chapter ten

*******

our doubts are traitors

*******

“And the time he pranked that one animal control officer back in Rose. You remember that?” Hange laughed as she reached for the bottle of whisky. “Oh my – the poor guy pissed himself!”

“I remember how we had to hit him with an amnesia spell afterward,” Erwin murmured, a slight smile on his face as he raised his shot glass in a toast.

Yeah, great, they had reached the ‘wasn’t that a fun time’ part of the mini-wake, so Levi figured he might as well haul Eren up to their bedroom since he wasn’t getting any answers for the foreseeable future. “Come on,” he told his lover, who was still curled up against his chest. “I’ve had enough sitting on this damn floor.” At least it was clean, thanks to Eren being trapped in the house for most of the day.

Eren didn’t say anything, just continued to clutch the empty shot glass he held in his right hand against his chest as he stared straight ahead; the whole silent treatment thing was starting to get on Levi’s nerves. “Oi, what the fuck is wrong?” he demanded to know as he used the arm wrapped around Eren’s waist to haul the brat onto his feet.

Within an instant, Mikasa and Armin flanked either side of him, Armin reaching out to take the shot glass from Eren while Mikasa pried at Levi’s arm around her brother. “We’ll take him from here,” she informed Levi, sparks of silver in her eyes as she gave him a narrow look. “He’s tired and doesn’t need any more badgering.”

“What? How is-“

Eren pulled away from Levi as he shook his head. “I wanna go with Mikasa.”

Stunned at hearing his lover speak for the first time in… what, almost half an hour? Levi stared in confusion as Eren shuffled over to his sister. There was a look of great satisfaction on the pain in the ass’ face as she wrapped her arms around her brother. “Come on, you need some sleep.”

Armin was quick to close flanks. “And I have a potion that should help your head – don’t worry, this one won’t be too bad,” he soothed as he stroked his right hand over Eren’s mussed hair. “It’s mostly herbal, and nothing nasty.”

Everyone else was silent at the three of them shuffled out of the kitchen, Eren sandwiched between his best friend and sister as they fussed over him. Levi clenched his hands as something dark twisted inside of him, something that made him want to reach out with his talent and shove those two aside, or to station a spirit in the bedroom to watch over Eren. He didn’t like Eren being out of reach like this, not when things were so uncertain, when those fucking shifters were doing their best to take everything away from him, take anything that ma-

“Here.”

“Fuck!” He nearly jumped when Hange handed him a mug of what smelled to be spiked coffee. “What is this shit?”

“Something a little stronger than your usual poison – we need to get down to business now that the kiddies have gone to bed.” Her expression turned grim as she headed back to the table.

Erwin nodded at Petra, who sat with a half-empty mug held between her small hands. “Put up an air ward, please. I don’t want to risk Armin or Mikasa overhearing this.”

She drew in a sharp breath as if surprised by the request, but her eyes flared green as she obeyed the order. “It’s done.”

“Good.” Erwin motioned for Levi to join them at the table. “Now then, I believe there are things that need to be discussed, yes?”

“Damn right there are.” Levi nearly slammed the mug onto the table as he sat down. “What are you hiding from us – from *me*? And don’t tell me that you came back from Dita’s without something for me to use so I can find out for certain what those bastards dragged out of him.”

There was a slight smile on Erwin’s lips as he unbuttoned his dark blue shirt and reached into it to pull out something – a torn and dirtied white bandana. “This is the only thing I didn’t burn to ash from the place.” Hange’s breath hitched as he handed it over to Levi, probably because she recognized it. “I assume you can use it?”

Levi made sure to take a good swallow of the spiked coffee before he accepted it. “Something Dita wore all the time? Yeah, that’ll work.” There were even a few drops of blood on it, as well as sweat stains - it would work rather well; he pushed aside any disgust he would normally feel at touching such a thing as he leaned back in the wooden chair – then something occurred to him. “Hange, do what you can to control my body’s reactions, all right?”

“Huh?” She scooted her chair closer to his even as she gave him a confused look, at least until he pointed upstairs. “Oh! Yeah, Eren. Not sure how much that’ll work since he feels both your magic and your emotions.”

“It’s worth a fucking try,” Levi gritted out as he allowed her to latch on to his free arm. Meanwhile, Erwin got up from the table and summoned several balls of hellfire.

“Let me put up a temporary ward, perhaps that’ll lessen the sense of your magic,” he offered. “I’d rather not alert the three of them to what we’re doing.”

“Whatever.” Levi held on to Dita’s bandana as he did his best to calm his emotions, which wasn’t helped by the thought that Eren had been so withdrawn, his magic so ‘shutdown’, ever since Erwin had come back with the news of what had happened to Dita, Mike and Nanaba. Some of that might have been the shock of losing more friends and then struggling with his talent, but Levi had to wonder if Eren was upset with him. Dammit, it wasn’t as if *he* could sense Eren’s emotions, all he had to go on was Eren’s magic and that wasn’t telling him shit right now.

Erwin played with his magic for a minute or two and then nodded. “All right, it’s set up.”

Hange nodded as well. “Your heartbeat is stable and breathing is good – I’ll keep ‘em steady and hopefully that’ll help prevent your emotions from spiking too much.” Then her mouth twisted. “Maybe. Who knows?”

“You’re a ray of fucking hope,” Levi told her before he opened up to his magic and closed his eyes. Almost immediately he got a sense of Dita’s death – it was like Erwin had said, that bitch Hitch had used the poor guy’s soul to form a poltergeist and hadn’t attempted to shred it into oblivion as she had with the others. While it took some effort on his part to ‘calm’ Dita’s soul down so he could make any sense out of the memories attached to it, Levi could do it without wasting too much time.

The first dive in dealt with, surprise, surprise, a shitload of pain. ‘Tell them nothing, tell them nothing, tell them-‘ Levi grit his teeth together and did his best to remain calm as he pushed aside the images of looming monsters and Hitch’s smug-ass face. Time to jump ahead a little more.

‘Fuck, what was in that potion? What did they give me? What was- ah! No, focus past the pain… what the hell did they do to my magic?’

Levi’s fingers dug into the palms of his hands as he fought past the intense agony and shook his head, his breathing even despite the strain of the memories and magic. Just a little further to go, that shit about the potion was *not* good.

‘No, no, so sorry, so… ahh… sorry. Erwin… Levi… sorry.’

“Fuck!” Levi dropped the bandana as he scrubbed his hands over his face and through his hair. “They used some shitty potion to break the geas and got the location out of him!” Now that Hange was no longer touching him, he could feel his heart begin to race and did his best to even out his breathing before he set off Eren again.

Erwin let out a muttered curse as he extinguished the balls of hellfire. “Dammit, it’s as bad as I feared.”

“What are we going to do now?” Erd glanced back and forth between Erwin and Levi as if waiting for some sort of explosion. “Do we go after Isabel and Farlan?”

“Fuck!” Levi jumped out of the chair so quickly that it fell back onto the floor, which made Petra gasp and Gunther swear. “I can’t… we have to do something!”

Hange grabbed his neglected mug of spiked coffee from the table as she lunged toward him and shoved it in his face. “Look, drink this and chill your ass, okay?” As he stared at her in shock, she all but shoved him into the chair that Erd had righted back onto its feet. “The last thing we need is you going all crazy again and making Eren drain the entire house dry, okay? And you,” she turned on Erwin. “You’re the brains here, at least when it comes to sneaky shit, so tell us you’ve got some sort of plan.” She folded her arms over her chest and tapped her left foot. “Well?”

“Oh fuck, we’re all dead,” Gunther moaned. “I don’t know which one is going to start killing people first.”

“Shut it,” Petra hissed at him as she got up to fetch the rest of the coffee. Meanwhile, Levi glared at Hange while he did his best to keep a poltergeist from forming, he was that upset at the moment.

Deep breaths, he told himself. Don’t set off Eren. Don’t kill the crazy lunatic. Don’t go running straight into a trap. Don’t… just don’t. “Erwin, start speaking before I break bones.”

Erwin’s eyes flashed incandescent for a couple of seconds before he bowed his head and accepted a mug of coffee from Petra. “Thank you,” he murmured and seemed mesmerized by the steam rising from the dark liquid. “I… okay, let’s try this.” He took a sip and winced a little, either from the coffee being bitter as fuck or hot, or maybe because Levi had landed one hell of a hit earlier, then he reached into the front pocket of his shirt for his phone. “Let’s hope it turns out better than last time – it is encrypted and they didn’t think to take Dita’s phone.”

