Stop it, stop it, stop it! Try the flames, try it now before – no, stop, stop-/

“Fuck.” Levi wiped at his face as he used his talent to properly dissipate the unfortunate soul then took a deep breath before he dove into the next one. Wasn’t he the lucky one? It was pretty much the same thing here as well, though the images he got along with the panicked thoughts and painful death was of some freaky skinless form who could cover herself with crystal armor anytime the earth mage lobbed a spell at her ass. Something told him that if he checked with the remaining souls it would be much the same thing so he decided to save himself the worsening headache and just sent the tattered spirits onto their earned oblivion.

“You’re done already?” Erwin pushed away from the car and approached Levi as he crouched near the closest mess that was a body. “That was quick.”

“Yes and no – I just figured that there wasn’t much sense in wasting any effort in seeing the same stuff again and again.” He gestured to the wreck before him and used his talent to make it roll over onto its back while straightening out its mangled form. “What do you see?”

Erwin frowned as he squatted down beside Levi. “It looks as if a were got hold of it with those claw marks and blunt force trauma, but Mike said that’s not what it smelled like to him.”

“Not many were have senses as powerful as him despite their animal forms.” Levi spread his left hand out over the ragged slashes that had torn through the mage’s throat. “I can see why they bothered with that pissant necromancer, though, because otherwise yeah, you’d believe that a pack of were, maybe wolves or bear, were behind this.”

His friend’s frown deepened as he called up hellfire to consume the body while rising to his feet to hover near the body as the blueish flames burned; his strong, handsome face was cast in gaunt hollows as he breathed in deep as if scenting something other than charred flesh. “I don’t… there’s a hint of… *something*. What, I can’t exactly say but I wouldn’t have thought to check for it unless you and Mike had raised these doubts.”

Levi shook his head as he stepped away from the burning corpse which was already half-reduced to ash. “What fucking doubts? I told you it wasn’t a were.”

“Then what was it?”

He let out a slow breath as he ran his hands through his hair and considered the images that the dead had provided to him with everything he’d learned over the last several days, then spoke the ridiculous thought aloud. “We certain that Eren’s the only shifter out there?”

At first Erwin stared at Levi with eyes glowing azure and face still cast into gaunt shadows from the hellfire, and then his eyes widen as his mouth gaped open. “Are you- of course you’re serious.” He dismissed the flames once the body had disintegrated into fine ash. “What did you see?”

“Some really weird shit.” Levi tucked his hands into the pockets of his black coat and then hugged it closer to his body; what he wouldn’t give for a nice, warm boyfriend just then to huddle near. “From what I caught, these unlucky fucks were trying to pick up on Eren’s trail and then several creatures approached – they appeared humanoid but bigger than normal, and they could grow armor that repelled spells as if some type of wards.” He went through the memories for a few seconds before he looked back at Erwin. “They were fast as hell and they changed shape at will to pull on the armor and claws. Remind you of anybody?”

“Eren.” Erwin pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment and sighed. “Yes, I have to agree with you that they do indeed sound like shifters.” His frown deepened as he stared back at Levi. “He hasn’t mentioned anything about other shifters, has he?”

“Nope, he knows jack shit about his own kind from what I can tell – his father kept him in the dark and he’s more than a little bitter about that. The man might know something about the others, though.” Levi turned toward another of the twisted, broken bodies. “Have to wonder if that’s why he rabbited out of there after telling Eren that he was a ‘key’.”

“This is getting depressingly complicated,” Erwin ground out. “So not only do we have just about every major magic organization out hunting down your boyfriend, but now there are other shifters out there as well? I wonder if Reiss knows about them.”

Levi clicked his tongue as he confirmed that the body was one of Reiss’ top mages. “I’m willing to bet they didn’t, or else there would be more bodies. They wouldn’t have sent so few mages and half a pack to take on from what I can tell were three shifters.”

“Three?” Erwin paused in examining what appeared to be some sort of enchanted gauntlet to arch a bushy eyebrow in Levi’s direction. “That many?”

“I saw two distinct shifters from the dead and a vague shape in the background so yeah, three.”

“This is why I leave you to Hange most of the time,” Erwin muttered as he removed the gauntlet, wrapped it in what appeared to be a spelled cloth and shoved it into his left pocket. “You’re always so much trouble.”

“Who’s the one who drafted my ass, eh?”

“Better you be a known trouble for me than at my throat.” Erwin grinned as he straightened up, only for the expression to slip away after a couple of seconds. “What are the odds for there to be four shifters at the same time?”

“At least four – Hange said that Eren got his talent through his dad’s bloodline, so that bastard might be one like him, too.” Levi toed some dirt over a patch of dried blood as he wondered how it was some assholes could just up and run off on- no, not now. Last thing he needed was to bring his own fucked up past into what was already a huge mess. “Question is, what was their motive here? They trying to keep these shitstains from tracking down Eren or to beat them to him first?”

“Never the fun questions with you.” Erwin went over to another body and motioned to Levi, who clicked his tongue again as he flipped it over with his magic. “I’m picking up some very powerful magical aids on them, so I’d say that they were sent with assistance to track down Eren, subdue him and get rid of you.” Erwin had the audacity to flash a mild grin in Levi’s direction. “I think you’re annoying them.”

“Great, totally makes my day. Can we go now?”

“Not quite yet.” Erwin liberated a necklace this time.

“Never had you pegged as a thief – what, you want me to teach you how to pick pockets next?”

“Hmm, it might come in handy some day, but as of right now, I’m also thinking that maybe Hange can help me with some inventive curses for the people who supplied these charms.” Erwin took care to once more wrap the item before tucking it away. “It’s not often we come across an opportunity like this.”

It was the evil bastard’s propensity to think ten steps ahead of everyone else that kept Levi loyal to him, that and Erwin did honor his promises. “So what do you think about these new shifters?”

“Yes, I have to admit it doesn’t look promising.” Erwin grimaced as he slid a ring from a finger that was little more than crushed bone. “Considering the fact that they attempted to dispel the spirits but left the corpses behind, I believe that they wanted to make clear the message that Eren’s not worth the effort anymore while covering their tracks. That reeks of possessiveness to me, not protectiveness.”

In other words, they were gunning for the brat, too. Levi rubbed at the nape of his neck while he wished for something still left alive to destroy. “This is going to get nasty.”

“I have to say that I agree with you, especially since Reiss isn’t going to receive the message.” Done collecting his loot, Erwin called up more flames to destroy the rest of the bodies. “The only thing going for us right now is that you and Hange have done an exemplary job of covering Eren’s trail.”

