chapter eight

*******

though this be madness, yet there is method in it

*******

Levi rubbed at the shaved part of his head, a sense of guilt warring with the relief he felt over keeping Eren safely out of the way now that he’d left the room and realized just how much of his lover’s magic he’d inadvertently syphoned away; halfway down the steps he could still feel Eren’s magic inside of him, a warm, potent thrum in his bones. Fuck, all he’d wanted was to somehow keep the brat from doing something stupid, from pushing too hard and maybe slipping past the wards in his obvious guilt over Moblit and Hange, and….

Levi let out a quick breath as he reached the first floor. Yeah, something was going on, something he didn’t really understand, that all stemmed from Eren healing him yesterday. Maybe Erwin could help figure it- shit, he was supposed to have left during the night to go see Mike and Nanaba.

Wondering if he should talk to Hange about the weird shit or not, Levi entered the kitchen to find his friend seated at the large table, busy jotting down notes while slurping her coffee. Hair a ratty mess and dressed in a robe, she glanced up and smiled. “Hey, this is one for the record books – Levi actually slept in for once.”

Over by the industrial-sized fridge, Armin backed out with what looked to be a carton of orange juice in his hands, with dark circles under his eyes to indicate that he at least hadn’t gotten much sleep. “And without Eren, so I take it we’re on our own for breakfast?”

“Yeah, that’s a safe bet.” Levi went over to the stove and picked up the kettle so he could put on some water for tea. “He’s not going to be up for a couple more hours.” At Hange’s snide snicker, he gave his friend the finger. “Where’s everyone else?”

“Gunther and Erd are still asleep, and Mikasa and Petra are doing a perimeter check.” Hange slurped her coffee again as her eyes narrowed while she looked up and down at Levi. “Hey, is something a bit odd about you today?”

“I got a full night’s sleep for once.” Levi glared at her while he filled the kettle. “What?”

“Hmm, no, it’s more than that.” She squinted as if trying to see better. “I’ll figure it out eventually – oh, and you owe me some blood.”

He clicked his tongue over the damn request. “Enough about that, we’ve got better things to worry about.”

“Oh? Like what?” Hange paused for another disgusting slurp of coffee, and it was just then that Petra and Mikasa returned to the kitchen.

“Good morning! Wow, Levi, you look good. The fresh air must be agreeing with you.” Petra smiled at him as she brushed aside the hair falling onto her face, her amber eyes bright and cheeks flushed.

“Oh, it’s not the air that’s making him all dewy,” Hange mumbled as she smirked at her mug.

“Shut it,” Levi snapped before reaching for a clean mug – only to come to a halt as Mikasa got in his way. “Yes?”

Her mouth pressed into a flat line as she leaned in way too fucking close. “You feel a lot like Eren today.”

“I’m sure he *felt* Eren a lot, oh yeah.” Hange held her hands up in the air and cackled when Levi, Mikasa and Armin took to glaring at her for the commentary. “Just saying.”

“Don’t,” Mikasa snapped before she returned her attention back to Levi. “And you, why is your magic – why am I feeling so much of Eren’s magic with yours?” She held out her right hand to within an inch or two of Levi’s chest.

“Hmm, yeah, that might be what’s different about him,” Hange remarked, sounding serious for once that morning. “That and he doesn’t look like fresh roadkill, per normal.”

“Fuck you,” Levi told her while he slapped Mikasa’s hand aside. “And your brother is all over me – don’t go there, you shitty glasses – so not surprised if I ‘feel’ a bit like him. He even gave me all that magic yesterday.” Had anyone commented on it then? Too much shit was going on lately.

Armin set aside his glass of orange juice and came to stand beside Mikasa. “True, but I don’t remember you feeling like this last night.” He frowned as he studied Levi as well. “Plus, I thought you used up some of the magic he gave you.”

“Unless they were doing something rather naughty up there just now,” Hange added. “You know how hot and heavy the magic gets when they’re going at it.” Despite Levi’s resolve, something must have shown on his face just then, probably annoyance, because Hange took to grinning as she clapped. “And we have a winner! What happened? Did something happen?”

“Fuck all of you, I’m going back to bed.” Okay, tea could wait until later, maybe lunchtime or something. Levi went to leave, only for Mikasa to grab his arm.

“No, what’s going on with you and Eren? Did something happen?” Her fingers dug into his upper arm as her voice grew louder. “What’s going on with my brother?”

“Nothing, he’s upstairs sleeping, the lucky bastard, not down here with people prying into his shit.” Levi jerked his arm free as he glared at the girl.

For a moment she stared at him, and the next she was a blur, charging past him and out of the kitchen. At first confused by her sudden actions, it then sunk in where she was going. “Fuck!” He reached out for the nearest spirits to stop her, only to find that she’d already summoned them to her; he could wrest them away from her, but that would take too much time and energy, not to mention it might set off the wards if a fight broke out inside the lodge. “Shit!”

Chasing after her, he gritted his teeth together when he heard the others follow along, Hange laughing the entire way. “Just butt out,” he ordered as he took the steps two at a time.

“Nope, not when something is going on. This is too much fun.”

“Your friend is a fucking mother-hen!” he spat at Armin.

“Yes, and you’re hiding something.”

Levi didn’t bother answering that since it was both true and they’d reached the bedroom; Mikasa hadn’t bothered to ward the door since she either didn’t have the time or hadn’t wanted to set off the newly installed defenses, either. Bursting into the room, Levi found her bent over the bed with her hand on Eren’s face as he slept.

“Eren? Come on, wake up.”

Eren’s brow furrowed a little but all he did was nestle further beneath the covers.

“Leave him alone, I told you he was sleeping,” Levi demanded as he began to summon one of the spirits he had stationed farther away from the lodge. Mikasa looked up from Eren, her face set in an impassive scowl, and threw her hands out as if casting a spell.

Surprised that she was going to risk setting off the wards, Levi scrambled to set up some sort of defense in time, yet the next thing he knew, Eren was sitting up in bed, his eyes glowing an intense gold and his hand on Mikasa’s arm as she cried out. There was a faint sense of her magic beneath the wild pulse of his, a sense that faded with each passing second and as she crumbled onto the bed.

“Mikasa! Eren, stop it!” Armin leapt forward to the bed, and hearing him cry out jerked Levi out of his stupor.

“Brat! What the fuck are you doing?” He allowed Armin to grab onto a barely conscious Mikasa while he half-fell onto the bed in an effort to latch on to Eren’s arm. “Wha-“ There was a strong jolt, similar to the sting of electricity, when his hand touched Eren’s arm, and then Eren’s long eyelashes fluttered like the rapid beating of wings. “You in there?”

“Levi?” The familiar turquoise hue bled back into Eren’s eyes as he stared up at Levi. “What? Why are-“ He hissed as he pressed the palm of his free hand against his forehead. “Ow.” He started to hunch forward and then noticed some of what was going on around him. “M-mikasa? Mikasa! What’s wrong?” Levi had to push him back onto the bed when he made to get out of it, especially since he was still naked.

“That’s a good question.” Armin helped Mikasa to sit on the edge of the bed; the girl appeared to be ready to pass out at any moment. “What happened? Was it a spell?”

“No, I think it’s the opposite, right?” Hange came forward to crouch in front of the girl. “Got any magic left?” She smiled at Levi when he started at the question.

