chapter nine

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by the pricking of my thumbs

*******

Eren groaned as he buried his face in the pillow in front of him, only to groan again when he felt Levi’s cool hand stroke along his bare back.

“What is it now?”

“I just realized that I have to do the sheets *again*.” Eren crumpled the pillow beneath his chin as he looked up at his lover, and grimaced at the amusement he felt from the bastard. “Yeah, yeah, it’s so funny.”

“I’d send Erwin a text to ask him to pick up some more, but not sure it’s worth him harassing me about it.” An annoyed expression settled on Levi’s face for a few seconds as he pulled on a clean sweater, a dark color like most of his clothes. He sat down on the bed next to Eren so he could put on the thick pair of socks. “Besides, it’ll give you something to do while I’m out playing with your sister.”

“That doesn’t sound right.” Eren curled up around Levi while his lover continued to get dressed, a little sleepy and largely sated from feeling so much pleasure and Levi’s magic. “And Armin’s going to be using me as a test subject, remember?” He reached out to tug on the hem of the black sweater; did the man buy them in bulk or what?

Levi grunted as he snatched at Eren’s hand then held on to it. “I’m thinking you’ll survive.” His thumb rubbed along the palm of Eren’s hand for a few seconds, and then he shook his head as if realizing what he was doing. When he made to stand up, Eren held on to his hand. “What?”

“Does this… it doesn’t bother you, does it?” Eren scooted a little closer and sat up as he continued to hold onto Levi’s hand, his eyes focused on the calloused yet elegant fingers; he didn’t need to look at Levi’s face to have an idea what his lover was thinking. “I mean… well, this.”

There was a deep sigh before Levi’s left hand slid through Eren’s hair and forced him to look up. “There’s that eloquent shit of yours, brat.” Levi’s expression was stern, even a touch annoyed, yet his emotions were amused. “Try using little words to explain yourself.”

“Asshole,” Eren muttered with affection even as he hugged Levi’s right hand to his chest. “What I’m asking is, do you mind *us*? This whole bond thing… *me*?” He took a deep breath before he continued. “I can’t… I don’t know what I’m doing with you most of the time, I’m just reacting.”

Levi was quiet for a few seconds and then his fingers tightened in Eren’s hair. “I thought we settled all this earlier,” he said before clicking his tongue. “I gave you a choice to walk away that night and you didn’t.”

“Yeah, but that was one night.” Eren slipped his fingers between Levi’s. “Now it’s a lot longer.”

“So?” Levi let go of his hair so he could flick Eren in the ear, and smiled in the face of the resulting glare – at least for a moment before his expression turned serious, along with his emotions. “You heard them, nobody except the lunatic expected me to end up with anyone, and these are people who are my friends. Then I find you.”

“So you’re with me because I put up with you?”

That earned him another flick. “I wasn’t finished yet, brat.” Levi sighed while Eren rubbed his ear, his emotions that odd mix which Eren had so much trouble making any sense out of. “You’re young, you’re mouthy, you’re impetuous, you hog the damn bed and you’ve no definition of personal space. You should drive me nuts.”

“But your magic feels so good,” Eren complained as he scooted closer. “I can’t help it.”

Levi rubbed at his forehead as if dealing with a tiring problem, even if his emotions were more bemused than anything now. “And there’s that – no one likes my magic, *no one*. Except you, the annoying little shit who somehow was perfect in every way except one, and you even changed that for me.” He used the hold Eren had on his hand to pull him in closer. “You don’t piss me off – well, not too much, your magic feels good, too, I don’t even mind it when you’re draped all over me, and… dammit, enough of this shit.” He twisted his hand free and cupped Eren’s face so he could lean in for a kiss, his emotions searing and overwhelming and… and…. Eren couldn’t think, could just *feel* and enjoy.

After what had to be a good minute or two, Levi broke off the kiss, his mouth trailing along Eren’s jaw. “So no more stupid questions, okay? Hate talking about this crap.”

Eren bent his head to rest it against Levi’s shoulder. “Okay. It’s just… I think this is part of who- of what I am. The link, the magic, it’s not normal. You shouldn’t have to put up with it.” He let out a shaky breath and then yelped in pain when his ear got nipped. “Dammit!”

“What the fuck makes you think I’m normal, either?” Levi asked as he pulled away, a slight smile on his lips. “It’s more of that ‘complementary’ bullshit that Erwin was talking about.”

Eren let out a frustrated whine as he fell back onto the bed, his fists pressed against his eyes. “Something about my nature hates me, doesn’t it?”

“That was the luckiest day of your life, the day you met me.” Amusement poured into him as Levi ruffled his hair then got off the bed. “What are you making for dinner?”

He sat back up and began to pull off the pillowcases. “I don’t know, any suggestions?”

Levi paused by the door and gave the question some thought. “Pasta would be good, considering all the practice we put in today.”

Eren took a moment to consider what Gunther and Erd had brought to the cabin. “I think we’ve got everything for pasta carbonara, but tell Erwin to bring more bacon the next time he comes by.”

His lover nodded before leaving, emotions pleased; Eren finished stripping the bed and went to wash off before getting dressed and leaving the room himself. Once downstairs, he found Petra and Erd watching a movie in the large open area that constituted the ‘living room’ with a fire blazing in the huge fire pit, and nodded to them when they called out his name. It was no surprise that Armin was busy mixing ingredients at the kitchen table, though Gunther, his dark hair damp and spikey, was at the other end eating the leftovers from lunch. “Hey! Great timing, I’m just about done here!”

“Let me throw in this load and then put on a robe,” Eren told his friend, and did his best not to blush at the knowing grin he received. “I don’t want to hear it.”

“What? That you abandoned your family and friends at lunch to go have a, well, that wasn’t exactly a quickie, was it?” Armin smirked as he poured whatever the hell foul-smelling liquid he’d concocted into several vials with various bits in the bottom.

“Could feel your guys’ magic lighting up two rooms down,” Gunther grumbled between bites. “Finally gave up trying to sleep and came down here.”

“You might want to ward your room,” Armin offered. “Else Hange’s going to do it for you.”

“I don’t… laundry.” Eren nearly ran into the laundry room and hoped he stopped blushing by the time he had to leave it. Once the sheets were in the washer, he took a deep breath and returned to the kitchen. “Be right back!”

“Oh I know, Levi’s too busy right now to be a distraction.”

There were times when he really, really disliked being friends with a know-it-all. Gritting his teeth, Eren went back upstairs to change into his, well, an old robe of Hange’s, then headed downstairs, mindful of the length of the robe on the steps. As he returned to the kitchen, he picked up on the annoyance and building anger his lover was feeling, and knew it wasn’t just him who wasn’t having the best time at the moment.

Maybe Mikasa wasn’t too pleased with how Levi had distracted him at lunch….

Upon entering the kitchen, he gave his friend a nervous smile. “Uhm, so how was Mikasa at lunch?”

“Hmm, other than a bit upset at you and Levi disappearing for most of it?” Armin stood up from the table with a wry grin. “Need I say more?”

“Damn.” Eren jerked his right hand through his hair. “Yeah, that explains it.” At Armin’s confused look, Eren tapped his fingers against his right temple, which made his friend wince.

“Ouch, I hope they don’t try to kill each other.” Armin headed to the door leading to the main room. “Hange! We’re doing this now!”

Gunther grunted and hunched over his food. “Really, in here? Can’t a poor guy just eat in peace?”

Armin laughed as he motioned for Eren to follow him. “All right, at least one thing should go your way today, I guess. We’ll bother Petra and Erd instead.”