Something in the subtle gleam of brilliant blue to Erwin’s eyes and the thoughtful tone to his voice made Levi’s body tense. “You’re not about to tell me something incredibly foolish like you’re thinking of using Eren as bait, are you?” Erwin might have burned the dead, the *recent* dead, but there were others here buried long ago, their bones sunk into the ground yet still willing to heed Levi’s call.

As if sensing the sudden flux of Levi’s power, Erwin stilled except to hold his hands out at his side. “No, I’m not.” When Levi continued to stare at him with his power ready to lash out, Erwin repeated the words. “I’m not, I swear. However, how long can you keep Eren trapped behind wards? How long before they make the connection between you and Hange?”

Levi reminded himself that Erwin hadn’t betrayed him yet, that he’d kept his promise about Isabel and Farlan. “We’ll teach him how to fucking ward himself and then we’ll leave.” He relaxed his magic as he flexed his hands, and wished that there was something he could punch or kick, something he could attack to take out all the anger and anxiety he felt. Dammit, where was a shitty enemy when he wanted to fight?

Erwin smiled, the expression slight and a little strained, as he tucked back an end of his scarf. “You and Hange are two of the best out there so I’m sure he’ll learn quickly. But we’ve determined enemies, Levi. It’s best to be prepared.”

“I won’t lose him, Smith.” The ground trembled as Levi declared his intent; he allowed Erwin to take Isabel and Farlan away in order to keep them safe, to provide them a chance to have an actual life than to be used against him or worse. Well, fuck that when it came to Eren. He’d given the brat a chance to walk away that night and *Eren* had chosen to stay, so that was that. ‘Complimentary’, Erwin had said. Fine, then no one was taking the idiot shifter away from Levi if something wanted them stuck with each other.

To his surprise, Erwin’s smile strengthened and he pulled out his phone. “Good, because we’ll need you in fine fighting form from the looks of things. Now, if we’re done here, Mike and Nanaba are waiting for us. How does Thai sound for lunch? There’s a decent restaurant that should meet even your standards about twenty minutes from here.” Sounding rather smug at the moment, he didn’t wait for Levi’s answer as he began to type away on the phone and head back to the car.

“Wait, what?” Using his power to resettle the dead, Levi scowled as he chased after the bastard. “How many stars is the place? When was the last inspection? I’m not about to eat at some cockroach infested cesspit!”

*******

This was fun. This was *fun*. “This is so much *fun*!” Hange laughed as she barely darted out of the way of claws that would have hurt, well, hurt a *lot* and sent a spell that usually shattered bones Eren’s way. “Can we do this every day?”

“Please, no,” he panted as he seemed to ‘melt’ a little, shifting away from the magic even as his right arm swung her way. She jumped back just in time but sheesh, he was a fast little bugger. Well, not that little, really. And not that cute when he was all bulked up and teethy and huh, was it an ancestral throw-back form like Mike or-

Yeah, not a good idea to be distracted right now, when Eren seemed to take Levi’s ‘give me her spleen’ comment to heart. “Uhm, you a little frisky today or what?”

“If… I gut you… this ends.” Eren shook aside the straggly ends of dark hair that were falling onto his face and bared his impressive set of sharp teeth at her as his claws just barely raked across her left thigh. “Almost as bad… as *him*.” He whined as he wheeled away from another spell.

“Aw thanks, I think you’re special, too.” For a newbie, Eren was doing a decent job of fighting back, though he’d given up on casting his own spells half an hour ago and was barely maintaining a personal ward. It would take a few more years before he was anywhere near her or Levi’s level, but he showed promise – he had a raw determination that would take him far if given a chance.

That and between her and Levi, they were more than happy to run him into the ground to bring that promise out. “Well, if you’re not going to play nice, neither should I.” She couldn’t help but grin at the panicked look on his face as she readied one of her higher level spells, one that had her victims twitching on the ground as their limbs locked up and nerves went haywire. “This will hurt you more than me, I promise.”

“Oh shit!” Eren’s body appeared to be in flux as he shifted into something else, something to help him get away, and his ward began to break down in his panic. Hange actually felt a little sorry at the moment – she hadn’t meant to freak him out like that – and then there was a flare of that potent wild magic again, just like back in the kitchen.

She had a moment to ready her own wards in preparation of an attack before a cloud of steam poured off of Eren, and the next thing she knew he was huddled upon himself, more or less in his own shape but covered in some crystalline substance.

“Eren?” She took a step forward and a thick, greenish tendril similar to the one which had formed from the kitchen table shot up from the weed and leaf-covered round and snapped back and forth in front of her face. “Ack! Stop that! Are you doing this? Eren?”

“I… I don’t know.” The poor kid sounded exhausted and dropped to his knees, so whatever that clear, hard substance was it allowed him freedom of movement. “Ohh… tired.” His hands went up into his hair, which dripped with sweat, and his eyelids fluttered several times.

“Eren! Stay with me! Don’t pass out!” Hange didn’t want to think what would happen if he became unconscious, since all of this appeared to be some sort of defense mechanism. “Can you, uhm, call back your guard… thingie?” She jabbed at the tendril and hissed when it smacked her finger. “Don’t give me any shit or I will chop you up into a salad!”

At first there was no reply, and then Eren lowered his right hand so he could look at her. “Erwin…. He said to will it away, right?”

Erwin had told Levi to do that, but it should work for Eren, too, especially since Hange could feel a light thread of Levi’s magic inside of Eren’s. “Yep, so why don’t you give that a try, honey?” She all but held her breath as Eren placed his right hand onto the ground, and after a few seconds the tendril retreated back into it. “Good boy,” she crooned as she took a cautious step forward; when nothing else sprung up, she hurried toward him and sunk down onto her knees.

“Oh, wow, this is *incredible*.” Her hands hovered over him as the magic poured off his body even more intensively than usual. “What does it feel like? What did you do? Can I have some blood?”

Eren groaned as he scrubbed at his face while shaking his head, minute trembles running through his armored-covered body the entire time. “I don’t… I don’t know.”

“To all three?”

He groaned again as he rocked back into a kneeling position. “Yes?” His hand fell down into his lap, and from what Hange could see beneath the crystal coating, the poor kid looked ready to pass out at any moment. “I just… just was trying to cast a ward.”

