chapter thirteen

*******

it is not in the stars to hold our destinies but in ourselves

*******

Armin stared hard at Annie as if he could will her to cooperate, to give up the information they needed; the more things dragged on, the more convinced he was that she’d been all but brainwashed to believe that Eren was someone abused, someone being used and mistreated and that she was doing something good by dragging him back to wherever she lived. Granted, it didn’t excuse the deaths she’d committed, but he didn’t feel like he was dealing with an evil person, just someone messed up and confused. Whoever had sent her out after Eren? Yeah, that was a different story.

He could sense Hange behind him and knew that the blood witch was getting antsy, and hoped that Annie made a decision soon. The large living area was quiet save for the crackling of fire and the rustle of clothes as people shifted about, and then there was the loud beeping of a phone. Annie flinched, her blue eyes going wide, as Petra gasped and Levi muttered a curse.

“Don’t move,” he said, probably to Eren, which was followed by a low complaint from Armin’s friend; Armin didn’t take his attention off of Annie, especially since it appeared that she was afraid of something and doing her best not to show it. “Erwin picked up Shadis and is bring him here,” Levi announced. “The others should be on their way later.”

“Great, more reinforcements in case our new friend here has some buddies who try to sneak in to join the fun.” There was more than a little bit of snark in Hange’s voice just then.

Armin reached out to touch Annie’s blanket-covered knee and noticed how she flinched. “That text rattled you, why?” He watched as she shook her head, her blonde hair matted with sweat and her pretty face pinched from pain and exhaustion. “Annie, I’m serious. Tell us what you know or Hange will break you. Or we go about other ways to get the information from you.” Behind him, Levi clicked his tongue.

Hange laughed as she came to stand beside Armin. “We’re only going to be nice for so long.”

Annie glared up at Hange for a couple of seconds before her blue eyes flickered over to Eren and then settled on Armin. “He’s your friend, right? You never used him… you’ll never use him?” Her voice came out in a hoarse rasp and her eyes shone with an intent emotion as she seemed to ignore everything but Armin.

Armin nodded. “Eren is like a brother to me, I’ll protect him with my life.” A slight smile tugged at his lips as he once more touched her knee. “He is handy to have around on cold nights or when bullies throw your backpack into a pond, but I wouldn’t say I use him.”

“What about how many times you’ve had me change shapes so you can get some precious ingredient- ow!”

“What did I say about letting Armin do the talking?”

Armin continued to smile despite Eren’s interruption, and Annie stared at him for several seconds before she nodded. “Bert and Reiner – they were sent out with me – they should be attacking Ackerman’s family right about now.”

Things were quiet right after the announcement, and then Armin felt a powerful, almost painful pulse of Levi’s magic, so cold and overwhelming, as the necromancer stormed toward him and Annie. “What the hell!?” Levi’s eyes were a pure and shining silver as he pushed Armin aside and grabbed at Annie’s shoulders, and Eren was right behind him. “What are they doing to Isabel? To Farlan?”

Annie closed her eyes and shook her head, her mouth moving for a couple seconds and no sound coming out.

“What, damn you?!” Levi lifted her and the chair up and gave her a shake, while Armin grabbed at Eren’s right arm.

“Do something,” he hissed at his friend. Eren merely cocked his head at Armin, his eyes now gold, so Armin tried again. “She can’t help if she’s dead!”

Eren frowned as he reached out to touch Levi’s back. “Don’t,” he warned, his voice low and quiet, an odd counterpoint to the wild and raging rush of his magic; Levi shuddered at the touch and dropped Annie as if the contact with the shifter burned him.

“Tell me what you fucking know before I rot you from the inside out,” he snarled at the girl. “*Now*!” As he spat out the threat, he turned to Hange. “And you! Call Erwin to let him know!”

Hange held up her phone, the screen glowing and showing Erwin’s face. “Already on it!” There was the sound of ringing and then Erwin’s voice. “Heya, boss man. Shit’s going down.” She hurried to explain what was happening while Levi resumed glaring at Annie.

“Talk, dammit.”

Annie gulped air as if she had difficulty breathing. “I don’t… I don’t know exactly what they’re doing, just that… we’ve orders about you.” She shook her head. “You… you’re to be killed. He….” She winced as if something caused her pain. “Eren… Eren has an uncle, his uncle is… he’s in charge, back home.” She stared back at Armin with something akin to desperation. “He’s powerful, so powerful. He told us to come out here, to get Eren, to bring him back. Somehow he knew about Eren.”

Levi clicked his tongue as he reached out to rub the back of a stunned Eren’s neck. “Yeah, okay, so this asshole is pulling the strings, and that’s why you’re going after Isabel and Farlan. What the hell are those two assholes doing right now?”

She shook her head. “Just… something to make you leave Eren, to make as many of you as possible leave. I don’t know, I was to sneak in and make sure Eren was here, to watch over things and let them know if you took the bait. They’re to leave someone alive to make a call for help.”

Armin winced at the murderous aura that emanated from Levi while Hange relayed the info to Erwin and tried to think through what Annie had just said. “Levi… it would make sense that they’d leave Isabel or Farlan alive if they wanted you to run to their rescue. You’re the main target, and the one they want to separate from Eren.”

Eren rubbed at his eyes as his magic flared. “This is all because of me, because-“ He gasped when Levi hauled him in close.

“Shut up,” the necromancer snapped, then sighed when Eren tensed against him. “It’s not your fault, it’s that bastard’s who sent these fucking kids out to get you, you hear me?” He slid his hands through Eren’s hair and forced Armin’s friend to look up at him. “It’s not your fucking fault!”

Eren sniffed while he nodded as much as he could with Levi holding onto his hair like that, then sighed when Levi clicked his tongue and enveloped Eren in an embrace; Mikasa joined in by rubbing Eren’s back. Meanwhile Hange nodded along to whatever Erwin was telling her before hanging up.

“Erwin said that he hasn’t gotten any messages from Erd or Gunther, but he’s going to call them now.” She hurried over to stand near Armin and scowled at Annie. “So what, your leader figured out about Eren and Levi?”

Annie stared at the couple for several seconds before she shook her head. “I don’t… I don’t know, Reiner talked to him one day and then told us we were to kill Ackerman.” She bit into her bottom lip as she snuck another lingering glance at the couple. “It was after we fought with you, when Eren defended you, so maybe Jaeger realized then that they were together.” Her chin dropped to her chest. “He must have figured out that Eren….”

“That Eren wasn’t being used and hadn’t been imprinted, and yet still ordered you to kill people, to kill Eren’s *lover* and family,” Armin finished for her. “He ordered you to tear Eren’s life apart so he could get his hands on the most powerful source of magic around – and he didn’t care what it did to you or anyone else in the process.”

A single tear slid down Annie’s face while Armin spoke. “Yeah… I just figured that out.”

There was another moment of silence before Hange’s phone rang again, which caused Armin to flinch since the tension in the room was intense and there was an answering flare of several different types of magic. Levi cursed beneath his breath as he let go of Eren and snatched the phone away from his friend. “What the hell is going on?”

*******

Isabel sighed as she opened the fridge and looked through their meager supplies. “So, I’m thinking soup and sandwiches for lunch. Any objection?” When nobody answered, she closed the door and peeked around the corner of the doorway into the small living room. “Eh?”

Farlan, Gunther and Erd were standing a couple of feet away from the windows with near identical frowns on their faces. “The bird’s been gone for half an hour now,” Farlan explained as he stepped away to come join her. “I don’t think that’s a good sign.”

“No, it usually only leaves for a few minutes at a time.” Erd shared a look with his partner and then went over to a backpack he’d brought along and began to search through it.

Isabel joined in on the whole frowning thing as she folded her arms over her chest. “So what, you think it’s up to something? I thought you said it wouldn’t do anything for a couple of days.”

“We said it might not do anything for a couple of days,” Gunther argued as he continued to stare out the window. “But who knows with these bastards?”

How reassuring. “So what do we do now?”

Erd stood up with a small case in his hands. “We wait to see if something happens – here, everybody take one of these.” He handed out a small vial filled with a reddish liquid, one each to her and Farlan.

“Eh, what is this?” She hadn’t dealt with potions much, since they tended to be very expensive. “I thought you said that magic didn’t work much on them.”

“Yes, so what good is a potion?” Farlan twisted the thin vial about between his fingers. “Wait, is this the one that Erwin mentioned?”

“Careful with that!” Erd winced as he held his own vial with a bit more care. “You’re right, this is the one Erwin was talking about that Eren’s friend who’s an alchemist came up with that’ll eat through that damn ward of theirs. Thing is, they hadn’t made much before we left so all we have are these four vials.”

“Ooh.” Isabel held hers up to the light and grinned. “So what, we throw this on them?”

Erd nodded. “From what Hange told me, yeah, just hit them with it when that crystal stuff is covering them, and it’ll hurt a lot.”

Farlan frowned at the vial in his hands. “Which means we need to be somewhat close.”

“Except for you,” she said as she handed her vial to her husband. “You don’t need to be as close to get this on them.”

Erd opened his mouth as if to say something, but Isabel silenced him with a look. “Farlan will watch over me,” she insisted.

“Yes, they won’t be able to touch her without hurting themselves.” He uncapped one of the vials and had the potion float out of the glass tube, only to have the liquid fan out in a fine mist a moment later and then settle around Isabel; she didn’t feel anything, not a single drop of moisture, but she knew it was around her, was an invisible shield. Once she was done, he did the same with the second vial to himself.

“Huh, that’s a smart idea.” Erd looked at his own vial and shook his head. “Not sure I want to attempt that with something so important, but it’s given me an idea.” He uncorked his own vial but left it at that.

Over by the window, Gunther grunted as he tucked the vial into the front pocket of his jeans. “Great, I’m stuck with just making sure the thing doesn’t break until I want it to.”

Erd made a rude gesture at his friend. “Consider it payback for all those times when you tried to fake us out with ‘earthquakes’ while we were sleeping.”

“I still remember that one time I got Olou real good and-“ Gunther’s smile turned into an expression of panic and he lunged from the window and shoved Isabel and Farlan aside. “Duck!”

As he yelled, something came crashing through the window, a flash of green and brown; Isabel screamed even as she threw up an air ward, as something heavy and big hit it. Farlan was cursing while he covered her with his own body while he urged her to move forward, so she used a gust of wind to batter the front door to the cabin open.

There was another crash, what turned out to be a large tree knocked down onto the cabin, and Isabel stared in shock at what looked to be a cross between a shiny elephant and a shag rug send another cedar tree tumbling into the building. “What the….”

“Fucking wooly mammoth,” Farlan muttered. “It’s a fucking wooly mammoth.” He jerked her about, just as something swooped down from the air.

Regaining her wits, Isabel sent a dual blast of heat and wind at the thing – a gryphon, a damn gryphon, she thought to herself as the sudden powerful updraft caused it to let out a powerful shriek and careen wildly through the air. “Ha! Can’t fly right when there’s turbulence, can you?” She set about mucking up all of the air around her in order to clip the bastard’s wings.

“Yeah, well worry about the other one!” Farlan yanked her out of the way while the mammoth came charging at them, changing with every step until it was about half the size instead, its wooly hide now plated instead and covered with spikes all over it.

Gunther swore as he called up a shield of earth in an attempt to stave off the monstrosity, and did his best to dive out of the way as it charged through the wall of stone and dirt as if it was nothing. Isabel thought she saw something sparkle through the air, but it sailed past the shifter – right about when the gryphon attempted to swing back at them.

It was flying lower now, as if figuring out that it wouldn’t be able to soar too high because of what Isabel did. She blasted at it again and sent it tumbling away, where it rolled around on the ground, while the spiky beast thing barreled once more at Gunther and Erd. Gunther now attempted to slow it down with various tendrils, but it tore through them as easily as it had through the earth wall.

“This whole magic ward thing is annoying!” Isabel sent a volley of fire at the gryphon as it stalked toward her on the ground, its eyes a glowing a deep bronze. Beside her, Farlan was curled inward as if hurt. He managed a wince as they heard a cry of pain from near the ruined cabin yet they didn’t dare to take their eyes off of the approaching shifter to see how their companions fared.

“Just… a little closer,” he panted.

“I wish you’d be more use in a fight,” she gritted out as if annoyed and let her flames sputter out. The gryphon roared as it leapt forward, just as a reddish mist rose from her and Farlan to greet it when it was about six feet away.

Farlan wrapped his arms around her and knocked them both to the ground while there was another painful shriek a few feet away from them. Isabel rose up in a careful crouch to see the gryphon rolling around on the ground, steam rising from its bronze and golden body as it shuddered, the crystalline shield fading away with each breath. Meanwhile, across the clearing the spikey… thing paused in goring Gunther and lifted its head, multiple horns coated in red blood, to stare at them with glowing green eyes. It left the earth mage to charge in their direction, just as a bloodied Erd managed to rise up from where he’d been laying on the ground and gestured with his left hand at the shifter; something shimmery flew through the air toward the shifter.

At first it didn’t seem to have any effect, then the damn thing’s hind legs gave out beneath it and it let out a defining roar. Its shape appeared in flux as steam rose up around it as well, and Farlan grinned as he lobbed a spell at the writhing gryphon, something that made it shriek and spit out blood. “Oh yeah, I’d say that their wards are useless now.”

“Great! Let’s see how well they take to being burned!” Isabel smiled as she summoned her flame, and had just turned toward the gasping gryphon when she heard something be shouted out – had someone called her a bitch? She lobbed a flame over at the other creature as well, only now it was something vaguely human, was a giant freak at least fifteen feet tall with amour plating that deflected most of her flames.

“Hitch!” It growled out the word as it stomped on the ground hard enough to cause tremors.

“Okay, maybe they do all right without the wards,” Farlan muttered as he cast another spell, one that barely made the damn thing cough.

“We just need enough heat,” Isabel insisted. She began to burn the air around the things when she felt it, the faint pulse of necromancy, and Farlan cursed as they scrambled to build a ward in time; if there was one thing Levi had taught them, had beaten into their heads over the years they’d lived with him, it was how to defend themselves from a sneak attack.

Standing at the edge of the forest was a young woman with a haggard face and filthy pale hair, her eyes burning a greyish color as she gestured at them with her right arm. “Let’s see *you* rot!”

She was powerful, but nowhere near Levi’s league; the impromptu shield held… but Isabel heard Erd let out an anguished cry. “Shit!” She looked up at Farlan, who nodded at her, and knew her husband would manage the ward without her as she readied a spell to take out the sneaky bitch.

Farlan grunted at the full impact of the necromantic spell, and Isabel spared a fireball behind them at the shifters before she let loose a spell that Farlan had helped her to perfect, one that would instantly remove all of the air around the woman within a five feet space. Since it didn’t attack the person itself – maybe it would have worked on a shifter, maybe not, but there was no way that necromancer would survive the lack of oxygen, blood boiling and skin exploding that was about to happen.

Isabel unleashed the spell and waited only for the mental ‘click’ that told her it hadn’t been knocked aside by a ward before she spun around to fire off another potent fireball at the shifters, the same time that Farlan hit them with another spell to burst their internal organs. Behind her was a high-pitched, cut off scream as the spell took out the necromancer, and another yell from the one of the shifters when the troublesome twit died. Isabel almost felt sorry for them – until she remembered that they were trying to kill her, that they were after her brother.

The gryphon hunched over as if in pain while the giant freak shook its head, then it grabbed the gryphon as if it weighed nothing, picked it up and went running – running away from Isabel and Farlan. She sent a few fireballs after them just in case then slumped against her husband. “What the fuck….”

