chapter twelve

*******

truth will come to light... at the length, the truth will out

*******

“-really should stop that.”

“Aw *hell* no. These are so going up on the winter solstice mailing flist.”

Levi went to rub at his eyes as he woke up, annoyed by the voices that wouldn’t *shut the fuck up*. “Too loud,” he grumbled as he forced his eyes to open, and then blinked a couple of times as he attempted to figure out where the hell he was; the warm weight settled on top of him was familiar, soft brown hair which tickled his chin and wild magic entwined with his own, but the large room with white plastered walls and wooden beams… ah yeah, the lodge.

He tilted his head to the side to see Hange standing a few feet away with her phone out, the flash busy going off, and acted without much thought by having a spirit knock the damn thing out of her hand. “What the hell?” As she wailed and dived after the device, Mikasa approached the couch with her attention focused on the unconscious brat draped on top of Levi much like a blanket.

“How is he?”

“Eh, dead to the world.” Levi’s voice was rough from sleep; he couldn’t believe that he’d managed a nap like that but as soon as he’d curled up next to Eren to get the damn brat to shut up and stay down, the lack of sleep from the night before had caught up with him. He brushed his right hand along Eren’s forehead, which prompted a faint murmur from his lover. “Seems to be okay, though.”

Mikasa tucked back the hair falling onto her face as she frowned; it looked as if she had changed after lunch, since now she was wearing a pair of blue sweatpants and a red and white sweater. “They shouldn’t have pushed him so much after last night.”

No, they shouldn’t have, but there was a lot of shit that needed done before those bastards came back at them again, and Eren having some sort of mental shields as well as figuring out how to keep the bastards from just waltzing past their wards were at the top of the list. “Not much we can do about it now.”

“Huh.” Mikasa gave Hange a disgruntled look as the blood witch held up her phone in triumph. “Maybe.”

“Oh, your precious brother is fine,” Hange snapped. “Little bit of hard work never killed anyone.”

Mikasa gave her a look that easily translated into ‘no, but *I* might,’, but before Levi could add in a comment of his own, he felt his lover begin to stir. Eren did that whole cheek rub thing and moved about, his hands sliding down Levi’s ribs and hips… ah, yeah, that felt good, that felt… like something he shouldn’t be focusing on with Mikasa and Hange just a few feet away. Gritting his teeth together as his hands grasped Eren’s hips to keep his lover from inadvertently grinding against him again, Levi began to growl out Eren’s name when the brat opened his eyes, which shone a bright gold beneath the heavy lids.

“Eren….”

Levi barely got the name out when Eren… ‘slinked’ was the only word for it forward, his body sliding up Levi’s until their lips met, the kiss insistent and hungry and growing even more demanding as-

“Ah, Eren?”

“Wha?” Eren jerked upright as he squawked upon hearing Mikasa’s voice and would have fallen off of the couch if it wasn’t for Levi’s arms around his hips; he blinked his now normal eyes several times as he gaped at everyone, the blanket that had been draped over them clutched around him as if he was naked beneath it. “Wuh-what?”

Yeah, that was one way to kill the buzz, Levi thought to himself as he groaned while he sat up. “Have a nice nap?”

Eren turned to stare at him, eyes still wide as if he was thinking through what had just been said; Levi could all but see the mental gears whirring in his lover’s head. Oh yeah, someone was *not* all there upon being woken up.

Mikasa made a half laugh/half snorting sound as she came over to them. “We had you lie down because you were exhausted, remember?” She placed a hand against Eren’s forehead and smiled. “You don’t feel warm and you look better than earlier, so it must have helped.”

Eren seemed to relax a little and let out a slow breath. “Oh, yeah, right.” He allowed the blanket to fall down to his hips and smiled, the expression a little nervous. “I feel better, too.”

Done fussing over her phone, Hange shoved it into the pouch attached to her belt and nodded. “That’s good to know. How about your head? The shields still holding up?”

Eren paused a moment and frowned, as if he was concentrating on something. “I think so – Levi’s still there, it’s just a little muted now.” His left hand reached out to touch Levi’s chest as if in reassurance. “It doesn’t hurt anymore, either.”

“Hmm.” Hange seemed to consider that for a moment before she smiled. “Well, that’s good to know.” She was still smiling as she reached into the pouch, this time to pull out what appeared to be a thin pipelet filled with what looked to be blood. “Because here’s hoping he won’t be affected when I use this bit of blood of yours to make you my slave. I’ve always heard about the kinky shit you shifters can do, like the self-lu-“

She didn’t get a chance to say anything else, because as soon as Levi realized that she had still Eren’s blood and was threatening to use it against his lover, a pure rage filled him and made him summon a spirit to snatch at the vial, to knock it from her hand and shatter it before it even hit the ground. At the same time, Mikasa used her threads to wrap them around a laughing Hange while Armin, Petra and Erwin raced into the living room.

“What the hell?” Before Levi could shred Hange’s spirit or Mikasa to choke the bitch, Erwin sent out balls of hellfire as if deterrents. “What are you doing?”

Hange continued to laugh even as Armin tugged at Mikasa and ordered her to let the blood witch go. “She- Eren,” Mikasa attempted to say.

“She threatened Eren,” Levi spat out. Meanwhile his lover sat next to him and frowned.

“Uhm… I don’t know, I didn’t feel anything and she’s all happy.” Eren rubbed at his forehead.

“There’s no killing unless I say so,” Erwin ordered in his ‘he who must be obeyed’ voice. “Mikasa, let her go. *Now*.”

Mikasa dared to match him glare for glare for about two seconds, which was impressive as hell, before she glanced aside and did as she’d been ordered. Hange was still chuckling as the silvery threads vanished, and gave Erwin a cheeky grin.

“Well?” His blue eyes narrowed as he looked her over. “What was that about?”

“Yes, how could you possibly have any of Eren’s blood?” Armin added as he tapped a slippered toe by the mess on the floor. “The one time we saw you take any, you drank it all.”

“Busted!” Hange crowed as she reached out to shove at his shoulder. “It was an old sample I had, nothing important, I just wanted to get a reaction out of Levi.” When everyone stared at her like the lunatic she was, she beamed at Eren. “So, how ya feeling? Any headache? Backlash? No attempt to drain us, I noticed!”

Erwin appeared ready to singe Hange, while Levi was half-temped to shred her soul anyway while Eren rubbed at his forehead again. “Uhm, there’s a little bit of a headache, but nowhere near as bad as last night. Levi’s anger is more… muted now.” He gave Levi a nervous look before he turned his attention back to Hange. “Though I think you might want to go elsewhere for… oh, a week or so.”

“More like a fucking month, you shitty glasses,” Levi muttered. “Don’t even *think* of ever trying something like that.”

“Yes, it would be… most ill-advised,” Mikasa added as she stared down Hange with silver eyes.

“Bring it on, spidergirl.”

“Ah, ah!” Armin hurried to get between the two women while Petra sent a breeze ruffling through the room, which caused the fire to sputter a little. “We’ve a common enemy, the last thing we need is to fight amongst ourselves.” He turned his attention toward Mikasa as Hange huffed and fussed with her glasses. “She was only testing out Eren’s mental shields – the method might have been rather dubious, but her intentions were well-placed.”

Mikasa scoffed as she looked aside, while Levi clicked his tongue. “Don’t try something like that again,”
he warned his friend.

“Yeah, yeah,” Hange muttered as she waved aside the warning. “Least we know the mental shields are working now.”

“Though they’re not much good when everyone is all upset.” Eren scrubbed at his hair as he did… something, he somehow managed to twist his body about so he fell about Levi’s chest with his back pressed against it and his head tucked in the crook of Levi’s right shoulder. Levi frowned down at his lover even as he wrapped his arms around him then looked over at Mikasa and Armin, both of whom just shrugged and smiled at him respectively as if used to his lover’s antics. Judging from the lingering feel of magic that radiated from Eren, he supposed that it must be a shifter thing and gave the brat’s right ear a quick nip.

Erwin let out a loud sigh as he pinched the bridge of his nose. “May I remind everyone that we have a common enemy – and it’s not ourselves? And speaking of those enemies, what about the wards?”

Armin stopped smiling and jerked about as if startled. “Ah! Yeah, we, uhm, yeah, almost done.” He hastened toward the kitchen. “You think the holly is done rendering?” He appeared to be directing the question toward Hange.

“It should be close,” she agreed as she followed him. Meanwhile, Petra went over to the fire to put on a few more logs.

“If they’re finished in the kitchen, I’ll get started on dinner.” Eren stirred at that, but Levi held on to him. “It’s just going to be some pizzas, nothing too fancy.” She seemed to notice Eren’s reaction and left the fireplace to come pat him on the legs. “Don’t worry, get a little more rest, okay?”

“Yes,” Mikasa agreed. “I’m sure you’ll be helping out after dinner so take it easy for now.” She gave Levi a pointed look before leaving as well.

Eren seemed to tense for a couple of seconds before he let out a breath and relaxed against Levi. “I feel so useless.”