Mikasa made as if to shake her head and nearly toppled over. “No. Feel… feel empty.” She fumbled about with her right hand until it rested in her lap and stared at it. “Drained.”

Behind her, Eren made a low, moaning sound. “Mikasa… I’m sorry.” His right hand still restrained by Levi, he made to reach out to her with his left before he jerked it away as if afraid of touching her. “I… I…” Levi felt his magic flare and let go so he could give him a gentle smack to the back of the head.

“Don’t – you’ve no fucking clue what you’re doing so don’t blame yourself, okay?”

“But I took my sister’s magic!” Eren made to get out of the bed until he seemed to remember that he was naked, his face flushed with guilt and embarrassment as he clutched the blankets to his chest.

“’m fine,” Mikasa tried to assure him. “Just tired.”

“If it’s anything like with those tendrils of yours, you probably took whatever magic she had inside of her – it should be a temporary thing,” Armin assured him while Levi stood watch to make sure that Eren didn’t do anything rash. “It looks like you’ve moved on from needing some sort of medium to taking magic directly.”

“Yeah, it would be nice if he could pass on some to others like he does with Levi.” Hange rose up to stand beside the bed, her arms folded across her chest. “Armin, why don’t you help Mikasa to her room, I think what she needs the most right now is some rest and she’ll be better in a few hours.”

Armin nodded as he helped Mikasa stand up. “I should have a potion that might speed things up, too. We used it a time or two in the past when we were wore out.” Judging from the grimace on both Mikasa and Eren’s face, it wasn’t one of his better tasting ones. The two slowly made their way to the door, where Petra was hovering by.

“So, uhm, Eren drains magic?” she asked as she stepped inside.

“That seems to be one of his special abilities, yes.” Hange rolled her eyes when Levi motioned for her to get away from the bed. “Before he would magic up these plant tentacles that would suck up whatever spells were cast around them, but now he appears to be moving away from that. You want to tell me what happened this morning?” She directed that question toward Levi.

“What makes you think something happened?” He gave Eren a warning look before he moved away from the bed to fetch the brat a clean pair of boxers and a long-sleeved t-shirt; Eren snatched at them and slid the clothes under the blankets to put them on.

Hange scoffed as she adjusted her glasses. “We’ve known each other for how long? Something happened this morning so ‘fess up.”

“Uhm, you were really smug after….” Eren’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment before he tugged on the shirt. “And I know I felt something draining during, uhm, yeah.” He hung his head forward so his sleep-tousled hair covered his face.

Levi gritted his teeth as his boyfriend sold him out. “All right, fine, so I was thinking that I didn’t want Eren to get into any shit today, that it would be better if he just kept his ass in bed.” At Eren’s indignant look, Levi narrowed his eyes and jabbed a finger in his direction. “You were ready to go off fighting, don’t give me any shit!”

“So you what…, I don’t even know?” Eren jerked his right hand through his hair. “Took more of my magic?”

“He can do that?” Petra blinked as she looked from Levi to Eren to Hange. “Really? Just take it directly?”

Hange chewed on her left thumbnail as she seemed to consider the situation. “Eren’s a shifter, and formed some sort of emphatic link with Levi.”

“With an asshole!” Eren shouted as he pushed back the covers and knelt on the bed, his magic flaring as he glared at Levi.

“Oh for fuck’s sake!” Levi glared right back as he grabbed hold of his lover’s shirt. “I didn’t do it on purpose! I just… just thought it and it happened!”

“And you were happy about it!”

“Yeah, because I had some great sex and you were too tired to cause me any grief!” he admitted. “Should have known it wouldn’t last for long!”

Eren’s hands shifted into something out of a nightmare yet all they did was wrap around Levi’s, the talons careful to not tear into his flesh. “Well, that’ll be the last of the ‘great sex’ you’ll be getting!” Eren’s lovely face was once more flushed, this time with anger, and the feel of his magic was almost intoxicating. He pushed forward until he was in Levi’s face, and Levi wanted so badly to kiss him just then.

“Uhm, am I going to get back my bet money?”

“Fuck no,” Levi snarled as he gave his boyfriend a shake. “Don’t blame me because you don’t have control over your shitty talent!”

“I don’t – you’re blaming this on *me*? I should rip your-“

“Actually, it is your fault, Eren.”

Hange’s amused voice cut off Eren’s enraged rant and made him gape in surprise, his hands shifting back to normal as he slumped against Levi. “Huh?”

Forcing himself to look away from his boyfriend, Levi noticed that they must have woken Gunther and Erd, as well as Armin had returned. Hange grinned as she sat down at the end of the bed. “Eren, part of what makes everyone come after you is the ability of yours to figure out what people want and give it to them – usually under ‘special’ conditions.” She used her fingers to provide air quotes around the word ‘special’ while she leered at Levi. “However, for some reason, perhaps that whole ‘complementary’ thing Erwin talked about, you’ve… well, ‘locked’ onto Levi. The emphatic bond appears to be permanent between the two of you.” Her grin faded as her expression grew serious.

“Add to that the fact that both of you seem to enjoy each other’s magic, and are somewhat responsive to each other’s. Then that Eren is able to absorb other people’s magic and pass that on to Levi. I think we’re getting to the basic heart of the ‘key’ right here.” There were some confused looks from Petra, Gunther and Erd over mention of ‘key’.

Levi wrapped an arm around Eren’s shoulder, the sense of his lover’s magic calming as Hange spoke. “Yeah, it’s still not making any sense.”

Armin shook his head as he threaded his fingers together. “No, it does, really. What defines a mage is being able to generate magic and cast spells – each mage has their own area of magic, usually some sort of element except for those with supernatural bloodlines, such as Levi, Mikasa and Erwin. Still, the magic is inherent in them, is internally generated, and their ability is based on that inherent talent – their genes and their strength. Each of us has a preset limit of strength and while we can train to reach that limit, we can never exceed what is inside of us or become what we’re not. I’ll never be a necromancer or a were, and Mikasa can never become an air mage or a shifter.”

Hange nodded. “Yes, for as much as I can read a bloodline, I can’t alter or add what’s not there. I can’t make someone something they’re not.”

“Exactly. And once we use up the magic within us, we have to wait until we recharge to cast more spells.” Armin held up a potion in his right hand. “Well, more or less. I can use potions to speed up the process, and there are various charms and magical items one can create to help store energy, but those take magic to create in the first place. Part of the reason people fear necromancers is that they can obtain some energy from a person’s death, right? You’re one of the rare exceptions.”

Levi nodded. “Yeah, and Ackermans are the best at processing that energy.” Then he glanced at Eren. “Though you said you can get some energy from the earth, right?”

“Yes, that or if there’s enough trees and stuff around me.” He bit into his bottom lip for a moment. “So what, as a key I absorb magic?”

Both Hange and Armin nodded. “I think you can absorb *any* magic, judging from what happened just now,” Hange explained. “As you learn to develop the talent, it’ll probably expand – those tendrils drained it as spells were being cast, so I don’t think it’s out of the question for you to drain it from people around you, not just whoever you’re touching. And more importantly, you can pass it on – at least to one person.” She stared hard at Levi. “Think about it. Eren taking in all of that magic, weakening the mages and were around him… and *you* being the one with the access to it, the ability to cast it back out.”

“The ultimate weapon… and the ultimate power source,” Armin added, his blue eyes shadowed and a grim twist to his mouth as he focused his attention on Eren. “Even better than a shapeshifting assassin. He will make whomever… well, ‘bonds’ with him for the lack of a better word, the most powerful magic user around.”

