chapter two

*******

broken generation

*******

Jean rose up in the stirrups to give his sore ass a break for a minute, which was about as long as his thighs and calves were able to put up with the new position – shouldn’t his body be getting used to all of this riding by now? He frowned as he tried to recall how long it took for him to adjust to gauntlet training, to the horrible aches in his left shoulder and along his back from the stress the gear put in his upper body, the pain from slamming into padded walls day after day, the sore feet and knees from all the rough landings….

“Why didn’t we pack any alcohol?”

“Eh, maybe because we up and quit without any planning on our part? If we’d given it any real thought, we would have hit a liquor store before we left the dome. Maybe next time, right?” Connie gave Jean a huge grin as he draped himself over his horse’s neck, probably for much the same reason that Jean was shifting about in the saddle.

“I think I’ve seen a couple of bottles in the captains’ bags,” Sasha admitted as she stared in their directions. “Maybe if one of you will distract them-“

“No!” Both Connie and Jean yelled at the same time – for his part, Jean was *not* willing to find out how pissed off Captain Ackerman could become if something went missing from his bags when the short asshole was bad enough on a normal day, and there was no telling what a crazy person like Captain Hange would come up with as punishment. “Maybe there’ll be something in the next supply station,” Jean mumbled as he continued to shift about.

“Maybe.” Sasha didn’t sound too convinced, but at least she stopped staring so fixedly after the captains.

“Besides, it’s not as if we can really drink since we’re all on shifts,” Connie pointed out. “We should just be grateful that we’ll have something good to eat tonight and tomorrow!”

The mention of food seemed to distract Sasha from her potential stealing endeavor and made her grin like a maniac. “Oh, yes!” She now took to staring after the pack horse that carried the various birds and rabbits that Sasha, Mikasa, Ymir and even Krista had caught during the day. “I hope we stop soon so we can start cooking!” She was practically drooling at that point.

“Yeah, my butt has gone numb by now so we should be just about done for the day.” Connie grimaced a little as he sat back in his saddle. “How late do you think it is?”

Jean shrugged since the battery had died on his datapad a couple of days ago, leaving him without any working clock; he noticed that both the captains had some solar chargers but hadn’t worked up the nerve to ask to borrow one of them yet. “It looks as if the sun will set in another couple of hours so just a little longer.” Mikasa had been teaching him things like that the last day or so, now that she wasn’t so worried about her brother.

Connie rolled his eyes and made an ‘oohing’ sound. “Don’t you sound so wise all of a sudden? You gonna start the fire by rubbing two sticks together next?”

“Nah, since your head is just like one, I figure I’ll use it and another rock to make sparks!” Jean laughed as he leaned over and rubbed his hand over Connie’s scalp; it had been a few days since his friend had a chance to shave his hair, so it was beginning to grow out a little.

Their laughter had Captain Ackerman shooting them a dirty look over his shoulder, but Mikasa’s brother must have said something because the glare smoothed out after a couple of seconds and the captain resumed looking forward instead of yelling out some sort of nasty threat. Jean let out a breath he hadn’t been aware that he was holding and scowled a little. What, they weren’t allowed to have any fun? They came out here into this freaky wilderness, risked their lives with Malforms and giant cats and bugs that kept biting and *horses*, and they couldn’t even joke a little? Meanwhile, ill-tempered captains got to ride around with their boyfriends and have sex and… and yeah, they needed to take another break soon.

“It looks as if Mikasa and the others are headed back.”

Sasha’s voice broke Jean from his thoughts. “Eh, really?” He searched in the direction where she was pointing and didn’t really see anything. “What type of freaky eyes do you have?”

“Don’t insult my girlfriend, you dork,” Connie muttered without any heat.

“I wasn’t,” Jean shot back as he shaded his eyes in an attempt to see better.

Sasha merely smiled and pointed a little more to the left. “You need good eyes to hunt. There, in the tallest tree.”

Jean wanted to complain that all of these stupid trees were tall, but he finally caught sight of a few branches swaying just then. Judging from the way that Captain Hange crowed out a greeting, he wasn’t the only one, though all Captain Ackerman did was growl a warning to not be so loud. It was about a minute later that Mikasa, Ymir and Krista hopped about in the trees above them.

Mikasa jumped down near Captain Ackerman’s horse and reached out to touch her brother’s knee, a slight smile flickering across her face when he returned the gesture, while the other women kept pace with the group up in the trees. “There’s a nice spot up ahead if you want to take a break before we stop for the night. It has a clearing and water for the horses.”

Captain Ackerman looked at Captain Hange, who shrugged as if to say the decision was up to him. Then he glanced over his shoulder to take in everyone, at Rico and Marlo riding off to the side, and Jean with Connie and Sasha. “Is it good enough for us to be safe for the night?”

Mikasa wasn’t alone in appearing stunned by the question – the only ones who didn’t seem surprised that they were stopping so ‘early’ were Captain Hange and Eren, who appeared half-asleep as he leaned back against Captain Ackerman.

“Yes, the clearing is large enough to give us enough of a warning should anyone attempt to attack,” she answered while she fussed with the ends of her scarf.

“All right.” Captain Ackerman nodded at Mikasa to lead the way, then once more looked over his shoulder at everyone else, his eyes shading to gold. “Don’t think this is an excuse to fuck around or anything – once we get to the clearing, I want everyone ready to put in some gauntlet training. Seems to me that some of you have been sitting on your asses too much these last few days.”

Connie let out a low moan of pain while Sasha whooped in excitement and Marlo looked ready to faint. “Gauntlet training with Captain Ackerman...,” the idiot could be heard saying when Jean rode past.

“I always knew there was something wrong with that guy,” Connie muttered as he hunched over in his saddle. “Sasha, maybe you *should* try to – ow!”

“Don’t go putting stupid ideas in her head,” Jean hissed as he shook his sore hand; Connie’s head really was made of rocks or something, from the feel of it. “You want him to train you when he’s pissed off?”

Connie’s hazel eyes went wide as he considered that particular scenario. “I… didn’t think of that.”

“You don’t think, period,” Jean scoffed. He rolled his eyes and searched again for Mikasa, catching sight of her by the red scarf she always wore. She was leading the captains’ along while jumping amidst various branches, appearing so graceful it hurt to watch just then. Jean didn’t care if Captain Ackerman put him through the wringer tonight with gauntlet training – it just meant that the evening should go by all the faster, and help him crash during the first two watches. Then… then him and Mikasa would get to slip away during the last one.

“And you say *I* look like an idiot.”

“Huh?” Jean frowned as he glanced over at his friend, to find Connie making an exaggerated kissing face while Sasha stifled a giggle with the back of her hand. “Oh go fuck off,” he groaned as his face began to heat up.

“Not with *you*,” Connie crooned. “I don’t have fangs and pretty dark hair, do I?” He dropped the reins so his hands could frame his face as he tried to bat his non-existent eyelashes. “Oh Mikasa, you’re sooo pretty. I luuuuv you soooo-“

“Springer!” Captain Ackerman’s voice, sounding distinctly peeved at the moment, carried through the mostly quiet forest like a crack of thunder. “Do I need to remind you that some of us have *excellent* hearing? If you’re so full of shit, either go take a crap or *shut up*.”

Jean wasn’t the only one blushing just then – poor Connie’s face was bright red as he stared in shock at Captain Ackerman’s green-cloaked back. Marlo was giving them a look of pure pity, Rico one of utter disgust and Captain Hange was obviously stifling a laugh. As for Sasha… Jean would bet his shift with Mikasa tonight that the food-obsessed idiot was probably figuring out that if the grouchy captain had overheard Connie’s teasing, he’d most likely overheard her plans to steal the alcohol, too.

“Training’s going to be so fun, yay,” Jean mumbled as he slumped down in his saddle.

“At least you have something to look forward to after that,” Connie complained, his embarrassment slowly fading away to be replaced by an unattractive sulk.

“*If* I survive the training.” If any of them did – Jean wondered if Eren was in good enough shape to participate and if he could bribe the ‘kid’ to make Captain Ackerman go a little easy on them.

Sasha shook herself from her thoughts and then smiled. “But at least we’ll have a wonderful dinner tonight!”

Nice to know someone thought they were going to make it through the training in one piece.

*******

Eren wavered a little as he dismounted; Levi really had pushed for them to cover a lot of ground today and the horses weren’t the only things tired right now. It had been years since Eren had ridden one, back when Armin had been younger, and he much preferred the usual method of transportation.

Levi noticed his unsteadiness and latched onto his left elbow. “You okay, brat?”

“I’m fine.” When all that earned him was a nasty look and a painful grip on his arm, Eren sighed and shook his head. “I’ll be better once I feed, okay?” He shivered a little when he inhaled and smelled all the blood around him, so warm and delicious and-

“Let me take care of Stumpy for you,” Hange offered, interrupting Eren’s disturbed thoughts as she led Levi’s horse away.

“That’s not his name, shitty glasses!”

“Until you bother to give him one, that’s what I’m calling him,” she replied in a sing-song voice.

Eren heard Levi snap his teeth together and had to smile, despite the hunger and weakness gnawing at him. The anger that tightened Levi’s handsome face slowly loosened, and the gold in his eyes faded to a tarnished silver-grey as he stared at Eren with concern. “You need to eat.” He reached out to brush along one of those damn barrettes that Eren found himself still wearing for some reason.

“I know, that’s what I just said.” The words came out a bit more churlish than Eren intended.

Levi’s eyes narrowed a little in response, yet he didn’t pull away. “Then why don’t you drink some of-“

Having a feeling where this was going, Eren shook his head quickly enough to snap around the ends of his hair. “No!” He pushed his right hand against Levi’s chest in denial as he spoke. “Not going to happen! Look, either we fuck or I feed, one or the other but *not* both, not after this morning, okay?” Letting out a long, shuddering breath, he shifted closer to his… his *lover* and rested his forehead against Levi’s shoulder. Why did this feel so comforting? So much was wrong just then, the whole Reiner and Bertolt thing, the key, vampires needing him and being out here and that talk with Mikasa and… but it was nice, Levi holding him even if the guy was an idiot. “Don’t care if you feel I owe it to you, just think it’s too risky right now.”

Levi gave a nip to his left ear before nuzzling his hair. “Just thought you said it wasn’t good to fool around when you’re too hungry. Not like I’m an expert at this shit, you know.”

“I know. Mikasa and I had to figure a lot of stuff out ourselves – and we’re still coming across new situations,” Eren pulled back enough to smile at Levi. “I think this is one of them – not feeding from the person you’re screwing.”

Levi rolled his eyes but there was a slight smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “You’re just trying to get out of drinking my blood, you little shit. Made me have yours and now don’t want the tables turned on you.”

Eren laughed and allowed himself to be pulled toward the group gathered around what looked to be a small fire. “Hey, I swallow other stuff of yours so I think we’re even.”