“Good. Oh, and thanks for the food, Eren.”

Eren waved in acknowledgement to Gunther as they left him in peace, still a bit embarrassed that he’d bothered him earlier with the, yeah, okay, moving on past that. They went into the large foyer area, and found Hange running down the stairs, hair tied back in a messy bun and dressed in raggedy sweats. “Now? Yes!” She looked as if she had just gotten out of the shower herself. “I want to see if this works.”

“She wants to throw one of them at me, doesn’t she?” Eren translated as he glanced at Armin.

“Well, she did help a bit.”

“I hate all of you, I really do.” Eren ground his teeth together as he tugged back his hair. “Do you ever stop to think about how I feel as a lab rat?” At their blank stares, he let out his breath and shook his head. “Fine, let’s get this over with, just tell me there’s some beer or something that I can have when it’s done.”

“That’s a good lab rat, focusing on the cheese,” Armin encouraged him with a pat on the head, and laughed when Eren swatted at his hand.

Meanwhile, Hange pulled out her phone. “Petra, come here, I want you to film this for me.”

“Ah, okay.” Petra jumped up from one of the couches while Erd paused the movie they were watching. “For Erwin?”

“Something like that.” Hange smiled as she handed over the phone. “Do your thing, Eren!”

He sighed as he concentrated on the armor ward, the now-familiar sensation of the crystal forming all over his body. “Okay.” He let the robe slip open to expose a larger area of his chest and rolled up the sleeves.

“Go stand on the rug over there – it’ll be easier for us to clean up,” Armin told him while he held a vial with a red cap in his right hand. “All right, here’s the first sample.” As soon as Eren was centered in the rug, he threw the vial at him.

The thin glass shattered and at first Eren felt nothing… and then he shuddered. “Ah! It itches!” The armor steamed a little but didn’t break or vanish.

Armin nodded as he handed a vial with a black cap to Hange. “That one was similar to the previous batch. Now try this, I added hematite to it.”

Hange tossed the vial once up in the air before she threw it at Eren, and this time he felt the effects immediately; he fell to his knees as the armor smoked around him, but managed to keep it from completely disintegrating. “Ooooh, that *stings*!”

“Yes!” Hange jumped up and down while Armin ran over to him.

“You okay? Do you want us to stop?” He helped Eren stand up, while Petra paused in the filming to offer to get him some water.

“No, I’m fine,” he told them both. “Let’s just… let’s just finish this. What about the next one?”

Armin appeared a bit doubtful but went back over to stand beside Hange. “Can you armor up again?”

“Yes.” It took a few seconds, but Eren managed to reform the crystal ward. “I hope this one works, as crazy as that sounds.” He didn’t want to do this all day.

“Me too.” Armin offered him a nervous smile as he held up a vial with a white cap. “Okay, this is similar to the last one, just a few tweaks to it to make it more potent.”

Eren gritted his teeth in preparation for some more ‘stinging’. “Yay, happy about it already.”

“Hit him with it,” Hange urged, her brown eyes almost manic behind her glasses.

Eren braced himself as the vial flew at him, and even the experience of the previous sample didn’t prepare him for the fire that burned along his nerves as the liquid splashed into his ward and ate through it. His first response was to shift into something smaller, the cat form coming easily to him, and as he scrambled to get out of the wet robe he felt a now familiar sensation of reaching for the magic of others, to grab it and pull it into himself in order to render them weak, defenseless and- He hissed at Armin when his friend went to pick him up, both in reaction to the pain from the potion and a warning as he struggled to contain the new impulse then ran away as fast as he could, claws skittering on first the stone floor then the wooden steps as he headed for his bedroom.

He didn’t change back until he was in the shower, hands trembling as he twisted the water on, cold at first and then hot to wash the remnants of the awful potion from his skin. The water poured down on him as he huddled at the bottom of the tub, arms over his head, and struggled to control his breathing, the tearing sense of panic inside of him.

There were voices outside, too low to make out over the water beating down around him, and then the bathroom door opened wider. Eren jerked his head up as Levi’s magic rushed forth, even more comforting than the warm water rinsing away the potion. Levi stared down at Eren for a few seconds before crouching by the tub and reaching in to turn off the water. “I think we should have stayed in bed.”

That prompted a weak laugh from Eren as he wrapped his arms around his knees; he noticed that Levi’s coat was torn at the right sleeve and it looked as if he had a leaf stuck in his hair. “It felt as if acid was thrown on me and I nearly drained my friends dry, what about you?” He reached out to fetch the leaf, which prompted a grimace from his lover when he spied it.

“I had to put up with your sister and her crazy belief that I don’t show you enough respect.” Levi clicked his tongue as he brushed back the wet hair falling onto Eren’s face. “You got a problem with me?” Despite his bland expression, his emotions were an unusual mix of apprehension, concern and possessiveness.

A bit surprised by the question, Eren had to remind himself of whom it was who did the asking – someone who believed that insults and ear flicks were acceptable signs of affection. “Hmm, you’re a mean bastard of a slave driver,” he reminded Levi as he tilted his face into the caress.

“Yeah, I didn’t think so.” Levi’s emotions ‘smoothed’ out as he brushed his fingers along Eren’s cheek then took to combing them through his hair. “I take it the potion was a success?”

“You could say that.” Eren shivered, both from the feel of Levi’s fingers and in memory of the test. “It’ll be a nice surprise for the others.”

“If you say so. You know Armin’s going to need more of your ward to make a larger batch.” There was a flash of pity and concern as Levi’s fingers trailed down his nape.

Eren groaned at the thought. “He better not want to test it on me.”

“We’ll figure something out.” Levi pushed at his shoulder before standing up. “Come on, get out of there and get dressed.”

“Do I have to?”

“Yes, because I refuse to eat what any of those sorry fucks down there cook – well, Petra’s not too bad, but that’s about it.” Levi grabbed an oversized towel from the rack and held it up.

Eren groaned again as he stood up. “Tell me the truth – you barely put up with me until you realized I could cook, didn’t you?”

Levi grinned and enveloped him with the towel, his hands settling on Eren’s ass to then lift him out of the tub. “The sex doesn’t hurt, but yeah, I’m keeping you because it beats living off of canned soup for the rest of my life.”

He would punch the asshole just then, but Levi kept his arms trapped beneath the towel. “I repeat, ‘mean bastard’.”

“And I told you, that seems to be your taste in men.”

“No, I think you said ‘assholes’ are,” Eren reminded him.

“That too.” Levi gave his ass a pat before letting go of the towel. “Now get dressed,” he ordered while shrugging out of the jacket. “Fuck, I’ll have to have Erwin pick up one of these, too.”

“Might as well ask for the sheets after all,” Eren argued as he dried off. “Or get Armin to do it, think he owes me right now.” He hung up the towel and went back into the bedroom to get dressed, and Levi followed after a minute; there was the sound of water running so he probably washed off from the fight. Eren was pulling on one of his ‘claimed’ sweaters when Levi appeared, hair damp and slicked back from his face. “I don’t like how I react by trying to drain people,” Eren admitted as he sat down on the bed.

Levi came over and ran his fingers along the side of Eren’s face, the touch light and almost teasing, especially with the lingering feel of magic. “You said ‘nearly drained’, and everyone looked fine to me. So that means you didn’t drain them, right?”

Eren sighed as he nodded. “I stopped it, *this* time. What happens if I don’t the next?”

