chapter six

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downfall

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Levi watched as color began to creep into the horizon, a motley bruising that gave way to smudges of red and orange. “Oi, you gonna go wake up the slackers?”

Curled up on the other side of Eren, Mikasa stirred and appeared to take a few seconds to gather her thoughts. “Huh? Oh… yes, I suppose we should get ready.” She ran her hand along Eren’s back before she rose to her feet, a concerned frown peeking over the edges of her scarf; the thing was in dire need of a good scrubbing and made Levi cringe each time she touched it. “I’m surprised the stench of whatever Ymir’s concocted hasn’t woken them up already.”

“She better not be planning on poisoning them.” Levi waited until Mikasa had left to give a gentle shake to the warm lump sprawled out in his lap, and when that didn’t work he resorted to a savage pinch to Eren’s left ear. “Come on, time for you to wake up, too.” He was in desperate need of a piss and had lost feeling in his legs about half an hour ago.

Eren mumbled a little and attempted to bury his face against Levi’s stomach, which just earned him another ear pinch. Whining a little as he batted at the side of his head, Eren rolled away from Levi with a frown on his face. “Encore fatigué. Allez à la barsans moi.”

About to deliver a flick this time, Levi paused with his hand halfway to his lover’s forehead and did some frowning of his own; that hadn’t sounded like German, hadn’t sounded guttural enough. What had Eren said to him, and in what language? “Wake the fuck up,” he snapped as he latched on to the back of Eren’s nape and yanked him upright.

“Wah?” Sounding a bit more aware now, Eren flopped his right hand about until he managed to rub his eyes a couple of times. “Levi?”

“Who the fuck else would it be?”

Eren’s hand dropped to the ground and those golden eyes stared at him, a bit blurry and unfocused, and then the damn brat sighed as he slumped forward until he rested against Levi. “’M tired.”

“Yeah, you mentioned it a shit-ton of times last night.” Unable to help himself, Levi began to rub small circles in the space between Eren’s shoulder blades. “That crap they shot into you still turning your brains into more mush than normal?”

Puffs of air hit his neck as Eren laughed. “Maybe? Hmm, still feel a bit sleepy, but….” The brat fell quiet for a moment as he seemed to inhale Levi’s scent. “You’re here. I’m here.”

So much for getting any sense out of the idiot. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’, then.”

There was a spitting sound as Eren pulled away enough to look at him. “I mean… gah.” He rubbed his eyes some more and, well, pouted was the best word for it. “It’s us, *now*, is what I mean.”

“You’re getting some more coffee shoved down your throat,” Levi informed him as he was careful in how he lifted Eren out of his lap before forcing his lover to stand up. “Then I’m inflicting Hange on your ass again.”

Eren whined as he was dragged along. “Hate you, hate *everybody*. ’m fine.”

“Not helping things, you know.” Still Levi had to smile a little when he felt the prick of claws against his hand, a sure sign of defiance on Eren’s part. They paused at some trees so Levi could tend to a basic need, and by the time he managed to get the stumbling mess over to the one campfire set up as an impromptu kitchen, everyone else was gathered around and appearing rather unhappy about their breakfast.

“Oh, quit your whining,” Ymir ordered as she spooned out some gelatinous brown glop. “It’s good for you.”

Sasha’s brows were drawn together as she stared with obvious reservations at the quivering pile of… something in her bowl. “Is it even edible? I mean, you do drink Malform blood and all.”

“That thought’s not helping me right now,” Connie moaned as he stared into his own bowl of whatever the hell it was that Ymir had made.

The vampire huffed as she whacked the ladle against the pot, causing its contents to shake en masse. “Please, it’s not as if I’m going to risk poisoning you guys – that’s a major waste of a blood source!”

Beside her, Krista groaned as her right hand twitched, as if to either grab onto Ymir or smack her. “Seriously, you thought that was a good thing to say? How much did you drink last night?”

A wolfish grin spread across Ymir’s freckled face. “Yeah, that was a fun time, wasn’t it?”

“Truly hilarious. Can’t wait to repeat it and see who dies this time,” Rico remarked in a bland tone, her expression as blank as her voice as she held out her bowl. “You really don’t give a shit about us, do you?”

Krista flinched from the cold look in Rico’s grey eyes, but Ymir met them with a flat expression of her own. “Look, you have any idea what it’s like to live through a couple of major wars? What the hell am I even talking about, you don’t even really know what a war *is*,” she snapped as her eyes flared red. “About huddling in basements and waiting for the world to crash down on your head, about having these assholes come into your home and take away your family or even kill them in front of you. On having everything around you be destroyed in a day – no, a fucking *hour*. I lived through that, lived through some of the worst that humanity could do to each other… and that was only for a fraction of my life. A fraction of *their* lives, these assholes we’re fighting. So when the world truly went to shit?” One could barely call it a smile, the way she bared her sharp teeth at a now scowling Rico. “Yeah, we knew what to expect. We were no stranger to death and destruction except for the fact that it was then on such a large scale. You could definitely say I don’t give much of a shit about you guys because to me you always die, usually because of some stupid crap you do.”

She paused in her rant to slap some food into Rico’s bowl. “You think the Malform are bad now? You haven’t seen much of anything, Dollface. You’ve got the watered down version, and you’ve been coddled all these years in your domes. Last night should have been a wake-up call, and you’re damn lucky to have only lost one person.”

Levi wanted to stomp over and smack the snarky traitor in the mouth for talking down to the people who had risked their lives last night, who had fought against creatures so much stronger and faster than them with nothing but their courage, skill and blades, but Eren leaned heavy against Levi’s shoulder and shook his head right around the start of Ymir’s rant – even Mikasa was quiet just then, albeit her eyes were a brilliant gold. Giving his lover a narrowed glare to indicate he wasn’t too pleased with the current plan, Levi settled for scowling at Ymir instead.

Rico glanced down at the ominous pile of goop in her bowl for a few seconds before she let out a slow breath and glanced back at Ymir. “So what? We’re just supposed to give up? Wait for our turn to die?” Her right hand fell to rest against the hilt of her blade. “We don’t deserve to live or fight unless we’re turned into hybrid freaks, too?”

There was a weary sigh as Ymir’s eyes flickered to Krista, who was standing close by her side with an almost pained expression on her face. “No, I just answered your first question – I don’t grow attached to ephemeral things, just like you don’t bother to take in all the cute little butterflies flittering about in the bushes. Now shut up and eat your damn breakfast, it’s good for you.”

“This is *good* for us?” Rico’s brows grew furrowed as she held up the bowl to her face and then grimaced as she must have gotten a whiff of the stuff – Levi was a good three meters away and wasn’t about to get any closer to the pot of shit – then shook her head. “Are we certain you didn’t switch sides again or something?”

“Oh for – eat it!” Ymir whacked the ladle against the pot again. “Bunch of pansy-assed humans, I swear.”

“Hmm, it’s actually all right,” Sasha commented, the words a bit muffled as she smacked her lips a few times; at some point during all of the drama she must have worked up the nerve to give the ‘breakfast’ a try. Levi developed a new respect for the girl and a bit of awe over her stomach for the fact that she seemed to be keeping the goop down. “Tastes a bit like… well, it’s not bad. Very filling.” She nodded as she forced her spoon through the greyish blob to scoop up a little more.

Connie had his face all scrunched up as he shoved a big spoonful into his own mouth, which he then seemed to gum an awful long time before swallowing. “Hmm, na ta baad.”

“You guys are *freaks*,” Jean muttered as he eyed his own bowl with what appeared to be some serious trepidation. Appearing to take a deep breath, he spooned some of the gelatinous mess into his mouth and gagged a little before swallowing.

Meanwhile, Ymir stood near the pot with a look resembling pride on her face. “See? That’ll help with the blood-loss and give you a bit of energy for the day. May not know much about herbs or things like that, but I know how to keep the livest- uhm, how to help fuel a body.”

Mikasa pressed her fingers against the bridge of her nose as if to stifle a headache. “Ymir… just… stop talking, okay? And tell me that you’ve made some coffee.”

“Of course there’s coffee, Sunshine. I figured poor Rebel would need something to help clear his head.” Ymir didn’t appear offended at being told to shut up and motioned toward Krista.

The petite blond reached into the bag which held most of the eating utensils to pull out a couple of collapsible mugs before she grabbed the pot of coffee that was mostly hidden behind the large pot of… whatever the hell foulness Ymir had concocted. As soon as Krista had filled one of the mugs, she handed it to Levi with a smile. “It’s pretty strong since we figured everyone would need something extra this morning.”

“Good idea.” Levi inhaled the brisk aroma of the drink for a moment to help clear the stench of ‘breakfast’ out of his senses before he handed it to a still groggy Eren, who mumbled something as he accepted it with his left hand, his right arm still slung around Levi’s waist; Levi waited to make sure that his lover had a decent hold on the cup before letting go.

Behind Levi, there was a choking sound. “Cah-cahfee!” Rico’s face was flushed and she waved a goo-smeared spoon about before dropping it back into the bowl. “Coffee now!” She snatched at the mug that had been on its way to Mikasa and damn near inhaled its contents, despite the way the coffee steamed in the morning air.

