chapter six

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there's daggers in men's smiles

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Erwin sipped his latte while he waited for Nile to arrive at the small coffee shop, another of his ‘normal’ run businesses but one he was willing to sacrifice if necessary. He was halfway through his drink when his old friend showed up, bundled in a dark wool coat with a hand-knitted scarf wrapped around his neck; the bright blue material must have been a trial effort, since it was off a couple of stitches here and there.

He waited while Nile ordered a coffee of his own and smiled once the fire mage settled in the chair opposite of his. “I see Marie has taken up knitting.”

Nile touched the scarf wrapped around his neck and flushed at the attention. “Go ahead and laugh, she’s busy knitting one for you right now – it’s bright orange.”

“Then I look forward to receiving it.” Erwin did, too – it wasn’t often he received gifts made with care like that, and he was certain that Marie probably imbued the wool with some sort of spell as she made it. “However, we’re not here to talk about your lovely wife.”

His stressing the fact that Marie was indeed *Nile’s* wife seemed to put his old friend at ease. “Yes, and I don’t have much time.” Nile glanced around the small room as it to ensure that they were the only magically-talented beings present. “I don’t know how you find these places.” There was a slight smile on his face as he shook his head.

“Careful research, and Yelp helps, believe it or not.” Erwin smirked as he sipped his latte. “So, what do you know about Eren?”

Nile’s smile vanished and he stroked his thin goatee as he set his coffee cup down on the small table. “It’s not good – I honestly don’t know why the powers that be are so desperate to get their hands on that poor kid.” He frowned as he stared at the white cup. “I’ve talked to some of the old timers in the organization, and they’re just as confused – they remember another shifter from about two centuries ago or so, and they claim that nowhere near as much effort was put into bringing her in.” He raised his head to stare intently at Erwin. “There’s something special about this kid, right?”

Erwin didn’t want to dishonor the friendship with Nile, nor the risk that his friend was going through to provide this information. “There is, but please don’t ask me what, exactly.” He let out a slow breath. “Though to be honest, we’re still trying to figure out what that is.”

“You, Levi and Hange, right?” At Erwin’s narrowed look, Nile shook his head and sat back in his chair. “You know the hounds are out for Levi, right? There’s a lot of chatter out on the street about him, trying to track him down. All we know is he has the kid, and let me tell you, the higher ups are *not* happy about that.” Nile once again rubbed along his goatee. “Don’t see why they care if a necromancer has a shifter, except that he’s an Ackerman and so a vicious bastard, but there it is. Though lately, I think they’ve figured out he’s gone to ground with Hange and *that* is never a good combination.”

“Duly noted.” Erwin was careful to neither confirm nor deny that Levi was with Hange, though it concerned him, that people were connecting the dots that quickly. Hange took great pains to hide her location, but they might have to prepare to move on faster than they had hoped.

He took a few deep swallows of his latte and set down the almost empty cup. “Well, I wish I could say that this was a good visit, but you’ve been the bearer of some not very happy news.”

Nile reached out to latch onto his right arm as if to prevent him from standing up and walking away. “Is that it? I risk my neck and you’re not going to give me anything in return?”

“I wasn’t going to leave just yet.” Erwin felt a stab of pity for his friend just then, at the thin line Nile must walk each day over being Reiss’ lackey yet doing what he could to promote a day when mages weren’t tied to such an archaic system of fealty. If only his friend had been able to break free back then, along with him, Hange and Mike… but Nile had worried about Marie and the cost of living on the run. Erwin pushed aside the cup of coffee and leaned forward. “Be careful, because you can’t trust just anyone.” When Nile frowned and shook his head, probably to say he knew that, Erwin scowled and called up a spark of hellfire. “No, I’m not referring to the fact that you’re helping us out, I mean that things aren’t always what they seem.” He allowed the spark to linger for a moment before extinguishing it before someone else noticed it. “*People* aren’t always who they seem.”

Nile’s dark eyes went wide as he glanced from where the spark had burned to Erwin’s face. “Wait, are you telling me…. You know, why do I bother talking to you?” He raised his cup of coffee and drained it as if the beverage could wash away some awful taste in his mouth. “Some of us prefer to live in ignorance,” he griped as he glanced aside.

“Some of us don’t have that good fortune,” Erwin pointed out as he folded his arms on top of the table. “I’m advising you to be careful for your sake, and Marie’s.”

Nile’s face paled at mention of his wife. “Yeah, thanks.” He rubbed his right hand over his face as if he could wipe away a bad memory. “Maybe it would be a good time to go away like she’s been wanting.”

As much as Erwin could use the information that Nile provided, he had to agree with his friend. “That sounds like a plan.” He sighed as he rested back in his chair. “I… something tells me that things are about to get nasty.” He held up his hand as if to summon the fire but stared at his fingers instead, mindful of the people around them. “I don’t like how… how *blatant* everyone is acting. How desperate. That speaks to me of grand gestures at some point, and grand gestures… they tend to catch up a lot of people in their path.”

“Says the man who’s an expert at grand fucking gestures,” Nile scoffed. “That’s it, I’m heading home and telling Marie to pack her bags – she can knit while sitting on a beach somewhere.” Nile rose to his feet yet hesitated before leaving. “Just… be around so I can give you that awful scarf when we get back, okay?”

“I truly do look forward to it,” Erwin promised. “Enjoy your vacation.”

Nile waved his right hand about as he picked up his cup of coffee. “Keep checking your email – people pass stuff on to me and if I come across anything of interest… well, just keep checking it.” He appeared a bit guilty then, as if he knew he was running away when the fight was getting difficult but couldn’t help himself. However, Erwin would rather that Marie was safe and at least one friend was spared so all he did was smile and nod.

“That would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.” Erwin waved to Nile and watched as his old friend left the coffee house, yet remained seated for a while longer so he could observe the people in the shop to ensure that no one had followed Nile. Once he was certain that their meeting went unobserved, he picked up the empty cups so he could throw them out and returned to the counter to order another drink since he still had a few more leads to follow up before he could return back to Hange’s – after taking great care that no one followed him and that his trail was wiped clean by all magical and mundane means.

Levi hadn’t been entirely serious when he’d said that he’d kill Erwin if anyone followed him back to the house, but he hadn’t been entirely kidding, either. Erwin knew that his friend would be highly displeased with him if he was the one to endanger Eren and Hange through any carelessness, so he would go through every effort to ensure that Reiss, the mysterious shifters or anyone else after Eren didn’t find the boy through a mistake that he made.

He just worried about all of the other ways that their enemies could track them down.

******

Levi gathered his and Eren’s empty plates and got up to put them in the sink to soak now that breakfast was over. “So, who’s joining in on the ‘kick Eren’s ass’ session today?” His lips twitched at the way his lover groaned at the new name he’d given their training sessions.

“I’d like to work on the necromancy some more, so count me in.” When Eren groaned again, Mikasa made a soothing sound. “It’s not like I’ll let them maul you too much.”

“Thanks, that’s so reassuring,” Eren grumbled as he folded his forearms on the table and then laid his chin on them. “Wonder if I can shift into a rhino or something. A very big, warded rhino with lots and lots of spikes.

“Might as well go for a dinosaur or something like that.” Armin reached into his satchel and pulled out a couple of vials. “I think I’ll join you – I want to try out a few things myself.” He grinned when Eren took to groaning again. “I’m interested in that ward of yours, I think maybe if I can catch a bit of it when it’s disintegrating, I can work up a counteragent.”

“Great, take away the one thing I have going for me.” Eren sat back in his chair and ran his fingers through the unruly mop that was his hair. “Why do you have to go and ruin everything?”

“Hmm, because it’s fun?” Armin gave him an innocent smile for a couple of seconds before a more serious expression came over his face, and Levi noticed the way that the alchemist glanced at Hange. “Still, you said that Levi managed to tweak a spell that zaps you back into your original, well, your everyday form.” Armin gave Levi a nervous smile as if uncertain if he was still upset about Eren being down a few inches in height. “It might be good for us to be able to crack you out of your ward in case something happens.”