“Huh?” Levi swallowed the last of his beverage and watched as Erwin tapped on his phone and held it out as if it was on speaker. It rang a couple of times and then there was a sleepy and all too familiar voice on the other end.

“Uhm, hello?”

Levi was out of the chair again in an instant, his heart pounding as he attempted to snatch the phone out of Erwin’s hand. “Isabel? Fuck, Isabel, are you all right?” Erwin shook his head and held him at arm’s length with the mug of coffee.

“Levi?” All sleepiness left Isabel’s voice as she shouted out his name. “Levi, is that you? What are you doing, calling like this? How are you? What-“

“Isabel, this is Erwin.” The asshole’s deep voice cut through her excited questions. “I’m very sorry to spring a call like this on you, but something is happening, and I need to make sure that you and Farlan are all right.”

“Eeeh? Something’s happening? Is Levi okay? One sec.” It sounded as if there was something happening on the other end of the phone for a couple of seconds. “We’re both fine, aren’t we?”

“Levi, what the hell is going on?” Levi’s knees trembled for a couple of seconds as he heard his friend’s voice come through, that touch of waspiness when Farlan was worried but trying to mask it with annoyance. “We don’t hear from you in person for decades and you call when weird shit is going on?”

The relief Levi felt upon knowing that his adopted sister and best friend were alive was jolted by that last statement. “Wait, what the fuck do you mean? What ‘weird shit’?”

There was an irate growl from Isabel, one he knew so well from the years he’d raised her, had got on her to practice her spells and wards. “Oh, *that again*. I want to talk to Levi, not go on about some stupid bird,” she grumbled.

“Izzy…” There was some more sounds, as if they fought over the phone. “We’re in the middle of fucking nowhere, I notice this stuff,” Farlan said after the scuffling died down. “There’s this crazy bird outside of our house, a golden wing hawk.”

“You’re such a geek!”

“Izzy!”

Levi frowned at Erwin as he wondered what the hell this had to do with anything, and nearly made Hange’s flesh rot off when she shoved him aside. “Wait, aren’t those limited to the southern provinces? I, ah, take it you’re not stashed away there?”

“No! Finally, someone who understands. A hawk like that shouldn’t be anywhere near here, let alone sitting in a tree all evening long when I spotted several tasty treats nearby that it should have gone after. It’s like it’s… watching us, or something.” Farlan sounded nervous.

“He even had me cast an air ward, as if the thing can hear us,” Isabel complained. “I think he’s losing it, Levi. Too much time spent reading. Are you coming to visit? Or can we visit you? Please tell us that’s why you called! I want to see you! It’s nice here but it can get boring, too.”

Levi shook his head as he tried to figure out how to tell the two people he cared about so much that it sounded as if those bastard shifters had tracked them down. “Listen, that’s not a bird,” he managed to get out past a throat gone tight with fear.

“No, it’s not.” Erwin made as if to start pacing and then stopped as if he remembered about the phone in his hand. “You know about shifters, correct?”

“Eh?”

“Yes, rare individuals born every couple of centuries who can assume any shape. Ignore my wife’s ignorance, but what does this have to do with… what, that’s a *shifter* out there?” Farlan sounded incredulous while Isabel started to laugh.

“Indeed it is. It’s one of several, and I’m afraid they’ve targeted you because… well, we’ve taken into our… protective custody a shifter who has a rather unique ability and they want him back.” Erwin closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them he was staring straight at Levi. “In fact, they gave me an ultimatum of sorts earlier today after they tortured your location out of Dita – for us to hand over Eren, the shifter we’re protecting or else they’ll keep killing.”

There was silence for several heartbeats, and then both Hange and Petra reached for Levi. “Don’t!” Hange shouted, while Petra seemed to gasp out a strangled “Sir!”.

There was a flash of rage, of disbelief that anyone could be so fucking stupid as to insist that he turn over Eren, that, that- “Get off of me!” Levi attempted to shrug off the two women, but they held on like leeches, especially Hange. He could feel her magic wrap around him, feel it do something to him, and that shock helped to jolt him out of his building homicidal rage.

“Think about Eren,” she whispered. “Don’t lose it again!”

“I *am*,” he snarled as he managed to shove her away. Meanwhile, there was a commotion on the other end of the phone.

“What’s going on? Where’s Levi? Is he all right?”

“What the hell do you mean, they’ll kill us? And who is this ‘Eren’?”

Erwin’s gaze raked over Levi as it to make sure he was all right before he looked down at the phone. “Levi’s fine, he just needed a minute to accept the fact that both his family and his lover are being threatened.”

There was another moment of silence, during which Erd made an exaggerated wince and Gunther buried his head beneath his arms; meanwhile, Hange actually snaked her arm out to smack Erwin on the back before she threw her hands up in the air.

“I will kill you,” Levi ground out as he took a step forward.

“Temper,” Erwin warned as he motioned above them, appearing back to his normal, evil sense for the first time that night.

“Wait, *what*? Lover? Levi has a boyfriend? Oh, Brother, I am *so* happy for you! What’s he like? Is he cute? He has to be- ack!”

“Not now, Izzy.” Farlan sounded stressed, and in the background Isabel could be heard calling him mean. “Could we please focus on the ‘kill’ part? What happened to Dita? He’s dead?”

“Yes.” The slight smile on Erwin’s face faded into nothing. “The shifters – there’s three of them that we know about, along with a necromancer – tortured your location out of him and then killed him.” Erwin took a deep breath as he set the mug aside then pinched the bridge of his nose with his left hand. “They’ve targeted our organization as well as Reiss in order to get at Eren, Levi’s lover. He’s a shifter as well, and… it’s complicated. Let’s just say that it would not be wise to hand him over to them.”

“We’re not doing it.” Levi once more dug his nails into his palms in order to rein in his temper. “No fucking way.”

“Aw, you really do care for him, don’t you, Bro?”

“Izzy….” Farlan sighed over the phone. “So what are we going to do about the one outside our wards? We’re fine as long as we don’t leave them, right?”

“No,” Levi spat out. “They can break through them at any time and you won’t know a thing.” Fuck. *Fuck*.

Hange stopped glaring at Erwin long enough to give Levi a reassuring pat. “Yeah, but they haven’t done anything yet, have they? We said it’s a trap, and the thing about a trap is, you leave the bait out long enough to attract your prey.” She followed up the pat with a shake to his arm. “*Think*, Grumpy. Why is the shifter just sitting there watching? Why isn’t it all three of them? Why not take a hostage while they’re at it?” When he glared at her for the last question, she held up her hands. “Okay, enough hypothetical shit.”

“No, Hange’s right about this,” Erwin agreed as he once again seemed to be his evil, plotting self. “I should have thought about it when I realized we fought two shifters and not three. If they wanted to wipe out everyone who arrived to look into Dita’s silence, it would have been better if all three of them were there and *then* they could have gone after Isabel and Farlan. They wanted me to deliver the message, so they’re waiting to see what happens. We have some time.”

Levi tugged on his hair as he attempted to make his brain work; it was so difficult to step away from everything and put the pieces together when he was too involved, when part of him wanted to rush off to protect Isabel and Farlan and the rest of him wanted to be upstairs near Eren. “Fuck. So what do we do? We go running to the rescue, that’s putting Eren in their hands.”

Erwin nodded. “I’m willing to bet that they’re hoping to draw you, Eren’s strongest protector, away from him by a threat aimed at you. At the least, they’ve weakened our defenses even if Eren remains here, and we don’t know if there’s a way for them to use the bond between you to track him down if you fall into their hands.”

“Eh, what bond? What is he talking about?”

Levi ignored Isabel’s question. “That’s if they get their hands on me.” He summoned some of his magic to him before he remembered about Eren.

“Ahem.” Hange waved her hands between Erwin and Levi’s line of sight. “Don’t forget about the anti-ward potion Armin and I whipped up. Methinks that those bastards are in for a surprise, the next time we run into each other.” She smiled at them, an expression that had too much teeth in it to be pleasant.

Erwin nodded in acknowledgement. “Yes, so this is what I propose – Gunther and Erd, if you won’t mind, I believe I have a job for you.” The two of them stopped pretending to do their best to blend in with the woodwork and sat up, their attention focused on Erwin as he put together some nasty plot. “Hange will give you a couple of vials of the new potion, just in case, and you will go pick up Isabel and Farlan. Don’t bring them directly back here, I’ll have another safe house set up nearby where you can take them. Then we’ll see what happens.”