“Yeah, exactly.” He gave her a fierce hug for a few seconds and then shuddered as he pulled away. “Come on, let’s check out the others.”

“I mean, what are they?” She was probably babbling, but what could change like that, could become such incredible creatures with a thought? “Brother’s dating one of them?”

“They said Eren’s nice. Everyone’s got some crazies in the family, Izzy,” Farlan reminded her.

True, there was Uncle Kenny, and- “Oh, oh no.” Isabel fought back the tears when they came across Gunther’s broken body, his abdomen all torn up and his face covered with blood. “*Dammit!”

Farlan held his hand above the earth mage for a moment then shook his head. “Too late.” Then he went over to where there was another still shape. “Erd?”

There was a faint moan, which caused them to break out in a run. “Hold on,” Isabel urged the man, and then nearly choked when she saw what the necromancer had done to him; most of his upper body was covered with black rot, some of his skin and muscle already eaten away and the bone exposed. “We can… we can do something,” she sobbed.

Farlan muttered beneath his breath as his magic flared, as he struggled to hold back the rot by blocking things with his magic. “Dammit, I could use some earth magic right now.”

Erd’s eyelids fluttered. “Nah… nah use.” His breath shuddered and his right hand, mostly untouched by the necromantic spell, twitched. “Know… know from Levi. Jus’… just end it.”

Isabel sucked in a breath as she looked at her husband, who clenched his jaw and remained silent for several seconds before he nodded. He closed his eyes as he held his right hand over Erd’s head, and there was a gurgling sound a moment later as the water mage’s body twitched and then went still.

Isabel hugged her husband and closed her eyes as well. “Did you….”

“Brain aneurism – quickest way, no pain,” he told her. “The rot’s just going to keep spreading even if that mage’s dead – they’re both dead.”

Yeah, once a necromantic spell took effect, it didn’t let up until the caster removed it or the flesh was gone. Isabel didn’t look down at Erd’s remains as she lurched to her feet, Farlan’s hand steady on her elbow. “What are we going to do now?”

He stared at the remains of the cabin. “We need to crawl in there and get the keys to the truck at least, and whatever else we can find.”

She sighed as she patted his hand. “Let me – I’m smaller.” When he made to object, she shook her head. “No, I’m smaller, and I can use air to push up the trees. You stay here and keep watch.”

There was a stubborn set to his jaw that let her know he wasn’t happy with the plan, but her logic was sound. Farlan went with her to the ‘door’ and then turned around to watch the clearing, while she used a blast of air to help clear the way. There was glass on the floor, but again, a blast of air helped to get it out of her way as she crawled beneath a bunch of branches and the crumpled door frame.

After a few seconds, she heard a ringing sound, which helped her to locate where Erd’s backpack had fallen. The impulse was there to answer the phone, but she made sure that it was tucked back in Erd’s backpack and then found Gunther’s pack as well, complete with keys, before she crawled back out; she didn’t bother with the bedroom, with the few things they had brought with them because a couple of mementos meant nothing when powerful as hell shifters could return at any moment. No wonder Levi had sounded so worried for them.

She had just backed out of the cabin when the phone began to ring again, so she dropped Gunther’s bag to the ground and dug through Erd’s so she could answer it while Farlan held it open for her. The phone was locked, but all she had to do was swipe to accept the call. “Hello?”

“Isabel?” It was Erwin’s voice, sounding worried and loud. “Are you all right?”

“Uhm, ye-not really.” She shivered as Farlan hugged her close. “Something happened.” She set the phone to speaker-mode.

“They found us,” Farlan explained.

Erwin cursed on the other end. “Dammit, where’s Erd?”

Farlan shook his head even though Erwin couldn’t see him while Isabel sniffed. “He didn’t make it, neither did Gunther. I’m su-sorry.”

“Fuck.” There sounded to be a loud noise in the background and then Erwin let out a slow breath. “I’m glad you’re all right, let me get Levi on the line.” There was a long beep and silence, and then another beep.

“What the hell is going on?”

A shaky laugh escaped Isabel. “Brother? Brother, are you all right?”

“That’s my damn question – Isabel? Farlan? What’s going on?”

Isabel’s knees felt weak just then and she would have slid to the ground if not for Farlan holding on to her. “We ah, we had company.”

“I’m sorry, Levi, but it seems Gunther and Erd are dead,” Erwin added. “That’s all I know so far.”

“Fuck. *Fuck*.” There was mostly silence on the other line for a moment, with faint voices in the background. “Don’t you fucking say it,” Levi snapped with enough force to make Isabel blink in surprise.

“Ah, say what, Brother?”

“Not you, Izzy. Just this little shit right here.” There was a soft murmur followed by a yelp. “Likes to blame himself for stupid stuff.”

“Indeed, it’s not your fault, Eren,” Erwin added. “If you don’t mind, please tell us what happened.”

Farlan leaned in closer to the phone and frowned, while Isabel attempted to turn up the volume, her hands shaking too much at first until Farlan helped to steady them. He also took over explaining things for her. “We noticed that the hawk had disappeared for a while, so Erd gave us that special potion he’d brought along. It wasn’t long after that when they attacked the house.” He paused to look back at it. “I think they were trying to force us out of it, or make sure we couldn’t stay here.”

Levi made a clicking sound. “We managed to capture the third shifter right before they attacked, and she told us that they basically wanted to freak you out enough to force us to come get you. Wanted to draw some of us away from Eren.”

So much for a ‘couple of days’, Isabel thought as she glanced over at Gunther and Erd’s bodies. “I’ve been trying to call you ever since we found out,” Erwin explained.

“Yeah, well we’ve been a bit busy.” Farlan sighed and held Isabel a little tighter. “The potions worked, when we were close enough to use them, but they still put up a hell of a fight. Then a necromancer showed up.”

“Hitch Dreyse.” Erwin didn’t sound so surprised. “No wonder there were casualties. I’m sorry, I had hoped that they wouldn’t do anything before we managed to either get more people to you or bring you here. We had just figured out how to keep them from sneaking past the wards.”

“We also didn’t figure on them tracking down Eren so quickly, so it’s a clusterfuck all around.” Levi let out a loud sigh and then was quiet for a couple of seconds. “So you fought them all off? You’re okay?”

Despite the upset and the shock of the fight, Isabel smiled at her brother’s concern. “I took out the necromancer.” Just not in time to save Erd.

“That’s my girl,” he told her with evident pride. “What about those bastard shifters?”

“Last we saw of them, they were running away – I don’t think they expected to lose anyone and they definitely didn’t expect the potion,” Farlan explained. “Still, we need to get out of here.”

“I agree. I’ll send you the directions to join Levi – it’s clear the place is already compromised, so we might as well make a stand here. Just be careful while on the road. I take it the potion is all used up?”

Isabel sighed at the thought of going back in the cabin for her phone after all; she couldn’t use Gunther’s or Erd’s since they were locked. “Yeah, they-“

“Wait, I don’t think so. I saw Gunther throw his but it never landed.” Farlan gave her a pat on the arm as he walked away, his eyes intent on the ground and his magic flowing outward as if searching.

“Izzy?”

“Farlan’s looking for the last vial,” she explained to her brother. “I remember that it was Farlan and Erd who managed to land hits on those assholes.” She paused to watch her husband. “So you got attacked, too?”

“Yeah, and we managed to take her down. She’s cooperating now, rather than have Hange scramble her innards.” There was a loud noise in the background, as if someone was laughing.

“Nice.” Isabel nodded in appreciation of her brother’s abilities. “Oh, wait, looks like Farlan found something.” He waved from across the clearing with something in his hand, and hurried back over. “Maybe we still have a potion left.”

He was a little out of breath when he reached her. “It didn’t break when it hit the ground!”

Erwin must have heard that. “Good, then I suggest you grab whatever you need and get on the road as soon as possible, before they regroup.”

Isabel sighed as she glanced behind her. “Give me a couple of minutes to get my phone and we’ll be gone.”

“Watch your ass,” Levi told her. “Don’t stop if you can help it, those assholes can impersonate anyone.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Farlan groaned as he looked around. “Guess we’ll burn this place before we go, too.”

“At least it’s not our own home this time,” she added.

On the other line there was a muffled curse from Levi and what sounded to be someone complaining. “I hate you both so much right now, get here in one piece so I can kick your asses,” Levi snarled before he hung up.

“Eeeh?” Isabel blinked at the phone. “What did we do?”

There was a faint chuckle from Erwin. “Let’s just say Levi’s involved in an even more terrible battle right now.” Then he cleared his throat. “Do be careful and we’ll see you soon.”

“Okay.” Isabel ended the call and returned the phone to the backpack; she didn’t know if someone would want it. “Guess I better get back in there,” she sighed.

“Watch yourself,” Farlan warned her. “I’ll go start the truck and pull it up,” he offered as he took both of the backpacks.

She nodded before she turned back to the ruined house, and hesitated before the doorway. Just a few more minutes, of crawling through the wreckage and leaving behind the burnt remains of two good men who had done their best to protect them, to keep them safe, and then she would be on the way to see her brother after so many years. Despite Erd and Gunther’s sacrifice, she couldn’t contain the joy she felt at that thought. Squaring her shoulders, she took a deep breath before she pushed with her power and then bent down to crawl into the rubble.

*******

Once they reached the stream which Bert had remembered flying past, he dropped a panting Reiner into it and submerged his lower body as well, grateful for the cold water which washed away the remains of, of *whatever* it had been that the one mage had thrown on him. “Ar-are you okay?”

Reiner’s eyes were pinched shut as he breathed through his mouth. “Still… still hurts, but yeah, a bit better.” His body trembled as if he wanted to shift into something else, but he clenched his hands and remained in his human form; soon they both were shivering from the cold of the water and lack of clothes, so Bert dragged his lover out of the water and onto the bank of the stream, where they shifted a layer of fur for warmth.

“What was that?”

His eyes now open, Reiner shook his head. “I don’t know. I’ve never, there’s never been anything to affect us like that.” He scrubbed at his close-cropped hair. “It’s not good, not at all.” His eyes blazed bronze for a moment. “Dammit, what are they doing with Eren that they figured out something like that?”

Bert shook his head, unwilling to think what mages could do to one of their own in custody. “Do you – do you think Annie’s all right?” She was supposed to be checking in on Eren and everything.

Reiner’s lips twisted as he rubbed his hands over the dark blond fur covering his arms. “Her? She’s tough, she should be all right. Probably all pissed off because she hasn’t heard from us yet.”

Bert hoped so, because he wasn’t sure what they’d do if they lost the girl, lost someone who could fight like she did. “She’s going to be upset about Hi-hitch.”

His lover shook his head. “Annie? She’ll be ticked off Hitch died while she might have been of some use, but it’s one less loose end we need to worry about.” He shook his head again. “No, we at least did some of what we wanted – we shook things up and took out two mages.”

“Yeah, but they can use that stuff against us when we fight them again. Maybe we should go back home and get more help.”

Reiner’s jaw jutted out as he continued to rub at his arms and chest, as if he was still bothered by whatever had hit him, as if he still hurt; Bert knew the spells the water mage had used against him had been painful and he could still feel his body healing. “No! We’ll look like failures if we head back now!” He gave Bert a wounded look, as if he couldn’t believe that Bert even thought about heading home. “We can do this, we know what to expect now. All we have to do is hit them hard and fast. We don’t need to worry about leaving any survivors this time. If we wait too long, they might have even more mages to fight.”

He wasn’t certain that it was as simple as that, but they did need to get Eren and to go back home; to return to where they belonged and from the danger out here.

“What do we do next?”

Reiner pulled him in close, which caused Bert to sigh from the feel of his lover’s comforting heat and magic. “We’ll give them a few more minutes back there to calm down, then sneak back. The place was in ruins so they’ll want some help, either to take them somewhere else or to pick ‘em up, and then we’ll call Annie to find out if anyone’s left yet.”

Bert nodded along with the plan – until he remembered something. “The truck! We didn’t destroy it.” He’d been so focused on getting his lover out of there that he’d just left.

Beside him, Reiner went stiff for a couple of seconds. “Shit.” His hand tightened on Bert’s left arm then he shook his head. “Even if they drive away, there’s only two of them left now. And we have the information from Annie on where they went.” His eyes took to glowing again. “We can find them.”

Bert didn’t like this, didn’t like how everything was falling apart around them… but what choice did they have but to push forward? Reiner was right in that they had to save Eren before they could return home, that had been made clear to them when they accepted the mission. “Annie should be able to help us out once we get there.”

“Yeah.” Reiner kissed him on his forehead before he urged him to stand up. “Come on, let’s get moving. I want those mages dead and Eren with us by the end of the day.”

Heaving himself onto his feet, Bert followed his lover and hoped that Reiner’s confidence wasn’t misplaced.

*******

Eren frowned at his lover. “How can you say that this isn’t my fault?” He scrubbed at his face as he stared past Levi at Annie still bound to the chair. “How can you say any of this isn’t my fault?”

Levi made a sound of frustration as he tossed Hange’s phone back to her then grabbed hold of Eren’s arm to pull him along. “Give us a few minutes,” he growled out, his gaze lingering on Mikasa for a moment.

“But-“

“Just shut up and come along,” Levi ordered as he dragged Eren with him, toward the kitchen. Eren sputtered since he didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, and waited until they were alone to tug at Levi’s grip on his arm.

“Your sister lost her house because of me, didn’t she? And now Erd and Gunther are dead.” He felt as if there was something inside of his chest struggling to push free, felt his emotions begin to spiral out of control. “All of this because I didn’t walk away when I should have.”

Levi crowded in front of Eren and slid his hands along Eren’s shoulders, to the back of his neck where he rubbed along his nape; the touch did something to ease the tension inside of him, to slow the building upset even as Eren attempted to shake his head. “If you had tried to leave all those days ago, you would have just walked right into a trap – either Reiss’ or those bastards.” When Eren opened his mouth to disagree, Levi’s fingers tugged at the ends of his hair. “*Yes*. They’re throwing everything they’ve got at you, there’s no way you would have made it on your own.”

Eren snatched at Levi’s biceps even as he shivered at his lover’s ministrations. “But… but I’m getting stronger. I’ve – there’s the draining thing, and the magic stuff. The ward.”

Levi clicked his tongue and tugged on Eren’s hair again. “All of that shit has happened because you’ve stayed with *me*.” One of his hands trailed down Eren’s spine until it rested against the small of Eren’s back and urged him forward, until they pressed together; Eren ducked his head and let out a slow breath when Levi nuzzled his left temple. “You heard what Hange and Armin said, part of the changes are happening because of you meeting me.”

Because of the bond between them. Eren let go of Levi’s arms so he could fist his hands in his lover’s sweater instead. “And look at how much I’ve fucked up your life since then.” He winced when his ear was flicked moments later. “Ow.”

“I keep telling you, I don’t care that it’s fucked up. There wasn’t much for you to fuck up in the first place.” Levi brushed his lips against Eren’s forehead. “Just me stuck in my house and seeing a couple of friends every few months if Erwin didn’t have a mission for me – Hange would have ratted me out to Reiss or another organization with glee if she thought it would have gotten me a lover, and not just because of that damn bet. You think Isabel or Farlan cares about their house? Izzy would have burned it down years ago if she thought it would have meant seeing me before now.”

Eren didn’t feel any sense of falsehood from his lover, didn’t feel anything but conviction and a bit of annoyance and… and that one powerful, searing emotion that made him want to curl up against Levi, to just close his eyes and forget about everything else. It felt so good, his lover’s emotions and magic, made him almost forget about all the shit that was happening. “Still doesn’t mean people should die because of me.”

