chapter eleven

*******

go to your bosom; knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know

*******

It had to be at least eight am. Levi rubbed at his face and then dropped his hand to rest on top of Eren’s head. His lover was sprawled on top of him, still dead to the world, and Levi was doing his best to let him sleep after last night. In a way it was sort of peaceful to look down at Eren’s face while he was sleeping, at the long lashes of his closed eyes and the dark hair falling onto his forehead. Levi stroked his thumb along Eren’s left cheekbone and smiled at the sense of magic thrumming beneath his lover’s golden skin and the way those improbable lashes fluttered.

He’d suffered a sleepless night, tormented by dreams of losing Isabel and Farlan, of watching those shifter bastards tear Eren from his hands and carry him away. Each time when the nightmares had taken on a macabre turn, had made him ache with fear and horror, he would jolt awake to find Eren half-sprawled on top of him, to realize that he was in his own bed and that Isabel and Farlan should be fine.

Ever since he was little and had gone to live with Kenny, he had learned to shake himself out of nightmares before he got lost in them and they affected his talent. He had always wondered if that ability had led to his insomnia, but he’d been grateful for it during the previous night since it had prevented him from becoming too caught up in painful dreams and affecting Eren as well, in doing something to hurt his lover even more. While he still felt a bit tired, right now it was nice to be awake, to lie in bed and feel Eren’s magic, to see Eren and know that at the moment, everything was all right.

His hand moved to stroke through Eren’s sleep-tousled hair, and then paused when Eren began to stir beneath his touch. His lover rubbed his cheek against Levi’s chest as if a cat before lifting his head to blink up at Levi with blurry eyes.

“Brat… go back to sleep,” Levi urged.

“Huhznah.” Eren jerked his right arm about as if it was twitching and then managed to push himself upright a little. “Nah.”

Levi sighed as he rubbed at the nape of Eren’s neck, which he’d noticed for some reason was a sensitive spot for the brat. “What day is it?”

Eren’s eyes became heavy-lidded and he let out a slow breath. “Huh?”

“Yeah, go back to sleep.”

“Nu-hah.” Eren shook his head a couple of times and managed to get a little more upright. “Ahmm… I’m up.” He cleared his throat and then folded his arms on top of Levi’s chest. “I’m up.” Then he cocked his head to the side and frowned. “You’re up.”

“Yeah, it’s part of that whole ‘awake’ thing people do in the morning,” Levi teased as he gave his lover’s left ear a gentle flick. “Can see your brain is firing on all cylinders already.”

Eren whined as he rubbed at his ear. “It’s early.” He hummed as he closed his eyes. “Not so choppy.”

Levi took that to mean about his emotions and worked his fingers through Eren’s thick, messy hair. “How’s your head today?”

“Hmm.” Eren hummed a little more with his eyes closed. “Aches, but better.” He tilted his head into the caress. “Why you still in bed?”

“Maybe because a certain little shit is all sprawled over me like a blanket?” Levi pointed out. That prompted a frown from Eren as he opened his eyes and pulled back a little.

“You’re… worried.” Eren’s frown deepened and he bit at his bottom lip. “You didn’t have to stay here and-“

Levi used the hold he had on Eren’s hair to jerk the idiot in closer. “What did I say about not reading my emotions right?” He clicked his tongue as he sat up in bed, which made Eren squawk as he flailed about and scrambled to settle on Levi's lap. “I’m worried, but it’s not all about Isabel and Farlan. I’m worried about you, too.”

Eren, his head all but trapped with the way that Levi was holding on to his hair, stared up at Levi as his eyes shimmered with what looked to be tears before he blinked them away. “You don’t need to be.”

“Bullshit,” Levi swore as he loosened his hold. “You keep fucking this shit up.”

“No I don’t,” Eren sulked as he grabbed on to Levi’s forearms. “They’re your stupid emotions.”

“It’s your inability to read them right,” Levi shot back. “Seriously, how hard is this shit?”

Eren’s face became flushed as he gave Levi’s bare chest a light smack. “Well, you’re the one who is all… gah! All choppy and… and jagged and, and flomfy and-“

“Flomfy?” Levi’s eyebrows rose as he pulled Eren forward. “What the hell is ‘flomfy’?”

The red tint returned to Eren’s cheeks and he glanced aside. “It’s… it’s flomfy. When you’re not acting like an angry asshole and things are good they’re… flomfy,” Eren mumbled.

This had to be one of the most ridiculous conversations that Levi had ever had in his life, and that was taking into account *Hange*. Not only Hange, but him and Farlan dealing with a pre-teen Isabel, so yes, that was saying something. He was beginning to see why Eren had such a difficult time in dealing his emotions, because the brat could fuck all understand the things, from the sounds of it.

“I’m beginning to better grasp the issue here,” Levi drawled as he tugged on Eren’s left earlobe.

“Good for you,” Eren grumbled as he batted at Levi’s hand. “Why do I get the impression that it’s all my fault?”

“Because sometimes you know what you’re talking about?” Levi smiled when Eren took to huffing and attempted to flick him in the face, only to have his wrists end up caught and his arms held up in the air. The look of pure frustration on his lover’s face and the pulse of wild magic made Levi chuckle, so when Eren twisted about to break free and fell forward, he didn’t think twice about kissing him.

What was supposed to be a quick, placating kiss turned into something else, turned into him letting go of Eren’s wrists and wrapping his arms around his lover instead, his tongue slipping past parted lips to flick inside… hmm, Eren tasted of something herbal, something like anise. Levi found himself groaning as he hugged Eren to him even tighter, a flare of magic and heat as the robe Eren had worn to bed began to slip open-

“Fuck,” Levi moaned as he pulled back. “We shouldn’t- maybe you should-“

Eren cut him off with a nip to his bottom lip. “Know what I’m feeling now,” he breathed out as he grinded his pert ass down onto Levi’s hardening cock, his eyes darkening with desire until they looked almost a pure blue in color.

Levi shuddered for a moment and then grasped Eren by the hair above the nape of his neck; for a moment he wanted to rub his lover’s nape, to see him close his eyes and relax into the touch but forced himself to resist. “Yeah, but those are my emotions. What are you feeling?” Just last night Eren had been hurt and ready to run – the last thing Levi wanted was to force his own emotions onto his lover and muddle things up in Eren’s head. Just how did the bond work between them?

For a moment Eren appeared confused, appeared so young that Levi was about to shove him away and jump from the bed and then Eren splayed his hand over Levi’s chest. “You’re the only one I’ve wanted like this,” he admitted in a quiet voice. “That’s why last night hurt so much.”

Fuck. “Fuck,” Levi repeated out loud as he leaned forward. “You better not mess up what I’m feeling now, you little shit,” he told Eren as he pushed the robe from his lover’s shoulders.

Eren’s magic all but burned against his fingers, his skin as Eren shrugged free of the garment. “Noo… it’s… it’s searing right now.”

‘Searing’, yeah, that was a good word, was one that actually made sense. Levi brushed his lips against his lover’s neck as his hands skimmed along the sleek muscles and smooth skin of Eren’s back. There was a gasp when his teeth scraped gently along the underside of Eren’s chin, prompting him to smile as he pulled away so he could grab the lube.

“Uhm… there was… something.” Eren frowned as his hands rested against Levi’s chest. “Something….” He shook his head and bit at his bottom lip as if trying to remember while Levi swore – someone had shoved the bottle way in the back on the nightstand.

“Don’t worry about it,” Levi told him as he urged Eren up a little so he could slide his pants down his ass enough to free up his cock; shit, this was going to be quick if he was already trembling at Eren giving him a loose fisting. “Ah, wait a minute,” he told his lover, his voice rough as he held up the lube.

“I… okay.” Eren shook his head, his fingers pressed against his left temple as if to stave off an ache, then he made to snatch at the lube that Levi held just out of reach. “Huh?”