Eren’s magic fluctuated so wildly that it made Levi’s teeth ache; he ran his hand up and down his lover’s back in an effort to soothe. “I’m *right* here,” Eren snapped, his voice pitched high with anger and stress. “I’m not a… a fucking *thing*!” he snarled, sounding so feral that Levi’s fingers clutched at his shirt to hold him back in case he lunged forward or something.

“Brat… Eren, they’re not saying you are. They’re talking about how others will see you.” Levi’s fingers unclenched and slid up into Eren’s hair. “Calm down.”

Eren turned toward him, his eyes a mix of turquoise and gold. “I’m not a thing! I’m not something to be… to be hunted down and used!” He made as if to lash out at Levi but stopped, his breath hitching as he rested his forehead against Levi’s shoulder. “Not a thing.”

“No, you’re a troublesome brat,” Levi murmured as he continued to rub his fingers in his lover’s hair. “One I’m stuck with, it seems.”

“You may be more right about that than you know.” Hange leaned toward them and made as if to touch Eren, but backed off after a warning glare from Levi. “This side of Eren is escalating all of a sudden, and you were able to reverse the flow of magic. That has to mean something – that and why those other shifters have shown up *now*. Maybe Eren isn’t meant to be a ‘key’ to just anybody.”

“Yes, he never showed these tendencies with either me or Mikasa.” Armin ignored Levi’s nasty look to sit near Eren and pat him on the shoulder. “I think this is happening now because you’re with Levi, because something in you, that special nature that makes you a key, chose him.”

Eren sniffed as he pulled away a little. “So it *is* his fault.”

“You little shit,” Levi grumbled, but he was relieved to see a hint of a smile on his lover’s face. “It’s because I’m ‘great’, don’t you know.” Eren’s magic settled a little more when Eren rolled his eyes.

“You’re something all right.” Eren gave Armin a hopeful smile. “So Mikasa’s okay?”

“She’ll be fine after she gets some rest.” Armin showed no hesitation as he gave Eren a quick hug. “I really think Hange and I are right about this stuff – you’re coming into your true nature now that you’re with Levi, and it’s probably why you’re, uhm, stuck like you are.” He smiled a little as he patted Eren on the head. “Things are going to happen until you learn to control it, and ideally you would have the time to figure it out.” Armin grimaced as he leaned back. “Unfortunately, you’re under a lot of stress because of the situation and so your talent is reacting in an offensive manner – you and Levi have to be careful because of that.”

“Yeah, Grumpy.” Hange reached out with her left food to nudge him in the leg. “Remember the link, because if you keep draining Eren dry, he’ll react and drain the rest of us dry.”

“Whoa, wait, what did we miss here?” Gunther ran his hand over his close-cut dark hair as he stared in shock at Eren, which caused Eren to sidle closer to Levi. “He’s draining us dry?”

“Not on purpose, and not unless *I* fuck up first.” Levi gave the earth mage a warning look as he placed a hand on the back of Eren’s neck. Gunther paled and looked away first, then winced when Petra stomped on his foot.

“Hmm, you know, we could probably confirm one or two things if you give me some blood.” Hange batted her eyes as she reached into the pouch on her belt with her left hand while she held out her right. “Like you promised me you would do.”

She was like a shitty broken record – Levi narrowed his eyes and was about to tell her to ‘fuck off’ when Eren sighed and held out his right hand. “If it’ll help figure this stuff out.” He glanced up at Levi. “I want answers, especially if I’m doing things like hurting my friends.”

“Fine.” Levi wiped at his face while Armin got out of the way; Eren went first, jaw set since he knew what to expect this time when Hange stabbed deep. It only took a second or two before he healed while Hange sucked up the blood, an intent look on her face.

“Oooh yeah, something’s changed here.” She frowned as her right hand flicked about in the air. “I still don’t have a clue *what* all this stuff means, but yep, one or two minor tweaks. It’s as if something got activated and – ouch! Dammit, still not very friendly.” She scowled at the air for a few seconds before she sighed, and then took to smiling again. “All right, Grumps, your turn!”

“Oh, joy.” Levi schooled his face into a bland expression as he held out his right hand, and waited for Hange to prep the finger for the jab. He didn’t flinch at the pain… but his eyes widened when a few drops of blood welled up and then the bleeding stopped since the wound had already healed.

Hange stared in stunned silence at his finger and then crowed. “Oh yeah, I’d say there’s been a few changes!” She used a pipelet to suck up the blood then raised it to her mouth, her eyes flaring red when the drops hit her tongue. “Oh, *wow*. Wow!” She blinked her glowing eyes at Levi. “I don’t know if I should say ‘congratulations’ or ‘you’re so fucked’ right now.”

“What?” Eren’s magic spiked as he leaned forward as if to shield Levi. “What’s wrong? Is it bad?”

Hange shook her head as her eyes went to normal. “Not really, nothing nasty,” she assured Eren. “Just that yeah, I think Armin’s right about that whole ‘bonded’ thing.” She pushed up her glasses as she regarded Levi. “If those bastards were hoping to get to Eren so they could use him for themselves, you’ve royally fucked up their plan. From what I’m seeing… those are matching changes. I think if someone else wants Eren to do for them what he’s doing for you… well, one part of the equation needs to be removed.” She then pressed her lips together as if to keep from saying anything else.

In other words, once those shifters or anyone else after Eren because he was a key figured out that Levi was ‘enjoying’ the benefits of Eren’s nature, Levi had a true death sentence on his head – with extreme prejudice. And, if he was reading Hange’s silence right, that was *if* the bond could even be broken.

The room was quiet for several seconds before Eren spoke up. “Wait, so I did that to him? I made it so-“

“Stop.” Levi grasped a handful of Eren’s hair and gave it a sharp tug to get the idiot to shut up before he went on about some stupid, guilt-inspired shit. “Whatever happened, it was the *both* of us, okay? I dragged you out of Karanese, I made-“ he noticed Hange hanging on his every word and grunted. “We’re equal on this,” he insisted. “Try to say otherwise and I’ll smack you so hard you forget your own name.”

At first Eren looked stubborn enough to argue, and then he offered Levi a hesitant smile. “Okay.”

“Good.” Levi loosened his hold on his lover’s hair and clicked his tongue. “Now if you’re up, I could use some breakfast. Too much fucking drama this morning and I haven’t even had some tea.” He glared at Hange as if she was to blame, which in a way she was.

“All right. Though I have to take care of the bed first.” A slight flush suffused Eren’s cheeks as he tugged at the rumpled sheets.

Levi sighed as he got up from the bed. “Go make breakfast while I handle this.”

“Aw, you two are so cute together,” Hange cooed as she got up from the bed as well, and laughed in the face of Levi’s glower. “Hmm, breakfast, yummy.”

“I’ll help,” Armin offered. “While we’re at it, we can talk about some sort of practice when we’re done. See if we can’t figure out a way to train your new talent.”

Eren groaned as he got out of bed and went to fetch a pair of jeans. “Yay, that sounds like so much fun.”

Armin laughed as he herded Petra, Gunther and Erd out of the room. “It’s better than the ‘kick Eren’s ass’ sessions right?” He laughed some more at Eren’s irate look.

Meanwhile, Petra was teasing Erd about his lost money. “You know you’re never going to get it back now, right?”