Levi grunted as he unclenched his hands and folded his arms over his chest. “You think those bastards are counting on us bringing them back here, don’t you?”

“I am willing to bet that they either expect you to go running off to save Isabel and Farlan, or for you to call them back to where you feel it’s safe, which is here, with Eren.” Erwin looked around the room and then shrugged. “Even if you don’t, they’ll still follow the two of them so they can force your hand at a later date. Sending Gunther and Erd to them will get them closer to us for protection and some of the anti-ward potion into their hands so it’ll be more even of a fight should the worst happen.”

“What does this potion do?” Farlan asked. “I’m following everything… well, most of it so far except for the potion part.”

“It breaks down this crystal shit they can create which lets them sneak past any wards as well as prevents you from landing a spell on them,” Levi explained. “Makes them fuck-all hard to fight, but the potion… it’s like throwing acid on them.” He wiped at his eyes as he remembered Eren’s reaction to it. “Eats through that ward and hurts like hell.”

“Well, that’s good.”

“Just keep in mind they might be shifted into a gryphon or a cockatrice or something just as improbable at the time,” Erwin warned.

“Well, that’s *not* good,” Farlan muttered, while Isabel said something about ‘burn those fuckers’. Levi had to smile at his sister’s spirit.

Meanwhile, Gunther had gotten up to put on a new pot of coffee while Erd came over to stand near Erwin. “When do you want us to leave?”

“I’m thinking the sooner the better.”

“Give us about half an hour to prepare and we’ll be on the road.” Then Erd ran a hand over his slicked-back hair. “Uhm, once you tell us where we’re going.”

Erwin smiled a little at the joke. “I can do that. Listen, Farlan, I want you and Isabel to start packing as well, don’t try to hide anything. I think it’s best if your observer sees that you’re going somewhere in case he’s in contact with the others – let them know that we’ve ‘taken the bait’ so to speak. If we’re correct, that’ll keep you safe while Erd and Gunther are on their way. Just do your best to collect anything that is tied to you and keep a watch over it, in case the shifter might try to sneak in and steal it.”

“That sneaky bastard!”

“Hush, Izzy. Damn, I didn’t think about that.” There was another weary sigh over the phone. “We’re going to have to torch the place, aren’t we?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Oh great, if Eren found out about this then Levi was *never* going to hear the end of it.

“Well, with luck the damn shifter will be in it when it goes up in flames,” Farlan grumbled, and Levi’s lips twitched to hear his friend’s familiar dark sense of optimism.

“Bah, it’s worth it when we get to see Levi again,” Isabel told her husband.

“I’m going to end this call now, do me a favor and wipe your phone,” Erwin ordered. “Gunther and Erd will contact you when they’re close, but we can’t take the risk of the shifter tracking this call.”

“Okay. Thanks for everything, and Levi, we *will* see you soon.” Farlan sounded determined about that.

“Yeah, Brother, no more avoiding us!”

Levi clicked his tongue as he shook his head. “Just don’t get yourselves killed,” he told them, right before Erwin ended the call.

The scent of coffee brewing was heavy in the air as Gunther and Erd moved about, busy gathering some supplies that would aid them during a long drive; Erwin was busy tapping on his phone, probably something to do with checking on the call or wiping traces of it. “Erd, see me before you leave so I can give you the address,” he called out to the water elemental.

“Okay.” Erd nodded once then turned toward Levi. “We’ll do everything we can to protect them, sir.”

“I know you will.” Levi had trained the two of them, and even if they were just half of his team, he knew the men were powerful and worked well together. “Be careful.”

“Yes, sir.” Erd nodded again before he left the room, probably to pack. Gunther finished putting some stuff in a small cooler and soon followed.

“Uh, what about me?” Petra asked as soon the coffee finished; she began to pour it into a thermos for her teammates.

“We still need some assistance here with the wards,” Erwin informed her. “Also, you’re the most skilled at air spells and it seems the shifters prefer to attack that way if they’re going to breach the wards.”

That seemed to appease her since she smiled. “Yes, I’ll work on strengthening them first thing in the morning, after I’m fully rested.” Resolve shone in her hazel eyes as she set the thermos aside. “I think I can put together something with Eren and Armin’s help.”

“Yeah, now that we got the anti-ward potion, it should help to reinforce our wards.” Hange rubbed her hands together as if in anticipation. “Sorry, Grumps, but we might just get to see some cute shifter tush after all, he’ll be breaking down that crystal stuff so much for us tomorrow.”

Levi scowled at the lunatic and nearly threw his empty mug at her as well. “You better not use him as a test subject again, or there will be one less target for those bastards.”

Hange laughed as she skirted around Erwin as if he’d protect her. “Aw, someone’s all tetchy since he’s been away from his snoogums for so long.” She laughed again when Levi made a choking sound. “I think he needs to go check on the cutie.”

“You may be right.” Erwin reached back to haul Hange out from behind him and then shoved her away. “Levi… go get some rest.” When Levi went to argue, Erwin held up his right hand, the phone still clutched in it. “No, go check up on Eren, all right?” There was some sympathy in his deep voice as he waved at the upper level. “We’ve done everything we can tonight, and I honestly believe that Isabel and Farlan are safe for now. That leaves Eren, so go make sure he’s fine.”

Levi was still for a moment before he clicked his tongue. “We’re not handing him over.” He wanted that fact to be perfectly clear, just in case it had been missed with all of the other stuff going on.

“No, we’re not.” Erwin stared off at the wall behind Levi, but Levi had the feeling that his friend was seeing something else just then, and it wasn’t good. “The shifters… they’re too powerful as is, right now. If we give them Eren… I’ve devoted my entire life trying to undo the unfair balance of power that already exists in our magical society.” He returned his gaze to Levi, his eyes lit up by an internal fire that had nothing to do with magical power. “I won’t let all that sacrifice and those made by our friends be in vain as something even worse takes its place.”

Of course Hange, the eternal devil’s advocate, had to say something just then. “But you’ll let Levi have access to that power?” She stood within reach of them both, a curious expression on her face as she removed her glasses to clean them with the hem of her sweatshirt.

“Hange!” Petra gasped as if offended by the question.

“You got a problem with me, shitty glasses?”

Hange smirked at Levi as she slipped on her glasses. “Not really, but I’m interested in finding out if Erwin does, now that you have the ultimate magical power source tucked up in your bed.”

Both of them turned their attention back at Erwin, who appeared more concerned with something on his phone than Hange’s question. “Levi? Not so much.” He sighed as he looked up. “Levi’s proven over time that power doesn’t concern him – there’s no way he’ll put it to use to take over everything because then he’d have to deal with people.” The right corner of Erwin’s mouth twitched as he spoke. “Too much of a hassle, and much too messy.”

And these people were his friends, Levi thought to himself as he gave Erwin the finger. “Fuck you, EB. I’m going to bed.”

Petra wished him a good night while Hange laughed, but Levi ignored them so he didn’t risk losing control of his temper and getting into a fight with Erwin. So what if he didn’t want to put up with any shit that went along with running things – he’d been happy with his quiet little home by the graveyard, the occasional mission and visit aside. If those Reiss bastards hadn’t have come along to ruin things, it would have been perfect.

When he reached his bedroom, he could feel Mikasa and Armin inside, their magic stronger than Eren’s. Forcing himself to take a deep breath and reminding himself that he was an adult and older than them by a century, he prepared himself for at least Mikasa’s shitty attitude and opened the door.

The overhead light was turned off in favor of the smaller one on the right nightstand as well as in the bathroom, and Mikasa was seated on the bed next to a sleeping Eren while Armin walked out of the bathroom a second or two after Levi entered the room.

“Ah, so you’re done with the plotting already,” Armin commented as he went over to the bed with a damp cloth in his hand, his tone polite but distant.

“Huh?” Levi blinked then shook his head. “We were drinking and talking about Mike and Nanaba.” There was no way that these two could have heard anything with Petra’s air ward up, and Erwin would have known if they had approached the kitchen.

“Yeah, whatever.” Armin didn’t seem to care, as his attention was directed at placing the cloth on Eren’s forehead.

“How is he?” Levi hurried to the bed, and had to go over to the other side since Mikasa and Armin were like a wall around Eren on the left; dammit, he knew they had grown up with his lover, but this was getting annoying. “He seems out of it.” Eren’s magic was the most ‘still’ that Levi had ever felt it.