“And what happens if the next time it’s those bastards attacking us?” Levi reached down to grab Eren’s hands and yanked him to his feet. “Seems to me that while it’s not ideal, it is your magic’s way of protecting you. You’re learning to control it, which is the important part.”

“I suppose.” He still worried that he might hurt Armin or Mikasa, or any of his new friends; at least he knew that Levi was immune to the new talent.

Levi clicked his tongue and gave Eren a swat on the ass, his emotions mostly that of reassurance but with a hint of annoyance. “Enough whining. Stop moping about this ‘maybe’ shit and go make me dinner.” He caught Eren’s chin and gave him a tender kiss before smacking him on the ass again. “Now.”

“There’s that ‘respect’, all right,” Eren muttered as he headed for the door.

“You’ve never had it better and you know it,” Levi called after him.

Smiling both from the teasing and the affection and amusement he felt from his lover, Eren stepped out of the room and was surprised to find Mikasa and Armin waiting outside. “Oh, hello.” He smoothed his hands along the front of the sweater even though they hadn’t been doing anything, well, okay, no reason to blush. “Everything all right?”

“That’s our question.” Mikasa pushed away from the railing overlooking the floor below and stepped closer as her dark eyes raked over him. “How are you?”

Oh, yeah, the whole shifting and hissing and running away thing. “I’m better now.” Remembering that Levi wasn’t too happy with Mikasa, he hooked his arm through his sister’s and led her toward the stairs. “I think it’s safe to say that Armin’s potion worked.”

“Well, I’m not happy that it seemed to hurt you, but yes, it did break your ward,” Armin admitted, his expression a bit depressed as he followed. “I’m really sorry about that, I didn’t think beyond figuring out what would break the magic.”

“It’s all right,” Eren assured him. “Yeah, it was painful, but you’re not going to use it on me again, right?” He felt some relief when Armin shook his head vigorously enough to cause his blond hair to fan out. “Then it seems to me the more painful it is, the better.”

Armin managed a weak smile. “I mean, I would like to figure out a non-painful version just in case, we never know if you might manage to make the ward more permanent and we might need to do something if you’re unconscious, but that can be done at a later time. Right now, we just need something to take out those three.” His guilty expression returned. “So, uhm, I’ll need you to armor up again and then release it so I can get some more ‘steam’ so I can make more of the potion.”

Eren smiled back while Mikasa gave his arm a reassuring squeeze. “Long as you’re not throwing anything at me this time, I’ll do it after dinner, okay?”

“Great!” Armin laughed a little as they headed downstairs. “Hopefully Hange will wait that long – now that she knows there’s a way to burn through their ward, she’s rather insistent on making buckets of the stuff.”

Eren shuddered at the thought of how much of his ward breaking down that would require. “Maybe I should head back upstairs….”

“No, you’ve been spending too much time up there.” Mikasa’s eyes narrowed as if in anger as she all but dragged him toward the kitchen. “Come hang out with Armin and me.”

That sounded promising, especially if a vengeful Hange was lurking about. “So, how did the practice go?” Eren winced when Mikasa’s fingers on his arm dug in all of a sudden. “That well?”

She glanced aside as she tugged up the scarf. “I did learn a useful trick or two today. Levi….” He thought he saw her lips twist when she said his lover’s name. “He does know a lot.”

“Imagine that.” The sarcasm had her jerk her head around, and he gave her an innocent look. “I thought you two were getting along.”

She met his gaze for a few seconds before glancing aside, and by that point they had reached the kitchen. “I just wanted to make sure he’s treating you right.”

Eren let go of her arm so he could stand in front of his sister. “Look… maybe I don’t know what’s all going on between Levi and me, but I do know that I trust him, and I do… I like being with him.” His face heated up as he admitted that last part. “Even if he’s grumpy and bossy and… oh, I don’t know. He’s Levi.” He scratched at the back of his head as he tried to explain his boyfriend. “I think we’re both really new to this… stuff.”

Fortunately, Armin came to his rescue. “It’s all right, we know about Levi’s abs,” he explained as he patted Eren on the shoulder. “We understand what has you all confused and horny.”

Or maybe not. Eren stared at his friend in horror before he walked away in silence to begin working on dinner.

“At least he can defend you, and he seems to be an adequate lover,” Mikasa offered. “Even if he could work on expressing his emotions better.”

About to open the fridge to fetch some ingredients, Eren paused and considered banging his head against it instead. “Please, just… please, do *not* go there, okay? I don’t want to discuss this with my sister.”

Mikasa gave him the ‘look’, the one where she clearly was doing something for his own good and so didn’t understand why he wasn’t being cooperative, then shook her head. “You’re both idiots, you do realize that, right? If there is some sort of bond between you, then you need a stable basis for a relationship – something other than you like each other’s magic and an obvious physical compatibility.”

Yeah, that pretty much was what he didn’t want to talk about with his sister or his best friend. Eren gritted his teeth together as he fetched several ingredients from the fridge. “We’re working on it, okay? Kinda difficult when we’re also trying to deal with the fact that these assholes are hunting me down and killing Levi’s friends.”

Mikasa came over to grab the package of bacon about to fall out of his arms and reached out to touch his cheek. “I know, and I worry that so much is happening all at once.” That concern shone in her dark eyes and creased her pale forehead. “It’s not an excuse for him to mistreat you or push you into doing something you’re not ready for, all right?”

“All right.” Eren juggled the carton of eggs and block of cheese so he could press his hand against the one cupping his face. “Just remember that I can feel his emotions. It might seem like he’s being an asshole, but he’s not, okay? Not really.” Then he grimaced. “Not most of the time, not to me.”

“Yeah, prickly is Levi’s default mode, but there’s a gooey center in him down deep.”

Somehow Hange had snuck into the kitchen, which caused Eren to jerk around and begin to drop the eggs; luckily Mikasa used her threads to save them from falling onto the floor. “Eh?”

Hange smiled at him as she sauntered into the room with a large vial in her hand. “I was checking through my supplies for Armin, and I do have some rendered belladonna.”

Armin helped Mikasa with the food as he beamed at Hange. “Thank you! That’ll help speed things up, and once we get more of the crystal ward essence from Eren after dinner, we can work on a new batch tonight.”

The blood witch handed the vial over to him and then continued onward, until she approached Eren. “Thanks, hon,” she told him as she ruffled his hair. “Those bastards won’t know what hit ‘em once we have more of that potion ready.” She appeared guilty for a moment as she pulled her hand away. “Sorry that the trial session got a little rough.”

Eren felt a little uncomfortable as he combed back his hair. “Uhm, it’s okay, I know it was for something important.” He much preferred a happy, hyper Hange to a serious, depressed one. “Besides, it makes us even for me draining you earlier.”

And just like that, Hange was once more grinning. “I suppose it does! Ya gotta go with the flow in these experiments, that’s what I always say!” She patted him on the head before she spun around. “So, what, we need to grind up some more hematite and flint? I think we need Gunther’s help with that to make it go by faster. Oi, Gunther!” She stalked out of the kitchen without waiting for Armin’s answer, intent on the poor earth mage.

Eren watched her go before he shook his head. “It’s going to be an interesting dinner, huh?”

“Especially if you and Levi can get through it without running off for sex,” Mikasa commented in a dry tone as she pulled a cheese grater out of a drawer. Meanwhile, Armin made a choking sound as if he was desperate to not laugh.