“I’ll do it.” Levi slicked up his right fingers as he urged Eren to lift up on his knees. “I like to watch you as I finger you open.”

That prompted an adorable blush on his lover’s face, even as Eren hung his head forward as if to hide his face with his bangs. “You… I don’t… oh hell.”

“Again, eloquent as fuck.” Levi smirked as he slipped his hand around and rubbed against Eren’s entrance for a few seconds until he provoked a needy whine. As always, he was amazed at how easily his finger slipped in, how quickly he could add another finger without any sign of discomfort from Eren. “Someone’s a little eager, isn’t he,” Levi murmured in Eren’s ear as his fingers twisted about and scissored apart, Eren’s fingers digging into his shoulders as his lover panted and gasped.

“Ah… yeah….” Eren closed his eyes as he arched his neck, his cock hard and glistening as he began to leak precum; he was so fucking gorgeous, so perfect that Levi couldn’t imagine how the hell he could shift into anything else to be better, to make Levi want him any more. “Puh-please.”

“Hmm? You want me to fuck you now?”

“Yes.” Eren opened his eyes and glared, a spark of gold amidst the almost blue and magic so fucking potent it was difficult to breathe. “You-you’re being mean.”

“I know.” Levi pulled his fingers out and grabbed the lube again so he could slick up his own cock, a hiss escaping him both from the feel of the cold fluid and from on how edge he was just then – oh yeah, this wouldn’t take long. Too little sleep, too much stress, too much need. His hand had just left his cock when Eren inched forward, his knees on either side of Levi’s hips, and Levi barely had time to toss the lube aside and grab onto his lover before Eren began to sink downward.

Fuck. *Fuck*. Eren steadily took him in, so hot and tight and perfect, magic wrapping around him as well, and for the time being everything was all right, was the way it should be in the world. It was the two of them, bodies and magic entwined, was pleasure and… was pure pleasure as Levi slid his left hand into Eren’s damp hair to tug his lover’s head down for a hungry kiss while he wrapped his right around Eren’s cock, while his hips rocked up to meet Eren’s increasingly frantic thrusts. They breathed into each other as the intensity grew, the ecstasy coiling ever tighter inside of Levi until a slight shift, a quicker thrust made Eren gasp out loud and his body clench even tighter around Levi and… and….

He bit back on a loud moan as he came, his face tucked against Eren’s shoulder, and struggled to keep moving his right hand, to rock his hips so he could push Eren that little bit further until his lover shuddered against him and cried out his name. Behind him there was the sound of something sharp against wood, of something falling against Levi’s back, but he didn’t care because right now he felt tired and drained and so fucking good.

Eren slumped against him, sweaty and limp and magic quiet once more, and for a few seconds Levi enjoyed the feel of an armful of sated lover before he grimaced and shifted Eren off of his lap, which prompted a hiss from his lover and a grimace from him. “Come on, time for a shower.” He grimaced again as he pushed off his clothes the rest of the way.

“Don’ wanna,” Eren mumbled, appearing about ready to fall asleep.

“Yeah, you do.” Levi dragged him off of the bed and hustled him toward the bathroom when he noticed the dripping mess; someone was going to be bitching about doing the sheets yet again later, and no, Erwin hadn’t bought any new ones. “The water will help, I promise.”

“Mean.” Eren rubbed at his face, then yelped as he was shoved into the tub; at least Levi had the courtesy to have the water aimed at the front of the tub until it was running warm.

“Is that a challenge for me to be really nasty one of these days?” He sighed when Eren gave him a blank look; yeah, give the kid a few minutes to get his brain working again. At least Eren was looking a lot better than he had last night, with his eyes bright and clear, and his skin no longer taking on an ashy cast.

Judging the water to be warm enough, Levi joined Eren in the shower and adjusted the water to fall onto them both. “Come here, I’ll wash your hair.”

Eren hesitated for a couple of seconds and then shuffled over. “You just want me awake.”

“You’re the one who didn’t want to go back asleep earlier,” Levi pointed out as he directed the water to wet Eren’s hair. “Might as well stay awake now and see if Armin and Hange have figured out anything to help with your mental shields.” They really needed for Eren to have some sort of control before they faced the bastards again; Levi couldn’t chance having his emotions being used against his lover, or for Eren’s key nature to decide to just drain everyone to protect the both of them.

Eren hummed as the shampoo was massaged into his hair. “Mmm, that sounds like fun.”

“You want to have a headache every day? Or to drain people dry?” When Eren began to pout, Levi smiled and rinsed out the shampoo. “Yeah, I thought not.”

Eren waited until Levi was done to step back, busy slicking the wet hair away from his face. “I don’t mean to lose control like I’ve been doing lately.”

Levi sighed as he tucked aside a strand that Eren had missed. “It’s not all your fault – last night definitely wasn’t your fault. We’re tied together so we both have to shoulder the blame.” He took a deep breath before he forced himself to say the words. “Look… when all of this is over with, when those bastards are dead and gone… if you want to leave then… I won’t stop you. No one will stop you.” It hurt like hell to give Eren that option, but he wouldn’t keep him here by force.

At first Eren just stood there, eyes wide and magic pulsing as if he was looking for something to cast it upon, some shape to change into, and then Eren shook his head. “I… I don’t… last night….” His eyes shimmered as if he was about to cry, and it felt as if Levi had just been punched in the chest. “I thought last night that you didn’t want me, that you just… you just wanted your sister and friend.”

“Bullshit,” Levi snapped as he pulled Eren to him. “I told you that. I’m *not* handing you over to them, ever.”

Eren sniffed against Levi’s chest. “Yeah, okay.” His hand came up behind Levi’s back, the touch gentle and slightly trembling. “So, uhm, unless you want me to go….”

Levi waited for the rest of that declaration, until it hit him that Eren was basically saying that he was staying unless Levi wanted him gone. “No brains,” he complained as he gave Eren’s left ear a gentle flick. “None at all. Can’t even figure out that if I’d wanted you gone, you’d have been buried in that cemetery weeks ago.”

There was a sound from Eren, something like a cross between a gasp and a laugh, just as his magic flared. Levi smiled and rubbed his chin against Eren’s forehead, which made Eren complain and pull away because of the rasp of stubble. “You need to shave.”

“Yeah, after this.” Levi reached for the shampoo so he could do his own hair and then frowned as he watched Eren begin to wash off. “Hey, how come you never need to shave?” He just realized that each morning Eren woke up without any stubble.

His lover paused while lathering up the washcloth and shrugged. “Difficult to shave while on the run so I… just made it stop?” He appeared puzzled for a moment as if he didn’t know what else to say before he shrugged again. “Armin did something similar with a potion – you stand out if you look all scruffy, and while we could clean up with wipes and stuff, we didn’t always have water for razors. It was just easier that way.” Then a hint of red colored his cheeks. “Not like it ever grew in very much, unless I shifted.”

It must be nice to be a shifter, Levi thought with some envy. “Just for that, you’re making me some tea when we go downstairs.” It was late enough that someone should have already made breakfast – they better have made breakfast if they knew what was good for them.

“Eh?” Eren appeared confused again, but ended up shaking his head. “Whatever.” He slanted a frown Levi’s way as he began to scrub clean. “You just want me to be your personal maid.”

That prompted a laugh from Levi. “When this is all over, I’m buying you a maid’s costume.”

Eren waited until he rinsed his hair clean to lean over and give Levi a lingering kiss. “If we get through this, I’ll actually wear it for you.”

If Levi didn’t have any incentive to kill those bastards before, he certainly had it now.

*******

“Come on, stop dragging your ass,” Levi chided Eren as they neared the kitchen.

Eren tugged on the hem of his grey sweater and forced his feet to move faster; after the, well, drama of last night, he was a little nervous about facing Hange, Erwin and Petra. Levi appeared to understand why he’d attempted to leave in the middle of the night, but would the others? He really didn’t want to continue to put them in danger and couldn’t comprehend why they were so willing to risk their lives for him.