Mikasa gave him a baleful look while Armin touched Eren’s face. “I slipped in a pretty strong sleeping draught when I gave him the potion to help with the pain,” Armin admitted. “I figured you weren’t anywhere near stable enough to keep your emotions or magic under control for the time being, and that’s the last thing he needed.” There was definite reproach in the alchemist’s voice and expression when he glanced at Levi. “He’s running a bit of a fever right now, which I think is a combination of him fighting with his magic to keep from draining us all dry and to burn off the draught.”

“He’s fighting himself because of you,” Mikasa pointed out, in case Levi hadn’t picked up on that. “Enough to hurt himself.” Her hands twisted in the blankets pulled up over her brother as if she was envisioning Levi’s neck between them. “You can’t keep doing this to him.” Her voice was haggard, and her eyes glowed with magic she must be fighting to control as well.

“I know!” Levi bit into his bottom lip as he struggled to keep his emotions in check, even if Eren was doped up as fuck. “How would you react if you heard that those bastards might have their hands on Eren, huh? Isabel and Farlan… they mean to me what you two mean to Eren,” he admitted with a voice gone rough. “I thought they were safe, that they were away from all this shit.” He reached out to comb his fingers through Eren’s sweat-damp hair. “So yeah, call it a fucking shock. I know better now.”

They both were quiet for what felt to be a minute or two while Levi stroked Eren’s hair, and then Armin sighed. “You know about the bond, and now you know how it can hurt Eren. I don’t think it’ll always be like that once the two of you… well, things like that need time. Eren needs time to learn how to block things, better control, stuff like that.” He sighed again as he smoothed the blankets over his friend’s chest. “Secrets don’t help, nor does stress.”

Levi scoffed as he palmed Eren’s cheek then frowned at the increased heat pouring off of his lover. “This whole shitty ordeal has been nothing but secrets and stress – it’s not going to get better until those bastards are dead.”

“He’s not even listening,” Mikasa muttered as she stood up. “Give my brother a break, all right? Start by *you* not stressing him out for a day, how about that?”

Levi wanted to tell her where to shove that attitude but she was already leaving, along with Armin, so he decided to just shut his mouth. As soon as they were out of the room, he went to the bathroom to get ready for bed, and after washing off and brushing his teeth, changed into a pair of pajama pants so he could climb into bed with his lover. Eren didn’t move at all, not even to do his usual clingy octopus impression, which just didn’t seem natural. Levi scooted closer and wondered if he should do something, maybe hold him close, and settled for draping his arm across Eren’s chest.

He could feel the heat radiating from his lover, and he could feel the magic resting inside as if waiting to be unleashed. “Huh, maybe your friend is on to something if this keeps you to your side of the bed,” he teased as he felt a sense of peace now that it was just the two of them. He still had to make amends for earlier and they had to figure out how to rescue Isabel and Farlan… but for now, somehow things seemed all right. Hoping that they would at least remain like that until morning, Levi allowed himself to fall asleep.

*******

Eren lay in bed with Levi sprawled out beside him, a faint snore along with a sense of exhaustion and peace he felt letting him know that Levi was fast asleep. He probably didn’t have much time since his lover was a light sleeper, so Eren began to shift ever so slowly, mindful with his talent so that his magic didn’t react too strongly and wake up Levi. As soon as he’d become small enough that there shouldn’t be a noticeable change in the sheets or weight on the mattress, he shifted into a large cat-like form and then wiggled slowly out of his clothes and the bedding.

Once his paws hit the floor, he padded toward the door, only shifting as he neared the chair where someone, Armin from the smell of it, had thrown his now clean robe. He picked it up but waited until he was outside to pull it on, too busy opening and closing the door as quietly as possible. It wasn’t until he was in the hallway and the door was closed that he dared to let out a full breath, Levi still asleep and not suspecting a thing.

So, he had one robe in his possession. What he really needed was to get downstairs and grab a few vials of the potion Armin had whipped up along with some sort of pouch to carry them in while he either flew or ran, since clothes weren’t a problem while he wore either fur or feathers. When he reached some sort of civilization then he’d have to figure something out, but he could always wait until nightfall and steal stuff. Hell, since wards were no longer a problem, the potential targets for him to break into were now doubled.

Mindful that someone might be up on patrol, Eren crept down the steps and toward the kitchen, the robe tied loosely shut around him in case he had to shift at any second. Get the potions, get something to put them in, maybe grab a quick bite since it would be best to travel all night, and then get the hell out of here. There was a pain in his chest at the thought of leaving Mikasa and Armin behind again, at leaving- no, just do what needed to be done, he told himself as he reached the kitchen. The potions should be stored in the laundry room, where he’d seen Armin put them right before dinner. They should-

The brush of familiar magic was the only warning he had before the lights went on.

“You know, I really, *really* was hoping you wouldn’t be this stupid,” Armin said from his spot on the kitchen counter, near the sink.

Meanwhile, Mikasa stood in front of the laundry door as if blocking Eren’s path, a furious look on her face. “Of course he’d do it, he had that same expression as back when you got hurt.”

“Well, I was sorta out of it back then, blood loss and all.”

Eren glared at the two of them as he tugged on the overlong belt of his robe and attempted to bluff his way out of this mess. “What are you going on about? I’m… I’m just here to get something to eat!”

Mikasa scoffed and shook her head. “Your ears always turn red when you lie, you do know that, right?”

Dammit, he always forgot about that. “And you two are paranoid,” he grumbled as he moved away from the door – he needed to get them out of here and fast, before someone – before *Levi* - woke up. “I just… I’m hungry, that’s all.”

“Yeah, sure you are. Probably want to make sure you have something to eat before you… hmm, fly? I bet you were planning on flying, considering how high up we are in the mountains.” Armin nodded as he jumped off of the counter, dressed in jeans and a warm sweater. “Flying all night would take a lot of energy, especially if you’re carrying something.”

“Something like supplies,” Mikasa added. She clenched her hands into fists as she stared at Eren, something akin to pain in her lovely dark eyes. “You really were planning on leaving us again?”

Eren jerked his hands through his hair as he debated if he should continue lying, and then let out a shaky breath. “They’re killing people, Mikasa. *Killing them*. How much longer until they track us down? I don’t….” Eren struggled to control himself before his magic did something he’d regret. “I don’t want to lose you.”

She pushed away from the door so she could grab onto his hands. “You *idiot*, so you think it’s better if you walk away from us? Abandon us?” Tears sparkled in her eyes. “As if that wouldn’t kill us as well, you leaving us again?”

He shook his head as the pain stabbed at his chest once more, as emotions caused a prickling sensation in the back of his throat. “They want *me*. If I go away, they’ll come after me and not you. So you’ll be safe then, that’s all that matters.” He started when he felt Armin touch his hair.

“So what, you thought you’d take the potion and fight them? That you’d win? Eren… even with the potion it’s three against one, four if you count that necromancer. It’s not the best odds.”

Eren pulled his right hand free so he could wipe at his wet eyes – when had he started crying? “It’s better than doing nothing! It’s better than just hiding here while they kill people because of me!” He had to shake his head and struggle with his emotions, with the anger and guilt and fear that threatened to let his control over his magic break. “They won’t expect it,” he tried to explain. “They won’t expect me to come for them, and they won’t expect the potion.” A small, wry laugh escaped him as he gazed at his sister and best friend. “No, I’m probably supposed to be given to them, right?” There was another sting of tears at the way that Armin’s mouth tightened and Mikasa’s hand clutched at his with enough strength to hurt. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

“What makes you say that?”

Eren shook his head at Armin’s question. “Erwin didn’t want me there when he came back, and you don’t have to be a genius to tell that Mike and Nanaba… that all those people are dying because of me. That they’ll keep dying because of me.” He took a shuddering breath and pressed his hand against his eyes as he thought about how safe he’d felt at Levi’s house at first… and how it had all changed because of what he was. “It’s why I have to leave.”

Armin sighed as he gave Eren a hug and then looked at Mikasa. “We know they’re holding something back from us – not once did Levi ask if Erwin brought back anything for him to use his magic on, and things got too quiet when we took you upstairs.”

“You can tell when an air ward is being used for silence,” Mikasa agreed. “Not enough background noise.”

“Yes, so they are plotting something and don’t want us to know.” Armin chewed on his bottom lip while he glanced at the laundry room. “I’m willing to bet it has something to do with you and with Levi’s sister and brother-in-law.”

“Who I didn’t even know about.” A fresh wave of bitterness rose up in Eren as he thought about this ‘Isabel’ and ‘Farlan; yes, he hadn’t tried to pry too much into Levi’s past, but he’d at least told his lover about Mikasa and Armin, about the important people in *his* life. How come Levi couldn’t do the same? Had the trust only been on Eren’s side? “I think we know who’s more important.” Dammit, that caused another stab of pain.