“Hmm.” She studied him for a moment while chewing on her right thumb; this didn’t look like the previous ‘armored’ form he’d used a time or two during their practice session, when he’d thickened his skin for protection from fire or other projectile spells. “So you were shifting and trying to recast the ward and this happened, right?”

“Yeah.”

“And nothing like this has happened before?”

Eren grunted as he hunched over and propped up his head with the palm of his right hand, apparently fading fast.

“Okay, so, do your best to keep the nasty tendril things at bay, but I’m going to cast another spell at you.” Wow, that woke him up fast, didn’t it? When he stared at her with golden eyes wide and more than a hint of fang showing, she held up her hands in a placating manner. “Nothing bad, I promise! I just want to test a theory, it’s nothing nasty at all.”

Appearing a bit dubious about the whole thing, Eren none-the-less nodded as he struggled to sit up properly. “Nothing weird, right?”

“Right, just a little spell that’ll tickle your funny bone, so to speak.” There was an amusement factor to incapacitating your enemy by having them doubled over with laughter, unable to even breathe, while Levi summoned revenants to rip out their spines. Just in case, Hange rose up to her feet and took a step back before she readied the spell, mindful of attacking greenery, and summoned her magic only to let it go… and nothing. It was as if Eren wasn’t there, when she knew that she’d aimed it right at him. “Huh. You feel anything?”

He rubbed at his hair as if desperate to stay awake. “Maybe? Sensed your magic but that was it.”

Oooh, this was exciting. “Honey, I think you managed to somehow fuse a ward into your body, which is *impossible*! I mean, I know there’s charms you can wear to help with protection spells, and some tattoos as well, but nothing along the lines of this!” She jumped up and down at the prospect of what this could mean. “I have to have some more of your blood!”

Eren stared at her before giving a slow blink that changed his eyes back to their normal, lovely shade from the glowing gold. “Oh, yay.” For someone who had just done the impossible, he could show a bit more enthusiasm. “How do I make it go away?”

“Why would you want that?” When Eren continued to just stare at her from a face covered in clear crystal, Hange huffed as she reached out to tap her fingernails against the hard surface. “Yeah, okay, guess it must be odd, to go around like this all the time.” Not to mention a certain grump would be pissed off to discover his boyfriend all ungropeable all of a sudden. “Uh, maybe just concentrate on your normal shape? That or pass out, just a guess.”

She thought she heard him mutter a little before he closed his eyes, and after a few seconds a faint steam rose from his body as the crystal seemed to vanish into thin air. As soon as it was gone, Eren would have fallen face first onto the ground if she hadn’t grabbed at his shoulders.

“Guess that takes a lot of you, no?” She slung his right arm over her shoulder and began to half-carry him back into the house.

“It’s like… first few times I shifted.” He was a limp weight against her and after a few failed attempts at walking just let her drag him along. “Needs lot of energy.”

That made sense since it probably took some effort to learn the new skill, which was a combination of physical as well as magical nature, and, oops, concentrate on not walking Levi’s boyfriend into the door frame. “So you just need to practice this a lot.”

Eren made an odd gurgling sound just then, as if unhappy about something. “No, really, this is such an amazing thing, you have to do it again!” Preferably when Hange could set up a recording of it. “I know it seems like a pain right now when you’re all noodle-y but imagine how helpful it’ll be in a fight!”

“Just wanna sleep.”

“Almost there,” Hange assured him, and did a better job with this doorway than she had with the front door. Of course Levi had made the bed that morning, the neat freak, so she just dumped Eren on top of it and then spent a moment enjoying the view – such a nice ass, no wonder she caught Levi staring at it so much – before going over to the closet for the spare duvet, which of course had just been washed by a certain neat freak. While it would be nice to have the place back to herself, she’d miss all the laundry, cleaning and cooking that was being done by her impromptu guests.

Once the duvet was draped over a now unconscious shifter, Hange ran her fingers through Eren’s tangled hair and wondered if anyone would notice if she took a blood sample. While she debated her chances, she felt a spike of cold run down her back and jerked her hand away from Eren. “Fine! I’ll leave him alone,” she grumbled as she snuck out of the bedroom and left a certain possessive grump’s boyfriend in peace.

*******

Feeling his cell phone buzz, Erwin pulled it out of his pocket while Levi parked the Jaguar. “Hmm, Hange says that if we’re stopping for food that we should bring back enough for dinner.” He winced as Levi ground the gears while throwing the car into neutral.

“Why? Why isn’t Eren cooking? What the fuck did she do to him?” Levi made a swipe for the phone, which Erwin managed to keep from his grasp as he switched hands. “Dammit!”

“Hmm, just something about an interesting practice session, a sleepy cat icon, kissy face cat icon, grumpy face icon, and a sushi icon. Ah, they do have a sushi bar here. I know Hange likes eel, but what about Eren?” He gave his irate friend a bland look while Levi all but ground his teeth together.

“I will kill you and reanimate your corpse to kill you again,” Levi spat out.

“Hmm, so pad thai to play it safe? Or maybe green curry?”

A vein beneath Levi’s left eye began to throb. “Go back to hell.”

“Both it is. Now come on, Mike and Nanaba are already inside.” Just when Levi lunged for his throat, Erwin grinned and tossed his phone at the short-tempered bastard before opening the car door. “Don’t keep us waiting.”

Levi snarled but exited the car as well, kicking the door closed behind him as he typed away on the phone with both thumbs; really, he needed to get a phone of his own one of these days. Perhaps Eren could talk him into it. Hange must have provided a better explanation – one Erwin would read later after his phone was returned to him, but he assumed it wasn’t too bad since Levi’s stormy expression had cleared up by the time they reached the front door of the restaurant.

“Brat learned a new trick,” Levi explained as he handed over the phone, cautious about saying anything else out in public. “Better be awake by the time we get back.” He was obviously going for annoyed but there was too much concern in his deep voice just then as he shoved his hands into the pockets of his coat and frowned at nothing.

“Ah.” Erwin nodded in understanding before smiling at the host and motioning past the young man at the tables in the restaurant. “We’re meeting people.” He led Levi into the dining room toward a booth in the back, where their friends were already seated.

What he liked about ‘Thaiphoon’, despite its cheesy name yet decent ratings was the fact that it was an establishment patronized almost entirely by ‘normals’. The food was good, the service polite, the premise clean enough for Levi not to storm out in a fit of temper, and very few of the magical community patronized it because none of them owned it, worked there or had businesses in the neighborhood. There were no wards to make one feel safe, no special items on the menu to entice one, nothing special about the place to draw one in… except if you wanted to meet another magically-inclined person in private, it was a good place to do just that. Erwin would be very upset once this secret got out, though it wasn’t as if he couldn’t find another such place… well, it would take some effort to find a restaurant clean enough to please Levi.

