chapter four

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to me, fair friend, you never can be old

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“Do you care at all that you’ve utterly ruined the zombie genre for me?” Eren grimaced as he used his enhanced strength to twist off a revenant’s head and gagged at the stench that assailed his hyped-up senses and from just missing a splash of viscous liquid that sprayed from the decaying corpse. “Not to mention my appetite for like, *ever*.”

“Good, because those assholes can’t write shit about zombies – they get them all wrong.” Levi, his eyes glowing a molten silver and wreathed with ghosts as if enshrouded by a menacing fog, clicked his tongue in disgust. “I mean, where did that whole ‘brains’ thing come from?”

Not this again, Eren thought to himself as he flinched away from a revenant which seemed intent on gutting him; even though he was once more ‘armored’ up in the weird crystal ward, it still took some getting used to that the protective layer was strong enough to deflect the undead’s attack – that and he could only keep up the ‘ward’ for so long. Right now he could feel his strength flagging, and knew that he could put up with either a few more minutes of fighting or one or two more spells.

Which of course Levi knew by now, since he was a vicious bastard. His lips curled up into a smirk as more revenants appeared and he motioned with his hands in Eren’s direction as if readying another spell.

“Ah come on, how many people has Hange buried around here?” Eren whined as he prepared to dodge.

“Hmm, she’s rather helpful, isn’t she?” Levi shaped the fingers of his right hand into a gun and jerked them up as if firing off a shot, the same time that about five of the revenants rushed at Eren.

Bellowing in anger, Eren concentrated as much energy as he could onto the ‘ward’ around him while lashing out with his clawed hands to tear through his attackers, and felt it when the spell hit him. It almost was pleasant at first, the feel of Levi’s magic, and then he panicked as he felt his ward begin to break apart.

Aw, fuck it. While the magic ate through his ward, he let his own flow and shifted into something small, something that dropped to the ground while the revenants’ focused on where he *used* to be, and used his new form’s paws to flee before they or Levi had the time to realize just what had happened. By the time Levi had figured out that something was wrong, Eren was already within range, his fur colored to blend in with the faded grass and leaves, and bunched up his muscles so he could leap upon his lover.

“What the hell!” Levi sputtered as Eren knocked into his chest but managed to wrap his arms around Eren’s feline form – at least until Eren shifted back to ‘normal’, which sent them both crashing to the ground.

Now naked and laughing over the fact that he finally got one over his lover, Eren lay sprawled out on top of Levi. “The… the look on your face!” He continued to laugh despite Levi’s glower and the smack to his ass.

“I should have you change back so I can skin you and make you into a fur hat or something,” Levi grumbled as he shoved Eren onto his lap so he could sit up, all the while his magic flared about and the revenants and ghosts vanished back into the ether and earth respectively. Eren was still hiccupping with laughter while his lover shrugged out of his black coat and draped the heavy, warm material over his bare shoulders. “You try that on someone else, you’ll be lucky if you only end up collared.”

The imagery that followed the remark helped to sober up Eren, causing him to sigh as he rested against Levi’s solid weight; now that his good humor vanished, the exhaustion from the fight settled in. “Yeah, I know, but I doubt I’ll be throwing myself at some asshole mage, just you.”

“I’m so blessed.” Levi’s deep voice practically dripped with sarcasm, yet he rubbed at the nape of Eren’s neck as if he was still in cat form. “Just can’t resist me, can you?”

Eren banged his head against Levi’s chest a couple of times as he whined again, which prompted a rare chuckle from his boyfriend. “Yeah, thought so. I’ll give you ten minutes to rest and then we’ll try it again, see if you can last half an hour this time.”

Sliding his arms around Levi’s waist, Eren frowned as he looked up at the sadist. “You know, I think I should be concerned about how eager you are to tear me into pieces. That shows signs of a person with deep-seated issues. Very deep-seated and disturbing issues.” He yelped when he received a rather firm smack on the ass for his observation.

“Ha ha, says the brat with more than a few deep-seated, *daddy*-related issues himself.”

At first Eren gasped in shock, and then he narrowed his eyes and bared his teeth. “You did *not* just go there, Mr. OCD.”

“I did indeed, and you’re spouting nonsense – I’m not OCD.”

“You’re – gah! You probably call up the dead in order of how decomposed they are!”

“You really are fucking brain-dead aren’t you?”

“I have to be to put up with you!” Magic coiled around Eren, his and Levi’s, so thick that it was almost too difficult to breathe. Yet despite the pressure, despite the anger, there was also desire and… and something, something that kept them there, his arms around Levi’s waist and Levi’s hands on his hips, their eyes locked together as if the outside world didn’t exist. “You… just.. gah!”

“See, brain-dead.” Levi sneered as his right hand pried itself free from Eren’s hip to bury itself in Eren’s hair instead. “Even worse - not a thing left for me to reanimate.”

“Ha, ha.” Eren leaned in until he could feel Levi’s breath across his face. “You’re the one who scrambles them so much. All your fault.”

“Your life, so hard,” Levi murmured as he brushed his lips along Eren’s jaw.

“Wuh-we can’t all be the ‘great’ Levi. Ooh, yeah, more.” The anger dissipated, overwhelmed by desire, pleasure and need. Eren forgot about the argument, the cold and everything else as he sought out Levi’s chapped lips. He licked at their slight roughness before they parted open, and then they pressed against his own with a passion matched by what flowed into him, by the way cool hands slid along his naked body and made him moan as-

“Shit!”

Dazed as much by the sudden loss of his lover as the way he’d been dumped onto his ass, Eren blinked in shock as Levi jumped to his feet, and then recoiled as the black coat was thrown over his head. “Wah?”

“Someone’s coming!”

“Huh?” Eren draped the coat over his shoulders as he stood up. “Do you know them?”

His eyes burning silver as he used his talent, Levi paused for a moment as if ‘seeing’ something. “I… the person driving the car is familiar, yes, but I can’t make out who else is in the car. More importantly, I don’t know why they’re here.” As he, spoke, Hange and Erwin raced out of the house.

“Someone hit the outer ward!” Hange was busy tugging on a ratty brown overcoat while Erwin hadn’t bothered with any outerwear, though hellfire sparked at his hands. “Your sentry picking up anything yet?”

“Yeah, it’s Mike.” Levi turned toward Erwin with his eyes still aglow. “You call him here for something?”

“No, so this is a bit worrisome.” A hint of brilliant blue sparked in the mage’s eyes as well. “He would have texted at the least to warn us.”

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.” Levi turned toward Eren and glared. “Get in the house.”

“No, not if he’s here for me.” When Levi’s expression went up a notch on the nasty scale, Eren shrugged his arms into the coat and shook his head. “Look, I’m not going to let you fight without me, okay? But I’ll do this at least.” He allowed his appearance to shift until he was even smaller than ‘normal’ and more androgynous, so anyone looking for ‘Eren Jaeger’ could mistake him for a young child visiting Hange; this form had bought him a few precious seconds in the past, since a lot of people had trouble harming someone so ‘young’ while he had no problems in tearing out their throat while they wavered.

Levi made a gagging sound as he rubbed at his eyes. “Brat… we’re going to have a talk later, once I’m done talking a very hot shower.”

“Huh?” What did that mean?

Before he got a decent explanation, Hange rushed toward the driveway. “I’m picking up… ah, four magic signatures through the ward? Two of them are Mike and Nanaba, but I don’t know the other two.”

Levi broke off his staring contest with Eren to look down the driveway, where a large black SUV could be seen headed their way. “You’re right, I don’t know the other two – though one of them….” His frown deepened and the dead he’d just sent into the earth a short time ago once more rumbled back to the surface.

“Levi,” Erwin called out as he approached the necromancer. “Wait until we find out what they’re doing with Mike and Nanaba.” The two men exchanged a terse set of looks until Levi clicked his tongue and reached for Eren, who yelped as he was yanked over to his lover’s side.

“Don’t say a damn thing and if I tell you to run, you better get your ass into the house and ward the hell out of it, you understand?” When Eren opened his mouth, Levi tightened his hold on Eren’s wrist. “Argue later, when everyone’s dead.”