“It’s not just you – whoever it was who sent a bunch of brainwashed shifter brats out to hunt you down shouldn’t get their hands on the type of power you have. Gunther, Erd, Mike – all of them have been fighting for longer than you’ve been alive against that kind of abuse and imbalance of power.” Levi’s fingers rubbed against Eren’s nape as he spoke. “There’s no way in hell Erwin and anybody who follows him is going to let something like that happen.”

Eren let out a slow breath as he rested his head against Levi’s shoulder. “If I could, I’d give this power away.”

“Maybe that’s why you have it.” Levi continued to rub as his other hand skimmed up and down Eren’s back. “Maybe it’s why your dad didn’t tell you much about it, so you didn’t take it for granted.”

“Eh, who knows what he was thinking.” Eren groaned as he pulled away enough to look up at Levi. “I just don’t want people to keep sacrificing things for me.”

“And you have to understand that sometimes things are bigger than you,” Levi chided as he slid his fingers through Eren’s hair. “Now stop bitching about this shit, don’t say one more fucking word about another fucking house being burned down, and stop whining before I kick your ass.”

Eren blinked up at his lover. “Wow, okay, that was sweet.”

Levi smirked as he rubbed his thumb along Eren’s right cheekbone. “Sweetest damn thing you’ve ever heard.”

Eren leaned in closer to look into his lover’s grey eyes. “Did you breathe too much toxic venom or something?” Maybe Petra hadn’t been fast enough with filtering the air.

Levi was still for a moment, and then his eyes narrowed as he yanked Eren in even closer. “Very funny,” he muttered right before he kissed him.

Huh, okay, Levi’s lung capacity seemed to be all right. Eren found himself relaxing into his lover’s embrace, in the wonderful emotions as Levi deepened the kiss, as fingers tangled in his hair and a hand stroked along his back to settle on his ass. He moaned as Levi’s magic all but wrapped around him much like Levi’s arms, and shivered when Levi’s tongue brushed against his lower lip before the kiss broke off and his lover’s mouth skimmed along his and then neck. He began to rock his hips forward when-

“Annie’s talking again.”

Eren yelped upon hearing his sister’s voice, and would have pulled away if it wasn’t for Levi’s arms around him. A furious blush spread across his face while he felt Levi’s annoyance and frustration. “Isn’t that great?”

“Yes, I thought you might be interested in that. Also, Armin wants to give her some water.” Mikasa strolled past them on her way to the sink.

Levi clicked his tongue while he made sure that Eren remained beside him. “Of course you had to come fetch it, didn’t you?”

Mikasa nodded while she picked a glass out from the cabinet. “I wanted to check up on Eren, too.” She gave him a slight nod. “Have you calmed down now? It really isn’t your fault.”

He sighed as he pushed back the hair falling onto his face. “I guess.” He winced when Levi flicked him on the ear. “Okay, fine, it’s not my fault.”

“Keep telling yourself that until you believe it,” Levi insisted. “Because I’m about to use negative reinforcement soon.” There was a rush of cold magic as a spirit brushed past Levi. “It was a damn joke.”

“Yeah, real funny,” Mikasa deadpanned as she filled the glass with water.

“Okay, time to go see what Annie has to say,” Eren announced as he tugged on Levi’s arm. “Real important stuff, right?”

“It better be.” Levi continued giving Mikasa a flat look for a few more seconds before he followed Eren out of the kitchen; once out in the main room, they found Annie standing up and unbound from the chair, with the blanket wrapped around her as if a sarong and her rubbing her wrists. “Oi, is that a good idea?”

Armin frowned as he held out his hand for the glass of water. “She’s under a light set of geas so she won’t try to hurt us, which she allowed to be placed on her.” As soon as Mikasa gave him the glass, he passed it on to a quiet Annie, then folded his arms over his chest. “There’s no reason to treat her like that.”

“Other than the fact she’s killed how many people,” Hange added as she stood a few feet away, her eyes intent on Annie as if waiting for the shifter to make one false move.

About to take a sip of water, Annie paused as a hint of red suffused her cheeks. “I can’t… I can’t really say that I’m sorry about that. I did… well….” She shook her head.

“Good, because a simple apology won’t do shit for them right now,” Hange spat out, her voice tight with anger. “You can start by telling us how you tracked us down, though.”

Annie took a few sips of water before she handed the glass back to Armin, her eyes intent on Hange. “Bert swapped out the SIM card in the phone at Ackerman’s sister’s house. As soon as one of your group used their phone to contact hers, I got the information I needed to look up the cell towers of where that phone had been, along with the others that had been in contact with it.”

Hange stared back as something akin to admiration spread across her face, and Eren could feel a lessening of hostility. “That’s… that’s pretty fucking clever. And dammit, Erwin’s never going to let us have the damn things out of sight from now on.” She reached into the small pouch to pull out her phone and sighed. “We’re also going to have to get new phones now. I liked this one.” She stroked the device as if it were a pet.

Levi positioned himself so he was between Annie and Eren and clicked his tongue to get the other shifter’s attention. “I take it you shared that information with your buddies?” When she nodded, Eren felt his lover’s anger spike. “You share it with anyone else, like that bastard back at home?”

Annie shook her head as her bare shoulders hunched forward. “He knew from Reiner’s report that we had a way to track you down, but last I know, Reiner hasn’t told him anything. He’ll probably try to call tonight – it’s more a case of him reaching out to us than the other way around.”

“Do you think they’ll try to call him to let him know what happened?”

Annie’s blue eyes narrowed and she glanced back and forth between Levi, Eren and Armin a couple of times before answering. “What, do you mean? Oh, with your sister? I doubt it.” She tucked back a stray strand of hair and shrugged again. “If they lost the fight the way it sounds like, they won’t want him to know. I’m willing to bet they’ll do what they can to retrieve Eren and ignore anything negative.” She shivered as if cold. “Commander Jaeger… he’s not someone you want to disappoint.”

Levi took a step closer to the girl. “Like I give a fuck about disappointing a psychopathic, manipulative asshole.” He looked ready to say something else when Eren reached out to touch his arm, and clicked his tongue instead.

Armin handed Annie the glass of water again. “So Bert and Reiner will try to cover up their mistake, we got it. They also know where to find us.”

“Or the general vicinity,” Annie clarified. “They have a map and know the nearest cell tower, and a general idea from Hitch. Maybe we should go fetch my phone and disable it, make it seem like something happened so their call can’t come through.”

“That’s a good idea,” Armin agreed. “It might be that we went on the defensive after hearing from Isabel and Farlan, and put the place on some sort of lockdown.”

“They also could spot Isabel and Farlan along the way,” Hange offered. “Either way, I’d say they won’t get here for an hour or two at the earliest, which gives us a little time to prepare, and hopefully Erwin to arrive with some reinforcements – Shadis at least.”

“He said that Thomas and Lynne wouldn’t be here before nightfall at the earliest, which doesn’t do us any fucking good.” Levi returned to Eren’s side but continued to scowl at Annie. “What about you? You gonna stab us in the back as soon as your buddies show up?”

Annie’s small hands tightened on the glass she was holding and she looked first at Armin and then Eren, a green spark in her blue eyes. “I told you, my mission was to protect Eren. I don’t want to harm Reiner or Bert… but I won’t let them hurt Eren, either.”

Mikasa spoke up for the first time since bringing the water. “They’ll consider you a traitor if you don’t side with them.” She didn’t sound as if the premise bothered her, just curious about Annie’s reaction.

Annie’s mouth thinned for a couple of seconds. “I don’t… it’s easier to think now, with whatever Armin’s potion did to me.” She continued to stare at Eren. “It’s easier to see things clearly, now that I’ve gotten Eren’s side of things. If I go back home….” She handed Armin the glass of water and wrapped her arms around her middle as if cold. “It’s not really a home, is it?”

“Not if they’re using you like that,” Armin assured her in a quiet voice.

“My father always insisted that I fight, that I become strong.” A tear ran down the side of her face. “I used to wonder why, what I had to fight. I thought… I thought it was the people outside of our home, and maybe part of that is true.” She wiped away the tear with the palm of her right hand. “But maybe… maybe he wanted me to be strong enough to face the truth, to find my own way.”

There was an uncomfortable silence save for Armin murmuring things to Annie, and the emotions just then made Eren shuffle closer to Levi so he could lose himself in the feel of his lover’s magic and sense of chagrin and annoyance rather than the uncertainty, guilt and remorse he felt from the others. Levi’s hand came up to rub at the back of his neck, a reassuring gesture that made him close his eyes and smile.

“Whatever, just as long as you’re on our side,” Hange muttered. “And you don’t bitch when I go all ebola on your old friends if they don’t see the light like you did. I’m not being nice to all three of you, fuck no.”

Annie made a sniffling sound while Armin called out Hange’s name. “Somehow, I doubt Reiner’s going to be willing to listen to reason, and as long as he won’t, Bert won’t, either.” There was a bitter laugh for a moment, which made Eren reluctant to open his eyes. “No, you’ll get your revenge.”

“Great!” All sounded right in Hange’s world once again. “A little bloodshed, that’s all I ask.”

“Really, Hange? Didn’t we agree that it’s better to go after whoever sent Annie and the others after Eren?”

“Yeah, but right now? Those assholes just killed two more friends and they’re going to be more than happy to kill us too.”

“You don’t have to sound so happy about taking them down, though,” Armin shot back.

Eren buried his face in the crook of Levi’s neck while Armin started chiding the blood witch while walking off with Annie, content to pretend the rest of the world didn’t exist at the moment, just what he had here right next to him.

*******

Done with all of the bickering for a while, Levi was in the process of maneuvering his lover toward one of the couches in hopes for some quiet time alone when he twitched as Hange patted him on the back. “Well, the whole torture thing didn’t end as bloody as I wanted it, but maybe Armin’s right. Maybe we have to focus on the big fish sending out the little fish.”

He grimaced as he flicked at her hand. “Your idioms are fucked up, you do know that.”

“Whatever.” She rolled her eyes as she jerked her right thumb at the front door. “Come on, I want to talk to you.”

“And I don’t want to talk to you, so fuck off.” He turned back to Eren, only to find that Petra had latched on to his boyfriend and was giving him a nervous smile.

“Ah, I think we need to fix some caffeine for everyone.” She bobbed her head as she tugged Eren after her. “Need to keep our energy levels up and everything.”

Eren frowned as he glanced between her and Levi. “But… I’m not sure, maybe I should-“

Armin got into the act and began to push his friend after the wind mage. “Coffee sounds good! I’m sure it’ll help Annie out a lot if she has something warm to drink.”

“Like I care,” Eren grumbled, but he was all but shoved into the kitchen between the two of them. Meanwhile, Levi glared at who he assumed was the mastermind behind that little act.

“What are you up to?”

Hange hummed as she waved him toward the front door. “What, that?” She gave him what she probably thought was an innocent smile and what looked more like a grimace. “Oh, I just mentioned that I wanted a private chat with my dear, beloved friend.” When he glared some more, she sighed. “Oh come on, Grumpy, give me like five minutes of your time. This is important.”

He had a feeling she wouldn’t leave him alone unless she got her way, which was the only reason he followed. “This better not be about wanting blood or something like that.”

She grinned while reaching for their coats. “I’m always up for that, but yeah, you’re being stingy with the good stuff.” She laughed as he took a swipe at the back of her head. “Come on, so many amazing changes going on with you and Eren! It’s for the sake of science!”

“It’s for the sake of your sick curiosity.”

“Hmm, that too.” Hange led him off the porch but didn’t go much farther. “So, you and Eren.” She hummed a little more.

He waited for something else to follow that statement then sighed. “Considering how much money you’ve made off of that fact, it’s not a surprise anymore. What are you getting at now, shitty glasses?” Too bad there was bedrock about ten feet down, or else he’d have some revenants drag her into the ground and claim he had no idea where she went.

Hange sighed as she huddled into her jacket. “Just wondering if it’s sunk in yet, that it’s you and Eren.” She gave him a pointed look for another couple of seconds. “As in, from now on out, it’s you *and* Eren.” When all he did was stare back, she shook her head. “Given any thought to what you’re going to do from now on, supposing we kick some shifter ass?”

He opened his mouth to say… what? The importance of her question hit him like spell to the chest, as if Isabel was practicing with her wind and lost control of how much power she’d put into it. “Fuck.”

“Yeah, I think he’s figuring it out now.” Hange pulled her right hand out of her pocket and tapped it against her right temple. “As far as I can tell, the two of you are tied together. From what I can *see*, it’s not just the magic keeping you together.” Her expression softened as she smiled at him. “I’m happy for you, Levi. If anyone deserves a cutie like Eren, it’s you, but I want you to think about all of this – what it means, what’s going to happen. It’s a big change.”

He was quiet as he diverted his gaze and stared at the ground for what felt to be a minute or two. “He told me that as long as I wanted him, he’s not going anywhere,” he admitted. “And… I want him.” It was a bit embarrassing saying that out loud, saying it out loud to *Hange*, but she was his best friend.

“Yeah, I figured that.” For once there wasn’t any snark or teasing to her voice. “Like I said, it’s clear there’s something between you. And as much as I love you, you grumpy bastard, and Eren’s adorable as fuck, somehow I doubt you’re going to want to crash with me forever.”

Levi looked up to glare at her. “You’re too much of a pig to be a roommate,” he insisted, then turned his gaze on the building behind them. “And I don’t think I can stand being with Mikasa for too much longer, even if she’s his sister.”

That wrung a laugh from Hange. “Somehow I figured that out.” Hange’s smile faded away as she fiddled with her glasses. “Wouldn’t be surprised if Armin’s figured it out, too, which might be why he’s been after Mikasa to give you a break.” She paused again, her expression once more serious. “What are you going to do if we can’t find this asshole uncle of Eren’s right away?”

Levi rubbed at the back of his head, at the shaved part of his hair; he needed a trim sometime soon. “I… dammit, we can’t keep putting people in the line of fire all the time, Eren won’t stand for it and I don’t blame him. We’ll figure something out.”

“But you’ll do it together.”

He nodded. “Yeah.”

Hange smiled, the expression wide and oddly tender. “That’s all I wanted.” She dared to leave forward and give him a quick hug. “Look, you’re grumpy and all, but you do deserve to be happy. Know that I’m there for whatever you need, but don’t let a chance like this slip you by.”

He didn’t use as much force as he could have when he shoved her away, embarrassed by the… the *feelings* to all of this. “Enough all ready, I get it.”

She laughed as she danced out of reach. “Aw, the two of you are adorable together!”

“And you’re deranged,” he muttered as he headed for the porch. “Any more of this emotional shit I have to put up with or are we done?”

“Nope, just wanted to get that out in the open, so to speak.” Hange’s smile slipped as she took to the steps. “With the way things have been happening lately, you might not have much time to make a decision, so….” She flapped her right hand about a couple of times.

“We’ll figure it out,” he repeated. And it would be him *and* Eren, as long as Eren still stood by the decision he’d made the other day. “How much longer do you think it’ll take Erwin to get here?”

“Hopefully not much longer.” She slicked her hands over her unruly hair. “It’s a bitch, waiting for the ax to fall.”

“Yeah, but we can hope that this takes care of the bastards for a while.” Not that Levi was a big believer in hope.

Judging from the sardonic twist to Hange’s lips, neither was his friend. “Hey, if you die, I get to do whatever I want with your blood, right?” She laughed when he took a swing at her ribs. “Come on, you get to use my body if I die!”