“Let’s hurry this up,” Levi snapped as he slid into the booth. “Where’s the fucking menu?”

It looked as if someone was eager to check up on their boyfriend, weren’t they?

Nanaba, dressed in a grey woolen cardigan with the hood draped over her shoulders, smiled as she set aside the mango bubble tea she’d been drinking. “It’s nice to see you, too.” Beside her, bundled up in a dark overcoat as if he didn’t have much on beneath it, Mike leaned over the table to sniff at Levi, his eyes flaring green behind his thick blond bangs.

“You smell odd – like strange magic and sex.” The were grunted as he glanced at Erwin, who had to put a restraining hand on Levi to keep him in his seat. “Something up?”

“Let’s just say that Hange won the bet in regards to Levi, and it does have something to do with our latest bout of trouble.” When Levi began muttering about assholes under his breath, Erwin patted him on the arm. “It had to come out sooner or later.”

“Fucking bastards to bet on me like that. Should gut you all.” Levi snatched at the menu lying in front of Mike and made sure to smack the were in the face before reading it, to which the large man merely blinked in response. “And mind your fucking business.”

“So, it’s serious?”

“Yes, it appears to be that way,” Erwin informed Mike as he picked up his own menu. “Both the relationship and situation.”

“Oi! You shitty-“

Fortunately they were saved by the server arriving to ask them if they wanted to drink, so Erwin smiled through having his shin kicked while he asked for a green bubble tea while Levi stuck with regular green tea, then he asked for a little longer to decide on their order. As soon as the man left, he cast a temporary ward around them that would prevent anyone from overhearing their conversation.

“Now, before he returns, I take it that you didn’t have much luck in finding a trail?”

Nanaba shook her head, her blond hair gleaming in the restaurant’s dim light, while Mike grunted. “They’re good, whoever they are. Barely got any whiff of their scent at all though….” He paused to lean over the table again. “Sorta smell like what’s clinging to Levi.”

Everyone grew quiet again, with Nanaba and Mike’s attention focused on Levi while they waited for the server to return. They placed their orders when the drinks were dropped off, with Levi and Erwin ordering some take-away for later, and once that was done and the server gone, Erwin restored the ward. “Funny you should say that.” He gestured to Levi. “You want to tell them?”

There was a hint of silver to Levi’s hooded eyes for a moment and then he sighed. “Shifters are involved,” was all he said, but the venomous look he gave Mike and Nanaba put a halt to their immediate exclamations.

Nanaba blinked a few times while she glanced back and forth between Erwin and Levi while Mike leaned in for another sniff, which prompted a muttered curse from Levi. “Huh. Interesting.” He leaned back and folded his arms over his broad chest. “Yours too?”

Levi’s jaw clenched a couple of times before he nodded. “Reiss is after him, and seems like so are the others.”

“But-“ Nanaba shook her head and toyed with the straw in her drink, the thick liquid bubbling up for a moment. “It’s like a legend come to life.”

“I will admit it’s unheard of, which is why we need to be very careful.” Erwin tapped his fingers against the table as he glanced around the restaurant; he’d searched with his talent upon entering the place to make sure no other were or mages beside Mike and Nanaba were within the premises, but it paid to be overly cautious at times like this. “For the time being, Levi and Hange will concentrate on… well, they’ll be at Hange’s. I want the two of you out there keeping an eye on Reiss and seeing if you can find out anything on our new ‘friends’.” He tapped his phone onto the tabletop to let Mike and Nanaba know that he would send them an encrypted message with information on their ‘targets’ later on, so they wouldn’t be searching blind.

Mike grunted once while Nanaba nodded, their expressions calm as they accepted both the mission and the situation. “Anyone else involved, sir?”

Erwin shrugged as he reclined back in the booth. “I may pull the squad out, but I’d rather not unleash them and risk attracting attention unless necessary.”

“You’re spouting a bunch of bullshit – they know how to do their job,” Levi griped around the rim of his teacup.

“Hmm, I would hope so after you spent so long smacking them into shape.” Erwin grinned at his friend, which caused Levi to click his tongue and glance aside; he most likely didn’t want to admit that he was hoping to keep Petra, Erd and Gunter in reserve just in case Levi and Hange needed back-up.

“Whatever. And what’s keeping our food?” Levi set the cup down on the table with more force than was necessary as he glared around the restaurant. “They better not be fucking around back there in the kitchen.”

His complaint provoked another grunt from Mike, this one more amused than the last, and a sly smile from Nanaba. “Oh, someone has it bad, doesn’t he?” the quiet woman commented as she sidled next to Mike.

“Anxious,” Mike rumbled as he rubbed his nose. “And worried.”

Levi’s eyes flared silver as his head jerked toward the were. “I will make a shitty rug out of you, just watch-“ His rant came to a halt when Erwin summoned a judicious amount of flame beneath the table near Levi’s right thigh for about two seconds.

“May I remind everyone that we are in the company of some lovely, *normal* people and it would be a shame to ruin their lunch?” He gave each of them the bland smile he saved for times when he was about three seconds away from singing away a layer or two of skin from idiots who needed to learn a painful lesson. “Ah, that’s much better now.” Pausing to sip his drink, he nodded once to Levi when he was finished. “We can leave as soon as our food arrives if it’ll make you feel better.”

“I’m not worried, just don’t trust Hange alone with the brat if he’s not feeling well,” Levi mumbled as he fidgeted with his chopsticks.

Erwin allowed him the excuse since this was such a new situation for Levi to be in. “Understandable.” He glanced across the table to his flabbergasted companions – the signs were there if you knew them. “In that case, if you have any questions or concerns, it’s best to raise them now while we’re still here.”

Nanaba stopped blinking in rapid succession and shook her head. “No, sir, nothing I can think of at the moment.” Beside her, Mike huffed once while he stared intently at Levi, which Erwin took for a ‘no’ as well.

Great – on one hand, he had two excellent agents prepared to track down the enemy, and on the other hand, he had a long car ride to look forward to with an anxious, short-tempered, emotionally involved necromancer and he wouldn’t even get to eat lunch. Erwin sighed as he finished off his bubble tea.