Levi flicked the idiot on the ear. “Yeah, you’re just helping to keep those bastards from sneaking through the wards again, that’s doing nothing.”

“But it is.” Eren knocked his elbow back into Levi’s ribs as he grumbled. “I just do the crystal thing while Armin is all brilliant.”

“Hmm, like how I just play with dead stuff while Erwin does his plotting. You don’t get any sympathy from me.” Levi pinned his lover’s arms to his side to prevent any more blows and smirked when Eren whined in frustration. “What, is it so bad to keep me company?”

Eren stopped trying to squirm free at the question and sighed. “It depends, are you going to make me clean or practice spells? Because usually that’s what we do, that or….” There was a pulse of magic and Eren’s face turned red, making it clear what the ‘or’ meant.

Levi leaned down to nuzzle his lover’s warm ear. “Hmm, not here where anyone can see us,” he murmured, and chuckled when Eren cursed at him. “How about we watch something instead?”

“Eh?” Eren twisted about enough to look up at him. “Really?”

“Yeah.” Levi tipped them over so they could stretch out on the couch, his arms still around his lover, and then had a spirit knock the tv’s remote toward him. “No sappy shit, though. Or some crappy movie that’s been remade like ten times. Or stupid-“

Eren groaned as he snuggled closer to Levi. “Just pick the damn movie or whatever.” He pulled the blanket up over the both of them then hugged Levi’s arm against his chest.

“Someone’s getting all bossy,” Levi griped as he turned on the tv, though he hid his smile as he pressed the bottom half of his face against the top of Eren’s head.

“Says the guy who has the remote.”

“Damn right I do.” Levi gave Eren’s middle a squeeze as he pulled up the menu. “Ooh, look, a medieval history marathon on the History Channel. Score.”

Eren whimpered as he tugged the blanket up higher – Levi blocked him from covering his face and grinned in victory as he changed the channel.

*******

Isabel fisted her hands onto her hips as she gazed around the cabin. “Well, it’s clean at least.” It was clear that the place had been built more in mind for weekend hunting trips or getaways, since it was tiny; there was the main room with a large couch and a small bedroom, only one bathroom and a very basic kitchen – and decorated in *plaid* fabric everywhere. Seriously, who chose plaid as an interior fashion choice? “How long are we supposed to be here?”

Erd gave her an apologetic look as he set aside the bags he’d brought from the truck. “Hopefully just a few days – you two can have the bedroom, we’ll sleep out here.”

“Thanks,” she told him, even if she was about to set fire to the plaid bedspread. “I guess we should set up some sort of wards. I can do air and fire, and Farlan water.”

Gunther nodded as he dropped the bags he’d brought. “I’ll do earth, which should give us a nice set of protections – at least, if we were dealing with anything but those assholes.” He dusted his hands as he met his partner’s eyes. “You going to call Erwin to let him know we’re here?”

Isabel perked up at hearing that, only to frown when Erd shook his head. “I’ll send him a text – don’t want to risk our ‘friends’ overhearing anything.”

“Bah, you just don’t want me chatting with Levi again, do you?” She glared when Erd gave her a patronizing smile; the bastard knew she could create an air ward.

“You’ll see him soon enough, just concentrate on the wards right now.” Erd picked up a bag of groceries and headed to the kitchen as if to ensure he had the last word on the discussion.

Oooh, she should singe the bastard for that, but Farlan was giving her the ‘look’, so Isabel settled for flipping back her hair and went outside instead. But someone was going to find it turning very cold later tonight, yes he was. Funny how the heat wouldn’t work in the main room of the cabin but would be just fine in the bedroom….

“Izzy,” Farlan chided as he fell in step beside her. “I know that look.”

“Hmm, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about,” she insisted as she tugged on the end of her left glove. “So, how far out do you think we should set these wards?”

He sighed then motioned to a stump that was about fifty yards from the house. “Might as well do the usual. That all right with you, Gunther?” The earth mage was looking around the cabin as if searching for something.

“Eh, yeah, that should be okay.” He finished searching the ground and then looked up in the air. “Everything seems quiet around here.”

Well, that was enthusiastic as hell. Isabel frowned at the man until Farlan tugged her aside, and then they began to create the wards. She started with fire at first, since it was the element she felt most in ‘synch’ with, and as she willed a barrier of magical energy based on that magic around the cabin, she summoned her wind magic as well and overlaid the two together; having dual magic like that, it made the wards even stronger, the two magics united as they came from the same source. As she worked, Farlan wove his water ward in with hers, long used to working magic together. She missed how it had been all those years ago when she’d first learned about wards and magic, when Levi had added his necromancy as well – even if she’d only known a fraction about spellworking back then. Hopefully soon she’d be able to work magic with him and Farlan again.

“Wow, that’s… that’s damn impressive.” Gunther sounded surprised, and was slow to add his earth magic to the wards they were creating. “Think the only thing that will get past these are those damn shifters.”

“Thanks.” Farlan held on to Isabel’s right hand as they built up the wards. “Crazy to think something can slip through them like that.”

“Yeah.”

Isabel agreed, and perhaps it was the thought of the shifters and the danger they posed that made them work in silence until the wards were finished. As the magic slowly faded away, she wiped at the faint sweat on her face and grinned at her husband. “I think that was a record!”

He shook his head even as he tugged their joined hands toward his chest. “Doesn’t matter how fast they get done, just that they hold,” he chided. When she stuck her tongue out at him for being such a stick in the mud, he rolled his eyes… his smile slipping for a moment before it returned and he pulled her toward the cabin. “I swear, you have to make a contest out of everything, don’t you?”

No she didn’t, and she was about to say that when- oh. “Of course I do, where’s the fun if you don’t?”

“Yeah, but you wear yourself out too quickly by rushing through things.”

Right, as if throwing up a ward made her tired, but she trusted him so she went on with this charade. “It’s not like anyone knows where we are, right? We’ll be safe long enough for me to regain some energy – for both of us to do that.”

Gunther gave them an odd look as he followed them into the cabin, probably because he knew enough about Levi to realize that if they’d grown up with him, they weren’t weaklings. Still, he didn’t say anything until they were in the cabin, and Isabel managed a quick air ward to muffle any sounds enough to prevent things from being heard clearly. “Ah, something going on?”

Farlan gave Isabel’s hand a quick squeeze before he let it go. “The hawk is back.”

Gunther stared at him in confusion while Erd stopped typing on his phone. “Wait, the hawk from yesterday?” the water mage asked while Isabel fought the urge to go outside and burn the damn thing.

“Yes.” As if reading her mind, Farlan reached over to hug her close. “The same one – I don’t know if they think we’re stupid, unobservant or don’t care if we’ve figured it out. It’s just outside of the new wards.”

“Shit.” Gunther made an arrested movement toward the window before he seemed to rethink his actions. “It must have followed us.”

“Looks like Erwin was right.” Erd’s brown narrowed as he resumed typing. “The bastard probably wants us to notice it, to start freaking out. It wants us to do something rash, like call for Levi or Eren.”

“It’s one thing to be told this, it’s another to see it be played out.” Farlan stared at the nearest window before he shook his head.

Isabel held up her right hand, which was covered with golden flames. “Yeah, well how about I turn it into a nice tasty dinner, hmm?”

Farlan sighed as he batted at her forearm until the flames vanished. “How about you don’t? We knew that the thing would probably follow us, that it was hoping for Levi. Now we have to wait to see what it does, right?” He directed the question toward Erd.

The water mage sighed as he looked at his phone. “Yeah, that’s Erwin’s plan, pretty much. We wait and see what these bastards do, while Erwin figures out something to take them out.”

Isabel cast a few sparks his way as added incentive. “Tell Erwin to hurry up with the damn plan, because I’m only going to be spied on for so long before I see how good barbequed hawk tastes, understood?”

Erd gave her a harried look before he resumed texting, while Farlan sighed. “Come on, let’s start unpacking,” her husband told her as he bent down to pick up their bags. “Time to check out our bedroom for the near future.”

“Better be a decent mattress beneath that awful bedspread,” Isabel muttered as she followed him into the small bedroom. Bad enough to be spied on by a murderous shifter, she refused to be stuck sleeping on a lousy bed as well.

*******

“It looks like that phone hasn’t been used much in the last few days – the towers are rather remote and they’re not showing much activity.”

Annie leaned forward to look at the map that Howard had pulled up on the monitor, at the blinking blue dots. “Print that out for me.”

Caught under the influence of geas, the mobile tech bobbed his head as he hurried to obey. “Yes, ma’am.” His fingers flew over the keyboard and the printer whirred to life.

“Also, indicate which tower was used when,” she told the young man.

“Yes, ma’am.” He smiled as he followed her instructions, the expression almost a grimace as it stretched across his pale face.

It was a shame that he was proving to be so helpful, she thought to herself as more information was printed out; she wished she could walk away from the store and let the young man finish closing up, could order him to forget what had happened tonight but there were cameras, was a security system in place and he was a normal. If it was bad enough to have someone from the magic community find out about her, it was a thousand times worse to have the *normals* realize that there were shifters out there, to know that magic existed. No, best to make this look like some sort of crime, even if all Howard had done wrong was to be the last one left in the building tonight.