Headed to the pantry for some pasta, Eren glanced over his shoulder to look at his sister, who met his gaze with a blank look. “Yeah, we’ll see what we can do,” he managed to get out without any stuttering, the entire time telling himself that he couldn’t wait until she was in a relationship herself so he could get some payback. He distinctly remembered a bit of sneaking around back when… well, before they had to run away, so it should be interesting once Mikasa found someone who caught her eye. Until then… he just hoped that Levi learned some calming techniques.

*******

Annie had to admit, the failure with the location spell seemed to have provided some motivation for Hitch, who stood in front of the trapped earth mage with a rare display of rage on her face. “Tell us what we want to know,” she hissed as she gestured to one of the revenants which held the man upright. Spirits whirled around him and snatched away the white bandana tied around his head, the motion causing his hazel eyes to blink. “Tell us or I’ll have them tear out your spleen.”

Bert stepped forward to put a stop to the unnecessary roughness, his shape shrunken down to ‘normal’ height even if he was in his fighting form and covered with the crystal armor. “That’s enough for nuh-now. Give him time to speak.”

“Nah… not sayin’ anythin’,” the earth mage drawled, which prompted Reiner, also in his fighting form, to step out of the shadows.

“Wrong answer.” He extended a clawed finger and dug it into the left side of the mage’s face, trailed it along the bearded jaw until the man screamed. “Do you want us to start with your entrails next? Our friend here can keep you from dying long enough until we get the answers we need.”

Hitch’s expression sharpened as she grinned. “I won’t let your soul slip free, no matter how much you beg. Imagine how much it’ll *hurt*.”

Busy tapping on her phone, Annie cleared her throat as she reminded her friends that there was a point to this; Bert jerked his head back as if guilty while Reiner clenched his hands. “Yes, so tell us what we want to know – where is Levi Ackerman and Erwin Smith.” When the mage shook his head, Reiner clutched at his jaw. “Don’t lie to us, we know that potion broke down the geas.”

The mage shook his head again. “Don’… don’ know. Haven’ heard from ‘em in weeks.”

Reiner glanced over at Annie, who checked her phone for the bits of information they had collected so far; this mage was supposed to work closely with Erwin Smith and be trusted with important tasks in their little ‘rebel’ organization. “Try again,” she told him.

Reiner appeared to sigh as he dug the claw down the man’s chest. “We know you’re considered important to Smith, so he talks to you. Where is he?”

The mage screamed and shook his head. “No – no word!” He screamed some more when Reiner’s claw burrowed into his abdomen. “Bu-busy with somethin’… with Levi!”

“We know that, we need to know where!” Reiner pulled out the bloody claw and wiped it along the man’s face, which was covered with sweat and tears. “Where are they hiding?”

“Dun’ know, the truth!” The mage attempted to pull away from the revenants and cried out when they tightened their hold on his arms enough for Annie to hear bones creak. “Ah! Tu-try Mike!” He sobbed after giving up the name.

“Yes, the were, we know.” Annie made another notation by the name. “We’re looking for him, too. So what does Smith have you do?”

“You heard her,” Hitch insisted as the revenants tightened their hold, enough to break the mage’s left arm. “Speak!” She had to shout to be heard over the screaming.

Annie’s eyes narrowed at the interference, while Reiner’s fists clenched and Bert appeared sick; it took the mage a couple of minutes to stop retching and sobbing enough to talk again. “Run errands,” he murmured, at first barely more than a whisper.

“What was that?” Reiner used a claw to tilt up the man’s chin.

“Ru-run errands,” the mage stuttered, a broken look to his face. “Talk ta people, deliver letters.”

There was something about the last part, the way he looked aside, that caught Annie’s attention. “Letters to who?” She frowned and motioned to Reiner. “What’s in those letters?”

“Answer her!” Reiner once more clawed up the mage’s chest.

“AH! Du-don’ know! Jus… letters for Levi,” he admitted with a sob.

*Now* they were getting somewhere. Annie nearly crushed her phone, she was holding it so tight in her hands. “Tell us everything about those letters,” she ordered the mage. “Tell us, and maybe we won’t need to keep tracking down your friends.” He wasn’t dumb enough to think that he was getting out of this alive. Reiner nodded and held out his claws as an incentive.

The mage hung his head and sobbed for several seconds, and then all of a sudden jerked forward, his chin held up as his throat brushed against Reiner’s claws. If it wasn’t for her friend’s quick reflexes, the mage might have impaled himself on the sharp claws, but Reiner pulled back his hand in time, as well as Hitch made the revenants haul the mage away.

“Yeah, I’d say he knows something,” Reiner muttered as he curled his hand into a fist. “Hitch, ready that spell – we’re going to drag the truth out of him, one way or another.”

Hitch smiled in evident delight, while Annie – as well as Bert – braced herself for things to take on a decided nasty turn.

*******

Erwin sat in the back of the SUV while Nanaba drove, busy checking messages on his phone while Mike appeared to be concentrating on the wrapped razor that Levi had ‘charmed’. “How close we gotta be to find this necromancer?”

“Hmm? Oh, I don’t know, most tracking spells with some sort of distance are within a couple of miles or so,” he guessed as he tabbed through his messages. “We should be headed in the right direction to find Hitch, based on the information that Djel gave us.”

Mike grunted, the sound conveying that he didn’t really trust the Reiss earth mage even if the man hadn’t been given much of a choice to embellish his answers before his death. Erwin shook his head and continued through his messages… his concern growing with each one. “It’s clear that our ‘friends’ have been around here, I’m getting a lot of alarm that there’s been numerous questions about our colleagues.”

“Hmm?” Nanaba glanced away from the road to look at him. “They’re still trying to track us down?”

“I’d say so – at least three people are reporting to me that word has gotten back to them that people are asking about them, though the descriptions vary each time.” Erwin started typing on his phone and sent out a group message, something he rarely did, asking if everyone was okay; he did break it down into several small groups and used the strongest encryption possible. “I’m checking to ensure that everyone is okay.”

Mike pulled out his silent phone and held it up, his eyebrows arched, which caused Erwin to roll his eyes. “I know you two are fine.”

“No love,” the were replied in a mournful tone.

“Nanaba loves you just fine,” Erwin informed him. “And I’ll love you more if you concentrate on that charm and find me a necromancer to burn.”

Mike made a sniffing sound as he put his phone away. “Been hanging around Levi too much.” Meanwhile, Nanaba giggled beside him.

“Hmm, a distinct possibility.” Erwin’s eyes narrowed as he began to receive replies from his people and went through them one by one, a sense of relief as people checked in to let him know they were all right. It took a few minutes, but gradually he had responses from the majority of them, but the lack of one from a person in particular sent off warning bells. “Fuck.”

“What is it?” Nanaba glanced at him through the rear-view mirror.

“I’m not hearing back from Dita.” Erwin’s fingers dug into the frame of the phone for a second before he forced himself to relax. “He’s always really good about responding, too.”

“He’s not far from here,” Mike pointed out with a growl deepening his voice.

“I know.” Erwin met Nanaba’s eyes in the mirror, and she sped up the vehicle, swerving to take the next exit so she could head along the back roads which would take them out to Dita’s place.

About twenty minutes into the ride, Mike growled and held up the razor. “It’s picking up something.”

That was not promising news. “Be prepared for a fight,” Erwin warned as they turned down the road that would lead them to Dita’s home. The road was narrow and little more than a dirt path, so the SUV would be noisy and stand out – about halfway down it, Mike motioned for Nanaba to stop and shrugged out of his shirt as he climbed out of the vehicle.