Eren almost asked ‘including you,’ but couldn’t risk the lousy joke coming true so he merely nodded instead.

The SUV took its time coming down the drive as if unwilling to risk surprising them, which didn’t seem like something an enemy would be concerned about. The closer it came, the more Eren felt something… something familiar about it. He frowned at the vehicle and inched away from Levi, wanting to get clear from his lover’s overwhelming sense of magic and concern just then, but Levi jerked him back and gave him a scowl so he huffed in annoyance. Dammit, if he could just get away from Levi’s magic….

The vehicle came to a stop, the rumble of its engine cutting off and casting an eerie silence over the yard. Eren held his breath as he waited for what happened next, attention focused on the large shape he could make out through the partially tinted glass, and then the driver’s side door creaked opened. A very tall were stepped out, glowing green eyes peeping out through shaggy bangs to stare in Erwin’s direction. “Hey.”

Erwin’s sigh was loud and rather pained. “Of course you would start off this mess with a ‘hey’. Don’t you think we deserve more than that?”

The were shrugged. “Sorry?”

“Tell the others to get the fuck out here,” Levi snapped, his voice utterly vicious and his eyes blazing like twin stars. “Or I’ll rip their souls out on the count of three, immediately if they fuck with Nanaba.”

“Ah-“

“One.” Levi didn’t give this Mike a chance to explain. Eren could feel the intense fury and a mix of twisted up emotions from his lover, such a strong sense of need, a drive to protect and… and… He shook his head, confused and stunned and a little frightened.

“Levi, you should-“

“Two.” Spirits swirled around Levi and Eren, preventing Hange and Erwin from approaching. “You think I’m kidding? Thr-“

The doors to the SUV burst open as its occupants spilled out, one of them falling onto the ground in their haste. Still in shock over how far Levi was about to go in order to protect him, it took Eren a few seconds to recognize who the strangers were – not until one of them called out his name.

“Eren? Eren! Are you all right?” Mikasa pulled Armin onto his feet and then ran forward, her dark eyes bright with unshed tears and a hopeful smile on her face – at least until two revenants stepped into her path as an obvious wall. “Eren!” Her eyes flashed silver as white threads lashed from her hands at the undead to knock them down, but there were more to take their place.

“Mikasa!” Eren latched on to Levi’s arm as his sister fought with the undead, the same time that Armin attempted to pull a furious Mikasa back. “Levi, please, she’s my sister!”

“She’s a fucking- wait, what?” More spirits swirled in the air as if to ready to descend wherever Levi directed them, while Levi gaped at Eren. “Did you say ‘sister’?”

“Yes, that’s my sister and friend there, so don’t kill them!”

Levi clicked his tongue and jerked his left hand through his hair as he directed his attention back at the two; Mikasa was still tearing apart the revenants in front of her with her gleaming threads while screaming about Eren and Armin appeared to be debating if he should dose her with a potion. “Oi! Calm the fuck down, will you?” With one motion of his hand, Levi once more settled all of the dead except for a few spirits.

“Finally,” Mike grunted from where he stood beside Erwin and Hange, along with another woman. Meanwhile, Mikasa and Armin stared with what appeared to be disbelief at the vanquished revenants for a moment before Mikasa charged forward at Eren.

Sighing as he patted Levi on the arm then stepping aside, Eren began to shift back to ‘normal’ and braced himself for what would come next, and still was almost knocked to the ground when Mikasa all but threw herself onto him. “Heya,” he murmured into her neck when she latched onto him.

“It’s you, it’s really you, gonna kill you, so glad it’s you, don’t ever leave me again, it’s you,” she babbled into his hair as she nearly choked the breath out of him.

“Yeah, I missed you, too.” The feel of her magic settled against him, so familiar and welcome and… somehow a little ‘off’. It used to be one of the best things in his world, something that could always calm him down and center him, and yet… yet something was missing to it now. Something wasn’t quite ‘right’. Something made him hug her back while looking over at Levi, who stood there all stiff-spined and scowling until he noticed Eren’s gaze, and then the asshole rolled his eyes and relaxed.

The moment Mikasa sniffed and pulled away a little, another weight smashed into Eren and he found himself laughing as Armin banged their foreheads together. “You are in *so* much trouble,” his best friend warned. “Don’t ever do that again.” Armin’s fingers dug into Eren’s right shoulder, and Eren could hear the strain to his friend’s voice as well as the relief.

“I’m sorry.” He was, too, was sorry about all the trouble and worry he’d put them through, but he wouldn’t take back the choice he’d made that night when his hands had been sticky with Armin’s blood and his shirt still damp with the tears Mikasa had cried when she thought they’d lose their only real friend in the world. “It’s okay now.”

“No it’s not, I’m going to kill you once I stop being so happy to see you,” Armin warned him as he continued to hug him tight. “Almost three years.”

“Yeah, again, sorry.” Eren hugged them both back and wondered if he could pull the cat trick again. “But, uhm, it really was for the best?”

“You’re an idiot.” Mikasa hugged him even tighter than before. “I’m never letting you out of my sight again.”

“Ah, I love you, too, but-“

“And that’s enough of this shit.” Eren yelped as something cold wrapped around him and shoved Mikasa and Armin away, and the next thing he knew he was back at Levi’s side – a very annoyed Levi’s side. “Nice to meet you, he’s fine, now fuck off.”

Yep, that was his oh so sensitive boyfriend there, Eren thought as he rubbed at his eyes with the palm of his right hand. When he dropped his hand, he found Armin staring at them with his jaw agape and Mikasa with murder in her eyes. “Mikasa, Armin, this is Levi. I take it you already know Mike and… Naba?” Was that the name Levi had mentioned earlier?

“Yeah, they sorta kidnapped us,” the blonde woman commented, while Mikasa took a step forward as she cast out her threads.

“Levi? As in Levi *Ackerman*?”

Meanwhile, Levi attempted to shove Eren behind him while the spirits whirled even faster around them. “What the hell do you mean, ‘kidnapped’?”

“You *are* the necromancer! Get away from my brother!” Mikasa’s eyes burned silver as several threads shot out toward Levi, the same time that the spirits seemed to coalesce around her; Eren felt his chest constrict at the thought of Levi and Mikasa fighting each other even as their magic pressed against him and so let out a scream, the sound bursting forth from his throat the same time as the earth rumbled and those weird tendrils once more burst into being.

This time they didn’t seem to target anyone, they just slashed through the air between Mikasa and Levi and… and… and wherever the spirits or white threads came into contacts with the things, the tendrils… absorbed them. Eren shuddered as he felt Mikasa and Levi’s magic sink into the tendrils, into *him*, and moaned as he twisted about and half collapsed against Levi. It felt odd, felt *unsettling* - more so when it was Mikasa’s magic burning into him.

“You okay?” Levi’s strong hands wrapped around his arms and held him upright, even gave him a little bit of a shake. “What the fuck are you doing now?”

“Don’t know.” Eren murmured as he rested his head against Levi’s shoulder, now that the only sense of his lover’s magic came from the man himself, and then hissed when he felt more of Mikasa’s magic burn into him. “Ah!”

“Get away from him! Stop hurting him!”

There was another flare of magic, this time the strange, frightening heat of Erwin’s hellfire, but it was distant enough that Levi’s own cool, wonderful magic acted as a buffer. “Miss, I think right now that you’re the one hurting him so stop before I do something we’ll all regret.”

“Don’t you-“

“Mikasa, I… I think he’s right. I think you’re fighting Eren’s magic right now.”

“What?” Mikasa sounded incredulous but the burn of her magic stopped, which was all Eren cared about at the moment. While he concentrated on breathing and the feel of Levi’s hand stroking through his hair, Levi’s concern and magic pouring over him, he felt Hange’s magic approach and sighed.

Levi’s body stiffened, so he guessed that his boyfriend did something to cause Hange to halt what felt to be a few feet away. “You all right, Eren-honey? That’s an impressive bit of magic there.”