Annie’s father had told her that a fighter needed to be strong, that a fighter never quit until the battle was won. She wondered if he ever had an innocent young man’s blood on his hands, if he had ever done anything other than seduce a poor latent woman and then walked off with her daughter one day, had taken that daughter back home and then raised her to be a murderer….

*Focus.*

“Ma’am?”

She realized that she had allowed herself to be distracted and shook her head as she went to fetch the printouts. After she looked them over and tucked them into the pocket of her sweatshirt, she went back over to Howard. “What about the other numbers on the phone?”

“Uhm, I can print those out to, but I don’t know what good they’ll do you, they look like prepaid phone accounts as well so you can’t trace who owns them either.”

“Try a few of them, see if they match up to the same cell towers.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Howard began to sweat, probably as he attempted to fight the geas, but he was a normal, was someone with no familiarity to magic and so had no idea how to resist it, and did as she’d asked. It took some time, but she had another map, this time with fewer towers.

“Print out both the map and the list of phone numbers.” She might need those other numbers if by some chance they’d moved Eren in the last day or two. Once she’d collected those sheets of papers, she paused to consider if she needed any other information and couldn’t think of anything.

It wasn’t as if she couldn’t just find another store and another tech like Howard, though she hated using people like this. Certain that she’d gotten all of the information that she could at the moment, she went back to Howard. “Erase all signs of what you just did.”

“Ma’am?” He stared at her in confusion. “I’m not sure – how am I to do that?”

She sighed as she accepted that she’d have to do this the hard way. “Then close your eyes.” Howard frowned but did as he’d been told, a young man who reminded a little too much of Bertolt even if he wasn’t quite as tall and had brown eyes instead of green. Annie grit her teeth as she pulled a knife from the back of her pants. “Don’t move, and don’t scream.” As soon as she gave that order, she shoved the blade up beneath Howard’s sternum, just as her father had taught her.

Howard let out a slight gasp as the blade went in, his body rigid for a couple of seconds and then he crumpled onto the ground. She watched him fall, watched the blood seep out from around the blade and his body still, and only when she was certain that he was dead did she turn toward the stand where the monitor was to look for the computer.

It took a few seconds, but she found the device and, using her magic, sent a magnetic pulse to fry the memory. Once the screen went blank, she used her claws to tear into the metal, to pull out the fried hard drive and then threw what remained of the device across the room, where it crashed into a display of phones; that might not explain everything but it was better than nothing. Then she hurried from the store, leaving Howard’s dead body behind.

She headed to an alley about a block away, and once in the shadows, shifted out of the random form she’d assumed earlier as she’d walked down the street. Some middle-aged woman was going to be in for a surprise if the video footage from the store was circulated, but it wasn’t Annie’s problem. No, right now she needed to check out those towers and find Eren.

Taking out the print outs as well as her phone, she called Reiner; he picked up on the third ring. “I have some leads,” she told him while she dropped the ruined hard drive to the ground and stomped on it.

“And hello to you, too. How long do you think it’ll take you to find him?”

She studied the second map for a few seconds. “Maybe tomorrow if I’m lucky, another day if I’m not. What’s going on at your end?”

“Bert’s watching them, has them on edge, and Hitch is back on her feet. How about we try that ‘shaking the tree’ thing tomorrow, see if we can’t split up Eren’s guards a little?”

Annie considered the proposal. “I can always sneak in and get into place then wait for you. We don’t know how many mages they have watching over Eren now, and drawing off a few would be a good idea.” They had to be worried now with them picking off so many of Smith’s men, and having come so close to rescuing Eren before. “I’ll send pictures of the maps so you have an idea of where I’m headed, and text you when I find out for certain.”

Reiner let out an excited whoop of laughter. “Yes! I told you we’d be home soon!”

She shook her head as she straightened out the pieces of paper. “Don’t get too cocky just yet, I have to make sure these leads pan out and you still need to do your part.”

“Yeah, yeah. Have fun flying about.”

Annie wished Reiner was within reach so she could kick him, but figured it would be good enough to finish the mission and be done with having to put up with him. She took the pictures and sent them to the pain in the ass, then dug out the small bag she’d stashed behind the dumpster so she could stick the pictures and the phone inside of it; she’d have to shift into a rather large bird to be able to carry it, but this late at night, humans didn’t tend to notice odd things like that.

The bag ready, she took off the clothes and shifted; once in the shape of an abnormally large black eagle, she picked the bag up in her right talons and then launched herself into the air.

*******

Erwin sighed as he read the latest message from Erd and pushed away his plate of pizza. Across the table, Levi set aside his half-eaten slice of pizza and scowled. “What? What is it now?”

Trust the man to notice the minute details. Erwin waited to finish his glass of beer before he replied, during which everyone else paused in eating their dinners to stare at him. “Erd has informed me that one of the shifters has definitely followed them to the new location.” He held up his left hand when Levi’s grey eyes narrowed and he appeared ready to say something. “It’s doing the same thing it did back at Farlan and Isabel’s house, it’s just watching.”

Levi clicked his tongue while beside him, Eren squirmed in his seat as if uncomfortable; he stilled when Levi began to rub at the back of his neck. “Yeah, but for how long?”

“We talked about this – I believe they will have a couple of days while the shifters try to provoke you into action.” Erwin sighed as he wished that he had another beer. “Now that we have the new potions that counter-act their two main abilities, we can start planning on how to go on the offensive.”

Armin nodded as he rose from the table, heading to the counter to start the coffee machine. “Yes, Hange and I have finished the one for the wards, we just wanted to confirm it with Eren after dinner.”

Erwin believed the alchemist because he knew Hange wouldn’t relax until the issue was solved, not when she wanted revenge for Moblit, Mike and Nanaba. “So we’ll have reliable defenses by tonight, good.”

“Fantastic, it doesn’t do Isabel, Farlan, Gunther and Erd any favors,” Levi pointed out. “Does it?”

“Uhm, they do have the other potion, right?” Eren leaned against Levi, which caused some of the tension in Levi’s body to relax. “Wasn’t that part of the reason you had Armin make some more?”

“Yes, I did send Erd and Gunther off with a few vials, but not too many because we didn’t have a lot at the time.” Erwin sent Levi a reassuring look as he tapped his phone against the table. “I’m going to head into town tomorrow, let me make some calls there. Mike and Nanaba were two of our strongest, as was Dita, but there are a couple of others who can be of use when taking on these other shifters. If I can talk them into coming here… with the new wards and the potion, we’ll then pull in your sister and brother-in-law and make the stand here.”

As soon as he said the words, there was a reaction: Levi yanked a stunned Eren against him as if to physically protect his lover, Petra gasped, Armin cocked his head to the side while Mikasa stood up in a rush and Hange frowned.

“Who are you thinking about?”

“You’re not using my brother as bait!”

“That’s a big fucking risk you’re taking.”

Erwin nodded to Levi while he addressed Mikasa’s statement first. “I’m not using Eren as bait - in regards to the fact that by his very existence, he’s ‘bait’. It’s better to know that they’re coming here than to be taken by surprise… which they’ll do eventually. They’re too determined and too resourceful.”

Mikasa glanced back and forth between him and Eren. “But… we don’t know that for certain.”

“I have to agree with him.” Hange tapped a piece of pizza crust against her plate as she nodded. “They’re not going to give up until they’re dead or they have Eren, so at least this way, we have some control of the situation. I just want to know who you think can stand up to them when they already took out some of our best.”

Erwin set his phone on the table and leaned back in his chair. “I was hoping that Shadis, Thomas and Lynne.”

Hange considered the choices for a moment and nodded again, while Levi’s expression became bland, a sign that he at least didn’t disagree. “Eh, Shadis is up there in years but he’s still powerful and knows his shit. Thomas isn’t that young, either, but he’s reliable as hell, and Lynne trained with Mike and Nanaba. Yeah, it could work. Especially since we can take out that fancy ward of theirs.”

Eren shook his head and pulled away a little from Levi as he glanced back and forth between Hange and Erwin. “Ah, you know they can do more than the ward, right? I mean, I survived by myself all this time without knowing about it. All it took was shifting into something nasty enough to handle the problem.” He held up his right hand, which now sprouted an impressive set of claws as well as what appeared to be golden scales. “You saw it back at that guy’s house.”

He must mean Dita’s farm. “Which is why we had Petra, Levi and your sister work on taking out their advantage in the air,” Erwin told him. “We’re limiting what they can do.”

Eren still didn’t appear to be convinced. “I fought whenever I could in my giant form unless things got desperate because I didn’t like people knowing what all I could do.” His hand returned to normal as he resettled back against Levi. “They fought like that the first time, and then they came at you in different shapes.”

“Yes, after they lost,” Armin added as he fussed with the brewing coffee. “We all agree that they let Erwin go during the second fight, which shows just how much more powerful they are when they use non-human shapes.”