“You are one fucked up individual,” Levi informed her, just in case there was any doubt. “Let’s hope you get eaten by a damn unicorn or something.”

“Ha! Wouldn’t that be great!” Her laughter followed him into the kitchen, where he was looking for both his lover and a bottle of whiskey.

*******

Erwin gripped the steering wheel between his hands and stared hard out of the windshield as if he could mentally will the vehicle to get there faster, to bend the roads somehow and make the distance shorter.

“Your people are good,” Shadis assured him. “They’ll be all right.”

“You don’t know what we’re fighting. Even with the potions… at least there’s just two of them now, but two of them tore through Mike and Nanaba,” he reminded the fire mage. “And now they’re even more desperate.”

Shadis grunted as he shrugged about as if to find a more comfortable position against the corner of the door, his arms folded against his chest and his chin lowered. “You know, I didn’t join up because I wanted one more fight.” He paused again while Erwin glanced away from the road to look at his old friend. “As soon as you mentioned shifters, I had a feeling what this was about… especially when you put out the word about a ‘Grisha Jaeger’.” He fell silent as his hooded eyes stared out at the road before them.

Erwin allowed him the silence for about a minute. “Do you know something about the man?” If so, why hadn’t Shadis said something when Erwin sent out the message?

Shadis let out a slow breath and nodded. “I *knew* something.” He held out his left hand when Erwin began to speak. “Wasn’t sure it would do you much good, because it’s years old, but yeah, met him… oh, has to be over thirty years ago. Lost track of him after Karla died.” There was a distinct note of bitterness in his voice just then.

Karla… “That’s Eren’s mother,” Erwin declared; he remembered Mikasa talking about her when he asked her about a little more information.

“Yeah.” Shadis rubbed at his bald head as if he had a headache. “I knew her… hell, I knew her for a long time, back when she… well, she didn’t have the easiest life, being a latent. Her mom showed up out of nowhere and died when she was still quite young, didn’t tell her anything about her father. Still, Karla was strong – maybe a little too strong, she could be stubborn.” A slight smile lingered on his lips as if he was remembering something. “Then Grisha showed up and swept her off her feet.” The smile faded away at mention of the mysterious man.

“What was he like?”

Shadis grunted as he folded his arms over his chest. “Charming, I’ll give him that. But… looking back, should have known there was something off about him, because he didn’t know things he should have, didn’t quite fit in. It’s what won Karla over, though, since she was a latent and felt she didn’t fit in with the rest of us, nor the normals. Grisha made up some story about being too weak, of not having enough magic and so was shunned by his own magic family… but yeah, he wasn’t Reiss, wasn’t Fritz or Baumeister or any other of the local organizations…. I guess we just assumed he was from farther away and didn’t care because he didn’t play any politics or hold any affiliations.”

Erwin frowned as he tapped his fingers against the steering wheel. “But he chose Karla, a latent, for his wife.” He hadn’t much time to talk to Hange because of everything that had happened, but she had passed on a little information about the captured shifter, Annie, and one tidbit was that Annie’s mother had been a latent mage.

“Yeah.” Shadis’ expression turned grim and he once again was silent as if thinking of something. “Like I said, Karla didn’t know much about her mother’s family, it was as if the woman refused to talk about the past, but I met her once or twice before she died… and I knew she hated to mention anything to do with Reiss. Got the feeling whatever her past was, it had to do with them… and she wanted to make sure they had nothing to do with Karla. That she was happy Karla was a latent.”

Was Karla connected to the Reiss in some way? Hange would know since she had read Eren’s blood, but she’d been focused on the shifter side of it. “The other shifter, the one Levi and Hange captured – Hange said her mother was a latent, too.”

Shadis didn’t seem surprised. “I did some digging after… well, after Karla was murdered and Grisha vanished with Eren. It’s not very often, and I’m ashamed to say that we – the magical community as a whole – tend to not give a shit about our kids if they’re born latent. We treat them little better than normals.” He paused to rub his right hand over his face, his expression strained as if something was bothering him. “Anyway, it doesn’t happen often, and the poor girls don’t have anywhere to turn since their families have abandoned them and the normal police are out of bounds… but if you know where to look, if you *want* to look, there’s incidents of latent women having their kids taken from them. Happens every few decades or so. Most assume it’s just the usual abduction and the such.”

The SUV swerved as Erwin figured out what Shadis was telling him. “Wait, so you’re telling me that shifters… what, come out here, impregnate women and take their children away?” Why hadn’t anyone figured this out by now?

Shadis nodded. “I think they only take the ones they know are shifters or will be useful to them, since it explains how a shifter appears out of the blue now and then. As far as I can figure out, Grisha came here to impregnate Karla… but something happened, because from the little I’ve been able to find, he should have taken Eren when he was still a toddler. Eren never should have grown up here.”

All of this was beginning to make Erwin’s head ache – no wonder Shadis appeared so unhappy. “Why the hell didn’t you ever tell me this before? That there were people taking children from our own community?” Erwin couldn’t believe that something like this had been allowed to happen, that *children* could be taken away from their mothers like that.

“Because….” Shadis shook his head as there was a pulse of magic, as if he struggled with strong emotions. “Because as far as I could tell, our own community didn’t care. Because I think Reiss and the others allows it to happen, since they look forward to those accidental shifters being born.” He rubbed at his face again, and when his hand pulled away, he allowed a few flickers of flames to dance along his fingers. “Because I believe it was Reiss or Fritz who tracked Grisha and Karla down, back in Shiganshina and not other shifters.” He paused to look over at Erwin. “I wanted to make sure I had enough information before I dragged you in on this, and that we weren’t taking on a fight we’d lose.” There was another grim twist to his lips before he turned his gaze back out the window. “I was also hoping to find Grisha myself first.”

It was a hell of a lot to take in, on top of what was already a rather bad situation. Erwin drove on for a few miles before he spoke again. “It would probably answer a lot of questions, if we found Grisha – why he didn’t take Eren back to wherever these shifters have hidden themselves, and what exactly he was meant to do while out here. I think it’s safe to say that they’re trying to expand their own gene pool, but why? Lack of breeding partners? Searching out particular bloodlines? Why latent women? Is it just latent women? Men wouldn’t exactly know if they impregnated someone, after all.”

“Like I said, latent women don’t have as many resources as someone with magic,” Shadis pointed out. “Yet they still have good odds of producing a magically-talented child.”

“And the shifters could be anybody.” Erwin rubbed at his forehead with his left hand. “This… we have to get through the next day or two, and then really think about this. I don’t know how much Annie knows and what she can tell us, but we need to find out more. We need to get at whoever is controlling her and the other two – and we *cannot* let them get their hands on Eren.” If by some chance all of this was for the purpose of producing a key, all that effort… yes, Eren was too important.

“Some part of me hopes that Grisha… that he couldn’t tear Eren away from Karla, that he saw how important that child was to her and couldn’t go through with it. Maybe he developed a conscience or realized what he was sent to do was wrong.” Shadis once more shook his head. “Maybe when he realized what Eren was, he decided that it would be wrong to treat a child, his own *son*, as a weapon.”

“Or maybe once he was gone from whoever is pulling Annie’s strings, he woke up and decided that such a monster didn’t deserve to control his child,” Erwin agreed. “All I know is that I refuse to allow anyone that much power – if we think things are bad enough with Reiss and the other organizations trying to control us now, it’ll be a thousand times worse with someone being able to possess that much magic with a simple whim.”

Shadis straightened up and turned to face him with a steely glint in his eyes. “But you think that Ackerman deserves it? From the little you’ve told me, he’s got the prize everyone wants, and he barely answers to you. Soon as he has his sister and friend back, that leash is gone.”

Erwin smiled as he slowed down to make the sharp curve ahead. “Levi is the only one I’d trust Eren to… it’s funny how these things work out.” He thought about Eren’s empathy and wondered just what it was that made the shifter trust Levi so quickly, how it was that Fate had decided to cross their paths. “He’s not interested in ruling the world, just in being left alone.”

Shadis stared at him for a couple of seconds before settling back in the corner of the SUV. “I hope you’re right.”

“If it’s any consolation, if I’m wrong, we’ll most likely be among the first to pay for my mistake,” Erwin assured him.

There was silence for another few miles before Shadis made a disgusted sound. “Working with you, one doesn’t mind putting their life at constant risk.”

“I do aim to be an inspiration,” Erwin admitted.

That earned him an equally disgusted look before the fire mage closed his eyes and pretended to go to sleep.

*******

Levi watched as Eren fussed with several pots, a distracted expression on his face. “Oi, you going to bang around with pots all day or what?”

“Eh?” His lover stared at him for a couple of seconds before he sighed. “I’m just… what do you want for dinner?”

“Not really in the mood to eat, to be honest.” Levi tugged Eren away from the stove and stood with his arms around the brat. “Don’t think anyone is.” Not when they would be expected to fight at any moment.

“Yeah, but-“ Eren didn’t finish the thought as he shrugged. “I don’t know, it’s something to do, now and later.”

“Defrost some steaks then, we’ll have Erwin cook them up for us as a victory dinner.” Levi frowned when he felt Eren’s magic flare at the mention of his friend. “What’s wrong?” Eren had basically been hiding in the kitchen since Erwin had returned about half an hour ago. When his lover didn’t say anything, his head ducked with those unruly bangs hiding his face, Levi clicked his tongue and made a flicking motion near Eren’s left ear.

“All right!” Eren lifted his chin to glare at Levi. “It’s… that Shadis guy, he’s creepy.”

“Huh? Shadis?” Levi rubbed his left hand along the small of Eren’s back. “He’s old as fuck and pretty strong, but he’s not that creepy. What, he make a pass at you?” As far as Levi knew, the fire mage had a thing for pretty young women… feisty, dark-haired women. Huh, Eren sorta fit the bill, except for the whole ‘not female’ thing.

“No!” Eren’s magic flared again as he stared up at Levi in horror. “It’s not that… well, his emotions are….” Eren did the hand wave thing around the side of his head as he frowned. “All goopy and stabby and-“

“Stop, just stop,” Levi sighed as he felt a headache come on. Seriously, Mikasa seemed… well, a bit psychotic when it came to her brother, but otherwise functional. How the hell had Eren turned out so backward? “Make it a fucking thesaurus that I’m going to beat you with every day until you learn it.”

Eren’s frown deepened as he attempted to stomp on Levi’s right foot. “Why do you even ask me these things?”

“Because I have the mistaken hope of a sane answer coming from you one of these days,” Levi sighed as he smacked the little shit on the ass.

“Such a mean asshole,” Eren muttered even as he slid his arms over Levi’s shoulders.

Yeah, funny how hearing that shouldn’t make Levi’s heart race, or for him to smile the slightest bit. “You know it,” he breathed out as he leaned in for a kiss, for a moment content to forget all about the other shifters and the upcoming fight, and damn did this feel good, did-

“Oh, sorry, just wanted a cup of coffee.”

Eren’s magic sputtered as Eren went stiff in Levi’s arms as Shadis stalked past them, intent on the coffee machine. Levi gritted his teeth as he pulled back, his eyes narrowed as he watched as the grizzled fire mage fetched a mug and poured himself some coffee. “Yeah, never mind us.” They really needed to get their own place or something.

“Well, you are in the middle of the kitchen.” Dressed in plain khaki pants and a white button down shirt, Shadis looked as if he should report for work somewhere, maybe some shit where he did stuff with his hands considering his leathery skin and scuffed boots, just an average guy until you caught the sharp gleam in his hooded brown eyes.

“Wasn’t like we were doing all that much.” Beside Levi, Eren began to fidget, a slight flush to his cheeks and his head ducked once more; Levi noticed that Shadis was staring at his lover, but wasn’t getting any ‘perv’ vibe from the man. If anything, the expression was a bit fond and almost sad.

“Still, better places for such things.” Then Shadis let out an amused snort. “But people do odd shit before a fight, so whatever.” He took a sip of his black coffee then raised the mug as if in a salute. “I’ll leave you two to it.”

“Uhm, that’s okay,” Eren mumbled as the man walked away.

Something was going on there, and Levi had a feeling that Erwin might know what. Levi motioned to the main room with his head, and Eren followed as he went there to see if he could find his friend.

Of course the bastard was busy talking to Armin, Hange and Annie about the other shifters, which caused Levi to huff in annoyance. So instead they went over to the fireplace, where Mikasa and Petra seemed to be standing for some warmth. “So Hange stop bitching for Annie’s blood yet?”

Petra winced at the question while Mikasa shrugged. “She seems to have accepted that Annie’s being of use to us.” Mikasa stared at the other group of mages and shrugged again. “Armin trusts her.” She then turned her attention to her brother.

Eren tucked his hands into the sleeves of the blue sweater he’d ‘borrowed’ from Levi and flipped his arms about a couple of times. “Still not picking up anything from her that’s bad, but I don’t read her like I do Levi.”

Levi let his emotions make it clear how unhappy he was at the thought of Eren getting too close to the other shifter again. “Yeah, you’re not doing another repeat of the whole sharing emotions thing again.”

“It did seem to help,” Petra pointed out, and then winced when Levi glared at her. “Never mind.”

“I can always drain her magic if everyone’s worried.” Eren entwined his left arm around Levi’s right. “Is that all right, oh great Levi?”

The sarcasm got the brat a flick to the forehead. “Let’s leave that as a method of last resort, and don’t you forget it.” He smirked when Eren rubbed his abused forehead against Levi’s shoulder.

Mikasa gave him a cool look for his actions before she patted Eren on the head. “At least you didn’t seem to have a headache from draining her magic.”

“Yeah.” Eren raised his head and appeared to consider that. “Either it’s getting better or just doing her magic wasn’t so bad.”

“Or the mental ward is helping.” Mikasa looked over in Annie’s direction in a thoughtful manner. “I’m not saying to drain her dry, but maybe we should do a little experiment later.”

Hange would love this, someone else proposing experiments, and those dealing with the other shifter at that. “We’ll be sure to schedule that in between all the free time we have,” Levi drawled.

Mikasa’s expression was a little cool in return, but before there was any more snide remarks, there was a jarring sensation as something set off the wards. “Fuck, that should be Isabel and Farlan.” Hope warred with fear inside of Levi as he all but ran toward the door, with Eren by his side. “I mean it this time – stay the fuck inside until we make sure that they weren’t followed.” Since Mikasa had been right on their heels, he gave her a slight nod and felt relief when she all but pressed against her brother, hands tight on his arms.

“But I- dammit.” Eren frowned at his sister when he realized that she had every intention of keeping him in the lodge, then looked back at Levi. “Be careful.”

“I’m not you.” Levi tucked back a strand of his lover’s hair to take the sting out of his words, then was through the door, with Hange, Petra, Erwin and Shadis behind him; he noticed that Armin and Annie had stayed inside as well.

All five of them fanned out in front of the building and waited for Gunther’s truck to pull up, attention split between the ground and the air. Levi felt his heart in his throat as he spotted the two familiar figures in the cab, as he could feel their familiar magic once the truck came close enough and parked a few feet away; he sent out a pulse of his own magic to feel for any sense of death, on the off chance that Hitch really wasn’t dead, and felt relief when there wasn’t any taint of a necromantic spell.

The truck had barely stopped when the passenger door opened up and Isabel spilled out, almost falling onto her face in the rush to run towards him. “Levi! Brother!” She was laughing and crying at the same time, a huge smile on her face and tears welling in her green eyes as she flung herself into his arms; it had been years since he’d last held her and she’d been crying then, too, but her magic was the same, she felt the same, and Levi held her close as she chanted his name.