Tossing his jeans inside a moment later, Mike shifted into his saber tooth form, almost dwarfing the SUV with his massive size. A low rumble came out of his throat before he charged forward, much quieter than the vehicle with its loud engine. Nanaba waited several seconds before she started it up again and put it back into ‘drive’. “You think they’re still there?”

“I think something happened to Dita, and at the least we might have found a trail,” Erwin explained as the SUV lurched forward. Erwin put his phone away so he would be better prepared for what would happen next, and almost felt disappointed when they reached the small household a few minutes later and everything appeared normal.

Nanaba put the SUV into park before they climbed out, with neither Mike nor any of Dita’s horses anywhere to be seen. “Dita?” Erwin called out his friend’s name but didn’t feel the man’s earth magic, nor Mike’s. He frowned as he stepped away from the vehicle, and only had a second’s warning at the flash of necromancy.

“Move!” He grabbed onto Nanaba’s arm and yanked her out of danger moments before a revenant’s hands broke through the earth right where they had been, clawing about in an attempt to latch on. He sent a wave of hellfire to burn the thing as he reached out for his magic, and ‘felt’ a pulse of the wild magic similar to Eren’s. “They’re in the back! Watch out for more revenants.”

“Yes, sir!” He could feel her magic cast out as if she was seeking for the creatures, for the faint amount of fluid in their bodies, while he surrounded the two of them with hellfire as they ran toward the small house. The closer they got to the house, he could begin to hear terrible noises, could hear the roar of Mike’s shifted form and something else, something large and primordial. There was another roar, this time in pain. “Mike! We’re coming!” Nanaba cried out.

They had just come to the corner of the house when something attempted to blast through Erwin’s hellfire, a force of concentrated cold – a poltergeist. It had to be fresh for it to be so powerful, and Erwin had a sinking feeling in his gut that he knew who had provided the soul for such a spirit. “Dammit!” He motioned to Nanaba as he fanned out the flames in an attempt to drive away their attacker as they split apart.

The revenants immediately came after him, while something with wings zeroed in on Nanaba. He used his hellfire to burn the undead to ash… and caught a glimpse of Mike, being torn apart by what looked to be a gryphon. A *gryphon*. Erwin’s shock lasted only a heartbeat or two before he took in what the supposedly mystical creature was doing to his friend. “No!” Rage filled him as he sent a blast of hellfire at the creature the size of a large truck, but it dissipated as soon as it hit its glossy bronze skin and golden wings; the cursed shifter was covered with a crystal ward.

“Die, damn you!” Nanaba sounded in tears as her magic spiked behind him, and he turned to see what appeared to be a harpy, a fucking *harpy* slash its taloned feet through the shield of ice she’d cast and then along her throat. The spells he hurled at it did nothing, nothing at all against that damn ward while Nanaba attempted to slow the blood spurting free, but the shifter slashed again and again until not even Nanaba’s talent could stem the damage.

“You fucking bastards!” Erwin felt the rage explode inside of him, felt it break free of the careful blocks he kept it behind, and with a casual gesture ‘swatted’ he aside the necromantic spell cast at him while returning it with a curse. He let the hellfire burn free, burn hot, and the approaching shifters leapt for the sky, the screaming necromancer clutched in the ‘gryphon’s front claws.

The ‘harpy’ hovered just out of reach of his flames for a moment, its black eyes seeming to stare at him as he raged and threw flames its way, which it dodged. “Give us Eren, or we’ll hunt down your companions one by one,” it told him in an almost solemn tone.

“Fuck you,” he hissed. “I will burn you beyond ash for this!”

“No, you won’t. You can’t even touch us.” It nodded to the ‘gryphon’, which flew away with the now sobbing necromancer. “You’ll just watch more of your friends die. Give us Eren and this ends.”

His answer was another ball of flame, which the ‘harpy’ dodged by shifting into a smaller shape, some type of bird, and then it was gone in a flash of dark wings. Erwin let out one more inarticulate scream before he struggled with the rage, with the hellfire, and drew both back in.

Once his control was reestablished, he took a couple of deep breaths and forced himself to survey the damage. Mike had reverted back to his human form, his body rent with savage claw and bite marks, to the point that he was almost torn in half. Nanaba lay in a pool of her own blood, her throat and chest ripped apart. Erwin bent over both of them and offered up what was probably a useless prayer to the Fates before he burned them to ash, mindful to leave nothing behind, not a single memento despite them being dear friends, and then moved on to check the house.

It wasn’t much better inside; there was a clear sign of a struggle and, as expected, he found Dita’s body in the kitchen. It was evident that his friend had suffered, had been tortured for some sort of information, and the worst was the sight of Dita’s phone sitting on the kitchen counter. Erwin picked it up and could see the message he sent out when he powered it on, and realized that this was how the shifters knew to expect them. Be it some cruel trick of the Fates or dumb luck, they must have still been at the house when he had sent out the group message and had decided to lie in wait.

He threw the phone at the opposite wall with all of the strength he could muster and forced himself to continue through the house, to see if he could find any more relevant evident. It was in the living room, at the small desk when he realized that things were so much worse than he had suspected; someone had torn through not only the desk as if looking for something, but the leather messenger bag that Dita always used when carrying the letters and packages Erwin gave him to take to-

“No. No, no, no, no!” Erwin ran over to the bag and the desk, and began to search over both, to look for any scraps that might have been left behind, for any ‘feel’ of Isabel’s or Farlan’s magic. He hadn’t given Dita any messages or packages to be delivered in weeks, so nothing had been brought back for Levi in that time, either. There should be nothing for the shifters to use for a spell, *nothing*. But what had they gotten out of Dita? Had the earth mage given up the fact that one of his most important duties was to relay things back and forth between Levi and his adopted sister? That there was a hidden weakness for one of the most powerful necromancers alive – a necromancer who was currently protecting the one thing that the shifters wanted the most?

Erwin fell to his knees as the realization sunk in and let his head bang against the oak desk. The one thing Levi had asked of him, that he had promised to do – to keep Isabel safe, to give her a new beginning, a new life, and now it was all in danger. Surrounded by the death of three friends, he cradled his head in his hands and tried to think of what to do next.

*******

Annie shifted back into a mostly human form with a fine fur covering as she landed within a few feet of a naked Reiner, who was holding down a shrieking Hitch. “What’s wrong?”

“Fuck if I know, it looks like whatever Smith hit her with has twisted her magic back on her somehow.”

She hurried over to the two of them, and grimaced as she caught sight of Hitch’s mangled right arm; it was mostly bone with decaying flesh at this point. “Cut it off before it spreads.”

“Fu-fuck you! Fu-uckin’ mages n’ unnat’ral… ‘tral… wha’ever….” Hitch stuttered out between sharp gasps of pain. Annie placed a gentle touch against the necromancer’s sweaty forehead before she held her down and nodded at Reiner.

His jaw tightened and the blood drained from his face as he shifted a large, sharp claw which glittered in the setting sunlight as it swept through the air, and then Hitch was shrieking again, blood spurting from the severed end of her arm. Annie gritted her teeth as she tore at the girl’s jacket to improvise a tourniquet while Reiner ran over to the pile of supplies Bert had stashed away before he went flying off to track down their latest quarry.

“Here, drink this!” Reiner had to yell at Hitch again to drink one of their precious potions, but managed to get it down her throat. “That should help with the healing.”

Her face a mess from blood and crying, Hitch shook her head as Annie laid her down on the ground. “Nah possbul. None a thisss…” The potion appeared to take effect at least, that or the pain and blood loss, and she passed out.