“Ah, wow, someone looks thirsty!” Hange finally had decided to join them, her hair pulled back in an even messier than normal ponytail and her clothes all wrinkled. What drew Levi’s attention was the fact that the left lens in her glasses was now missing, which Hange appeared to notice. “Yeah, seems like my eye healed up with perfect vision! I’m really curious to find out that if something happens to my right eye if it’ll heal up just as well, too.”

Levi thought about all of the times that the lunatic had annoyed him over the years. “Let me know when you’re willing to do that experiment,” he offered as he flexed the fingers on his right hand.

“Aw, there’s my psychotic sweetie,” Hange crooned. “So, what’s going on?” She glanced about at a now flushed Rico, Sasha scooping more goo into her bowl and a grinning Connie who was licking his spoon in front of a moaning Jean – at least until Mikasa bared her fangs at him. “Having a party without me?”

“No, just finding out why Ymir’s never going to be on food duty again,” Levi explained while he motioned for a cup of coffee. “Now get over here and check out Eren. That shit’s still not out of his system.”

“Oh, is the cutie still a bit drugged up?” Hange produced this awful cooing sound that made Levi’s teeth ache as she reached for Eren’s face; in the middle of sipping his coffee, Eren backed up a little and blinked a few times as if startled while his eyes flared bright. “Hmm, has anyone ever told you how gorgeous your eyes are?” She leaned in much too close to Eren’s face. “I mean- *ouch*!” Moving in a blur, she turned to glare at Levi, her brows drawn together as her brown eyes bled to gold. “That hurt you nasty bas-ohhh! Wow! This is *amazing*!” She laughed and blinked her now glowing eyes several times. “The change in vision – it’s clear that it’s to aid in hunting, another enhanced sense that kicks in specifically in reaction to- *ow!*”

Levi pulled back his leg for another kick and bared his teeth. “Save the hypothesis for another time, you shitty glasses! Focus, dammit!”

“Sheesh, you could let me enjoy the moment, you know.” Hange sniffed for a moment before she turned back to Eren, only to yelp again. “What now?”

“Don’t be so damned handsy,” Levi snapped. “You look like you’re-“

“You know, I think I’m feelin’ better,” Eren mumbled as he attempted to pull away. He made as if to swat at one of Hange’s hands but only spilled some of his coffee.

Hange made a tsk’ing sound and shook her head. “Now don’t lie to Mama Hange, that’s not nice. How do you feel? Are you still lethargic? Do you know what day it is?”

Eren let out a weary sigh and closed his eyes for a few seconds. “I’m tired because some idiots wouldn’ let me sleep, and you never told me what fucking day it was after you rescued me.” His eyes were even brighter when he opened them, if a bit unfocused. “*I* think it’s a rather shitty day, personally.”

Before Hange could do more than blink at the rather loud and hostile statement snapped at her, Mikasa shoved her way between the stunned scientist and an irate Eren. “All right, I believe you need some more caffeine,” she soothed as she lifted the neglected cup of coffee up to Eren’s lips. “Someone’s a bit grouchy this morning.”

“No sleep,” Eren mumbled before he slurped his coffee, even as he slumped against Levi’s side. Levi held onto the rim of his own mug and drank as well, and nearly gagged on the bitter, almost viscous brew.

“What the hell?” he demanded of Krista, who brought the pot around to refill everyone’s mugs.

“I told you it was strong,” she answered with a smug smile. “It should help wake everyone up. We figured that it’ll be another day of riding fast.”

Jean, who seemed to have recovered from breakfast, made a pitiful groaning sound and rubbed at his face. “Great, just what I want to hear after a night of fighting.” The mixture of hybrid/vampire blood and nanos seemed to have helped with his wounds, since his one arm wasn’t in a sling and his face appeared only mildly bruised.

“Give me a minute to see if I can work up a shit for you,” Levi told the horseface. “You want to stay here and wait for your Malform buddies to return?”

“Uhm, not really.” Jean made as if to rub at the back of his head and winced when he raised his left arm. “Guess when you put it like that….”

“Yeah, figured you’d rather a sore ass than a torn throat, so finish choking down that crap and then start packing up your gear. If you asswipes are going to bitch, you can do it on horseback.” At his side, Levi thought he heard Eren make a snickering sound that was muffled by the mug. When he looked down, he found Eren smirking a little. “What, you have something to say, brat?” he asked while Jean, the idiot couple and Rico meandered off to get ready for the day.

Eren rested his head against Levi’s shoulder and closed his eyes before he answered. “Si joyeux, tu es.”

There it was again – the odd language that the brat had spoken earlier. Levi frowned at his lover as Eren blinked up at him, and then bit back on a hiss when Mikasa yanked her brother away.

“Dammit! Watch the coffee,” Eren whined as he waved his free arm about to regain his balance while Mikasa continued to jerk him forward.

“What did you say?” When Eren gave her a confused look, she shook him by the hold she had on his arm. “Just then, what did you tell Levi?”

“I- he’s being a bit pissy, yeah? I just teased him about it.” Eren dropped the mostly empty mug to the ground and attempted to yank his arm free. “What about it?”

“What exactly did you say,” Mikasa demanded, her eyes gold and her face pale except for the flushed spots on her cheeks; everyone was staring at the two of them, and Ymir crept closer to the siblings, along with Levi.

His eyes glowing as well, Eren let out a low hiss and shook his head, the long ends of his hair flashing out around his face. “What does it matter? Why d’you care what I say-“

“You weren’t speaking English,” she informed him, her tone sharp with worry.

“So what? I talk to you in German all the time.”

“But that wasn’t German,” Levi informed the stubborn idiot. “You said something in that odd language this morning after you woke up.” When Eren turned to look at him in disbelief, he nodded at Mikasa. “What is it?”

Her face now a mask of pure white except for the burning centers of her eyes, she clutched at her filthy scarf as if for some source of reassurance. “It… it was French. We don’t normally talk in French, not unless… well, only if we need to.”

“Yeah, but those assholes were talking to him in it, back when they were fucking with his head. You ran into them in New Paris, right, *Lumier*?” Ymir was staring at Eren when she asked the question, her eyes red and her claws out.

“Non!” Eren moaned and clutched at his head as he bent over. “*No*! Dammit, just… just shut up!” He began to take in deep, ragged breaths, his claws out and his eyes so huge and bright that they didn’t seem the slightest bit human.

Levi hesitated for just a moment before he lunged forward and wrapped his arms around his lover; he felt Eren tense against him as if to struggle before going limp.

“No,” Eren breathed out again as Levi held him pinned against him chest. “It’s… it’s not…” He closed his eyes and shook his head without finishing what he had been trying to say.

After pulling a fresh syringe out of her pouch, Hange approached them in a cautious manner, as if leery about setting Eren off again. “Okay, we’re going to definitely agree that they upped the psychotropic drugs in whatever they shot into him. Now be a good cutie and let me take some more of your blood, okay?” She waited as if to see if anyone was going to react to the request before picking up Eren’s left arm. “Whatever they gave him this time doesn’t seem to be breaking down easily.”

“You *think*?” Levi placed his hand over Eren’s chest and felt the thunderous beating of the heart caged inside of it; even though Eren was still against him, his lover appeared desperate to remain calm. “I thought you said that shit would clear out while he slept.”

“I said it would help if his brain had a chance to shut down for a bit.” There was a rare note of temper in Hange’s tone as she drew the blood. “And that I can’t do much while… while…” She stared at the tube of blood on her hand, her eyes flaring gold and her fangs descending.

“Oi!” Levi jerked Eren away from the psycho while Mikasa darted forward to snatch away the vial of blood before Hange could do something crazy like drink it. “Snap out of it!”

“Huh?” Hange blinked her eyes a few times and whined. “What? Oh, wait.” She made snatching motions at Mikasa. “I need that!”

“Yeah, as a snack or to check out what they’re doing to Rebel?” Ymir folded her arms across her chest while Krista hurried over to Levi and Eren to check out Eren’s arm. Levi allowed her the attention for a couple of seconds before tucking Eren’s arm back at his side.

“I would never waste a valuable research resource like that!” Hange insisted with righteous indignation – at least until her stomach made a loud, rumbling noise. “Ah, wow, guess I need some more coffee, yeah?”

“You need to snack on a shitty Malform, is what you need.” Levi gave the too-silent brat in his arms a quick squeeze. “You all right there?”

Eren made an odd huffing sound and twisted about enough so he could bury his face against Levi’s neck; the motion caused Levi to tense up, but only until he realized that Eren appeared to be inhaling his scent. “Can’t- not gonna let ‘em mess with me.”

“Damn right, you little shit.” Levi allowed him the weird sniffing thing since it seemed to calm him down, as did Mikasa coming over to stroke Eren’s hair. She also held up another cup of coffee but didn’t force it on her brother. “Isn’t there something you can do to help this crap get through his system faster?” he called out to Hange, who was fetching her own caffeine.

“I told you, not with the stuff I have here. We’d have to head back to the supply station, which I don’t think you’d want to do.” Hange waved about the mug in her right hand while she tapped at the pouches on her belt with her left hand.