“No blood,” he muttered as he forced his head to lift from Levi’s shoulder. He found Hange looking at him with a concerned expression while Mikasa and Armin were held at bay by both those weird tendrils and a small wall of hellfire. Levi had the ‘this is the blank expression I wear when I’m really pissed off beyond belief’ expression on his face he usually reserved for when he found the sink full of dirty dishes or towels left on the bathroom floor, while Erwin was once more pinching the bridge of his nose.

Upon hearing him, a slight smile cracked over Hange’s face. “Dammit, Levi, you’re ruining the poor kid.”

“No, just managing to beat some brains into him after all.” Levi massaged the back of Eren’s neck as he glanced past the writhing tendrils. "You two going to calm the fuck down or what? And why the hell didn’t you eat them, Mike?” Oh yeah, despite the ‘calm’ façade, he was pissed as all hell.

Having retreated to the SUV, Mike grunted once and shook his head. “Said she was his sister. Plus, she smells like you.”

Levi’s hand stilled on the back of Eren’s neck for a moment as he clicked his tongue. “The fuck? I think you’ve inhaled too much catnip.” He waved aside Mike’s comment with his free hand and then stabbed it in Mikasa’s direction. “Seriously, the last thing we need is a bunch of shitty brats showing up when we worked hard to cover Eren’s trail, so get a good eyeful and then fuck off.”

Several threads shot out from Mikasa’s hands, but when the tendrils snatched at them and caused Eren to moan again, she gasped and got her talent under control. Armin wrapped an arm around her shoulder while she clutched at the red scarf Eren could still remember giving her so long ago and shook his head. “No, the three of us made sure to use protection wards and misguidance spells the whole way here, all right? Eren’s dear to us, so there’s no way we’d risk him like that.”

“I’m not a thing, okay?” Eren muttered as he rubbed at his sore head. “Right here ya know.”

Levi massaged a little too hard at the nape of his neck. “You’re a pain in the ass, you are. How long you going to have that shit wave about?” When Mikasa began to seethe, probably at how Levi was speaking to him, Eren shook his head and held up his right hand to keep her from starting another fight.

“I don’t know – what are they in the first place?”

As if on cue, Hange rushed forward. “I think we just saw a new facet to your ‘key’ nature!” She poked at them and laughed as they reacted to her presence. “Not only a physical defense, but it’s amazing how they absorb magic this time around!” Before Eren could stop her, he felt a rush of her magic and jerked in shock at the tendrils ‘ate’ whatever spell she threw at them. “Oh! That was- ow!” She turned to glare at Levi for whatever he’d done to her – Eren’s sight had been too blurry just then to see. “What was that for?”

“The next person who lobs a spell at those things is going to be gutted, understood?” Levi wrapped his arm around Eren’s waist to help steady him on his feet. “You okay, brat?”

“Fine,” Eren gritted out. “Jus’ fine.” The funny thing was, other than the nausea and the nasty headache, he did feel fine – the exhaustion from fighting Levi earlier was completely gone. It had just felt like… like something tearing into him when Hange’s magic had been absorbed – in fact, the only magic to not hurt or affect him in some way had been Levi’s. “Don’t wanna take in any more magic, ‘kay?”

“Wait, *you’re* absorbing through the tendrils?” Hange sounded even more excited than before. “That’s *incredible*! We have to-“

“Try something else and I really will eviscerate you, understood?”

Something, perhaps the eerie flatness in Levi’s voice, convinced Hange that he was serious, since she gave a humorless laugh and backed away from the tendrils. “Fine, okay, no more fun stuff today.”

Meanwhile, Mikasa and Armin seemed to realize that if they weren't casting any magic, that they could skirt around the tendrils and approach Eren, which they did with some caution. Mikasa nearly stumbled in her haste to reach Eren, only to come to a halt just out of arm’s reach when Levi threw out a hand to stop her. “Don’t even think about it – I’ll gut you, too, in a second.”

“Levi,” Eren warned as he tugged at the arm around his waist. “Sister,” he reminded in a weary voice.

“Yeah, well, she’s even more of a pain in the ass than you.”

“Don’t you speak to him-“

“Can you be even more of an ass-“

Just then blue flames burst into being everywhere, which caused Eren to hiss in pain and clutch at his head while Levi ground out Erwin’s name.

“Right now, *all* of you are behaving like children, and I am losing what little patience I have.” The flames flickered low but didn’t entirely burn out as Erwin folded his arms over his broad chest, his eyes glowing bright in the grave set to his face. “Now, you will remain quiet.” He seemed to stare at Levi and Mikasa for a few seconds longer than everyone else after saying that. “Levi will take care of the… well, see to Eren’s latest trick, and then we will all go into the house where we will discuss this new development like civilized adults or else I will reduce to ash anyone foolish enough to complain, understood?”

Levi’s arms tightened around Eren and Eren could feel his lover’s annoyance flare right before there was an amused sort of acceptance. “Always the fucking drama queen, Smith.”

“That’s not remaining quiet, Levi.” Yet Erwin’s lips twitched upward, just the slightest bit.

“Yeah, but I’m doing what you said, so consider it a win.” He patted Eren on the hip before he bustled him over to Hange. “No funny stuff,” he told the blood witch while glaring at Mikasa, while Eren sighed before he smiled at his furious sister.

“Isn’t Erwin so hot when he gets all scary demanding?” Hange cooed as she draped her arms over Eren’s shoulders. “And hey, you really do need to give me some blood.”

Eren huddled inside of Levi’s coat and wondered what he’d done in a past life to deserve this one, what with the crazy blood witch hanging all over him, his sister and best friend back in his life – okay, not such a bad thing except they weren’t all happy with him about the whole leaving thing – and the weird magic powers. That wasn’t even counting how everyone seemed to want him for being a ‘key’ or whatever. So he just sighed again and focused on watching Levi approach the weird tendrils that he’d created, a frown on his lover’s face as Levi studied them, and then Levi did the same thing as back in the kitchen and reached out to touch one of the waving… whatever. After a few seconds, all of the tendrils stopped moving and crumbled to ash, though Levi drew in a deep, shuddering breath and shook his head. “Fuck, but that… shit.” He scrubbed at his face with the palms of his hands while Eren felt a jolt of unease and pain run through him.

“Is something wrong?” Erwin took two long steps over to Levi and placed a tentative hand on the necromancer’s shoulder.

“Just… felt a rush at the end there, think it was the leftovers of yours, Hange’s and what’s her name’s magics.” Levi jerked his chin in Mikasa’s direction. “No wonder the brat’s all messed up if he was getting the full brunt of that.”

Erwin’s frown increased as he pulled away. “All right, everyone in the house, now. Once we’re inside, I want the wards up all the way.” He waited until Mike came alongside to speak again. “Was what the boy said correct – you did everything to cover your trail?”

Mike nodded to the blonde mage. “I drove, but yeah, they were casting and throwing potions the entire way. Soon as they heard we were taking them to Eren, they made sure nothing could follow.”

“I swear to you that it’s safe,” the mage added. “All three of us worked to wipe out the trail.”

Meanwhile, Levi stalked over to grab Eren back from Hange, just before Mikasa could do so. “Nice to see that they’re good for something.”

“We would never put Eren in danger! I don’t understand why he’s even with you – you, a *necromancer*!” Mikasa hurried to catch up with Eren and tugged at the sleeve of Levi’s coat. “We’re here now, we can take care of you.”

“Yeah, two more brats, just what he needs – if you could have taken care of him in the first place, he wouldn’t have left your asses behind, would he?”

Eren knocked an elbow into Levi’s ribs for that comment, even if it was the truth. “Don’t talk to my sister that way! And so what if Levi’s a necromancer?” He rubbed at his head, torn between the anger and possessiveness he felt from Levi and the hurt he saw on Mikasa’s face. “Just… just…”

Always the quiet, quick one, Armin managed to sneak in and pry him from Levi, then led him further into the house. “Look, just sit down for a moment, okay?” There was an understanding smile on his friend’s face, and Eren drank in the familiar feel of Armin’s calm magic. “Bit of a shock today, yeah?”