Hange had told Levi and Erwin last night that Armin had figured out that something was going on and so had been told about the other shifters, and so far it looked as if the kid was worth that bit of trust. It also looked as if Eren wasn’t that bothered about his friend trying to rob him of one of his best defenses, since all the brat did was shrug and give Armin a lopsided smile. “Okay, I trust you. I know there’s times when I… well, I trust you.” He looked away from Armin to stare at Levi, who remembered what Eren had said yesterday about not minding about the emphatic link.

There was a hint of pink to Armin’s cheeks as he nodded. “*If* I can figure it out, I promise, I won’t go sharing it with just anyone.” Then a sly smile spread across his face. “Unless you vanish again, and then I’m posting it online.”

“Gah.” Eren kicked at the foot of Armin’s chair. “That was for your benefit!”

“I’ll even help him post it,” Mikasa added as she rose from the table with her dirty dishes, and paused to give Eren’s head a pat. “Who wants more coffee?”

Both Hange and Armin raised their mugs, so she fetched the pot and returned it to the table once she dropped the dishes in the sink, while Levi refilled his mug with some more tea before settling next to Eren. “You really think you can whammy Eren’s ward?” Hange asked before she slurped her drink, much to Levi’s disgust.

“Well, I’ll need some supplies.” Armin rummaged through his bag and frowned. “We haven’t had much of a chance to restock lately, not once we got a decent lead on Eren. At least I could pick up a few things yesterday but there’s still some important herbs and minerals I need.”

“Moblit’s bringing a bunch of stuff for me from a shop that’s really good, and if there’s anything you’re still missing, I can send him back out for me.” Hange bit her bottom lip with what looked to be frustration and shook her head. “I expected him back by now.”

“Maybe he got picked up for not wearing a collar with tags,” Levi teased. That or he was taking a needed sanity break.

Hange paused to give him the finger. “Ha, ha. Pixis probably got him so drunk that the poor guy is nursing one hell of a hangover.” She sighed into her mug before slurping some more coffee, probably just to annoy Levi. “But he’ll be here soon, you can always rely on my Moby-baby.”

“At least the guy gets the opportunity to get out and around,” Eren complained as he slumped against Levi. “I think I’m about to go stir crazy.”

Levi jabbed his elbow into his lover’s side. “Tough shit – what’s better, you being stuck here or some mage’s mindless slave?” When Eren whined into his shoulder, he pushed the brat upright. “Come on, if you’ve time to think up such stupid shit, we’re going to practice.” He left the dishes to Armin and Mikasa as he dragged Eren to their bedroom.

“It’s not stupid – okay, maybe it is a little.” Eren had a mulish look on his face as he skulked along at Levi’s heels and spared a wave for Erwin, who was busy doing something with Hange’s laptop. “It’s just… I’m not used to staying in one place this long, okay?”

Levi closed the bedroom door behind them and waited for Eren to settle on the bed, his expression still a bit sullen but the sense of his magic almost placid, so he couldn’t be that upset; maybe Levi didn’t have an emphatic link of his own with the brat, but he was learning to judge the intensity of Eren’s magic around him as a barometer of what his lover was feeling. “And that’s a bad thing? Thought you were enjoying being with your sister and friend, and learning stuff.” He thought that Eren was enjoying being with him.

Eren sighed as he played with the ends of his jaw-length hair, at first tugging on the strands and then flicking them back. “I am, but it’s… I don’t know.” He let out another breath of air, this one louder, as he fell back onto the bed. “It’s just that it’s almost unnatural, not being on the move. I feel like I have this huge target on me.”

Levi let out a loud scoff as he joined Eren on the bed. “You idiot, you *do* have a target on you.” He stretched out beside his lover and flicked him in the forehead, something that Eren didn’t even bother to avoid. “Did you wake up with even less brains than normal.”

Eren made a low growling sound as he sought after Levi’s hand and caught it after a couple of tries. “You… I mean I feel like even *more* of a target. Something inside of me itches and I just…” He closed his eyes and sighed. “Part of me is happy to have this break, but there’s something inside that tells me that I need to start running, to get ahead before… argh, I don’t know.” He rubbed at his face as if to wipe away something.

Levi waited until Eren dropped his hands to give him another flick, this one gentler than before. “What, you don’t think we’ll keep you safe?” The question came out rougher than he had intended, since he felt as if Eren was questioning *his* abilities just then.

The smile Eren gave him was slow and shy, and the sense of magic grew with each heartbeat as Eren reached for him. “I think it’ll be terrifying, what you’ll do if they catch up with us, but that itch… it doesn’t go away.” His fingers slid into Levi’s hair and stayed there. “Doesn’t make any sense, right?”

“No, but what does when it comes to you?” Levi leaned forward so he could brush their lips together. “Just means you need to be distracted.”

“Hmm.” Eren closed his eyes and parted his lips as his arms slid over Levi’s shoulders. “Okay.”

“And that means time for you to get your ass kicked,” Levi breathed out right before he pulled away, his hands on Eren’s forearms so he could pull his lover along.

Eren’s eyes flew wide open and sparkled with anger as he pressed against Levi, body tense with the emotion and magic flaring as if he wanted to shift or cast a spell. “You – oh, you!” He bared sharp teeth as he shook his head. “Big friggen rhino today, gonna stomp your ass, just wait and see.”

“Watch you turn into one of those pygmy hippos or something.” Levi reached around to give him a pat on the ass. “I’ll have the revenants put a leash on you and walk you around.”

Eren covered his eyes as if he was imagining just that. “Whatever I did in a past life, it was really bad, wasn’t it? That’s why I’m paying for it so much in this one.”

“You haven’t seen true suffering until you’ve dealt with Hange and Erwin on a bender, so suck it.” Levi gave Eren one more smack and then pushed him away. “Now get naked.”

“You’re only saying that because you want to eviscerate me.” Eren was back to sulking as he yanked his borrowed sweater over his head. “I don’t think we have a very healthy relationship.”

“That’s because I’m making you wait until *after* the attempted evisceration to have sex.” Mindful of how cold it was outside, Levi snatched up the abandoned sweater and put it on over his long-sleeved t-shirt.

Pausing to consider the point, Eren shrugged and nodded after a moment. “Yeah, all right.” He had just started on removing his jeans when both of them froze, their magic flaring as they felt something cross the wards. “Ah, is Mike and Nanaba supposed to return?”

“No, just Moblit.” Levi scowled as he tried to make sense of what he had just felt and reached out to the sentry spirit he had posted along the driveway; through it he recognized Moblit’s car and it *looked* like Moblit inside of the light blue vehicle, but….

He could feel Eren stand beside him and reached out to touch his lover, more to assure himself that Eren was within arm’s reach and safe even as he felt along the wards he’d spent the last several days placing along Hange’s land and reinforcing. There was *something* of Moblit out there, but there was also something of death, and that just wasn’t right. Something was off, and he had to wonder if this was what had prompted Eren’s ‘itch’.

“Whatever I tell you to do, you do it, understand?” he ordered his lover as he strode toward the door.

“Eh?” Eren took one look at his face and then nodded. “What is it?”

“I’m not certain that’s Moblit out there,” Levi explained as they rushed for the front door – he cursed when he found the house empty of everyone except Erwin, who was still typing away. When his friend at first gave him and Eren a cursory glance and then pushed away from the desk in concern, Levi motioned for Erwin to follow. “Something’s not right.”

He raced out the open door to find Hange beaming at ‘Moblit’, who had stopped the car, with Mikasa and Armin right behind her. “It took you long enough! I was about to dock your non-existent pay!” she laughed as she headed toward the sedan.