Farlan was only a few seconds behind her, a familiar wash of magic as he laughed and hugged them both, a little taller now, shoulders a bit broader and grey eyes possessing a bit more patience. As Levi set his sister down, he noticed that both of their hair was a little longer now – well, Isabel’s a lot longer, and that they looked good. The lingering stress and thinness that had haunted them back in Subrosa was gone, they appeared well-fed if exhausted.

“Damn you look good,” he told them as he brushed at a hint of dirt on his sister’s face, never mind the slight tears and snags in her sweater and jeans, the streaks of dirt on the both of them.

“And so do you!” Isabel leaned in for a quick hug. “You look exactly the same!” Then she stepped back a little. “But your magic… there’s something odd about it.”

During their greeting, Hange and Erwin had come closer. “It’s good to see the two of you again,” Erwin said with a slight bow of his head. “Though I wish it were under better circumstances.”

The smile on Farlan’s face faded as he hugged Isabel to him. “Yes, it’s good to see you, too, Smith. I’m sorry about Gunther and Erd.”

Erwin’s body stiffened for a moment and he shook his head. “They were good men, and they did their best.” He glanced up at the sky before looking at Levi. “Perhaps it’s best if we take this inside?”

“Yeah, for however much longer we have.” Levi looked about, well aware that the clock really was ticking now and wondered if the other shifters were waiting for a sign of Eren or Annie. “Come on, let’s see if you can at least meet the others. You know Erwin, the freak with the glasses is Hange and next to her is Petra.”

Hange waved while Petra gave Isabel and Farlan a welcoming smile. “We didn’t see any signs of being followed,” Farlan explained, “and Izzy cast spells the entire way to confuse anyone trying as well as to wipe out our trail.”

“I know my stuff,” Levi’s sister muttered with a gleam of dark gold in her eyes.

“I’m sure you do,” Erwin agreed, “it’s just that we now know that they don’t necessarily need to follow you to get to us. It all depends on how long it’ll take them to recover from that last fight and get here themselves.”

“If they’re flying, it’s less time than driving because of being able to take a more direct route,” Hange had to add in. “Factor in the recovery process and searching about, and I’d say we’re cutting it close.”

“Thank you,” Erwin told her with a sting of sarcasm.

Isabel grabbed hold of Levi’s left hand and smiled up at him. “We’re here now! We fought them off before, just give us some more potions and we’re good to go!”

“Don’t get cocky,” he warned her. “They’ve got a lot less to lose now, and they know what to expect.”

She frowned at the reprimand while Farlan grinned. “Told you not to get ahead of yourself.”

“Oh hush. And where’s this boyfriend of yours? I want to meet him!”

Yeah, this was going to be fun. Levi waved at the front door, which was partially opened; Isabel grinned as she let go of his hand and raced toward it, prompting a startled yelp when it was thrown open.

Coming in behind her, Levi found Isabel facing off with Mikasa, who was standing sentry in front of a wide-eyed Eren, while Annie and Armin stood off to the side with wary expressions as if waiting to see if they needed to jump in at any moment. “Eh? Who are you?” Isabel demanded to know.

“Mikasa,” was all Eren’s sister said, which made Levi roll his eyes.

“That’s Eren’s sister,” he explained while he sent a spirit to push her aside; Mikasa glared at him over the use of his magic, but she got out of the way. “Come here, brat.”

Eren hesitated for a second or two, his magic pulsating as if he was tempted to shift into something before he twitched about and then sidled around Isabel toward Levi, his eyes shading to gold. “Oh for fuck’s sake, she’s not going to bite you,” Levi grumbled as he latched on to the back of Eren’s neck. “Relax.” He moved the two of them farther into the foyer so everyone behind them could get inside.

Meanwhile, Isabel continued to stare at Eren as if he was something exotic or unknown. “Wow, he really is as cute as his picture!” She made as if to touch him, only to be pulled back by Farlan. “What?” she snapped at the man.

“Leave him be,” Farlan chided. “You’re scaring him.”

“But I was just going to give him a hug,” she insisted.

“Maybe not right now.”

“He’s family now, I can hug him if I want!” Isabel scowled at her husband before turning to Levi. “Right?”

Levi rolled his eyes as he tugged Eren closer. “No groping, remember?”

“Eh?” Eren blinked in surprise as he pressed against his lover’s side; meanwhile Farlan laughed and Isabel pouted.

“He’s kidding,” she explained. “It was only one time and my hand slipped – I was trying to pick someone’s pocket and messed up.”

Eren didn’t seem to think that explanation made it any better as he damn near attempted to crawl *into* Levi. “Uhm….”

“Aw, he really is adorable.” Isabel beamed at Levi. “You lucked out, Brother.” Then her expression hardened as she looked back at Eren. “Now make sure you treat Levi right, okay?”

Eren seemed to squeak out an ‘okay’ as his power flared again, and Levi figured his lover was about three seconds away from shifting into a cat or chimera. “Relax,” he ordered again as he rubbed Eren’s nape. Little shit could drain all of them dry with a thought and he was freaking out over Isabel, it figured….

Meanwhile, he clicked his tongue while he reached out to tousle Isabel’s hair. “Mind your manners,” he told the young woman. “And he’s doing all right.”

“Really, Izzy, can’t take you anywhere.” Farlan sounded ready to laugh at any minute as he hugged his wife.

“I’m just looking out for my brother,” Isabel whined.

Before Levi could tell her that he did just fine looking out for himself, Armin came over, with Mikasa and Annie right behind him. “Hello, I’m Armin, Eren’s friend.” He gave Eren a sympathetic look. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Isabel and Farlan echoed the sentiments, while Eren unglued himself a little from Levi’s side. Once the pleasantries had been exchanged, Armin’s demeanor became more serious. “So, no sign of them yet?” It didn’t take a genius to figure out who he meant by ‘them’.

“No,” Levi told him. “Farlan said he didn’t think they were followed.

Annie edged forward a little. “Reiner and Bert might be a bit cautious since they never heard from me.” As soon as she started talking, Hange and Erwin sidled closer to hear what she was saying. “If they managed to get here before you, or followed without you noticing, they may be watching from a safe distance to see who came out to greet you and so get a feel for how many people are here – they were hoping I’d provide them that intel.”

Isabel’s eyes went wide while Annie talked. “Eh, you’re a shifter? You’re one of them?” She pointed at Annie as she spoke, until Farlan batted her hand down.

“Annie is helping us now,” Armin explained.

“Yeah, because she doesn’t want to be killed,” Hange muttered.

“Because she now knows better and is free of the geas,” Armin stressed while glaring at the blood witch. He looked ready to say something else before Erwin held up his hands.

“Enough of this argument!” He scowled at the two before gazing at Annie. “My understanding is you turned over your phone to Hange, who disabled it. She checked and neither of your… former associates had called before it was turned off, so they should believe that your phone is out of service at the moment.”

“Yeah, and I whipped up a spell that should be messing with their phones right now – any phone that doesn’t have one of the SIM cards which Erwin’s people use in it right now, to explain why yours wouldn’t be working.” Armin smoothed his right hand over his leather satchel as if seeking reassurance from one of his potions.

Annie slid her hands into the sleeves of pink sweater Petra had leant her as if cold. “I’m just trying to think like Bert and Reiner – if it were me, I’d either attempt to sneak in myself to look around and find out why ‘I’d’ gone silent or I’d gather enough information before I made any moves before risking another failure. Then when I did fight, I would hit you guys hard, with the most powerful shape possible.”

“Ehh…”

Levi ignored his sister to nudge Eren in the side. “Is what she’s saying true?”

His lover frowned as he tugged on a strand of his long bands. “Hmm, she’s not lying from what I can tell, and yeah, it makes sense. They know that their ward is out in a fight, but they still think they can sneak past ours, and there’s forms with a really tough hide they can use, ones that’ll let them take more abuse from certain spells and your revenants.”

Annie nodded. “The problem will be Eren and his powers – they don’t know he can drain their magic directly, which is helpful, but they’ll want to take him down as quickly as possible to prevent him-“

“Drain magic? What the hell?”

Annie ignored Farlan’s outburst and continued. “-from harming him.” Her blue eyes flickered to Levi. “They’ll also be targeting Levi, per our orders.”

That startled an outburst from Isabel and a laugh from Hange. “Yeah, let them try – it’ll be the fastest and most certain way to make Eren drain ‘em.” She grinned as she reached out to pat Eren on the head – at least until Levi batted her hand aside.

Levi glared at the pain in the ass – and noticed the assessing look which Erwin was giving Eren and Annie. “Oh, *fuck* no, I know that look, and it’s never good.” He pulled Eren back against him while he summoned a spirit. “Fuck, no!”

Erwin’s air took on a wounded aspect while Mikasa shuffled closer to Eren, her expression murderous and her threads loosely cast out in front of her brother. “You’re not even giving the plan a chance,” Erwin murmured.

“I can already tell it’s evil.”

“Maybe, but I think it’ll work.” Erwin turned toward Armin. “You’re certain that your potions broke whatever geas Annie was under and have now rendered her loyal to us?”

Yeah, now Armin was squaring off against the Evil Bastard. “I have every faith in that she’s not lying to us and that she’s incapable of harming us, but nothing I gave her will make her a mindless lackey, no.”

Erwin shrugged. “Fair enough.” He directed his attention to Eren – or what could be seen of Eren behind Mikasa and Armin. “You said you trust Annie?”

“Uhm, I don’t believe she’s lying.”

“I suppose that will do. My plan is to have Annie appear to drag Eren outside, as if she had subdued him and is attempting to remove him from our protection. If it’s true that the other shifters are watching and attempting to figure out a plan of attack, then we can hopefully trigger them to move before they are ready.” He folded his arms over his chest and waited for a response.

“Hmm, it could work,” Hange argued.

Shadis nodded as well. “Makes them think they have another fighter on their side, as well as Eren out of the equation.”

Levi felt a nerve beneath his left eye twitch while Isabel stared up at him as if waiting for the oncoming explosion and Eren was tense in his arms. “Are you fucking nuts? Do you know what all could go wrong with that plan?”

“Yes, Annie defecting on us is the primary flaw to it, but on the whole, I think it’s worth the risk.” Erwin arched his thick eyebrows and gave Levi a bland smile. “Do you have a better one, rather than stand around and wait for them to attack?”

“Listen, you shitty-“

Farlan held up his hands in a placating manner. “Look, I don’t know this Annie and we’ve only fought these guys once, but I think he’s on to something here.” He winced at Levi’s scowl and shook his head. “Those two – well, three with the necromancer – were pretty powerful before. I know there’s more of us now, but like Eren and Annie said, they’re going to be determined and prepared. Why not make the offensive strike for once?”

Levi didn’t like it, didn’t like the thought of using Eren for bait, but his lover twisted about in his arms and glanced up at him. “I don’t mind, not if you, Mikasa and Armin are here for me.” His magic was quiet, a sure sign of his trust.

Levi cupped his hands around Eren’s face and held it steady for a gentle kiss, mindful of the damn attention everyone was paying for them. “You let yourself get captured, I will kick your ass so fucking hard,” he warned.

“Yeah, yeah,” Eren breathed back before smiling. “The ‘great’ Levi better not fail.”

“As if,” Levi scoffed, before looking over at Annie. “If this is a trick, I will fuck you up so bad that you’ll wish Hange had finished with you earlier.”

To her credit, Annie held his gaze before giving him a solemn nod. “It’s not, you’ll see.” Then she stared at Eren and seemed to consider something. “How are we going to do this? We need to make it convincing.”

Hange leered at the two shifters as she made grabby motions with her hands. “I think it’s time the two of you got naked.”

While Levi and Mikasa glared at the lunatic and Armin groaned, Isabel shook her head and frowned at Farlan. “I am so confused right now.”

*******

Reiner hopped along the tree branch to get a better look at the lodge; the sun was starting to go down, so he would need to shift into something with better night vision soon. A few feet away, Bert ruffled the feathers of the small hawk form he’d shifted into for better heat insulation, a faint sense of nervousness radiating off of him.

Reiner knew his lover was unhappy with the plan, knew that Bert would much prefer finding more help, but if they went back home…. He shook his shifted body, feathers ruffling about at the thought of Commander Jaeger’s displeasure of them returning empty handed.

No, they’d wait a little longer and see what had happened to Annie, find out more intel and salvage what they could of this mission. They’d tried calling again once they’d located the huge cabin and found their phones jammed, which explained why their partner hadn’t been able to call them back. So far everything appeared quiet inside the building, and they’d confirmed that Ackerman was indeed here. At the very least, if they could kill him before returning home, then it wouldn’t be a complete failure. They could sneak in during the night, find him asleep and inject him with some sort of poison before the man even know what had bit him. Yeah, maybe it was time to give up on something so direct. Maybe they could take out several of the mages that way until there weren’t enough to fight back, and then grab Eren. Reiner wondered what type of snake or spider would be best….

There was motion on the front porch, the front door opening just part way, which snapped him out of his thoughts and made Bert hop closer. At first it was difficult to see what was happening, what had made the door open, and then Reiner’s heart seized when he saw a catlike shape, something like a dark grey ocelot, slink along the front porch. What the hell, was that Annie? What was she doing? And what was that in her mouth? Was that… that was a cat, was a gold and brown tortoiseshell cat which appeared unconscious.

Wait, had she managed to grab Eren? Hope and panic flooding through him at the same time, Reiner flew off the branch, along with Bert, as they went to figure out what the hell Annie had just done. Inside the huge building there was a flare of magic and the sounds of yelling, of people calling out Eren’s name as the mages seemed to realize that he’d disappeared, and Annie’s slinky gate picked up speed.

Dammit, Reiner had told her not to do something stupid, to not act on her own! But if those other mages had said something about fighting them, had maybe exaggerated their wounds… maybe Annie believed she had no choice. Reiner flew straight to her in order to provide backup just in case the mages realized that Eren was gone from the house – and felt first a slight tingling presence of the wards as he slipped past them, then almost a vice-like grip as he was caught up in terrible-cross winds, as spirits whirled around him, tore at his wings and feathers, spun him around and battered at him and-

There was a horrible shriek from Bert as he was caught in the same wicked drafts of air; Reiner did his best to shift, to change into something that would allow him to fly but the winds were too strong so he finally gave in and changed into something that would just carry him to the ground and survive the impact. As it was, his wings were broken and body battered, his healing factor struggling to kick in as his magic allowed his body to flow into a more suitable shape in case he needed to fight.

He rolled as he hit the ground, bull’s head heavy with wide, sharp horns, skin as thick and as dense as he could make it, plated as much against magic as possible as well as projectile weapons and blades. Not too far off was Bert, writhing on the ground as he shifted into a wyvern, scales metallic in the fading sunlight, green and black with stunted black wings, black fur on a canine head; their eyes met for a couple of heartbeats, seeking reassurance before a wave of magic put them on the defensive.

Several mages streamed out of the large building, Ackerman in the lead, and Reiner noticed that Annie – along with Eren – was no longer to be seen. He roared at the mages as he prepared to charge, only flinching a little at the wall of flames sent his way by the fire mage he’d fought earlier. Kill Ackerman, he chanted to himself. Give Annie time to run off with Eren, and kill Ackerman.