“I missed you guys so much,” Eren admitted as he hugged Armin to him. “I didn’t want to leave you, I really didn’t, but I just… what if you died because of me? I couldn’t take it, seeing you like that.” Tears prickled in his eyes and threatened to spill forth, but Eren pushed them back. “It hurt less to move on without you than lose you forever.”

Armin smacked him on the back as he returned the hug. “You idiot, how were we to know if you were still alive out there? We’re stronger together than apart.” He sniffled as if holding back tears himself. “You don’t get to be the only one making sacrifices.” He sniffed again as he pulled away – and yelped as he got jerked out of the chair by Levi.

“Cute. Is reunion time over?” Uh-oh, someone was not happy. As Eren offered his boyfriend a nervous smile, Mikasa latched onto him and he felt Levi’s anger double.

“Why do you care so much? You might be helping to protect my brother, but you have no business interfering like this.” She narrowed her eyes as she looked Levi up and down. “Why is a necromancer so interested in a shifter?”

“Oh sweetie, let me count the ways,” Hange commented from a few feet away. “Sixty-nine of them come to mind.”

“How is this behaving like civilized adults?” Erwin demanded to know as he collapsed onto the now vacated couch.

“Huh, what?” Armin, who had gone to Mikasa’s side, glanced back and forth between Hange, Levi and Eren, and his blue eyes went wide as he stared at Eren. “Don’t tell me….”

Annoyed at how everyone was behaving, especially Mikasa and Levi, Eren jerked his hand through his hair and scowled at his sister. “Don’t we have more important things to discuss? And stop insulting Levi just because he’s a necromancer!”

“But they can’t be trusted! Especially him, do you have any idea of the things he’s done?” She reached over to grab onto the soft material of Levi’s coat. “He’s killed a lot of people.”

“Yeah, because those shitstains would have killed me first, now get your hands off my boyfriend,” Levi snapped as he tugged Eren back over to his side.

“And there we have it!” Hange crowed as she pumped her fist into the air. “His first official declaration.”

“Has everyone forgotten the fact that there are people out there murdering mages and were in order to track down Eren, hmm? Am I the only one on target here or what?” Erwin waved his right hand about while pinching the bridge of his nose with his left hand.

The blonde mage stifled a giggle while shoving Mike in the direction of the kitchen. “We’ll go where it’s safe and make some coffee and tea. Be back after the explosion.”

Meanwhile, Eren could feel his sister’s rage and disbelief along with Levi’s smugness and anger. “Look, why does it matter what he is? I trust him, isn’t that enough for you?” He appealed to Armin, who was holding on to Mikasa as if he had a hope of restraining her. “And that his friends brought you to me?”

“How can we be sure that you’re with them – with *him* - of your own will?”

Eren didn’t even give Levi a chance to respond, he yanked his arm free and stomped over to his sister to grab onto the front of her dark blue jacket. “Do you really think I’d let them fuck with me like that? That I’d still be *me* and their lapdog?”

Mikasa’s eyes flared silver for a moment and then she burst into tears as she hugged him to her. “I’m sorry – it’s been so long and we worried about you every day. Then to find you and-“ She hugged him even tighter. “I just wanted you to be safe.”

Eren’s throat grew tight as he hugged her back. “I am,” he forced out as he rubbed at her back. “I promise.” Despite Levi’s annoyance, he held on a little longer. “And Levi’s not that bad, really.”

She sniffed as she let him go with some reluctance. “He better not be.” She frowned as she faced Levi, her hands still on Eren’s shoulders… and then she turned that frown his way. “Wait, something’s not right here.”

Uh-oh, he’d known it would only be a matter of time before someone had noticed. “Ah, so what’s been going on? How did you find me?” He grabbed hold of Mikasa’s wrist with his right hand and latched onto Levi’s arm with his left and dragged them over to the couch, where Erwin was sprawled out; something on his face made the mage grimace b efore standing up with a flourish and moving elsewhere.

“But Eren, you’re sh-“

“Sure happy to see you and Armin! Now tell us all about how you came across Mike and… uhm, Nama?” He made to sit down between Levi and Mikasa, only to be yanked closer to a certain asshole.

“Nanaba,” Levi murmured as he slung his arm across Eren’s shoulders. “Yes, let’s hear the wonderful story about how you kidnapped them, please.”

As if they’d been waiting for that moment, Nanaba and Mike returned from the kitchen with trays in their hands, filled with mugs of tea, coffee and plates full of biscuits. “Well, it wasn’t that much of a kidnapping,” Nanaba explained. “Not after Mike woke up from Armin’s potion and all. We didn’t put up that much of a fight and once they explained about knowing you, we decided to bring them along.”

Perched on the arm of the chair where Hange was seated, Erwin accepted a mug of coffee with a rather displeased expression for his two associates. “Yes, by all means ignore my orders and risk being followed, I do appreciate it.”

Nanaba flushed at the sarcastic tone while Mike grinned at Hange when she snagged a mug and several biscuits. “Told you, she smells like Levi.”

“And I told you to fuck off, you idiot cat.” Levi paused in reaching for a mug of tea from Nanaba and gave Mike the finger. “It’s time you were neutered.”

“No, there really is something to what Mike’s saying.” Nanaba glanced back and forth between Levi and Mikasa while Eren snagged some tea for himself; his head still hurt from whatever he’d done earlier and Levi’s temper was not helping, though being able to curl up next to the grumpy bastard and bask in his magic did soothe the ache somewhat. “I may only be a water mage, but I picked up a few tricks from Hange and one of them is getting a sense of bloodlines. As soon as I saw Mikasa, I had an overwhelming impression of you, Levi.”

“Then you’re as crazy as your partner.” Levi shook his head after shooting a narrowed look Mikasa’s way.

“Yes, I don’t see how anyone can think I resemble *him* at all,” Mikasa muttered into her mug of coffee.

Caught between them, Eren kept any remarks about similar bland expressions to himself, though he caught Armin’s look and noticed how his friend seemed to be struggling to keep from laughing. Just drink your tea, he told himself.

After shoving at least two cookies into her mouth at once, Hange washed them down with coffee and then jumped up. “Well, there’s one way to find out!” she declared, cookie crumbs flying everywhere. “All I need is a little blood.”

“And a shit ton of manners,” Levi complained as he wrinkled his nose in disgust. When Armin looked at Eren with his brows drawn together, Eren mouthed ‘blood witch’ to his friend, who then nodded in understanding.

Hange waved him aside as she approached the couch. “It’ll only take a few seconds to figure out this latest mystery – I mean, clearly Mikasa has some Jorōgumo in her, but there’s something else.”

Drawing back from the crazy woman invading her space, Mikasa glanced Eren’s way for a moment before fussing with her scarf. “Yes, my mother was a Jorōgumo, but my dad… well, he was a latent so he never talked much about his bloodline.”

“Not once?” Hange began to dig through the pouch on her belt, where she tended to keep ‘useful’ things while training Eren – aka sharp stabby stuff he did his best to avoid.

He didn’t need to see his sister’s face to know about the painful memories that the question raised. “Her parents died when she was young, that’s why my parents took her in,” he snapped with a rare bit of heat at Hange. “Leave it be.” He felt Levi’s arm tighten around his shoulders while Hange blinked at him in surprise.

“Ah, okay, yeah, stuff like that tends to leave a lot of unanswered questions.” Hange paused to gaze at the lancet in her hand for a few seconds before she forced a grin on her face. “But that’s where a talent like mine comes in hand, yes? Just a little jab and I’ll know why Mike and Nanaba trusted you despite Erwin’s orders and geas.”

Mikasa held on to the mug with fingers gone white as she gazed up at Hange, and then she turned toward Eren. “Do you trust her?”

Well, that was a loaded question, wasn’t it? Eren rubbed at his sore forehead and tucked himself a little closer against Levi, who made a grumbling sound yet moved his arm aside so Eren could fit better against him. “Uhm, she’s crazy but yeah, I trust her.”