“Hange, don’t!” Levi summoned several spirits to coalesce around the blood witch to prevent her from moving forward any further, while ‘Moblit’ exited the car with what appeared to be several bags in his left hand and a smile on his face. From this far away he *looked* exactly like Moblit that Levi began to doubt himself, except that he continued to smile at Hange and didn’t stammer out an excuse for being so late or chide her for being outside without a coat on or any of his usual anxious mannerisms from decades of dealing with a nutcase.

And then his light brown eyes looked past Hange as she squawked and batted at the ghosts whirling around her as if searching for something with an utter lack of concern on his face, looked past a confused Mikasa and Armin, a suspicious Levi and….

“That’s not Moblit,” Levi snarled as he shoved Eren behind him. “Erwin!”

“Ack! Levi, stop it, it’s Moblit! He got past the war-“ Hange stopped with the shrieking as ‘Moblit’ grinned, the expression possessing way too many teeth, and began to shift in front of their eyes, his clothes tearing apart as the familiar shape melted away. Meanwhile, Erwin snatched at Eren and surrounded them both with a circle of hellfire, which prompted Eren to yelp in surprise.

“How?” Hange stared in what appeared to be shock at the creature looming a few feet away while Mikasa and Armin cursed, Armin busy snatching up various potions and Mikasa casting out various threads. “The wards – Moblit?”

The shifter – fuck, but one of the bastards had tracked them down – put its huge hand on the one article that had survived through its metamorphosis, a cloth bag that hung tight around its neck; as Levi approached Hange’s side, he could pick up a ‘feel’ of Moblit emanate from the fabric and felt his rage spike even higher. “This fucker cannibalized Moblit’s blood and soul to get past the ward,” he spat out as he summoned forth the dead.

He saw Hange’s skin pale as the realization that Moblit had died for the charm to be made, and then her eyes flared a baleful red. Her lips pulled back as she bared her teeth, and a scream of pure rage and grief poured out as she hurled a spell at the shifter.

All the fucker did was ‘smile’, that or an approximation as it seemed the lower half of its face was mostly teeth, and the armored skin of its massive body glistened as a crystalline shell formed over it just in time to ward against Hange’s magic. “It was more than just the charm, you know, though that did help.” The shifter made to move forward, to move toward *Eren*, except for the undead that burst from the ground to wrap around its lower body.

The shifter snarled as it attempted to break free, its clawed hands slicing through the revenants latched on to it, and then Mikasa dashed forward with her threads in an attempt to bind it as well. All the while Hange seethed as she circled the shifter, eyes still aglow and face a mask of rage as she shook with a visible need to do something.

“That ward has to break at some point! We’ll batter it down!” She readied another spell when there was a cry from above, and Levi swore as he shoved her aside just as something swooped through the air while the wards ‘screamed’ about foreign magic.

Dammit, he’d picked up images of three shifters before, and now it looked as if the other two were joining the fray, breeching the ward thanks to that damn crystal protection that apparently wasn’t an attribute to being a key. Levi bit off a curse as he held his hand over the ground and summoned, and it only took a second of two for the buried revenants to pull the blades up from the earth and place them in his waiting palms. Now armed to fight something that was all but invisible to spells, Levi sneered at the figures who had shifted out of bird shape into something more humanoid and swung the blades in anticipation.

“Oi! Shitty glasses!” He waited until Hange turned toward him to toss her one of the weapons, then summoned another one from the ground; she gave him a grateful smile before charging after the original shifter with the blade held high as it broke free from the revenants.

“Come on,” Levi ordered Mikasa since he figured that Hange and Armin could deal with the armored shifter – right now the other two were closing in on Erwin and Eren, and he doubted the ring of hellfire would hold them off for long.

She hesitated only for a second, as if ready to try some more threads around the armored shifter, before she blinked at the blades in his hands and nodded. “Think those’ll work?”

“We’ll find out.” He motioned toward the gigantic, seemingly skinless shifter that was pacing around the hellfire circle while Mikasa’s eyes narrowed as she took in what appeared to be a female shifter.

Using the spirits to kick up dust and leaves, Levi blinded their opponents as the two of them rushed ahead and gained the advantage of surprise for the first few seconds; it was clear that the shifters had been trying to figure out where Eren was behind the wall of fire in order to grab him and pull him out. Levi came in hard and fast while swinging the blades as he spun about and lashed out in a downward motion, a fresh curse on the blades to help wear down on that shiny ward/armor. Despite its size, the shifter stumbled as it held its arms up as if to block the blows several seconds too late, its green eyes wide and mouth agape from surprise.

“Wah-what?”

“Get the fuck away from him,” Levi commanded as he followed up the slashes with a kick to the bastard’s solar plexus, added by a couple of spirits to gain enough air to aim that high. When the shifter attempted to hit back, he used the spirits as a shield and to ‘push’ it off-balance; maybe they couldn’t tear the fucker apart or do any lasting damage, but Levi had learned from fighting Eren that they could still act as a physical force against that shitty ward, which was wrapped around the shifter’s body.

“Nuh-no, he has to… come with us.” The shifter attempted to rush at Levi, only to be shoved off-balance by a gust of poltergeist force and then gasped as a charmed blade slashed across his throat. Was that a thin stream of steam there? Did Big & Clumsy here not have that good a grasp on his ward? Levi’s eyes narrowed as he swung his blades around again.

“He’s not going anywhere, and I’m going to use your body to fucking rip out the spines of your friends’ there once I slit your throat.” Levi called up a maelstrom of spirits to batter the shifter about in order to weaken the ward, and it looked as if Mikasa had figured out a similar tactic to use against her opponent. “I’ll fucking work your corpse like a bitch until it’s nothing but bones and shreds of skin.” Behind him he heard Erwin’s sharp tone, something about telling Eren to wait as he felt his lover’s magic flare about wildfire. “Stay the fuck in there!”

There might have been a furious ‘no!’ just then, but Levi had waved off the spirits so he could lunge forward with his blades at the ready at the unsteady shifter, and oh yeah, those were *definite* threads of steam rising from that disgusting body. Prepping the spell that always reverted Eren into a pouting and naked young man whining for his robe from whatever shape he’d been fighting in moments before, Levi slashed one blade low along the bastard’s stomach while the other came high along his upper chest. When the crystal began to break apart in earnest, he let loose the spell and had to jump back when more steam rolled off of the shifter.

“Reiner!”

Busy summoning a few of the remaining revenants to hold down the now weakened shifter, Levi was distracted and just barely caught the dark blur out of the corner of his left eye – he got his blades up in time and had enough spirits around him to help cushion the blow of one very irate, very strong and very big shifter charging at him. “The fuck?” Where were Hange and Armin?

As he attempted to get his thoughts in order so he could call for some more undead to pry this fucker off of him, something else rushed forward, this time to knock into the armored shifter attempting to pound him into the ground. Unfortunately, that something was his lover, magic flaring like a supernova and golden eyes just as bright, face one out of nightmares since it was composed of little more than jagged fangs and twin suns for eyes. Eren let out an inhuman shriek as he tore his claws along the other shifter’s face, and Levi swore he saw a wake of steam in their wake.

Coughing as he struggled to catch his breath from the blow, Levi could do little but stand there for a couple of seconds and watch the fight, especially since the other shifter had used the distraction to vanish. Erwin came over to his side and shook his head. “I’m sorry, I had him under control until you were in danger.”

Levi clicked his tongue but didn’t have anything to say to that, not even a ‘you suck’ or ‘fuck off’. “Come on,” was what he settled on as they rejoined the fray; Mikasa and now Hange were taking on the female shifter, while a bruised Armin appeared to be busy mixing up potions. Meanwhile, Eren was trying his best to rip out the armored shifter’s throat and doing a decent job of it.

“We’re not your enemy,” the armored shifter shouted as it attempted to get some sort of hold around Eren. “We’re your own kind!”