“Dammit, I was planning on buying a new leather jacket with that money,” he complained as they headed downstairs.

Levi debated sending a poltergeist after the bastard – he was still pissed off about the bets against him – but settled for stripping the bed. He’d get the sheets and a couple of other things in the wash before breakfast. Once everything was all bundled up, he headed for the door, and found Eren there waiting for him.

“Uhm, you don’t really mind, do you?” Eren fiddled with the hem of the dark grey shirt as he glanced up at Levi through his long eyelashes, his magic in flux. “I mean-“

Shoving the dirty laundry into his left arm, Levi grasped Eren’s chin with his right hand and tilted it up for a kiss, one that should leave no doubt in the brat’s mind about how Levi felt about the whole situation. When Eren’s magic was flaring for an entirely different reason and his hands clung to Levi’s shoulder, Levi pulled away with a slight smirk. “That’s another topic added to the ‘do not talk about or you’ll get your ass kicked’ list, all right?”

Eren huffed as he sunk back onto the heels of his feet. “Fine.” He seemed to pout a little as he fell in step beside Levi. “Is that how you’re going to settle everything, tell me to ‘shut up about it or I’ll kick your ass’?”

Levi arched an eyebrow as they reached the steps. “Guess you’ll just have to stick around long enough to find out.”

His lover was quiet after that, but the warm, heady rush of magic that washed over Levi was answer enough.

*******

“Dammit!”

Reiner didn’t flinch as the coffee mug flew within a few inches of his head to smash into the wall behind him; sadly, temper tantrums like these were becoming all too familiar in the last couple of days.

“He’s not so smart! He’s not!” Hitch insisted as she clutched at the glamour bag. “I’ll use a kid if I have to and break through whatever ward he put up then laugh in his face! Just you see!” Muttering under her breath about cocky Ackermans, she stormed out of the kitchen with a decided flounce to her step.

Bert made to go after her, at least until Annie held out a hand. “Don’t… just don’t.” Annie closed her eyes as she shook her head. “Don’t waste your time.”

Bert gave her an unhappy look before he changed direction and went to clean up the mess Hitch had made, pausing to meet Reiner’s eyes along the way and become even unhappier; Reiner didn’t know what his lover wanted – they needed a necromancer who could produce results, and had gambled on Hitch. Figured that Eren would find one of the two remaining Ackermans out there….

Well, maybe it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, considering what Eren was and how anything with power was drawn to them. Their nature made it easy to win Hitch over and put her to work, it was just a shame that they hadn’t come across this Levi fellow before Eren had – or better yet, had managed to track down his uncle, Kenny.

Thought of that maniac made Reiner push away from the table and lean down toward his lover. “Be careful with that,” he warned, even though they could heal from the cuts.

Bert looked up from where he was collecting the shards of the mug and smiled, appearing happy once more. “I am – it’s better than that time when she started throwing the dishes.”

“We really need to get someone less high-maintenance,” Reiner started to complain. “Someone-“ Before he could finish that thought, his phone started to ring.

A feeling of dread filled his chest as he snatched it off of the table and sank down in the chair, the memory of last night’s conversation coming back to him. Bert’s face drained of color while Annie was quick to move to the doorway leading out of the kitchen to ensure that Hitch didn’t return or try to eavesdrop, so Reiner took a deep breath before he accepted the call; why was he always stuck taking the call? “Hello sir?”

Their leader’s deep, deceptively mild voice came through the phone nice and clear. “Hello, Reiner, good morning. How are you today?”

Did anyone else think it was a bit creepy when he was all civil like this? Reiner swallowed past a throat gone tight and nodded his head, before he remembered that they were speaking over a phone. “I’m all right sir, and you?”

“I can’t complain too much, the weather is a bit cold for this time of year but otherwise nice.” He paused for a moment and then some of the pleasantness slipped from his voice. “How are things going on your end? Do you have the location?”

Reiner wiped at the sweat beading on his forehead. “Ah, sir, about that… we attempted to narrow it down last night as I told you, and… well, all we got was a general location.” He flinched as if he could imagine the man’s eyes narrowing at him as he spoke. “Our necromancer – she said that some sort of ward went up right after she cast the spell and it’s blocking her. She’s doing everything she can to break past it.”

There was silence on the other end of the line, an utter silence during which Reiner could feel the sweat form on his body and roll down his face, his back and his sides, could feel the overwhelming urge to shift into either something so huge he would break through the ceiling of the farmhouse or so small he could run away and hide…. He nearly cried out when the commander next spoke.

“So this other necromancer, this *Ackerman*, he threw up a ward, yes?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And this is after Eren managed to cast a spell where he drained magic, where he could break through your physical wards?”

Reiner almost shuddered as he thought about those nightmarish tentacles. “Yes, sir,” he repeated.

“Then you will do whatever is necessary to narrow down his location and find him, and before you bring him back, you will *kill* Ackerman, do you understand?” There was a rare bite to Commander Jaeger’s words just then. “Kill Ackerman and bring me Eren.”

“Yes, sir.” Reiner didn’t care to know why the short necromancer had earned such a death sentence, he just wanted to go home. “It’ll be done.”

“It better be. Because you know why it’s so important, returning Eren to the fold. What it means if *they* get their hands on him.” The leader’s voice had slipped into that false, soothing tone once more. “How they can use him to tear through our defenses, how no one will be safe. *No one*. So he needs to be with us, with his own kind.”

“I know.” It had been so terrifying, those tendrils breaking through his ward and weakening him. Reiner could only imagine that happening to Bert, to his lover being robbed of all of his defenses and unable to shift and- “We’ll do it, we’ll bring him home. We’ll get him away from these people.” The people who would use Eren to destroy his own kind.

“I have every faith in you. Just remember, kill Ackerman before you return.” Those were the last words spoken before the line went dead.

Reiner held on to his phone for several seconds before he lowered it and placed it back on the table, then let out a slow breath. When he looked up from it, he met Annie and Bert’s expectant gazes. “We have to make sure that Ackerman’s dead before we return with Eren.”

Bert frowned while Annie continued to stare at him with a blank gaze. “That won’t be much of a problem if Hitch has her way, but kind of an odd request,” she commented as she tucked her hands into the pockets of her light grey hoodie. “We’ve been left to our own discretion before now.”

“We haven’t come across someone as powerful as him before now,” Reiner pointed out. “Maybe *he* doesn’t want any loose ends.”

“Maybe.” Annie didn’t appear convinced, but then again, she always had been a stubborn one. “Maybe there’s something more to it.” Then her shoulders slumped forward. “But whatever, we’re to follow orders and then get back home.”

“Exactly.” And if that meant taking out a powerful necromancer who had done his best to kill Bert, then Reiner would just add it to the list. “Come on, we have a general direction, let’s head out and see if we can’t narrow things down a little.”

Annie’s eyes narrowed as if she was contemplating something while she tugged the hoodie lower. “I’ll go get the princess.” Yeah, that ‘something’ was probably throttling Hitch, but they needed the necromancer for a little longer.

Bert went over to the sink to wash off his hands. “You think it’ll be easy to track Eren down with just a general direction?”

“No,” Reiner admitted to his boyfriend as he rose from the table and slid his phone into his jean’s front right pocket. “But I think Hitch is pissed off and determined to prove that she’s as good as an Ackerman, so that’ll help, and we can always track down another of his or that blood witch’s friends to get more information if the trail goes cold.” It hadn’t been pretty, what they’d done to the poor were, but it had been necessary. They’d do it again and again, until they had Eren; as Reiner had been reminded, there was too much danger in letting Eren run around out here, away from home. “We’ll bring Eren back where he belongs.”