Petra reached for and began to stack the empty plates around her, as if needing something to do. “Now they’ll have my magic to contend with – my magic and the spirits Levi and Mikasa set up as well.”

“And they’ll lose their precious anti-magic wards,” Hange pointed out with some satisfaction. “Don’t forget that.”

Armin sighed as he poked at the half-full pot of coffee. “I know… just don’t forget that it seems we’ve a population of shifters that have existed for how long who’ve managed to survive without being caught. I believe that should be taken into consideration, too.”

Erwin bowed his head in acknowledgement of what the alchemist was trying to say. “Understood. Which is why I feel it’s safe to move only now that we have these new potions and with some additional help.”

Levi made a clicking noise as he shook his head. “Shadis is good but… we’ll see. Might be better to do with less people in a fight if they’ll just get in our way.”

Someone always had to be a contrary bastard, didn’t they? Erwin gave his friend a flat look. “Make up your mind, because I’m leaving in the morning.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Levi clicked his tongue again as he rose up from the table, Eren quick to follow. “Be sure to let me know if anything changes at the safe house.”

“I will.”

“Uhm….” Armin stared after his friend as if wanting to say something.

“We’ll be out in the living room,” Levi answered as he rolled his eyes. “Get your mind out of the gutter.” Meanwhile, Eren took to hiding his face with his hands and muttering something that sounded like ‘kill me now’.

It was going to be one of those nights, Erwin could tell; he sighed as he got up to go fetch another beer before he went up to his room and figured out how to ask three more friends to risk their lives.

*******

It wasn’t too far from the second cell tower she was checking out that Annie noticed a plume of smoke in the distance and went off to investigate; out here in the mountains, the inhabited buildings were few and far between, were hunting cabins or retreats of some kind, most of them closed up until their rich owners decided to pay a visit. The vast space with all of the trees reminded Annie a bit of back home, though the growth wasn’t as old and the land more mountainous than the territory protected by the most powerful wards she’d yet to come across.

The smoke’s ‘closeness’ was a bit of an illusion, as it took her some effort to fly across the valley and up half the mountain to near it, and she was mindful of being spotted now that the sun was up. Landing on a large cedar tree a hundred yards or so back from what appeared to be a lodge of some kind, she snagged the bag on a sturdy branch and then inched a little closer to the end so she could study the building.

She recognized the beat-up hatchback that had been back at the blood-witch’s house, and there was a motorcycle and a dusty coupe parked nearby as well. That was good enough reason to investigate for her, so she picked up the bag in her beak and dove for the ground. As soon as she landed, she shifted back into her human form and reached into the bag to pull out the map and her cellphone.

Reiner answered it on the second ring, which told her that he was either expecting the call or getting nervous. “You find them?”

She winced at how loud his voice came through the phone even though she was far enough away from the lodge that no one could hear. “It looks like it, there’s a lodge by the tower near the Twinpeaks River – I’m going to sneak in. What’s going on there?”

There was a shuffling sound as if Reiner was checking his map. “Huh, okay, that’s a bit out of the way. I left Hitch bitching up a storm, and it looks like the folks here are getting antsy.” Bert said something in the background, but Annie couldn’t make it out. “They don’t seem to be getting along very well.”

And Annie was supposed to care about that? “Maybe someone was hoping Ackerman would show up by now.”

“Weren’t we all?” Reiner scoffed as there was more shuffling. “Now that you’ve found Eren, can we finally have some fun here?”

Annie peered at the house for a moment; from the looks of it, there had to be several mages with Eren because of the three vehicles, perhaps more if they were dropped off; it wasn’t a bad plan to try to siphon away a few people with a rescue attempt. “Remember, you have to leave someone alive to make the call for help.”

“I know, just like last time.”

“Then wait for me to call you to tell you if it worked – give me at least half an hour and I should be in a good spot to see their reactions,” she continued.

“Yeah, yeah. Just don’t do anything stupid like try to take Eren out of there on your own,” Reiner insisted. “We’ve come too far to mess up now.”

“Worry about yourselves,” Annie told him before she hung up. She stared at the phone in her hand and fought with the impulse to throw it aside before she tucked it back inside the bag, then was careful to stash the bag against the tree with some fallen leaves over it as camouflage. Once that was done, she concentrated and shifted into a small, weasel-like shape, her fur colored to blend in with the ground beneath her crystal armor.

Get into the building, find out how many mages there were, wait for the boys’ diversion to see how many of the mages fell for it, and then slip out again to let them know. If along the way she could find out what they were doing to Eren, if it was torture or if they had managed to imprint on him somehow…. One thing at a time, she reminded herself. Gather the necessary intel and then wait for the boys to complete the rescue mission.

She exited the woods and crept across the open ground, staying in the shadows as she neared the lodge. There was a shiver, a slight sense of pressure as she crossed the wards a little farther out than she would have expected, and no more than a foot or so later she felt the earth tremble beneath her. Confused for a moment, she barely had time to react, to shift as decaying hands burst from the earth and grabbed at her.

Shifting into her armored fighting form helped to break free from the revenant – at least, *that* revenant, but more of them were clawing their way out from the earth, and spirits knocked into her as she struggled to understand what was happening – how did they know she was there? No one was outside – no one *had* been outside, but now people were pouring out of the house; Ackerman, the blood-witch, the Jorōgumo and the alchemist, and some unknown mage. No Eren, though.

“Stay the fuck inside,” Ackerman yelled as he motioned with his right hand, and another spirit slammed into Annie while a revenant appeared near the steps with blades in either skeletal hand; the necromancer barely slowed down as he snatched up the weapons and came running at her. “Just one of you?”

“It’s more than enough,” she told him as she grew taller, grew bigger, the crystal armor glistening in the sunlight as she slashed her clawed hands through the damn spirits surrounding her.

“Keep him safe,” the Jorōgumo told the blond alchemist as silvery, tentacle-like threads whipped into being from the back of her hands and lashed about as if alive. The alchemist nodded and remained on the porch.

Meanwhile, the blood-witch ran to keep up with Ackerman, a huge grin on her face as she held what looked to be something in her hands. “Oh, this is going to be fun!”

Ackerman clicked his tongue and nodded to the Jorōgumo, the only warning Annie had, and then she was fighting both of them at the same time, was fighting cursed blades and those damn threads that fought to cling to her crystal armor – she bared her teeth at them, at the rush of necromancy as they used spirits to power their blows, the kicks to her arms and head, used the undead to shield their own bodies from her attacks.

“You’re not so clever,” she spat out as she in turn grabbed the threads and used them to throw the Jorōgumo at Ackerman.

“Got that wrong!” Slipping into Annie’s blind-spot while she was distracted by the other two, the blood-witch grinned as she pitched two vials of something at Annie – and then laughed as a gust of wind tumbled her out of the way before Annie could rip out her guts.

What had been the point of – shit. *Shit!* “Shit!” Annie clawed at herself as something ate through the crystal armor, had it cracking and disintegrating while agony shot along her nerves. “What did you do?” Annie’s shape went into flux, began to shift into something smaller, into something with longer arms and bigger claws as she struggled against the pain. “What is this?” she shrieked. She couldn’t reform the armor, couldn’t do much of anything – and a rush of spirits knocked her onto her ass.

“It’s payback, you fucking bitch – or whatever you are,” the blood-witch snarled as she appeared ready to lash out with a spell. Not wanting to be around for that, not with her armor gone, Annie swiped her claws at a revenant closing in and used it as a shield while she sprouted wings then launched herself into the air –

Only to end up smacked back down to the ground, pain once more shooting through her from the broken bones in her wings; she had barely gained any altitude when she’d been snatched up by wicked cross-currents and spirits, twisted about and sent back the way she’d come. Gasping both from the pain and the suddenness of the improbable attack, she struggled to shift again, to protect herself, and grew the thickest, most impervious skin she could manage in order to deflect the myriad spells hurled her way.

The hard, almost iron-like scales deflected most of the blood-witch and wind mage’s attacks, and the revenants were like mites that she knocked aside with a flick of her long, supple body. She rose up and hissed as the necromancer and Jorōgumo approached, fire and venomous fumes pouring from her mouth, and only the wind mage’s quick thinking spared the two – this time. No, she would crush them before their spells could take effect, would sink her fangs into their weak bodies, would burn them as the venom made them weak.

“Eren, no!”

Threads lashing at her eyes made her flinch, but a flick of her tail and the Jorōgumo dived out of her way, which left Ackerman in her sights. Annie hissed again, the air thick with toxic venom, and drew breath so she could exhale flames. Just as they began to pour out, there was a flash of gold and green, was a ferocious roar that made the breath stutter out of her.

Something sinuous and shiny wrapped itself around Ackerman, something with sharp, white teeth and lashing claws, with molten eyes and gold scales tipped in green and blue and radiating such potent magic. Eren – Eren had shifted into a dragon, a long, sinewy dragon, fragile wings spread wide and body twisted around Ackerman as if a living cage… or shield. He bared his fangs at Annie while she stared in shock, the only warning she had before raging fire poured out from his mouth.