Rico, who had just returned to the small group gathered around the fire, took to scowling as she looked about. “What about the supply station?”

“Levi’s proposing that we go back there so I can use the lab, but it’ll probably put us on the path of the vampires,” Hange informed her.

“No fucking way,” was the Engineer’s instant retort.

Feeling a headache come on, Levi clicked his tongue for a few seconds and tightened his hold around Eren’s waist. “I didn’t say we were going back, I just asked about Hange fixing something to help with the shit in Eren’s blood!”

“And I told you last night, that means the nearest supply station.”

“Listen, you four-eyed freak-“ He stopped when he felt a hand tug at his left arm, and was surprised to see that it was Mikasa. “What?”

For once, she let pass the snappish tone as she pulled down the scarf that covered the lower half of her face. “I think there’s a place closer than the supply station we can go, though it’ll take us a little off course,” she offered.

Busy watching the burgeoning fight as if it was prime entertainment, Ymir blinked as if stunned and then guffawed twice. “Wait, don’t tell me you’re about to offer up a hidey-hole there, Sunshine!”

Mikasa shot her an irate look before she resumed playing with her brother’s hair. “Unless you’ve one of your own that’s available, I don’t see what options we have.” When Ymir shook her head, Mikasa lifted her head to meet Levi’s eyes. “Eren and I… well, we have various safe places where we spend time when we don’t want to be in the domes. It’s not as close as the supply station, but if we ride hard, we can be there before tomorrow night.”

It sounded better than backtracking and running the risk of heading straight into the enemy’s path, but Levi still had a few doubts. “What about this psycho here and her equipment?” he asked while jerking his left hand in Hange’s direction.

“Hey! You’re psycho, I’m just crazy!”

Mikasa ignored Hange’s insane rambling and toyed with the ends of Eren’s hair. “We’ve some stuff there, things Armin picked up and even older tech we’ve scavenged over the years. I’m sure she can manage with something.”

“PC’s,” Eren breathed out as he paused in sipping at the coffee. “Some stuff we got in Mitras.”

“Mitras!” Hange nearly sprayed out a mouthful of coffee in her rush to speak, causing Levi to grimace in disgust. “You have access to the Chairmen’s market?” She didn’t give the siblings any time to respond and would have latched on to Eren if it wasn’t for Mikasa’s imposing presence. “What did you get? What was it like there? Was there tech? There had to be tech! Did you get tech?”

“You guys can take her down, right?” Rico frowned at Ymir while she grasped the hilt of her left blade.

“Oh yeah, neophytes aren’t that much of a problem, especially if they haven’t fed,” Ymir assured her.

Levi spared both of them a glare before reaching out to smack the side of a babbling lunatic’s head. “Enough!”

“Ow!” Hange did that annoying keening sound of hers which meant that she wasn’t hurt at all. “I just wanna know about the goodies, dammit.”

“Then give these two a chance to answer your questions.” And judging from the way that Eren was so interested in drinking his coffee – which had to be just about gone now – and Mikasa had taken to fussing with her scarf, Levi had a feeling that he wasn’t going to like the answer. “You’ve *got* to be shitting me,” he snapped. “Not one fucking diamond?”

A vindicated expression came over Mikasa’s features just then, while Eren’s eyes flared as he lowered the mug from his lips. “How the hell do you think we got in there in the first place? What was I supposed to do, explain to the guy I’d slept with supposedly for money that all of a sudden I had the cash to buy the stuff?”

Feeling a really nasty headache come on, one that wasn’t helped in the slightest by Ymir’s annoying cackling, Levi pressed the heel of his left hand to the space between his eyes and did his best not to snarl. “Why the hell were you even there?”

“Because we found some research of Grisha’s and were trying to get some answers, and then Armin thought that maybe having some weird phasing microscopes and sitemeters-“

“You have a phase-contract microscope and a cytometer!” Levi found himself shoved aside as Hange engulfed a stunned Eren. “I LOVE YOU SO MUCH! You and that adorable little- ach!” He didn’t even get a chance to rip out her spleen, not when a hissing Mikasa damn near kicked the lunatic away from her precious brother.

“Calm down,” Mikasa ordered, her eyes gold and fangs on display. “You’re wasting precious time!”

“But do you know how rare it is to find equipment like that? I had to beg Erwin for years to get my lab stocked like it is now, *beg* I tell you,” Hange informed everyone as she knelt on the ground and sniffed as if holding back tears. “No wonder Armin was so easy to train – I should have picked up on how quickly he learned to use things.”

In the background Levi could hear whispering, something that sounded like Sasha asking what the drama was and Rico muttering about crazy scientists, and it only added to his headache; Mikasa was right about this wasting their time. “Look, all we need to know is if there’s shit you can use to study what the hell it was they shot into Eren.” He glared at Mikasa. “Is that stuff at this camp, base, whatever the fuck you want to call it?”

She nodded. “Some of the equipment, yes. We tended to scatter it about since we were constantly-“

“Great, perfect, we’ll head there and hope that those assholes don’t catch up to us tonight.”

“Ymir….”

“Fine! Ah, I think I have some suggestions on how we can last a little longer,” Ymir called out after her girlfriend’s prompting.

Oh, this most likely wasn’t going to do anything for his headache, was it? Levi draped his arms over Eren’s shoulders and took a deep breath; for some reason Eren’s scent helped to calm him down. His lover shuffled closer and once more pressed his face against Levi’s neck, his hair tickling Levi’s nose. “Make it fast, since I’m serious about us leaving soon.”

Ymir rolled her eyes as she fidgeted with the goggles she held in her hand. “Yeah, I know, it’ll be daylight soon. You know they’re tracking us by Rebel’s scent, right? That’s how the Malform have found us the last two nights. So we need to do something to change it. You can use the tech for that, right?”

That didn’t make much sense to Levi, but Hange laughed as she leapt to her feet. “You mean it’ll work? Why didn’t I think it would work? Because of his healing factor? I can program the nanos to make a few chemical changes to his system, but it won’t last long!”

“It doesn’t have to be for too long, just long enough to break the trail for a while. You probably want to do it to Mikasa and me as well, just in case the Malform have our scents, too.” Ymir grimaced as she slipped on the goggles and started with the rest of her UV protective gear. “While you work on that, me and the others can try to salt the ground here with the remains of the dead horses.” When everyone but Mikasa, who was nodding, and Eren, who had his face hidden, looked at her in confusion, she sighed in an aggrieved manner. “We’re dealing with a generation of uncouth idiots, Sunshine.”

“What do you expect?” Mikasa agreed while several of the others let out loud complaints at the insult. “The others suppressed a lot of culture during the rebuilding.”

“Still, they could have tried harder. I remember how they enjoyed burning those books when with a little more effort they could have gathered firewood instead.” Ymir shook her head and made a rude gesture at Rico, who made no attempt to hide the contempt she felt for the vampire. “Let me break it down into baby words for you uneducated simpletons. It’s going to get very messy and smelly as we chop-chop the dead horsies. The only thing keeping the kitties away has been me, Krista, Mikasa, the two loverbirds and now Dr. Who, and once we clear out, they’ll come in for the feast. If we scatter the chow around enough, it’ll attract more kitties and maybe a few puppies, and cover our scent better. More dead horsies and more hungry Fluffies mean those big baddies with the nasty teeth will have a harder time picking up our scent beneath the whole clusterfuck.”

Beside the smirking vampire, Krista palmed her forehead as if suffering a similar headache to Levi’s. “*This* is you helping people? I love you and I’m about ready to punch you for being a condescending shit.”

“But you won’t, because you love me and I *am* helping.” Ymir grinned as she pressed a kiss against Krista’s forehead – and barely caught the punch aimed at her stomach in time. “That’s my girl.”

“It may work.”

“Hmm?” Levi craned his neck to look down at Eren, who still kept his face tucked against the crook of Levi’s neck. “You agreeing with her?”

“Yeah. Won’t work forever, they can still track by the horses, but it should buy us some time until they figure out what happened.” Eren lifted his head and rested his chin on Levi’s shoulder. “Maybe even long enough to get to the camp.”

Jean dumped some saddlebags onto the ground and came over to stand beside Mikasa. “So wait, are we headed to another supply station?”

Not about to explain things again, Levi pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. “Get to work chopping up horses,” he ordered as he gave Eren a gentle shove. “We’re going to look at redistributing the packs on the remaining live ones.” There was no sign of Hange, so he assumed that she’d already left to go tweak the nanos.

“Aw, couldn’t you tell us about that before we ate?” Jean whined while Ymir laughed with evident pleasure.

“You’ve got some sick friends, brat,” Levi told Eren as he pushed him in the direction of the remaining horses.

*******

“Are we going to be able to hunt at all today?”

Jean gagged a little as he heard Sasha ask Captain Ackerman that question; after chopping up and spreading decomposing horse remains about for the last hour, he so didn’t want to think about food for the next… oh, year? Was that too soon? Judging from the way his stomach heaved a little, yeah, that was too soon.

“If it can be caught without slowing us down, fine. Otherwise, tough shit,” Captain Ackerman snapped. “Now get ready to leave within the next few minutes.”