“Yeah, who murder and chop up your friends,” Hange reminded Eren as she did her best to chop up the female shifter in return, the blade bouncing off that damn crystal ward; it looked as if that shifter had a much better grasp of warding itself than Levi’s opponent. “Don’t believe a single word of that bullshit!”

“They’re just using you! Come with us, we’ll protect you.”

Eren appeared deaf to it all, which was good because Levi was getting sick enough for the both of them, listening to this shit. “He doesn’t need you,” he spat out as he charged at the bastard, blades held ready and spirits loosely around him so he could command them about with a simple thought. As soon as Eren fell back from what looked to be a vicious kick to his chin, Levi made his move – and dodged what felt to be a nasty as fuck spell mostly because of that loose shield of spirits, the magic similar to Eren’s but with a difference that made his skin crawl.

“Shit.” Eren knew spells, he should have expected that, he told himself as he hit the ground hard, agony shooting up from his left ankle as it buckled when his weight came down on it wrong. Using one of the blades for support, he managed to stay mostly upright and did his best to spin around to face the shifter – just in time to hear another of Eren’s inhuman screams and feel the rush of his lover’s magic unleashed.

If it had been a surprise to see those green tendrils burst to life the other day when Mikasa and Armin had shown up, it was nothing at all like now when the mostly dormant yard seethed with them, the magical growth lashing back and forth but managing to avoid Levi and his friends as it attacked the two remaining shifters. At first they stared in shock at the tendrils, until the greenery struck their giant bodies and caused the crystal wards to steam away.

“Shit!” The armored giant flinched and did something to attack the tendrils, which caused Eren to produce a low keening sound as he fell to his knees. Over by Mikasa, the female shifter used Mikasa’s distraction to knock her aside and then leapt in Eren’s direction, managing to land just a few feet away – which made Levi swore and reached for any remaining revenants near his lover in a vain hope of providing a shield, at least until a blast of hellfire poured out to block the bitch before she could get her hands on Eren. A baleful glare was sent in Erwin’s direction, but between more hellfire, another maelstrom of spirits and a flurry of tendrils, the shifters decided to leave before their crystal wards vanished completely; Levi thought he saw one fly away, but the other ran off at a surprising speed and vanished in the woods. Maybe that was what had happened to the third one.

“Eren!” Mikasa made to run to her brother, but Erwin caught her by the arm.

“Help Hange secure the perimeter! You two go in that direction, Armin and I will go over here.” As Erwin rushed about in the southern direction of the house, he looked back at Levi. “Can you do something about those things?” he asked as he waved at the still lashing tendrils. “I don’t think it’s wise to get rid of them just yet.”

Levi clicked his tongue as he damn near crawled over to Eren, who was still in his ‘fighting’ form though huddled on the ground. “Like I have a fucking clue.” When Mikasa hesitated in following Hange to the edge of the yard, he waved the girl off. “Go, I’ll take care of him.”

She didn’t appear too happy just then, but she nodded as she finally went to assist with the wards, while off in the distance Erwin could be heard shouting something about compounding to Armin. Levi ignored them as he half-hobbled, half-crawled past the tendrils, which parted for him as he all but fell down next to Eren. His lover felt almost burning to the touch and his magic fluctuated about just as wildly as the tendrils, so Levi winced as he squirmed into a better position next to his lover and stroked his fingers through the dark, damp and matted hair. “Come on, brat, bet I’m ‘choppy’ as shit right now. Wake the fuck up so we can go inside.”

At first there was no reaction, and then Eren’s body twitched before the crystal armor began to crack and melt away. Levi cursed as he fell back on his ass to avoid the heat, which did no favors to his already sore ankle, and watched as Eren shifted back to his own form; his golden skin ashen and body limp as he collapsed onto the ground.

“Oi! You passing out?” Levi lurched onto his knees so he could grab onto the brat and haul him somewhat upright, which caused Eren’s eyes to flutter open. “You were kicking ass a few minutes ago.”

Eren shivered against him and moaned, the sound weak and pained. “Head hurts.”

“Yeah, well, you turned the whole damn yard into a pervert’s wet dream, I would hope so.” When Eren was more or less settled against him, Levi struggled to pull off his sweater so Eren could have some protection from the cold. “Can you do something to calm them down?”

When Eren’s answer was along the line of a choked laugh, he sighed and had the fun of struggling to put the damn thing *on* his lover, not bothering to get Eren’s limp arms through the holes. “Little shit,” he muttered as he managed to scoot them a little closer to one of the ‘branches’ of tendrils.

“’Kasa ‘n Armin?”

“They’re fine, just helping with the wards right now,” Levi explained as he eyed the waving greenery. “So, no clue what you did this time either, I bet.”

Eren’s head lolled back against Levi’s shoulder. “Fulla magic. Watchit.”

Which meant that Eren was probably suffering more from magical backlash than anything right now, which probably was impressive as all hell considering the amount of spells flying around during the fight. Levi gritted his teeth as he tried to figure out how to go about this, only to huff when Eren hummed a little. “Make ‘em sleep.”

“Just because *you* want to… well, that might not be too bad.” Levi tugged on a lock of Eren’s hair since flicking was out at the moment, then cleared his mind as he concentrated on what needed to be done. When he had a concrete picture in his head of how he would calm down vengeful spirits, he then reached out to the greenery and hoped that this would work.

As soon as he touched the tendrils, he had to grit his teeth and work past the electrifying jolt of magic that washed into him; it was along the lines of the rush he received when someone died that he could *just* move past it. Focusing on what he wanted, he willed the tendrils to calm down, to ignore the magic that Erwin, Hange and the others were casting, to allow the new wards to click into pace yet remain on guard for anything that wasn’t any of the magic flowing about right now. To his surprise, the tendrils slowed their thrashing and appeared to retreat back into the earth until only a portion of them remained above ground.

Letting out a sigh, he sat there on the ground and focused on the magic the ‘plants’ had given him, and willed his body to absorb it. It wasn’t entirely like the energizing burst he got upon a person’s death, but it did help restore some of his depleted strength and calm down the pain he felt in his left ankle; when he tried twisting his foot, he had more mobility than before and concluded that it was at least partially healed.

Still, partially healed wasn’t good enough, and even with the fucking weeds as a defense system, Hange’s house was compromised and they couldn’t stay here for much longer. Levi allowed himself a few more seconds to rest up before he shuffled Eren about in his arms. “Come on, we’re going inside.”

Jerking about as if startled awake, Eren made a slight noise and kicked his long legs a little as Levi lifted him up and over Levi’s shoulder. “Wah?”

“If you want me to carry you like a fucking princess, not happening.” Levi was having a hard enough time as it was thanks to his ankle. “Unless you want to shift into a cat or something light for me?”

“…gonna throw up?”

“You do and I’ll cobble together a revenant to carry you inside,” Levi warned as he tugged the sweater down over Eren’s ass. “Just suck it up for another minute or two.”

“But-“

“What are you doing?” Mikasa nearly made Levi fall over when she yanked at Eren with her threads. “Give him to me!”

“Fine, he was getting heavy.” Levi rolled his eyes at how the girl managed to carry her pale and sweaty brother cradled in her arms – yeah, that wasn’t emasculating for the brat – while glaring at him. “Are the wards done already?”

Mikasa flushed a little as they stumbled onto the small porch. “I helped strengthen them, but Hange’s consulting with Armin and Erwin right now about some special tricks.”

It would have to be something impressive to keep those shifters out – at the least, maybe they could work out an advance warning. “Well, they better not take too long – we can’t waste too much time before we figure out what’s our next move.” Levi hobbled toward the bedroom with Mikasa at his heels. “Get some rest, gather our supplies and hit the ground running.”

“First we need to look after Eren, and what about you?” Mikasa nearly shouldered him aside so she could put Eren down on the bed; Levi grimaced at the thought of how the sheets were going to get all fucked up, until he realized that they weren’t going to be staying that much longer so to hell with it. “I don’t think they hurt him at all – his ward stayed up the entire time, right?”