He had to slash his way through several revenants, the smell of burnt flesh and hair heavy in the air as Bert attempted to burn through the ones swarming over him. The two fire mages and the air mage left Reiner alone to handle his lover instead, meaning that Reiner got to put up with hellfire and potions being flung his way. He roared yet again and managed to get off a spell which caused the older mage to fling up a hasty set of wards to deflect the sudden rush of jagged stones which erupted from the earth, so Reiner attempted to rush the alchemist during that time. His hide could hold up against the potions for a few more seconds, so best to gore him quick, rip out his- before he could reach the alchemist, a familiar, warded form raced before him and snatched the young man from harm, Reiner’s razor sharp right horn scraping against her crystalized back without harm.

“Annie?” What the hell, had Annie saved one of the enemy? But she was supposed to be running off with Eren, not their targets! Reiner bellowed in rage, right before a glowing white thread wrapped around his horns and yanked him off balance.

He spun around to find the Jorōgumo from the blood witch’s house standing a few feet away, those damn threads waving around her, along with the shimmer of spirits. When he began to charge at her, the earth trembled and more revenants reached up to grab onto his arms and legs, to attempt to hold him trapped to the ground; he crushed them with his strength, with his hands and hooves and horns, his rage building… and his strength dwindling. His breath coming in panting heaves, Reiner lifted his head, his suddenly too-heavy head and noticed Ackerman a few yards away, eyes glowing silver and arms around Eren, who had a coat draped over his shoulders and held closed with his hands, golden eyes also aglow. The Jorōgumo and the blood witch flanked them on one side… and Annie on the other, in her giant form, with the alchemist slightly behind as if for protection.

Annie… and Eren. Reiner felt his magic weaken with each breath, while Eren’s grew stronger, while the sense of that awful, wild magic pressed him down into the ground as much as the revenants.

Annie and Eren, who had drawn him and Bert into the clearing, into a fight they now had no hope of winning. He could hear his lover’s panicked cry and summoned up the last of his fading strength. “Tuh-trap! Go! Go n-“ Threads wrapped around his muzzle and snapped it shut, cut off the warning he was calling out to Bert while the last of his magic was drained out of him.

Barely able to breathe and faint from the lack of magic, Reiner felt himself revert back to his human shape and then there was something in his hair, felt something tug his head up. He groaned as someone hovered in front of him, glowing red dots and a wide white slash. “Not gone just yet? Good, you’ll feel this before you die. This is for Moblit, for all of my friends.”

The grip in his hair was gone, and Reiner could only hope that Bert had managed to escape, that he could warn the others about Annie, about-

Then there was pain. *Pain*. So much agony, tearing into him, tearing him apart as he screamed, as it ate through him, and oblivion couldn’t soon enough.

*******

Levi stared at the broken and bloody mess on the ground in front of Hange as he willed the revenants to fade away, the energy of the death tingling along his nerves while Eren’s magic continued to soak into his flesh. “Overkill or what?” he chided his friend.

“Hey, I took my shot when I had it.” She dusted off her hands while Eren wrapped Levi’s arms tighter around his chest and off to the side, Annie shook her head as if to clear it of the sight before her.

“It had to be done,” Mikasa reminded them, on target as usual, while she looked off in the direction of the commotion across the yard. “What about the other one?”

“Reiner was warning him,” Annie announced as they turned toward the others.

“I didn’t feel another death.”

“No, and I… uhm, there was a lot of energy from him,” Eren gestured to the dead shifter, the coat slipping from his shoulders, “but not sure I’ve enough from two of them?” He frowned as he took a step forward, only to sigh when Levi pulled him back to his side; until they knew what happened to the other shifter, he was staying close.

Shadis was lying on the ground, but his eyes were open and his wrinkled face sweaty as he groaned in pain, with Petra and Farlan leaning over him while Isabel and Erwin stood a few feet away with fireballs hovering about them. Fuck, that didn’t look good. “Don’t tell me you let that other bastard slip free,” Levi called out as he pulled Eren even closer.

Erwin shook his head, his lips pressed in a grim line. “He went out of control once the one you were fighting called out the warning, sent out a huge plume of fire and venom and by the time Isabel and Petra had cleared the air, he was gone.” Erwin gestured with another ball of flame toward a hole in the ground. “Now there’s another thing we’ll have to ward against.”

Annie gasped as she shifted into a more or less human shape, her nudity covered with a thick, golden fur. “I’m sorry – I’m so used to flying that I didn’t think about that.”

“You and Eren both,” Armin assured her while he looked over at his friend; Levi glanced at his lover to find Eren frowning at the ground, his mouth twisted in obvious distaste. “But that’ll be easier to ward with the new potion, at least.”

“Such a fucking cat,” Levi chided his lover.

“How do you even do that?” Eren mumbled as if he hadn’t heard Levi. “I mean, wings I can figure out, but where does the dirt go? What if you find something nasty down there?”

Erwin’s displeasure lessened a little as he studied the two shifters. “Well, like I said, now we know. And other than Shadis’ ribs, no casualties.”

“Fuhckin’ tail,” the old fire mage wheezed as Farlan helped him to sit up. “Who has a fucking tail?”

“Shifters,” Armin summed up with some satisfaction as he reached for a potion. “Also, wings, horns, claws, spikes and a bunch of other nasty things if so inclined.”

“I’m too old for this shit,” Shadis grumbled, his face haggard and grey *before* he took the potion, and not improving for a few seconds afterwards. “What I don’t do for old friends.”

Yeah, Erwin owed the poor guy for his help. “Come on, let’s go back inside unless we think someone’s going to return for another round.”

“No, I can’t see Bert doing that, not with Reiner dead.” There was a bit of remorse in Annie’s voice as she looked back at the dead body. “I imagine he’s not going to stop until he reaches home.”

“Not the most cheerful thought, but at least we know we’re good for tonight.” Erwin waved them on inside. “I’ll deal with the mess.”

“Oh, let me get some blood first!”

Leaving those two to clean up, Levi waited for Isabel and Farlan to follow while he shoved Eren toward the porch. “Come on, time to get some clothes back on.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Eren dug in his heels as they reached the porch to twist about in Levi’s grip, and as soon as his fingers slid into Levi’s hair, Levi knew what to expect; he ran his hands along Eren’s spine as his lover gave him a lingering kiss, the sense of magic addicting as energy flowed into him to wash away the exhaustion and stress of the long-ass day. “Better now?” Eren asked as he rocked back on his heels, his eyes heavy-lidded and voice husky.

“Hmm, that certainly helps.” Levi gave Eren’s ass a gentle pat. “Now get in there.”

“Asshole.”

“We really do need to see if Eren can give someone else that magic.” Armin sounded a bit wistful just then.

“What, that was Eren giving Levi magic? It was weird, that rush just then.” Farlan eyed Levi as they entered the lodge and Eren picked up the pile of folded clothes left on the long table against the wall.

Armin nodded, while Mikasa took the clothes from Eren and handed them to him one by one as he slipped on his boxers and sweatpants beneath Levi’s coat. “It’s part of the bond between the two of them, so I’m thinking we’re just going to be jealous of Levi.”

“I’ve never heard of a shifter being able to do what Eren does,” Annie admitted.

“All part of the fun of being a key.” Eren sounded a bit tired as he shrugged out of the coat, which he handed to Levi before tugging on his sweater.

“Look on the bright side, at least no weird talents appeared during the fight today,” Levi pointed out as he hung up his coat, right about the same time Erwin and Hange came back inside.

“Oh, yah.” Eren slicked back his tousled hair as he gave Levi an unhappy look. “It’s all your fault if something bad happens now.”

“As if – don’t you know by now it’s always your fault?” He smirked when his lover made a spitting nose and attempted to hit him, and caught Eren’s fists to pull him in for a quick kiss. “Don’t tempt fate, brat.”

“Whatever.” Off to the side, Isabel laughed at their antics while Mikasa sighed.

Annie yawned as she scratched at her… pelt? “Well, this is all fun, but I’d like to get dressed, too.”

“Sure!” Armin handed her the pile of clothes she’d set aside earlier and then became flustered. “Ah, let’s take you upstairs so you can change in some privacy.”

The two of them headed up the stairs, their cheeks red and eyes adverted, while Mikasa let out another weary sigh. “Great, I get one set straightened out and Fate dumps another one on me,” she muttered while shaking her head.

Isabel sent Levi a confused look and he barely, just barely resisted the urge to say something – and caught Eren’s elbow before it smacked into his ribs – while feeling rather smug at the moment. Sometimes karma could be a bitch.

*******

“Aw come on, I want to see the cat again! Or wait, didn’t Levi say earlier that you were a dragon once?” Isabel clapped her hands as she leaned toward Eren, her expression intent as if she expected to be obeyed. “Be a dragon!”

“Uhm, I… I need something from the bedroom. I”ll be… yeah, it’s upstairs.” Eren thought he managed to give Isabel a grin while her husband admonished her about giving him a little space, and all but scrambled across the living room and up the steps; Armin, Mikasa and Petra were down the hall in Petra’s room, going through the air mage’s clothes to find some spare outfits for Annie since it appeared she’d be staying with them for at least a few days – Annie and Isabel, while Levi was talking to Erwin, Hange and Shadis. Eren had thought he could handle some ‘alone’ time with Farlan and Isabel – well, Farlan seemed like a nice guy, but Isabel was *frightening*. Where did she get all of that energy?

He sat down on the bed and begun to wonder how long he could hide in the room when the door opened, and just when he was about to shift into something truly small like a rat just in case it was Isabel, he felt Levi’s magic and began to relax. “Oh thank the Fates.”

Levi gave him a knowing smirk as he approached the bed. “Izzy break you already?”

There was a whine in his voice as he reached for his lover, and Eren didn’t care. “She won’t *stop*! There’s all these questions about my talent and what I can shift into, about what the bond is between us and what it’s like to feel your emotions, what my intentions are to you and-“ He smacked Levi on the shoulder when he felt his lover’s amusement. “It’s not funny! Gah!” Eren jerked his right hand through his hair as he huddled into himself on the bed. “I’m about to change into… oh, I don’t know, a fox or something and go hide in the forest until she’s gone!”

Levi chuckled a few times, the sound deep and too amused, the bastard, as he stroked his thumb over Eren’s right cheekbone. “I just think it’s a bit of a payback, considering what Mikasa’s put me through.”

“… yeah, okay.” Still, Eren gave him another light whap before he leaned against the bastard. “Is she going to stop anytime soon?” He groaned when he felt the smug amusement over the link. “I hate you so much right now,” he informed his lover as he thought about Isabel chasing him through the lodge.

“Sure you do.” Levi caught at Eren’s hands and pulled him in close. “I mean, it’s completely reasonable – she’s just this young woman who has you utterly terrified and here you’ve fought all these mages and three shifters. Take it all out on me.”

“She’s *your* sister,” Eren explained.

“My sister, who’ve you finally met.”

“Yeah.” Eren tugged at his hands and huffed when of course they weren’t released. “So, what happens now? You’ve got your sister back, her and Farlan.” He chewed on his bottom lip as he stared up at Levi.

His lover’s emotions took on a more contemplative turn as Levi’s fine brows drew together. “Honestly? I’m not sure – Erwin was asking some evasive as fuck questions so I think he’s putting together a plan, and Isabel made sure to bitch enough that she’s tired of being stuck in the middle of nowhere so I’m sure she’ll protest about being hidden away again.” Levi’s emotions sharpened as his attention focused back on Eren. “What about you? You change your mind yet?”

“Eh?” Eren attempted to figure out what that meant. “About what?”

Levi clicked his tongue as he toppled both of them onto the bed so they lay stretched out. “About staying with me?” He let go of Eren’s wrists so he could skim them along the front of Eren’s sweater, his emotions a mix of expectation and hesitancy.

Oh, that; Eren shook his head. “Told you, I was here for however long as you want me.” Then he thought about what he’d just said. “Uhm, well, not *here*, but-“

Levi yanked on his sweater while clicking his tongue. “I get it.” He tugged again, which prompted a yelp from Eren as he was pulled onto his back. “Good, because not ready to bury you out in the yard just yet.”

“You… such an ah-“ Eren’s complaint was cut short as Levi began to pull down his sweatpants and boxers, emotions a potent mix of desire, anticipation and dark amusement. “Ah, Levi – the others-“ Eren reached for Levi and ended up fisting the duvet instead when his lover yanked down his clothes almost to his knees. “Ah!”

“They’re not here,” Levi insisted before he placed a kiss on the inside of Eren’s right thigh, hands busy pushing up his sweater even as Eren moaned at the dual feel of magic and emotions rushing into him. Those hands skimmed along his belly and then his thighs, and right at the feel of warm air on his skin preceding another kiss did his lover’s calloused yet long fingers wrap around his hardening cock.

Eren cried out when Levi gently pulled the foreskin down to expose the oversensitive tip, his hips bucking forward as he was stroked to full hardness, and the building sense of anticipation was all the forewarning he had before Levi’s lips wrapped around him, the slide of a warm, wet tongue along his length, the almost too tight grip of Levi’s fingers along the base of his cock as Levi took him entirely in his mouth. He panted at the amazing feel of moist tightness around him, of Levi’s magic soaking in to him, the desire and possessiveness, the lap of a warm tongue along the tip of his cock and then more of that slow suck, oh *fuck*, a hand sliding along to give his ass a squeeze and Levi’s eyes, those eyes and emotion and magic and no-

“Don’t,” Eren almost pleaded as Levi sucked on the tip of his cock, hand stroking along the rest of the length while Eren shuddered and fought not to claw at the duvet. “No, Levi, no-ah!” Amusement, desire and a throbbing pleasure warred with the intense ecstasy that thundered through Eren, that sizzled through his nerves as he came; it felt as if he was suspended inbetween a shift, his mind and body in complete flux and open to *anything*, just a jumbled mess and ohhh, yeah, Levi, Levi’s emotions and warmth weight, sliding up along him until their lips met. Eren felt ‘solid’ once more, felt centered as he wrapped his left arm around his lover, his right sliding into Levi’s boxer’s to wrap around his lover’s larger hand, to join in on jerking him off. Hmm.

“So jangly,” Eren murmured against Levi’s lips, his eyes still closed as he focused on his lover’s emotions and magic. “Nice.”

“The fu-uck?” There was a hitch in Levi’s deep voice, and then he began to laugh, amusement quickly overcome with sharp pleasure as he drew in a quick breath and pressed his forehead against Eren’s neck. There were warm splurts over Eren’s hand and along his belly, and Levi chuckled a few more times as he slowly relaxed, pressing Eren onto the bed. “’Jangly’? Seriously?”

Eren paused in pulling his hand free to poke a certain asshole in the side. “Jangly. It’s… oh, never mind,” he huffed. Why did he even bother, he asked himself as he wiped his hand clean on his scrunched up sweater, which was already dirty.

Levi noticed what he did with the sweater and used it to wipe his hand clean as well, which earned him a nasty look, before he pushed up on his hands so he could look down on Eren. “You do know that you can’t just make up your own words, or your own meaning for words, forever? There’s a perfectly good language for you to use so use it.”

“But it’s not so perfect,” Eren insisted as he pushed his lover away. “Oh, go wash off, you’re all grootchy and- stop giving me that look!”

Levi managed to get off of the bed with too much grace for an old man, the asshole, and then hauled Eren along with him. “A damn thesaurus, you hear? Even if we have to read it together, you’re going to learn it.”

Doing his best to not trip and fall because of his pushed down pants, Eren growled a little as he managed to get rid of the garments, and then squawked when his sweater was yanked over his head. Somehow he wasn’t surprised to find himself shoved into the shower so they could wash off, and only stopped scowling at his lover once Levi washed his back. “Do we really have to go back down there?”