Everyone hurried to gather up their packs, so Jean looked about for Mikasa and found her over by the captain and her brother. Figuring that she was checking to see if Eren was up for the day’s ride, he went to gather up his gear, and was surprised to find Rico standing still by a set of packs. “Uhm, everything all right?”

There was a frown on her face as she looked up. “What are we doing about Marlo’s gear?” She motioned to the set of packs by her feet; judging from how they were all tied up, he guessed that someone must have taken care of them during the night.

Just like that, it hit home how Marlo had died, how they were never going to hear another ‘rant’ on how the MP could be so much better, hear some story about how they were all there to serve… to serve those still living. “Fuck,” Jean muttered as he pressed the palm of his hand against the prickling in his eyes. “I don’t know.” He wasn’t used to this, wasn’t used to losing people in the MP. That was the point of joining the damn organization, and here he’d gone and deserted it, gone and joined the Corps and followed the most amazing girl he’d ever met and had some faint hope of doing a bit of good like… like….

Like Marco had always hoped of doing.

Wasn’t things fucked up enough or what?

“Captain?” He had to repeat the question twice before Captain Ackerman came stomping over, his face the blank mask that meant things could go good or bad, and motioned toward Marlo’s gear. “What should we do with this?”

The mask remained in place, but those silver eyes warmed a little as Captain Ackerman glanced at the gear and then between Jean and Rico. “Put then on the remaining pack horses – split it up so the weight’s distributed. We’ll send his belongings on to his family when we get back.”

A sense of relief washed through Jean when he heard that – a part of him had been afraid that they’d be ordered to leave it behind, to spare the horses the weight as they raced onward. “Okay.” It looked as if Marlo wasn’t going to be forgotten just yet, even if there wasn’t a body to return to Trost.

“Anything else? If not, then get your asses moving,” the captain ordered before he turned on his heel and went back to where Eren and Mikasa were waiting, the siblings huddled together while Mikasa fussed with Eren’s cloak. It appeared as if Eren was ready to fall asleep standing, at least until Captain Ackerman flicked him on the forehead.

“Life goes on, I guess,” Rico mumbled as she picked up some of the gear.

“It better, because if I chopped up those horses for nothing, I’m going to be *pissed*.” Jean looked over in amazement at the rare sound of Rico laughing in reaction to his complaint.

“It beats crawling around in sewers, but just barely.” She shook her head as they made their way over to the horses. “You MPs are too pampered.”

“Former MP,” he pointed out, and realized that he said the words with a fair bit of pride. So maybe he was running for his life and chopping up horses and drinking vampire blood, but he was proud of what he was doing. Was proud that he was doing *something*. He just hoped that, unlike Marlo, he didn’t die doing that something.

*******

“This. Is. AMAZING!”

“Can we kill her? Seriously, can we kill her? For real this time, no take backs,” Rico grumbled as she watched Hange leap about the trees. “The amusement factor ended about two hours ago.” Eren had to agree with the Engineer, especially since he’d long grown tired of Hange’s excited squeals and high-pitched giggles.

“You fucking idiot, stick to the main limbs,” Ymir screeched at the scientist as she raced along above them. “How many times do I have to tell you that?”

“But it’s so *fantastic*, these reflexes, these claws,” Hange prattled on as she darted forward. “The sharpened vision, the- yaow!” There was a green, white and brown blur as she hurtled into the ground.

“Told you so!”

“Ymir, be a little nicer, would you?” Krista chided. “She may have injured a poor cat or something with that fall.”

Despite the loud crashing noises, Levi motioned for everyone to continue riding. “I’m about five seconds away from taking her head myself,” he muttered. His left arm, which was draped loosely around Eren’s waist as they rode together on Levi’s horse, loosened for a moment as if he was contemplating going for his blade.

There was a faint groaning sound and the cracking of a tree limb before Hange’s cheerful voice rang out. “I’m fine! Wow, the pain tolerance really is jacked up, isn’t it?”

“Keep jumping about like a deranged squirrel and I’ll show you a shit-ton of pain, you lunatic!” Levi’s patience, which never was an ample thing, sounded to be at its limits; a whine escaped from Eren as he tugged the hood of his cloak further over his head even though that anger wasn’t addressed toward him.

“But this is *so* *fun*! Claws, Levi! CLAWS!” Hange cackled like a deranged… well, like herself as she climbed up the nearest tree. “There are so many evolutionary improvements to this form that it’s no wonder the vampires are kicking our asses!”

There was a muffled sound from behind as if someone had groaned into their hand. “Okay, I’m trying to understand why *she* was the one you decided to grant what amounts to be immortality. I mean… I know you were doped up at the time, but really?” Jean demanded to know.

All Eren did was hold out his right hand far enough that the bastard should be able to see it and flipped him the bird; he was tired, his head felt as if he’d fallen from a twenty-story building and landed right on it, and… and yeah, he didn’t need to be putting up with this shit. Not now. Not when he felt as if he had to examine every thought that flittered through his mind, to make sure it was real, that it was based in the *now*, that it wasn’t some… that….

“Oi, if you think any harder, you’re going to fry what little brains you have left,” Levi whispered into Eren’s ear.

He swatted at the annoying bastard, but the truth was, it helped, Levi’s presence. Just having the man’s arm curled around his waist and the warmth against his back helped to ground him, as did breathing in Levi’s scent. Eren tilted his head back so it rested against his lover’s shoulder and closed his eyes. “If I had any brains, would I be with you?”

Levi did that clicking thing with his tongue as he smacked the reins against Eren’s thighs. “Chasing after me was the smartest thing you ever did.”

“*Chasing*?” Eren leaned forward a little so he could stare over his shoulder in astonishment at the idiot. “When did I ever chase after you?”

The slight smirk on Levi’s face twitched a bit wider as he reached out to tug on Eren’s hood. “Who shoved their tongue down who’s throat up on that roof, huh?”

“That was yet another moment of terrible, terrible decision-making on my part, not chasing,” Eren informed his lover with all the wounded dignity he could summon. “Just ask Mikasa or Ymir – my past is littered with them.”

“Hmm, think there’s a bit too much denial in there. What, not used to being the chaser?” Levi flicked at Eren’s ear and startled a yelp out of him.

“What? No, that’s not, *stop that*!” It was difficult to dodge the abuse when they were both riding on the same horse; Eren let out a frustrated whine and yanked his hood back over his head before he turned around and huddled in front of Levi. The bastard had the indignity to chuckle and whap his legs again with the reins before pulling him in closer.

“Got you to stop brooding, right?”

Eren’s breath hitched as the murmured words sunk in, and his body relaxed back against Levi’s strength and warmth as if grateful to give up its tension. “I hate you,” he mumbled as his head once more rested against his lover’s shoulder. “Such a prick.”

The hood was pushed down again so his right ear could be nipped. “Maybe later, if we’re not fighting a bunch of Malform,” Levi promised.

That earned a weak laugh from Eren; right now everything felt so uncertain, felt as if they were so desperate to escape, to run away, that there was little thought of anything but the now. To be honest, Eren was a little afraid of anything *but* the now – he was clinging to it with such utter despair in case he slipped into the confusing jumble of memories where it seemed that emotions pulled at him, when he couldn’t tell who it was that held him, where the sense of security came from, what it was that he longed for, and… and….

He sucked in a deep breath as he tilted his head so he could breathe in deep Levi’s scent. *This* centered him. This helped him to define the *now*. When the thoughts got so mixed up in his head and he felt so confused, felt so… so insignificant, this helped. He reached up to thread his fingers through Levi’s hair, to feel the soft fuzz of stubble against the tip of his fingers as he rubbed against the undercut. “I need you,” he whispered, ashamed of the admission but desperate to keep this… to keep *this* when everything raged around him.

Levi was quiet for a moment before flicking at his left ear. “Not going to do anything on a damn horse, you shitty brat.”

Eren whined at the slight sting but otherwise remained silent; if Levi either didn’t understand what he’d said or chose to misinterpret it, that was probably for the better. The others were coming for him, were going to keep fighting and killing until they got him… would keep tearing at him until it was done. Eren felt a spark of rage, a burning sense of heat beneath the confusion that made him growl against Levi’s neck. He wanted them dead, wanted to taste their blood as it flowed down his throat, yet he also knew better than anyone other than Mikasa and Ymir the odds that they were facing. Knew what it meant to fight them. Knew what you had to give up to gain any type of victory.

Levi had the key. Eren could feel it beneath his left shoulder as he pressed it against Levi’s chest. The stubborn fool had accepted it and wore it, would keep it safe. There was no way that Mikasa would have taken it, would have allowed it to be worn anywhere other than around Eren’s neck for more than a day or two. He didn’t have to worry too much now, not when Mikasa knew where Shiganshina was and where to find the box, not when Levi had the key. Not when Ymir was finally serious about protecting the… well, when she was serious about protecting herself and Krista.

Eren would fight. He didn’t know anything else to do after so long. He would fight, but he wanted to make sure those he cared about were safe, just in case… just in case…

He could feel Reiner’s mouth on the back of his neck, could feel teeth scrape along his spine as another thrust rocked into him *hard*. He wanted to breathe, wanted to drag air into his lungs but it was so hard, so difficult with the pleasure skittering through his nerves, his very being, with the heat draped over him and around him because of Reiner, because of Bertolt, because of… because of… *fuck*… he wanted to come, wanted….