“Yeah, I just hope he realizes that we’re doing what’s best for him,” Bert agreed as he dried his hands and came over to Reiner’s side. “Poor kid, what was his father thinking, to abandon him out here?”

That was the burning question, wasn’t it? One that would have to wait until they got Eren back home, and Reiner hoped some other unlucky souls were picked to be sent out to track down Grisha Jaeger because he was done with being out here, done with killing people and sneaking around and… just done. All he wanted was to go home.

*******

Eren flinched as Hange lobbed another spell at him; he had a feeling that if it wasn’t for his crystal armor that he’d have been inflicted with something rather nasty just then. “I don’t think this is working!” For the past twenty minutes, he’d stood there while everyone but Levi and Mikasa, who was still sleeping, had cast various spells at him.

“Are you even trying?” Armin chided as he held up a potion in his right hand. “We’re doing this for your benefit.”

Yeah, like some of them didn’t find it remotely fun to fire off those spells, Eren thought as he rubbed his hands over the crystal armor that covered his body. “Yes, I am!” He huffed as he wondered how much longer the armor would hold up under the onslaught. “There was a time or two when I think my magic almost created those tendrils again, but I’ve been trying to keep it more contained.”

Levi scoffed from over by the tree he was leaning against. “Maybe one of you needs to get closer to him, he might not be ready for long-ranged attacks yet.”

“Or maybe *you* need to get closer,” Hange insisted as she motioned with her hands. “He always reacts best when you’re in danger.”

Levi made a rude gesture in her direction. “Yeah, right, I’m fine where I am.”

“So be it.” Hange’s grin widened just as her eyes began to glow, and Eren’s stomach churned as he felt Levi’s surprise right as her magic flared. There was the answering burn of Levi’s as the air shimmered around him, but something twisted inside of Eren at the thought of Levi being harmed, something made him shout and the next thing he knew there was that potent rush pouring into him as Hange gasped and, and-

No. *No*. He shouted again as he dropped to his knees, his fingers tugging at his hair as he refused to accept any more of Hange’s magic, the ward around him breaking apart and steaming away as his concentration shattered. As if from far away he heard shouting, and then there was the comforting feel of Levi’s magic, of concern and chagrin and even a little amusement as cool hands cupped his face.

“Damn, I wish I had that on video.”

“Ha! You’re such a bastard!”

Hange sounded a bit weak but still cheerful, so Eren found the courage to look up at Levi’s slightly smiling face. “Re-really?”

“Yeah, that’s the fastest I’ve seen her drop other than that one time Erwin tranq’ed her when she was up for three nights straight after finding some rare strain of some weird disease.” Levi’s thumb brushed along Eren’s right cheekbone. “You all right?”

Eren considered the question as he leaned forward to slump against his lover. “Just… it came on so fast. I don’t like how I’ve no warning on when I’m going to do it.”

“Hmm.” Levi gave Eren’s face one more caress before sliding his hands along to the nape of his neck and urging him to stand up; Eren wavered for a moment as he felt a little lightheaded from the rush of magic, though it wasn’t as bad as previous times. “But you stopped it, right? The pain in the ass isn’t as bad as Mikasa.”

“Yeah, I’m *fine*, thank you for asking,” Hange shouted. With some help from Armin and Petra, she came over to join them. “Feels like you might have got about half my magic there – good job.”

Eren shuddered at the thought of him draining another friend’s magic – and then whined when his left ear was flicked. “Don’t,” Levi warned. “The purpose of all this shit is for you to learn, and you’re doing that.”

“Though who would have thought that you, sir, would have your own defender!” Petra laughed as she took a cautious step away from Hange, who seemed able to stand on her own. “It’s very sweet.”

Levi grimaced at the comment, even if Eren noticed that Gunther and Erd no longer eyed him with as much caution as they had been during breakfast. “It’s more the other way around, I have to keep an eye out on *him*,” Levi insisted.

Armin laughed as well as he fiddled with something inside of his leather bag. “I don’t know, Eren’s always been big on defending those he cares about.” He offered Eren a sheepish grin. “Back when he was bigger than me, him and Mikasa always stood up for me.”

That prompted some fond memories in Eren. “Yeah, until you found that old alchemist book of your parents and made those bullies break into a nasty rash if they got so much within ten feet of you.”

“Hmm, well, hard to punch me if they’re scratching themselves bloody, yes?” There was a beautiful smile on Armin’s face just then. “Funny how no one ever figured out just what was causing the allergy, no matter how many tests those poor kids went through, all those needles and jabs and cutting out things in their diet….”

A weak grin spread across Hange’s face. “Oh, you are *evil*. I knew I liked you.”

“It was worth the lecture I got from my grandfather over using magic on normals.” Armin handed Hange one of his potions and then grinned in obvious delight in giving Eren one, too. “Come on, I can tell you’re still working on absorbing the magic.”

“It’s getting better,” Eren insisted, then took the glass vial with an aggrieved sigh when he felt Levi’s determination. “You guys are being the bullies now.”

“Yes, yes, we’re so mean to you,” Armin agreed while he watched Eren chug the contents down as quickly as possible. “I even added the mint this time.”

It was all Eren could do to not throw up once he swallowed the potion. “Do na-, gah, don’t bother next time.” He scraped his teeth over his tongue as he shook his head. “Gah, maybe I can shift into something that doesn’t have any taste buds.”

“Drama queen,” Levi sneered as he snatched away the empty vial. “Now try to send some of that energy to me – just a little.” At Eren’s incredulous look, he narrowed his eyes and held out his ungloved right hand. “We need to work on *all* of your control.”

Maybe it was better when he was fighting a horde of the undead, Eren reconsidered as he eyed Levi’s hand with some trepidation. What if he messed this up? What if he ended up draining his boyfriend instead of sending magic? What if some new, terrible thing occu- “Ow!” He glared at the bastard as he rubbed at his left ear.

“Stop overthinking things and just do it,” Levi ordered, his grey eyes narrowed and a surly look on his handsome face.

“Why did I pick *you*,” Eren muttered as he tugged off his right glove. “How many people out there and I pick *you*.”

“Because despite your brain not being in use half the time, you do have something in that asinine head of yours,” Levi informed him as they clasped hands.

“I’m not silly.” Eren glared and clenched his fingers around Levi’s larger and more calloused hand.

“Then prove it.” Levi didn’t seem that impressed at the moment, even if his emotions were more amused than not.

Half-tempted to drain the bastard to prove a point, Eren bared his teeth before he closed his eyes and focused; it took a few seconds to push the anger aside, and then he had to take a couple of deep breaths to help calm down. Send Levi the magic, he told himself. Just a little of it. He tried to recall how he’d done it the previous times, when he’d been so worried, and realized that part of it had been fear – fear of Levi being hurt, of Levi having to fight again, of reacting to Levi’s anger and distress. There wasn’t any fear right now, other than fear of him hurting his lover at some point. So he tried to make it work on want, on need, and felt a faint stirring inside of him.

Snatching on that stirring, he willed it to work, to spin out a little of the magic. At first it was sluggish, and then he felt a slight draining as… as ‘something’ flowed between him and Levi. So pleased with himself over making it work, he didn’t pay any attention until the world heaved around him and he snapped his eyes open to find himself about two feet away from Levi.