“Yeah, it didn’t break down until after they left. For all his whining, the practice sessions really paid off.” Levi was grateful to get his weight off of his busted ankle and sink down on the bed next to his now unconscious lover. “Hey, grab a pair of boxers for him, they’re in the top drawer,” he ordered Mikasa since he didn’t feel like standing up again.

There was a slight flush of pink to her pale cheeks as she went over to the dresser, and he noticed what looked to be a forming bruise on her face. “You get smacked around a bit?” he asked when she handed him the underwear.

“A little – it took a minute or two to figure out how to use the spirits like you did and while I could weave my threads into a decent shield, that shifter was fast and strong.” Her eyes flashed silver for a moment, and then she looked aside when Levi began to slide the boxers along Eren’s long legs. “She knew how to fight.”

If it was a woman, but Levi recalled seeing a female shape from the dead’s memories so maybe that wasn’t just an assumed shape to throw off people. “The armored shifter wasn’t half-bad at it either, though the skinless freak seemed to rely more upon strength than anything. Think that one will be their weak link.” He’d be better prepared next time for one of the others to come to Skinless’ rescue.

Now that Eren was more or less decent, Mikasa bent over to brush at the tangled mess that fell onto her brother’s face. “I don’t like how they were trying to talk Eren into going with them.”

“You caught that, huh?” Levi ran his hands beneath the sweater just to check that Eren hadn’t been injured in some way and was comforted to feel warm, smooth skin and solid bone beneath his fingers. “Only seemed to piss him off even more, though.”

Mikasa’s lips twitched as she straightened up. “I love him, but he’s not the best at doing what he’s told. Sometimes that’s a good thing.”

Despite the lingering aches and pains, the fact that he’d lost a friend and that they were now facing three powerful enemies, Levi had to snort in amusement as he tugged the sweater down and smoothed his hand along his lover’s back. “Yeah, for once him being a stubborn brat works for us.” He could feel Eren’s magic against his skin, a much more sedate pulse now that the fighting was over and Eren unconscious yet still strong enough to send tingles up his arm.

“You should have Armin check out that ankle of yours, one of his potions might speed up the healing.”

Levi glanced up to find Mikasa over by the door and grunted. She gave him a half smile before tugging up that red scarf of hers and leaving, making sure to close the door behind her. Once she was gone, Levi shifted Eren about so he could slide his lover beneath the covers. Part of him wanted to curl up next to Eren and sleep for a while, to ignore the mess he knew was coming their way, but all he did was tuck the covers around Eren and allow himself to rest against the brat for a few peaceful minutes, to soak in the feel of their magic blending together and assure himself that at least here was one person who was… well, mostly all right, who would be safe with Levi outside that door.

After a couple of minutes, Eren made a low moaning noise and curled up, a frown forming on his face and a jerking motion beneath the blankets as if he was trying to reach for something but couldn’t. Levi remembered about just shoving the sweater on and chuckled. “If you’re trying to do your octopus impression, you’re out of luck.” He leaned over a little more so he could brush his lips along Eren’s forehead before he forced himself off of the bed. “Get some rest.”

Eren settled once he was alone on the bed, while Levi winced once he was upright and putting weight back on his left leg. Yeah, something had been strained all right, but at least he could bear weight on it, which was better than it had been before he’d gotten a boost of magic. Hopefully with a potion or two he’d be back to near-fighting condition because he had a feeling that they’d have a very short reprieve before the shifters would be back.

*******

Wishing that he’d grabbed a coat before running outside to see what was going on, Armin shivered as he helped Erwin and Hange with the wards – at least until Erwin called up some hellfire. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Erwin sent several balls of the blue fire floating about in the air, which helped still the shaking in Armin’s hands as he mixed together a new potion. “You think this will help with the wards?”

“I caught a wisp of steam from one of the shifters when their armor was breaking down, and while it’s not enough to make a potion that’ll render their armor useless like I’d hope, it should at least sensitize the wards here to them if they try to break through. We’ll need to have Eren shift for us later to get enough to do that at our… well, next place.” He glanced aside at Hange, not sure how well she was taking the fact that she had to leave her home.

“Anything to help prevent them from breeching the ward again.” Her face twisted with rage as she finished shaking a few drops of blood from a cut on her left thumb into the ground. “That bastard must have been partially warding his body with the crystal armor to help assist that glamour bag he put together with Moblit’s….” She paused to shake her head, her lips pressed tight together. “If it wasn’t for Levi, he could have gotten close enough to take us out and grab Eren. He won’t get that chance again.”

“No, we need to make sure they won’t go after the rest of our friends or comrades like that,” Erwin agreed, his eyes flashing a brilliant blue for a moment. “Dammit, I should have realized something when Nile warned me that people were tracking down Levi like that.”

Hange’s eyes flared a flame red as she cast some sort of spell, the drops of blood sizzling for a few seconds before vanishing in a puff of smoke; Armin was impressed by the ominous sense of magic that poured off of the blood witch just then. “And I should have worried when Moblit took so long to get back here, but sometimes he gets sidetracked and we’re used to people hunting down Levi. We’re not omnipotent,” she insisted, her voice harsh and expression haggard. “Doesn’t mean I’m not going to find those bastards and enjoy boiling their blood and turning their organs to stone. And that’s after reenacting a history of plagues on them.”

Armin chuckled as he finished with his potion, more than a little nervous in the face of such blatant hatred; yeah, he wasn’t happy with anyone who sought to use Eren, but he wasn’t one for torture. Or at least, he didn’t think so at this point in his life. “I wouldn’t want to be them right now, or the necromancer who helped them.”

Hange accepted the potion from him and sprinkled it over the ground with a rather disturbing smile on her face, while Erwin nodded and pulled out his phone to begin typing away on it. “Yes, yes, can’t forget about that necromancer, good thinking.” She looked over at Erwin. “Any idea who might that be?”

“Not at the moment, but as Levi could tell you, there aren’t too many candidates out there – I was already trying to narrow it down when we found the bodies the other day, but someone who can use part of a soul like that in a glamour bag? That narrows it down even more. I’m informing my contacts now.”

“Good. Because I’m looking forward to meeting that person.” Hange smiled at Erwin, if one could properly call the expression that; Armin shivered a little at the show of teeth and gleam of extreme and sadism hatred in the blood witch’s brown eyes just then. “Maybe we can exchange a few notes on magic, stuff like that.”

“Just leave them alive long enough for us to get some answers out of them,” Erwin admonished as he continued to type.

“Oh, I promise, they’ll be in a very talkative mood – might be a bit loud, but they’ll talk.” Hange’s eyes flashed red again and then she handed the empty vial back to Armin. “Okay, that’s the western side down, let’s finish the northern and we can go inside.”

“Yes, there’s lots to be done and not much time.” Erwin tucked his phone away inside a pocket and directed them across the yard.

Armin checked the contents of his bag and frowned. “Wherever we’re going, I hope it has some supplies.”

“We have a few safe houses scattered about that are stocked in cases of emergency, but I’m thinking it might be time to bring in some help.” Erwin brushed at a lock of hair that had fallen onto his forehead, for a moment an expression of dread on his face. “I just hope that I won’t regret it.”

That it wouldn’t lead to more deaths. Armin hoped that it wouldn’t come to that as well, for the enemies earlier had been powerful. They would have to figure out what those shifters really were and why they wanted Eren if they had any hope of keeping Eren safe and finding a way to defeat them – and to do that, they needed time and information. Armin hoped that they could stay ahead of the enemy long enough to get what they needed.

*******

Eren struggled to push past the throbbing headache and queasy stomach as he lay on his right side on top of the bed. There was a bit of light in the room that filtered in from the closed curtains, so it still had to be day, which meant he hadn’t been out of it that long. Placing his hands against the mattress, he attempted to sit up… only to find himself unable to push his body very far from the bed.