“Go on, Lumier,” Reiner breathed into his ear. “Isn’t Bert so good?”

Eren blinked several times and attempted to focus through the strands falling onto his face, attempted to focus through the intense ecstasy clouding his… his entire being and… Bert… *Bertolt*. Before him. Sucking him. Mouth sliding along him as Reiner… as Reiner… “Fuck!”

“Yeah, doing that.” Reiner chuckled in Eren’s ear as he jerked his hips and there was a burst of such intense pleasure, of such… ooohhh, Eren cried out as his insides twisted, as the pleasure churned and exploded inside of him, a shuddering, electrifying rush that spun him about and left him both numb and over-sensitive at the same time. He gasped as he hunched over Bert, his clumsy fingers tangling in the tall man’s short hair, and shuddered as Reiner continued to pound into him, to produce bursts of overwhelming pleasure even as his body felt made of nothing but nerves and….

“Eren?”

“Lumier.” Reiner’s hands twisted in Eren’s hair and pulled his hair back. “Ours. You’re fucking ours *forever.*” As he growled out the words, Bertolt leaned forward to latch onto Eren’s neck, to suck hard, *hard*, to leave a mark so deep that Eren expected it to last for days despite his healing ability-

“Brat!”

Eren found himself staring into Levi’s grey eyes, a painful pressure in his scalp as Levi tugged on his hair to hold him upright. He shuddered as he fought with memories versus now, to figure out which was the reality, and then there was a sharp pain in his right ear. “What the hell!”

“That’s what I want to know! You were spacing out and wouldn’t answer anything!” Levi growled as he shoved Eren forward onto the saddle. “The fuck are you doing? You giving into that shit they shot into you?”

Eren huffed a little as he attempted to make sense out of his thoughts. What had happened back there? What had he been thinking about? “I don’t… it’s….”

“You smell like desire,” Levi hissed into his ear. “What the fuck were you remembering?”

Something cold jolted through Eren at that statement. “I….”

“*Me*,” Levi continued to hiss. “You chose *me*.” Claws dug into Eren’s hips, sharp enough to draw blood yet Eren didn’t complain, not when the pain helped to focus him. “You turned *me*. Now get your fucking head out of your ass before everything goes to shit! I’m not handing you over to those assholes.” There was such a possessive bite to those words, an utter sense of conviction, that all Eren could do was nod and relax back against Levi when with anyone else he would have raged and lashed out.

“All right,” he whispered as he grasped onto Levi’s left hand and threaded their fingers together. “Maybe stop being such a bastard, though.”

Levi clicked his tongue and used their entwined hands to push Eren tighter against his chest. “Maybe stop being such a pain in the ass, eh?”

“So demanding,” Eren murmured as he closed his eyes and allowed his attention to drift; he felt so tired, so drained, and realized that he needed to get some sleep to help clear out his thoughts.

Levi chuckled as he shifted Eren about to fit more comfortably against him. “Only because I’m stuck with such a little shit like you.” He nuzzled against Eren’s right temple for a moment. “Get some rest. Only so much daylight left.”

“Mmm.” That was something that Levi should consider, but Eren wasn’t able to put that into words just then; not when what he’d always appreciated about the bastard had been Levi’s strength. From far away he heard shouting, something about Hange being a pain and Levi being… something. He chose to ignore it, chose to rest while he had Levi’s strength around him.

Yet certain thoughts chased him into the darkness, wouldn’t let him escape into exhaustion; Levi’s strength would only hold out for so long: Mikasa could only fight against so many: Ymir’s deadliness could only withstand so much determination. Eren didn’t care about how much blood he shed or limbs he lost, didn’t care about physical pain at all. What he cared about was once more standing by and being able to do nothing while the monsters he despised tore apart those he cared about the most in this world, to know that their deaths were all his fault.

He didn’t want that. He didn’t want to lose anyone else. Didn’t want to feel blood grow cold as it dried on his hand. Didn’t want to keep being so weak. He just wanted to take care… to take care of….

We’ll take care of you.

No, he didn’t… that wasn’t want he wanted, was it? All he wanted was to protect Mikasa and Armin, to protect… to protect Levi? Did Levi need him? Did anyone need him? Why was everything so confusing?

We’ll take care of you.

Pain built inside of Eren as he attempted to make sense out of his thoughts, pain that welled inside of his chest and his head and-

“Dammit!”

Levi’s sharp voice in Eren’s ear shook him awake, and he found himself jostled as Levi tugged at their clasped hands; Eren had dug his claws into Levi’s palm. Blinking in surprise as he flexed his fingers to let go, Eren stared at his bloody hand while Levi cursed.

“Worse than a stray cat with those claws of yours, I swear. Really should declaw you one of these days, just pull them out or-“

The words washed over Eren as he stared at his palm, at the glistening blood that began to cool from contact with the air; for a moment he wasn’t on horseback in the middle of a forest but in a helicopter as it hovered over a skyscraper in Köln, as Malform screeched and howled and tore into his mother while she stared up at him with the saddest of smiles on-

“Hange! Get your ass over here now!”

The rocking sensation eased, at least for a moment, and then Eren felt himself jolted about several times before warm hands cupped his face.

“Sheesh, sweetie, go easy on the poor cutie!” He blinked his eyes and found someone staring at him, at big brown eyes close – too close – and then there was a sting at his neck. He blinked again as he attempted to make sense out of everything and then drew in a sharp breath as his extremities began to tingle and the fog in his head started to clear.

“Hange?”

“Ah, signs of life!” She gave his cheeks a quick pat and then stepped away. “Feeling a bit better now?”

Eren frowned as he went to rub at his neck, only to have his hand caught by Levi – why was it bloody? “What’s going on?”

“That’s *my* question.” Levi clicked his tongue a few times and pulled out a cloth to wipe Eren’s hand clean. “What was that shit you gave him and why didn’t you do it before now?”

“Because I wasn’t sure how it would work and didn’t want to use it unless necessary; I told you, I don’t really know what they shot into him and I don’t like dosing him blind.” When Mikasa, who had joined their little group, gave an impatient hiss, Hange rolled her eyes in a dramatic manner. “Okay, it’s a shot of pure adrenalin. For us- well, for humans, it’ll start up their heart in an emergency. I upped the dosage a bit for Eren and figured it’s more of a super caffeine shot than anything at this point, so don’t count on it to be the big cure-all.”

“As long as it helps out now.” Mikasa rushed forward so she could give Eren’s left leg a gentle squeeze. “How are you?”

Eren rubbed at his forehead with his now clean hand. “Uhm… better?” What had he been thinking about just then? His mother? Something about his mother? “Things are a bit jumbled up but it helped.”

“Maybe I should ride-“

“Okay, things are back to normal, let’s get going.” Levi kicked his gelding in the side to make it jump forward and cut off Mikasa’s offer. “Daylight’s wasting.”

Behind them, Mikasa made a growling sound and there was Jean’s voice, low and soothing, but Eren couldn’t turn around and look since Levi had an arm wrapped tight around his waist. “Next time we run into those assholes, I’m cramming those fucking shots down their throats before I rip out their hearts,” Levi snarled.

“Uhm, that’s if you get them back from Hange.”

“Fine then, I’m inflicting the lunatic on them, that’s even worse.” Levi sighed as he nudged at the back of Eren’s head. “I’ve got enough dealing with her insane ass, so keep it together, all right?”

“All right,” Eren breathed as he rested his head against his lover’s shoulder. “Though I think it’s a case of you reap what you sow with all the times you’ve hit my poor head.”

“Brat.” Levi nipped at Eren’s ear.

Eren could feel the smile on the bastard’s lips when they lingered against his forehead for a moment, and even though he wasn’t so tired anymore, not with the way his pulse raced and his thoughts skittered about, he found himself zoning out a bit as they rode along, his mind too unfocused to hold onto anything for long. He gave into it and let the thoughts, the voices, wash through him and hoped that something would make sense soon.

He was snapped out of his daze when there was another sense of things slowing down, and more hands patting at him. It took a moment to have the words to make sense, but he got the impression that Hange had checked him again. “Good, because we need to cover enough distance today.” Levi sounded irked by the situation, yet he held Eren close. “So unless you have some other miraculous shit to give him, we need to get our asses into gear.”

“Hmm, I think *someone* just wants us to find somewhere safe for the night so he can have fun with another person’s ass, but whatever.” Hange flashed a smile and then scrambled for the nearest tree before either Levi or Mikasa could react.

“*You* wanted her to live,” Mikasa snarled as she stomped after the scientist.

“Don’t go reminding me,” Levi grumbled as he kicked his horse into a trot again. “Must have been fucking dosed myself.”

“You wish.” Eren dug his fingers into the back of his neck and wished… wished… dammit, why wouldn’t this stuff stop already? “You’re just fucked up on your own.”

“Huh.” There was a flash of pain as something hit his left ear. “Like you need any shitty drugs to mess you up any more.”