“Most people don’t add the ‘crazy’ part, honey, when attesting to a person’s trustworthiness.”

“Most people aren’t bug-fuck crazy like you,” Levi shot back to Hange before he sipped his tea.

“Okay, ya got me there.” This time Hange’s grin was genuine as she pulled on a rubber glove. “This won’t hurt too much, I promise. You don’t have a hopped up healing factor like your brother, right?”

While Mikasa shook her head, Armin got up from Hange’s desk chair and came over to stand by the side of the couch. “I want to see this – I’ve never seen your talent in action.”

“Ah, you’re an alchemist, right? We’ll have to exchange notes later.” Hange grinned at him as she jabbed Mikasa’s clean right forefinger and then used a glass pipe to soak up the blood. Humming to herself, she then raised it up to drink the blood.

Eren felt Levi’s curiosity while Hange ‘read’ the blood, and he was a bit surprised by Hange’s loud gasp when her glowing red eyes went wide as she stepped back so she could better face both Mikasa and his lover. “Well, isn’t *that* a shocker!”

“Just tell us what you found, you shitty glasses,” Levi ground out as he wrapped his arm around Eren’s upper chest.

“Mikasa does indeed come from a long line of Jorōgumo on her mother’s side – a very, very long line. But her father’s bloodline is equally impressive.”

On the other side of Eren, Mikasa scooted over until she pressed against him, which caused Levi’s annoyance to spike. “Yes? Which bloodline was that? We always went by my mother’s name, I couldn’t even find out anything after they died.”

It looked as if Hange was going to go the dramatic route and drag out the answer for a few seconds, until Erwin cleared his throat and Levi made a growling sound. “Fine, fine, spoil my fun,” she mumbled as she twirled the thin glass tube between her fingers. “Mikasa, I’d like for you to meet your cousin, Levi.”

The cramped room was quiet for several heartbeats, and then Levi would have jumped from the couch if not for Eren while Mikasa shouted “hell, no!”

“It’s true! The blood doesn’t lie! As far as I can tell, you two are cousins third removed!” Hange kept waving the glass tube around while Erwin came over to stand in front of the couch; Eren had ended up on Levi’s lap in an effort to calm down his boyfriend.

“Levi, you know Hange’s never lied when it comes to her power, so stop it!” He called up a small ball of flame to back up his order.

Levi bared his teeth in a furious smile before he all but picked up Eren and set him back down on the couch. “How the hell can there be another Ackerman out there? Kenny and I only survived because… well, you know.” Pain, anger and hatred flashed through Eren and aggravated his throbbing headache; when he winced in reaction, Levi reached over to rub at his head.

“Probably because it sounds as if Mikasa’s father didn’t present himself as an Ackerman.” Erwin glanced at Mikasa, who was staring at Eren. “At some point, maybe one of your grandparents or great-grandparents must have been able to hide their talent and so changed their name. It’s possible your father didn’t even know what he was if he truly was a latent.”

Mikasa appeared so lost just then that Eren reached out for her hand. “It’s okay,” he assured her. “Can’t be any worse than me finding out that I’m some ‘key’.”

“You’re still you, you just got a cousin we can hit up for money now,” Armin teased as he joined in on comforting Mikasa.

That prompted a weak laugh from her, even as Eren caught at Levi’s hand and gave it a squeeze to keep Levi from bitching about the joke. “He’s not bad,” he insisted once more. “Just give him a chance.”

Her expression softened as she smiled at him. “All right, at least he’s helping to keep you safe so there’s that. Though it sounds like there’s so much we need to catch up on, like this ‘key’ thing coming out and why someone’s killing those with magical talents who are after you.”

“*Yes*, finally, someone with a bit of focus here.” Erwin beamed at Mikasa and seemed to ignore the rude gesture Levi made in his direction.

Armin nodded in agreement as he finished his coffee. “Oh, and why Eren’s so short all of a sudden.”

The room was quiet for all of about ten seconds before Levi reacted. “What the *hell*?”

Yeah, Eren should have known that things couldn’t go well for him for more than two minutes at a time.

*******

“Short?”

“Ah, yeah, it took some time to notice but Eren should be taller.” The blond guy, Armin, cocked his head to the side as he examined Eren, who was shrinking against Levi as if he could escape attention. “He’s usually about my height.”

“We’re used to him shifting about a good bit, but it is odd that he looks normal and is, well, small.” Mikasa reached out to stroke Eren’s hair.

Okay, first off, for some reason the gesture annoyed Levi, and second, he had a certain brat who needed to explain things *right now*. “Imagine that.” Setting his empty mug aside, he caught at the brat’s wrist which was tucked inside of Levi’s coat and hauled him off of the couch. “We’ll be back.”

“Levi, we still have to discuss what’s going on with the mages being killed.” Erwin did the whole ‘I am so disappointed with you’ face thing, but Levi waved him aside.

“Yeah, whatever, have fun without us.”

“Wait a minute, where are you taking my brother?” The girl, Mikasa, rose up from the couch until Levi manifested a spirit in front of her, which sat her ass back down real quick. “Eren!”

The brat tried to plant his feet for all of two seconds before he sighed and shot Levi a nasty look. “We’ll be right back, okay? Have Hange heat up some food for you and… uhm, yeah, we’ll be right back.” He tried to kick at Levi’s leg but was too slow. “Won’t we?”

Levi merely grunted as he threw open the door to the bedroom and dragged Eren into the room, then locked the door behind them before warding the room against anyone who might interrupt. Once that was done, he leaned against the door with his arms folded over his chest. “So, want to tell me why you lied to me?”

Eren curled up on the bed, his long legs tucked beneath him as he played with the cuffs of Levi’s coat, his eyes downcast and disheveled bangs falling onto his face. “I didn’t lie to you,” he mumbled.

“Right.” It only took three steps to reach the bed and grab hold of the coat’s lapels so he could force Eren to look up at him, and he smiled at the way those eyes, shaded to blue in the dim light of the room, flared gold in reaction to his anger and barely restrained magic. “You told me you didn’t change your appearance for me.”

“I *didn’t*!” Eren made a frustrated noise, almost like a snarl, and smacked at Levi’s hands. “I *do* look like this – ask Mikasa and Armin! The only thing that’s different about me is my size, which you *didn’t* ask about! What I look like, yeah, how tall I am? *No*!”

Levi stared down at his lover for several rapid breaths before he clicked his tongue. “That’s fucking semantics.”

“It’s the truth.” Eren sounded like a surly brat just then, but his hands curled around Levi’s instead of scratching or hitting. “The only thing that changed the moment I met you is that I shrunk.”

“When we met.” Levi tried to recall what exactly had happened when he’d run – literally – into Eren. “You’re saying that you changed then?”

“Yeah.” Eren rolled his eyes and settled a bit more on the bed, which made Levi kneel beside him and loosen his hold on the coat. “All I know is that as soon as we touched, I shifted into this and… well, I’m stuck.” Eren shrugged and didn’t seem too bothered that he didn’t have a better explanation. “Even if I try or get knocked out, I don’t shift back to my normal height. Seems as long as I’m with you, this *is* my normal.”

Levi let go of the coat so he could twist his right hand about to grasp his lover’s and held Eren’s smaller hand in his own; he remembered being hit by someone and thinking something along the lines of ‘great, another tall idiot’, then being surprised when his ‘attacker’ had turned out to be a cute kid. A cute kid who wasn’t some tall idiot. Well, wasn’t tall. “Why didn’t you say something?”

Eren made the frustrated sound again as he tucked back his hair. “Like what? You got me away from those assholes who were chasing me and gave me a safe place to stay, and yeah, so I was short but that was the only thing that had changed.” He once again avoided looking at Levi. “Any other time my talent reacted to someone, it was to shift into a shape to fight or… well, you know.” A slight blush reddened his cheeks. “I figured I could live with it even if you were being a bastard with all the short jokes.”