“Eren….”

“Yeah, yeah.” Eren all but ran the last few steps and wasn’t surprised when his lover latched on to his wrist to haul him into the large, brightly lit room. Everyone was gathered inside, with Petra at the stove and the rest seated at the table.

Armin looked up from the various vials he was bent over while Mikasa jumped up from the table, and Erwin gave him a smile as Hange continued to flip through some huge book. “Perfect timing, since Petra just finished a new batch of eggs.”

“They’re scrambled, so it’s nothing fancy,” she called out from the stove.

Meanwhile, Mikasa came to a halt in front of Eren and reached out to touch his face. “You look better today.” She gave Levi a flat look before returning her attention to Eren, her lips curved in a slight, pleased smile. “You got enough rest? How’s your head?”

“Yeah, it’s better.” Eren could feel Levi’s annoyance and was grateful when he remained quiet. “How about the two of you?”

“We talked some things out. There aren’t going to be any more *secrets*.” Mikasa gave Levi a pointed look during that last part for some reason. “So come on, sit down and get something to eat,” she urged as she stepped back. “It’s going to be a busy day.”

“Uhm, in a minute, I want some tea.” He tugged his wrist free and went over to the counter, and hoped that his lover and his sister didn’t get in a fight without his presence there to act as a buffer; he could feel an increase in tension for a few seconds and then a scoffing sound before someone walked away.

“So what are these grand plans?” Levi asked before there was the scraping of wood against the stone floor, so Eren assumed that at least his lover was sitting down. “Anyone doing a grocery run?”

“Sorry to say that any shopping is on hold for a day or two.” Yeah, Erwin didn’t sound too unhappy about that. Eren shared a smile with Petra, who was busy cooking up the eggs and what looked to be sausage. “I think we can manage that long with our current supplies.”

When Eren glanced over his shoulder, Levi shook his head and used a spirit to ruffle Eren’s hair. “Don’t even say it, you little shit. There’s no way I’m letting you out in those woods to hunt.”

While Eren pouted, Mikasa came over to help him with the tea, picking up the kettle to fill it with fresh water while he scooped out the loose tea into the pot. “He’s not the only one who can hunt, though he has more fun running around to do it. Armin and I can bring back a deer or two.”

“Hmm, and maybe some duck? I like duck.” Armin paused in playing with his potions to smile at Eren. “Someone doesn’t like plucking all the feathers, though.”

“Don’t know why you won’t let me singe them off,” he complained. “I mean, all it takes is one shift and a few breaths and it’s done.”

“Maybe because some of us like our duck breast medium rare, not well-done.”

Hange paused in her research go give Eren a rather scary, assessing gaze. “When things calm down, you and me, shifter-boy, are going to spend some quality time together even if I have to give your boyfriend an acute case of Encephalitis lethargica.”

“What? Why you shitty-“

Erwin pushed Levi back into his chair while he shook his head. “Please spare the threats until after breakfast.”

“Oh, it wasn’t a threat, I really want to see what all Eren can do.” Hange grinned until there was a flare of cool magic and then the thick book in front of her rose up to almost smack her in the face. “Ha!”

“I don’t see how this is helping Eren at all,” Armin remarked as he shook a couple of vials, unruffled by the whole thing.

“I don’t see how this is helping any of us.” Erwin gave Levi and Hange both a nasty scowl before he got up from the table with an empty platter in hand to go over to the stove. “You’re supposed to be adults.”

“Whatever,” Levi snarked as he glared at Hange for a few more seconds. “Any word from Gunther and Erd yet?”

“No, but they’re supposed to send a message after they pick up Isabel and Farlan.” Erwin’s temper seemed to fade away as he nodded at Levi. “They still have some time.”

Levi rubbed at his undercut as he clicked his tongue, then he stared at Eren for a few seconds before he nodded back. “All right. So what are we doing today?”

“Well, I figured Eren could help me out a little after breakfast by providing more of his ward so we can make up some more potions both to take out the other shifters and maybe set up some sort of warning if they try to breach our defenses.” Armin grinned at Eren from the table. “Better eat a lot.”

Still waiting for the water to boil, Eren groaned as he ran his fingers through his hair, which prompted Mikasa to give him a sympathetic pat on the back.

“And after he’s done with that, I think I’ve found a couple of things that’ll help him with his Levi problem,” Hange added, which got her another glare from Eren’s lover. “Something to enable him to filter out the strong emotions, at least.”

“Really?” Eren rubbed at his temples and smiled, hopefully that he wouldn’t be subjected to the painful headaches and slips of control in the near future.

Hange smiled back as she motioned to the book in front of her. “Yep, the principle seems based on warding, so it shouldn’t take too much effort.”

It was about then that the water started to boil, so Eren finished with the tea while Mikasa helped Erwin and Petra reset the table with food for everyone. He took the pot of tea over to Levi and sat next to his lover, grateful for the comforting feel of magic as much as a chance to eat.

Erwin waited until everyone had full plates – Levi and Eren especially since they had missed the first batch of eggs – before he resumed speaking. “Levi, I would like it if you would work with Petra and Mikasa outside to help figure out how to improve the wards. As soon as Armin is done with the new potion you can add it to our defenses, but I’d like there to be some other surprises for our… friends.”

Levi paused in buttering a slice of toast to glace at first Petra and then Mikasa. “We can do some things with the spirits that’ll fuck them up if they come through the air.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I’d hoped for.” Erwin nodded in approval as he cut up a piece of sausage. “I doubt they’ll attempt another impersonation to breach our wards, so an aerial attack is highly probable.”

Eren shrugged as he finished swallowing some eggs. “Most of the fun shapes have wings, after all. Dragon, chimera, gryphon, drake, that hippo one-“

“Hippocampus,” Armin supplied for him with a knowing grin. “Or, you know, pegasus.”

“Yeah, but you always say the first one,” Eren pointed out with a sulk.

“What can I say? I’m a sucker for the classics.”

“You’re an annoying know-it-all,” Mikasa muttered, but she was smiling all the same, and Armin smiled as well.

Erwin cleared his throat in a very loud manner, which cut through their conversation. “Yes, we’re getting the point, I believe. I’m sure it was amusing to them to….” He frowned as he seemed to think of something. “Is it possible that they sent shifters about Eren’s age to fight us?”

Levi grunted as he checked the pot of tea. “Like we have any fucking clue? No one’s seen what they look like… wait, the glimpse I got the one time, they did look young.” His emotions were contemplative as he gazed at Erwin. “But that’s *if* it was their true shape.”

“True, but Hitch is rather young, and I would think that she’d work better with people who are her own age considering how she’s striking back at Reiss and the such.” Erwin’s thick brows drew together and he pushed his half-finished plate aside. “It might explain the change in tactics, too – it’s as if they’re still figuring things out… or they’re under orders. They did things their way the first time they fought us, or didn’t have explicit enough orders and then they were told how to do things, were given tighter instructions afterwards. That would fit if they were young, if they’re still unsure of themselves.”

Eren felt Levi’s anger and uncertainty build the more that Erwin spoke. “That’s a lot of guesswork on your part, and if it’s right then it means that someone powerful is pulling their strings. If that’s the case, then this shit isn’t over even if we take out those three bastards.”

The room was quiet after that, albeit filled with a tension that made Eren’s head ache. He nearly jumped when Levi nudged him to drink the mug of tea that his lover had just filled. “The main thing is to take out our current attackers.” Erwin got up with his coffee mug in hand. “We can’t do anything if we’re in fear of being wiped out.”

“Yes, but it may be to our benefit to keep one of them alive,” Armin suggested as he pushed his remaining eggs about on his plate. “I think we’re in desperate need of some knowledge.”