“Yes.” Once he was all washed off, Levi pulled him in for a quick kiss and then pushed him toward the end of the bathtub. “If we don’t, Isabel will figure out a way to get in here.”

“Gah!”

“Exactly.” Even Levi didn’t seem happy about that idea.

Leaving his lover to finish his shower in peace, Eren dried off and finished getting ready on his own, and even was nice enough to pick up their dirty clothes. As soon as he was dressed in a clean sweater and a pair of jeans, he came out of the bedroom to find Mikasa waiting in the hallway. “Ah, everything okay?” It was becoming a habit of her waiting for him like this when something bad had happened.

“Yes. I thought I’d check with you.” She touched the scarf around her neck as she walked beside him. “How are you feeling?”

“Uhm, all right.” He tucked back his hair and shrugged. “I mean, I guess it would have been better if that one guy didn’t get away.”

Mikasa nodded. “Yes, I know.”

They headed down the stairs, where it looked as if everyone else was gathered; Eren picked up a sense of expectation, of relief and of happiness, which was largely from Isabel and Farlan – especially once Levi joined them. He hesitated to go over to his lover since he wanted to give him some more time alone with his sister and friend, but Levi caught sight of him standing with Mikasa and motioned to him.

Uncertain if he was interrupting anything, Eren went over to join the trio and gave them a nervous smile. Isabel appeared puzzled for a couple of seconds, and then returned the expression. “You two are really cute together. Who would have thought that Brother would have found- what?” she snapped at the man when Farlan tugged at her arm

“Hon, maybe your brother and his boyfriend don’t want to hear about how ‘cute’ they are, especially after they just helped take out somebody.”

“What? It’s not weird to talk about Brother’s love life, is it?” Isabel scowled at her husband before turning to Levi. “Right?”

Levi rubbed at his face before he cast a look over at Annie. “Maybe we can start another fight.”

Eren nodded as he did his best to hide behind his lover. “Uhm, yeah, or maybe it’s time for another practice session?” As much as he hated the ‘kick Eren’s ass’ sessions, he’d be grateful if one of them got him away from Isabel’s… ah, enthusiastic attention; meanwhile Farlan laughed and Isabel pouted.

“I’m just taking an interest in your life,” she explained to an anxious Levi. “We have so much to catch up on, some really big things. I mean, you have a boyfriend! And a cousin! We can have a real family reunion now!”

Eren winced at that thought, especially when he felt the wave of disbelief and horror from his lover. “Uhm…” He stared at Farlan in hopes that the water mage could do something about his wife.

The sound of Erwin clearing his throat cut through Eren’s building panic, and the four of them turned around to find Erwin standing by the fireplace, a serious expression on his face and his hands clasped behind his back. Eren noticed that everyone was gathered in the living room, and once Erwin saw that he had their attention, he nodded once.

“My apologies for interrupting, but I thought it was time that we discussed a few things. We managed a victory of sorts earlier, but it wasn’t complete.” Erwin nodded to Hange for a moment before he folded his arms over his broad chest. “We need to start planning our next moves.” He stepped aside so he could look at Annie. “Especially since there’s now a loose thread we have to handle.”

The other shifter flushed as if embarrassed at the scrutiny. “As I said, knowing Bert, he’ll most likely head back home.”

“You still don’t think that he’ll attempt to regroup and attack again?” Erwin didn’t sound as if he doubted Annie, just that he wanted to be certain.

She shook her head as she shoved her hands in the pockets of the pink cardigan she’d borrowed from Petra. “Not with Reiner dead, they were… close. No, Bert will want to go home even if it means being seen as a failure.” She paused for a moment, her expression bleak. “He won’t be as strong, not without Reiner and me. I honestly believe that you’ll have some time until Eren’s uncle figures out who’s best to send out in our places.”

Beside Eren, Levi shuffled about from foot to foot a couple of times as apprehension flared over their link. “A little bit of time, but that doesn’t mean a complete reprieve.” He clicked his tongue as he nodded to Erwin. “This is going to drag out.”

“Yes, so I’m not sure hiding in one spot is in our best interest anymore.” Erwin’s gaze lingered on Eren for a few seconds before he focused on Levi. “We have the means to strike back at them, though I wish they weren’t forewarned about the potions.”

“As long as Eren or Annie can supply us with the main ingredient, we can rob them of their anti-magic ward and keep them from sneaking in past our defense wards,” Armin pointed out. “It’s still to our benefit, and I’m not sure they know about the second potion, just the first.”

“Agreed, but hiding in one spot will just mean that they’ll do whatever they can to track Eren down, which they’ve proved to be very adept at doing.” Erwin held up his phone as an example. “Also, I’m loathe to lose the advantage we have of possessing two shifters in our organization.”

Eren had a feeling he knew where Erwin was going with this, considering it was what he’d done for the last thirteen years. “You want Annie and me to lay a false trail.” He felt Levi’s agreement and wondered if his lover had thought up the same thing.

“Wait, Annie hasn’t agreed to *anything*,” Armin insisted, only for her to pat him on the arm.

“No, it’s a good idea,” she agreed. “If there are two ‘Eren’s’ out there, it’ll muddle things up not only for the other shifters sent out to find him but for the magic organizations, too.” She paused for a moment and nodded. “It’ll probably help me out, too.”

“Figures you’ll be all for it, then,” Hange muttered.

While Armin glared at the blood witch, Mikasa shook her head. “But isn’t Reiss after Levi because of him taking in Eren? Won’t they be suspicious if an ‘Eren’ shows up without Levi?”

Erwin smiled at her, and something in his expression made Levi go stiff, his emotions suspicious. “Maybe, but Eren’s also known to associate with you and Armin. I think they won’t be able to risk leaving either lead unchecked.”

Mikasa’s eyes flashed silver. “Wait, you want one of us to go with Eren and the other to go with Annie?”

“Eren will be going with me,” Levi insisted, his tone absolute as he held onto Eren’s left wrist. “Last I checked, he hasn’t bonded with either you or Armin.”

“That’s ridiculous! Eren’s family!” Mikasa took a step toward Levi with her hands held out to her side as if to cast out her threads. “Eren, tell him!”

Great, now he was dragged into this mess. Feeling a sharp pain in his chest, Eren shook his head as he stepped forward, his right hand held out toward Mikasa and his left reaching back for his lover. “Mikasa… I can’t….” He struggled for the words as he glanced at Annie, at the blank expression on her face even as she sidled toward Armin, as he noticed the way that Armin twisted toward the young woman as if to protect her. Despite all of the emotions that battered him at the moment, Eren could feel the anxiety that his friend and the other shifter felt at the moment, anxiety he guessed was in part at the thought of being separated; he wasn’t sure what was going on between them, but he’d recognized the trust forming between the two. Trust that definitely wasn’t there between Annie and Levi, while the thought of moving on without his lover- He clutched at his chest with his right hand and shook his head while he turned toward Erwin. “Do we really have to split up?”

The mage nodded, but there was a hint of understanding in his expression. “I’m afraid so, since all trying to hide you so far has ended up in failure. But I’m not saying to run forever, just to not stay in one spot for too long. You can still see your family and friends from time to time, when it’s safe.”

“Damn right!” Isabel insisted. “I didn’t get to see Levi again after so many years for you to send him off again!”

Then it wouldn’t be too bad. Eren attempted to smile as he looked back at Mikasa. “I’m sorry, but… there’s something here.” He twisted his left wrist about to grab at Levi’s hand and held it up. “I don’t think it’s possible to leave him.” As he spoke, Levi pressed against his back.

“Mikasa, you know about their bond. Don’t do this to him,” Armin urged.

Tears shimmered in his sister’s eyes as she stared back at him – no, at Levi. “Remember what I said – you have to take care of him,” she finally demanded after a few seconds.

“I will.” Levi’s arms wrapped around Eren. “I’m not using him.” His emotions were so sharp that Eren gasped at their intensity, at the possessiveness and… and….

“I want to see him as much as possible,” Mikasa insisted to Erwin. “Every month! You’ll swear that to me!”

“Yeah!” Isabel echoed his sister as well, her hands on her hip. “Me too!”

Erwin frowned at the two of them. “Every other month will probably be more realistic.” When both women took to glaring, he sighed and held up his hands. “Every other month at the least.” Then it was his turn to glare, at Levi. “You’ll get a damn phone now! None of this being out of reach!”

“Yeah, yeah, just don’t use it as an excuse to overload me with missions,” Levi grumbled as he continued to hold on to Eren. “Gonna be busy enough as is keeping this one out of trouble.”

“Aw, just think of how many people you get to kill in the name of love,” Hange cooed as she sidled closer to them. “So romantic.”

“You’re fucking insane,” Levi muttered as he made a kicking motion toward her.

Meanwhile, Isabel appeared very happy about something. “Ooh, me too, me too!” As Eren and Levi stared in confusion at her, she waved her hands at Erwin while Farlan sighed. “We get to work now, too!” When Levi clicked his tongue in disapproval, she frowned. “No! We spent how many years learning to use our magic and being in the middle of nowhere, now we get to work!” She glared at Eren’s lover while Levi’s emotions took on a disgruntled turn.

“This isn’t a game, Izzy!”

“Neither is fighting off shifters,” Farlan pointed out as he hugged his wife from behind. “Yet we managed. Come on, Levi, have some faith in us.”

Eren could feel his lover’s resolve begin to weaken, and then Erwin cleared his throat again. “They managed rather well for themselves, and it’s likely they’ll just be targeted again if we try to hide them.”

“Oh fuck you, EB,” Levi snapped. “Fine, if they want to be suicidal bastards, sign them up.” Levi’s emotions were sullen for a couple of seconds, until Isabel came over to give them both a hug. “Just be careful, you morons,” he urged.

“We will.” Isabel’s smile changed into a serious expression as she looked up at her brother. “You gave me a chance to learn what I could do with my magic, Brother, now let me show you how much I’ve grown over the years.”

Levi clicked his tongue again as he reached out with his right hand to tousle her hair. “They won’t know what hit them.”

“Exactly!” She smiled as she went back to Farlan’s side.

Erwin seemed to wait for Isabel to quiet down before he spoke again. “Armin, if you could make up another batch of both potions before you leave, it would be helpful.” He waited for Armin’s agreement before he resumed speaking. “It would probably be best to split up tomorrow morning.”

There were a lot of unhappy expressions at the declaration, and enough strong emotions to make Eren’s head ache despite the mental wards. “Eh, why so soon?”

“There’s no reason to chance that someone won’t be sent out immediately,” Erwin explained to Isabel’s question. “Not that I’m doubting Annie’s estimate, but I’d rather not be taken by surprise.”

Eren felt a fresh wave of pain at the thought of leaving his sister and friend so soon. “Do we really have to do this?”

Erwin gave him a sympathetic look. “You don’t have to do anything, but I believe it would be for the best.” When Eren didn’t say anything else, Erwin continued. “Hange, I’d like for you to work with Shadis and Petra to see what you can uncover about the shifters and their excursions ‘out here’, based on Shadis’ research and what Annie’s told us.”

Hange appeared surprised by that. “Eh? Yeah, sure, I love a good research project.” She grinned as she rubbed her hands together, while the other two mages gave her nervous or weary smiles. “It’ll be fun!”

Meanwhile, Erwin turned to Annie once more. “If you could spare some more time tonight talking to them, I’d appreciate it.”

Annie shrugged as she wiped her palms against her thighs as if to deny the apprehension she felt. “I don’t know too much about the whole thing, other than some people get picked to have kids and some don’t, but I’ll tell them what I know.”

“Any information would be appreciated.” Erwin sighed, and for the first time since calling for the ‘discussion’, a hint of exhaustion shaded his handsome appearance. “There’s so much we need to know, and all the answers we have only lead to more questions. Unfortunately, I believe we’re running out of time and it would be best to move on.”

Hange went over to Erwin’s side as if to lend him some support. “Yeah, but look at it this way, Reiss has lost a few of their heavy hitters during this whole mess, and are likely to lose more when Eren’s uncle sends out the next batch of shifters. Depending on where Eren and Annie go, whether into Reeves or Fritz territory, we can weaken other organizations as well.”

There was a hint of a smile as well as a spark to Erwin’s blue eyes as he fussed with the cuffs to his striped blue and white button down shirt. “Oh believe me, after seeing the damage that Annie and her associates have done to our organization, I am already thinking ahead in that regard. We’ll be better prepared this time, and direct the damage to where it’ll be the most beneficial to us.”

Eren twisted about to look up at his lover when he picked up a sense of smugness from Levi, and found him actually smiling at Mikasa. “Not quite ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but close enough, eh?”

She surprised Eren when she smiled back and gave Levi a slight nod. “I think we can manage it.” The smile faded as a spark of silver entered her eyes. “Be certain to get phones for both of you, and to keep them secure. If we can’t see each other every day, I want to be able to talk to Eren at least.”

“It would be good to set up email accounts, too,” Armin added.

Erwin pinched the bridge of his nose as he glanced back and forth between them, especially when Isabel cheered at the suggestions. “Please… no public postings, if I see a Facebook account with pictures I will hunt you down myself and burn you to ash.”

“We can set up something secure,” Farlan assured him.

Erwin heaved a long-suffering sigh as he pulled out his phone while he headed for the kitchen. “Whatever. Now Thomas and Lynne should be here soon, and we’ll need their help to get everything ready for tomorrow. Hange and Shadis, let’s discuss some possible new safe houses.” His voice faded away as the two older mages hurried after him.

That left the rest of them alone in the large room; Petra went over to the fireplace to add a few more longs. “Levi, if you’ve need of me, please don’t hesitate to call.”

Eren’s lover nodded. “Just don’t let Hange drive you too crazy, okay? Or make you do all of the errands for her.”

Petra grinned as she dusted off her hands. “No, I should be all right on that front.” There was a flash of sadness as she tucked back the strands of hair falling onto her face. “It’ll be odd, not being part of… well, the change will be good.” She took a deep breath as if forcing a shift in emotions. “I didn’t realize it until coming here, but I needed to get away from Karanese, and research will be fun. I’ll help out for a while and then ask Erwin to assign me a new partner.” Resolve shown in the jut of her delicate jaw and hazel eyes as she looked at Levi.

Eren could feel his lover’s respect and affection for the air mage. “Sounds like a good plan. Just let me know if you need my help in burying Hange’s body if she gets to be too much.”

“I will, sir,” Petra told him as she laughed.

“I guess we’ll have to see where Erwin wants to assign us.” Farlan let go of Isabel so they could step closer to Eren and Levi. “A city would be nice.”

“Yes! I’m tired of living in the country.” Isabel bounced on her toes for a couple of times. “Plus it’ll make it easier to see you, Brother.”

Levi sighed as he let go of Eren and ran his right hand through his hair. “The bastard has something in mind, but yeah, it’ll probably be some city.” He frowned at Eren for a couple of seconds. “You okay with everything?”

Eren shrugged as he glanced between his lover and his sister. “It makes sense, and I’m used to running.” He reached out to touch Levi’s chest. “This doesn’t sound too bad, though, knowing I have help, that I can see Mikasa and Armin.” Knowing that Levi would be with him. He didn’t say that last part, but his lover’s lips twisted into an almost smile as he reached out to give Eren’s forehead a gentle flick.

“No doing stupid shit like taking on a pack of were, or losing your clothes, or… no stupid shit. You’re going to listen to me, you hear?”

Eren whined as he rubbed his forehead. “Mean slave driver.”

“Mean slave driver who’ll keep your ass in one piece. I’m the ‘great’ Levi, after all.” His expression took on a hint of smugness when Eren whined again.