“So it’s never lasted this long?” Levi was trying to figure out what this all meant, why Eren’s talent was reacting to him. To *him*. He wasn’t used to surprises, and he definitely wasn’t used to them being anything other than nasty in his experience. “What if I don’t want you to be short any longer?”

Eren cocked his head to the side and smiled, the expression a little sad as he reached out to skim his fingers along Levi’s bangs. “You really want me to be tall?”

Levi tried to imagine it in his head – Eren taller than him, no longer able to wear his clothes, those shoulders broader now and… “Not that it would be a bad thing, but yeah, not really.” His hands lifted to cup Eren’s face between them. “I’ve gotten used to putting up with you like this.”

Eren’s eyes, now back to that unusual blend of blue-green, fluttered shut as he chuckled. “I think you just like me smaller so it doesn’t hurt as much when I punch you.”

“I can still kick your ass even if you shift,” Levi pointed out as he pulled his lover toward him. “And that’s my coat, don’t you think it’s time you gave it back?”

“Huh?” Eren gave a slow blink before he smiled, the expression much too wicked for his youthful looks. “Well, if you’re going to be so stingy, take it back yourself.”

Nice to see someone was getting with the program. Levi allowed himself a pleased smile as he slid his left hand into that dark, tousled hair to keep a hold on the brat while his right began to undo buttons, and had to appreciate the benefits of having a shifter as a lover. “Next time, don’t wait forever to put on some damn clothes.”

“Uhm, a little busy today.” Eren leaned forward so he could nuzzle at Levi’s neck. When Levi’s fingers clenched in Eren’s hair upon having his neck nipped, he felt the way that Eren winced in response.

Ah, yeah, the whole ‘key’ magic thing. “Hey, your head still hurt?” He gave an experimental tug again as he tossed the coat aside.

“Fuck, don’t do that.” Eren pushed at him then pulled away as much as Levi’s hold on his hair allowed. “A little?”

Levi loosened his hand enough to massage at the base of Eren’s skull. “What, you don’t know?”

“Yeah, it really hurt, absorbing other people’s magic, but right now I’m feeling more than that.” Eren let his head loll back into Levi’s hand. “Hmm, I like your emotions better.”

Yeah, still a bit creepy how the brat could sense his emotions like that, though Levi had to admit it was a bit of a thrill how responsive Eren was at times like this; as he leaned in for a kiss, Eren met him halfway, lips already parted and arms outstretched to wrap around him.

“Clothes,” Eren breathed out as he straddled Levi’s lap, and it wasn’t until Levi felt a tugging at his sweater that he realized what it was that his lover wanted. Groaning a little as he broke off the kiss, Levi grabbed at the hem of his sweater and tugged it upward, then tossed it aside without a care once it was off. He caught the brat’s smirk once he was bare from the waist up and snatched at Eren’s jaw.

“And what are you feeling now?” He followed up the question by leaning in to nibble on the space beneath Eren’s right ear while his hands skimmed downward until they settled on prominent hipbones. All the while, the sense of that wild, warm magic enveloped Levi and almost made him feel dizzy.

Eren whined in frustration and wrapped his arms around Levi’s shoulders. “Ah! Ah… desire and puh-pleasure and magic and….” His brows grew furrowed as he shook his head. “Suh-something and… yeah, headache. And frustration, dammit.”

Figures the idiot wouldn’t even know what he was feeling, though Levi smirked a little at the last bit as his right hand wrapped around Eren’s cock, causing his lover to jerk his hips and cry out. “Can’t have that, can we?” He toppled Eren onto the bed then stretched out beside him, his free hand busy with the buttons of his jeans.

At first a bit dazed by the change of position, Eren blinked several times – right, *just* a headache – and then his hands scrambled to help Levi with the jeans even as his hips kept rocking into Levi’s touch. For a moment it was a bit of a cluster-fuck, and then Levi managed to get his jeans and underwear down past his knees and lay facing his lover.

Eren shuffled closer and entangled his legs with Levi’s, his hand quick to wrap around Levi’s cock with a eagerness that was addictive. For a moment Levi lost himself in the feel of a smooth, unfamiliar hand around him, of the hesitant touch that quickly grew steady and took on a pattern that had him biting into his bottom lip – firm and not too fast, careful around his sensitive tip. Then he noticed that his own ‘attention’ was flagging and hastened the strokes around Eren’s cock, his lips brushing against his lover’s forehead as Eren trembled against him and gasped out his name.

His fingers dug into the small of Eren’s back as he pulled the brat closer, intense pleasure coiling tighter and tighter inside of him and the feel of their entwined magic almost oppressive around them. Pressed tight against him, Eren shuddered as if in pain, his strokes along Levi’s cock slowing as he cried out and came in several rapid pulses.

Feeling Eren’s flushed face tuck in against the crook of his neck, Levi jolted when the strokes around his cock resumed with unexpected speed, along with the increased speed helped to push him over the edge from the shock of ecstasy. He buried the growl of pleasure that escaped from him as he came into Eren’s sweaty and tousled hair, mindful of the sensation of wiry arms and legs enfolded around him.

As the aftershocks of his orgasm faded away, he lay there on the bed, tangled up in his clothes and Eren, who seemed determined to merge with him from how hard he pressed against his body. Levi sighed as he ran his hand along Eren’s knobby spine.

“And now?”

“...eh?”

Levi poked the brat for such an inelegant response. “How are you feeling now?”

“Oh.” Eren pulled back enough so he could look at Levi. “Mmm, tired. Pleased. Little achy. Blissed out. Smug.” He rubbed at his eyes. “That’s yours, you know.”

Levi went to flick the brat on ear before he remembered about the headache. “Don’t be a little shit.”

“Don’t be such an old pervert,” Eren muttered back as he closed his eyes.

“You’re lucky your brains are even more scrambled than usual right now,” Levi warned as he sat up, which prompted a displeased squawk from his lover. Eren grumbled something as he curled up on the bed while Levi stripped off the rest of his clothes and went to the bathroom to clean up.

Eren appeared asleep when he returned with a damp washcloth, from which he rung out a few drops of water onto his lover while clicking his tongue. “Wake up – you’re not sleeping like that.”

“So mean,” Eren complained as he rubbed at his eyes.

“Yeah, you’ve mentioned that a few times. Clean yourself off and then get beneath the covers,” Levi ordered before he went to pull on a pair of boxers and sweat pants.

There was more grumbling but Eren did as he’d been told, and even accepted a pair of boxers from Levi once he wiped himself clean. Levi stripped off the duvet with the intention of washing it later, then crawled beneath the covers so he could catch a quick nap; if he went out there now, he’d just put up with a lot of unnecessary bitching.

Of course as soon as he settled beneath the bedding, a certain brat had to curl up next to him as if he was a fucking teddy bear or something. “You have the other half of the bed, you know.”

“Don’t care,” Eren mumbled as he threw an arm across Levi’s abdomen and snuggled even closer. “Feels good like this.”

Like Levi would admit that it did, under pain of torture or anything else, but yeah, it did; the feel of Eren’s magic soaking into his skin and bones was soothing after whatever the hell it was that had allowed him to absorb the others’ magic. So all he did was sigh in an exaggerated manner and curl his arm around to toy with his lover’s hair while he closed his eyes and allowed sleep to take over.

*******

Armin read through a section on natural magic before flipping through the heavy vellum pages. “So what all do you know about Eren’s magic now?”

Hange propped her chin up on her left palm and fiddled with her glasses. “Maybe I should ask you that question since you’ve known him the longest.”

“I can honestly say I’ve never seen him do anything like that thing with the magical growth and absorbing another’s magical energy before.” Armin bookmarked a promising section before he focused his attention on the conversation. “We probably should have tested what he could have done with that energy.”

“Oh, I’m going to like having you around!” Hange grinned so much her eyes crinkled shut while on the other side of the table, Erwin groaned and pinched at the bridge of his nose. “Yeah, that would have been wonderful but I think Levi would have been even grumpier than normal if we got all pokey with his boyfriend.” She cocked her head to the side and seemed to think about what she’d just said. “No pun intended.”