She roared, not only from the shock of Eren protecting his own captor, but from the realization that the fire was burning her – was *draining* her magic. Desperate to escape, she writhed about - and found herself caught in a glowing white web, in the Jorōgumo’s threads that tightened around her even as her basilisk shape shrunk and her human form emerged. Eren didn’t stop until she was done shifting, until there was a deep rumble from far away, and the last thing Annie could feel was the awful fire flickering away as those cool threads wrapped around her, cutting her off from the world until everything was dark.

*******

“Yes! Yes!”

Judging from Hange’s demented shrieking, Levi was going to say that the shifter bitch – assuming she was a bitch, from the earlier form – was down for the count; it was a little difficult to tell when one had a fucking dragon all but draped over them. “Oi! Brat! Stop with the fireworks, okay?” He smacked the flat of one of his swords against Eren’s scaly side.

There was a slight rumble as Eren obeyed, then he twisted his long-ass neck around to peer at Levi; his eyes were huge and cat-like in the triangular head, his scaly skin soft and supple when Levi reached out to smack his narrow nose with the back of his hand. “You were supposed to stay inside, dumb-ass.”

That provoked another faint rumble as Eren fluttered his huge, gold and green wings, his magic fluctuating for a couple of seconds.

“And what’s with this shape? I thought you were going to sit on us? You can’t sit on shit like this – well, maybe Petra.” As dragons went, Eren was a bit on the scrawny side, but he certainly was fast as hell and flexible.

“Uhm, I think he has a bit too much Eastern influence in his dragon,” Armin explained as he approached, his leather bag clutched in his hands. “And he’s not good at staying on the sidelines when friends are in trouble.” He looked past them at whatever Hange, Mikasa and Petra were doing. “Did manage to take down the shifter without draining everyone, though, so that’s a win.”

Levi grunted as he gave Eren another smack with his right blade for not listening to him before stabbing both of them into the ground so one of the revenants could take them back. “As long as there’s not another shifter lurking about – and let go of me.” Yeah, okay, so his lover did a good job of keeping his ass from being fried, there was such a thing as overkill.

Eren huffed a little, which caused sparks to shoot from his mouth, before he uncoiled himself from Levi. As soon as he was separate, Eren shifted back into human shape – a *naked*, human shape – and rubbed at the back of his neck. “Would the others let her get captured like that?”

“Maybe, who knows with them.” Levi clicked his tongue as he dragged off his sweater and shoved it at Eren’s chest. “Put that on,” he ordered, and waited until Eren did before he headed over to the others; Armin followed with an amused smile on his face.

From the looks of it, Mikasa had mistaken the damn shifter for a fly or something with the way the bastard was completely encased in thread. “Not that I care too much, but can they breathe in there?”

Hange adjusted her glasses as she looked up from the glowing white cocoon. “Yeah, I’m monitoring our guest’s vitals.” She smiled when she saw Eren, who had tagged along as if Levi’s shadow. “You did a really good job, knocking the wind out of her sails!”

Eren shuffled closer to Levi, the sense of his magic stronger than usual. “Uhm, it was a little easier this time since I could focus on the person hurting everyone else.” His eyes flared gold for a moment. “Or wanting to hurt everyone else.”

“Yeah, that was an impressive trick, the breathing venom and fire shit.” Levi nodded at Petra. “Thanks for trying to clear the air.”

She blushed a little at the praise. “It was difficult, and I was relieved when Eren stepped in to save you.”

“So we know the potion knocks out their wards, but they’ll try to compensate by taking on forms like these – I know, you said something along those lines,” Armin held up a hand in Eren’s direction.

Mikasa dusted off her hands as she stood up. “And that the changes we made to the wards kept them from flying away or sneaking in. You guys did a good job of-“

Hange made a rude noise to cut her off. “Yeah, yeah, everyone’s brilliant and we can spend time later patting each other on the back or doing a critical analysis, but right now?” She rubbed her hands together while giving the wrapped shifter a kick. “Time to crack this bitch open for some intel, right?” Her eyes flared red as she gazed at them – at Levi in particular.

He sighed as he wrapped an arm around Eren’s waist. “We’re not going to wait for Erwin to return?”

“I can keep her – and yeah, it’s a her, I can tell that much from touch – knocked out until he does, but why wait that long? We’ve got phones, we can record everything and keep her alive until he gets back,” Hange argued.

Erwin would probably bitch, but Isabel and Farlan were out there, as were the other two shifters, so Levi didn’t have the heart to argue. “Fine, let’s get her into the house.” He gave Eren’s right hip a pat. “And you, go put on some clothes.”

Eren stirred against him at the command but didn’t pull right away. “Uhm, all right.” He looked up at Levi for a few heartbeats and then reached out, his fingers sliding into Levi’s hair as he tugged Levi’s head down, his lips soft as he initiated a kiss that was more an exchange of breath than passion. Levi’s fingers fisted in the soft sweater as heat and energy flowed into him, probably a good bit of the magic Eren had stolen from the shifter that chased away the cold and the exhaustion of the fight. “Don’t….” Eren shook his head rather than finish that sentence.

Still, Levi thought he knew what his lover was trying to say. “We’ll do what we have to do,” he told him, his voice ragged. “Now go put on some damn pants and fetch me a sweater.” His hand slid around to get in a quick fondle of Eren’s barely covered ass, which earned him a furious blush.

“Mean bastard,” Eren muttered as he hurried away, hands on the hem of the sweater to keep his assets covered, but there was a hint of a smile on his lips and his magic was calm.

“Ahem?”

Levi looked away from his lover to see that Mikasa had a revenant pick up the wrapped shifter and was staring at him. “Yeah?”

“If you’re ready.”

“Oh yeah, just love torturing people, it makes my day.” Still, he gestured for the remaining revenants to resettle back into the earth except for one, which followed Mikasa’s; he also had most of the spirits return to their previous positions. “Just so you know, I’m not cleaning up the fucking mess.”

Hange rolled her eyes as she fell in step beside him. “You know, there’s help for people like you. The first step is admitting that you have a problem.”

He should have kept one of the swords a little longer, he thought as he smacked her in the ribs. “Ha, ha.”

She laughed, the sound marred with a hint of pain. “It’s true! Ah well, I’ll just stay away from the messier diseases.” She hummed a little as they climbed the steps to the porch. “Your honey was in rare form today – I want to see him do that dragon again when he’s not being all ‘rawr’ protective of you.”

Levi rubbed his arms as they went inside; without Eren’s warmth, it was too damn cold to be outside without a sweater. “He shouldn’t have joined the fight.”

Hange made another rude noise. “You might have become charcoal if he hadn’t – I don’t know if these other shifters have a limited ability to cast other types of magic, like Eren, or if it’s just that their shifting ability is so far advanced that they’re able to replicate the biological changes that allow creatures like a basilisk to create venom and produce fire.” She seemed to think of something as she closed the door. “It might be the latter, as it would explain why she couldn’t incapacitate us with a look alone.”

Great, the lunatic was at it with the theories again, Levi thought as he rubbed at his temples. Meanwhile, he found Armin busy with a dry erase marker on a clean patch of the stone floor, scribbling out some runes that normally worked to short-circuit a mage’s magic for a precious few seconds, while Petra stood nearby with one of the chairs from the kitchen. “Oi, you think that’ll work?”

Armin paused to shrug. “It can’t hurt, and I’ve some potions as well.” He frowned as he added a squiggly line to one of the runes. “They’re not entirely effective on Eren, but they work a little. Combine the two and at least it’s something.”

Hange went over to the revenant and poked at the wrapped bundle in its arms. “There’s me as well – once she’s unwrapped and I get a drop of her blood, I should be able to negate a lot of her ability.”

Levi clicked his tongue as he leaned against the mantle of the fireplace, grateful for its warmth. “Just as long as you can keep her from turning into a giant or a fucking lizard again.”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Hange scoffed.

Meanwhile, Mikasa frowned as she tugged on the ends of her scarf. “She just better not be able to harm Eren.”

Yeah, count on *someone* to have their priorities straight. Before Levi or anyone else could say something, there was a clatter from above as a dressed Eren hurried down the steps, one of Levi’s sweaters in his hands and his eyes fluctuating between their lovely dark turquoise color and a glowing gold. “You didn’t start yet?”

“No.” Levi accepted the dark blue sweater and, once it was on, tugged Eren to him until his lover’s back was pressed against his chest. “Don’t go near her, okay? I mean it.” He wouldn’t allow what the shifter wanted most within her reach – if he thought that Eren wouldn’t be a stubborn little shit about it, he’d tell his lover to stay up in their room, but knew it wasn’t worth the fight.

Eren’s magic flared for a couple of seconds before it settled, warm and wild and soothing to Levi. “All right.” He hugged Levi’s arms around him tighter as if needing reassurance. “Be careful,” he called out.