*******

Hmm, magic. Magic and warmth. Eren nuzzled his cheek against the hard surface his face rested upon and hugged himself closer to the wonderful source of magic and warmth.

“You’re disgusting.”

Levi’s voice. Levi’s scent. Levi’s magic. Groaning at the thought of waking up all the way, Eren forced his eyes open even as he snuggled up closer to his lover. “Don’ care.” Levi was warm and in bed with him, Eren really didn’t care.

“Of course you don’t, you’re a disgusting cuddle monster.” Levi spat out the words as if they were the vilest insult, yet he combed the fingers of his right hand through Eren’s hair, his other hand occupied with a book. “It’s like sleeping with a landlocked octopus or something.”

“Hmm.” Eren hauled himself a little more on top of Levi’s lap so he could soak up more of that wonderful warmth and magic. “So?” It wasn’t as if he’d done this with everyone he’d slept with – well, there’d been those nights when he’d curled up with Armin and Mikasa to share body heat, but it had mainly been Mikasa he’d wrapped himself around because of her magic. Yet her magic hadn’t been anywhere near as addicting as Levi’s, had made him want to press himself against the necromancer when awake or asleep so he could feel it against his skin at all times of the day.

“Why do I even bother?” Levi clicked his tongue as if he truly was disgusted and exchanged the book for a mug of tea which sat emitting tendrils of steam on top of the nightstand. “Oi, you have any brains left after that trick you did with Hange?” He gave a tug to a strand of Eren’s hair.

“Ow.” Eren flopped his left hand about in attempt to ward off the abuse and wrinkled his nose. “Think so?”

Levi sighed into the mug and closed his eyes. After a few sips he set it aside and covered his face with his hand. “Have I really killed enough people to deserve being inflicted with you?”

“I-“

Eren yelped when he received a flick to his left ear. “That was a rhetorical question.” Levi sounded exhausted just then, almost as much as Eren felt, and then his expression settled into the familiar ‘hard-ass’ one which sent a jolt of energy through Eren since that look usually didn’t bode well for him. “Now, you going to tell me what happened earlier?”

“Uhm… okay.” Eren forced his body into a sitting position; he realized that he was naked beneath the duvet and ended up straddling Levi’s legs with the soft comforter wrapped around him. “I-“ he coughed a little, his throat dry and his thoughts still a little scattered from the lingering sense of sleep.

Levi clicked his tongue and handed over the mug. “Such a pain in the ass.”

Eren wrinkled his nose again as he drank the tea, which could use a little more sugar. Once the mug was empty, he handed it back. “Could have left me back in Karanese.”

“You’re like the plague, I’m sure somehow you’d have found a way to track me down and infest my life.” Levi sounded as grouchy as always, yet Eren could sense his amusement. “Now start talking or I’ll smack you.” He put a warning hand on Eren’s covered ass.

“Ooh, is that a kink? I think I’m all right with-“

“Brat,” Levi growled out as his hand tightened on Eren’s behind and his eyes took on a hint of silver.

Eren sighed as he rested his palms against Levi’s chest – not to push him away or to stop him, just to enjoy the feel of his heartbeat and magic. “Okay.” He took a moment to gather his thoughts while he chewed on his lip. “Hange’s insane, right?”

That comment earned him a slight smack, though Levi was more amused than annoyed. “Tell me something I don’t know already.”

Eren gave up on abusing his lower lip to smile. “Yeah. She had a bit too much fun trying to break through my wards, and I was getting tired at the end.” He paused again as he considered the memories. “I don’t – I think it was a mix of me trying to shift into something safe and cast a ward at the same time. It’s nothing I’d ever done before and… well, she told you what happened, right?”

“The fancy armor that repels magic, yeah.” Levi placed his free hand over Eren’s, and the feel of their magic mingling together made Eren’s smile widen. “So you had no clue that would happen?” For some reason Levi’s emotions took on a more serious tone.

“No, not at all.” Eren stared at their hands as he thought about it. “I mean, I’ve never done wards before so any time I ‘armored up’ it was just to protect against physical weapons and the such, blades or claws. It would have come in handy back when I practiced with Mikasa and she used her threads against me, but other than that….” He glanced up at Levi and frowned at the dark look on his lover’s face. “What is it?”

“Your father never said anything about it?”

“What, you mean all those heart to heart talks we never had?” Eren didn’t even try to hold back on the bitterness and anger welling up inside of him. “No, he never said a damn word about my talent, other than to tell me to not change in front of anyone other than family – well, that’s not true, he told me to not change at all, if I could help it, which was impossible.” He would have pulled his hands away from Levi in the need to gesture, to fling it about in frustration, but Levi held on so he only jerked his left hand free and through his hair as the duvet fell down around his hips. “It was almost as if he believed if he didn’t talk about it, it would just go away, my talent.”

That provoked a deep grunt from his lover. “Yeah, as if shit like that ever works.” Levi’s eyes grew unfocused for a moment and then he shook his head before huffing as he tucked the duvet back around Eren. “So he never said anything about other shifters?”

“Huh?” Eren shivered a little as Levi’s fingers brushed against his neck and shoulders. “What other shifters? You mean like my grandparents or something?”

“You really have no fucking clue, do you?” Levi tugged on a strand of hair falling alongside Eren’s face. “Hate to break it to you, but looks like you’re not quite as special as everyone thinks.”

“Eh?” Eren cocked his head to the side and winced when he felt his hair be tugged upon again. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That you’re not the only shifter out there, you brain-dead brat.”

“I’m not brain-dea- eh?” He blinked at Levi as the words sunk in. “Really? I’m not the only shifter?” Excitement bubbled up inside and made him laugh. “So what, those assholes will leave me alone now?”

There was a flash of pity as Levi let go of his hair to trail his hand to the nape of Eren’s neck instead. “Not quite. From what we can tell, it looks as if the other shifters are trying to track you down as well.” Levi seemed to find something of interest on Eren’s chest. “Guess it sucks to be a ‘key’, right?”

For a moment Eren’s throat was tight as the disappointment sunk in – disappointment over the fact that he wasn’t free, that he couldn’t stop running, couldn’t just enjoy life without always looking over his shoulder, without worrying about being caught and having his will, his *mind*, stripped away one day. “You could say that, yeah.” The words came out as barely more than a whisper.

He found himself yanked forward until his forehead pressed against Levi’s. “Look, we’ll figure this shit out, okay? You’re not as useless at magic as I thought, which is a start. Maybe we can beat a few more useful talents out of you.”