Hange was quiet for a moment as if thinking it over, and then she slammed her hands down on the table. “You want to let one of those fuckers remain alive a *second* longer than necessary?” Her eyes glowed a brilliant red behind her glasses. “Seriously? After everything they’ve done to-“

“Hange!” Levi gestured with his right hand and sent a spirit or something in front of her to get her to back off, Eren knew since he felt his lover use his magic. When Hange spluttered and glared in their direction, Levi shrugged and held up his hands. “You’ll get to torture the information out of them.”

The change in the blood witch’s demeanor was instantaneous. “Oh, well, yeah, then I’m in.” She smiled as she readjusted her glasses on her face. “By all means, we need to find out what they know.”

Eren wasn’t sure that he still had an appetite after that, but he got another nudge in the side and a wave at his plate, so he sighed and picked up his fork. “So maybe we need to work in something to help trap an attacker,” Petra offered.

Levi clicked his tongue as he picked up his mug. “I’m thinking a shit-ton of revenants sitting on them will do it, but yeah, let’s see how clever we can get.”

“Then I do believe we have our work cut out for us.” Erwin poured himself some more coffee before pulling his phone out of his front right pocket. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some calls to make – and yes, Levi, I will keep you updated on what’s happening with Isabel and Farlan.”

“You better.” Levi glared at his friend for a few seconds before turning the evil look Eren’s way. “Finish your breakfast.”

“I’m working on it,” Eren muttered, and nearly threw his fork aside when Mikasa joined in on the whole glaring thing. “Not you, too.”

“You’ll need the energy for the practice later,” she told him. “Have some more sausage.”

“Fine.” Eren narrowed his eyes at Armin, who was smirking at him, as he shoveled the food into his mouth. For someone who could turn into a dragon and singe all of them with one breath, he certainly wasn’t getting much respect. Maybe he could shift into bear or something equally large and clean the plate in one or two bites…. As soon as he swallowed the food, he was given a flick to his left ear. “Ow! What was that for? I’m eating!”

Levi had a bored look on his face as he sipped his tea. “Because you’re being a brat – I can tell by your magic.”

“What the… I give up.” Eren hunched his shoulders as much as possible as he had another bite. “Maybe I should have gone back to sleep,” he complained as soon as it was swallowed.

There was enough smugness over the link just then to make him want to gag. “Weren’t complaining about being awake too long ago.”

As Eren ducked his head and focused on eating before he embarrassed himself any further – Levi’s comment provoked a loud laugh from Hange and another knowing grin from Armin, Levi finished his breakfast and toast before standing up. “Don’t let these two eggheads work you too hard,” his lover ordered as he rubbed the back of Eren’s neck before tugging on his hair to make Eren look up for a quick kiss. “And don’t leave the damn house.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Eren breathed against Levi’s lips, having figured that he’d be locked down both because of the threat and what he’d tried to pull last night.

Levi clicked his tongue before leaving, and Mikasa was quick to take his place. “Seriously, don’t push too hard after what happened last night.” She tucked back his bangs, her hand lingering on his forehead as if feeling for a fever. “You look better today, but you still need some rest.”

“I’ll be fine,” he promised her. “Watch out for yourself.”

She smiled as she adjusted her scarf then followed Levi out of the room, with Petra on her heels. That left him with the dishes, but he didn’t mind too much. “Let me clean up this mess first,” he told Armin and Hange.

“I’ll help out,” Armin volunteered, and the two of them began to clean off the table.

It was just when the sink was beginning to fill up with water that Eren felt it – both the flare of magic and then the ‘pings’ of coldness. He looked up from the plate he was scrubbing and glared about him. “Oh come *on*, both of you?”

Armin stared at him in confusion. “Ah, both of us what? We’re not doing anything.”

“Well, not yet,” Hange added, busy reading once more.

Eren shook his head as he handed Armin the clean plate. “It’s Levi and Mikasa, each of them have sicced a spirit on me.” He paused to ‘feel’ about a little better and shivered when one of the undead brushed too close. “At least one each, dammit.” They were going overboard.

Armin laughed as he set the dried plate aside. “They’re just looking after you.”

“But it’s annoying! I keep hitting the cold spots when they do this crap – it’s like constantly walking into a draft or something.”

Hange glanced up from the book and arched her eyebrows. “You did try to run away last night. Levi’s probably making sure you don’t do anything quite as stupid today, as well as watching over me since you’re showing all these interesting powers.” She appeared annoyed for a couple of seconds. “I really need to figure out how to distract him – hey! Focus on your honeybunch, not me!” She waved her arm as if to scare away the spirit that currently was causing the pages of her books to flap about.

Her antics caused Armin to laugh and shake his head. “He seems to have a few good reasons, while Mikasa probably just wants to make sure you don’t get overloaded again.” He grinned while he dried another plate. “She’s really doing well with her new talent, isn’t she?” He sounded like a proud parent or something.

“Yeah, well, let her spy on you sometime,” Eren grumbled. “See how happy you are about them then.”

“Methinks that someone is a bit grouchy this morning.” Armin gave him a too innocent look. “Which is odd, considering how you and Levi… made up.”

Eren stared at his friend for a few seconds before he caught the innuendo. “Dammit, the wards….” He remembered what he meant to tell Levi earlier.

Hange cackled as she closed a book. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care if it for you since you two are so busy.” When her chair rocked beneath her, she laughed again. “Oh, play with your ghosts, Grumpy! I’ll figure out how to keep Eren from getting a headache every time you fly off the handle and you can let me get some nice energy whenever you two get it on.” She gave the air around her the finger when the chair bucked again. “You owe me that much at least.”

Eren groaned as he felt a blast of anger from his boyfriend. “Uhm, Hange? You’re not helping.” He rested his hands on the counter and hung his head as if that would lessen the building headache.

“I don’t think he’s kidding,” Armin added as he rubbed Eren’s back. “Do you need a potion?”

“Neither are you,” Eren mumbled as his mouth went dry at the mere thought of yet another foul potion.

“It’s okay, it’s all the hormones talking.” Armin laughed as Eren splashed foam bubbles at him.

“Maybe I’d rather be surrounded by a bunch of undead.”

“Hmm, sounds like someone is missing his necromancer honeybunny.” Hange laughed as her chair rocked again. “Haha, this is *so* fun! I get my shots in when he’s not here to rip my liver out!”

Yeah, but Eren got stuck with Levi’s temper, something which Armin seemed to pick up on. “Go on and work on your mental shield,” his friend urged and handed him the towel to dry his hands. “I think you need to do that right away.”

“Thanks.” Eren gave Armin a grateful smile as he used the towel then marched over to the table as if headed to his doom, shivering a little as he went past a spirit. “All right, let’s get this over with.”

*******

Mikasa hugged her coat around her a little tighter against the cold; it was times like these that she missed Eren, missed his warmth and the ability to share it. Spring couldn’t come soon enough, but at least she had the scarf he’d given her all those years ago, enhanced with a protection spell from Armin. Well, that and she just had to concentrate on the spirit she’d left watching over him to know what he was doing, even if it provided a sense of relief and not warmth.

A few feet away, Levi looked up at the sky and clicked his tongue. “Okay, Petra, here’s where you come through for me. Show me what you’ve got.”

The air mage beamed at him as she rubbed her mittened hands together. “Yes, sir!” She even gave him a salute as she stared upward for several seconds, her brow furrowed as if she was concentrating. “Best not to count on that fancy ward, no?”

“That Armin’s hot shit but yeah, figure it out for yourself,” Levi told her.

“Hmm.” Petra tucked back a strand of light auburn hair as she glanced about, and Mikasa could pick up a faint pulse of her magic. “I was up half the night thinking about this, about what you’ve told me about their ward and all.” She tapped her chin as she gazed back at Mikasa and Levi. “Spells don’t affect them, but you said that you two could fight them, right? That the revenants could hold them back?”