“Dammit, that’s enough!” Levi held his hand up as if to bar Eren from touching him, a hint of color on his pale cheeks. “You weren’t stopping.”

“Oh.” Eren rubbed his hands on his jean-clad thighs. “Sorry, I was concentrating.” Feeling just a little drained, he shook his head. “It was working, right?”

The question earned him an indecipherable look from Levi, whose emotions felt a bit incredulous at the moment. “Yeah, it was fucking working.” He glanced down at his right hand and shook his head. “Should be charged up enough right now to raise a literal army.”

“Uhm, good?” Eren smiled in the face of Levi’s blank stare. “Just as long as you don’t sic them on me.” He took a cautious step toward his boyfriend and then another when Levi merely clicked his tongue. “Are we done?”

Hange finished whatever notes she was writing down and gave him a studious look before nodding. “We should see if Levi’s gained the ability to cast magic outside of his necromancer bloodline, but considering the peek I took at his blood, yeah, I think we can save confirming that for another day – maybe when Erwin’s here to be a convenient target.” She grinned as she reached out to pat a confused Levi on the shoulder, then turned her attention back on Eren. “We also really should see if you can pass that magic on to someone else, but I think that’s enough for one day.” She waved her pen at a now scowling Levi’s direction. “Besides, we’ll probably have to find someone to distract your honeybunch over there while we do that.”

“What the hell did I say about those awful nicknames?” Levi insisted as he draped an arm over Eren’s shoulders.

“That I couldn’t use ‘snuggle-bunny’, which I’m not.” Hange laughed as Levi’s scowl increased in potency. “Aw come on, you got some ‘great sex’ this morning and are all juiced up, cheer up for once!”

Levi was quiet for a few seconds as he began to shove Eren toward the house. “Brat… next time, drain her dry.”

“You really are mean!” Hange insisted as she fell in step beside them. “Don’t listen to the old grouch, Eren-honey. You’re too young to be that jaded.”

Eren was beginning to miss the times when he was too out of it after ‘draining’ magic, to be honest. “Ah, don’t you guys have wards to play with or something?”

“In other words, Eren doesn’t like to be picked over as the center of a fight, he’s a bit shy like that.” Armin ignored Levi’s dirty look as he shrugged out of his coat. “What, I’m helping you out here.”

“I don’t need any assistance,” Levi insisted as he nearly yanked Eren’s left arm off by ‘helping’ him with his coat.

While Hange did a poor job of muffling her guffaw upon hearing that comment, Gunther took to coughing into his gloved hand and Petra bit into her bottom lip as if to prevent herself from saying anything. It was Erd who swallowed as if suffering a throat gone dry and dared to speak first. “Ah, sir, you do realize there’s a reason most of us bet against you, right?”

In the process of removing his own coat, Levi paused to give Erd a flat look while a bead of sweat ran down the poor man’s face. “Eren, finish the laundry and start lunch while we do a bit more training.”

Judging from the simmering anger Eren felt from his lover, it was a very good thing that Eren was being excluded from the ‘training’ session. “Sure. Take your time.” He reached over to aid Levi in zipping up his coat. “I’ll do my best to not drain anyone dry or develop any other freaky new talents while you’re kicking someone else’s ass. Which really, weird relationship issues, okay?”

That got a smile from the grouchy bastard. “Don’t worry, I’ll be thinking of you the entire time.”

“Such a romantic.” Eren rose up on his toes to give his lover a quick kiss.

“My point exactly.” Levi’s good mood lasted until he turned around to find Hange beaming at them. “I’m not going easy on you just because Eren leeched away your magic, you lunatic.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” she told him as she waved him toward the door. “So, what are we doing, everyone for themselves clusterfuck? Those are always fun.”

“Remember what Erwin said about not infecting anyone by accident,” Erd called out as they went for the door.

“Oh trust me, nothing will be by accident!”

Eren heard some loud groaning before the door slammed shut and exchanged a nervous grin with Armin. “You’re not joining them?”

His friend shook his head. “I think I’d rather check up on Mikasa and help you out. Plus, once lunch is prepared, we can work more on that special potion of mine, right?” Armin rubbed his hands together as he eyed Eren in a speculative manner. “I’m so close to figuring it out.”

“Great, I get to have stinky stuff lobbed at me by my supposed best friend.” Eren wrinkled his nose in anticipation of that fun test. “Go see how Mikasa’s doing while I do the laundry.”

Armin saluted as if accepting the order. “You know, you’re turning into a really good wife.” He laughed as he dodged the glove the Eren threw at him. “Just saying!”

“Why couldn’t you have stayed gone for another year or two?” Eren grumbled, but he was smiling as he headed for the laundry room past the kitchen. Now for Mikasa to wake up all right and with her magic restored, and the day would have turned around. He had just reached the kitchen when he felt a spike of smug satisfaction, and amended that thought to ‘for himself’. Obviously, the day wasn’t turning out too good for whomever it was Levi was pounding into the ground outside.

*******

Mikasa lay in bed for a minute or two before she realized what was wrong – there was daylight streaming into the room. It had been so long since she had slept during the day that it was disconcerting to lie there when it was so bright outside. She felt a bit guilty to remain in bed so she forced herself to get up, and was grateful to find out that her energy and magic had mostly returned while she slept. Once stable on her feet, she pulled on the cardigan that Armin must have removed before putting her to bed, grabbed her scarf and stepped into a pair of slippers before leaving the room.

There was some sort of ruckus outside, but since she recognized Hange’s braying laugh, she assumed that it wasn’t anything too serious and continued down the stairs toward the kitchen since she smelled something wonderful.

Upon entering the room, she found Armin sitting at the table busy grinding up some precious mineral and Eren at by the stove with Petra. Her brother looked over and smiled, his eyes bright and expression relieved. “Mikasa! Are you feeling better?”

“Hmm, nothing a nap couldn’t fix,” she assured him. “Is that ragout?”

“Yes, I figured one of Mom’s dishes might help.” A slight flush colored Eren’s cheeks as she came over to lean against him and ruffle his hair. “It always made you feel good in the past.”

Resting back against the counter near the stove, Petra smiled as if she found the scene before her adorable. “You two are really close, aren’t you? I wish I had a brother or sister.”

Armin laughed from his spot on the table. “You might want to clarify that, or you might not be as lucky as Eren.”

Mikasa buried her smile in the scarf while Eren tossed what looked to be a scrap of carrot peel at Armin’s head. “Don’t you mean as lucky as Mikasa?”

“Yeah, right, maybe you have been drinking too many potions lately.” Armin laughed some more and covered his head when Eren made a spitting sound and left stirring the pot on the stove to go over and rub at his shoulder-length blond hair.

Meanwhile, Petra giggled as she watched Armin twist about so he could tickle Eren, which caused him to swear and attempt to pull away. “Let me guess, this is what it’s like to have brothers?”

“Yes, they’re rather immature,” Mikasa agreed.

“Hey! That’s just Eren,” Armin argued as he managed to tickle Eren to the floor – at least until Eren shifted into a small, tortoise-coated cat and escaped into a pile of his clothes. “You know, I don’t think Levi’s going to appreciate you shifting back in front of an audience,” Armin observed when Eren poked his furry head out of neck of his grey sweater, which caused Eren to twitch his whiskers and pause.