Annie first improvised a better dressing for the wound and then watched over her for a few more seconds before she went over to the pile to grab something to wear, and Reiner followed. “What are we going to do now?”

She ignored the question long enough to get dressed. “We’re going to throw her in the back of the car and get the hell out of here just in case Smith has some friends show up, and then we wait for Bert to contact us. If the cavalry doesn’t ride off to the rescue of those two within the next day or so, then we see if they’re going to run off to meet up with Ackerman.” She felt a bit better with clothes on, even if it was just a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, and then stepped into a pair of ankle boots.

Reiner glanced back at Hitch before he began to get dressed, too. “Is it even worth dragging her along? She managed to keep it together during the fighting, but she’s obviously freaked out, seeing us shift like that.”

“She also just got fucked up by one hell of a nasty spell and lost her arm.” Annie shuddered at the thought of having her own magic turned against her; she’d heard that Smith was one hell of a fighter, but didn’t know he could be that vicious or powerful. “We might still have a use for her – we haven’t taken out Ackerman yet.”

“I guess.” Reiner stomped into his combat boots with a little more force than necessary. “It’s just… I don’t like using our talents like that and leaving witnesses behind. Now we have her and Smith.”

It was a risk, letting outsiders know just how powerful they were, but Smith already knew about their warding talent and there was no telling how much Eren had revealed. “You know our orders, and the clock is ticking now that Eren’s coming into his abilities as the key. We need to hit these people hard and finish this quick." Annie reached into the back right pocket of her jeans to fetch a hair tie so she could pull her hair back into a ponytail. “Smith’s on borrowed time right now, while Hitch….” She shook her head while her lips pressed together.

Reiner nodded in understanding; Hitch had however long she could still be of use, which might not be much if she didn’t recover from the loss of her arm or from seeing them fight earlier. “Let me get her,” was all he said as he slipped on his jacket. “Hopefully it won’t be too long before we hear from Bert.”

“Worry about us getting out of here for right now,” Annie chided her friend as she headed for the SUV. Part of her wondered if they shouldn’t be trying to follow Smith back to wherever it was that the mage was keeping Eren, but they’d already decided that it would be too risky; there was no telling if he would call in reinforcements along the way and had already proven too adept at casting misdirection spells. Also, there was the simple fact that it was too obvious, so better to leave Smith wondering if the earth mage had given up Ackerman’s adopted sister or not. If Ackerman didn’t take the bait… well, then they would grab the woman and her husband and force Ackerman to choose who it was he wanted more, family or Eren.

If there was one thing that Annie knew it was that you may hate them, you may curse them, you may try to run away and distance yourself, but you could never escape family. It shaped you, it defined you, and just when you thought it broke you, family was too much a part of you to let you truly shatter… or ever let you go. Ackerman would have no choice but to give them Eren, and as Eren was handed over by the man who had falsely promised to defend him to in order to save his real family, one of them would end the liar’s life.

Just a little more bloodshed, and Eren would be back with his own family. Annie gripped the steering wheel hard enough to make it creak as she attempted to summon up some enthusiasm for that thought.

*******

Levi had just poured himself a fresh cup of tea when he felt a sense of Erwin’s magic pass through the outer wards. “The fearless leader has returned,” he informed Petra, who was drying the last of the dinner dishes.

“Let’s hope he got all of the shopping list. I can’t believe that Gunther forgot to get enough dish soap.” She grimaced as she finished with the plates.

“Yeah, he’s getting his ass kicked tomorrow.” Levi sipped his tea and then set it down on the counter as he headed for the door. “And so is Erwin if he didn’t get everything we texted him.”

“Give ‘em hell, sir!” Petra cheered as she set aside the dish towel.

Levi waved his hand at her enthusiasm and left the kitchen, and rolled his eyes at the pile of limbs and shaggy hair that compiled his lover and two friends on the floor equidistant between the big screen television and fire place; Eren appeared happy to be with his friend and sister as they watched a movie. “Hmm, Erwin here?” Eren asked as he lifted his head from where it had rested on Mikasa’s shoulder.

“It feels that way. Stay inside,” he ordered, and shifted his gaze to Mikasa to make sure that the brat didn’t get any bright ideas to leave the house. “I’ll go see what he brought back.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Eren appeared to sulk a little, at least until Mikasa tugged him back down. Meanwhile, Hange got up from the couch and sauntered over to Levi’s side.

“You’re done with the potion?”

“Yeah, at least for now.” She fiddled with her glasses as they made their way to the front door. “Armin didn’t want to push Eren for too much of his ward tonight, not after what had happened earlier, but we’ve enough vials to do some damage.” There was a predatory air about her for a few seconds, at least until she reached out to grab her coat. “We’ll make some more tomorrow.”

“As long as you don’t lob any more at Eren,” Levi warned; he had never felt Eren’s magic fluctuate like that before and despite how much Eren had downplayed it, he knew it had affected his lover. He suspected the ‘puppy’ pile on the floor was a reaction of sorts to the potion, since Armin had been bearing guilt over hurting his friend and Mikasa worried about her brother all through dinner.

Hange paused in tugging on her jacket to smile at Levi. “Aw, you’re so cute when you’re such a good boyfriend, yes you are.” When he narrowed his eyes at her and summoned his magic, she gave a nervous laugh. “Okay, maybe I mean ‘scary’ rather than ‘cute’.”

“You need your brains scrambled or something.”

“I do that well enough on my own, thank you.” She zipped her puffy tan coat closed and nodded toward the door. “We gonna see what Erwin brought back or we gonna flirt all night?”

Levi grimaced in disgust. “As if I’d flirt with someone as nasty as you.”

Hange laughed as she reached for the door. “Aw, you know I’m just too freaky for you. I’d rock your vanilla world so *hard*.”

Levi sighed as he rubbed at his forehead. “Why do I tolerate you again?”

“Because I provide all these wonderful corpses for you to use, hmm?”

He sighed again as he shoved her through the doorway. “Maybe I should use your corpse one day.”

“See, you’re so flirting with me. That’s okay, I won’t tell Eren.”

“I think you’ve been playing with too many chemicals lately.” Levi shoved his hands into the pocket of his torn jacket both in an effort to keep warm and as a way to resist smacking the pest as they stood on the porch and waited for Erwin to arrive. Feeling his friend’s magic approach, he was a bit surprised when instead of a Land Rover or a Jaguar, Erwin pulled up in a non-descript four door sedan – a late model sedan at that. “Oh fuck, something’s wrong.” Levi scrambled from the porch with Hange right after him.

They came to a halt a few feet from the driveway and waited for the car to stop; Levi could feel Hange summon her magic to her, and he did the same. The car’s engine sputtered as it was turned off, and it took several seconds before Erwin opened the door. Levi had never seen his friend appear so… so *defeated*, with his face haggard and eyes shadowed.

Hange let out an anxious laugh. “Ah, so, I guess you didn’t get our shopping list?”

Erwin closed the door behind him and leaned against the car, his right hand coming up to rub over his face. “Yeah… don’t think so.” He looked over at Levi, and something about the bleakness in his expression set off warning bells in Levi’s head. Erwin must have picked up on that, as he pushed away from the car and strode forward, toward the porch. “We need to talk.”

“Oh yeah, that never bodes well.” Hange glanced back and forth between Erwin and Levi with her hands held up. “Okay, I think I have a batch of smallpox I should go play with, you boys have fun.”

She turned around to leave, and upon opening the door she called out to Eren. “Heya, hon, I don’t think you want to be here right now. Grumpy grown-up talk time.”