Mikasa nodded while Levi clicked his tongue again. “Yeah, if you can get a hand – undead or alive – on those bastards, it works. Also seems like a charmed blade will wear down their fancy ward.”

Petra smiled as if she was pleased to hear that. “All right, so here’s what I was thinking. Wind is wind.” She gestured and Mikasa’s hair and scarf streamed out in the magically generated wind. “I use magic to generate it and control it, but it’s not a magical force, just the power behind it. See where I’m going?”

Mikasa gasped and even Levi smiled a little as they figured out what she was planning on doing. “So you’re going to use wind against them?” Mikasa fixed her scarf once Petra stopped using her magic as an illustration.

“I should be able to create some nasty wind patterns up there,” Petra pointed above her, “that’ll make it near impossible for them to fly properly. I can set them at a certain level so they won’t know a thing until they get too close.”

Levi nodded in approval, while something occurred to Mikasa. “But that’ll affect Eren, too.”

Levi gave her a disgusted look. “That’s one of our own, versus three of theirs. I’ll take those odds.” When she frowned at him, his eyes narrowed in return. “I’m not feeling any sympathy for him, here. So what if his wings are clipped for a few days, at least he’ll be safe.”

“And not able to run away, right?” Mikasa gripped the ends of her scarf between her hands as she glared at the necromancer.

“Uhm… I’m going to be over here, working on that wind thing,” Petra said as she stepped aside. “While you two work on your issues.”

Levi waved to her while he kept his attention focused on Mikasa. “It’s not about keeping him trapped, but *safe*. Eren knows he’s free to go whenever he wants, *after* we deal with those bastards.” Levi huffed as he jammed his gloved hands inside the pockets of his torn coat, as if to make sure he didn’t do something with them he might regret. “I even told him so this morning.”

“Yeah, I’m- what?” That wasn’t what Mikasa had expected to hear – she hadn’t thought that Levi would offer such a thing to her brother after the way he had reacted last night. “What did he say?” She wanted to know Eren’s response, even she had a feeling that it was already clear.

Levi glanced over at Petra for a moment before he scowled at the ground. “That he’s fine with staying as long as I want him to stay.” The scowl was then directed at her. “Which I do.” Levi took his right hand out of his pocket and waved it about in the air. “Want him to stay. And not because he’s some shitty key or shifter or any of that. Fuck, I’m bad at this shit,” he muttered as he ran his hand over his hair. “So back the fuck off a little, all right? Maybe I’m stressing him out but you’re not helping, either.”

Mikasa grit her teeth together for a few seconds then told herself to calm down. She knew what Armin would tell her right now, knew he would remind her to think of Eren and what was best for her brother. It just… it was just so hard at times, and she didn’t think Levi could appreciate it. “Look… you haven’t been there all these years, all right? You haven’t seen the way people react around him, the way they want him when they find out what he is,” she tried to explain. “The way they treat him as a thing and not a person.”

“He’s not a thing to me,” Levi insisted, his gaze a bit distant.

“I’m not finished,” Mikasa ground out, which prompted another scowl from Levi. “I can see that,” she conceded with a slight nod. “But it worries me, this bond between you. What if you take it for granted? What if you take the powers… the control over Eren it gives you for granted? Maybe you’ll become like those other people.” It had scared her, seeing her independent, fiery brother brought low just because of another’s emotions.

Levi then regarded her with an intent expression for several seconds before he shook his head. “Maybe, but I don’t think so. I’ve spent too many years being hated for my own power, for people either wanting to use me or want me dead. I know how it feels, and it sucks. I won’t do that to Eren.”

“I hope so,” Mikasa admitted. “I really do. And I hope you give Eren a little time to find his footing.” She sighed as she let go of the scarf. “I don’t mean to take all of this out on you, it’s just… it’s what I do, protect Eren. He’s always there for me, so I’m there for him.” She lowered her chin to brush against the soft scarf.

Levi scoffed as he once more shoved his hand into his pocket. “Armin is there for Eren – you’re like a fucking pit bull on steroids. Wait ‘til Farlan meets you, he can finally stop bitching at me for being overprotective of Isabel.”

Was… that a compliment? Mikasa wasn’t too sure, but she chose to take it as one. “Thank you, I think.”

“Yeah, yeah. Now come on, I think I’ve a plan to work some spirits into Petra’s wind defense – if your genius friend can weaken their wards, it’ll fuck them up but good and if not, it might still have some impact because it’ll throw off whoever runs into them.”

Mikasa concentrated on the spirit watching over her brother and smiled. “Well, almost everyone.”

There was that faraway look to Levi’s grey eyes for a moment and he snorted once. “Yeah, almost everyone.” Levi began walking over to where Petra was busy working on her magic. “We’re going to get an earful when we go inside.”

“Unless Armin and Hange are driving him crazy, and then he’ll be happy to for the diversion.”

“You wanna go for someone’s throat? Go after Hange, she’s the one currently eyeing up your precious brother again as if he’s a juicy steak and she hasn’t eaten in a week.” Levi glared at nothing in particular while his magic slowly built up.

Mikasa was quiet as she checked with her own spirit. “So… the enemy of my enemy is a friend?”

Levi shrugged as he had one of his spirits slam a book on the blood witch’s hand. “Works for me, how about you?”

She didn’t see how Armin could complain about that, and it should make Eren happy. “I’m fine with it.” She had her spirit knock the glasses off of Hange’s nose.

Meanwhile, Petra paused in her magic casting to give the both of them a dubious look. “I’m getting a bad feeling about this.” When they both paused in manipulating the spirits to stare blankly at her, she sighed and shook her head. “I’m *definitely* getting a bad feeling about this.”

*******

Erd checked the GPS on his phone. “We should be there in a few more minutes.”

“Great, I’ll keep my eyes out for rampaging shifters.” Gunther scowled as he leaned forward to peer out of the windshield. “What did Erwin say took out Mike and Nanaba?”

“Harpy and gryphon.” Erd grinned as his friend grimaced at the information. “Pick your death, bird woman or bird kitty.”

“How about neither?”

“I believe that’s what Erwin’s working on.” Erd checked his phone and motioned at the narrow road up ahead on the left. “I think that’s it.”

Gunther slowed the truck down so he could maneuver onto the road. “So, you know anything about Levi’s sister and brother-in-law?”

Erd had been the first one on the team that Levi had trained, but that only meant that he’d had an extra year or so with the reticent man. “No more than you do – that she can control fire and wind and her husband water, which Levi joked once is why they used to fight all the time. I heard a rumor that the three of them used to be pretty powerful together, back when they were in Subrosa.”

“No shit, considering that Levi’s a one-man army in and of himself.” Gunther nodded to the trees around them and gathered his power to him, so Erd did the same. “Well, here’s hoping we don’t get taken out by a damn harpy or something.”

“I don’t know, it’s better than a gryphon. Can at least say you died in a woman’s arms, right?”

That startled a laugh from his friend, and despite the tenseness of the situation, they were smiling as they drove down the long driveway toward a small, ranch-like house in the woods. Erd kept glancing out the windshield and the passenger window for any larger birds – or worse – while Gunther drove, and they stopped the truck about fifty yards away from the house – what should be safely outside any wards.

As soon as they got out of the truck, the front door of the house opened up and a thin man of about medium height stepped out, pale brown hair cut short and grey eyes similar to Levi’s. He studied them for a few seconds, and then there was a pulse of magic before Erd felt a sudden rush of weakness and he stumbled to his knees. “Wuh-wait,” he called out as Gunther fell down beside him. “Erwin sent us!”

“I thought so, but I wanted to be certain.” Just as sudden as the dizziness had come over him, it vanished and Erd could stand up straight. “Levi said that those shifters were impervious to magic, so I figured this was a good test.”