“Don’t get me started when we’re surrounded by this group of shitstains,” Levi complained. Judging from the way that Ymir swiveled her garbed head in their direction, she had picked up on that, but she didn’t say anything.

Everyone but Hange was gathered around the fire that Mikasa had finished building, with Connie and Sasha hopping about. “Is it ready yet?”

“Give it a few more minutes before you put the meat on,” she warned them. “Have you finished skinning and plucking them yet?”

“Almost.” Sasha held up a skinned rabbit and beamed with pride.

“At least some of these baby asswipes are good for something,” Levi murmured.

“Aw, I think they’re growing on you.” When Eren smiled at the grouchy bastard, he received a particularly virulent glare in return. “Ah, how about I go help?”

All Levi did was click his tongue in response, so Eren took that as an ‘okay’. “Here, give me one of those,” he told Sasha after cleaning his hands, gesturing to a skinned rabbit. She appeared a bit leery at first, but handed it over with some reluctance after glancing at Mikasa.

Returning to the fire, he prepped the rabbit on one of the spits and used his claws to slide some of the cloves of wild garlic and even some sprigs of rosemary he’d found on another break inside . He did that with the rest of the rabbits and the birds when Sasha brought them over, then adjusted the spits around the fire according to the sizes of the animals.

“You really do know how to cook, don’t you,” Sasha asked with some interest. “How do you know about those plants and stuff when you barely eat anything?” She gazed at him with her head cocked to the side, as if it was beyond her how *anyone* would not want to eat everything in sight.

He shrugged as he fussed with one of the spits until it was just right. “There was a time when I did eat like everyone else, and my mother taught me a lot of things.” A sad smile formed as he remembered his mother and all the times he spent with her in the kitchen at either of their homes. “I think she was trying to teach me patience, which you need with certain recipes. And after… well, even when Mikasa and I didn’t need to eat much, it was always a nice reminder of better times whenever we sat down to eat together. Plus, it puts people at ease, when we join in at meals.”

“Nothing makes you stand out more during times of hunger than turning down food,” Ymir remarked. She tugged on the bottom of the fabric covering her face, as if to make sure it was draped properly. “You can get by doing it once or twice, but every time? People wonder why you’re doing it – are you sick? Do you have a secret stash somewhere? Are you insulting them? Then they make it a point to find out why and you’re in big trouble.”

Eren paused in checking the metal stakes to think back to right after he had been ‘turned’, to how suspicious everyone had been of strangers and how it seemed people in general had looked for any excuse to betray him and Mikasa – they were just two strays, two unknown ‘kids’ without any obvious friends or family, no one to miss them or seek revenge if they vanished. They’d done their best to do everything ‘right’, to appear to be nothing more than human teenagers doing their best to survive the horror that the world had become, and all too often… yeah, there was a reason they often had just stayed away from everyone unless they really needed something they couldn’t outright scavenge or steal. “It’s a lot of work, fitting in,” he added in a quiet voice.

Mikasa came over and stood behind him, a silent presence that none-the-less offered comfort just by being there. She ran her fingers over his hair before resting her hand gently above the nape of his neck. Levi approached as well, but stood a foot or two away while Eren added a little more wood onto the fire. He watched over Eren for a few seconds before he clicked his tongue. “How long before dinner will be ready?”

“Uhm, maybe an hour?” The animals weren’t that large, but it also wasn’t the biggest fire, either.

“Good.” Levi’s face was a bland mask as he surveyed everyone gathered around their cooking dinner. “Mikasa, Ymir and Krista – I want you to be our ‘targets’ and see if these idiots have any hope of so much of getting their blades within a foot of you.”

“Hey!” Rico appeared offended at Levi’s assessment of her skill, even if Eren doubted that she’d have much of a chance against fighters of Ymir and Mikasa’s quality.

“No offense, but I’m not asking them to take it easy on you,” Levi explained as he jerked his right hand in Mikasa and Ymir’s direction. “We’re up against vampires, and old ones at that from what I’m gathering, so you shitstains need to get your heads out of your asses and realize that you’re not fighting some mostly braindead Malform anymore.” Something dark twisted Levi’s handsome features and made his eyes glow a brilliant gold, made his fangs descend which he then bared at the poor souls who could only stare back in shock at him. “Three of those undead freaks managed to take out most of my personal squad without even trying, so what makes *you* think you’ll survive them any better?”

“Yeah, and as tough as Reiner, Annie and Bertolt are, they’re still nothing but kids compared to some of the older vamps out there,” Ymir called out as she tugged at one of gloves covering her hands; Eren noticed that she’d been careful enough to cut slits in the tips of the fingers so that her claws could still slide out. “So I’m gonna do my best to grind your asses into the dirt.” Even with the mask on, he could tell that she was grinning just then.

Rico adjusted her glasses as she gave Ymir a cold glare. “Bring it on, fanger.”

“Ooh, I like ‘em nice and feisty. Remember you asked for it, Dollface.”

Eren shook his head at the nickname and rose to his feet. “I can help, too,” he offered. “There’s no need for me to-“

Levi was at his side in an instant with a sneer on his lips and right hand held up as if to push Eren back down. “You think I’m about to let you go leaping around then you’re even dumber than the rest of them. Sit your ass down and have fun mocking them as they eat dirt for the next hour or two,” he ordered.

“But-“

 

“*No*.” That time there was a bit of a snarl to the order. “You’ll sit there where I can keep an eye on you. Now shut up and- wait, where’s Hange? You better not be up to something, you shitty lunatic,” Levi called out as he looked around.

“I’m coming!” Hange sauntered over from where the horses were tied off for the night, missing her grey jacket and with the sleeves of her white shirt rolled up. Eren thought she looked a little paler than usual for some reason, and she held something wrapped in a scrap of cloth in her left hand. “And here I was doing you a favor,” she scolded Levi as she approached.

“What, getting yourself eaten by a Malform? It’s still a little too early for that.” He scowled as she walked right up to Eren. “Oi! No more freaky tests! He’s fine now.”

“Hmm, not really. Your cutie looks a bit peaked so I figured I’d help him out.” As she drew nearer, Eren’s mouth began to salivate and he moaned as his hunger flared, causing Levi to curse and grab his left arm. “Interesting, you can smell it already, can’t you?”

“Eren?” Mikasa hurried closer as well, but all Eren cared about was the small plastic bag that Hange revealed as she pulled away the cloth – the bag of blood.

“What the hell did you do?”

“It’s okay, I just donated some of my own right now. It’s fine, you can take it,” Hange urged Eren as she held it up. “It’s nice and- ah!”

He couldn’t hold back anymore and snatched at it, just barely avoiding scratching Hange with his claws as he grabbed at the bag. It was still warm, the blood uncoagulated, and he moaned again as he lifted the bag to his mouth and bit into it. So warm, so good… even as weak and watery as it was, the blood was what he needed, was so delicious that he closed his eyes and focused on just drinking it down as quickly as he could.

Around him were voices, some in disgust and some in encouragement, but he didn’t care, didn’t listen to anything as the blood slid down his throat and lessened, just a little, the churning hunger inside of him. Yet all too soon the blood was gone, the warm wetness sliding into him stopped and he had to open his eyes to see that the bag was empty save for one or two drops. Both Mikasa and Levi hovered around him with concerned, almost anxious expressions on their faces and tensions in their bodies, which slowly eased as he lowered the empty bag and sighed. “Couldn’t you have brought… I don’t know, Commander Smith or Captain Zacharius along with you guys? I’m sure they could have spared more blood than that,” he whined even as he licked at his lips for any last drops.

Hange cackled as she bent over and smacked her hands onto her thighs, her face crinkled with amusement. “Yeah, those lummocks would be good for something at least, but us scrawny bastards do have our uses.” Then she let out a shaky breath and wavered a little. “Ooooh, head rush.”

Levi shared a look with Mikasa for a moment before he scowled and went over to the other captain. “Some lunatics will do anything to get out of practice.” He grabbed onto Hange’s right arm and hauled her over to the fire, where he shoved her down with a surprising amount of tenderness. “Sit down and behave for once – make sure our dinner doesn’t burn, okay.”

“Aw, you’re welcome, sweetie.” Hange practically beamed at Levi before she fumbled for the notebook she kept in one of her pouches.

“Whatever.” Levi swatted at her ducked head as he left, intent on the group gathered a few yards away from where Eren and Mikasa stood. “You have about ten seconds to get your asses up into those trees over there,” he announced as he pointed toward the left. “Anyone who doesn’t have fangs, try to take down those that do, understood?”

“Uhm, what about you, sir?” Eren had to give the one tall kid, Marlo, points for asking the question even if it was stupid.

Levi bared his fangs at him. “What do you think?”

“Neh-never mind!” Marlo’s face seemed to drain of blood and he hurried off in the same direction as everyone else.

Meanwhile, Ymir cracked her knuckles while Mikasa and Krista rid themselves of any unnecessary pouches, weapons and the like. “Oh, this is gonna be fun. You serious about what you said, Napoleon?” When Levi grunted in annoyance at the question, Ymir waved her clawed left hand about. “We can really play rough?”

“Don’t break them too much, but yeah, they need a reality check.”

“*Wonderful*.” Ymir began to stalk toward the trees as well.

“Ymir! Don’t do anything too drastic,” Krista called out as she ran after her girlfriend.

Meanwhile, Mikasa seemed a bit hesitant to leave so Eren gave her a little push in the right direction. “You better hurry or else your boyfriend is about to become one with a tree in the wrong way.” When she still didn’t go, he pushed again. “I’ll be fine.”

She grabbed his hand to give it a quick squeeze before she raced to join the others, leaving him there with Levi and Hange. As he walked past the captain while she scribbled away in the notepad, he reached down to pat her on the shoulder in silent thanks and received a mumbled ‘anytime’ in return.

“Come on, brat, this should be amusing to watch,” Levi urged as he kicked at Eren’s right foot.

“I suppose.” Realizing that he still had the now-empty bag of blood clenched in his hands, Eren sighed and tossed it at Hange. “Thank you,” he told her properly when she caught it and smiled.

“You’re welcome.” Her grin took on an evil edge as she stared pointedly at Levi. “Nice to see that *someone* has manners. Maybe it’ll rub off on you.”

Levi glowered as he made a rude gesture in her direction. “Shut up and watch the food.” Done chatting with his friend, he nudged Eren in the direction that everyone else had gone – Eren could now hear the sounds of tree limbs breaking and yelps of pain. “Shitty busy-body,” Levi muttered beneath his breath.

“I think her blood is helping a little,” Eren admitted; his head felt a bit clearer and he was less tired than he’d been for a while.

“If she wants to help, she can act as Malform bait.” Levi’s attention snapped toward the trees and he began to growl. “Blouse, what the *hell* are you doing? Do you think a Malform or a shitty vampire can’t see you hiding like that? Ymir, go beat some sense into her right now!”