Levi gritted his teeth together as he waited for Erwin to reach the porch. “This isn’t going to be something good, is it?” He thought that he picked up on the aura of death surrounding his friend.

Something dark passed over Erwin’s face as he shook his head. “No, it isn’t.” Erwin’s gaze went past Levi toward the house, probably toward the open door – toward *Eren*, and darkened. “Not at all.”

Just wonderful. Levi spun around and stalked back inside, where he grabbed onto his nosy lover’s arm and hauled him toward the kitchen. “Thought I told you to stay inside.”

“I did – I didn’t go out!” Eren’s face sharpened with anger and he attempted to dig in his heels for a moment before being dragged along by Levi. “What’s going on?”

“That’s what we’re about to find out.” Levi glanced behind him to make sure that Erwin was tagging along, and noticed a displeased expression on his friend’s face. “What?”

“You may not want Eren here for this.”

“Huh?” He felt Eren’s magic flare at that statement even as he pushed Eren into one of the chairs at the kitchen table. “Why not?”

“Yeah, why not?” Now Eren appeared surly, his brows drawn over his gorgeous eyes and his hands shifting into claws. “It’s about the other shifters, isn’t it?”

Despite Levi’s teasing claims that Eren didn’t have much of brain, the brat picked up on things. “What happened?” Levi demanded to know, well aware that Mikasa and Armin would be barging in any second now. As it was, Petra hurried over to the coffee machine to pour a cup for Erwin.

In the bright light of the kitchen, Erwin looked even more like shit; there were tears in the fancy wool coat of his as well as dirt marks, and he looked aged about ten years or so. As Petra handed him a cup of coffee, Hange, Mikasa and Armin sidled into the room. He acknowledge their presence with a weary grunt. “Gunther and Erd?”

“Out on patrol. I bet they’ll be back soon enough now that they sensed you,” Levi told him. “What’s going on? Why do you look like warmed-up shit?”

“And what don’t you want to tell me?” Eren wanted to know.

Erwin paused to drink about half of the coffee before he answered. “Mike and Nanaba are dead.”

At first Levi didn’t make any sense of the words; Mike had been with Erwin for longer than he had, was such a powerful were that it didn’t seem possible anyone could take him down. Then there was a loud curse from Hange, part rage and part anguish, that brought home what Erwin had just said. “Wait, they’re dead?”

Erwin nodded even as he held out his left arm toward Hange, which the blood witch accepted as she hurled herself toward him. “Yes.” He closed his eyes as he bent his head toward Hange and gave her a hug. “It was the shifters – we tracked them down to Dita’s place.”

Again, it took a few seconds for the impact of what Erwin had just said to reach Levi, as shocked as he was that Mike and Nanaba were gone, and then Levi was almost numb from the surge of intense panic and rage he felt upon hearing that the shifters had found the earth mage. One moment he was standing there by the counter, and the next he wanted to throttle Erwin, to choke the life out of the man – except Eren was standing in front of him.

“What’s wrong?” Eren was out of the chair and staring up at him with golden eyes and potent magic, hands held up against Levi’s chest. “What’s- what’s wrong?” His magic flared again, and Mikasa made a choking sound.

“Eren! Please!”

Eren moaned and shook his head as he clutched at his head. “I’m sorry! It’s- too much pain! Too much… too much!” Eren’s magic flared as if a fire doused with a potent fuel, furious and out of control.

Eren. Levi knew something was going on with Eren, but right then all he could think about was Isabel, Isabel and Farlan, so he rested his right hand against Eren’s cheek for a moment and then went around him, leaving his lover gasping for air as he charged toward Erwin. “You promised!” He swung his fist, the hand still warm from the heat Eren radiated and potent sense of magic, at Erwin’s face… and the bastard didn’t dodge it.

“Sir!”

“Levi!”

“Eren!”

Hange pulled him away from Erwin as the bastard rocked back from the punch, unsteady on his feet, before Levi could swing at him again. “What the hell are you doing? Have you lost your mind?”

“What about Isabel and Farlan?” Levi shouted at Erwin as he ignored Hange. “What about them?”

Erwin dabbed at his bleeding lip and shook his head. “I don’t know!” Guilt clouded his face as he looked up at Levi. “He was dead when we got there, so I don’t know! They might have found out about them… I don’t know for certain.”

“You don’t know?” Levi focused on his power, on how easy it would be to shred Erwin’s soul, to make his flesh rot away. “One thing I asked of you when you tracked me down all those years ago, when you dragged me into this shitty organization of yours! Give Isabel and Farlan a chance, to not have any of the damn magic organizations use them up and spit them out, and you said you’d do it. You *promised* me!” he hissed. “And now they’ve got a target on them?” Behind him there was a painful moaning sound. “How long until they’re dead? How long until-“ Something white and glowing whipped out and wrapped around him, and as caught up in his anger as he was, as battered as his senses were by Eren’s magic, he didn’t realize what they were until too late. Mikasa’s threads wound about him as if he was a fly in a web, and he cursed as he was tied up and dragged to the floor.

Mikasa loomed over him, her eyes shining so brilliant a silver that they cast shadows on her face, a dark aura around her as her magic burned the strongest that Levi had ever sensed it. “Stop it. *Stop it*. You’re breaking *him*!” She lashed out with her right foot and knocked Levi over onto his other side; it took a couple of seconds for him to regain his senses after the blow and realize that the furry, huddled figure on the floor a few feet away was Eren. His lover had shifted into some hybrid feline form, his clawed hands pressed against his head as he mumbled something over and over again with Petra and Armin both kneeling at his side. “Eh-eren?”

There was motion beside him, and then Hange squatted next to him. “He was starting to drain us, did you know that?” She sounded as if she was discussing an experiment even as her hands dug into her arms hard enough it had to hurt. “Right when you went on your so helpful little rampage. Thankfully it only lasted a second or two, but your rage… it’s doing something to him.” She gave him one of the most disgusted looks he’d ever seen from her, and never once directed his way. “You done losing your shit now? Because we just lost three more friends, and I refuse to have you take out two more.”

“I’ll crush him in an instant if he hurts Eren any longer,” Mikasa warned.

“Yeah, that might not be helping.” Hange informed the psycho before she turned her attention back on Levi. “Look, I know it’s not good, what Erwin just said. But *focus*,” Hange hissed out as she grabbed onto Levi’s hair. “You losing your mind? How much you want to bet it’s just what those bastards want?”

Levi took as deep a breath as he could with the fucking threads wrapped around him and nodded despite the hold that Hange had on his hair. “Let me go,” he demanded of Mikasa.

“I don’t think-“

“Let him go,” Armin echoed from over by Eren. “I think he can help if he’s done raving like a lunatic.”

Mikasa made a frustrated growl as she gestured with her hands, and the threads vanished in thin air. As soon as they were gone, Hange assisted Levi in standing up, and once he was on his feet he lurched toward Eren; he could still feel that wildly burning magic, as if it was reaching out in desperation for something to drain yet was denied only by the strength of Eren’s will.

Eren was shivering as he huddled into himself, body slightly shrunken and covered in a fine golden fur striated with dark brown lines, his ears elongated and golden eyes grown huge. He stared off at nothing as he kept chanting ‘no’ over and over again, and the gentle touches of Armin and Petra didn’t seem to break through to him. Levi nodded to Petra as he took her place and gave a nervous touch along his lover’s now angular cheek. “Eren?”