Beside Mikasa, Petra stared in evident awe at Eren with her mouth agape. “He’s… cat?”

“He didn’t think that one through,” Mikasa admitted as she went over to pick him up, along with his clothes; Eren was docile and curled up in her arms. “I’m going to put you in the pantry, okay?”

Eren made a faint meowing sound and began to purr as she rubbed beneath his chin. Part of her wanted to hold on to him a little longer, but forced herself to set him on the floor along with his clothes once they reached the pantry. She closed the door and returned to the stove, where she stirred the finished ragout. “So everyone’s outside fighting?”

“Yes.” Petra gave her an odd look as she tucked aside the bangs falling onto her face. “I was out there for a while, then I came in to help Armin with his potion.”

“I needed an extra set of hands to render some of the belladonna,” he explained. “And you know how Eren has no patience for that.”

The door to the pantry opened to reveal Eren as he hopped out of it, still in the process of pulling on his socks, his hair disheveled and expression mulish. “I don’t see why you’re using a poison in a potion meant for *me*.”

Armin rolled his eyes as he continued to grind some pink stone to dust. “It’s only one part of the potion, and it’s not like it’ll kill you with that fancy healing ability.”

“Which I didn’t need to find out by drinking one day!”

“Well *I* didn’t tell you to drink that vial, did I?”

“You told me to grab the one on the left!”

“I meant *my* left!” Armin threw his hands up in the air as he glared at Eren. “You wasted a day’s effort!”

Petra took to laughing over the familiar squabbling, while Mikasa felt a peaceful warmth in her chest – she had missed this *so much*. “Oh my, they’re just like Gunther and Erd and-“ Petra bit her lip just then, her amusement fading as she closed her eyes.

Mikasa frowned, worried about the air mage, while Eren gave up on the bickering with Armin to come over beside her. “Is everything all right?”

Petra opened her eyes and gave them a weak smile. “It’s fine, just thinking of someone I lost recently.” She dabbed at the corner of her right eye with the edge of her light blue sweater. “There… well, there used to be four of us, and… he passed away a couple of months ago. Reiss… well, something happened.”

Mikasa wondered how close that ‘someone’ was to Petra but didn’t want to push, while beside her Eren shifted about on his feet as if uncomfortable; she also wondered if her brother was picking up anything from the pretty woman. “So, lunch is ready,” he offered, changing the topic to something a little safer. “You think they’re almost done killing each other?”

Petra’s smile became more certain while she glanced in the direction of the front of the lodge. “Well, I haven’t heard any screams in a while.”

“Yeah, but Levi’s awful smug right now.” Eren rubbed at his forehead with his left hand while he gave the ragout a quick stir. “Someone’s getting their ass kicked.”

Petra once more appeared amazed as she stared at Eren. “It’s so unbelievable, you feeling Levi’s emotions like that.”

Mikasa couldn’t help herself. “He needs it – how else are they going to figure anything out.” She ignored the hurt look her brother turned toward her and reached in the cupboard above the sink to pull out some bowls to begin to set the table.

Still, Petra shrugged as if unable to deny what she said. “I know Levi’s not the best person when it comes to expressing his emotions, but he’s a good man. He won’t let you down.”

“He better not.”

“Mikasa,” Eren sighed, his brows drawn in disapproval, only to even out when she gave in and nodded. “Thank you.” He was smiling as he reached into the oven to pull out a tray full of biscuits. “Ah, who wants to tell those four that lunch is ready?”

“I’ll do it.” Petra closed her eyes, and Mikasa felt a pulse of magic emanate from the woman while she poked at Armin.

“Come on, finish that later,” she told her friend.

“I guess.” He sulked a little at having to put off working on his potion until after lunch, but hurried to clear away the supplies and then help her set the table. They were just about done when the front door opened and voices called out.

“Is the food ready?” Hange sounded as cheerful as always, if a little tired.

“Yes!” Eren set the large pot of ragout on the table and then went back to fetch the baskets of biscuits before waiting for something. It didn’t take long for Hange and Levi to arrive, Hange with a huge grin on her face and Levi with a bland expression that sharpened when he spied Eren. “You done terrorizing everyone?”

“It’s not terrorizing, it’s sharpening their skillset,” Levi insisted as he stalked over to Eren and combed his fingers through Eren’s mussed hair. “Why do you look even more like a disaster than usual?”

Eren put up with the fussing while Hange pulled out the nearest chair and collapsed into it. “Gunther and Erd are washing off – odds are 50/50 if they make it back down here.” She wrinkled her nose at Levi, who was still playing with Eren’s hair. “You got out just in time, Petra – I think Gunther was about to cry at one point – especially when Levi managed a fire spell.”

“And you casting that typhoid spell had nothing to do with it, right?” Levi gave up on trying to get Eren’s hair to behave and skimmed his hands along Eren’s back for a few seconds before shaking his head and moving away so he could go wash up at the sink. Meanwhile, Eren sat down and began to ladle the ragout into several bowls – one of which ended up in front of Mikasa.

She smiled in appreciation, and again when Armin handed her a biscuit. “Thank you.”

“Glad to see you’re doing better,” Hange told her as she waited for Eren to hand her a bowl. “Oooh, someone’s breaking out the good stuff.”

Levi returned to the table with a bottle of wine in each hand. “I figured a little won’t hurt us, not after that work out.” He sat down next to Eren and pulled a corkscrew out of his pocket. “Where’s Gunther?”

Erd slicked back his wet hair as he walked into the kitchen. “From what I could make out through the bathroom door, I think he’s planning on seeing how big the hot water heater is.” He grinned at Levi, then winced as he sat down. “Any chance of passing on that healing factor, sir?”

“Not to shitty bastards who bet against me,” Levi taunted as he threw a cork at the water mage. There were several laughs over the comment, though Mikasa noticed a slight flush to her brother’s face at the joke; she reached under the table to give his hand a squeeze, which prompted a smile from him.

“We still need to see if Eren can do his magic mojo with anyone else,” Hange remarked as she held out her glass for some wine. “Or if it’s only reserved for grumpy bastards.” She grinned when Levi gave her the finger. “Aw, no wonder Eren fell for you with all that charm.”

Even Eren joined in with the laughter that time, at least until Levi did something to him from under the table. Then Eren yelped and turned to glare at him. “What?”

“Nothing, I’m being ‘charming’,” Levi replied as he took a bite of his meal, his expression perfectly blank.

“You….” Eren narrowed his eyes as he turned in his chair toward the necromancer. “Fine.” He stared into his bowl for a few seconds and then grinned, one Mikasa recognized from when her brother was pleased with himself and sat facing forward once more.

Levi continued to eat, but his left hand disappeared beneath the table once more, only this time, Eren continued to grin. After several seconds, Levi’s brows drew together and his lips pursed, and his hand came back up to the table.

Mikasa wasn’t the only one to notice the couple’s odd behavior; “So, what’s the plans for this afternoon?” Hange asked as she held her glass of wine up with both hands, a knowing grin on her face. “I think some people are going to cry if you say ‘more practice’.”

“At least if you don’t open up more wine first,” Erd muttered.

“I was going to give Mikasa a little more time to recover and then see if she wanted to work with the spirits a bit,” Levi offered, which surprised Mikasa. She considered it and how much her magic had returned before nodding, always willing to hone a talent that could be put to good use – especially after seeing how he had used it to fight the shifters.