Armin glanced up from the nearly finished runes and nodded, his expression closed off as if he wasn’t looking forward to what was about to happen. “We will.” His eyes narrowed as he turned toward an impatient Hange. “Look, I know you want revenge for Moblit and the others, and I understand. But we need answers.”

Hange’s red eyes narrowed and for a moment Levi thought she was going to flip out, but she let out a slow breath instead. “I won’t ask nicely, but I’ll ask her what we need to know, okay?”

Armin had the balls to meet her gaze for several seconds before he nodded, then added one last rune. “All right, it’s ready.”

Petra hurried forward with the chair. “Here you go. I can also put up a wall of air in case she tries to gets away, and I’ll film this for Erwin.” There was a tightness to her voice, probably because she was fine with fighting but not so much with torture.

“That’ll work.” Hange paused to give Petra’s arm a reassuring squeeze before she motioned to Mikasa. “Now for our guest of honor.”

Mikasa’s eyes flared silver as the revenant moved forward, and when it set the bundle on the chair, the silvery-white threads began to unravel and reform, to expose the unconscious shifter as it bound her to the chair. Levi had just gotten glimpse of her ‘human’ form through Moblit’s eyes and before Mikasa had wrapped her up outside, and was surprised that she was so small, that she appeared so young. The threads covered up most of her nudity, but Armin still made an uncomfortable sound and went to fetch a blanket from one of the couches, which he draped over her shoulders.

Hange rolled her eyes over his gentlemanly behavior and pulled a small razor out of her pouch, which she used to nick the shifter’s right ear after tucking back the loose blonde hair falling about the shifter’s face and shoulders. Similar to Eren, a few drops came forth before the wound healed, but Hange got what she needed, which she picked up with her finger and raised to her mouth. “Ahh…,” she rasped as she closed her eyes, a slight smile on her lips. “Oh yeah, definitely shifter blood.” When she opened her eyes, she smiled at Eren. “You guys are related, you know?”

Eren stirred in Levi’s arms, his magic fluctuating once again. “Eh?”

“Oh, nothing too big, you’re cousins a few generations removed – I get the feeling it might be a closed community, comparing your father’s genes to her dad’s.” Hange frowned as she stared off in the distance, her fingers flicking about in the air. “Is it a paternal trait? But *she’s* a shifter, so I don’t think so. Why are both mothers latent mages? So many questions, and I-“

“Hange!” Levi used a spirit to knock the lunatic’s glasses askew. “*Focus*, you crazy shit.”

She gave him the finger as she pushed the glasses back in place. “Fine, fine, I’ll figure it out later. So there’s some similarities with Eren, but yeah, now that I have something to compare his blood to, it makes his key nature stand out even more.” She tapped the top of the shifter’s head as if dealing with an inanimate object. “I think she has some hyped up ability with earth magic, but that’s probably it.”

Armin stood to the left of the chair and rummaged through his leather bag. “Well, I have some potions that should help out.” He held up several. “This will break any geas she might be under, such as not to reveal any secrets, and this usually works against earth magic. And, well, this will help make her cooperate with us.”

Eren shuddered as Armin handed over the vials to a curious Hange. “They contact or ingestion?”

“They’re most effective via ingestion, but they work somewhat via contact,” Armin explained.

“Don’t worry, I can make sleeping beauty here swallow before we wake her up.” Hange grinned in a disturbing manner as she uncapped the vials, and Eren wasn’t the only shuddering just then.

While Hange put her talent to use, Levi clicked his tongue and debated ordering his revenant outside, before deciding to leave it ‘on guard’ next to Mikasa’s behind the chair. “See the fun you’re missing,” he called out so it was caught on the recording Petra was taking with her phone; he hoped that Erwin returned soon, and not only to help rein Hange in if she got out of control. “How much longer?”

Hange hummed as she tilted the shifter’s chin up. “Just another minute or two.” The shifter’s throat moved as Hange did something to force her to swallow. “I want to give the potions some time to take effect.”

Levi clicked his tongue while Eren stirred against him. “Well, don’t wait too long, there’s no telling what those other two bastards are up to.”

“Make up your mind – I thought you weren’t happy about this,” Hange remarked as she threaded her fingers together and then flexed them until they cracked, while Mikasa shuffled forward as if suspicious about the shifter waking up any second now.

“Do I want a mess on my hands, no?” Levi gave his friend a flat stare while his right hand rose up to comb through Eren’s hair in an effort to calm down his lover. “Just wake up the bitch, get the information we need then put her down – don’t drag this out.”

Hange held his gaze for a couple of seconds then nodded. “Agreed.” Her expression softened a little as she looked at Levi’s lover. “Eren… honey, you know we’re doing this to keep you safe, right?”

Eren’s magic flared and his fingers dug into Levi’s left arm for a moment. “I don’t- she should just be dead.” For a moment he didn’t sound like himself, his voice was low and rough. “She tried to hurt you, to hurt Levi. She should be *dead*.” His magic flared again, and Levi tugged on Eren’s hair before he did something impulsive like drained even more magic from the unconscious shifter – could he take too much?

While Levi distracted Eren, Mikasa hurried over and cupped Eren’s face with her hands. “Hey, it’s all right.” Her voice was quiet and gentle. “We’re all right, and we need to do this, okay? You don’t need to kill her.”

“Well, not yet,” Hange added, then yelped when Armin punched her in the arm and hissed something at her that made her become serious right away.

Eren was stiff for a few more seconds and then let out a shuddering breath. “Oh-okay. If you say so.” He let go of Levi’s arm with his right hand so he could touch Mikasa’s scarf. “This time.”

There was an odd, somewhat confusing look on Mikasa’s face as she touched the scarf as well – it was as if she grateful for something, and a little sad. “No, not this time.” She stepped away with some reluctance, leaving Levi with the impression that there was some damn story behind Eren’s reaction and that shitty scarf… and he’d have to figure it out later. After the whole torture thing and saving Isabel and Farlan, and a ton of other shit.

He gave Eren’s hair a gentle tug. “Done spazzing out?”

Eren whined a little and batted at his hand. “Not spazzing.”

“Okay, done being a bloodthirsty little shit?”

“… shut up.”

“That’s a ‘yes’.” Levi hid a smirk in his lover’s unruly hair when Eren gave his shin a weak kick before he nodded at Hange. “Any day now.”

“Just waiting for you guys to finish with the drama.” Hange grinned when Levi made his revenant lurch in her direction. “Yeah, yeah, I know, time to get down to business.”

Petra held up her phone. “Wait, let me start recording again.” She moved over to the side even as her mouth twisted in a moue of distaste. “Warn me if things are going to get messy, okay?”

“Why, weak stomach?”

“No, I like this sweater and don’t want blood stains or worse on it.”

“Understandable.” Hange nodded as she reached for the shifter. “Alrighty, it’s show time.”

*******

Tightness. There was tightness, was something that made it difficult for Annie to breathe. Gasping as she opened her eyes, Annie stared at several unfamiliar faces around her as she attempted to figure out why her arms didn’t work, why she couldn’t move her legs or lash out at these people, why she was in a large, brightly lit room instead of the small, beige-painted room in her father’s house. Why- “Fuck.”

“Yeah, that’s a good summary of your situation, all right.” The blood witch, her eyes glowing a fiery red, smirked at Annie as she squatted a couple of feet away – Annie appeared to be tied to a chair with some sort of blanket draped over her. Something cold and slightly sticky was wrapped around her forearms, her calves and thighs, and even her chest. What was even worse was that when she attempted to shift in order to first slip past the bonds and then to break from them… nothing happened. Nor did anything when she attempted to use her magic to summon a spell.

“What?”

The blood witch laughed as she rocked back on her heels. “Realizing that we locked up your magic?” Her expression sharpened to something almost feral. “Should be familiar to you, yes? Sure you did it to poor Moblit and all your other victims.”

Shit, they must have her in some sort of circle, or used a spell or potion on her. Annie fought against her restraints but they didn’t budge at all, didn’t do anything but dig into her flesh. Someone, the alchemist, stepped closer but not enough to quite touch her. “You’re not going to break them so stop before you hurt yourself,” he urged in a quiet voice.

“Yes, they’re not going to give unless I order them to, and that’s *not* going to happen,” someone else – the Jorōgumo – said.

Annie panted as she forced herself to take in her surroundings, to realize that she must be inside the lodge. The alchemist, the Jorōgumo and the blood witch were closest to her, with the mage – wind mage, considering how she had fought – standing off to the side with a phone in her hand. And near the fireplace were…. “What are you letting them do to you?” Her voice came out in a painful rasp as she stared at Eren, at the way he allowed the necromancer to touch him like that, to be handled like a docile doll. Ackerman glared at her as if he could… well, yeah, kill her with a thought, but Eren merely blinked those big eyes of his, the color bleeding into gold. “You’re one of *us*. They’re using you, they’re- aggh!” Pain tore through her, cramped her guts and made her heart race, her breathing catch and nerves burn.