A loud squawking noise escaped as he fell back onto the bed, more or less face first, then the bedroom door opened and there were the sounds of footsteps and the feel of familiar magic – Levi’s foremost and a tingle of Mikasa’s.

“Brat… what are you doing?” There was a shuffle to Levi’s steps and more than a little annoyance to his deep voice and emotions, as well as relief. Eren found himself lifted up with ease, and it was then that he realized that his arms were trapped inside of the warm, soft sweater that he was wearing.

“Uhm, wakin’ up?” He did a slow blink as he stared up at Levi, who appeared exhausted with the darker than normal circles beneath his grey eyes and mouth drawn in a grim line. “What’s going on?”

“We’re having a fucking party, what do you think?” Levi’s right hand hovered around Eren’s forehead as if to flick him, before Levi sighed and tousled Eren’s hair instead. “If you’re up, come join us.” He helped Eren slip his arms into the sleeves of the sweater before leaving the bed to fetch a pair of jeans; Eren noticed that someone, probably his boyfriend, had put some boxers on him while he was sleeping.

Mikasa came over while Levi grabbed more clothing and offered him a tender smile while feeling his forehead. “You look a little better, how’s the head?”

“Still a bit sore.” Eren was grateful to see that she appeared all right, albeit sporting a bruise along the left side of her jaw. He thought he remembered her carrying him inside so she must have come through the fight in good shape. “How’s Armin?”

“In his glory, whipping up potions left and right.”

“Figures.” He managed a weak grin before Levi dropped the jeans in his lap. “And the others?”

Levi had to help him with his balance as he put on the pants; even with the additional magic in his system, he felt… felt ‘off-kilter’ because of the shock to his body from all of it pouring into him. Dammit, there had to be some better way of filtering it from the plants.

“Well, other than the fact that Moblit’s dead, Hange is fine.” There was a sharp bite to Levi’s words just then, a verbal sign of the dark emotions roiling inside of him. “Sure she’ll bounce back in a day or two.”

There was a stab of pain, guilt and fury inside of Eren at the words and he attempted to pull away from his lover, only for Levi’s fingers to dig into his arms. “I’m sorry – I knew I should have left days ago.”

“*Bullshit*” Levi’s grip on Eren was painful enough to wring a small cry from him, and the next thing Eren knew was that he ended up shoved onto the bed and would have sprawled out on his back if not for the hold on his arms; Mikasa rushed forward as if to help but a glimmering wall of spirits blocked her path. “Listen to me,” Levi all but spat out, his eyes glowing silver and face set in evident foul temper. “*You* didn’t kill Moblit, you little shit. His blood is on the hands of those three fuckers out there and them alone, unless they’re working with someone else. You didn’t ask for any of this shit. You didn’t set out to be a damn key or invite a bunch of power hungry assholes to chase you down. *They* are the ones who decided to kill an innocent guy for whatever fucked up reasons and *they* are the ones who are going to pay for it – say another damn word otherwise and I will kick you so hard you’ll shit out of your mouth for a month, understood?” He glared at Eren as if daring him to argue.

Eren stared up at his lover while that mixture of fury and guilt continued to thear through him and shook his head when he felt tears prick at his eyes. “I just… I just want it to end,” he admitted. “I don’t want anyone else to die because of me, and I want to fucking *tear those bastards apart*.” He closed his eyes and forced himself to take a deep breath, and started when he felt a gentle touch to his hair – he hadn’t even realized when Levi had let go of his arms.

“You and me both,” his lover admitted. “Though we may have to race Hange to get to them at the moment.”

There was another light touch to his left shoulder, and Eren realized that Levi must have dropped the wall of spirits as well. “I’m not going to stand by idly, either.”

“Didn’t think you would,” Eren told his sister as he opened his eyes to look up at her. Then something occurred to him. “Uhm, yeah, about those three – I’m not imaging things, right? They were the other shifters.”

Levi’s face wore the usual impassive mask as he stepped back and urged Eren to stand up, which he did on somewhat unsteady feet. “As far as we can tell, yeah, they were.” There was something ‘off’ about Levi’s emotions, but Eren’s head still hurt too much to figure out what just then.

“So I’m really not the only one? Why do they want me so much?” This whole thing didn’t make any sense, and he hated how he could become so lost in his rage when he fought some times, which he’d sorta… yeah, seeing Levi attacked like that had done it.

“Are you forgetting the whole ‘key’ thing?” Levi clicked his tongue as he wrapped his arm around Eren’s waist and directed him toward the door. “Your brains have definitely been scrambled too much lately.”

“Funny how much that’s happened since I met you,” Eren complained as they left the room. “And wait – aren’t you the one limping?”

“Just shut it and get out here,” Levi grumbled, his temper flaring enough that Eren decided to save his concern and be quiet. Still, when they got to the living room and when Levi made to dump him off at the couch, he yanked his boyfriend down with him and was happy to curl up next to him, where he could feel Levi’s magic soak in.

“Hmm.”

“Some days I swear you’re half cat.” Levi sounded rather put upon, but still moved his left arm so Eren could press even closer against him.

Armin, who had just returned from the kitchen with a tray full of warm beverages, sighed as he shook his head. “If you’re going to talk about cat boy costumes and dress up, I’m leaving.”

“Don’t need the fake cat ears, I can grow them myself,” Eren mumbled, and smiled both at the spark of interest from his lover and the even heavier sigh from his friend – at least until Mikasa settled on the other side of the couch and gave him a stern look. “All right,” he muttered. So much for a bit of fun. Though some of his good mood was restored when Mikasa handed him a mug of hot chocolate.

Levi accepted his own mug with a slight grimace, as if he wasn’t a fan of such a sweet drink. “Erwin’s not back yet?”

“He still has twenty minutes,” Armin glanced at the watch on his left wrist, an inheritance from his grandfather, and shook his head. “I’m not worried just yet.” At Eren’s curious stare, he offered a reassuring smile. “We need another vehicle – we didn’t trust Moblit’s car in case there’s a tracker in there somewhere, and Hange has some books she won’t leave behind.”

“You slept through Erwin torching the thing.” Levi drank some of the hot chocolate and judging from his emotions, yeah, it was a bit too sweet for him. However, it did help a little with Eren’s headache so he continued to sip at his drink. “Hange’s boxing up stuff as we speak.” Levi’s emotions spiked with concern as he glanced at the other bedroom. “Erwin said to give him an hour, and if he doesn’t show up within that time, expect the worst. We really need to be out of here within another hour or so, before the sun goes down.”

Even as delicious as the hot chocolate tasted, Eren felt his stomach twist with nausea – and then Levi’s fingers combed through his hair. “Remember what I said, brat.”

“I know… it just feels like all I ever do is bring about destruction and grief,” he admitted as he leaned against Levi and allowed his lover’s magic to wrap around him; he almost dropped the mug if it weren’t for Mikasa.

“You’re looking a bit pale there, which isn’t good for you.” Armin came around the coffee table and sat down on it, his leather bag held between his hands. “You still having an issue with the magical backlash from earlier?”

“Yeah.” Eren rubbed at the back of his neck as if he could ease the pain in his head. “It’s… I’m used to healing, so it’s odd, feeling like this. If it would just go away, I’d be fine.” He had more than enough energy to fight now or to cast a spell, it was just the pain and nausea stole away his focus.

Armin’s fingers brushed against his face, a gentle pressure that left a warm feeling in their wake. “Mikasa, hand me his mug, please.” Once it was in his hands, Armin set it on his lap and then searched through his bag for two vials, the smell from which made Eren gag when they were opened. Humming a little to himself as he poured them into the mug, Armin swirled the contents around for several seconds and then handed it to Levi. “Make him drink this.”

“Armin… is this some sort of revenge?” Eren whined as he did his best to breathe through his nose.