Not going to think about Eren and ‘pokey’ and his new boyfriend, right, Armin told himself as he scrubbed at the roots of his hair. “Oh-kay. Yes. Another time. Back on topic, all Mikasa and I noticed about Eren was that he can shift into almost any shape he can imagine, and there’s been times when he’s absorbed energy from the environment around him. It’s helped out a lot when we’ve been running too much and exhausted.”

“Ah, so he’s tapping into the lifeforce of the earth, which is understandable if he can absorb another person’s magic.” Hange tapped her fingers against the rim of her glasses. “Nothing else about him being a ‘key’?”

Armin shook his head. “No, we always wondered what Grisha meant by that, but to be honest, we were too busy trying to stay ahead of the people hunting Eren down to do much research or to look into his talents.” Any downtime they did have, Armin was busy learning new spells to help protect them or obtain the materials he needed for his potions.

“Sometimes certain powers come out when a person matures – Eren said he’s almost thirty, so perhaps he needed to reach a milestone in age before they… unlocked so to speak.” Erwin set aside the book he’d been skimming and reached for a new one. “That and Levi’s presence may be why things are happening now.”

Armin wasn’t quite sure what Levi had to do with anything, but Hange nodded away as if she understood Erwin’s logic; it was something he’d have to check into himself later on. “So we know that this change is recent, and that it allows him to manipulate magic to an extent that hasn’t been seen before?”

Erwin held up a book, the title translating into ‘The Principles of Magic’ from what Armin could tell. “Most mages are limited to one element and can manipulate that element based on their degree of training, skill and strength. It’s unheard of for a magic user to be able to ‘feed’ off of another’s energy or magic, or to pull so freely from a native source – well, with the exception of necromancers. Part of the reason they’re feared is they do obtain some energy upon the release of a life.”

“Oh.” Now Armin was beginning to understand the Levi comment. “I wonder if that’s why Eren said it didn’t hurt so much when he absorbed Levi’s magic.” For some reason, Hange’s grin widened upon hearing that.

“Yes, they do seem to… compliment each other well.” There was even a slight smile on Erwin’s handsome face as he stacked the books in front of him into a neat pile then stood up from the table. “I think I’m going to assist Nanaba with the wards outside – the words are beginning to look like a jumble of black ink to me.”

Hange gasped in an exaggerated manner and clutched her hands to her chest. “The legendary Erwin Smith, a quitter? My faith in you has been shattered, *shattered* I tell ya.”

A sour expression twisted his lips as he picked up a pen and threw it at her. “I don’t want to know what exactly that ‘faith’ in me was in the first place, thank you very much.”

A disturbing leer spread across Hange’s face as she picked up the pen that had bounced from her chest to land on the table and twirled it about. “Oh, you’d only have nightmares for a few days, promise.”

“Yes, that’s what I’m afraid of.” Erwin gave Armin an encouraging smile and patted him twice on the shoulder. “Don’t be afraid to barricade yourself in one of the bedrooms if she becomes too much, or to come looking for me. More experienced mages have fallen to her under false bravado.”

“Uhm, thanks?” Armin frowned as he reached over to pull his satchel closer to him – maybe he should have gone with Mikasa to hang out with Eren now that his friend was awake, but he’d decided to give the siblings a little alone time together.

“Aw, like I’d do anything bad to such a sweetie when he’s turning into a helpful research assistant,” Hange whined. “I’ll try out my new spells on Mike, he has a much stronger immune system.”

“That’s fine, I’m still a bit upset at Mike at the moment.” Erwin waved goodbye as he headed to the front door. “When Levi’s done with the laundry, let him know we can use some help with the wards.”

“Hmm, if I can pry him away from his honey.” Hange waved the pen in the direction of the kitchen.

There was a long-suffering sigh from Erwin as he paused at the door, and he shook his head as he walked outside.

“He seems a little stressed,” Armin commented as he flipped to the bookmarked section.

“Bah, Erwin’s not Erwin unless he’s plotting and stressed about something he should be plotting about. But he’s a genius. An evil genius, but a genius none-the-less.” Hange held up her mug of coffee in a salute.

Armin stared at her for several seconds before he blinked slowly and went back to reading from the book, the whole entire while wondering just how he was going to get back at Eren for dragging them all into this mess.

*******

“If you’re just going to sit there, do something useful and help me peel all of these potatoes.” Eren dropped a sack of the vegetables on the table in front of Mikasa.

She blinked a couple of times in surprise and then looked up at her brother. “All of them?”

“Well, we have a few more people for dinner than usual, so yeah.” His grin just then was more of a grimace, and then it softened as he handed her a knife. “Don’t worry, I’m going to mash them up.”

She felt her cheeks heat up as she rose from the table, the sack in one hand and the knife in the other. “You always enjoyed cooking so I never saw the sense in learning.”

He laughed as little as he returned to the counter, where he’d been busy setting out ingredients minutes before. “It never was a problem, I was happy to have one thing I could do better than you.” She loved the way his eyes sparkled as he looked up at her through the unruly hair falling onto his face; okay, it was taking some getting used to, how short he was now. Except for that year or two before puberty, they’d always been about the same height. “Even if it’s just making a simple dinner.”

“But I like your cooking.” It had been so long since she’d been able to enjoy it, too, since being on the run didn’t afford them many opportunities to take the time to make a proper meal. “You’ve been doing the cooking for everyone?”

Eren nodded as he handed her a bowl to put the peeled potatoes into once she finished the peeling – well, more like the mangling. “Levi’s idea of food is to dump it out of a can and heat it up, while Hange… uhm, yeah, we won’t get into Hange.” He shuddered a little while he scraped clean several carrots; from the looks of it, dinner was going to be shepard’s pie, and a lot of it. “I wanted to do something to thank them for helping me out, especially after Levi lost his home because of me.”

Mikasa paused with a potato to look at her brother, who was frowning as he set aside the carrots in order to peel the onions. “His home?” She didn’t know much about Levi, other than the stories she’d heard about him – none really any good – and the fact that he… well, she didn’t like to think about his relationship with her brother, not after what had happened in the bedroom. The bedroom with too thin walls.

Glaring at the onion in his hand as if it had offended him in some way, Eren nodded. “After he got me out of Karanese, the Reiss organization managed to track us back to his house after a few days. We took care of them, but…” He shrugged as he discarded the onion’s skin, and she suspected the sniff he took just then might not have to do with just the vegetable. “Hange’s really nice to let us stay here.”

“Hange is never nice, and what did I say about letting go of the damn house?”

Eren jumped at the sound of Levi’s deep voice, and Mikasa was even startled at the necromancer’s sudden appearance, though that emotion soon changed to annoyance as he draped his arms over Eren’s shoulders. “When will dinner be ready?”

“About an hour, if someone doesn’t distract me.” Eren jabbed his elbow backwards and made Levi grunt. “Aren’t you supposed to be looking through a bunch of old books?”

“Hange’s making do with that friend of yours, if he can stop himself from drooling all over the pages.” Levi reached around to swipe a piece of carrot. “How’s your head?”

“Better now that nothing weird has happened in the past hour.” Eren paused in chopping up vegetables and moaned. “I just jinxed myself, didn’t I?”

“Yep, so when the shit starts flying, it’s all your fault.” Levi flicked him in the ear and stepped back when Eren whined. “With that in mind, I’ll join Erwin and Nanaba outside in strengthening the wards.”

“Have fun, old man.”

“Behave, brat.” Levi gave an off-handed wave as he left the room, and Mikasa had the impression that he’d barely noticed her at all, which was fine since she still didn’t know how she felt about being related to the intimidating man. It was bad enough dealing with the fact that he was Eren’s *lover*, something that had just been rubbed into her nose with the casual interaction just now, with how Eren had allowed someone else, someone *not* her or Armin, to touch and tease him.

“You okay?”

“Hmm?” She looked over to find Eren gazing at her with an odd expression on his face. “What is it?”

“Oh, just that you seemed sad for some reason, and I’m the one who chopped the onions.” He wrinkled his nose as he added them and the chopped carrots to a large pan filled with oil, then dumped in a bunch of ground meat.