“You….” Eren closed his eyes and slumped against his lover. “Why do I put up with this abuse?”

“What abuse? So fucking spoiled you are.” Levi’s arms snaked beneath the duvet to wrap around his waist. “Even spent half the day in bed, you lazy shit.”

“Hmm, because I did something you can’t,” Eren pointed out as his neck was nuzzled. “So I don’t want to… oh, that feels good.” He dug his fingers into Levi’s muscular shoulders as pleasure skittered along his nerves and desire thrummed through his body and inside his head.

“Of course it does.” He could feel Levi’s smirk against his skin and amusement as if it was his own. “Hmm, maybe you being a clingy shit isn’t so bad.”

Eren opened his eyes to glare as he grew out his nails long enough to dig them into the bastard’s skin. “Shut up.” Someone needed to learn when to keep his mouth shut about things.

“Eloquent as always.” Levi pushed aside the duvet he’d just fussed with a few minutes ago so he could pull Eren in close. “Now, we going to fuck or what?”

Laughing at the absurdity of the moment, at the mix of desire and annoyance that flowed into him, Eren grinned as he wrapped his legs and arms around his ‘eloquent’ boyfriend. “Yeah, why not. You won me over with your sweet-talk.”

“Fucking brat,” Levi muttered as he brushed their lips together. “You’re the one who needs to shut up.”

Eren figured he’d let the asshole have the last word for the time being, more than happy to lose himself to dual passion and pleasure he was feeling and the wonderful magic coiling around him; that and Levi was getting really good at this sex stuff. Not that he’d tell the man, who already had too big a head and all from being the ‘great’ Levi. No, he’d just… ooh yeah, really getting good at all of this, he thought as he ended up on his back with Levi’s lips against his neck and hand around his cock, all worries fading away at the moment.

*******

“Aw, come on, you really think someone is following us?”

Annie rested her back against a tree as she tabbed through her phone’s Tumblr app and let the dynamic duo answer the idiot’s question. “I think if we’re taking out the largest magic organization around that it doesn’t hurt to be a bit cautious,” Reiner answered with a hint of frustration.

At his side as always, Berthold waved his hands about in a placating manner. “Wa-wards are always a good idea, even if you helped to cover up o-our trail back there.”

Hitch rolled her eyes and brushed her hands over her jean-clad hips. “Whatever, as long as you don’t expect me to help since I already did my job. Besides, not like there’s any spirits around here for me to set on watch.” She flipped back some light brown curls for added emphasis before digging her own phone out of the back pocket of her tight jeans and pretended to ignore Reiner and Bertolt while tapping away at the screen with a manicured nail.

Reiner shot Annie a loaded look that clearly asked ‘do we really need this pain the ass?’, to which Annie narrowed her eyes to convey ‘for now’. Thanks to the inherent fear and prejudice against necromancers because of their talents, that particular strain of magic was hard to come by these days, so they had to make do with what they could find, and that was Hitch; Annie had heard of a Levi Ackerman out there somewhere, but the bastard had gone to ground well enough to be untraceable – that and she suspected that he might be powerful enough to not be easily swayed by a mere shifter. All it had taken was for Annie to cross paths with Hitch and the girl had followed her as if a puppy trailing after a juicy bone, eager to figure out the strange ‘magic’ she’d never encountered before.

There was a spark of remorse about using the girl, but the fact that the necromancer had pranced so happily to her own oblivion did alleviate some of the guilt – that and Hitch took an obvious joy in the death that they left behind in their wake. There was a reason why Annie, Bertolt and Reiner were doing what they did, a cause they believed in… Hitch just enjoyed the mayhem and destruction.

“If there’s no spirits then you can stand there and use your own damn eyes and ears to watch out for any trouble, yes?” Reiner glared at Hitch until she gave him the finger and pulled out some earbuds from the pocket of her red leather jacket, which she jacked into her phone before shoving into her ears. Once it was clear that she had every intention of ignoring him and everything else around them, Reiner grunted before stalking back to Bert’s side.

Annie thumbed through her phone for a few more minutes before she went to join her friends, her senses sharpened to make sure that Hitch wasn’t putting up a front; she also didn’t sense any of the girl’s magic and so believed the line about there not being any spirits around the woods.

Once they were far enough way so Hitch couldn’t hear them, she shoved her phone into the pocket of her old military-style jacket and nodded at Reiner. “Today didn’t give us the leads that we’d hoped for.”

“I know.” He rubbed his right hand over his tightly cropped blond hair and sighed. “I don’t think Reiss has a clue where Eren is at, which isn’t good.”

Bert reached out to give his boyfriend’s arm a squeeze, a faint blush spreading across his freckled face. “At least we know they’re just as clueless, yes?”

Someone liked to look on the ‘bright side’, didn’t they? Annie extended a claw which she used to clean beneath her other nails as she stared off into the distance. “Doesn’t mean that some other organization didn’t get their hands on him while we’ve been dragging our feet.”

Reiner scoffed as he brushed his hands together. “We would have heard something by now – they would have been crowing about having a pet shifter or sending him out on missions.”

“*If* they broke him already, and it sounds as if this Eren is a stubborn one,” she reminded him. “Whatever Grisha’s faults, he didn’t raise a weakling.”

Reiner’s face flushed with anger as he glanced in Hitch’s direction. “No, he just hid his son away from us after finding out what he was, which was-“ He let out a shuddering breath and shook his head. “We need to find him, and soon, since it’s clear that every other fucking mage is after him.”

“I thought that’s what we were doing.” Annie sighed when Reiner bared his teeth at her and Bert hurried to calm down the hothead. “Fine, we need to find someone higher up in the Reiss hierarchy, someone who knows why those idiots are rushing around all of a sudden – it’s clear that something happened with Eren but we can’t get any decent answers out of the worker bees.” She flexed her claws before she willed her hands to shift back to normal. “We need to know why they’re combing this area for him.”

Reiner grasped Bert’s hands between his own and stilled. “That could be a bit tricky.”

“I thought the benefit of being a shifter was that we could handle ‘tricky’,” Annie shot back. “Time to stop working hard and to start working smart.”

That prompted a smile from Bert and a chuckle from Reiner. “Okay, you have a point. It’ll take a bit of effort to track down someone in the Reiss chain that might know enough, but yeah, we’re getting nowhere slaughtering the grunts.”