Eren whined as he fumbled for the hood of his cloak to help protect his head. “Sadistic bastard.”

“Little shit.”

“Clean freak.”

“Cradle robber.”

“Ethnocentric pissant.” Eren yelped when nails dug into his right thigh. “Fine, add sore loser to the list as well.”

“For someone who’s lived for so long, you’re one hell of an immature brat.” Levi sighed and dug his chin into Eren’s shoulder. “That shot’s really helping, hmm?”

Eren shivered as the suspicion of if he lost his focus on Levi, on the *now*, that his thoughts…. He drew in a deep breath, the air laden with the scent of horses, trees, trampled grass and *Levi*, and reached up to thread his fingers through his lover’s hair. Levi startled at the touch, firm body tense behind his for a moment before it relaxed. “Just… keep talking, okay? Even if it’s to tell me how much of an idiot I am, keep talking.” He didn’t want to beg, not when… no begging, not now.

Maybe Levi heard something in his voice, though, because the grumpy bastard trailed a hand along his outstretched arm and snorted once, the sound soft enough to almost be drowned out by the noise of the horse’s hooves striking the ground. “I can go on about that any time, brat. How about I tell you what happened during the Karanese campaign, yeah? I don’t think we’re ever going to be allowed back in that dome again, and it’s all the fault of Erwin and Hange.” Levi damn near spat out those two’s names, yet there was a hint of amusement in his deep voice all the same.

Resting his head back against his lover’s shoulder, Eren made a happy sound of encouragement and forced his scattered attention on the story that Levi begun for him.

*******

Levi eyed the entrance to the cave with some trepidation. “It can get messy as fuck if we’re trapped in there for a fight.”

A low rumbled built in Ymir’s throat for a couple of seconds before she spoke. “Look, it smells clean so I say we take a chance – there’s a cave-in a couple hundred meters back so if those bastards try to sneak up on us, I think we’ll hear them shifting a couple of tons of rubble about first. The entrance is narrow enough we can defend it long enough for daylight to fry their asses, so it’s a win-win, unless you want to spend the night out in the open and chance the rain.”

He glanced at Mikasa, who had just come out of the dark opening, her eyes glowing but her demeanor otherwise placid; even as he watched, her eyes changed back to their normal shade of dark brown. “It looks all right to me, other than a few disgruntled cats we scared out and a small colony of bats further back.”

“They going to be a problem?”

“Not if we leave them alone.” Mikasa dusted off her hands and shrugged. “They don’t taste good so Sasha *shouldn’t* bother them.”

“Aw, I heard that!” the glutton in question complained, already busy munching on a ration bar. Bits of sticky… whatever nasty stuff that went into those foul things clung to her face as she spoke with her mouth full. “I just asked about some fresh food!”

“You wanted us to go a couple of kilometers out of our way for some fish,” Levi snapped. “Eat some damn bugs if you’re so sick of rations.”

Mikasa let out a sigh as she passed by him on the way back to the horses. “There’s a decent lake by the camp, all right? If we get there early enough tomorrow, we can do some fishing,” she offered to Sasha and Connie, who looked ready to jump in at some point to defend his girlfriend’s honor.

It was pathetic how so little appeared to cheer up the girl, but Sasha was all smiles once more. “Great! That’s something to look forward to, then!”

Levi clicked his tongue in disgust and looked back at the entrance to the tunnel, where Ymir and Krista stood; Krista with an expectant expression on her face and Ymir a bit more pissed off. “Well? We staying here for the night or we camping out?” the vampire demanded to know.

“We’ll go inside, and if we end up pinned down, I’m tossing your ass out first as a distraction so the rest of us can get away,” Levi warned.

“Such a sweetheart,” Ymir growled out while Krista made a rude gesture his way; huh, someone was growing a bit snarky the longer her girlfriend went about with her head still attached….

While on the topic of ‘snark’ – Levi went looking for his own lover, whom he’d left in Hange’s demented clutches; the shot she’d given Eren earlier seemed to have helped, but Eren had been quieter than usual for the rest of the day, even if he didn’t have any more spells where he’d tried to injure himself or others.

He found the two by the horses, with Mikasa and Jean hovering nearby – well, Mikasa hovering near Eren and Jean hovering near Mikasa. Hange hummed as she checked Eren’s pupils and then did something with her left hand, moving so fast that the motion was little more than a blur.

Eren let out a yelp and caught Hange’s hand as it pulled away, one of the cat barrettes clasped in her grip. “What?”

“Ah! Isn’t it amazing how fast we can move?” Hange seemed oblivious to a furious Mikasa glaring figurative daggers at her, claws held out at her sides as if she was ready to carve into the lunatic at any moment. “Your reaction time is still a little off, but not too bad. Compared to how it was this morning, I think the stuff is finally burning out of your system.” Then she let out a yelp of her own.

“About time,” Levi muttered as he snatched back the barrette. “I was ready to force a mugful of my blood down his throat if there wasn’t any improvement.”

Eren made a gagging sound, most likely at the thought of having to drink Levi’s blood, the same time he tucked back the lock of messy hair that had fallen into his eyes, while Hange made a faint moaning sound and rocked back and forth. “What the hell?” In the process of reaching out to slip the barrette into the tangled mess that was Eren’s hair, Levi instead snatched at his lover and pulled an equally confused Eren close.

“I think the lack of feeding is starting to get to her,” Mikasa explained as she edged Jean behind her, which was almost funny to watch since he had a couple of inches on her. “It looks as if Ymir and I will have to take her out later tonight and see if we can’t find some wild Malform or something – we scented some about an hour or so back.”

Levi thought he’d picked up something, but he’d been focused on Eren at the time; it explained why Mikasa and Ymir had pushed for them to spend the night in the cave, since the last thing they needed was dealing with the bastards already on their trail and a new hassle on top of it. “Whatever, just as long as she’s less of a pain in the ass than normal.”

Hange paused in pushing up her glasses to give Levi an annoyed look. “For someone who’s getting it on a semi-regular basis, you could be a bit nicer, you know.” When he bared his teeth at her, she sighed and shook her head. “What am I thinking? I must be sniffing too much of that drug or something.”

He lunged at the lunatic, but Eren shoved him back before he could get his claws on her. “No, you made me turn her, you don’t get to kill her anytime soon,” his lover insisted. “Should have thought of that when you had your chance to get rid of her the first time.”

“Yay, cutie! Show him you’re not a complete doormat!”

For a moment Eren’s hand relaxed against Levi’s chest and his golden eyes fluttered shut, and then he shook his head. “No, you get to suffer for that decision,” he mumbled as he pushed Levi away from the cackling madwoman.

Having the feeling that he was going to regret that moment of weakness for a very, very long time, Levi latched onto Eren’s wrist and twisted his hold on it until he was dragging the little shit along. “Head all clear for once?”

Eren seemed to give the question some serious thought, his head cocked to the side and his lips pressed into a thin line. “I… I think so.” He dug in his heels and made Levi come to a halt. “You know… there’s just going to be all this fighting for-“

Having a feeling where this was headed, Levi yanked the idiot close with his left hand and threaded his right through the soft hair of Eren’s nape. “No. *No*. Don’t even tell me you still have any moronic thoughts in your idiot head about giving up.” When Eren stared at him with the light gone from those beautiful eyes of his, Levi forced out a slow breath and shook his head. “Look, I can’t stop you from doing something I consider *so* *fucking* *stupid* like giving yourself up. It’s your choice. But I thought you’ve spent all these years fighting, all this time doing whatever you could to fuck up those assholes’ plans so why is all I’m hearing from you lately talk about giving up, huh?” He shook Eren a little then, desperate to get some sense into the brat.

“I-“ Eren closed his eyes as a whine escaped from him, as he rested his head against Levi’s. “It’s all… da drin ist alles durcheinander.” He let out a shuddering breath and wrapped his arms around Levi’s shoulders as if desperate for support. “It’s garbled and… blood, blood and dying, everyone dying and… and I can’t shake the thought of how it would be better if I just… if I just… *stopped*.”

Part of Levi wanted to lash out, to rage and swear and shake his lover until Eren stopped spouting such bullshit. He didn’t know if it was Hange’s influence or what that made him push that part down deep and hug Eren closer, to press his lips against the brat’s forehead and comb his fingers through the tangled mess he adored; when he came across a barrette he had to smile. “You know it’s the shitty drugs, don’t you? When have you ever felt this way before leaving Trost?”

Eren continued to hold onto him and began to shiver as if cold. “It’s all messed up. One moment it’s now and the next… I don’t know,” Eren admitted. “I just… it helps, having you.”

“Then a good thing you’re fucking stuck with me.” Levi used his grip on his lover’s hair to pull Eren’s head back enough to look at him. “I’m not letting those bastards get you, okay? You’re stuck with me.”

The admission wrung a tremulous smile from Eren as the tremors stilled; he reached out to cup Levi’s face in return. “But I was hoping for a Chairman.” His tone was teasing, but he stared at Levi with such relief that there was no way that Levi could take the joke as serious.

Levi clicked his tongue a couple of times while he schooled his expression into something suitably bland. “Please, you got something much better.”