Sasha, who had been crouched in a ‘v’ of a tree, let out a ‘meep’ and searched about for a suitable branch to hold a dart while Ymir gave up on smacking Marlo around and launched herself in the girl’s direction.

“Whatever you say, Napoleon!”

“Oh god, oh god, oh god,” Sasha chanted as she tried to ‘run’ from Ymir, who managed to bridge the space between them within mere seconds. Meanwhile, Connie let out a yell and attempted to go help his girlfriend… only to have Krista appear out of nowhere and knock him out of the air with ridiculous ease. He would have crashed into the ground if not for Levi firing off a rappelling dart for the hapless MP.

“Ah, thank you, sir,” Connie mumbled as he slid onto the ground, to be joined by Sasha a moment later, sporting a bruised lip and what would probably be a black eye; Ymir was definitely enjoying the whole ‘beat some sense’ part. Meanwhile, Mikasa was taking on Rico, drawing the Engineer farther into the forest while Krista and Ymir fought Marlo and Jean and – nope, that was Jean crashing down, though he managed to catch himself before hitting the ground. Marlo wasn’t quite so lucky, in that he ended up smacking into a large branch and lay there gasping for breath.

“Pathetic,” Levi drawled as he grabbed Connie and Sasha by the back of their jackets and threw them in the direction of the nearest tree. “Get back up there and see if you can last more than five seconds this time.”

“But… but they’re so *fast*,” Sasha whined as she readied a dart.

“You can’t even hear them coming – usually you can at least smell a Malform,” Connie complained.

A look of pure disgust crossed Levi’s face. “You think the vampires are going to be wearing bells and giving you a ten second warning? Those three are still taking it *easy* on you shitstains!” He unfastened his cloak and threw it back at Eren. “That’s it, now you’re going to deal with *me*.

A look of pure fear came over Connie’s face while Sasha appeared ready to cry. They remained standing until Levi growled. “Move your asses or I’ll take you down right there.”

“Yes, sir,” they shouted in unison before firing off darts and scattering in separate directions as if a horde of Malform were after them.

“Try not to break them too much,” Eren reminded his lover as he found a nice rock to sit down on since this looked as if it might take a while.

Levi clicked his tongue in response and didn’t bother with firing off a dart, he just leapt at the nearest tree and used his claws to climb up. Huh, someone was getting used to his new nature all right. Making sure to fold the cloak nice and neat, Eren wondered if Mikasa or Levi had thought to pack a datapad for him and began to distract himself by counting the various screams of terror and pain he heard come from the forest over the next half an hour.

*******

“Ooh, I don’t know what hurts more right now, my stomach or my face!”

Sitting by the fire with her chin propped up by her right hand, Hange smiled over Sasha’s antics; the girl was hovering by the fire and practically drooling over the cooked food. “Let’s check with our resident chef – is it ready yet?” She glanced over at Eren, who frowned slightly as he stirred the pot of rice he’d put on about half an hour ago.

“I think so, it looks-“ He didn’t get a chance to finish the statement, since both Sasha and Connie rushed forward with their empty plates.

“Oi! Everyone will take their turns,” Levi ordered as he stepped closer to Eren and glared at the two gluttons. “Shitty glasses, you get to help yourself first.”

“Huh?” A bit surprised by that since she hadn’t taken part in the massacre/training session, Hange none-the-less picked up her plate and headed over to food. “Why me?” She swore that Sasha looked ready to cry.

“Because you donated blood,” Levi explained as he helped Eren remove the various cooked animals from their spits. “Last thing we need is you passing out and being even more of a pain in the ass.”

“Aw, you really do love me,” Hange crooned as she spooned some of the rice onto her plate; she didn’t know how Eren had found some of the herbs but she’d have to ask him about them since the dish smelled *wonderful*. Next she took some rabbit, and blinked when Levi dumped some more of the cooked meat on her plate.

“You can have my share, I’m not eating tonight.” He shrugged when she gave him a slight frown. “Don’t really need the food,” was all he said.

Keeping the ‘aww’ to herself this time, she merely grinned at the grouch rather than risk another painful kick to her shin; someone was such a closet romantic, weren’t they? Eren was so good for the emotionally closed off sociopath, yes he was.

Once her plate was full, Sasha nearly shoved her out of the way in order to get some dinner. “Maybe I can donate some blood tomorrow,” she offered, her eyes firmly fixed on the pot of cooked rice.

Hange was too busy laughing at the girl’s ‘altruism’ to hear what was certain to be Levi’s scathing reply, and went back to her perch so she could eat. She gave the food a minute to cool down while she watched everyone else be served, and noticed that Mikasa, Ymir and Krista only took a bare minimum of food. Eren tried to do the same, but Levi and Mikasa made him take an extra portion of meat; Hange thought the poor guy’s complexion turned a bit pale as he stared down at his plate.

Judging her food to be adequately cooled off by now, she picked at a piece of meat and bit into it, then moaned a moment later. “Oooh, soo guudh,” she mumbled around the mouthful, which earned her a disgusted look from Levi over the rim of his mug of coffee.

“Who’s lacking manners now,” he grumbled, but she ignored him with a practiced ease as she tried the rice; this was easily one of the best meals she’d ever had outside of a dome, including the expedition when Roberto had caught and roasted those piglets.

“You got yourself quite the wife there, sweetie,” she remarked as she picked at another piece of meat. “Cute, feisty and can cook.”

It took a few seconds for the words to sink in, and then Eren was groaning as he set aside his half-finished plate so he could bury his face in his hands and Levi’s eyes turned gold while he glared in Hange’s direction – it was *so* fun to tease him now because of his hybrid features. “You *will* be taking part of tomorrow’s practice session,” Levi threatened with a hint of a lisp because of his fangs, and then he gave the back of Eren’s bowed head a light slap. “And finish your dinner.”

Hange could hear Eren mutter something that made Ymir chortle, but it was too low for her to make out clearly. Around the fire everyone was busy eating – well, except for the vampire-hybrids and Ymir – even if they were exhausted from the training session and more than a little battered. Sasha, Connie and Marlo sported some spectacular bruises on their faces, while Jean nursed his left side and the upper half of Rico’s face was bandaged because of a nasty scratch. Hange had been busy before dinner patching them up, but had to commend Levi and the others for not doing any serious damage. One thing was certain – Hange doubted anyone was going to be complaining about sore asses tomorrow.

She scraped her plate clean but decided to forego any second helpings since she hadn’t been swinging around in the trees earlier. Instead, she got up to fetch a cup of coffee since she’d be on the first watch. Her lips twitched in amusement when she spied how Eren was curled up against Levi, slouched down so his head rested against the grouch’s shoulder and his eyes half closed, while Levi’s arm draped across his knees was anything but casual.

“So, what do you think the chances are of us having any ‘visitors’ tonight?” She took a sip of coffee while she waited for an answer.

Levi frowned at the question while Eren stirred just enough to glance at his sister, who frowned as well and shrugged one shoulder – the other was currently tucked beneath one of Jean’s arms. Eren let his head loll back onto Levi’s shoulder and sighed. “Well, *some* people did make a hell of a lot of noise today,” he pointed out.

“Oh go to hell-“ Jean began to curse, only to have it turn into a yelp when Mikasa poked his sore side.

“Yeah, and a few even bled a little,” was Ymir’s contribution as she got up to fetch some coffee for both her and Krista, a knowing smirk on her face as she glanced Marlo and Rico’s way.

“Yes, because every training session should include shoving someone face-first down a thirty-meter tree.” Rico sounded as if she was just a wee bit bitter about something – Hange made a mental note that the Engineer tended to hold grudges.

Ymir scoffed as she set the coffee kettle back down and then picked up the mugs. “Oh please, you think the others – the vampires are going to be so nice to you when they catch up?” Her eyes flashed red in the darkness for a moment. “Hate to break it to you, Dollface, but they’d have made you part of that tree in a very nasty way, if they didn’t simply rip your head off in the first place.”

“Ymir,” Krista chastised the vampire as she accepted her drink. “You don’t have to-“

“No, she’s just trying to warn us.” Sasha’s voice was subdued and serious for once as she sat huddled next to Connie. “It’s why she, Mikasa and the Captain were so rough on us during the training.”

Levi grunted softly at the comment and rested his mug on his lap. “And despite getting your asses handed to you repeatedly, you morons were beginning to show a glimmer of hope toward the end there – you’re learning to anticipate how… our kind move, which is different from Malforms. That should buy you a few more seconds.”

Hange caught Levi’s eye and knew that he wasn’t joking, nor was he downplaying things, either. Judging from the disappointment on Jean and Marlo’s faces just then, a ‘few more seconds’ wasn’t much in their opinion, not after all the bruises they’d gained today, but Hange had seen vampires in action back at headquarters and would take whatever improvement she could get. “So back to my question….”

Mikasa fussed with her scarf as she spoke. “It’s like Eren and Ymir said – there was a lot of noise and even some blood spilled, so there’s a chance we might draw some Malform our way. We’ll have to hope they won’t notice… any unusual scents that might drive them off, but if they’re starved then their hunger might override any other instincts.”

Hange wasn’t surprised when Rico picked up on what Mikasa hadn’t quite said. “What, you’re saying that the Malforms don’t want to come around because of you guys?” Rico waved her bandaged left hand in Mikasa, Ymir and Krista’s direction.

That earned a harsh laugh from Ymir and made Eren sit up a little. “You mean she hasn’t figured it out already,” he asked his sister.

“I thought it was pretty obvious,” she replied back before turning toward Rico. “Why do you think it’s been so quiet these last few days? That the larger cats have been staying away and we’ve had so few Malform attacks?” Mikasa’s eyes glowed just the slightest bit, a hint of gold that probably wouldn’t have been that noticeable except for the darkness surrounding them. “Most predators stay away because of us.”

“You can thank Reiner for the other Malform attacks,” Ymir explained. “Though it is always chancy with the more wild ones.”

“*I* won’t mind if they attack,” Eren mumbled as he rubbed at his eyes.

“We need you back in tiptop shape for your sweetie,” Hange agreed. Before Levi could start bitching, she waved her mostly full mug in Rico’s direction. “No, what they’re saying is true. By now we’re usually down at least a horse or a person because of someone being eaten or mauled. It has been pretty boring lately.”

Levi clicked his tongue as in disgust. “Only you, shitty glasses, would find no one dying or being mauled ‘boring’.”

“Oh, don’t act as if not having a chance to kick some ass is all right.” Hange made a rude noise. “If you weren’t getting some right now, you’d be bored out of your mind.”

“Can we please not keep talking about that ‘getting some’,” Eren pleaded as he tugged on a lock of hair. “The discussion’s going on longer than the actual sex did.”

Jean sniggered as he draped an arm over Mikasa’s shoulders. “What, someone have staying problems there?” He continued to snigger until Levi fixed him with a rather virulent glare, his eyes a pure and shining gold. “Uhm… yeah… okay….” He pressed against Mikasa and shivered a little.