Mikasa tugged him against her side and ran a hand along his arm in an attempt to soothe. “I won’t let him use you like that!”

“Neither of us will,” Armin agreed, then let out a slow breath as if he was trying to remain calm. “That’s why we agreed that if there’s going to be any running away, *we* are going to do it, the three of us.”

Eren blinked in shock at his friend’s words, and it began to sink in that the jeans that Armin was wearing, that Mikasa was wearing as well, were thick and meant for warmth and protection and not just comfort, along with their sweaters. That they had on rugged boots as well. “Uhm… but-“

“No ‘buts’,” Mikasa warned him with the tone she reserved for when she was tired of being argued with. “You left us behind before and look at the mess you ended up in.”

Yeah, kind of difficult to argue with that, Eren told himself as he winced. “I didn’t want to put you in danger,” he insisted.

“That might have been true before, but now we have the potion,” Armin reminded Eren with a slight smile on his face as he stepped away. “And with the three of us, it evens the odds – especially since Mikasa now knows she’s a necromancer.”

“But what if- ow!” Eren rubbed at his sore ribs, which Mikasa had just smacked. “Okay, fine, I get it, I’m not leaving without you.” He had some doubts about this whole plan, but yeah, short of him knocking out the two of them, which face it, *not* going to happen, they weren’t allowing him to leave alone. “How are we getting you past the wards?”

“You are,” Armin told him, and then stepped inside the laundry room. While Eren tried to figure out how he was slipping two adults past a series of magical wards, Armin came back into the room busy shoving several vials into his bag. “You just have to shift into a large enough shape with the two of us on your back and then cover us with your crystal ward. Probably won’t be pleasant for Mikasa and me, but it should work as long as we’re in close contact with you.”

‘Should’. Yeah, that was encouraging. Oh well, worse come to worst, Eren could change into a drake or a dragon and fly off real quick if they set off the wards. “You are my hero,” he muttered as they made to leave the kitchen.

“Then I shouldn’t bother with the clothes I packed for you, huh?” Armin smirked. “Or the snacks?”

Eren decided it was best if he just shut up and let his friend win this round; it didn’t help that Mikasa was smiling as if highly amused. “Let’s get your coats,” he told them with a weary sigh.

Considering the way the night was going, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when they crossed the foyer and found Hange sitting on the steps near the front door, a bit sleepy with her hair a rat’s nest and dressed in a robe even more worn than the one Eren was currently wearing. “Oh wow, all three of you? Armin, you’re breaking my heart.”

Mikasa shoved Eren behind her as threads trailed from her hands. “Just go back to bed.”

“Sorry, but I’m not going to sit here and watch you make the biggest mistake of your lives.” Hange pushed her glasses up with her right hand while her left hand, which had been tucked into the pocket of her robe, pulled out her phone. While Mikasa hissed and lashed out with her threads, the phone lit up and a piercing alarm went off.

“Dammit!” Mikasa’s threads knocked the phone aside with enough force that it shattered against the floor, while Eren grabbed at his friends and shifted into a bigger, stronger form. Fuck the wards, all he had to do was get them through the door and then shift into a form large enough to carry them away, far enough that Levi and the others couldn’t follow. He had almost reached the front door when a wall of hellfire blocked off access to it; he could still go through it with his crystal ward, but Mikasa and Armin couldn’t.

Armin let out a string of curses as he pulled something out of his pouch and threw it at the fire, which caused the blue flames to sputter out and begin to die. Yet before they could leap through the door, a force of cold and madness battered into them and drove them back into the foyer, knocked them off of their feet and sent them sliding across the stone floor.

“No you don’t!” Mikasa shouted as she rose up on her knees, her eyes shining pure silver and her hands held up as the poltergeists were pushed back enough to allow Eren to catch his breath and Armin to moan as he grabbed at his bag. Growling with a sudden fury when Mikasa let out a breathy gasp as she was toppled over, Eren began to shift, to let the rage and madness take over, to draw all the magic around to him and-

“Stop it!”

There was a touch, a hand on the nape of his neck, was anger and disappointment and fear and possessiveness and… and…

There was magic, cool and powerful and so familiar, so soothing and comforting.

Eren shook his head and sat down on his haunches with his tail curled around his hooves and paws as he attempted to figure out what was happening. He craned his long neck up and around to look at Levi touching him, then at Hange, Erwin and Petra standing a few feet away from a wary Mikasa and Armin before he whined.

“Brat… what the fuck are you?”

Armin groaned as he stood on his feet, his motions a little unsteady, and dusted off his hands. “That’s his chimera form. We tried it with the traditional three heads once, but he said it’s confusing, having three sets of eyes.”

“Wow, no wonder poor Mike and Nanaba didn’t stand a chance against those assholes.” Hange gaped in wonder at Eren as she took a cautious step forward, her expression hardening when Mikasa lunged into her path. “I just want to take a closer look at him.”

“Don’t-“

“Let her be,” Armin urged Mikasa as he placed a hand on her arm. “I doubt she’s going to do anything.”

“Like what, keep us trapped here?”

“More like keep the three of you from trying to kill yourselves!” Levi snapped, and his anger burned into Eren, prompting a painful hiss to snake out of his mouth, along with his reptilian tongue. He shook his draconian-shaped head back and forth a couple of times before he began to shift back into his human form.

“Aw, I wanted to study him a little longer! That was so fascinating, the meld of-“

“Give me your shitty robe,” Levi barked at Hange while he held out his left hand, his right still hovering around Eren as if to touch or latch on at any moment.

“Yeah, yeah, spoil the view, why don’t you.” Hange shrugged out of the garment and tossed it to him, leaving her standing there in a tank top and pajama pants. “And don’t think we’ve forgotten about you two, too.” She waggled her finger at Armin and Mikasa.

“Perish the thought,” Armin muttered as he set his back against the paneled wall of the staircase and slumped down a little as if exhausted. “Just had to wake up and check on us, didn’t you? I didn’t sense any wards.”

Hange made a scoffing sound as she watched Levi basically cram Eren into the robe with a little too much attention for Eren’s comfort – it was bad enough he was being treated like a child by his lover. A very, *very* furious lover. “Puh-lease, I remembered about Eren pulling a rabbit on you guys before, so I wondered if he’d do it again. Thought maybe Mikasa would tag along, but not all three of you.”

Eren felt Levi’s temper flare even hotter and winced at the sharp emotion, made to sidle away but got dragged closer to his lover for his efforts. “Wait – you suspected what these dumb fucks were going to do and didn’t say anything? I really should just shred your shitty soul right now!”

Even Erwin appeared rather pissed off just then. “I have to say, I’m a bit irate myself.” He folded his arms over his muscular chest and scowled at Hange, still appearing rather impressive despite the ruffled blond hair and like Levi was only wearing a pair of pajama bottoms, his pale blue instead of black – or maybe because of all that. “What if they’d managed to slip past you?”

Hange waved aside her friends’ concerns and tempers. “Right, that wasn’t going to happen, I warded the doors.”

“And if they hadn’t gone for the doors? If they went for a window?”

Hange made a low growl of frustration. “It doesn’t matter, they’re still here!”

“For now,” Mikasa snapped. “Or are you keeping us prisoner?” She turned to glare at Levi. “Are we your captives? Or just Eren?”

“No one is a prisoner,” Erwin insisted, his tone sharp and more than a little frazzled. “What makes you think that?”

“Maybe the fact that we were attacked when we tried to leave?” Armin pointed out.

“You were sneaking out in the middle of the damn night! That’s suspicious as fuck – of course we’re not going to wake up and be all friendly about things,” Levi argued.

“Not to mention that I’m willing to bet you have something very valuable in your possession.” Erwin combed his fingers through his hair as if in an attempt to restore it to order. “Did you take all of the potion with you?”

A hint of red spread across Armin’s cheeks yet he met Erwin’s gaze head on. “Not all of it, and it’s *my* potion to begin with – my potion and Eren’s. You wouldn’t have it in the first place without us.”

“I see.” Erwin bowed his head for a moment. “So what, the three of you were planning on leaving us and facing the other shifters on your own?” Eren grit his teeth as Levi’s hand on his arm tightened at the question. “You feel that is a wise course of action?”

Mikasa snorted as she fussed with the scarf hanging loose around her neck. “It’s clear that they’re coming for Eren one way or another. At least this way we meet them on *our* terms, not theirs… and not *yours*.”