“So we start on the next up the food chain.” Maybe they would have a clue why the trail Eren had been leaving behind the last few weeks had suddenly vanished into the thin air; it bothered Annie, bothered her greatly. If only they had set out for him a month or so earlier than they had, then they would have him in their grasp by now and able to return home by now; Eren would be with his own kind, and there would be no risk of all that power being in the hands of those who were unworthy of it. Yet they hadn’t known until recently that Grisha had ‘defected’, that he had turned his back on them and that his son… oh, his son. She clenched her hand for a moment before she forced it back open, forced her emotions to be calm and thoughts placid. “We’ll manage.”

“Ye-yes, we will.” Bert leaned against Reiner for a second or two before stepping aside. “It’ll be difficult but we’ll do it. What else can we do?” He sounded a bit forlorn, but he was right in that they had no other option.

Reiner motioned Annie to come closer. “You have any ideas for our targets then?”

“As a matter of fact, I do.” She reached for her phone as she stepped forward, something akin to relief flooding into her as they set about to doing something, *anything*, that would move them on to completing this mission. Something that would allow them all to return home and ensure their kind’s future.

*******

Mikasa wanted to punch something as a means to vent the extreme frustration she felt just then; after driving almost non-stop to Karanese, only pulling over for fuel and the basic necessities, they’d arrived at the city to find no sign of Eren. They’d just finished searching the homeless shelters in case he was crashing there, had hit the public library and every coffee shop they’d come across, and now were on their way to the local park; it didn’t matter what shape Eren was using, she *know* her brother, know his movements, his habits and his quirks, not to mention the unmistakable feel of his magic. If she was close enough to him, she’d know it and there had been no trace of him, none at all.

There wasn’t even a sign of anyone from Reiss, which was just as frustrating, because that seemed to indicate that Eren had been and gone. “Dammit, where did he go? We need some idea of a trail to follow.”

Beside her, Armin finished the last of the coffee he’d bought at the most recent shop they’d search and threw it into the trash bin as they walked past. “We’ll find him, even if we have to dose a local member of the… erm, club.” He hugged the ever-present leather satchel which held a good bit of his potions closer to his body. “You know how he is, he must have done something to cause a scene that they know about.”

She smiled a little at that comment, well acquainted with how hot-tempered her brother could be at times, and prone to hasty decisions. It was the latter that had led them to this mess – Eren becoming so worried about her and Armin being hurt because of him, of them lacking a ‘proper’ life since they’d joined him on the run that he’d slipped away that awful night while she’d been distracted by Armin’s wound. Part of her understood why he’d done it, and part of her loved that side of her brother… but oooh she was going to smack him so hard and latch a permanent thread onto him as soon as they found the idiot. Never again. Never again was she letting him out of her sight.

“I wonder if he might have gone on to Rose next – maybe he figures if the Reiss organization is after him, they’ll back off if he’s in the Reeves territory.” It wouldn’t be an ideal plan, but she could see her foolhardy brother doing something like that.

Armin groaned as if pain and rubbed at his temples for a few seconds. “If he did, I’m going to make him drink my foulest tasting potion even if they don’t have much effect on him. Yeah, that does sound like an Eren plan, so let’s hope he’s running around the park as some mutt and conning people into giving him their lunches. I really don’t want to get caught up in a fight like that right now.”

Mikasa patted her friend on the back as they hurried toward the park, the wind catching on her red scarf and causing her to wrap it tighter around her neck. The weather was turning colder, and in a few more weeks fall would be over, it would be time for snow and darkness; she couldn’t bear the thought of Eren out there alone for another winter.

They were huddled inside their coats by the time they reached the park, with the sky shading to dark blues and purples as the sun began to set. Between the cooler temperatures and the fading daylight, there weren’t too many people in the park and the few visitors there were, were heading to the exits as Mikasa and Armin walked past one of the open gates. As befitted one of the larger cities like Karanese, the park entrance was filled with benches, well-trimmed trees and various signs that marked the paths people could take through the expansive greenery.

“Are you sensing anything?” Armin tugged on the edges of the leather gloves he wore as he glanced around the park.

“No, but if he’s here and in an animal form, he might be deeper inside since it’s getting dark.” Mikasa frowned at a couple of the retreating figures, one of them being tugged by a large dog on a leash, since there wasn’t much she could do with her magic while there were witnesses about – ‘normal’ witnesses. “We’ll have to wait until it’s a bit more deserted and then see if we can’t flush anything out.” If Eren wasn’t here perhaps a were was, someone who could be questioned.

“All right.” Armin’s right hand slipped inside the leather satchel, most likely in search of a truth potion or something else they could use on anyone they captured. “I guess this is better than that time we crawled all around the abandoned warehouses in the Orvud district.”

That prompted a stifled laugh from her. “Yes, much less rats and cockroaches. He’s going to have to work hard to make this up to us.” In all honesty, she didn’t care about the last couple of years spent chasing after him, she just wanted her brother back safe and whole.

“Oh yes, I think Eren’s just agreed to three years of testing my potions for me in return for all of our suffering,” Armin agreed as they headed down one of the paths at random. “I don’t care how much he complains about being a lab rat, he’s going to do it.” Armin sounded rather pleased at the thought, a wide grin spreading across his handsome face as he patted his precious satchel.

It never was wise to annoy an alchemist, and Armin had spent a lot of sleepless nights figuring out just how he wanted to get back at Eren for making them so worried – Mikasa almost felt sorry for her brother. Almost. “He’ll whine a lot but he’ll know that it’s his own-“ Her back went stiff as she felt a brush of unfamiliar magic; beside her, Armin came to a halt and slid his hand inside the satchel while glancing around.

She thought she sensed two different types of magic, one more animalistic than the other, and after a couple of seconds, two people appeared around the upcoming bend of the trail. One of them was male, and huge at that, easily a head taller than Mikasa and Armin with broad shoulders and a powerful build. He came to a halt in front of them, his face overshadowed by shaggy blond hair and close-trimmed beard and mustache, but Mikasa swore that his jaw lifted up and that he took a deep breath; he was were.

His companion was a woman close to Mikasa’s height and blonde as well, with her hair cut short and worn mostly off of her face. Like the man, she dressed in a utilitarian style, in a grey trench coat and jeans, though she wore ankle boats to his dark sneakers. There was a hint of something ‘calm’ to her magic, at least to moment, so Mikasa pegged her as a mage, and probably one who knew how to fight due to her trim build and cautious stance.

The were finished sniffing and grunted. “Not Reiss.” His voice was deep and his eyes flashed bright green. “But something odd.” He stared at Mikasa as he spoke.