“Maybe we need to train longer tomorrow if everyone is still so full of energy,” Levi remarked with a hint of a growl in his voice.

That seemed to be a cue that everyone was waiting for as they got up to return their dirty plates to the wash bucket. “Wow, second watch is going to come soon, guess we better get some sleep, right,” Connie said as he stretched his arms over his head.

“And then breakfast, which is eggs!” Sasha jumped to her feet with too much energy for someone who had ridden hard all day and then been slammed around trees for the past hour. Maybe Hange should conduct a study on her….

Meanwhile, Levi took to poking around Eren’s plate. “You didn’t finish all of your meal, brat.”

Eren whined a little as he snatched aside his plate as if to hide it. “I ate most of it – I told you that eating too much makes us feel sick.”

“It’s not that much food, and you need something in you.” Levi glared at Eren and attempted to grab the plate. “Eat your fucking food.”

“I’m not a damn child! I ate enough so back off.”

“You’re not the one who has to put up with your bony ass all damn day, so-“

Hange’s amusement at seeing Levi *fuss* over another person was cut short when Mikasa stepped up to Eren’s side. “If he says he’s full then leave him be,” she all but ordered, her eyes golden and glowing. “You need to stop bullying him.”

“That’s rich, coming from the person who forced her blood down the brat’s throat just the other day.” Levi directed his glare Mikasa’s way.

“He was starving and doped up then, which isn’t the case now.” Mikasa’s eyes also narrowed as she scowled back at Levi. “You just have to be a possessive, obnoxious-“

“You know what? I’d love some coffee right now,” Eren interrupted with a note of panic in his voice. “Let’s go get some coffee!” He latched onto Levi’s right hand and dragged the furious man away from his sister, babbling the entire time about how thirsty he was and how wonderful the coffee smelled.

Mikasa stared after them for a few seconds, seemingly oblivious to the attention her little ‘snit’ had attracted, before she went over to talk to Jean. Meanwhile, Hange thought about how the scene was becoming too common lately, how Mikasa didn’t appear to realize just how much Levi was doing for Eren and how she needed to back the fuck off.

So Hange watched as Mikasa said something to Jean before she headed off by herself and then began to follow, her hands shoved into the pockets of her pants as she kept the hybrid in sight.

“Captain? Are you going to join us for the first shift?”

She glanced back over her left shoulder and waved Rico’s question aside. “Yeah, put on a fresh pot of coffee and I’ll be back in a few minutes. Just going for a quick walk to help clear my head a little.” It didn’t look as if the Engineer bought the excuse, but Hange didn’t really care.

Strolling a bit deeper into the woods, Hange took her time in case Mikasa was tending to ‘personal needs’ and eventually came across the hybrid washing her hands in the nearby stream. “Lovely night, isn’t it?”

Mikasa’s eyes had turned gold again upon Hange’s approach, and was that a hint of fang as well? Oh, the siblings were just *fascinating* creatures, they were. The instinctual responses to certain stimuli, the ability for their bodies to transform like that, the-

“Is there something that you need, Captain?” Mikasa’s voice sounded cool despite the burning intensity of her eyes.

Hange laughed a little as she scratched at the back of her head. “Well, some vodka right now would be appreciated, as would a hot shower. And if you had a contrast inverted fluorescence microscope on you, I would *adore* you.”

Mikasa was quiet for several seconds, which wasn’t anything unusual for the woman, and the gold slowly faded from her eyes. “Sadly, I don’t think I can supply any of those things.”

“Ah, it was worth a shot.” Hange linked her fingers together in front of her and stretched out her arms. “So then, how about you just give me a few minutes of your time?”

It was subtle, but then again, Hange was good at paying attention to minute detail; Mikasa’s jaw tightened just a little bit and her eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “That seems more doable.” She dried her hands on the sides of her pants instead of her scarf and took a couple of steps away from the stream. “Is this about Eren?”

“In a way – it’s more about his relationship with Levi.” Ah, there was another flash of what Hange assumed to be anger just then. “I get the impression that you’re not too happy about it, which is odd when you’re getting awfully close to someone yourself.” They didn’t have long, so she figured there was no sense in wasting any time.

Mikasa let out a slow breath through her teeth that sounded very much like a hiss and shook her head. “It’s not that he’s in a relationship, it’s that… well….”

“You don’t approve of Levi,” Hange finished for her. “Oh, I get it, he’s a grumpy bastard, his idea of physical affection is a smack to the head, and his terms of endearments are all curse words.” She smiled with affection as she thought about her friend. “I’ve known Levi for quite a few years now, and even though I love him like a brother, I’m by no means blind to his faults.”

“Then why would you even *think* that it’s a good idea for him to form a relationship with Eren,” Mikasa demanded to know as the gold once more seeped into her dark eyes, her posture one of defiance as she stood just out of Hange’s reach. It was so easy to think of her as little more than a young woman, one on the brink of adulthood, but there was too much tension in her body just now, too much coiled violence in the way she stood and hostility in her stare. If there was one thing Hange was certain about Mikasa Ackerman, it was that *nothing* got between her and Eren Jäger.

The thing was, Mikasa might have every reason to tear to shreds anything or anyone she felt was a threat to her precious brother, but Hange was just as determined to protect those who were dear to her as well. “And what makes you feel he’s *not* good for Eren? Seems to me he didn’t hesitate one moment to come out here to rescue your brother, and he would have taken on the vampires by himself if necessary. Like I said, he’s not the most romantic guy out there, but it’s clear he cares for Eren and I think that’s all that really matters to your brother.”

Mikasa let out an angry burst of air and shook her head. “He’s not even trying, the asshole-“

“What do you even know about him to say that?” Hange dropped her hands to just above the hilts of her blades and glared at the judgmental little bitch. “What makes you such an expert on someone you barely know?”

The venom in her voice must have gotten through to Mikasa as she stared back in shock. “But… I… he never treats Eren with any respect.” She buried her hands into the thick material of her scarf and began to rally her thoughts. “He’s always calling him ‘brat’ or other names and mocking him and-“

“So the guy has the emotional maturity level of a seven-year old, what else is new?” Hange huffed a little as she shoved her glasses up her nose and resisted the urge to throw her hands in the air – why were people so *stubborn*? “Look, I would think that you would understand this better than most people, but he’s had a hard life. A *very* hard life. I’m not going to go into details because it’s personal, and Levi would be kicking my ass for butting in to his personal shit just this much as is. But he didn’t have it easy growing up, and when he joined the Corps it wasn’t alone.” Grief twisted Hange’s features when she thought about Farlan and Isabel – about how much at times Eren reminded her of the two of them. “They were good, but nowhere near as good as Levi. There’s truth in the old joke about how you don’t join the Corps for the money, because you don’t live long enough to bother saving any.”

When Mikasa didn’t say anything for a few seconds, Hange nodded once. “You’re not the only ones who’ve lost people you care about, you know. We all have, more times than I really want to think about – and it affects us all in different ways. It hardened Levi, made him swear to not let anyone get really close to him. Erwin and I are probably some sort of exceptions, but he only ever let us get so far, and I’ve done my best over the years to make sure that he had some sort of companionship, that he didn’t completely shut everyone out.” She laughed a little at the memories of Levi’s pathetic attempts at ‘relationships’. “I can honestly tell you that what he has with Eren is the most honest, heartfelt relationship I’ve ever seen him engage in with another person, and if that’s not good enough for you then fuck off.”

Mikasa appeared a bit taken aback by the profanity; she frowned as she tugged the scarf up over her chin. “But… Eren, he deserves someone who’s good for him. Someone who’ll take care of him.”

Really, were they even talking the same language? “To me, that’s someone who’ll go to the ends of the earth if need be to make sure he’s safe,” Hange pointed out. “Not someone who’ll coddle him.” Yeah, Levi so didn’t do ‘coddling’, whereas Mikasa maybe did too much in regards to Eren. “Look, Mikasa, your brother is more than old enough to decide what he wants, and that seems to be Levi. Can’t you trust *his* judgment on this and cut Levi some slack?” If not… well, then Hange would have to stop being so nice.

It became quiet after that, save for the sounds of the forest around them, the rustling of grass and leaves, the odd chirp here or there and a faint growl or two. Then Mikasa let out a soft laugh and shook her head. “It’s not so easy, you know. Eren and guys… he’s so *bad* at it.” There was a plaintive note in her voice as if she was trying to make Hange understand, and her eyes were once more dark enough to appear black in the dim light of the forest.

Strangely enough, Hange did think she understood what Mikasa was trying to say. “He’s cute but he’s just as much a fuck-up at dating as Levi, I get it. But sometimes, it’s when you mix the most volatile compounds together that you get the most positive results,” she offered with an encouraging smile. “Besides, who else is going to put up with those two?”

That earned a smile – a weak one, but still a smile – from Mikasa. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.” She continued to smile as she fussed with her scarf. “And you’re right that he’s very determined to protect Eren. I suppose I need to keep that foremost in mind whenever I see him acting so childishly any other time. It’s just that whenever I imagined someone finally winning Eren over, they were more mature, more calm and… well, a bit taller.”

That sounded too much like someone’s dad to be very appealing. “Obviously Eren likes ‘em short, bitchy and murderous, but I always knew there was something special about your brother.” She patted Mikasa on the shoulder as she headed back to the camp.

That might have been a growl of frustration or annoyance from the hybrid as they joined everyone, but Hange didn’t mind since she’d done what she’d intended and defended Levi’s honor. There’d been no digging implement involved nor outright threats of violence, but she was new to this whole ‘shovel’ talk thing – as first times went, she felt it had gone well. If Mikasa continued to give her sweetie a hard time, then Hange would have to improvise for their next discussion.

Catching Levi’s eye as she sat down near the fire, she grinned at her friend and nearly laughed as he shook his head in what appeared to be disgust and went back to talking to Eren, who was curled up at his feet. Aw, they were so cute together – really, who didn’t want to see them work out their differences when they were so adorable? Levi actually looked almost human for once, which was a miracle in and of itself.

“All better now,” Rico asked as she handed Hange a fresh cup of coffee.

“Hmm, better than I was before.”

It looked as if Rico was about to ask a question and then thought better of it. Hange thought she heard the Engineer mutter something about ‘surrounded by lunatics’ as she went over to sit by Marlo and had to chuckle at the accuracy of the complaint before she sipped her coffee.

*******

Armin kept his shoulders even and his back straight as he followed the tall MP with the prematurely grey hair deeper into their headquarters, appearing to be uncaring about the hushed whispers and snickers that followed him. There was the occasional muttered ‘Winger’ and other less flattering comments about him, but he had spent the vast majority of his life bouncing around various domes, always a stranger, always an item of suspicion and gossip to the neighbors. These people with their narrow minds and pathetic outlook on life didn’t matter at all and so couldn’t really insult him. Hell, if the worst they could come up with was ‘suicidal Winger’ and ‘puny runt’, then they needed to spend an evening or two with Ymir and Eren….