“And what the fuck is that supposed to mean, eh?” Levi twisted about enough to face Mikasa. “What difference is there between ‘our’ and ‘yours’?”

Eren responded before his sister could, the bitterness that had been building inside of him ever since he’d heard about Isabel and Farlan spilling free. “Before you can hand me over for *your* fucking family,” he spat out. “*My* family is going to do something about them, is going to stop the… the killing.” His chest heaved as he struggled to breathe, to get air past all of the powerful, painful emotions that threatened to constrict it, the hurt and the shock and the confusion that battered at him, inside and out.

“Oh… Eren-honey, you really think that?”

“Sir?”

Levi stared down at him with grey eyes gone wide and that awful, potent shock pouring out, and then those eyes narrowed and Eren found himself all but picked up. “Don’t disturb us,” Levi barked out over Eren’s startled yelp as he headed up the stairs with Eren slung over his shoulders.

“Eren!”

“Ah, let them go this time,” Armin urged, while Eren could see large feet, probably Erwin’s, hurry to step aside.

“And shove some fucking clues into those two idiots’ heads!” Levi shouted as he all but ran up the stairs, seemingly unburdened by Eren’s weight. “Bunch of dumb, clueless fucks!”

Stunned by Levi’s actions and emotions, Eren was still for about a minute and then started to kick his feet. “Put me down!”

“Once we get to our room.” Levi smacked Eren hard on the ass, and then again when Eren began to shift. “Behave, or I will drop you on your head.”

“You’re such an asshole!”

“Yeah, it’s clear you really do think that.” Levi’s temper spiked just then, and a few seconds later they were in the room; Eren was thrown onto the bed where he bounced about while Levi locked and warded the door. “Now, start talking about that ‘asshole’ part.”

“You – oh!” Eren sputtered as he tucked the robe around him and attempted to get his thoughts in order; it was difficult to think straight with Levi’s emotions so potent and magic all but filling the room. “Just let me go!”

“No.” Levi dragged the chair from the desk across the room over to the bed and sat down on it with his legs crossed, as if he was conducting an interview or something equally banal instead of an interrogation. “You’re stuck here, deal with it.”

“Why?” Eren bared his teeth as he punched his hands onto the soft bed. “Need me to exchange for your sis-“

He never got to finish that, because Levi was out of the chair and looming over him, his right hand cupped around the back of Eren’s neck and his left pressed gently against Eren’s mouth. “I don’t *ever* want to hear you say that again, *ever*. I’m not handing you over to those bastards!” There was a punishing wave of fury, possessiveness and pain as Levi first pulled Eren against him and then pushed away. “Dammit, why would you ever think that?” Why would- shit!” He climbed onto the bed to grasp at Eren as Eren closed his eyes and fought against the pain and nausea that tore at him because of the emotions lashing inside of his head, everything jagged and sharp and too much to bear.

“When the hell are you going to learn to filter this shit?” Levi’s deep voice now sounded almost plaintive as he leaned back against the headboard with his legs stretched out and Eren held against his chest, his hands combing through Eren’s hair as if to soothe away the pain.

“Not… soon enough.” Eren sighed as the emotions over the link ‘smoothed’ out, the anger fading into guilt, apprehension and affection. “Hmm, nice.”

“Of course it is, this is better than you getting your ass kicked.” Levi clicked his tongue yet continued to play with Eren’s hair, and things were quiet for a couple of minutes; Eren could hear his lover’s heartbeat from where his head rested against Levi’s chest. “Why the fuck do you think I’m going to betray you?”

Upset at both the pain he felt from Levi and at being disturbed when things were so quiet, Eren attempted to shake his head but couldn’t both because of how it hurt and Levi’s hold on it. “Because.”

When nothing else followed after about a minute, Levi gave a sharp tug to Eren’s hair. “Not good enough – tell me why.”

Whining a little at having to explain when things were comfortable, Eren closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around Levi’s waist. “You… you never said anything about them.” He frowned when he heard his lover’s heartbeat hasten and felt a stronger pulse of magic.

“You mean Isabel and Farlan?”

“Yeah.” Eren rubbed his cheek against Levi’s warm, muscular chest and wondered how much longer he’d be able to enjoy something like this, and frowned at the pain that thought raised. “Nothing at all, and then Erwin said their names and… you were so mad, so angry and afraid and….” He shook his head. “It was all your magic and your emotions, and I knew you’d do anything to get them back. And when Erwin wouldn’t look at me… well, I’m that ‘anything’, right?” The person Levi couldn’t even confide in.

“Br- *Eren*.” Levi’s hands cupped Eren’s face and made him tilt it up, then stroked below Eren’s eyes with his thumbs until Eren opened them. “I’m not giving you up.” He leaned forward until their foreheads were touching, his eyes intent upon Eren’s. “How the *fuck* can you sense my emotions and for one possible second imagine I’d do a thing like that?”

Some of Eren’s anger and sense of betrayal wavered at the hurt and possessiveness he felt over the link, along with that potent, searing emotion. “But… you… there was so much emotion, so much anger and you’re hiding something, you and Erwin.”

“Dammit, I need to kick his ass.” Levi sighed as he hauled Eren in closer and let go of his face to wrap his arms around Eren’s waist as if to keep him there. “Look, you’re right about us hiding something.” For a moment it appeared as if Levi debated something internally before he clicked his tongue. “Don’t lose your shit over this, okay?” When Eren glared at that, Levi gave him a smack on the ass. “Don’t argue, because tonight is *all* about you losing your shit.”

“It’s about me being proacti-ow!” Eren bared his teeth and shifted a pair of claws that he set against the asshole’s chest – which Levi ignored for some reason. “Fine.”

“And don’t pout.” A hint of a smile hovered on Levi’s lips before he let out a slow breath, his right hand skimming along Eren’s back to rest on the nape of his neck. “You’re right on one thing – those bastards did tell Erwin that they’ll keep killing our people until he hands you over to them. That’s what he didn’t want you hear.”

Eren stared at his lover as the words sunk in; even if he’d suspected them, if he’d been prepared to run away to spare more people dying for him, it still was an almost physical blow to know that more people would be sacrificed for him. “You… you have to let me go!”

Levi’s hand and arm tightened on him, and for some reason it was so difficult to fight against them. “No! Dammit, *think*! They want you to run, to leave behind the best protection you’ve ever had!” Levi dragged Eren toward him and gave him a kiss, one that caught him off guard both with its suddenness and passion, one that flooded him with emotions other than the guilt and panic that he felt until he began to settle down. “Think,” Levi whispered as he pulled away.

“I don’t want people dying because of me,” Eren whispered back as he rested his head against his lover’s shoulder. “I’m not worth it.”

“That’s for other people to decide, Eren. Don’t throw away their choice because you can’t see any value in either yourself or what they choose to believe in.” Levi clicked his tongue as he rubbed at Eren’s nape. “It’s our choice,” he repeated.

Eren didn’t want to lose Levi, or Mikasa or Armin. He didn’t want to lose the people downstairs who had become friends. “What about… what about Isabel and Farlan? Did they choose this?”

He felt a flash of pain from Levi, followed by affection. “Isabel will tell you not to fight her fights, thank you very much, while Farlan… he’ll see why it’s worthwhile. And don’t count them among the dead just yet, Erwin’s got a plan and it’s a good one.” Levi was quiet for a few seconds as his hand continued to rub. “I didn’t tell you about them because yet… well, it’s just what I’m used to, not talking about them. After Kenny ran off… I wasn’t in a good place, literally and figuratively.” He let out a slow chuckle, the sound a touch sad, as he continued to massage Eren’s neck. “I fell in with those two and… things got better. Farlan and I looked after Isabel, who was such a fucking brat at times.” His fingers dug into the hair above Eren’s nape and gave it a gentle tug. “I think the two of you will get along, you’re too fucking much alike.”

“Wait, I’m like your sister?” Eren gently scraped his claws against Levi’s bare chest. “Uhm… thanks?”

He winced when the comment got his hair tugged again, this time harder. “You know what I mean, you damn brat.” Levi rolled his eyes and clicked his tongue before he continued. “Isabel’s able to command air and fire – she has dual magic, like your sister. Seems there’s djinn blood in her, so that makes her valuable as fuck if anyone finds that out.” Levi’s smile faded away and he stared off at nothing for a few seconds. “Farlan and I did whatever we could to protect her, but it wasn’t easy, especially with everyone wanting me dead. So he took on a job to kill a pain in the ass mage that would have gotten us enough money to start new lives.” Levi fell silent again, but his emotions were a mix of amusement and sadness.