The blood witch was grinning once more as she waved her right forefinger about. “Ah, ah, don’t even think of grouping my little lamb-chop over there with you assholes-”

“For fuck’s sake, Hange!”

“-because he’s not the type to go around murdering nice people because they don’t know better than to keep their hands off of what’s not theirs.”

“He’s… he’s not yours, either,” Annie managed to grit out.

“He’s not *anybody’s,” the Jorōgumo insisted as she did something to cause the bonds to tighten around Annie; ah, that explained what had her tied to the chair.

She coughed in pain while the blood witch hummed a little. “A good point, Mikasa.” She nodded to the other woman before returning her attention back to Annie. “Yes, Eren belongs to himself, and he doesn’t like you very much.”

“At all,” the Jorōgumo muttered.

Annie gave the two of them a flat look. “He doesn’t have to like me, he’ll realize later on that-“ She bit into her bottom lip as the pain tore through her once again, even more potent this time.

The blood witch sighed as she pushed up her glasses. “So you’re one of those, eh? ‘It’s for the best’? Or ‘we’re doing it for him’?” She stood up and dusted off her hand. “Like the normals who drove our kind into hiding by killing and torturing us, by claiming we were possessed by demons and evil spirits? That we needed to be killed to protect humanity?” Her eyes narrowed as she increased the pain. “It always made me so *mad*, reading about those narrow-minded bastards. About how many of us….”

The rest of her rant was lost to the agony as Annie’s world narrowed down to fighting against the pain, to doing her best to not pass out, and when it finally ended, her mouth was full of blood and the alchemist was pulling back the blood witch while the wind mage was bent in front of her. “She’s okay, I think.”

“We need her alive long enough for answers, you shitty glasses,” Ackerman called out.

“Yeah, yeah.” The blood witch didn’t look too upset at the moment, and if Annie wasn’t conserving her energy for any chance to escape she’d spit the blood at the bitch instead of swallowing it. Besides, the witch would just use it as a weapon with her luck. “Heat of the moment and all that.”

“Then bow out if you can’t control yourself,” the alchemist snapped, his eyes flaring a luminous pale blue for a moment.

“Whoa, it’s fine,” the blood witch told him as she held up her hands. “I’ll be good, I promise.”

“Such… a sweetheart,” Annie drawled as she struggled to control her breathing.

The Jorōgumo gave her wrapped leg a light kick. “You don’t have much room to talk.”

Still near the huge, stone-covered fireplace, Ackerman clicked his tongue while Eren continued to remain silent, his eyes a brilliant, glowing gold; what had they done to him to render him so silent? “This pissing contest isn’t getting us anywhere – ask her about her buddies and what they’re doing.”

Annie managed a weak grin as she met the necromancer’s almost bored expression. “Worried about your sister?”

Ackerman’s eyes flared a burning silver while Eren cocked his head to look up at him. “No more than you should be worried for yourself.” Annie felt a numb sensation in her feet, and looked down to see her toes turning black. Fear made her throat grow tight and her lungs seize when she realized that he was causing them to rot, much like Hitch had attempted to do to Smith a couple of days ago. Despite her efforts to control her emotions, to keep her face blank, something must have shown because he gave a slight chuckle and the rot stopped while her healing factor kicked in. “Consider that a sample of what’s to come – so start talking now.”

She struggled not to hyperventilate as her toes slowly returned to normal. “Go… go to hell.”

“Aw, come on, show some imagination!” The blood witch tapped her fingers against the rim of her glasses. “Look what you’re up against here! Levi can rot your organs with a thought, and me? Well, just think of all the fun I can have without causing any permanent damage.” She gave Annie a grin without any humor in it at all. “So many fun things that affect the nerves alone, you know. And the brain.” She moaned in an obscene manner as her hands waved about. “I can have you so *fucked up* in minutes, how about a dose of schizophrenia? A bad case of bipolar? A few phobias that’ll make you feel like having a heart attack?” She once more squatted in front of Annie and tapped her forefinger against her temple. “All chemical reactions, ya know. And right now? I’m in your *blood*, sweetie. I *own* you.” She bared her teeth in a truly awful parody of a smile as she did something that twisted Annie’s perceptions, that made the world spin about in a kaleidoscope of colors and screwed with Annie’s sense of smell, until everything *reeked*. Just when Annie began to gag, everything returned to normal. “So yeah, tell us why you’re killing everyone you can to get at Eren, what you want with him, and where your buddies are before we *really* get nasty on your ass.”

Was this how they broke Eren? Had they twisted everything up inside of his head until he didn’t know what was right, until he had no resistance left and finally imprinted on one of them, on Ackerman? Annie choked on a sob as she shook her head. “It won’t work – we’ll keep coming for him. You don’t-“ She shook her head again. “Fight them,” she ordered as she stared through her sweat-soaked bangs at Eren. “They’re *using* you!”

He was still as he stared back for a few heartbeats, and then he pushed at the arms wrapped around him, at Ackerman holding him back. “No. *No!*.”

“Brat, don’t let her fuck with your head!” Ackerman caught at his sweater, but Eren twisted free and stalked forward, his eyes like golden suns that shone through the thick, dark hair falling onto his face.

“Eren-“

He ignored the Jorōgumo as well, and the alchemist stepped out of the way, as did the blood witch. Eren’s hands shifted into claws as he came to a halt in front of Annie, his wiry body trembling and magic pouring forth in punishing waves. “No one is using me! You don’t know me at all!” Something from behind Annie lurched toward them as he lunged at her, as the claws bit into her covered shoulders, but along with pain there was a wave of powerful emotions, of confusing images.

It took her a moment to realize that some of the faces she saw were younger versions of the ones around her, that the Jorōgumo and the alchemist were mere children, smiling at her or crying. There were even flashes of Grisha, both stern and tender, and of some woman with gentle brown eyes and a loving smile. Along with the images were a sense of love, of trust – of heartache when they focused on Grisha and the woman, and then the images focused on Ackerman and the emotions became more turbulent, more passionate yet still trusting as the necromancer fought beside Annie- no, *Eren*, they were his memories, his emotions, and Annie wanted them gone, wanted the glimpses of a life where someone could *feel* so strongly, so intensely, where they could be so certain of-

She gasped as the images and emotions came to an abrupt end. As reality pushed back into her dazed senses, she found Ackerman dragging Eren away from her, appearing pissed off as he scowled at the other shifter. “What the fuck did you do?”

“Uhm… I don’t know?” Eren stumbled as he was pulled along. “I just… I just wanted to make her understand!” He swayed about when Ackerman stood still. “I was angry and… *whoosh*.” He flapped his right hand around his head.

“I am buying you a fucking dictionary and smacking you with it until you learn the damn thing!” Ackerman grasped Eren’s head between his hands, but Annie could now see that his touch was gentle, that the sharpness in his voice was concern. She didn’t want to see it. It didn’t make any sense, dammit. Nothing made sense anymore.

“You… you’re not supposed to be like this,” she told him. “None of you are.” She felt the beginning of hysterics and couldn’t fight it anymore, not with the pain and the awful revelation.

“What, so mean?” the blood witch asked.

Annie ignored her as she stared at the way Ackerman continued to fuss over Eren. “You’re supposed to be using him, we… we were told you were using him,” she insisted, her voice sharp as she attempted to fight against what Eren had shown her, at the years of lies he’d ripped through with those visions, those emotions.

The blood witch frowned and opened her mouth, but the alchemist nudged her aside. “Eren, you didn’t happen to do something with your empathy, did you?”

A few feet away, Eren continued to submit himself meekly to Ackerman’s rough petting and prodding. “Ah, maybe?” He waited until Ackerman clicked his tongue and pulled Eren to against him to nod his head. “That might have been it.”

“’Maybe’?” Ackerman did something with his fingers to Eren’s left ear. “You little shit, three hours of magical training a day from now on, you hear? No more of this ‘maybe’ crap!”

“Levi!”

“No whining!”

The alchemist sighed as he rubbed at his forehead, then offered Annie a tentative smile. “Okay, so Eren did something with his empathy to get his point across, right? He’s been coming across a lot of new talents lately, so I guess that’s another one.” He reached out, his motions slow, and touched her on her knees. “We’re not using him, he’s family. But someone told you that we are.”

She nodded, one of the only motions she could do. “Yes, you’re using him because he’s a shifter, because-“ She bit her lip, uncertain what she could say even with what Eren had shown her.

“Because he’s a key.” The alchemist gave her another small, uncertain smile. “We know that much, his father told him, though we’re still figuring out a lot about it.” He paused and glanced behind him, to the people watching them closely. “He’s bound to Levi, you know.”

“Armin, what the fuck!” Ackerman shouted while the blood witch groaned and the wind mage gasped. Eren and the Jorōgumo just stared in various degrees of shock at the alchemist.

Annie gasped as well, then sifted through the images Eren had shared with her, some of them now making sense. “You… it’s not imprinting, is it?”

“Eh, what’s imprinting?” The blood witch frowned, appearing more curious now than deranged.