The MP, Boris, finally stopped before a door guarded by a pair of another tall, burly set of MPs. He nodded to the two of them before motioning to Armin. “This is it. Knock on the door when you’re ready to leave.” He pressed his palm against a scanner to open the door for Armin.

“Thank you,” Armin told him, just to show that he had some manners – Mikasa had taught him well. All he got was a grunt in return.

Entering the room, he found it brightly lit and not containing much besides Annie’s chrysalis – there weren’t even any chairs so he could sit down. However, he was certain that there were video devices hidden around the room to keep watch over the hibernating vampire.

As he got closer to the golden crystal, he could tell that someone had tried to hack Annie out of it since there were minute scratches along the surface, but they had failed to do any real damage to the strange stone. He placed his hand on the mostly smooth surface and smiled. “Hey, how are you doing,” he asked in the older dialect of English that Mikasa and Eren had taught him, mindful of any ‘eavesdroppers’. “Sorry it took me a while to get here, but things have been busy back at headquarters and I couldn’t get permission to see you ‘til today anyway.”

He frowned as he dug a nail into a faint groove. “So you’re doing the same, I see. You might be interested to know that there hasn’t been any word from Mikasa, but I’m not too worried just yet.” She wouldn’t let anything stop her from finding Eren, and Captain Ackerman had seemed just as intent to rescue him as well. “Those friends of yours are sure in for it when she catches up to them.” Pulling back a little, he stared at Annie’s face, which looked so innocent and peaceful as she ‘slept’. “Oh come on, nothing? No ‘Mikasa is the one who’ll be in trouble then’? Or even an ‘as if she’ll ever find them?’ I got the impression from Eren and Ymir that you could do so much better than this,” he teased.

Feeling tired all of a sudden, he rested his forehead against the oddly warm stone. What was he doing here? Things were so busy at the Corps’ headquarters, what with everyone working to restore the damage done during the attack and make room for the replacement fighters, and Armin was still trying to figure out what had been used on Captain Ackerman and Eren from the sample Hange had taken before she’d left and the blood they’d found in the boiler room. He’d gotten so little sleep in the last few days, and even when he did have any time to himself, he’d worried about what was being done to Annie – the woman responsible for so much of what was wrong in his life at the moment.

“How much of it was your choice and how much of it was you following orders,” he wondered aloud as he touched the ‘stone’ above her face. “Sometimes… sometimes I think back to what you said to me and honestly believe that you were trying to warn me away, to spare me. And you could have killed me during the fighting, could have gone through me and gotten away but you didn’t. You don’t strike me as a cold-blooded killer despite everything you’ve done,” he told Annie. “What you really are… I’d like to know.” If there was one thing he’d learned in the years spent with Eren and Mikasa was that things were rarely what they appeared.

“I think-“ He found himself cut off when there was the sound of the door opening, and turned to see a familiar figure step inside. It was the young woman he’d seen partnered with Annie, the one with light brown hair and a flippant attitude. “Oh, hello.”

She gave him an insolent look while she sauntered forward, her hands on her hips. “So Annie the vampire has a human friend come pay her a visit – and a Winger at that.” She sneered as she circled around him and the chrysalis. “I thought you Wingers just *loved* killing the undead.”

He wondered if she was here because someone had been listening in and had grown annoyed at being unable to understand what he’d been saying. “Well, we certainly hate Malform,” he admitted. “But who says that all vampires are bad? Seems to me that *some* people have no problem with them.”

The jab appeared to hit home when the girl’s amber eyes widened for a moment and then her sneer returned with even more force. “And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Well, we only had one vampire in the Corps while you had three,” he pointed out with some relish. “Oh, I’m Armin, by the by.” He held out his hand by way of greeting.

The girl ignored it and crossed her arms over her chest. “Yes, but *we* didn’t know that they were vampires.” When Armin gave her a cool look in regards to that partial truth, she shifted about and began to fuss with the ends of her chin-length hair with one hand. “At least, I didn’t know that Annie was a vampire.” Her expression turned a bit sour as she stared in Annie’s direction. “I was her partner and she never let on for a moment what she was.”

“No, I imagine that she was used to hiding the truth.” Armin reached out to touch the chrysalis again. “They’ve spent centuries hiding what they are.”

“For what reason?” The girl threw her hands up in the air as she stared greedily at Annie. “All that strength, all that *immortality*, and they have to slink about pretending to be something they’re not.”

Someone was missing the point here – Armin felt that Annie deserved a second chance, that she wasn’t the monster that everyone thought she was, but she still had done terrible things. “They’re hiding because they *kill* people,” he reminded the MP. “They kill people to feed.”

The look the girl gave him just then was one of pure disdain. “Everything kills something to feed – what did you have to eat today?” When he only stared back in silence, she sniffed and began to walk away. “Have fun talking to Miss Stoneface there – she wasn’t that chatty even when she wasn’t part of a rock.”

Armin watched her leave and then rubbed at his aching eyes. “I’m beginning to understand why you think humans are so worthless,” he told Annie as he tried to figure when the world had become so fucked up or if it had always been like this, and it had just been Eren and Mikasa who had sheltered him from the worst of it. “And if I’d had that lovely lady as a partner, I’d be ready to go on a killing rampage, too.” He managed a smile as he turned around to face her, only to stare in shock a moment later.

Was… was Annie frowning now?

*******

Mikasa waited for a moment when the Short- when *Levi*, she had to start thinking of him as Levi - was away from Eren’s side so she could approach her brother. “Can we talk?”

He seemed a little surprised by the question but quickly nodded. “Sure.” He set aside the mug of coffee he’d been drinking and motioned for them to step away from the flickering fire; they passed Levi along the way, but a quick glance shared between him and Eren appeared to settle him enough that he didn’t ask any questions. That… bothered Mikasa more than she liked, since she was used to being the one who could share a conversation with her brother with just a glance or a hand motion. She was still trying to get used to how Levi’s scent always seemed to cling to Eren anymore, and how they were always together. Then there was the fact that Eren had *turned* the bastard....

“This far enough?”

Eren’s soft voice shook her from her thoughts, and she couldn’t help but to reach for him, to pull him close and soak in his warmth, his presence, as she always had over the years. To her immense comfort, he laughed a little as he hugged her back. “Okay, I don’t think you asked me out here just for this, since you could do it anywhere,” he teased as he rubbed his hands up and down her back.

“I don’t know, I think your new boyfriend would have a heart attack if we did it back there,” she complained with a bit of bitterness that she couldn’t quite suppress.

“Hmm, maybe you should then, he knows you’re my sister.” Eren held on for a few more seconds before letting go and leaning back enough to look at her. “Really, is everything okay? You having second thoughts on making out with a horse?”

That startled a laugh out of her even as she gave him a gentle punch to the ribs. “Not funny, and no.”

He winced a little and shook his head. “I thought it was hilarious.”

“You’ve always had a warped sense of humor, too.” Mikasa couldn’t help but smile as she toyed with the fringe of her scarf. “I just… I wanted to make sure everything was all right with us.” They hadn’t had much of a chance to be alone since last night, and she knew that she’d upset him by bringing up the possibility of turning others. It was… just the more time she spent with Jean and the more she saw Eren with Levi… she wasn’t sure if she’d get another chance like this. If *they* would have another chance like this. Something was telling her that things would change so much in the near future, either for the better or… she didn’t want to think what would happen if they failed.

Eren went perfectly still for a moment, and then he pulled away, his face a bland mask as he wandered about a few feet, his gaze turned up to the sky above. “You know, I think about it sometimes, what Grisha was aiming for with his serum. Why he only gave one person the ability to turn others – I think it’s like Armin theorized, that you can’t have too many like us, can’t have too many immortals running around. Well, mostly immortal,” he amended as he rubbed along his neck.

“He trusted your judgment,” Mikasa told him.

That prompted a harsh laugh from her brother. “Did he? Did he really?” When Eren faced her, his eyes were burning brighter than the stars above and there… there was something so *painful* to his expression just then that a small cry slipped free from her lips. She made to go to him but he held out his right hand to stop her, his claws fully extended. “I’m not saying that he didn’t love me, but I know full well what Grisha saw in me, and it was something uncontrollable, something that needed to be locked up and watched over and-“ Eren took a deep, shuddering breath just then and shook his head. “I think he couldn’t stand losing Mom, that he knew the vampires were after him for his research and that he was desperate to keep it and what remained of his family safe. And I think… I think he figured that since I was already a monster inside that it wouldn’t make much of a difference if he turned me all the way into one if it meant that I – if *we* would survive what was coming.” The pain faded away, only to be replaced by something more terrible, by a sense of understanding and acceptance as Eren stared at his clawed hand. “I just wonder if he meant for me to last this long….”

Mikasa’s heart seized in agony inside of her chest as she reached for her brother’s hand, uncaring for the razor-sharp claws. “You’re *not* a monster,” she insisted as she twined their fingers together.

There was too much sadness and remorse in his expression just then to call it a smile. “Yes, I am, and I accepted that fact a long time ago.” A glimmer of tenderness sparked in his beautiful eyes. “It helped save you and Armin, and it even gave Levi another chance. But… don’t you see?” He squeezed her hand as he bared his fangs. “I can tell myself that I’m not like *them* even as I feed on Malform and continue to live so long, but when I start turning people… the dividing line fades even more. Humans don’t get to decide who lives forever, Mikasa. Humans don’t feel this… this *urge* to take a person and change them into something else.” A sudden shudder tore through Eren’s body as he rubbed his left hand over his face. “I can’t- it’s so difficult to explain. But I don’t think it’s a good thing for me to so easily consider turning people.”

She grabbed him for an embrace once more, holding onto him as tightly as possible. Had he always felt like this? She knew that he’d always felt a little different, that being isolated so much as a child had left its mark on him, but to think he was a ‘monster’ when he’d always been her hero…. “I love you more than anything,” she whispered as she held onto him as if he’d disappear if she let go. “You’ve never been anything but my brother to me.”

“I know,” he whispered back as he combed his fingers through her hair. “And I love you, too.” His forehead rested against her shoulder as he shivered, the tremors minute yet constant for almost a minute. Then he let out a deep breath and once more pulled away. “That said, yeah, I can understand your point on the matter.”

Mikasa stared at him in confusion for a moment until she realized that he was talking once more about turning people. “I… I just thought-“

“Are things that serious between you and Hor- and Jean?”

She felt her face heat up and had to duck her head until her long bangs covered part of it at the question. “He’s… nice.” She didn’t mean it in a bland way, just that… they hadn’t known many ‘nice’ people in their lives, and Eren was sure to understand that. “I know we haven’t known each other long, but so far, nothing about me has scared him away.”