“Nope, though I have to admit, I am enjoying this just a little.” Armin gave him a big grin before he nodded to Levi. “All of it.”

“You heard him,” Levi chided as he wrapped his left arm around Eren’s upper chest to hold him in place. “I’m sure this is good for you.”

“You’re *sure*?” Eren was about to clamp his lips shut when his collarbone was given a vicious pinch, which made him open his mouth to complain – of course the bastard used that as an opportunity to shove the mug against his lips. Figuring he might as well get this over with since he not only had Levi glaring at him but Mikasa as well, he did his best not to breathe at all and just swallow as quickly as possible. Nope, he could still taste it, and the chocolate did NOTHING to help with the awfulness.

At least after a few swallows it was all done, though Levi kept hold of him as if sensing that Eren was about to jump up and go scrub his poor tongue if given a chance; he even handed Eren his own mug to help wash down the nasty concoction. “Still hate you,” Eren murmured between gulps.

“Yeah, yeah.” Levi stroked two fingertips with a light touch along Eren’s neck, which almost made him choke on the hot chocolate. “Show me how much later on.”

“Uhm, please don’t do that in front of me, okay? It’s weird seeing what basically amounts to your adopted brother get it on with someone else.”

Eren made a face at Armin as he finished off the last of the hot chocolate. “I don’t care right now, that stuff was even nastier than usual.”

“Hmm, but does your head feel better?” Armin smiled at Eren, his blue eyes bright with mirth, while Eren closed his mouth and considered the question; despite how awful it had tasted, his stomach had settled down and the pain in his head was only a dull ache. “That a ‘yes’?”

“Don’t think I’m going to throw up any time soon and yeah, it’s not completely gone but my head is a lot better.” He rested back against Levi with a sigh of relief.

“Your head is never ‘better’,” Levi teased, but he followed that up with a light flick to Eren’s ear. Meanwhile, Mikasa picked up a full mug of chocolate and urged Eren to drink that as well; he needed to eat something solid at some point, but the sugar did help after all that shifting and fighting despite the buzz of borrowed magic in his body.

Armin laughed as he got up from the coffee table. “I won’t argue about Eren’s head, but at least I have an idea now of a potion that might help in the future to prevent that magical backlash.” He smiled at Mikasa and began to collect the empty mugs. “I talked to Mikasa a little about the Ackerman trait of absorbing energy, which seemed to help you a little, Levi, when you got some secondhand magic through Eren’s spell. I’m trying to create the alchemic equivalent for Eren – it’s clear that he’s absorbing the magic, but his body doesn’t know yet how to handle it. I think maybe because he already has such an impressive healing factor, it sort of causes a feedback loop that I need to defuse or pacify in some way.”

“You’ll figure out it,” Mikasa assured him. “You always do.”

“Yeah, just… try to add some mint extract or something to it,” Eren complained as he scraped at his tongue with his teeth.

“And now Erwin should have about ten more minutes.” Levi scowled at the front door for a few seconds before he turned his attention toward the main bedroom. “Oi! Shitty glasses! You buried beneath a pile of books in there?”

At first there wasn’t an answer, and then it sounded as if several heavy objects hit the floor in rapid succession before the bedroom door opened. “Should have pointed out the attic space to you during one of your visits,” Hange joked as she wiped at the cobwebs covering the front of her formerly light grey sweatshirt. “Bet it would be all spic and span right now.” She took off her glasses to help remove the dust smeared across them and glanced around. “Erwin not back yet?”

“Ten more minutes,” Levi informed her as he jerked his head toward the remaining mug of hot chocolate.

“Ah, okay.” She picked it up and took a sip. “Nice to see you up and awake, Eren.” The smile she gave him appeared genuine, so Eren summoned one in return for her. “Wouldn’t happen to want to give me any blood, huh? That was some impressive magic back there.”

“Ah, maybe-“

“Not now.” Levi’s deep voice cut him off and made Hange shrug. “We’ve got enough going on without you messing around.”

“Eh, it was worth a shot. Are the others getting here soon or did the two of you decide that they’ll meet up with us,” Hange waved her left hand around in the air, which caused dust to fly off of the filthy sweatshirt, “wherever?”

“It’ll take them too long to get here so they’ll reach us at the cabin,” Levi explained while Eren twisted around to look at his lover. “So just focus on getting your shit together as fast as you can.”

“Almost done, now just to have something to pack it in.” Hange’s brown eyes glinted behind her glasses as she chugged down the hot beverage. “Okay, back to work.”

“I can help out some, now that Eren’s up,” Armin offered.

“Great! I could use an extra set of hands!” Hange smiled at first, and then something seemed to snatch away her good mood. “Yeah, ah, some help would be great.”

She was probably thinking about Moblit, Eren told himself as he continued to look at Levi, who didn’t answer until Hange left the room. “I’ve a few people who I work with from time to time when Erwin needs stuff done – well, needs stuff done without the aid of a crazy person.” Levi nodded in the direction of Hange’s room. “I called them while you were sleeping and they’ll meet up with us when we get to the safe house.”

Eren wanted to ask if they knew the danger they were placing themselves in for his sake and how long it would take until they were tracked down at the next location, but the watchful look in Levi’s eyes and the sense of annoyed anticipation over the link warned him that he might just get his ass kicked if he did. So instead he bit his tongue and nodded along.

It didn’t seem as if Levi bought his conviction, but fortunately, it was around then that Erwin decided to return; there was a loud rattling sound while Eren felt a tingle of the mage’s magic as the ward was breeched.

Hange came running out of her bedroom with a stack of books in her arms. “Nice to see the new wards are working, right?” Despite the smile on her face, there was a suspicious gleam in her eyes as she set the books on the table and reached for the long sword that was leaning near the door before she opened it. Eren watched all of that in surprise before Levi urged him aside and got up to join the blood witch, a slight hitch in his step as he favored his left ankle.

“It is Erwin, right?” Eren asked as he got up to follow his lover. “And how bad were you hurt?”

“We’re pretty sure it’s him, I’m not picking up any sense of death like I did when that asshole pretended to be Moblit but we’re not taking any chances.” Still, Levi dragged Eren in close as if wanting to keep an eye on him. “And the ankle’s just a little sore. Give it a day or a death and it’ll be fine.”

Yeah, but did they have that day, and what if Levi didn’t get that death in time? Hadn’t he told Eren that people who knew they were facing a necromancer did their best to ‘level the playing field’ against them? Eren latched onto his lover’s hand and worried at his bottom lip as they headed to the driveway, Levi limping the entire time, while he still had the excess energy inside of him from fighting the shifters. Excess energy that wasn’t doing him any good right now, that just burned inside of him and gave him a headache while Levi looked tired and was hurt and-

It felt… it felt as if something was between them, some sort of ephemeral connection, something other than the empathic link, and the lingering headache vanished along with the excess energy from Eren while Levi’s finger dug into Eren’s hand and he felt a wave of shock and… well, it was a confusing jumble of emotion just then, when Eren was a little lightheaded to be honest. “Ooohh.” He rocked back on his heels as he shook his head, and beside him Levi swore something about little shits.

“Eren? Are you all right?” Mikasa nearly ran into him since he had stopped so suddenly. “You look out of it, is it some sort of spell?”

“I don’t-“ he yelped when Levi yanked him forward. “What?”

“That’s what I want to know!” Levi’s eyes flared silver as he wrapped his arms around Eren. “How did you do that?”

“Uhm, what? Ooh, your magic feels really good.” It helped with the sudden dizziness just then, so Eren sighed and closed his eyes.

“Okay, yeah, possible shifter attack and you two are all lovey-dovey. What do you think, ‘Erwin’?” Hange sounded unusually pissed off just then.

“Well, normally you’d be taking pictures of them at the moment, but if you’re that upset, give me back the money I lost on the bet about Levi.”

“… dammit, it’s you. I was really hoping to kill a shifter right about now,” Hange grumbled.