Meanwhile, Armin stifled a laugh. “I’ll whip up some more special bags tonight, since I’m sure Levi will keep you from losing them this time.” His smile faded as he looked back and forth between Eren, Mikasa and Annie. “Ah, it’s not going to be the same, going on without you.”

Going still for a moment, Eren clenched his fingers against Levi’s sweater before he turned and went over to his friend and sister. “Yeah, I know.” He gave Mikasa a reassuring hug, then followed it up with one to Armin. “But we *will* see each other, even if we have to all take geas or something.”

“Oooh, that’s a good idea,” Isabel said.

Mikasa smiled as she fussed with her scarf. “If I don’t get Erwin to swear to it tonight, we’ll do it in the morning.”

While Levi groaned something about overprotective brats, Eren went over to Annie, who had been quiet the last few minutes. He was still somewhat ambivalent to the other shifter, grateful that she had helped out yet aware of how much pain she had caused. Still, he gave her a slight smile when she looked up at him, her emotions nervous yet hopeful. “Watch out for them, okay?”

Her blue eyes widened and she tugged on the cuffs of the pink sweater in obvious nervousness. “Yeah, I will.” Her expression was still a little cool when she glanced at Mikasa, but it softened when she saw Armin. “I promise, I won’t mess this up.”

Oddly enough, he believed her; he didn’t sense any falseness from her. “Thanks.”

Before he could go back to Levi, Armin grabbed him by the shoulders. “Come on, I need more stuff from the both of you so I can create a large batch of potions tonight!” His friend sounded much too cheerful at the moment.

Eren groaned as Armin dragged him toward the kitchen. “Really? Do you have-“

“It’ll be the last time in a while you have to do this,” Mikasa assured him. “Just let him have his way.”

All of a sudden Eren was reminded of the benefit of being on the run without his best friend. The upcoming morning was looking a lot better….

*******

Bertolt struggled with the pain, rage and sorrow inside of him as he flew home, almost numb from the intense emotions. Just a while longer and he’d be safe, would be back with his family and- what would he tell Reiner’s family? What would he tell Eren’s uncle? Those thoughts kept circling around in his head, as did the thought of Reiner sacrificing himself, of-

One minute he was in the air, the next he was tumbling toward the ground, breathless from the impact as something solid knocked into him and made him drop the bundle he was carrying, something heavy and with limbs that latched on to him. He screeched in fear and rage as he attempted to shift into something with hands to punch back – and shrieked when there was a painful sting and he found himself shifting back into his human form as he hit the ground.

There was pain, so much pain, enough to make him cry as he huddled on the bare ground, and it took him a few seconds to realize that there was another person standing not too far away. As he curled in on himself and looked up, he gasped in shock when he recognized the man.

The last images he’d seen of the other shifter had been a few decades out of date, so Grisha Jaeger’s hair lacked the touches of grey and he now sported a goatee, but he still appeared trim and his grey eyes sharp as he regarded Bertolt with apparent disdain. In his right hand he held what appeared to be an empty syringe, which he raised up.

“You know, I learned a lot of things out here, and one of them was how to affect the shifter physiology,” Grisha explained. “Took a lot of trial and error, with myself as the test subject.” He grimaced as he lowered his hand. “Came in handy, though, when my brother sent out his dogs to track me and my family down.”

“Wha-what?” Bertolt stuttered out. “What are you-“

Grisha lashed out with his left hand, the blow sending blinding pain through Bertolt’s jaw. “You’re not the first one he sent out, and you won’t be the last.” As Bertolt lay sprawled out on the ground gasping on pain, Grisha knelt down near him. “I’m sorry for this, but I can’t let you go back to him, can’t let you report on what’s happening out here.” His fingers brushed along Bertolt’s hair in an almost tender manner as Bertolt groaned. “I won’t allow that threat to Eren.”

“Puh-please!” Bertolt tried to make his body move, to make it shift, but nothing happened. He couldn’t even turn his head to look back at Grisha, to see what the other shifter was doing. “I, I won’t, I-“

There was a flare of magic, and before he could argue some more, to plead that he wouldn’t hurt Eren, there was a bit of pressure on the back of his neck and then darkness.

*******

Levi sighed at the hug-fest going on and reached out to tug on an unruly strand of his lover’s hair. “Ten minutes, and then you better get your ass outside,” he told Eren.

“M’kay,” the brat sniffed as he hugged Mikasa and Armin at the same time, while Mikasa looked up from the top of Eren’s head to glare at Levi.

“I’m serious, we need to be off this damn mountain before dark.” He wasn’t trying to be an asshole, though yeah, it would be nice to finally get Eren away from his clingy sister.

“Uh-huh.”

Levi rolled his eyes as he walked away, and figured he’d send a spirit after his lover when the time was up if necessary. He’d already said his goodbyes to everybody, and Farlan was keeping Isabel distracted so there wasn’t any more crying or whining about how he was leaving already; he promised that they’d meet up in another month.

Heading out to the borrowed SUV to make sure that nothing had been forgotten when they’d packed it earlier, Levi was surprised to hear Gunther’s borrowed phone ring; he pulled it out and stared at it for a moment since the number was unknown, but decided to answer it in case it was someone from the group calling on a burner phone. “Yeah, who is this?” They better talk fast before he ended the call.

“Levi Ackerman, correct?”

Levi stopped and leaned against the railing of the porch as he tried to place the voice – it was deep and sounded weary. “Who wants to know?” He was about to send a spirit to summon Erwin when the asshole on the other end gave him an answer.

“A concerned father. How’s Eren?”

“Fath- wait, are you *Grisha*?” He nearly dropped the phone in surprise.

“Ah, perhaps you’re as sharp as they say. Please, don’t alert anyone, I want to speak to you alone.”

He paused for a moment, his magic half-summoned, and frowned as he stared off into the woods. “Why? Why the fuck are you calling me and how did you get this number?”

“I’m calling you because you’re involved with my son, and you really should do something with those phones.” There was an exhausted sounding sigh on the other end of the line. “I found the information on Bertolt when I came across him last night.”

“Wait, what?” Levi was beginning to get a headache from all of these revelations. “I’ll get a new phone as soon as we find someplace that sells them, now what the hell is that about the other shifter?” Yeah, he was beginning to see where Eren got his scatterbrain from, all right.

There was another sigh, one that dragged on for a couple of seconds. “You may be interested in knowing that Bertolt was stopped from returning home with the information about your safe house, phones, potions and Annie’s defection.” There was something off with the man’s bland tone toward the end there, as if he was too calm about the whole thing – never mind how the hell he knew so fucking much.

“Let me guess, you had a hand in that, right?” Levi hitched his left hip up onto the railing since this looked like it might take a while.

“Yes, I did. It wasn’t much, but it should buy you a day or two before my brother figures out that none of them will be returning, especially with Eren. And the less he knows about those new potions, the better.”

Levi clicked his tongue even as he agreed with Grisha. “Seems funny, you helping out now when you’ve been absent how many years.”

There was a few seconds of silence before Grisha spoke again. “Things aren’t always as they seem, Mr. Ackerman. That’s something I’m hoping very much is the case with you, considering your bond with my son.”

Levi scowled at the implied threat. “You sure know an awful lot for an absentee father.”

“As I said, things aren’t always as they seem.”

Smart-ass. Levi glanced behind him, back at the lodge. “If you’re so worried about Eren, why did you abandon – oh, sorry, *seem* to abandon him?”

This time the sigh sounded more heartfelt than weary. “Eren… he’s so much like Karla.” As much as Levi was beginning to think of Grisha as an asshole, he had to acknowledge the pain in the man’s voice just then. “And Karla, there was something about her, an amazing innocence, a way of seeing things which I felt came from her unique place in our world, from belonging to it yet being separate from it. I had hoped… I thought Eren would take after her if he didn’t know too much, if he could be kept innocent from his true nature as long as possible.”

What a load of bullshit. “You put your son in a lot of danger with that theory.”

“He had Mikasa and Armin, and I was closer than he suspected,” Grisha argued. “It seems he found what he needed when the time was right, didn’t he?”

Levi clicked his tongue and wished the smug asshole was in front of him right then, so he could punch him. “Hell of a gamble.”

“It was a necessary one.” Grisha paused again. “There’s also a part of Eren that’s a lot like his uncle, something wild and willing to do whatever is necessary for what he feels is right. It’s not as calculating, as manipulative as my brother, but it’s still dangerous. Be careful, Ackerman. You have in your hands something I don’t think you truly understand as of yet, but from everything I can tell, Eren has settled on you. Don’t let him down.”

“Or?” Levi drawled as he called a spirit to him.

“I don’t think you’ll have to worry about me,” Grisha answered, once more sounding exhausted. “I’ll be the last of your concerns. Just know that my brother won’t give up on Eren without one hell of a fight… and that you’re not the first Ackerman I’ve dealt with in these past years.”

Levi felt a chill that had nothing to do with the cold when he heard that part of the warning. “What do you mean?”

“Reiss has been using your uncle to chase down shifters. I’ve done what I can to keep him from Eren, but I imagine he’ll be determined when he finds out about the two of you.”

“Shit.”

“Exactly.” Grisha chuckled a few times. “Don’t tell Eren I called, I don’t want him harrying off into the shadows looking for me. It’s better… it’s better that he thinks I’m gone.” The sadness and pain from before, when Grisha had talked about Karla, had returned.

As much as he hated to admit it, Levi felt a bit sorry for the man; had Grisha spent the past thirteen years or so trailing after Eren, doing what he could to keep his son safe while deliberately making Eren believe he’d been abandoned? “You should tell him the truth.”

“Remember what I said about him taking after his uncle – I can’t chance him deciding to find me when he should be focused on protecting himself,” Grisha snapped. “He’s safer that way.”

“Fine.” Levi didn’t like it, keeping such a secret, but he had to admit that his lover could be a stubborn idiot at times. Didn’t mean he couldn’t tell the others, such as Erwin and Mikasa. “Don’t make me regret this.”

“And don’t make me regret allowing my son to go off with an Ackerman,” Grisha shot back. “Be sure to destroy this phone, I’m doing the same with mine.” He hung up before Levi could call him a bastard for that ‘Ackerman’ comment.

Still staring at the phone as if he could send a damn poltergeist through it to fuck up Grisha, Levi started when he heard the front door open. “Eh, is something wrong?”

He turned around to find Eren staring at him in confusion. “No, just hoping we come across a store soon so I can get rid of the damn thing. If I didn’t need something until I get my own, I’d trash it right now,” he explained as he tucked it into the breast pocket of his coat.

“Okay.” Eren finished zipping up his coat as he shuffled forward. “So, uhm, I’m all done now. Saying goodbye, that is.”

Levi reached for his lover and pulled him close. “If you really want to-“

“No.” Eren shook his head. “It’ll be better this time, we’ve the bags Armin made for us and we’ll get the phones and the tablets. We’ll stay in touch.” There was a stubborn jut to his jaw as he looked up at Levi. “We’re planning things.”

“Damn right we are, none of this running the fuck all over the place and letting you get chased by were and shit,” Levi agreed. “Armin and Erwin will figure it out, you’ll see.”

“Yeah.” Eren’s eyes lowered for a few seconds and then he smiled, the expression a little sad. “Guess I shouldn’t have complained about going stir-crazy, should I?”

Levi gave him a quick squeeze before letting go. “Think you shot yourself in the foot there, brat. But it shouldn’t be too bad, just a few weeks running around to lay a false trail while Erwin finds us a new place we can hide in from time to time.” It wouldn’t be the same as before, when he’d all but shut himself off from the world except for the rare excursions out to see Hange or when on missions, not when so many people would be searching for them. Best to muddy the trail now and then, which would mean a lot of moving around… but it also meant he’d have Eren, and could see Isabel and Farlan from time to time. “Come on, we’re wasting daylight.”

“So much faster to just fly,” Eren whined as he hooked his left arm through Levi’s right and followed him off of the porch.

“Pardon me for not being able to grow a pair of wings out of my ass.” Levi rolled his eyes at Eren’s sulk, then shoved him toward the passenger side of the SUV. “Don’t even think you’re going to drive. Do you even know how to drive?”

“Ah, Mikasa showed me how-“

“That’s a huge fucking ‘no’.” Bratty shifters with their wings and flying and trying to get them killed, Levi thought as he opened the door and crammed his lover up onto the seat. Levi shook his head as he went around the vehicle, and noticed that Mikasa and Armin were standing on the porch, while Isabel looked out of one of the upper windows. He paused to wave to his sister then nodded to Mikasa; he had promised to watch over Eren, to protect him, and he would keep that promise. Later on, when he had a secure phone, he’d let Mikasa know that her foster father was a lot closer than she suspected.

But for right now, he had a full tank of gas, a wad of cash and a sniffling lover next to him. “You gonna cry the whole damn drive?”

“I’m not crying,” Eren insisted as he waved one last time and then turned around to face Levi, his magic flaring as he wiped at his wet eyes.

“Yeah, I can see that.” Levi clicked his tongue as he motioned at the glove compartment. “Get a damn tissue or something and clean your face.”

“So mean,” Eren whined, and the familiar lament made Levi smile.

“I know, how are you going to put up with me?”

About to blow his nose with a just-fetched napkin, Eren paused and smiled, the emotion genuine as his eyes sparkled and his magic settled. “It’s going to be interesting, isn’t it?”

Levi scoffed as he turned onto the dirt road leading down the mountain. “Best fucking time of your life.”

“Hmm.” Eren wiped at his nose before he crumpled up the napkin and shoved it into his pocket. “Probably.” He was still smiling as he kicked off his boots and curled his legs up beneath him in the large bucket seat.

“No probably to it.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Eren leaned toward Levi as much as he could in his seat. “Whatever you say.”

“Damn right.” Levi found himself smiling as he reached over to ruffle his lover’s hair. “If you’re tired, you can get some sleep.”

“No, just… it’s nice, the quiet.” Eren tilted his head toward Levi’s hand. “I know I’ll miss the others, but it was nice, when it was just the two of us back at your place. This feels good.”

“Yeah.” Still smiling, Levi gave Eren’s hair one more tousle before he resumed driving with both hands on the wheel, content with the quiet and the thrumming, peaceful sense of magic that filled the car. “Blowjob and a massage later on that things will be fucked up within three hours.”

Eren laughed as he fiddled with the SUV’s heat. “It’ll take us that long to at least get off the mountain. I say four hours.”

“Deal.” Levi figured that was one bet he wouldn’t mind losing and batted Eren’s hands away from the controls once hot air started blasting him in the face. “Stop it, grow some damn fur if you’re still cold.”

“Why do you have to be so mean?”

“Because it turns you on and you know it.”

Eren folded his arms over his chest and began to pout. “Oh sure, don’t let me drive because of a lack of skill but let a delusional person behind the wheel.”

Levi didn’t need to look away from the road to reach over and flick the idiot in the ear by now, it could be done automatically. “Maybe you should go to sleep and save us both the headaches.”

“You’re mean.”

“You said that already.”

“Gah!” Eren threw up both of his hands in the air. “Maybe I should have stayed with Mikasa and Armin.”

Levi scoffed and shook his head. “That’s not true.”

Eren continued to sulk for all of ten seconds. “No, it isn’t,” he sighed. “But you’re still mean.”

“Yeah.” He glanced over to find Eren smiling… and reaching for the heat button. “Mean enough to smack your damn fingers,” he warned, then laughed as his lover took to glaring; it was indeed going to be an interesting drive.

*******

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