“Well, considering that I knew Levi how many weeks and look what happened, I’m certainly not going to say anything snide here.” There actually was a note of humor in Eren’s voice as he walked away a little to pick up a rock, which he held up to take a better look at under the moonlight. “I think a benefit of living so long is we need less time, not more, to make up our minds on certain things,” he explained as he seemed to examine the stone. “We certainly know what we like by now.”

It was too much of an opportunity to keep her mouth shut. “And you just happen to like short bastards with anger management and control issues, foul mouths and permanent bad moods?” It did come out a bit more plaintive than she had intended.

However, all Eren did was laugh upon hearing it. “Yeah, who would have thought?” He shook his head as he threw the stone away. “Though he isn’t always in a bad mood.” A slight smile teased along the edges of his lips as if he was thinking of something in particular.

What those thought might be made Mikasa gag a little. “I don’t want to know anything about *that*,” she insisted as she fussed with her scarf.

“Please, says the person who in a short while will be sneaking off to have sex with a-“

“*Don’t* call him a horse,” she warned, with a smile of her own despite the pathetic joke.

“Yet you didn’t deny the sex part.” Eren grinned as he went to run his right hand through his hair, then cursed as they snagged on one of those ridiculous barrettes. “Verdamnt!”

Mikasa sighed in annoyance as she went over to help him readjust the silly thing. “Why are you wearing these? You look ridiculous.”

Eren held still while she combed his hair and made sure the barrettes were even. “Because I’m sure he’ll just come up with something even more embarrassing if I don’t.” At her narrowed look upon hearing that, he shook his head and gave her left cheek a gentle touch. “It’s fine – yeah, they’re stupid but it’s… it’s almost cute, too. And I’ll think up something even worse for him eventually.”

“Worse than you wearing children’s accessories?” Still, she had to admit that Eren was right about them being cute, and that they did sort of suit him….

“I did turn the man without his permission.” For a moment Eren’s eyes took to glowing again, and his expression bore that terrible agelessness that he let slip now and then. “Plus, they keep my hair out of my eyes.” And just like that, he was back to ‘normal’.

Now to see how long it would take him to break a habit ingrained over centuries of always combing back those long bangs – this should be interesting. Mikasa gave his left arm a pat before she grabbed it to lead him back to the camp. “Come on, it should almost be time to change watches.”

“Oh, yay, fun times for you,” Eren remarked, his voice thick with sarcasm.

This time the hit to his ribs wasn’t quite so light. “Oh please, I had to sit there yesterday while you got it on with the Short Bastard, so I don’t want to hear about it!”

“Yeah, well, he might be an asshole, but he’s a sexy asshole.”

“Who’s an asshole?”

Eren sighed as he rubbed the back of his head and turned toward Levi, who was leaning against a tree, which he mostly blended in with thanks to his grey boots and green cloak. “That had to be what you overheard? Really?”

Levi gave him a cool look and Mikasa an even cooler one. “Someone’s waiting for you,” he told her even as he latched onto Eren’s left wrist. “As for *you*….”

Mikasa left her brother to deal with his poor life choices on his own, before she did something she’d regret. Really, she should be used to the fact that Eren had lousy taste in men by now, but *that* was what he chose to spend the rest of what could be a very long life with as a lover? She really didn’t understand him sometimes. Yet she reminded herself that it *was* his choice.

As expected, she found Jean waiting for her near the fire. He was mostly dressed for the start of the day in white pants and shirt with the Corps’ grey boots, but hadn’t put on the grey jacket beneath his green cloak. “There you are.” A relieved smile spread across his face as he reached for one of her hands.

“I was off talking to Eren,” she explained as she latched onto his fingers and gave them an almost desperate squeeze, grateful for the comforting touch.

“Oh, about what?” There was a slight hint of annoyance to Jean’s voice even as he smiled in encouragement.

“Come on, let’s not discuss this here.” She gave a quick tug to his hand as she urged him to follow, and his smile strengthened as he followed with a bit too much evident eagerness; there were times when Mikasa was reminded of the vast differences in their ages and this was definitely one of them.

Mindful of both the enhanced senses of some of their companions and the inherent dangers of the forest, she didn’t lead him too far from the camp, just enough to give them a suitable amount of privacy. They found a small spot between trees where the ground was covered with soft moss, which Jean was quick to cover with his green cloak like a gentleman out of some old - *very* old – movie. “So, you and Eren? You’re not fighting, are you?” He frowned while he removed his blades and set them aside.

She shook her head as she sat down. “No, nothing like that.” She was careful with her sharp nails as she picked a little at the black wing embroidered on the back of the cloak. “It’s just… I brought up something to him the other day and it bothered him a bit, and he let me know why.” Despite Jean’s questioning gaze, she didn’t elaborate – she didn’t feel that now was a good time to say ‘what do you think about the possibility of living for a very long time as a semi-vampire?’ Maybe there never really was a good time, but right now would be worse, she was certain. “The relationship with his father… it wasn’t the best.” It was funny how she considered Carla Jäger to be a second mother to her, but with Grisha… yes, there had always been a bit of distance. It didn’t help that he had been gone so much with work, but while he had done his best to ensure that his family was provided for, there had always been an aloofness to the man which made it difficult to be close to him. “We’re okay now, but I feel a little bad for bringing those things up for him,” she admitted. “And… I need to back off a little with him and Levi. Even if I think he can do better… well, it’s clear he’s happy with that… man.” It was a little easier to say than she had thought, but she was still going to smack Armin *so hard* for starting this whole mess once they got back to Trost.

Jean gasped in an exaggerated manner while clutching at his chest with his free hand. “Really? Am I hearing that right? You’re giving them your blessing? Wait, let me check to see if I took a hit to the head earli-“ He broke out in laughter when Mikasa growled and tackled him onto his back. “Ha ha! Okay, yeah, I’m being an asshole, but you got to admit, you’ve done nothing but glare at Captain Ackerman and fight over your brother these last couple of days.”

“Because the Short Bastard doesn’t deserve- bah!” Straddling the idiot’s thighs, she gave him a rough shake before she sighed and tucked back the hair falling onto her face. “You don’t know Eren and his history with men,” she tried to explain as she recalled his past ‘dates’. Ever since that first time so long ago, with that creep back in the destroyed church, he seemed to attract assholes. Most of them saw something cute to use and toss aside, but some of them… she shook her head to rid it of those awful memories.

“Not good, eh?” Jean’s expression was now one of understanding as he ran his fingers along Mikasa’s calves.

“Quite the understatement.” And the worst part of it was that Eren all too often gave himself up for her sake, then for her and Armin, so was it any wonder that she wanted to make sure that Levi wasn’t just another bad choice in long chain of many?

Jean’s hands took to lightly tracing circles on her thighs now. “Yeah, well, maybe you haven’t been around Trost and Maria lately, but I’ve heard stories about Captain Ackerman the last few years. He’s the Corps’ best fighter, and while he might not be the most sociable person, I’ve never heard it said that he’s not dependable.” Something dark crossed Jean’s face as he spoke. “I… I had a friend who had trouble deciding between the MP and the Corps because he wanted to make a difference, and he looked up to Captain Ackerman and Commander Smith. He wasn’t like me and just wanted everything that came along with joining the MP.”

Mikasa remembered Jean talking about a friend who had died before being able to start MP training. “Marco, right?”

“Yeah, Marco.” Jean’s smile just then was too bitter for any happiness. “You would have liked him – everyone liked him. But my point is, even if he’s a foul-mouthed, sadistic slave-driver, Captain Ackerman is a good guy.”

She couldn’t help it, Mikasa laughed just then as she leaned down. “A rather backwards way of praising someone, but I believe you.” She narrowed her eyes as she brushed the tips of their noses together. “Now, don’t you think that’s enough talk about my brother and his boyfriend?”

Jean gulped a little as his hands slid up to the small of her back. “Ah, ye-yeah.”

“Good.” She closed her eyes as she bridged the final distance between them, and felt a spark of amusement at how eager he was to finally kiss, his actions a bit more enthusiastic than skilled at first. His mouth tasted strongly of toothpaste and coffee, and she could feel the stubble of his unshaven chin as it brushed against her face. He was so solid beneath her, his large hands oddly gentle as they tugged at her shirt before slipping beneath to stroke along her back, and she found the mix of hesitancy and desire pleasing. It had been so long since she been with someone, since she had *wanted* to be with someone, and for them to know what she was….

At first she thought it was her own desire that caused the claws to come out, that made the world turn grey except for Jean, for her to hear his heartbeat so thunderously that the background sounds of the forest faded away… until she caught a faint scent in the cool breeze blowing over exposed skin.

“Ah! Ah, Mikasa, maybe you should watch the claws? They’re sh-“

“Weapons,” she hissed as she jumped to her feet, uncaring about her undone shirt while she scanned the trees around her.

 

“But-“

Was that a pale shape moving off in the distance? “Malform!”

The confusion on Jean’s face quickly transformed into something similar to panic as he scrambled for his blades, his disarrayed clothing forgotten as well. “Where?”

“Moving toward camp!” She made sure that he was armed and on his feet before she started moving. “I think I hear sounds of fighting.”

“What happened to them not attacking right before dawn?”

That was what Mikasa wanted to know. Checking on him once again that he was prepared to fight, she then resumed scanning the trees for any sign of Malform and caught one just a few feet upwards and ahead. Growling low in her throat, she launched herself at it before it noticed her and managed to knock it to the ground, where after a few vicious slashes on both their parts, she got a clean shot at its throat and tore it out with her fangs.

She only allowed herself a few deep, long swallows of blood before she tore off its head and was back on her feet again, this time to lunge forward and slash through the spine of a Malform that was fighting Jean. “Thanks,” he mumbled as he tightened his hands on his blades, his breath coming in rough pants and blood flowing from a cut along his left arm. There already was a decomposing Malform off to the side, so Mikasa beheaded the second one and motioned in the direction of the camp. Jean looked as if he wanted to say something, but just fell in step beside her once she moved forward.

They reached the camp without any more incidents, to find their friends fending off what looked to be the remains of an attack – everyone except Eren and Levi. “Where’s Eren,” Mikasa screamed as she leapt onto the back of a Malform that was attempting to disembowel Marlo.

“Ran off into the woods after a few of our friends who decided they didn’t want to play anymore,” Ymir explained while she ripped off an arm of a shrieking Malform. She ignored its screams and pulled it closer so she could feed.

Across the fire, Hange did a spinning leap to take out another Malform, and then fired off a rappelling dart and used it almost as if a fishing line to yank another Malform down from the trees. Since everyone else appeared all right and was managing mostly fine against the remaining Malform, Mikasa raced over to the captain to see what the hell she was doing. “Are you stopping it from getting away,” she asked as she helped to ‘reel’ it in. Jean came over as if to assist, but ended up staying out of the way when Mikasa and Hange managed to hold onto it between them.