Yeah, this guy was friends with Levi all right. “Ah, they’re impervious when they’re warded up,” Erd clarified as he took a cautious step forward. “I’m Erd, and this is Gunther.”

“Are you done being all macho?” There was an annoyed, feminine voice from within the house and then the man – Farlan, Erd assumed – stepped aside so the woman, Isabel, could join them. She was pretty with unruly reddish hair pulled back in a long ponytail and bright green eyes, and had to be as short as Petra. Both of them appeared dressed for travel in jeans, loose sweaters and boots. “Hello! I’m Isabel, and this is Farlan. Come and get our stuff.”

“Izzy,” Farlan complained as he rubbed at his face. “Be nice to the men who are helping us.”

She frowned up at him as she folded her arms over her chest. “I am being nice, and I thought we were in a hurry.”

Gunther was grinning over the two of them, and Erd wondered if his friend was thinking about how yeah, one could tell this was someone raised by Levi all right. “She’s correct, we should hurry up. The sooner we get moving, the better.” Hopefully any shifters sneaking about had heard that and would leave them alone in hopes of following them.

Farlan sighed and motioned them to come into the house. “Don’t worry about the ward, I deactivated it once you passed the test. We spent the night packing, so excuse us if we’re a bit snappy from the lack of sleep.”

“That and trying to figure out what we’re willing to burn to ash,” Isabel added as she walked away. “Luckily, Farlan converted most of his books to digital a couple of years ago.”

“Because *someone* was bitching about us having too many bookshelves.”

“You could barely see any of the walls! And who was it who complained about how long it took for anything to arrive in the mail? Now you click ‘send’ and ignore me for hours on end when a new book comes out.”

Erd did his best not to smile as he followed the married couple into the house, while Gunther made a coughing sound – the two reminded him in a way of a non-platonic Levi and Hange… or Petra and Olou. Thoughts of his dead teammate helped to sober him up, as did the sight of several packed bags near the door. “Is this it?”

Farlan stood near the bags with Isabel all but tucked against his side. “Yes, we tried to keep it to a minimum. It’s some clothes, some odds and ends and a few mementos.”

Isabel’s eyes flared an amber gold color for a couple of seconds and there was a sense of powerful magic as the air grew heated around them. “Where are you taking us? Will we see Levi?”

Erd tampered down his talent to keep it from reacting, especially since he wasn’t certain he could overpower Farlan and knew him and Gunther could take on Isabel. “We’re to take you someplace safe, but Erwin doesn’t want you with Levi just yet.”

The sense of power faded away as Isabel scoffed and looked up at her husband. “Why is my brother being so stubborn?”

“It might not be him this time,” Farlan argued with her as he rubbed her left arm. “Erwin’s probably being careful because of the shifters – they want us to go right to Levi so he’s doing the opposite.”

“Because of this ‘Eren’.” Isabel’s eyes narrowed as she returned her attention back onto Erd and Gunther. “Why is he so special again? Aren’t they all shifters?”

Erd chuckled, suddenly nervous as he wasn’t sure just what he could say – Erwin and Levi hadn’t told these two about Eren’s true nature so should he? “Well, uhm, he’s more powerful than they are.” When he didn’t say anything else, Isabel took to scowling at him.

“You’re terrified of my brother and won’t tell me anything else, right?”

“Uhm, yeah?” Who wouldn’t be when it came to going against Levi’s wishes – especially in regards to someone he cared about?

Farlan smiled as he nudged Isabel in the side. “Give the poor guy a break – you’re asking about Levi’s boyfriend, remember?”

The change in the woman’s demeanor was instantaneous. “Ah, that’s right!” She took to smiling at Erd and Gunther. “What’s he like? He’s cute, right? Levi deserves someone really cute and nice.”

This time it was Gunther who laughed and he stepped forward as he pulled out his phone. “I’ll leave it up to you to decide if he’s cute, but Levi really seems to like him.” He flipped through stuff on his phone and held it out to Isabel.

“Eh?” She grabbed at it and laughed. “Brother hasn’t changed at all, look Farlan!” She held up the phone and laughed again. “And yes, Eren is really cute! And short! Oh, they’re adorable together.”

Farlan shook his head at that. “Not what a guy wants to here, honey. But yeah, Levi’s looking really good.” He touched the phone for a moment and smiled. “We worried about him, you know,” he told Erd and Gunther while Isabel continued to stare at the screen. “Some of his letters… it’s good that he has someone now.”

“Send me the pic!” Isabel insisted as she handed it back to Gunther, and Erd caught a glimpse of it to see that somehow his friend had managed to sneak a picture of Levi and Eren together, from the looks of it at dinner the other night. There was a hint of a smile on Levi’s face and Eren was tucked against his side, eyes bright and chin-length hair tucked back.

“I don’t have your- never mind.” Gunther grinned as Isabel snatched back the phone and started typing away, probably sending it to herself. “Not to spoil your fun, but we really should get moving.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Isabel finished with his phone and handed it back. Her smile faded as she looked around the house. “It was nice here, even if it got boring from time to time.” She sounded as if she was trying for nonchalant but couldn’t quite manage it.

Her husband paused in the middle of going for a bag and instead grasped one of her hands. “It’ll be okay, I’m sure we’ll find an even better home. One with that fancy tub you always wanted – so I can stop enchanting it for you.”

She sniffed a little as she tugged on his hand. “You pledged your eternal love to me, you can’t give me a stupid whirlpool?”

“And how much do you complain about heating the bed during winter?”

“I am *not* a heated mattress pad!” Isabel stamped her right foot as if to emphasis her point.

Erd bit his bottom lip as he grabbed two of the bags and began to back away. “Ah, yeah, we’ll be… truck.”

Gunther was right behind him with more of the bags. “Oh yeah, this is going to be such a fun drive,” he complained, but he was smiling all the while.

Nothing like a long drive with a couple who loved to bicker in a truck with an extended cab. Ah well, if they could survive training after Levi found out about the bet, they could survive this.

*******

Armin placed a couple of drops on the clean floor and then formed a new ward. “Try it again,” he urged Eren.

His friend rubbed the back of his neck, a sure sign that he was growing tired and annoyed with all of the requests so far that day. “Okay.” He closed his eyes to form the crystal ward upon his skin once more, which took a few seconds longer than usual, and then sighed as he began to walk toward Armin and the ward. Off to the side, Hange stood with her eyes narrowed and her right hand to her mouth as she chewed on her thumb.

Armin concentrated on the ward, on the sense of his magic as Eren approached. Long familiar with Eren’s unique type of magic, he thought he felt ‘something’ when Eren reached the ward… and there was a definite pause when Eren pressed against it. “I… huh, it’s like a tingling sensation this time,” Eren commented as he pushed through it.

“Yes!” Armin reached for Eren and gave him a hug. “We’re close! The ward is definitely reacting to you this time – wait, don’t let it go just yet!” he chided his friend before he released him. Hange rushed over with a couple of empty vials in her hand while Armin reached into his bag for the special ‘reactive agent’ which he shook a couple of times before uncapping the lid on top; a purplish fog soon engulfed Eren which prompted a very loud, plaintive sigh. “Now do it.”

Eren released the crystal ward, and as the ‘steam’ met with the fog, the purplish color changed to a faint lavender and then funneled into the vials which Hange was holding. “Yes! Think we’ll get it this time?” she asked as the fog began to form into crystals once inside the vials.

“Now that we’ve finally gotten this far, all we have to do is figure out how to add an alarm factor into the spell,” he told her while Eren slinked away toward the table. “It’s alright,” he told his friend, “I think we’re done with you for the day.”

“Oh thank the Fates,” Eren moaned as he all but collapsed into one of the chairs, stripped down to his t-shirt and jeans. “I don’t think I could take much more.” He looked it, too; there were dark circles under his eyes and his hands trembled as he reached for his sweater, which he dropped into his lap as if too tired to pull back on.