She stiffened upon hearing those words and let the magic build inside of her. “Why are you here?”

The woman tilted her head to the side and offered up a bland smile. “Funny, we were wondering much the same thing about the two of you.” Her hands came out of the pockets of the coat and blue sparks began to glow in her eyes as the sense of magic grew stronger. “Especially since we found a couple of dead were buried in the woods back there.”

Mikasa and Armin were still as the news sunk in, but they had fought alone together for almost three years, and with Eren for another twelve; they knew each other’s reactions as well as their own and they were well acquainted with how situations such as this usually went for them. Moving as one, Mikasa unleashed her threads while Armin threw down a potion that made the woman gag and the were hiss as if scalded, buying them both some time as the strangers recoiled.

The woman turned out to be a water mage, since she called up the humidity in the air to act as a shield against Armin’s potion – too bad it didn’t do much against Mikasa’s enchanted threads. However, there was a tearing sound as the were shifted, bulking up into something almost as terrifying as Eren’s main fighting shape, into a mass of fur and muscle, of claws and fangs.

“Is he a tiger?” Armin sounded more intrigued than panicked as he lobbed another potion through the air, something that made the were yowl and seemed to melt off a good bit of his fur and muscle.

“Fangs and coloring is all wrong, looks more primal than that.” Mikasa used her threads to counteract a spell that the mage had cast, the white strands coming together as if a ward, then sent out others to lash out at their attackers. “You know what organization they belong to?”

“Not a clue, no brand that I can see.” Armin paused to think for a moment before fetching a particular potion from the bag. “Here, smash this into him, it’ll put him down good.”

She wasn’t going to ask – unlike Eren who had some weird semi-immunity to Armin’s concoctions, she’d learned the hard way that his stuff was not to be messed with in any form and that they always worked as intended… if not then some. Thinning the ‘shield’ a little to see that the mage was helping the were with whatever it was that Armin had hit him with before, Mikasa readied a spell to distract the mage while taking a few running steps forward and then used a couple of her threads like tentacles to slam the glass vial of potion right into the were’s chest before he could claw out her heart. She ducked under his huge right arm and then jumped back up, white threads once more warding her against the mage’s attack, in time to see the were weave about and fall onto the ground.

“Mike!”

The mage aborted her attack and rushed over to the were, who slowly shifted back into a more human shape from where he was laid out on the ground. “What did you do to him?”

Armin approached Mikasa, another glass vial held in his hand. “Nothing too serious, he’s just sleeping for now.” As he spoke, Mikasa had a couple of her threads wrap around the mage to prevent any more attacks.

The woman appeared more upset than furious as she stared up at them from the kneeling position at the were’s side. “Who are you? We just wanted to question you!”

“You mentioned dead were, you were about to blame us!” Mikasa struggled to keep the threads from tightening too much around the woman, who shook her head in response.

“No, whoever killed them used claws, which you don’t have.” She shuddered as she glanced down at the comatose were before looking up at Mikasa. “You’re… what, you’re a Jorōgumo? I didn’t think there were any left around here.”

Armin gripped Mikasa’s left shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze while she rubbed the red scarf across her chin. “My mother was one of the last.”

For a moment something resembling pity flashed across the mage’s face before she shook her head again. “It wasn’t your type of magic that killed those were, nor was it alchemy.” She glanced at Armin with respect before bowing her head. “Look, we’re… I don’t think we’re after you, though we thought you might have a few answers.”

“That’s nice, but *we* are looking for something as well.” Mikasa’s fingers clenched in the scarf as she wondered if those were had been killed because of Eren, if this was another case of more dead ends cropping up when they were so close to re-establishing his trail. If that was the case, then why were these two looking into things as well? “Why are you bothering with some dead were? Who are you?”

The mage’s face went blank as she stared up at Mikasa. “I’m not at liberty to tell you that. Please, I don’t think we’re enemies.”

When Mikasa made to step forward, Armin once more gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. “I’m not so sure about that – you see, we’re searching for someone very important and we’re not going to just walk away.” Armin held up the vial in his hand. “And we can ensure that you tell us exactly what we need to know.”

The mage was quiet as she stared at the vial, and then her eyes went wide and her body rigid. “Who are you? You’re not with Reiss, right? Mike was right about that? And you’re not with them – the ones hunting down-“ She bit her lower lip and shook her head.

Mikasa shook off Armin’s grip and rushed forward to grasp the mage’s coat with her own hands. “Hunting down who? Eren? Do you know where Eren is? Tell us! If he’s hurt because of you I will-”

“Mikasa, don’t hurt her just yet!” Armin rushed over and shoved his way between the two of them. “We need her in good shape for the potion to work!”

“Wait – look, we’re not hurting this… Eren.” The mage’s eyes flared bright but Mikasa’s own magic held the other mage’s at bay for the moment. “He’s a shifter, right? We’re not hurting him, I promise.”

“Of course he’s the shifter! And you better not be hurting him!”

Once again Armin pushed in front of Mikasa. “Wait – you said ‘a shifter’.” He frowned as he held his potion close to his chest. “Not *the* shifter. That’s an odd way of phrasing things. How come?”

“Oh, I’m probably going to be killed for this,” the mage muttered as she glanced at the unconscious were. “But I have to wonder if maybe we’re after the same thing here.” She let out a slow breath before she looked up at them. “I’ll explain as much as I can – I’d appreciate you not using that potion as I’ve friends I’m protecting as well, and maybe we can come to some sort of arrangement once I’m done because honestly? I think we’re both protecting the same person.”

There was a strange feeling inside of Mikasa’s chest, one she realized was hope. “You’re protecting Eren?”

“We weren’t told his name, just that he’s a shifter.” The mage shook her head. “As I said, let me explain. There’s only so much I can tell without going against oaths I swore… at least for now.”

Mikasa exchanged a look with Armin, and she saw the same thing on his face and in his expressive blue eyes that she felt inside – hope warring with caution. “We’ll listen, but if at any point we don’t believe you, I will use this potion,” he warned the woman.

“Fine, but just know that I have some very powerful geas on me that might not go so well with it.” She grimaced and glanced back down at her companion. “It’s best to compromise.”

“Whatever, just tell us about Eren,” Mikasa insisted as she relaxed the threads a little – not that she trusted the mage, just enough to hurry things along. If the mage was telling the truth, then good. If not, then regardless of the geas, Armin would use the potion and they’d move on to the were, scrape together whatever clues they could and follow the leads back to Eren.

*******

 

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