Hange grunted and nodded in what seemed to be thanks. “Yeah.” When the Malform was on the ground and Mikasa went to deal it a fatal blow, the captain let out a yell. “No, stop!” She fired out another rappelling dart to help pin the undead creature down while Mikasa stood there in stunned silence. “Keep it alive for now.”

“But… I don’t….” Had the woman finally snapped? Armin had said that she was brilliant but insane.

Hange ignored Mikasa as she kept firing darts at the creature. “Bring a torch or something over here, too.”

“Look, if you want a pet we can find you a small cat or a rabbit or something,” Ymir remarked as she drew close, the bottom part of her face and a good bit of her uniform covered in blood. Beside her, Krista didn’t look much neater, but appeared healed from any wounds she’d received from fighting. “Those things never train up very well.”

Rico didn’t seem to find the situation amusing. “Are you *insane*? One of those things just tried to eat my face, and you want it alive? Kill it now!” She held up the bloodied blade in her right hand and took a step forward, only to be stopped when Hange held up a blade of her own.

“I said, bring me a fucking torch or something,” the captain hissed, sounding as furious as Levi at his worst. The two women stared intently at each other for several seconds until Rico let out a slow breath and backed up, almost into Marlo who was shadowing her as usual, albeit in a limping manner.

“Oi! What crazy shit are you doing now, you science lunatic?”

Levi’s annoyed sounding voice seemed to break some of the tension in the group, and Mikasa let out a cry of relief when she spotted her brother headed toward them, his eyes huge and pupils blown, the bit of gold still showing glowing bright. His mouth was ringed with smeared blood and he appeared dazed, which might account for why he was hanging onto to Levi, but despite that and his torn uniform, he was unharmed.

“Are you all right,” she asked as she rushed toward him, which earned a slight snarl from Levi.

Eren gave her a beautiful grin. “Juuuust fine. Feel sooo good now. Wanna sleep.” He turned his face toward Levi and nuzzled at the man’s neck, which prompted a grimace in return. “Hmm, maybe not sleep.”

Mikasa groaned as she stroked her hand along her brother’s tousled hair. “How much did you let him eat?” Something like this had only happened once or twice in the past.

“He was starving, I figured this would help.” Levi shrugged and gave Eren’s ass a slap. “Stop that, brat, you’re a mess.”

“But you smell so good,” Eren whined as he continued to snuggle against a mostly immaculate Levi. The captain sighed and shoved Eren’s face away from his neck. “So mean.”

“I’m dunking your ass in water in a few minutes,” Levi grumbled as he hauled an out of it Eren over to Hange – and for once Mikasa didn’t complain since she’d experienced the haze that came from overfeeding. Oh yes, Eren wasn’t going to be good for much of anything until he slept it off a little. “What did I say about no more science experiments with the dead fuckers,” Levi yelled at the other captain.

Hange’s brows were drawn in what looked to be concentration and she shook her head as he approached. “It’s not that for once, honest. Where’s that damn light I asked for, huh?”

Her right arm wrapped in a makeshift bandage, Sasha approached with a battery-powered torch held in her left hand. “Here we go – we were just making sure everything’s… er, well, really dead this time.” Her jacket was all torn up, but it looked as if her arm was the worst of her injuries. Behind her was Connie, who had taken several deep scratches to the face, one close enough to almost cost him his eyes.

“Thank you!” Hange moved with an almost vampire-like swiftness as she snatched at the torch and then danced around the struggling Malform. “Levi – and you too, Ymir, your eyes are really good, I want you to check this out. I thought I noticed something on the Malforms I was fighting, but I want to be sure.”

Ymir didn’t appear too happy to approach the creature, but one stern look from Krista had her sighing in an exaggerated manner as she did what was requested and stepped closer to the bound Malform. Levi did the same, with Eren still glued to his side. “What, it’s an undead fuck, same as… shit, is that a tattoo?” Levi shifted a little bit away from Eren so he could lean in closer, his eyes narrowed as he stared at the creature’s back.

Interested herself now, Mikasa came up beside Hange to see what everyone was staring at, and saw what could possibly be a black mark on the creature’s lower back, next to its spine. It looked as if it were a sinuous line curved around a straight one.

“What, is that some weird type of writing,” Jean asked as he leaned in as well.

“I think it might be an image. It looks a bit like a snake.” Uncaring about the way the Malform hissed and struggled on the ground, Hange squatted beside it and reached out to touch the mark. “It doesn’t look faded at all – can Malform be tattooed?”

Ymir’s usual smirk had been replaced by an uneasy expression as she clutched at Krista’s left arm. “I’ve never done it, but I don’t see why not. I… well, I know that Reiner and Bertolt made these things follow their commands, and I’ve seen other vampires do it as well. Been a time or two where I got them to leave me alone by snarling or growling at them, so it’s definitely a vampire thing. Maybe… maybe some of the others mark their property,” she finished in a weak voice, as if she wasn’t happy with the thought.

Rico and Marlo had joined the group gathered around the Malform, a bit battered like everyone else but still standing despite their various wounds. “Malforms rarely attack before dawn,” Rico pointed out as she attempted to clean the grime off of her glasses, the bandages on her face in dire need of being replaced since they were filthy and mostly undone. “Yet these ones attacked, and a camp with several… well, your kind at that.” She stared pointedly at Eren and Levi.

Levi’s left arm was no longer slung casually around Eren’s hip – now it was wrapped tightly around Mikasa’s brother as if he was afraid that Eren would vanish, a feeling that Mikasa shared the longer she stared at the marked Malform. “These aren’t wild Malforms, which meant they were sent out.” There was a frightening calmness to Levi’s deep voice just then, especially when taken with how bright his now golden eyes burned.

Hange nodded while she continued to examine the tattoo. “Yep, that’s what I thought as soon as I saw the marks. I mean, I had my suspicions when they attacked so close to sunrise, but… something seemed ‘off’ about them.” She finally looked up, her attention focused on Levi and Eren, and for once her demeanor was serious. “Did any of them get away?”

Levi shook his head and hugged a silent Eren closer to his side. “They… didn’t stand a chance against us. The brat was really hungry.” That prompted Eren to murmur something too soft and garbled to be understood as he rubbed at his still glowing eyes.

“What was that,” Hange demanded to know as she continued to stare intently at Eren.

“Tasted really good,” he mumbled as he continued to rub his eyes. “Tasted like dome Malform, not wild Malform.”

Ymir gasped and nodded as she raised a bloody hand to her mouth to lick at her fingers, prompting a gagging sound from Marlo. “Yeah, Rebel’s right – their blood is really rich. They’re not feeding from pigs and cats, at least not all of the time.”

“How the fuck can you tell something like that,” Jean asked, his good arm clutched around his stomach and his face pale as if he struggled not to be sick.

“Same way you humans can tell the difference between hydroponic vegetables and the stuff grown out here,” Ymir spat back at him. “Or grass-fed cattle and-“

“*Enough*,” Mikasa warned Ymir, with a hint of fangs showing. That earned her a dirty look from the vampire, but Mikasa really didn’t give a shit.

There was a loud noise as Hange cleared her throat. “If we’re done talking about how things taste, I’ve a question for everyone and didn’t get an answer.” She waited until everyone turned their attention to her before speaking again. “Did any of these guys manage to escape? You know, go back to those bad, ancient vampires?”

“Things got a little crazy, but we only saw the ones that the captain and Eren went after run off,” Connie explained as he gingerly pressed some fingers to his still-bleeding face. “The rest were too interested in eating *us* so yeah, we killed them first.” Beside him, Sasha nodded in a frantic manner.

“We took care of a few in the woods.” Mikasa held up her own bloodied right hand and frowned when Marlo and Connie were quick to look away and Ymir to snicker, then realized that she was standing there with her now stained white shirt still unbuttoned. Sighing at their childishness, she began to button up her shirt – she was still wearing her bra, so what was the big deal? Beside her, Jean groaned and hurried to address his state of dishabille, especially once Connie started to tease him about ‘letting it all hang out’.

However, the good humor didn’t last for long after Levi tapped at the hilt of one of his blades while he knelt beside the trapped Malform. “We need this for anything else?”

Hange appeared hopeful for a few seconds, then pouted after receiving a cold stare from Levi. “You’re not going to let me study it, are you?”

“Do the words ‘no fucking way’ have any special meaning to you?”

“Eren’s right, you are mean.” She rose to her feet and crossed her arms for a moment, before going for one of her blades again. “I guess I’ll do the honors again.” However, before she could raise it up, Eren moved in a blur to catch her arm.

“No, Levi didn’t feed.” He sounded remarkably lucid considering he was gorged on blood, his brows drawn as he frowned at Hange. “Let him eat.”

Hange stared in apparent shock at Eren before she grinned. “Okay, cutie, whatever you want.” She laughed a little as she sheathed the blade. “*Such* a good wife you’ve got there, sweetie.”

Eren blinked a few times as if confused by the statement, while Levi growled even as he leaned over the now mewling Malform. “It’s *your* throat I’m imagining ripping out, you shitty glasses,” he snarled right before he sunk his fangs into the creature’s neck.

Leaving Eren to stand guard over his boyfriend, Mikasa turned to find Jean watching the feeding with a kind of morbid fascination. She tugged on his right arm and urged him to come away. “You need some medical attention.”

“Ah, yeah.” He shook his head as if to clear it of the image of Levi draining a Malform of blood. “Is that… does it really taste good, drinking from one of them?”

“Surprisingly, yes.” Mikasa saw no reason to lie. “Something changes in us after we turn, and even though we might find the thought of feeding from a Malform disgusting, we’re driven to do it. Nothing quite tastes as good as their blood.” Unless it was a vampire’s blood.

Jean gave her an odd look but didn’t pull his arm from her grip. They went to join the others near the fire, where it seemed that Marlo was doing his best to ignore the feeding going on behind his back while Rico and Sasha watched it with a sick fascination. For his part, Connie was fussing with Sasha’s makeshift bandages.

Mikasa was surprised to see Ymir and Krista help Hange carry over the bags containing the medical supplies – well, make that Krista, with Ymir tagging along. Ymir dug through one of the bags to find the cleaning wipes, and whined a little as she handed some over to Krista. “These will have to do until daylight – then we can wash off,” she explained. She even tossed a couple over to Mikasa, who grimaced as she tore a packet open and held her breath as she used it to help wipe off the Malform blood. Centuries of innovation, and humanity couldn’t come up with a wipe that didn’t reek of chemicals?

Hange cleaned her own hands and then looked over the humans in their group before sighing. “All my hard work last night and you guys go and get knocked around again. I’m not sure I have enough nanos to last us more than another day or two at this rate.” She waved Sasha over first so she could deal with the girl’s arm wound since it was still bleeding.

Done cleaning off her bloody face, Ymir seemed to be fidgeting for a moment, and then cursed beneath her breath when Krista did something to her side. “Are you nuts,” she hissed to the girl in an older dialect of English, which caused Rico to stare at them in evident curiosity.