“Just… thinking about my dad – about what it must have been like for him to give up his name and hide his family background like that.” About why he hid the fact that he was an Ackerman. Had he truly been a latent? Had his father or mother been like Levi?

Eren paused in stirring the mixture for a few seconds then shrugged. “Guess both of our dads had their secrets, no?”

She set the mostly peeled potato down so she could reach over and give him a one-arm hug. “Eren… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up any bad memories.”

“No – it’s not your fault, and this whole mess brings home how much better of I’d have been – how better of *all* of us would have been if he’d just let me know what I was from the beginning. I don’t know how the hell he thought this,” he gestured around him, “is keeping me safe. Maybe your dad would have told you the truth when you were old enough, not up and abandon you one day.”

Eren always got so angry whenever Grisha was brought up, and Mikasa really couldn’t blame him, not after that day when they’d been alone in the house trying to decide what to do when it had become clear that Grisha wasn’t coming home and those mages had burst in with the intent to take Eren away, not when they had spent so many years on the run, not when Armin had nearly died. Not when it was becoming clear that this ‘key’ business was more serious than they’d thought, that it meant that those mages out there were not only willing to hunt down Eren but kill each other to get their hands on him.

“He loved you, so maybe there’s a reason for this.” She sighed when she felt Eren tense up against her.

“Yeah, well he has a damn funny way of showing that love, doesn’t he?”

She couldn’t really argue with that so she hugged him tight before she let him go. “So what are we going to do next?”

“Huh?” Eren paused in stirring about the meat and vegetable mixture to blink at her, probably thrown off by the change in topic; his expression was still a bit mulish because of Grisha before changing to pure confusion. “What do you mean?”

She gestured with the knife in her right hand. “What’s our next steps? Where do we go from here?”

“Oh.” Eren frowned as he tucked aside a lock of hair that had fallen forward. “I’m not too sure, to be honest. Levi and Hange are teaching me how to cast wards and other helpful spells, which should help in protecting and hiding myself. There’s also the whole ‘key’ thing and figuring that out.”

“Armin and I can teach you those things, and Armin’s a genius at finding stuff.” They’d taught Eren all of the spells he knew.

Eren was quiet for a minute or so as he concentrated on cooking. “Mikasa… I’m really learning a lot, okay? It’s difficult to figure this stuff out when we’re also on the run, which is why I never bothered with more than the basics before. And… look, I know you’re not crazy about Levi, I can tell, but there’s something about him. I think maybe I should stick around a bit longer.”

Used to it being just the three of them, of Eren relying upon *her*, Mikasa felt something inside of her chest clench and had to rest against the counter as her vision blurred. “Don’t… don’t you trust us?” Didn’t he trust *her*?

There was a clatter of the wooden spoon being set down and then Eren’s arms wrapped around her. “No! No, that’s not it, all right?” His chin dug into her right shoulder as he pressed against her. “You’re my family and I know you’ll always be there for me, always. It’s just… something inside of me is pushing me toward Levi, just like I always knew that you were special since that… well, that day.” His hands rubbed up and down her back. “I think it has to do with why I’m stuck being so short, which I’m sure Armin loves.”

That last bit, said in such a tone of exasperation, made her laugh as she hugged him back. “Yeah, he did mention something about rubbing it in earlier.” She bent her head so she could rest her cheek against the top of his head; ever since that awful day when he had come to save her, she had been drawn to him, had loved to be by his side and feel his warm, vibrant magic. Had loved knowing that this amazing person was someone special, was *her* someone special and reciprocated that feeling. It… it was a bit difficult to know that she had to share him with someone other than Armin after so long.

“Great, I’m so looking forward to that.” Eren rolled his eyes as he pulled away. “What are the odds that he’ll be too enamored with the books to come up for breath for the next… oh, month or so?”

“You wouldn’t be that lucky.”

“Yeah, I thought so.” Eren didn’t appear too happy as he went back to preparing their dinner, but he soon took to humming as he added some seasonings to the mix.

So maybe this wasn’t quite the reunion that Mikasa had expected, wasn’t her finding Eren and then resuming how things had been before he’d taken off… but still, they were together once more. She’d adjust to Levi and the rest, would accept the changes if it meant that this time, Eren wouldn’t go away. All that mattered was having her brother back in her life once more.

*******

Annie stood in front of the overweight, sweaty mage whom Reiner held dangling from the nape of his neck. “It’s not that difficult – all we want to know is where you’re concentrating your searchers for the shifter, Eren Jaeger.” She flexed her right hand in front of the Balto, the claws long and sharp.

Balto babbled something as tears and snot streamed down his face, and a glance from her made Reiner shake him in the air. “I’m sorry, but I’m not understanding you.” As soon as Reiner held him still, she reached out and dug her claws into his chest; they sunk in with ease and prompted a high-pitch scream from the mage as blood streamed from the wound.

“Ju-just answer her,” Bertolt stammered out from his position leaning against the wall, his expression impassive except from the worried gleam in his green eyes. “It’ll be better for you.”

“Bu-but duh-don’t know,” the mage wailed.

Annoyed with how long this was being dragged out, Annie sighed and dug in her claws even deeper. “We know you do, so spare yourself the pain. Tell us where we can find Jaeger.” The sooner this was finished, the better.

Reiner tightened his hold, and between the pain in his chest and the threat of another vicious shaking, something finally got through to the old mage since he gasped and nodded in a frantic manner. “Jah-jaeger. Yes.”

Finally, they were getting somewhere. Annie retracted her claws and stepped back, then pulled a cloth from the pocket of her light grey hoodie so she could wipe her hand clean. “Tell us about him, please.” She nodded once at Reiner, who lowered Balto onto the ground but kept a tight grip on him while Bertolt came forward to join them. “Where is he?”

Balto hiccupped once his feet touched the ground and raised his bound hands to wipe at his face, which only made more of a mess of it. “Don’ know.” When Reiner began to lift him back up, Balto’s eyes went wide and he shook his head. “No, *no*! Don’t know where exactly, but we tracked him down to Ackerman’s house an’ there… there we lost the trail. We’re searching for them both.”

Annie frowned as she shared a look with Bertolt, who wiped at the sweat on spotting his brow, and then with Reiner. “Ackerman? As in Levi Ackerman?”

“Yes.” Balto went to nod again and winced, probably because of how Reiner’s grip tightened on his neck. “Levi Ackerman. Only him and Kenny left of the bloodline.”

“And now you’re looking for them both?”

“*Yes*.”

Annie weighed the answer for several seconds before she nodded to Reiner, who grimaced before he snapped the mage’s neck without any warning; she didn’t think Balto had anything left to tell them, not with what she knew about the Ackermans and how little luck they’d had these last few days in finding Eren’s trail. At least now they had a clue, had a very small lead which they could work into something that would pay off in the end.

Reiner let go of Balto’s corpse and stepped over it to go to Bertolt’s side. “That’s not good, Eren crossing paths with an Ackerman.”

“No, that’s basically the last thing we wanted to happen, other than Reiss or another powerful organization getting their hands on him,” Annie agreed. “We can only hope that it’s more a matter of desperation bringing them together than anything else.”

Both of her friends murmured in agreement. “Levi’s pretty nasty, according to rumor. Maybe he’s after Eren, too?”

Annie flexed her claws at the thought. “Then we’ll deal with him, too.” She motioned for the boys to follow her away from the corpse. “Come on, we’ll find out what Hitch knows about Ackerman and then dig in to his known associates. There has to be some leads we can unearth that’ll help us find Eren.”

“Now that know who’s hiding him.” Reiner whistled as they headed to the car, the sound low and impressed. “An Ackerman, that should be a fun fight.”

“He might be able to subdue one shifter, but let’s see him try three.” Annie held up her clawed fingers before she willed her hand back to normal. “He’ll regret ever grasping at something beyond his reach as we’re tearing him apart.”

Reiner made a growling sound while Bert nodded, his face anxious as if he was imagining what Ackerman was doing to Eren.

*******

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