“It’s… if a shifter is pushed too far, if they’re… well, broken.” Annie closed her eyes and thought about Edgar, one of the shifter rescued too late. “You can force them to emphatically bond with you, but it’s shallow, it’s more an effort to please to lessen the abuse than anything. A defense mechanism.”

“Ah, yeah, it’s why at first we assumed Reiss and the others wanted Eren – well, any shifter. That ‘imprinting’ is part of what makes them valuable, that and the shape-shifting,” the blood witch agreed. “A docile, eager to please slave.”

The wind mage took a step forward as she lowered the phone she’d been holding up in her hands. “So what, you thought that Eren had imprinted on us? Or that we’d forced the imprint on him?”

“As if,” Ackerman added with a click of his tongue.

Annie wished that her hands were freed, that she could rub at her aching head. “We… we were told… if a shifter’s been out here too long….” She let out a slow breath. “There’s always been a danger of it. We were told that because of Eren’s… well, because of Eren, that people were hunting him to use him.”

Things were quiet for a moment, and then the alchemist waved at the blood witch. “Hange, back off a minute, okay?”

“Wait – you want me to go easy on her? What if this is a trick?” The blood witch glared at him, her eyes shining bright and her magic flaring.

“Eren, is she?” the alchemist asked as he stared back at her, seeming unaffected by the blood witch’s ire.

“Eh?” Eren blinked a couple of times and shook his head. “I don’t… I’m not picking up anything like that from her, though it’s difficult to tell with all the hostility right now.”

Ackerman hauled him back a step. “Don’t even think of going near her again, brat.”

Still, the alchemist nodded before he turned back to Annie. “You were told that people were eager to use Eren, which is true. Yet he has his friends and family, has people who will protect him. Didn’t that ever occur to you?”

She shook her head again. “He’s… you’re always trying to use us, to get to us.” Why was everything so confusing? Yet… some things were also starting to make sense. “I’ve… I’ve seen shifters who’ve been brought back.”

The Jorōgumo sighed as she went to stand beside Eren and Ackerman. “I’m wondering if she’s been ‘imprinted’, too.”

The alchemist nodded. “Yes, there might be some brainwashing going on here, or some rather strong geas – which would have been broken with the potion.” He continued to stare at Annie as she attempted to make sense of what they’d just said – geas? Brainwashing? “So you’ve basically been raised somewhere away from everything,” when she started to panic he patted her knee, “it’s just supposition since obviously there’s more shifters out there that we don’t know about and you don’t seem to have a clue about what’s going on in the world, hence that you’re isolated somewhere. And someone’s telling you that any shifters ‘out there’ are immediately abused and used.”

“Ah, well, they have been hunting me down – ow! Really?” Eren glared at Ackerman and huffed as he then looked aside, but didn’t attempt to leave the man’s side.

“Let Armin do the talking, brat.”

A slight smile lingered on the alchemist’s – Armin, apparently – face as he continued. “Yes, thank you, Eren. Some magical organizations and people will want to use shifters, I will admit that. But others?” His hand left her knee to touch his chest. “Me and Mikasa? Eren is our family and we’ve been protecting him as long as we’ve known him. Levi, Hange and Petra? They haven’t hesitated to keep him safe, and neither have the rest of their friends.” His smile faded as he gave her a cool look. “Friends you killed.”

“*Good* friends, which you chopped up for fucking spells,” the blood witch muttered from somewhere out of Annie’s sight as pain spiked in her chest for a second or two.

“That’s enough, Hange,” Armin chided.

“Is it?” The blood witch stomped forward with her eyes blazing and her chin jutted out. “This bitch cut through Moblit as if he was a damn-“

Armin jumped up into her path, his eyes just as bright and his face set with determination. “Yes, I know what she did, and now it’s looking like she might just be someone’s means to an end to get Eren.” He dared to shove a hand at the blood witch’s chest. “So save your anger and revenge for the asshole who primed her as a weapon, all right!”

There was a terrible sense of magic for several seconds as the blood witch held up her hands near Armin’s face, as he slipped his hand into the leather bag near his right hip, and Annie noticed that the Jorōgumo came over to stand at his back while Eren attempted to move from Ackerman’s side yet was kept in place as the necromancer shook his head. She held her breath and cursed her inability to do anything, to shift and flee while provided with this distraction, and then the blood witch made a sound of frustration while she threw her hands up in the hair.

“Gah! I want to make her heart explode! To give her mad cow disease or something! She killed Moblit! She killed Mike and Nanaba and Dita!”

Armin’s shoulders slumped and he shook his head. “I know, but we still need answers, and it looks like Levi and Erwin were right about someone else being behind this. It’s not going to do any good to take it out on....” He turned around to come back over to Annie. “Hey, what’s your name?” He asked the question in a tender, seemingly genuine manner.

Her breath hitched at the question. Who was this guy? Why did he seem to care about her? Why wasn’t he hurting her like the blood witch, why was he standing up for her? “Uhm, Annie.” And why was she answering him? It wasn’t like it mattered, telling him her name, though.

“Annie, that’s a nice name.” He smiled at her.

“Oh, I’m going to be sick,” the blood witch muttered. “How do we know this isn’t some sort of trick?”

“Because of one of the potions I gave her,” Armin said as he continued to smile at Annie. “I’m not an idiot.”

Still holding a phone as if she was recording things, the wind mage spoke up. “But didn’t you say they don’t always work on Eren?”

Armin sighed as he glanced over his shoulder. “Eren? What are you picking up from her?”

Eren, his eyes having changed to a clear blueish green color, frowned as he tucked back the hair which had fallen onto his face. “You know I can only pick up strong things from people unless I’m… well, yeah.” A faint blush spread across his dusky skin while behind him, Ackerman rolled his eyes.

“Yes, but your talents have been changing lately.” Armin waited a couple of seconds and sighed. “Can you come over here and confirm for everyone that she’s not lying to us?”

Both the Jorōgumo and Ackerman complained in an instant.

“Armin!”

“Not a good idea.”

Meanwhile, Eren huffed again and tugged at Ackerman’s arm around his waist. “Let’s just get this over with, okay?” He smacked it when it wouldn’t budge, which prompted at clicking sound from the necromancer, who trailed after him as he approached Annie. His eyes once more like molten gold as he stopped just within arm’s reach, he gave her an appraising look for several disturbing seconds before he spoke again. “You try to hurt my friends again, I’ll kill you.” That was all he said, but as he spoke, his face shifted, always in flux as fangs grew and his jaw protruded, scales coming and going as well. There was nothing human to him as he made what she knew was a promise, an oath.

“Yeah, I get it.” The words came out in a rasp as she stared at him, at the frightening power that poured out; no wonder Jaeger wanted his nephew so much, was so terrified of outsiders having this power in their hands. Then she looked at Ackerman, who had his left arm casually draped around Eren’s upper chest during it all, who appeared unaffected both by his power and shifting.

The necromancer clicked his tongue again. “I let you kiss me with that mouth?”

Something in what he said made Eren’s power fluctuate and then sputter out, made Eren blush and duck his head. “Levi! Don’t… not in front… so mean,” he muttered.

“Yeah, yeah, just do this shit.” Ackerman followed up the command with a flicking motion to Eren’s right ear.

Eren made a whining sound as he reached out to touch Annie’s forehead. She almost flinched away from his fingers before she forced herself to remain still, uncertain about what all he intended to do, and held her breath as his warm fingertips brushed against her skin. They stayed there for a couple of frantic heartbeats before he pulled them away. “Okay, I get a lot of fear, confusion, a bit of jealousy and a sense of betrayal. If she’s planning something, she’s a damn good actress… but again, those are just the strongest emotions.” He gave her an odd frown right before Ackerman dragged him back by the fireplace.

The blood witch made another frustrated sound. “You’re not going to let me give her an advanced case of leprosy, are you?”

Ackerman made a growling sound. “First off, what did I say about leaving a mess? And second, no, not while Armin’s theory holds true, and not until I get some information that’ll help with Isabel and Farlan.”

Armin wasn’t smiling as he resumed his position in front of Annie, with the Jorōgumo standing behind him. “Look, Annie, you’ve a chance here, but it won’t last for long. Eren seems to have convinced you that he’s not being used, at least by us. We both seem to want the same thing, or at least close to the same thing – and that’s to keep him safe. What we’re not going to do is to let you take him back to someone who appears to have used you and didn’t care what damage he caused to get his hands on Eren.”

“Damn right!” the blood witch called out, while the Jorōgumo glared at Annie and nodded.

“Yes,” Armin nodded as well. “So, tell us exactly what your orders were, and what your two associates are doing. Tell us now, and we’ll take into account the geas and everything. But tell us *now*.” He stared at her, his eyes glowing with magic, a magic that felt potent, and Annie considered her options. She considered everything she’d been told over the years, everything she’d been forced to do… and those images Eren had shown her. The conviction of the people around her, the way he’d looked at her when he’d given her that promise.

And she had to make a decision fast, because any time now, there would be a call from what was left of Ackerman’s family.

*******

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