“Hmm, have something to say, Ymir?” Hange paused in cleaning Sasha’s wound long enough to look up with a smile on her face, but judging from how the expression failed to reach her brown eyes, Mikasa wondered if the captain was being on guard around the traitorous vampire.

Ymir fidgeted a little more, until Krista pinched her again. “Oh, all right!” She caught Krista’s hands between her own and huffed a little. “It’s not like you don’t know, thanks to Rebel and Sunshine, but I doubt these kids will go along with it.” She jerked her chin in the direction of Rico, Sasha and the others. “There’s always our blood if you’re so worried about wounds and the such.”

While Hange stared evenly at Ymir, Mikasa with shock and everyone else with confusion, Krista jumped to her feet with her hands clenched in front of her. “We-we want to help! It’ll work to heal everyone, won’t it?” She glanced over at Mikasa as if for reassurance.

Having some trouble believing that *Ymir* of all people was volunteering her blood, Mikasa could barely nod just then. “Yes, it should help them heal faster tonight and in the future. But… are you serious?”

“Wait – what do you mean by ‘blood’,” Rico demanded as she toyed with the hilts of her blades. “Are you talking about giving *us* blood, like you did for Eren?”

“Uh, I don’t think I can drink it down even if it’s in coffee.” Connie looked rather sick at the moment and leaned against Sasha for support, even as she continued to hold out her arm to be tended to by Hange.

Marlo looked sick as well, his freckles standing out in stark relief on his pale face and his back hunched over. “Wo-wouldn’t that make us vampires as well?”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, *this* is what you get into when I’m not around?” Once again, Levi’s disgusted voice made everyone look over in his direction – he stalked in from the shadows with a cleaned up Eren beside him, faces and hair damp as if splashed with water. “Why are you shitstains talking about drinking blood?”

“Because Ymir is offering hers to the others to help them heal,” Mikasa volunteered as she barely resisted the urge to leave Jean’s side and run over to Eren.

Ymir made a snarly sound and shook her head. “Well, I was thinking it would be more of a group effort, even though it shouldn’t take more than a few drops each for everyone.” When Levi glared at her for her assumption, she held up her hands. “What, you’re not ready to give up a little for the good of the team?”

“I don’t like people volunteering me for shit.”

“And *I* don’t like not knowing what’s going on!” Rico jumped to her feet then swayed a little, probably more from the accumulated effects of the long day than any serious injuries. Then she stomped over toward Ymir and stabbed her fingers near the vampire’s chest – at least she had the sense to not go after Krista. “Why do you want to give us your blood all of a sudden?”

It was Hange who answered the Engineer’s question. “Because it’s been proven that consuming vampire or hybrid blood will provide enhanced healing to humans.” She finished wrapping Sasha’s arm and fussed with her glasses. “It’s much more effective than medical nanos – from what I’ve seen first-hand, it’ll have all of you healed up in a day or two and it’ll prevent any Malform infection to a certain degree.”

“Ymir gave me her blood before Eren turned me – it helped save my life several times.” Krista rubbed her right hand along her abdomen as if in memory of an old wound. “You won’t need much, just a few drops, and it’ll help you heal and even make you feel a bit better.”

Rico gave her a flat look for a few seconds before turning toward Mikasa. “Is this all true?”

Wondering why the woman chose to trust her, Mikasa nodded. “Yes, it is. You won’t get turned if you drink it – only Eren can turn you, and that’s if he drains you of blood, not by drinking his.”

Rico blanched a little at hearing that last part, then glanced at the others while she chewed on her bottom lip for a few seconds. “Let me think about this for a bit. I’m not happy about being wounded while we’re being hunted, and I take it we’re not near any supply stations?”

“Nope, not at least for another two or three days.” Hange motioned for Connie to take Sasha’s place and reached for another syringe. “Look, maybe I can stretch the supplies if needed, but if we get attacked again, it’s not going to be good, especially with everyone so wounded tonight.” She paused to check out the slashes on Connie’s face. “Considering that we were attacked so close to dawn, I don’t think we can rule out being safe at any point during the night so I will take up Ymir on her offer. The rest of you can wait and see how it affects me and decide for yourself.”

Levi made that clicking noise with his tongue. “You’ll do anything to get your hands on vamp blood.”

“Guilty as charged.” Hange flashed him a quick grin before turning serious once more. “How long do you think it’ll be before more Malforms find us?”

Levi gave Ymir a pointed look, causing her to throw her hands up in the air. “Really, you think I have a clue?” She let out an explosive breath and seemed to think for a moment. “Reiner never said where he was going to meet the others, just that we were getting close. So either him and Bertolt met up with them within the first night and they sent out a search party immediately, or the others assumed the worst and have had their Malform out searching just in case anyone followed us out of the dome.”

“Then that means we’re probably around the area where those fuckers were supposed to meet up.” Levi didn’t look happy about that, and Mikasa felt a spike of dread shoot through her at the thought.

“Paris,” Eren murmured as he toyed with a stray lock of hair, his eyes unfocused and dull for a moment. “Er sagte... wir... wir würden nach Paris gehen... Neu Paris?” His voice sounded confused and weak as his eyes became even more unfocused. “Oder waren wir schon dort?”

Upon hearing the hesitant words, Mikasa was moving without giving it any thought, desperate to reach Eren and make sure he was all right, to figure out what was wrong, but even before she could reach him, Levi’s right hand flashed with blinding speed to smack into the back of his head. “What the *fuck* was that, you little shit?” Levi’s expression was one of pure annoyance, but there was more than a trace of concern in his loud query.

Eren’s eyes were bright and clear once more as he glared back at Levi. “What was that for? Dammit, can you *not* hit me for more than a few hours at a time? I took less damage from the shitty Malform!”

Levi looked ready to smack Eren again, yet all he did was grit his teeth together and shake his head. “Make the fucking breakfast,” he ordered Eren before spinning around on his heel, a look of pure fury on his face. “You, crazy woman,” he barked at Hange, “get everyone patched up and ready to ride, since we’re going to leave as soon as it’s light enough to see.”

“You got it, captain my captain!” Hange took to whistling out of tune as she finished taking care of Connie’s wounds and motioned for Marlo to limp over to be fixed up next.

Mikasa wasn’t surprised when Levi waved at her to come closer, though she was taken back to see that he did the same to Ymir as well. “So, no more laying false trails, we’ll be gunning right for this ‘Shiganshina’ from now on,” he told them as he folded his arms over his chest and watched as Eren, with Sasha and Connie’s help, began to prepare breakfast. “How bad do you think it’ll be?”

While Mikasa pondered the question, Ymir pulled the hood of her blood-splattered green cloak down over her forehead as if in anticipation of the coming sunrise. “Honestly? It’s going to be really bad. I wasn’t crazy about Krista’s suggestion about offering up our blood, but I see her point – they’re going to need every advantage they can get if they’re going to hope to survive.” She glanced to the side where Hange was still working on Marlo’s slashed leg. “Dr. Who and Dollface are really good, and the kids aren’t half-bad but they’re still just weak humans up against vampires.”

Groaning both over the new nicknames and Ymir’s lack of tact – as well as the fact that she had to agree with it somewhat – Mikasa tugged on the ends of her scarf and wished that Eren hadn’t insisted on bringing the pain in the ass along with them. “I guess it depends on how much longer until they realize where we are. If these Malform were just a random search party, then we might have a day or two until they’re expected back, and another day or two until they pin down our location.”

“*Might*,” Levi stressed, his eyes narrowed and glowing. “And there’s still the fact that those two assholes will be reporting in soon, if they haven’t already.” Judging from the amount of venom in his voice just then, he was looking forward to the time when he could fight Reiner and Bertolt again. Mikasa felt the same, considering what they’d done to Eren.

“So yeah, we’re basically fucked,” Ymir summed up in a much too cheerful tone of voice. “Probable death for all of us except Eren, who’ll be begging for it soon enough.” She held up her hands when Mikasa and Levi turned to glare at her. “Hey, just calling it as I see it. You don’t like it, come up with some brilliant plan to save all of our hides.”

“The Corps excels in coming up with brilliant, half-assed plans,” Levi assured them as he let his hands fall down to the hilts of his blades. “And since Erwin’s not here, that should even increase the odds in our favor.” For some reason his lips twitched just then. “All right, help with the packing and everything, and find out who’s willing to swallow any blood. During breakfast we’ll go over the maps so we can plot our route for the day, and see if any supply stations lie along the way within the next day or two.”

“We can’t run across one soon enough,” Ymir muttered as she tugged at the side of her cloak. “I keep feeling as if I’m gonna fry at any moment during the day.”

Mikasa gave her a cool look as she dusted off her hands. “I feel so much for you,” she said in as sarcastic a tone as possible.

Ymir’s answering grin just then was all teeth and no mirth. “There’s the Sunshine we all know and loathe. No wonder Rebel’s finally losing his mi-“

The sound of a blade unsheathing made Ymir snap her mouth shut and eye Levi with more than a little wariness, and she wasn’t the only one. He handled the long weapon with ease and used it to trim an extended claw. “Didn’t I tell you two what needed to be done?”

“Yeah, you did.” Ymir heaved a rather heartfelt sign and hugged the cloak closer to her body. “Gonna be *such* a fun day, I can tell,” she grumbled as she clomped away.

Mikasa made to follow her, only to be stopped by a naked blade appearing in her way. “There a problem,” she asked as she gave Levi a blank look.

He returned it with ease and nodded in Eren’s direction. “What was your brother saying back there? When he went all freaky.”

Ah, that. She bit at her bottom lip while she rubbed the scarf against her chin. “He was talking about New Paris and… well, *them*. He sounded confused – I think he was trying to remember if they mentioned anywhere they might be going and maybe… maybe something got mixed up in his head.” At least, she seriously hoped that was what had happened. Could there be some lingering effects from the drugs? It had just been a couple of days, and who knew what those bastards had pumped into him.

It was almost amusing to watch how Levi’s eyes always gave him away whenever Reiner and Bertolt were mentioned, except for the fact of what those two had done to Eren – and what they would do to him if they ever got their hands on Mikasa’s brother again. The short captain bit back on a snarl as he glanced back and forth between Eren and Hange a couple of times. “I need to see what that lunatic has figured out about the damn drugs they were pumping into him,” he muttered while he sheathed his blade – it seemed that he was thinking along the same lines as Mikasa in that perhaps the drugs weren’t entirely out of Eren’s system.

“The feeding he had just now should help,” she volunteered, having to admit that she was a bit touched by the concern Levi was showing just now.

“It better, because I’m about to kick a shit ton of sense into his head if it doesn’t,” Levi snarled as he headed toward Hange.

And just like that, Mikasa was back to basically hating the bastard. Taking a deep breath to calm down before she followed and did her best to tear out his throat, she forced herself to go help Ymir break down the camp.

*******
Rough translation:

“He said… we… we were going to Paris… New Paris?” .... “Or were we there already?”

*******

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