The brat’s smile strengthened a bit more as he leaned forward as much as Levi’s hold on his hair would allow. “Really? I think I need some-“

“Okay, the sun’s about to set and you two are being all lovey-dovey out in the open? Do you *want* the vampires to find your asses or what? Why do I even bother with this shit?” Ymir’s annoyed voice cut off Eren and set Levi’s nerves on edge; maybe, just maybe, they really didn’t need her in the grand scale of things.

Growling as he let go of Eren’s hair, Levi scowled at the pain the ass and jabbed at her with a finger spouting a very sharp claw. “I’m wondering the same thing in regards to you, and don’t say another word if you don’t want your precious UV cape to sprout holes,” he warned when it looked as if she was about to say something else.

“You know, I think part of the reason why I’m so tempted to give in is if I allow myself to be captured, no more of this crap,” Eren admitted as he fell in step beside Levi as they made their way to the cave.

Levi considered that for a moment, especially since the closer they got to the cave, the more they could hear Sasha and Jean arguing over whose turn it was to gather firewood and who was on latrine duty. “Fuck, I’m about ready to switch sides with you,” he agreed.

*******

Fatima continued to check on the vials while Zyanya argued yet again with Zeki. “You should have let me send out the Mutates last night – they could have found Pedro and the others!”

The older vampire gave Zyanya a cool look before he shook his head and answered the same as he’d done every other time. “And risk losing them? Then we’d be out seven of us and even more Mutates. No, Jäger has proven to be too difficult to catch to risk being impulsive, we proceed with caution.”

“We’re never going to catch him if we sit here in the dark!” Zyanya made a hissing sound as she threw her hands up in the air. “We’re so close to tracking him down and now we’re wasting time!”

Zeki’s eyes flared red and he bared a hint of fang at the impetuous woman in warning. “He’s not going to disappear on us, not this time. We’ve flushed him out and there’s every indication that he knows what we’re after, that he’s heading ‘home’.” Zeki’s lean face began to soften into something resembling a smile, a rare expression for him. “The question isn’t if we’ll capture him, but when and where.”

And ‘who’, Fatima thought to herself as she made sure the vials were capped shut. ‘Who’ would capture Jäger, a prize that would exceed all of the vast riches they’d collected over the millennia, a prize so precious that all of them would give up their riches and vast comforts, their stashes of gems and art and technology. A prize that would endear them to the Elder forever – a forever that would be much, much more bearable once she’d refined the poor boy’s blood. Was it any wonder that Pedro, Indira and the rest had gone so quiet?

“What if it’s a trick on his part? Perhaps he’s headed for a ship and is planning to leave the continent, like before. We might have spooked his sister-“

Zeki cut of Zyanya with a curt wave of his hand. “There are safer routes for them to take if that was the case. No, they’ve always tried to protect Grisha’s research from us, and I doubt that this is an exception.” He stared past her to the two forms skulking in the shadows. “Isn’t that right?”

Reiner shrugged while Bertolt appeared to do his best to melt into the darkness. “If Mikasa really was fleeing with Eren, then she’d have grabbed him and left everyone else behind, she wouldn’t bring that captain along even if he could fight. Another person is another way we can track ‘em down and she knows that.” His eyes flared bright and he clenched a fist as he spoke about the ‘captain’, his hatred plain for the new hybrid.

“Yes, so they’re not disappearing just yet.” Zeki seemed please and toyed with the end of his braid. “All we need to do is wait for our colleagues to join with us and then we’ll begin the hunt.”

Fatima doubted it would be as simple as that, but Zeki was the elder on this mission – not by much, but that century or so gave him the edge in status that he needed to take the lead. For the most part she wished him the headache of dealing with so many forceful personalities, but…. She stroked her fingertips along the top of her vials and thought about having Jäger’s blood, of what she could do with it, what it could do for her.

“Muh-Miriam wants to know if we’re going to spend another night here.”

“If she wants an answer, she can ask me herself,” Zeki informed Bertolt, causing the poor boy to flush and duck his head. Reiner smoothed his hand along his lover’s back before they left to relay the message to the imperious vampire; oh yes, dear Miriam was happy to have a few ‘lackeys’ beneath her in years to boss around for the foreseeable future.

Seki let out a sigh as if he had similar thoughts to Fatima. “You know she’s only going to get worse the longer she’s cooped up in here,” she warned her ‘leader’ as she motioned to the rather bare ‘room’ that she and Zyanya had claimed for their own; at least this section of the ‘cave’ was less musty and damp than others and had some decent airflow.

“If Yuia won’t keep her under control then I’ll nip at her throat myself – the last thing we need is squabbling amongst ourselves.” Zeki slid his hands among the voluminous sleeves of his grey robe and flashed his fangs for a moment. “Now I suggest-“

Before he could issue out a set of orders, Hal came rushing into the room, cloaked in UV gear except for his mask, which he’d pushed aside. Struggling in his grasp was a smaller figure also cloaked in protective gear, and it took a moment for a familiar scent to reach Fatima’s senses. “Indira?” She wasn’t the only one stunned to see the usually elegant vampire appear dragged before them, the UV gear stained with mud and grass as if she’d had a difficult journey to their base.

Indira hissed at Hal as if to be released, but the burly man refused to let go. “I found her lurking outside; Nadia’s checking to see if anyone’s followed her and will report back soon, while Reiner and Bertolt are taking over for our watch.”

“Good.” Zeki nodded in approval, and Zyanya shifted closer to get a better view of Indira as she was stripped of the protective gear; she was even more bedraggled without, her long hair tangled and dark outfit torn. There was the stench of dried blood and sweat to her, of desperation and rage. “What happened?” Zeki’s eyes burned as he stared at her, the words an order rather than a question.

Indira bared her fangs at him but didn’t hiss, not even when Hal shoved her to her knees. “We-“

“We? I don’t see anyone other than you,” Zeki interrupted as his hands slid free of his robes.

Some of Indira’s defiance faded in light of evident rage simmering beneath his placid mask; it was rare for Zeki to let his famous control slip, and when he did… well, Fatima would enjoy the show, as long as it wasn’t directed her way. Indira wasn’t an enemy, but she could be a pain at times, one to leave behind messes that had to be cleaned up by others.

“We… those of us who had received word about the hybrid, about *Jäger*, had grown concerned about him slipping free,” Indira continued in a much more placating manner. “It… well, we, Pedro, Jonah, Anna-Maria… *all* of us decided that it would be best if we went after him rather than wait.”

Ah, so it was as she’d feared. Fatimah cradled a vial of sedative in her hand as she fought to hold back a sigh. Across the room, Zeki’s dark eyes narrowed while Zyanya let out a curse. “I didn’t send out that message so you fools could ruin-“ Zyanya fell quiet at a single gesture from Zeki, her face flush and eyes red but head a respectful bow; there were reasons she had been included on this important hunt and her ability to follow orders was one of them. A shame that Indira didn’t seem to learn well from others….

“So you thought that you could capture the boy, when he’s proven to take down some of our best fighters in the past?” The muscles next to Zeki’s left eye began to twitch. “When he has his sister, the traitor and another hybrid at his side?”

Indira shuddered as she bowed her head, her tangled hair falling onto the dirt floor. “It’s… there’s more than that – there was another hybrid, the girl the traitor has been dragging along.” For a moment her claws dug into the ground as a snarl escaped her. “And humans as well, though they are barely worth the attention. No, it was Jäger and the traitor who tore us apart, who fought like demons.”

Something ancient and dark slipped past Zeki’s lips as he swiped a clawed hand over his eyes. “Of course they did, it’s how they’ve survived for so long.” His hand dropped down and twitched at his side, as if it yearned to latch onto something and tear it apart. “What possessed you to believe for even a moment that you could take them? They always fight best when cornered, which is why we need to face them *together*.”

The last few words were spoken with enough emphasis that Indira flinched and huddled onto her heels. “I… I told Jonah about what Fatima had said, about the drugs. He tweaked the sedative and believed it would work, but by the time I had a clear shot at Jäger, it was too late.” Anger twisted her delicate features. “That and the one neophyte got in my way. Both of those Corps trash did, but I had the Mutates tear apart the one.”

Fatima had to force her hand to unclench around the vial before she crushed it. “Jonah created a sedative? Do you have a sample?” The fool – he had a background in chemistry but that only went so far when dealing with a situation like this, when affecting someone’s mind.

Judging from the way Indira was quick to hang her head, to protect her throat, the answer was ‘no’. “Ah… well, Jonah didn’t have the time nor the supplies to make much of the stuff, and those filthy captains interfered. I didn’t have a chance to get it back before I had to escape.”

Indira’s head remained bowed, so she missed the flash of emotion across Zeki’s face, emotion that made Fatima step back and Zyanya cast her eyes downward in quick deference. “Will this be a problem?” he asked, while Fatima did her best to still her frantic heartbeat.

“I… it would be easier to tell if I had a sample,” she admitted. “Anything that throws Jäger off his balance can be a benefit to us, especially since he should be feeling the effects of the earlier dosage. There’s a danger of the drugs interacting or interfering with each other since I don’t know what Jonah used, but… well, Jäger has a very powerful healing factor so I think it’ll be all right. It just adds a few more unknowns into the equation that we’ll deal with when they arise.” Unknowns that she didn’t need at the moment, not when the boy was so important.