Eren gave his lover’s chest another gentle scratch before he shifted his hands back to normal. “What was the job?”

“To kill Erwin.” At Eren’s gasp of surprise, Levi smirked. “Yeah, you can see how well that went. Couldn’t kill the bastard, but he made me a deal – join up with him and he would hide Isabel and Farlan away, make sure that none of the other organizations out there would ever bother them again. He’s kept his word this entire time, too, until now.”

Eren pulled back a little as he glanced over his shoulder at the door before returning his attention back on his lover. “So what, he’s been hiding them?”

“Yeah. Had some friends help teach them to use their magic and gave them new identities, then set them up someplace where they could live in peace.” Levi’s emotions and expression became darker as he talked. “Dita, the guy who got killed along with Mike and Nanaba, he used to carry letters back and forth between the three of us, that’s the only contact I’ve had with them over the last few decades. It’s the safest thing for Isabel and Farlan, really, considering what I am and what I do for a living.” He paused for a few seconds and reached out to brush the back of his fingers along Eren’s right cheek. “I didn’t see the point in telling you about them right away because it wasn’t like you’d ever get to meet them. I never was planning on seeing them again, all I do is exchange letters every few months. As it is, only a few people know about them.”

From what Eren could tell, Levi was being earnest about this; he bit into his bottom lip as he tried to make sense out of everything. “Yeah, but now they’re in danger. You want to save them, don’t you? What if- aow! Dammit, stop that!” He glared at Levi for once again tugging on his hair. “Bad as those flicks,” he mumbled.

“Whatever works to get your attention,” Levi told him, his emotions rather smug at the moment before turning serious again. “Like I said, it’s a fucking trap, all right? I can see that now that the shock’s worn off. Erwin’s got a plan to keep them safe and not put you in danger, which is what matters.” He let out a slow breath as he hauled Eren in close. “Yeah, I lost it when I heard that those bastards had found my sister and brother-in-law, but I never once considered handing you over to them.”

Eren closed his eyes as he focused on the feel of Levi’s magic and emotions, as he tried to make sense of everything. “I don’t… it gets so confusing, at times. I’m tired of people dying for me. I’m tired of them being hurt because of me. And it just feels as if… as if I’m fucking up your life.” Fucking up everyone’s life at times, but Levi’s in particular.

Levi snorted as he hugged Eren against him. “Wasn’t much of a life to fuck up in the first place.”

“Still-“

“Brat… just shut up, okay?” Levi followed it up with an ear flick that made Eren laugh despite the annoyance of it all. “It’s my life, and if I say it’s actually better now with you clinging to me and making a mess out of reading my emotions, then it is.”

“Not clinging to you,” Eren grumbled even as he tucked himself even tighter against Levi. “You’re just… comfy.”

“And you’re delusional.” Levi sighed as he fumbled about and then tugged on the blankets. “And if you think you can just hightail it out of here on your own, I will *kick* your delusional ass so fucking hard your colon will be up where your tonsils usually are.”

“Oh, wow.” Eren tilted his head back enough so he could frown at his lover. “I let you kiss me with that mouth?”

Levi smiled as he tucked the blankets around Eren’s shoulders. “You let me do a lot of things to you with this mouth.”

Well, that was true, Eren thought as he glanced aside, while the asshole chuckled as amusement and desire washed into him. “Still think it was a decent plan – I could have taken them by surprise.”

“The only surprise would have been you lasting more than a minute against them.” Levi flicked him again before shifting them both farther down the bed. “How many times do I have to say ‘trap’ until you understand the concept? Now shut up and get some sleep, I can tell from the annoying whine in your voice and the way you’re squinting that your head hurts. Get some fucking sleep and tomorrow we’ll ask that genius friend of yours and the lunatic to figure out how the hell you can start filtering my emotions a bit better – you sure as hell aren’t paying attention to them.”

“I do too pay attention to them,” Eren grumbled as he curled up at Levi’s side on the bed. “Think the problem is that I pay too much attention.” He did some flicking of his own, right to the center of Levi’s impressive chest. “Not like you talk much.”

Levi caught his hand and trapped it against his chest. “This is me talking now – sleep, or else.”

“So mean.” Eren curled up a little more to soak up Levi’s magic, which helped with his headache now that his lover’s emotions had calmed down.

“You damn well know it.” There was a flare of magic as Levi used a spirit to turn off the lights, then the blankets were pulled up a little higher.

Eren was just about to fall asleep, all relaxed now that he was in bed with Levi, with a sense of protectiveness, affection and sleepiness in his head and magic around him, when he jerked away. “Uhm, Mikasa and Armin? Ow!” He glared as he rubbed his sore ear.

“I’m sure other than getting chewed out a bit for not smacking you down instantly for being a blithering idiot, they’re fine.” Levi shoved Eren’s head back down onto his shoulder. “If I have to tell you to go to sleep one more time, I’m having a revenant sit on your head.”

“Gee, why the hell would I want to run away,” Eren muttered as he squirmed a little closer.

“Brat….”

“Good night!”

“Damn right,” Levi muttered as he rested his hand on Eren’s hip, annoyance fading into amusement. Eren closed his eyes and let the soothing emotions carry him back under again.

*******

Armin gave Mikasa’s arm another tug. “Eren should be fine.” He might not be able to sense emotions like Eren, but that had looked like genuine hurt and shock on Levi’s face to him, the few seconds the necromancer had been open enough to show them before anger had taken over.

Mikasa shook off his hand. “What if he hurts Eren again? What if he-“ She glanced aside at Erwin and Hange who were standing nearby and clamped her lips together as if worried about saying too much.

However, it appeared as if Erwin at least had caught on to that. “’What if’ what?” He arched a thick eyebrow and gave her a rather patronizing smile. “What are you so worried about that you felt it safest to run away in the middle of the night when you know that three very powerful shifters are tearing apart the magic community to get their hands on your brother?” The smile turned into a grim expression. “And I mean that in the most literal sense since I saw them do just that to two very dear friends.”

Mikasa huffed as she took a step back to come stand at Armin’s side. “What do you care? It just speeds things up if we leave, doesn’t it?” She gripped onto the ends of her scarf as if to keep her hands from lashing out, to keep her magic in check.

Erwin sighed while Hange shook her head, and across the large open room it looked as if Petra was torn between crying and yelling at them. “You honestly believe that we are going to betray you?”

Armin tugged his leather bag to rest against his stomach and shrugged. “You’re keeping secrets from us and acting unusual, Gunther and Erd have disappeared… how do you think we’re going to react?”

Hange was quiet for a couple of seconds and then laughed as she went over to the fireplace, while Erwin began to shake his head. “I… believe that I have seriously underestimated you.” He gave Armin a rather formal bow, which confused Armin and made Mikasa go stiff. “One would think that we would be used to how magic slows the aging process and not take one of our own kind at face value, but I have to admit, I tend to forget that all of you are older than you appear.” Erwin sighed again as he stood up straight. “I also didn’t realize we gave you so many reasons to distrust us.”

“Or at least a reason to not check with us first before you decided to rabbit,” Hange added as she began to start a fire.

Armin shrugged again as he urged Mikasa over to one of the couches: it looked like this might take a while so they might as well get comfortable. She resisted at first, probably because they were moving farther away from Eren, and then huffed before she went along with him.

“What are we supposed to think when people we’ve only known for little more than a week start acting weird, not using their magic to find out information when friends are in danger but to prevent us from overhearing whatever they’re saying?” Armin tapped the fingers of his right hand against his ear while he stared at Petra.

In the process of curling up on the opposite couch, she gasped and glanced at Erwin. “You knew I put up an air ward?”

Mikasa grunted and tugged on her scarf. “We were on the run for ten years, you think we can’t recognize one? It got too quiet down here for six people being in one room together, especially in a space this large.”

Now Petra appeared rather chagrined. “I… didn’t think about that, dammit. I need to work on that next time.”

“Yes, well, there’s still the issue that you discussed something you obviously didn’t want us to hear.” Armin sat forward with his bag held on his lap. “We’re here *now*. Tell us why we should stay.” Beside him, Mikasa nodded, her body tense as if ready to jump up and go fetch Eren at any moment.

“Even if leaving means you face the other shifters alone?”

“Yes – you said you underestimated us before, perhaps you’re doing it again,” Armin reminded Erwin.