That seemed to cause a slight pause in the litany of ‘no’s, so Levi took a deep breath and slid his arms around Eren’s shoulders. “Come on, brat. Relax a little. It’s okay.” He felt Eren tense against him as if to pull away, and then there was a deep sigh as Eren relaxed and a flare of magic, then Eren was back in his human form against him, quiet and appearing half-asleep.

“Oh thank the Fates,” Armin murmured as he brushed aside the hair falling onto Eren’s face, then he glared at Levi and smacked him on the side of the head. “Don’t ever do that to him again!”

“What the fuck!” Levi scowled at the suicidal idiot and was about to smack him back when Eren moved in his arms.

“No more anger. It hurts.” He clutched at his head as he attempted to pull away from Levi, only to be jerked back.

“Okay, I get the fucking point,” Levi muttered as he sank down on the floor with Eren between his legs. He glanced aside as he rubbed at Eren’s nape. “Sorry.” The word came out in a rush and barely more than a whisper, yet Armin seemed to hear it as well and appeared placated.

“I think Eren’s overloaded at the moment – dealing with both of your emotions and reining in his talent can’t be easy.” The slight smile on the alchemist’s face faded into something stern as he looked at Levi. “Give him a break for a few hours, especially after such a trying day.”

“It wasn’t-“ Levi took a deep breath when he felt Eren stir against him. “Wasn’t like I did it deliberately.” He stared first at Armin, then at Mikasa before he searched out Erwin, who had pulled out a chair so he could sit down; the mage was still dabbling at his lip, this time with a wet cloth that someone, probably Petra, had fetched for him. “What the fuck do we know about these shifters?” He did his best to keep his emotions as stable as possible as the concern for Isabel and Farlan returned.

Erwin set the damp and bloody cloth aside. “Just that they’ve been tearing through our organization looking for information, and that they found Dita. Mike, Nanaba and I….” He took a second to close his eyes and shake his head. “We found the Reiss mage who created some of the group’s charms and got a lot of helpful information about Hitch from him, which is how we came across them and Dita.” Then Erwin laughed, the sound bitter and hollow. “Not that it did much good. They shifted into… I’d never seen anything like it before. They were things out of the past, were a gryphon and a harpy.” Eren stirred again at the mention of the shifters. “I only survived because I… lost control of myself.” Erwin appeared a bit ashamed just then. “I did manage to land a curse on Hitch, though, so if she’s not dead, she’s seriously hurt.”

“Oh, that’s a nasty bit of magic right there,” Hange commented as she poured herself some coffee. “As is what those shifters did. No wonder Mike and Nanaba didn’t stand a chance.” There was an analytical edge to her voice that pissed the hell out of Levi, but he knew it was Hange’s way of dealing with things, of pushing past the pain of losing two friends.

“Gryphon… that’s nothing,” Eren grumbled. “Child’s play.” His right hand came up from where it had been curled around Levi’s waist and waved about in the air for a few seconds.

Despite the severity of the situation, Armin appeared amused at his friend’s antic while Mikasa sank down near them to hold out a mug of tea to Eren. “Yes, you’ve done more impressive things with your chimera, I must say.” Then he turned serious once more. “Why are they doing this now, I wonder? Why didn’t they fight in such powerful forms before?”

“I don’t know, and that worries me as well,” Erwin admitted. “Maybe they didn’t except to lose to us that time and are growing serious now.”

“Who are Isabel and Farlan?” Mikasa waited until Eren drank some of the tea to look up at Levi. “Why are they more important to you than Eren?”

Petra gasped out loud at the question while Hange whistled, and Levi wanted to shove the meddling pest aside, especially when he felt Eren’s magic sputter at the question. “They’re not… they’re family,” he growled at her. “We go way back – Isabel’s like a sister to me, and Farlan’s a good friend. They got married a few decades ago.”

There was silence at that announcement, and then Mikasa grunted. “Then you go off and save them, and leave Eren to us.”

“Mikasa!” Armin stared in what appeared to be embarrassment at his friend, while Eren pressed back against Levi. As for Levi, he dug his fingers in Eren’s hair and hugged his lover against his chest.

“Fuck that!” He had to take a slow breath when he felt Eren wince at his anger -anger at the thought of his old friends needing saved and at abandoning Eren. “I hate to say it but Hange’s right, we’re just playing into those bastards’ hands if we rush into things.” Now that he had calmed down somewhat, he realized that racing off to where Isabel and Farlan were hiding could be one big trap – either to reveal where his sister and friend were hiding if Dita hadn’t revealed the location or to possibly reveal the lodge’s location if the shifters had narrowed down the general location and were keeping an eye out for anyone leaving in a hurry. It didn’t make it any less painful to just sit here, though. Fuck, but Erwin better be able to come up with some sort of a plan.

Out of the corner of his eyes, he noticed the way that Erwin’s face had grown shuttered as he spoke, which made his chest tighten with fear; Erwin wasn’t saying anything, wasn’t going all ‘leader’ on them. Something was wrong. Erwin was holding something back… which wasn’t good. Levi stared at his friend, and all Erwin did was give him a slight shake of his head, a clear sign that he wasn’t going to say anything right now. Wasn’t going to say anything in front of everyone else. Levi tightened his hold even more on Eren as that sinking sensation grew, worried just what it was that Erwin didn’t want to say in front of everyone else. “We’re not going to let them play us,” he insisted even as he despaired of what his friend was holding back.

“Sure, you say that now after you nearly took off Erwin’s head and hurt Eren,” Mikasa reminded him as she stood up. “We’ll see.”

“Mikasa… you’re not helping.” Armin tugged her away. “It was a shock.”

“He needs to remember about the link with Eren,” Mikasa muttered, but she allowed herself to be tugged aside, probably because Eren had finished the tea and gave her a weak glare as he handed over the empty mug.

Meanwhile, Petra came toward Levi with two more mugs of tea. “I think Eren could use another one and you some as well,” she offered as she held them out. Levi accepted his with a slight smile, and nudged Eren until he held out both hands.

“Thanks.”

Petra responded with a tearful smile. “You’re welcome. I can’t… can’t believe that Mike and Nanaba are gone.”

“Yeah.” Hange finished checking Erwin’s lip then gave him a pat on the cheek. “I think it’s time to break out the whisky – we can’t have a proper wake but we need to have something.” Her voice choked on the last couple of words.

“A few shots won’t hurt,” Erwin agreed. He once more exchanged a quick glance with Levi before looking aside. “Then we’ll have to discuss our next moves.”

Yeah, and after Levi managed to get Eren to bed, along with his annoying sister and best friend, he would have a nice long talk with Erwin about what his friend was holding back – even if he had to have Hange control his blood pressure or something to keep from setting off Eren’s talent or disturbing their link. Because something had happened with those shifter bastards other than killing three good friends, and Levi knew it had something to do with Eren, something that he was *not* going to like.

He took a sip of his tea, while tucked against him, Eren was unusually quiet and seemed to be staring into his second mug of tea. “Oi, you should drink that,” Levi chided. Armin was right, they had put the poor brat through the wringer today – the last two, really, and now this.

“Okay.” Eren barely reacted to Levi’s command and didn’t look at him, he just gave a soft sigh before he lifted the mug to his lips, his magic as ‘dormant’ as Levi had ever felt it and expression resembling one of weary resolve. Levi was left confused about the change in his lover’s behavior and about to ask him what was wrong, but it was then that Hange returned to the room with a bottle of whisky in hand, along with Gunther and Erd trailing behind her.

He sighed as he prepared for Erwin to tell the rest of his team the bad news, and hoped that this time, there was a better explanation as to what was really going on.

*******

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