Armin felt a bit sorry for pushing his friend so hard this past hour, especially after Hange had worked with him on the mental shields, but he’d been so close on figuring out the potion for the wards. “Let me make you some tea, all right? How about something to eat?” Maybe there was something he could reheat, or he could put together a sandwich.

“Tea,” Eren mumbled as he leaned forward to fold his arms on top of the table and then rest his head on them. “Tea good.”

Armin smiled as he went past his friend to give Eren’s hair a gentle tousle, while Hange fussed over the vials.

He’d just put water on for tea when there was the sound of footsteps approaching, and he wasn’t surprised to see that Levi and Mikasa entered the kitchen with identical expressions of concern on their faces. “Hey, how’d things go?”

“You two!” Hange shoved her glasses up her nose while she glared at them. “Have fun today?”

Neither answered her until they reached Eren’s side, where Levi stood behind him to rub along the back of his neck and Mikasa bent down so she could brush aside the hair falling onto Eren’s face. “Got you to keep your filthy hands off of him, didn’t it?” Levi drawled as he gave her a flat look.

“You should take a nap,” Mikasa encouraged Eren. “We told you to take it easy today, yet you still pushed too hard.”

“Uhm, I’m making him some tea right now,” Armin offered as he eyed the three of them, uncertain if Levi and Mikasa were about to start a fight over Eren at any moment. “We’re really sorry – by the time Hange was done helping Eren work out some type of mental filter, I had managed a breakthrough of sorts with the wards and needed his help.”

“Yeah, didn’t see you sic your ghosts on *him*,” Hange huffed.

“Because he wasn’t going on about how having Eren do those mental exercises while shifting into things like a phoenix or a cerberus and stuff.” Levi scoffed as he left Eren to join Armin at the counter, where he glared at the kettle on the stove as if it wasn’t heating fast enough. Armin scooted out of the way and let Levi took over, and winced when he noticed how many spoonfuls of sugar were being dumped in the mug.

“No more three heads,” Eren mumbled as he tilted his face to the side so Mikasa could stroke through his bangs. “Gives me a headache.”

“Yes, we know, too many eyes.”

Hange gave up on glaring at Levi and smiled at Eren. “Though maybe if you could learn to map the nerves to each of the heads and- ow! Stop that!” The glaring resumed after what seemed to be another spirit bumping her chair – but it was Mikasa who hid what appeared to be a smug grin beneath her scarf.

The kettle began to whistle, so Levi poured the tea. “So did you figure out the ward shit?”

Grateful for the diversion, Armin nodded as he went back to the other end of the table. “For the most part – we have it reacting to Eren now so all we need to do is build up on it so it alerts us to whenever anyone with a crystal ward goes through it. Then Hange and I will add it in to the existing wards.”

“That’s if we’re not being harangued by spirits all damn day,” she pointed out in a sickly sweet manner, to which Levi gave her the finger.

“Let Erwin know how far you’ve come along – maybe he can get some of it to Erd and Gunther to help them out.”

Hange’s sour mood faded away as she picked up one of the vials. “Yeah, I heard they got Isabel and Farlan out safe and sound.” She paused as if considering something. “It’s probably best if we keep this to ourselves – we need something in case they come for Eren.”

Armin tensed as he waited for Levi’s reaction, yet all the necromancer did was remain quiet as he poured the hot water into the teapot. “Let Erwin decide,” he said after a few seconds. “He’s best at planning this shit.”

That was a surprising answer, but Armin supposed that Levi was attempting to remain neutral, to not put his need to defend his adopted family before everyone else. He also paid attention to Eren to see if the new mental shield was helping his friend, and was pleased to see that although Eren appeared to gaze at Levi with concern, he wasn’t reacting in pain or struggling with his talent at the moment. “You doing all right?” he asked his friend.

“Huh?” Eren managed to sit up in the chair and shrugged, while Mikasa draped the sweater over his shoulders. “Just… tired.”

Levi returned to the table with a mug and the pot of tea. “Give this another minute and then drink it,” he ordered, his fine brows drawn together and deep voice rough. “Then get some sleep.”

There was a hint of pink on Eren’s cheeks as he took to staring at the table. “Didn’t make the bed,” he mumbled as he accepted the mug.

While Levi clicked his tongue, Mikasa sighed and stood up. “I’ll go build a fire – you can sleep on one of the couches.” She gave Levi a rather bland look before she left. “Someone else can take care of the bed.”

“You volunteering?” Levi called out after her, but he left it at that while he poured the tea into the sugar and milk-filled mug.

“If you need one….” Hange offered with a disturbing grin on her face.

“Shut it, and hell no, you’ve already got enough samples from us,” Levi told her. “Now drink this.” He gave Eren’s right ear a quick flick before he sat down.

“Hmm, but I want to see if there’s any more changes since your bond seems to be deepening.” Hange sat across from them and propped her chin up on her left fist. “Eren took to the mental shields pretty quick.”

“They’re like imaginary wards.” He gestured to his head with his left hand while he held up the mug. “I can still feel you… just farther away.” He frowned at Levi a little before he took a sip, then grimaced. “Gah, too sweet.”

“You need the carbs, so drink it.” Levi threatened him with another flick until Eren whined and resumed drinking the tea. “So we’ve been busy booby-trapping things for the bastards, and now the wards will warn us when they get here?”

Armin realized that the last bit was directed at him. “Yes, or at least they will be by nightfall.”

“Good.” For a moment Levi appeared tired as he fixed the sweater sliding down Eren’s back, then his expression hardened. “Because the sooner we can get everything set up, the better.”

Hange stopped rolling about the vials of Eren’s ‘ward’ to give the necromancer a worried look. “What, you that anxious to fight them or something?”

Levi shook his head. “I just think that they’re not going to be happy when they find out that I didn’t take the bait. Their main goal is Eren, and they seem to be wanting to get at him through me.”

Eren stirred beside him and shook his head. “Then we should figure… I don’t know, some way to draw them in using me.”

Levi wasn’t the only one to shoot down Eren’s suggestion. “Hell no,” Levi barked while Hange shook her head and Armin called out “no!” while hoping that Mikasa was still busy with the fire. “They’re coming for you regardless, don’t give them any added incentive,” Levi insisted while he shoved the mug back up near Eren’s mouth.

It was around then that Erwin sauntered into the kitchen with his phone held in his hand. “Now that sounds like an interesting topic.” He gave Hange an inquisitive look.

“Someone’s being a bit too eager to offer himself up,” she explained while motioning toward a drinking Eren. “Maybe we can tie him up in red ribbon and make it all proper while we’re at it.” She laughed when Levi took to glaring at her.

“Don’t think we need to go that far just yet.” Erwin nodded to Levi as he held up his phone. “They’ve reached the safe house, so now they’ll be on watch to see if any of our ‘friends’ followed them there.” When Levi’s eyes narrowed at the ‘friends’ comment, Erwin turned to Armin. “What about the wards?”

Armin reached for one of the vials near Hange. “Give us a couple more hours and they’ll be done.” He cast a sympathetic glance Eren’s way. “Get some rest and when you wake up, we’ll just need your help for a few minutes, I’m thinking.”

Eren shook his head. “No, I’m better now. I’m – gah!” He dropped the empty mug onto the table when Levi made a flicking motion at his face. “Not funny!”

“Yeah, killer reflexes there, Brat. You, couch-time, now.”

Armin recognized the surly pout on his friend’s face as one that usually surfaced when Eren had reached the limits of his energy but was refusing to go down. “One of these days I’m turning into a dragon and sitting on all of you. *All* of you.” He motioned with his right hand but only in the direction of about half of them, the other half being the kitchen counters. “Poomph.”