“And I’m so close with that special potion. The last version weakened Eren’s ward but didn’t break it entirely. I’ll shatter it next time!” Armin stirred his spoon through his bowl before taking another bite.

Eren made a sputtering noise as he wrinkled his nose. “You’re much too happy about that.”

“But it’s for your own good in the long run,” Armin insisted.

Eren didn’t seem to believe that, and appeared about to argue when his face suddenly became flushed and his eyes wide. Steam rose up from his body and beneath the table as he pushed away from it in a rush. “Uhm, ah, yeah.” He didn’t give any better explanation than that as he fled from the table.

Meanwhile, Levi, who had been quiet the entire while, wiped his mouth with a napkin and then got up as well. “We’ll practice in about an hour or so,” he told Mikasa as he snatched up the remaining half-empty bottle of wine then trailed out after Eren.

Everyone watched him leave in confusion, their own meal forgotten. “Uh, I know I’m tired, but what the hell just happened?” Erd asked after about two minutes had passed.

Hange grinned as she reached over for Levi’s unfinished glass of wine, since Levi had taken the only bottle with any wine left in it. “Well, if I were to take a guess, a certain grouch followed my advice and remembered about his link with his honeybunch.”

Unfortunately, Armin beat Mikasa for Eren’s abandoned glass of wine. “Can we *please* not talk about anything relating to Eren and sex?” he pleaded. “We grew up with him.”

“Aw, but sex is a natural part of life,” Hange tried to explain. “Even family members do it.”

“*No*, it’s more than him being like a brother to me, though that’s bad enough.” Armin paused to finish off his own glass of wine and then Eren’s. “Eren is a *shifter*. You have any idea how often we saw him naked because him changing shape? After a while, you just… disassociate him from anything sexual.”

“Oh!” Petra paused in mid-bite to a biscuit to gape at him. “That’s why you said that thing about Levi not being happy earlier when he changed into a cat!” She seemed to think about something and then blushed. “Oh my.”

“Petra!” Erd sounded appalled just then. “He’s a kid! Well, he’s young. And… *Levi*.”

“Yeah, but he has a really nice ass,” Hange confided in Petra. “Wait til you see him shift into-“

Mikasa slammed her glass into the table. “Please, he’s my brother.”

“Fine, fine. So Levi’s the only one who gets to enjoy Eren’s ass, figuratively and literally.” Hange folded her arms over her chest and pouted, while Armin latched onto Mikasa’s hands to keep her from casting out her magic.

“Okay, time to grab another bottle of wine, yes?” he offered as he got up. “While you enjoy the nice meal that Eren made just for you,” he reminded her.

“All right.” While she enjoyed the delicious meal Eren had made just for her… and Levi was doing unspeakable things to her brother. Oh yes, she certainly was looking forward to that training session now.

*******

Erwin parked the Land Rover just outside of the ward that protected the small, one story ranch nestled in the woods outside of Karanese. “Are you ready?”

Mike and Nanaba held up the pieces of jewelry that he’d handed to them earlier, with Mike sliding the long chain which held the ring over his neck in case he had to shift. “Whenever you want to go,” Nanaba told Erwin.

Taking a few seconds to check to see if there were any spells that might tip off the mage inside, Erwin also re-examined the ward before he nodded to his friends and opened the door so he could step outside. Mike and Nanaba followed, and they all moved silently toward the house, the ward presenting no problem thanks to the modified charms. Nanaba conjured up a faint mist to cloak their presence, and Mike split off so he could enter from the back of the house while they went for the front.

Creeping toward the door, Erwin used the gauntlet charm to ‘sense’ where its creator was, getting a feel for the earth mage. Once he had an idea of his location, Erwin summoned his fire and blasted the door down, then leapt into the house.

There was a small entrance room, and past it a living area, where it looked as if Djel had been enjoying the evening by reading something in a chair next to his fireplace. The earth mage was stunned by their violent entrance, his pale blue eyes wide with shock and his face slack, yet his hands were in motion as he stumbled to his feet – only to be cut short by a wall of hellfire.

“I wouldn’t, if I were you.” Erwin smiled as Nanaba, aided by the necklace charm, used her water talents to gain control of Djel’s body. “Ah, it looks as if you’re going to cooperate now, yes?” A large shadow broke away from the corner of the room and revealed itself to be Mike, who prowled over to join them. “We’ve some questions for you, so do behave or else I’ll have my companion here start taking bites.” He waved away the hellfire while Mike bared a very impressive set of teeth. “Nanaba?”

She bowed her head, her short, blonde hair glimmering in the firelight, and allowed Djel command of his voice. “But… how? The wards?” He strained as he spoke, as if attempting to move his body or to cast a spell.

Erwin held up the gauntlet he’d removed from the dead Reiss mage several days before. “I commend you on your work, it’s really very fine. No wonder Reiss hires you for all those charms.” Djel’s face reddened as his eyes darted to the ring hanging on Mike’s black-clad chest and the necklace shining against Nanaba’s dark garb.

“The charms – how did you get them?”

“Their owners were beyond a need for them at the time.” Erwin shrugged as he lowered his hand. “I’ve some very clever friends, and we worked up a way to turn your magic against you, so I suggest you answer some questions for me.”

Djel’s eyes narrowed in anger. “Answer you? A bunch of rebellious punks who think they can just do whatever they want? That they can throw aside millennia of rules and order?” Erwin sighed as the mage went on with the familiar tirade and motioned to Mike. “You can go fu-aow! Ahh!” Djel screamed as Mike raked a vicious set of claws along his chest, shredding what was certain to be an expensive wool sweater and sending blood splattering onto a fine rug. After a few seconds, Erwin nodded once to Nanaba, who silenced the screams.

“I’m sorry, did you think I was lying about the ‘take a bite’ part?” Erwin gave the panicked Djel a pleasant smile. “Nanaba can keep you from bleeding out while Mike takes you apart piece by piece, you know. Or I can burn you to ash, inch by inch, it’s really your preference.” He motioned to Nanaba to give the earth mage control of his head, and Djel responded by shaking it in a frantic motion. “We’re not here to do any ‘rabble-rousing’, we’re here to find out about one of your – of Reiss’ – own. So answer our questions or suffer,” he told the pompous ass.

Another flick of the finger and Djel could speak once more. “I… I don’t… I… the geas,” Djel sputtered, his face shiny with tears and mucus.

Erwin gestured with the gauntlet and engulfed the item with his flames – to activate the spells placed on the charm, not to destroy it. “That won’t be a problem. Now, I need you to tell me everything you know about Hitch Dreyse.”

The earth mage stared at him in apparent confusion, sweat matting strands of dark hair to his forehead and lines of stress appearing on his face. “Ra- ramona’s daughter?” His eyes went wide as if he was startled to find himself talking. “The one who decided to take on her grandfather’s name? Why would you want to know about her? She left the Reiss organization.”

Satisfaction filled Erwin upon hearing that. “Yes, I’m very interested in hearing about the girl.” He inclined his head and Nanaba took to leaning against the wall while he hitched his left hip against the back of the couch, yet Mike remained on guard near Djel, a looming, intimidating presence. “Tell me everything about the girl, what she’s like, who are her friends, her habits, *everything*.” He held up the charm, making it clear that Djel had no choice in the matter.

They would get the information they needed to help hunt down Hitch and the shifters. And if it left Reiss with one less powerful mage at their disposal… well, Erwin would consider that an added bonus.

*******

Return to Archive

Next Chapter