“Thanks, I think.” There were sounds of people approaching and someone, probably Erwin since it was deep, clearing their throat so Eren sighed and opened his eyes. “What’s going on here?” The mage held several shopping bags in his hands and gave Levi a worried look.

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out. We were walking along and then…” Levi’s left hand lifted from Eren’s back to flick through the air. “The brat zaps me with magic and my ankle’s suddenly fine.”

“Is it?” Eren made to pull back enough to look down at the foot and wavered. “Oooh, head rush.” Both Levi and Mikasa clutched at him to keep him on his feet.

For the first time since he’d been awake, Hange showed some true excitement. “Wait, so he absorbs magic from others, and he can transfer it to someone else? Oh honey, you really have to give me some blood now!” At Levi’s ferocious scowl, she made a rude noise and flapped her hands about. “Or later, give it to me once we reach the cabin.”

Meanwhile, Armin reached over to check Eren’s eyes, which made him groan and want to pull away in case things led to another lousy potion being dumped down his throat. “I’m beginning to wonder about this ‘key’ thing – Eren always could pull some energy from the environment, but if he can gain control over syphoning others’ magic and process it better, not to mention pass it on to other people….” Armin glanced over at Erwin, who was staring intently at Levi. “That is an amazing ability to possess.”

“Yes, for both Eren and for whoever Eren hands over that refined power. Something tells me we’re only scratching the surface of it right now.” As Erwin spoke, Levi’s arm tightened around Eren and pulled him in closer while Mikasa shifted about as if to bloke Eren from view; he felt sandwiched between the two of them and their magic. “It would explain why people are so desperate to get a hold on him.”

“How the fuck do they know this shit if we’re stumbling around in the dark about it?” Levi’s left hand settled on the nape of Eren’s neck and made him shiver.

“And what makes them think they can just take him and force his ability?” Mikasa demanded to know. “Especially if it can make him so powerful?”

“It might be why they’ve been trying so hard to catch him now, while he’s still young – or before he crossed paths with someone like Levi.” The bags in Erwin’s hands rustled as he shifted about on either foot. “Look, as much as I want to know more about what just happened, we don’t have much time. I’m glad your leg is healed, Levi, now let’s get everything loaded up and be on the road as soon as possible. We’ll talk more about this once we reach the cabin.”

“Yes, and both of you will give me some blood!” When Levi groaned at that, Hange made a clucking sound. “No, no! I need to see if anything has changed! There’s obviously some sort of connection between the two of you, now to see how deep it goes.”

“You just love stabbing people,” Levi grumbled as he rubbed at Eren’s neck. “You okay now?” he asked Eren as he loosened his hold a little.

“Uhm, feels like I lost a pint or two of blood, but yeah.” Eren wobbled a little as he stepped back but quickly regained his balance. “Didn’t think I sent over that much.”

Armin was quick to hold out an arm for support. “We definitely have to figure out a lesson plan for this new talent, but until then, I think you need some food and a little more sugar in you.”

Mikasa immediately flanked him on the other side while Levi blinked in surprise. “Yes, definitely something to eat. We made sandwiches earlier to take on the road, so you can have a couple while we start packing up.”

Eren glanced back at Levi but his lover just rolled his eyes and waved him off. “Go eat while we start loading up the cars – it’ll be easier without you in the way.”

“Gee, thanks.” Still, Eren could feel his lover’s concern so he allowed his sister and best friend to lead him back to the house.

*******

Annie pulled over about a mile from the farmhouse where Hitch waited for them and put the SUV into neutral before she turned around to look at Reiner and Bertolt sprawled out in the back seat. “All right, let’s do this here, where she won’t hear us.”

Reiner wiped at his face with his left hand, his right arm draped over Bert and his appearance haggard. “That… it wasn’t supposed to go down like that.” Both of them had thrown on the bare minimum of clothes once they had gotten back to the car and were huddled together under a blanket.

“No kidding.” Even Annie winced at the amount of acid in her voice and struggled to contain the anger, disappointment and fear she felt before she spoke again. “We expected Ackerman and the blood witch to be there, but not everyone else. We shouldn’t have made such assumptions.”

“Because all the research we’ve done pointed to Ackerman being a loner.” Reiner made a low growl of frustration as he smacked his fist into the back of the passenger side chair. “Dammit, Eren was there! We were so close!”

“And so was Erwin Smith, one of the highest ranked mages alive, and from what I can tell, Eren’s adopted sister and his friend, who aren’t supposed to be anywhere near him – and I’d like to know when his sister picked up the talent for necromancy.” Annie shared Reiner’s frustration, especially when he was right – they *had* been so close. For the past year they’d been searching down every lead they could find on Eren, had been sent from home because it was decided they were the best suited for the mission and all she wanted… all she wanted…. She sighed as she scrubbed at the back of her head. "They’ll be harder to trick, now.”

Bert stirred from beneath the blanket and glanced back and forth between the two of them. “Are we going to talk about Eren and what he did?”

“Why not? Can’t make this day any worse,” Annie muttered as she tugged the hood of her sweatshirt over her head.

“He’s tapping into his power – we were trying to get to him before that.”

“I know.” Annie closed her eyes as she remembered the draining sensation of those tendrils brushing against her, the awful fear as her ward began to crack and steam away at their touch. “It doesn’t look as if he has too much control over it yet, though.”

“It’s still bad,” Reiner insisted as he hugged Bert against him. “*He’s* not going to be happy about it.”

“*He’s* not here, is he?” Annie glared at Reiner until he looked aside, even though she knew he had a point. “We did everything we could to reach Eren as quickly as possible.” Some days it was as if she could never wash away the blood on her hands. “We know who has him now, we’ll run them into the ground and take him, get him with his own people.” And everything should be fine then.” She kept telling herself that, because Eren had to be safer with them than out here where people were only too happy to cripple and abuse shifters.

“Yeah but….” Bert shook his head and leaned forward, his hands clasped in front of him and his face flushed enough to blur the edges of the many freckles spread across it. “The-they were acting protective of him, and he… I didn’t see much of it from where I was, but it looked as if he was protecting them, too.”

She really didn’t need this right now – they had to get back to the house, regroup and figure out their next move before Eren got too far out of reach. “We don’t know what they’ve done to Eren since they got their hands on him – you know why we stick together, how easy it is for others to influence us.”

“But….” Bert shook his head again while Reiner rubbed his back. “That guy, the scary one, he really was coming at me. He didn’t want me anywhere near Eren.”

“Because he must realize how valuable Eren is,” Reiner reassured him. “We can’t trust anyone out here, especially a necromancer. And an Ackerman… they’re one of the worst.”

Bert looked about to argue with that statement, and then he sank back into the seat next to Reiner and motioned for Annie to continue. Annie glanced at Reiner to see if he was going to add anything else, but he merely shook his head as he tucked the blanket back around him and his boyfriend.

“All right then, we’ll get together with Hitch and work up some location spells, along with seeing if we can’t figure out what Ackerman used to whammy Bert back there.” Ackerman and his friends would probably do their best to cover their tracks as they fled with Eren, but Annie was willing to bet there was still some sort of emotional link that Hitch could use between the dead were and the blood witch at the least to trace them considering how pissed off the woman had been. Plus, there was only so far their prey could run in a couple of hours. “Let’s get this over with and get back on the trail.”

“Yeah, Hitch is going to be a real doll when she sees we came back empty-handed.” Reiner didn’t sound in the mood to put up with the spoiled necromancer, not that Annie could blame him.

“Then she’s going to be even happier when she has to work all through the night, most likely, to help us track.” Annie could deal with Hitch’s bitchiness, it was preferable to the phone call one of them would have to make back home to let *him* know that they still hadn’t obtained Eren.

Why was it that with each passing day, what should be an uncle’s concern for his gifted nephew came off more as a frightening obsession?

*******

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