“And when you start making up words I know it’s particularly bad.” Levi sighed as he hooked an arm around Eren’s chest and hauled him out of the chair. Eren squawked as he was dragged onto his feet but Levi appeared to have the upper hand in strength and so managed to take him away without much of a fight. “Nice, soft couch right out here. Turn into a fucking cat if it makes you happy, just don’t shed.”

“So mean,” Eren whined as he was hauled out of the kitchen.

“You love it.”

Erwin waved to them as they passed by, his brows drawn together in a frown. “We’re on our own for dinner, aren’t we?”

“I think I saw some frozen pizzas in the freezer,” Hange offered.

“Hmm, maybe Petra won’t mind taking over again, once she’s done resting as well.” Erwin appeared a bit chagrined as he looked at the two of them. “A houseful of talented mages and most of us are horrid at cooking.”

Armin winced as he reached into his bag for some arsenic. “Eren always took care of it for us, and then Mikasa and I survived on take-out once he left. Unless it’s ramen or egg sandwiches, we’re hopeless.”

“Yeah, I relied upon Moblit, basically.” For a moment Hange appeared worn down by sadness, then she shook herself and rallied with a lopsided grin. “We need to figure out how to keep Eren when this is all over.”

“If Levi lets you,” Erwin warned.

Levi and Mikasa. Speaking of the latter, Armin smiled at the two older mages as he stood up. “I need to go fetch some quartz I left up in my room – I’ll be back in a minute.” Both nodded to him as he left, and began discussing if Erwin would be all right running out for supplies the next day.

Heading toward the main room, Armin was heartened to not hear any signs of fighting or feel any flares of magic – just heat as he got closer to the large fireplace. Seeing Mikasa standing a few feet away, he hurried toward her, and was surprised when she held up her right hand as if in warning.

“Huh?”

“Shhh.” She turned toward him, and that was when he noticed that not only was Eren curled up on the larger of the two couches, but Levi was tucked behind him as well, and both of them had their eyes closed.

Mikasa came toward him then motioned for him to follow. “Uhm, they’re both sleeping?” he asked in a quiet voice.

“Eren was being fussy so Levi lay down with him. That calmed him down, and it looks like they both needed the sleep,” she explained.

Levi had seemed tired back in the kitchen, Armin remembered. “And you’re fine with that?” He would have expected that Mikasa would have preferred to be with her brother.

She waited until they were on the steps to say something. “I… it’s clear that Eren is happy with Levi.” She frowned as she twisted her hands in the ends of the scarf. “And that Levi is determined to protect him.”

“Yes, he is,” Armin agreed. “I think there’s a bond between them for a reason.” He knew that she was still trying to accept that, but she did need to hear it.

Mikasa sighed as she gave the scarf a quick tug. “We talked a little, Levi and me. I still think he needs some watching… but you’re right.” She rolled her eyes as if unhappy about acknowledging that Armin had won that argument. “I just wish that so much wasn’t happening to them right now,” she added in a plaintive voice.

“As do I, but maybe they’ll come out all the stronger for it,” he assured her as they neared their room.

“They better, because if Levi doesn’t come through for Eren, he’ll have to answer to me.” Silver flashed in Mikasa’s eyes as she entered the room ahead of Armin.

He sighed as he gave her an exasperated look. “You’re going to be one of those mothers who terrorizes their poor child’s dates, aren’t you? Sitting there on the porch as they arrive at the end of the night, doing background searches on them, slipping geas on them when your child’s back is turned….”

Her smile just then was a frightening thing to behold. “Taking them out to the back yard to point out where I’ll bury their body if they do a single thing to harm my child. Oh yes, you better believe it. Nothing hurts my family.” She turned toward him and gave him a gentle kiss on the cheek. “Wait until it’s your turn to date.”

He rubbed his right hand over his face as he groaned. “Please, get all of this out of your system with Eren, all right?”

“Hmm, where’s the fun in that?” She gave him a pleased smile before going over to dresser, where she’d unpacked her clothes, and fetched what looked to be a clean outfit. He thought he heard her humming as she then went into the bathroom, apparently to shower.

No wonder Eren had fallen for the scariest guy around… who happened to be related to Mikasa.

*******

Annie was busy checking the phone when Reiner entered the kitchen with a mostly empty tray in his hands. “You may be happy to know that she ate something this time.”

“That’s good, I suppose.” Annie paused in tapping on the screen to glance at the tray, and noticed that the bowl of soup was almost empty. “She stop ranting yet?”

Reiner sighed as he dropped the tray off near the sink. “Still going on about making Smith’s flesh rot off the next time she sees him, so I’ll say ‘no’.” His face was lined with exhaustion as he sat down at the table. “We have any more po-“

“*No*.” She didn’t need him to finish that sentence to know where he was headed. “Go rob a pharmacy if what’s left of her arm is still hurting her or if you need her to calm down, but no more potions. You know that Tara didn’t send us with that many in the first place.” Alchemy was a rare skill back home, which was why in part it was so important to bring Eren back with them; his ability to use all types of magic would come in very handy. Annie was just grateful that, as nasty as this mission was, it meant that she didn’t have to worry about being sent out to ‘refresh’ the gene pool, to find a latent of some suitable bloodline and return once she was certain she was pregnant with a talented child. She knew it was why Reiner and Bertolt had agreed to the mission as well, to spare themselves from the same.

For a moment it appeared that Reiner was about to argue with her, then he shook his head before motioning toward the phone. “Hit on anything yet?”

She held up the data that had been copied over from the chip that Bert had installed. “Someone sent them a photo. Recognize these two?”

Reiner sucked in a sharp breath at the image of a smiling Eren and Ackerman. “Dammit, what are they doing to him? Is it a spell? Are they lying to him?”

“Who knows?” Annie turned the phone’s screen back to her and stared at it; the smile on Eren’s face appeared genuine, especially since he wasn’t looking at whomever it was who had taken the picture. Could a geas or spell produce an emotion like that? “I’m more concerned with what’s in the background, in trying to find something that matches the stone and the woodwork in the little that we know about the general area Hitch was able to narrow down. The main thing is, they’ve sent something to the tapped phone, maybe they’ll send more.”

“Maybe they’ll call.” Reiner flashed a toothy grin as he leaned back in the chair, some of the exhaustion gone from his handsome face. “Maybe we can do something to *make* them call.”

Annie nodded. “The phone appeared wiped since I couldn’t pull much information from it… but we now have one number to track down, thanks to the photo. It’ll take some time, but I’ll dig up what I can on it, see if I can’t backtrack through it and catch Eren that way.” She pushed away from the table and tucked the phone into the front pocket of her sweatshirt. “In the meantime, get Hitch ready to fight and see if you can’t shake the tree from this other end.”

“You got it.” Reiner slapped the table with his right hand as he grinned. “*Finally* we’re getting somewhere. Just a few more days and we’ll be back home.”

“Yeah.” Annie did her best to work up some enthusiasm. “Don’t get sloppy just yet, though.”

Reiner waved her concern aside, and she didn’t have the energy to argue anymore so she just left. It would take some work to track down the other phone, work she would be happy to do by herself. As she made to leave the small farmhouse where they were currently residing, she pulled out the phone and thumbed back to the new photo; Eren leaned against the necromancer as if it was normal to touch another person like that, and Ackerman allowed him the intimacy, even draped his arm along Eren’s shoulders. To be so close to someone like that, to appear so happy…. Annie’s mouth twisted as she once more powered down the phone and shoved it away. Could magic do that? Could it fake a bond between two people, fake those smiles? Why had Eren fought back that time? Hadn’t Grisha told him *anything*?

Why would he want to be with someone who would use him, would use his ability to hurt his own kind? Who would treat him – Annie shook her head. Focus on the mission. Don’t mix things up, just get the stupid kid and take him back where he belonged. Where they all belonged. Nothing ever good came out of shifters being out here, there was more than enough evidence of that. Eren would thank them for rescuing him eventually.

Still, Annie envied him that smile.

*******

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