“Or perhaps you’re doing exactly what they want you to do,” Erwin reminded *him* before waving aside the comment. “Look, I think we can agree that it’s a trap, and the extent of which is what we were trying to hide from you, which I can see might have been a mistake.” He pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment before he glanced at Hange, who shrugged. “I didn’t want the two of you to overhear the fact that one of the shifters told me that they would keep killing my people until we handed over Eren to them – in part because of a reaction like this.”

Ah, so that was it; Armin sat back in the couch while Mikasa appeared ready to strangle someone with her scarf. Meanwhile, Erwin was once more gazing at them with an arched eyebrow while Hange urged Petra to hand over a blanket. “You don’t appear very surprised to hear that.”

Armin dug the fingernail of his right thumb into the leather of his bag. “They let you, the apparent leader of your group, survive and come back to us, when it would have been most logical to wipe out all three of you if they really wanted to hurt your group. If you look at their past actions, they’ve killed everyone and left the bodies behind to serve as a warning and all the message they wanted to leave, so something was different about this time. The only thing I could think of is that they wanted you to tell your people something… and to be able to make a decision.” He nodded in the direction of the stairs – where Eren had gone. “That most likely would be to order Levi, one of your own men, to hand over Eren.”

It grew quiet save for the crackling of the fire as Erwin gaped at him in open amazement and Hange, huddled beneath a blanket shared with Petra, began to laugh. “Oh, watch out, he’s after your title of ‘crafty bastard’!”

Erwin snapped his mouth shut and shook his head. “I think at this point he can have it.” He gave Armin an appreciative smile before turning toward Mikasa. “Is he always this scary?”

She scoffed as she reached out to tuck back a stray lock of Armin’s hair. “This? This is nothing.” There was a slight smile on her face which morphed into a scowl as she looked back over at the other couch. “Where are Gunther and Erd? Why did you send them away?”

Hange stopped laughing and pushed her glasses up from where they had slid down her nose. “To go help out Isabel and Farlan – Erwin wasn’t kidding when he said that it’s all one big trap, and he thinks he has a plan to turn it around on those bastards.” She gave them a narrow look. “A plan that doesn’t involve handing over your brother, if you’ve missed that part. As if Levi would ever let that happen.” She rolled her eyes before tugging up the blanket to her chin.

Beside her, Petra nodded. “You have to believe us – he won’t let anything harm your brother. Isabel and Farlan mean a lot to him, but I’ve never seen him care about anyone like he does Eren.”

“He barely knows Eren,” Mikasa grumbled, but she did appear a little mollified since she left off twisting at her scarf to fold her hands on her lap. “And what if the other shifters attack this… this family of his?”

“I think we’ll have a couple of days grace while they wait to see what we do, if Levi races off to save them or brings them to where he’s hiding Eren.” Erwin paused and nodded at Armin as if asking for his opinion, and after thinking about it, Armin nodded back in agreement. “That buys us a little time, during which we’ll come up with a plan to turn the tables on them.”

“We should factor in for the bare minimum of time,” Armin advised. “I think they’re getting desperate, and they won’t like not seeing Levi. But it’s clear they believe they have the advantage of strength in their favor. Now that we can break through their wards, we can take some of that advantage away.”

“Yes – and we have to hope they’re not hiding any other advantages.” Erwin got up from the couch and went over to the fireplace to throw in some more wood. “So that’s why we need your help, and for you to stay.”

Armin turned to look at Mikasa, who then glanced up at the second floor, her lips pressed together. “As long as Eren wants to stay,” she decided for them.

“Huh, considering that he’s still up there, I think Levi managed to make his case,” Hange remarked – and for her sake, she said it without any unnecessary innuendo for once. “Who would have thunk it, Levi can woo.” She yelped when Petra smacked her beneath the blanket.

“He’s not completely hopeless,” the air mage muttered, then seemed to reconsider it. “Well, when it really matters.”

Armin groaned as he stood up from the couch. “Just remember to keep us – all three of us – appraised of *everything* from now on.”

“Trust me, I think you’ll find that you’ll be included in all of the decision-making from this point forward,” Erwin agreed. “Good night.”

Well, at least they wouldn’t have to spend what remained of the night on the run, Armin told himself as they headed upstairs. He suspected that the wards on the doors would remain up ‘just in case’, and that Levi was probably going to rather overbearing with Eren for the next day or two, which meant Mikasa wasn’t going to be in a good mood. Still, even if he had been willing to stand by his friends to the bitter end, their chances were better with allies than without. He just hoped that his instincts were correct and that Erwin hadn’t been lying just now, that everything hadn’t been explained away too neatly. Maybe being on the run so long meant that he and Mikasa weren’t quite so willing to trust just yet – Eren’s emphatic ability would help… but yeah, he wasn’t about to barge into a powerful necromancer’s room and drag out the man’s boyfriend. Not when the two appeared to be in the process of making up.

“When this is all over, I just want… oh, I don’t know, a year’s vacation somewhere,” he told Mikasa as they headed to their room. “Maybe at the beach somewhere, or a tropical island in the middle of the ocean.”

She scoffed and gave his back a gentle rub. “You’d be bored out of your mind within a month.”

“Yeah, but it would be so *nice*, knowing what bored feels like.”

“One day,” she promised him.

“Yeah, one day.” Until then, he could look forward to how happy Eren would be when he told him that he would need to make more anti-ward potion tomorrow.

It was the little things in life.

*******

Bertolt’s whiskers twitched as he paused in the shadows to make sure that the two mages were occupied and hadn’t felt a thing when he’d crept into the house and past the wards; the bundle looped around his neck was small, small enough that it shouldn’t have set off the wards but now wasn’t the time to take anything for granted. It was clear from the air ward that had been up since earlier that day that they had noticed him, and from all the activity going on since then that Annie’s plan was working.

The two were busy in another part of the house, arguing about what to pack from the sounds of it, so he would report back to Annie and Reiner once he was done here that it looked as if Ackerman and Smith were deciding to have the two mages go to them. Just in case they were trying to be clever… Bertolt raced forward as fast as he could in ferret form, his black, grey and brown fur helping him to blend in with the shadows, toward the table that he had spotted from the outside while still in hawk form.

Ah yes, there it was, the phone. Now was the risky part; he shrugged off the tiny bundle and then shifted into the form he’d memorized during that awful fight, the form of the powerful necromancer. If either of the mages came into this room, seeing their friend should buy him a couple of seconds – even if he was naked. Bertolt picked up the tiny pack and pried it open as he eyed the phone, then used an elongated nail to open the back case of the phone.

Sweat ran down his face as he worked, but luck was on his side for once – he wouldn’t have to go back and bring in a fresh set of SIM cards, as the few he’d been able to fit in the small pack contained one that matched what was in the phone. He worked as fast as he dared to pull out the old one, hold it against the enspelled card for several seconds and then put the new one in the phone, his fingers beginning to tremble as he put the phone back together and then return the device to the table. The voices were growing louder, something about what they should take with them and what could be left behind, and Bertolt was trembling as he set the pack back on the floor before he could shift into a ferret once more.

“Dammit, Izzy, we don’t have much time! I say just leave the clothes behind if they’re not for this season.”

Hearing footsteps approach, Bertolt hastened for the shadows, and managed to hide himself as the male mage entered the room. “But I hate making Levi and Smith pay for our stuff. Who knows how long it’ll be before we find new jobs,” the girl called out from the other room.

“Better a bit of guilt than taking a bunch of useless stuff that might slow us down.” The man sighed and picked up a tablet which had been on the table by the phone. “It won’t be so bad – maybe this time we can talk Levi into letting us help out.”

“Oh, maybe! I know how to control my magic better now.” The girl’s voice faded as if she went further into another room, and the man left as if to track her down.

It was time for Bertolt to leave as well – he didn’t want to know anything about these two, didn’t want to know about their hopes for the future or any else, not if they needed to use them against Ackerman to rescue Eren. No, best to just get out of here and watch from a distance, to wait and see what Ackerman and Smith had in plan for them. Reiner should be arriving soon, and then he could hand over the SIM card to his lover. They would then be that much closer to finding Eren.

These mages – they took so much for granted when it came to magic, with their spells and their wards and their bloodlines. The good thing about being an outsider, Annie had pointed out when she came up with this latest plan, was that you realized all these wonderful little weaknesses that others overlooked.

They would use this weakness to track down Eren and take him back home. Bertolt hoped it was without much more bloodshed, but soon, Eren would be back home. They all would be back home, where they belonged.

*******

Return to Archive

Next Chapter