He swept out his left hand as if to accept her answers. “Thank you for your honesty.” He was still for a moment, his eyes cast downward as he regarded Indira and the minute trembles which wracked her petite body. His lack of movement prompted the same from Fatima, Zyanya and Hal, who waited to see what he would do before taking any action of their own; Fatima knew she couldn’t take the older vampire down on her own, not without help, yet she was uncertain if Zyanya or Hal would join her if she made a move.

So when Zeki’s body flowed into motion to kneel before Indira, the three of them twitched in response but otherwise didn’t move, determined to wait things out before they were forced to either attack or defend themselves. Relief washed through Fatima when she noticed how the elder vampire appeared to focus his attention, his *ire* on Indira. “You see, that is what is called cooperation. Dear Fatima accepts the situation and works to better it for all of us, to adapt, not to promote herself.” He reached out to slide the fingers of his right hand through the tangled mess of Indira’s hair. “Zyanya does what she can to assist Fatima, to provide necessary information to the rest of us. The two of them could have run off on their own and faced Jäger, could have attempted to capture him and brought him back for their own glory, but they didn’t. Hal and Nadia could have interrogated you alone and kept what they learned to themselves, but they didn’t. *They* know that the only way we will succeed is as a whole, and as a whole we will benefit.” A glowing red bled into his eyes as he spoke. “They aren’t putting all of us at risk because of their sense of greed,” he spat out as he jerked her head upright.

A low whine escaped from Indira as she met his eyes; her hands scrambled at the ground but remained downward rather than lashing out. Zeki continued to stare at her while he waved his left hand in a negligent manner through the air. “Leave us.”

The words had just been spoken when Fatima and the others were out the ‘door’; she wasn’t about to stick around to witness Indira’s punishment even if she felt the woman deserved it. Oh no, she would rather not risk being drawn into that rage if she could help it. Miriam and Yuia were hovering outside and quick to step out of their way.

“So, I suppose I’ll never find out what Anna-Maria did with that necklace now, will I?” Miriam fussed with the front of her black tunic as she frowned at nothing in particular.

“No, not unless you’ve gained some skill at communing with the departed,” Fatima informed her. “But if you’re so curious….” She held up a clawed hand and grinned.

Miriam rolled her eyes as she shook her head. “I think you’ve been playing with drugs too long, my dear.” She made a point to look past Fatima as if she was of no consequence. “Am I to assume we won’t be leaving tonight?”

Zyanya cast a nervous glance behind her, toward the room where screams could be heard. “I’m thinking… if Jäger has the traitor and three other hybrids with him, then we’ll need a better strategy. Indira and the others shouldn’t have been so easy to defeat.”

“The other one’s with them?” Yuia cursed in fluid Egyptian and ran his hands over his smooth head. “Why is it when we finally are ready to move against him, the damn spawn begins to act like a proper vampire?”

“Because Fate loves to make things interesting.” Fatima urged the others further away from Zeki and the punishment he meted out, just in case they disturbed the elder. “But it’s good, yes? He’s finally embracing who he is.” He was finally realizing that human could provide little more than sustenance, that one could only rely upon one’s own kind.

“There’s other ways he could do that, ways that won’t lead to me looking at my own liver, but I suppose it’s the end result that matters,” Yuia grumbled, as always one to complain a little and then see the bright side; after all, it was why he ended up paired with the demanding Miriam, who could wear down a less persevering soul.

Zyanya rubbed her right hand along her golden bracelet as she flinched at a particularly loud wail that echoed about the stone walls. “The important thing to remember is that he just created them. His sister has always been an imposing challenge, but these other two… despite their hybrid strength, they’re true neophytes. “

“And what is the old parable about a master’s true challenge being at the hand of a beginner,” Fatima reminded her companion. “Still, I understand what you’re saying.” The neophytes were still so *human*, in mindset if not abilities, and humans… humans were weak. Were weak and limited in thought and perceptions.

Miriam chuckled and tugged on Yuia’s left arm so he would follow her down a separate tunnel. “Such pathetic babes, to grasp at immortality to only have it torn from them. I want to see their faces as it sinks in, their true deaths.”

“Isn’t she a cheerful one,” Zyanya muttered as they continued on their way; Fatima shook her head, a slight smile on her face since she was well-used to Miriam’s quirks. “So what now?”

Fatima glanced back at Hal, who had followed them as if a silent shadow. “We might as well go wait to see what news Nadia returns with, as I’ve a feeling that there won’t be much else to do and it would be wise to prove ourselves useful to Zeki until his temper cools.”

The younger vampires nodded and followed her to the surface.

*******

Hange hesitated for a moment as she touched her gauntlet.

“You won’t need it – might as well take it off,” Mikasa told her. “That and anything else that will weigh you down. We need to travel fast and light, since we’ll be going some distance.”

Okay, so there went the gauntlet, which took a bit of effort to remove; it felt weird, not having the twisted metal wrapped around her shoulder and left arm, but Hange had to admit that she hadn’t really used it at all during the day. The couple of times that she’d fallen from the trees, she’d used her claws to get back up, and after watching Eren, Mikasa and Ymir the last few weeks, she had a pretty good idea of what the appendages could do. A gauntlet would only really come in handy if she wanted to swing about, but since she could leap such a far distance with her increased strength… well, six of one, half a dozen of another.

She left behind the belts and their various pouches as well, even though the scientist within her cringed at the thought of all the data she might collect along the way. On top of them she folded her cloak, since she didn’t need it for its warmth. Yes, she loved how well this new body adapted to, well, *everything*; humanity really did have a lot to worry about how much more powerful vampires and hybrids were as an evolutionary creation.

“So, ready now?” She held her arms up at her sides and spun around for Mikasa and Ymir’s approval; she noticed that Levi stood back a little farther, with his arms wrapped snuggly around his cutie. Aww, someone was being a bit protective, wasn’t he? As if she would snack on… on… Okay, yeah, time to head out.

“I think she’s as good as you’ll ever get her,” Levi called out. “Take her and give us some peace and quiet.”

“You just want to ravish your cutie without us here,” Hange called out as she headed for the cave’s entrance, and blew her friend a kiss when he gave her the finger.

“Stop fondling Rebel and watch the damn entrance, okay? And keep him away from it or else all that hard work earlier was for nothing,” Ymir called out as they left, and waved off Levi’s rude response. “Let’s do this shit,” she muttered once they were outside, moving at a fast pace for the nearest tree.

“There were some hogs along the way, a couple of kilometers back, so maybe the Malform are headed that way. It won’t hurt to try there first,” Mikasa offered.

Ymir frowned for a couple of seconds. “At least we’ll know where a secondary source is if we can’t find any Malform, and double-back for them.”

Hange hopped along behind them, her stomach rumbling and mouth salivating at the thought of food. “Ah, while I appreciate the exercise, couldn’t we just have asked for a volunteer back at the cave?” Mikasa and Ymir came across more as annoyed than anything at the moment, and she knew that it wasn’t ideal, leaving everyone behind without two of their best fighters.

Ymir made a hissing sound while Mikasa cast a glare over her shoulder at Hange, a golden-eyed one at that. “*No*. The first feeding is important, you don’t want it to be with humans,” she insisted.

“Yeah, it sorta defines your taste buds,” Ymir explained as she leapt onto the next tree. “If you’re gonna be feeding off of Malform, it’s best to start off of Malform. Hogs’ll do in a pinch, because at least it’s not human, and then when you do feed on a Malform… it’s like going from swill to ambrosia.”

“Whereas if you start on humans, then you’ll be around them all the time, smelling them, hearing their heartbeats, knowing how they taste… it’s not good.” Mikasa shook her head hard enough to cause her hair to fly about. “It’s bad enough when we’re really hungry, but if that’s what you’re *used* to, then you’ll be a danger to them.”

Hange considered that for a couple of minutes. “But Eren fed from us back in Trost.”

“Because he had no choice,” Mikasa reminded her, her tone sharp as if the fact caused her much anger.

“Yeah, and he’s been feeding off of Malform and vampires for centuries.” Ymir smacked her lips a couple of times. “Malform blood is like… oh, a nice juicy steak, whereas human blood is one of those pathetic protein bars of yours – it keeps you going, but tastes like shit. He’ll put up with human blood only if there’s no other choice, but he’d much rather snack on a Malform. That’s what we’re trying to set up for you, too.”

All right, that made sense. “So why not give me some of your blood, then?”

Both Mikasa and Ymir shuddered in response. “Because vampire and hybrid blood is even better than Malform blood,” Ymir explained. “It’s why we didn’t keep forcing it down Eren’s throat despite him being dosed again – why he freaks out when Levi teases about making him drink his blood. We give you our blood for your first time, and you might not want to settle for Malform blood after that.”

“We only try to feed each other when it’s absolutely necessary; that or when we’re fighting, then the blood helps with healing and providing extra strength.” Mikasa pressed her scarf against her face as she stared ahead, her eyes shadowed as if she recalled something painful.

Hange remembered Ymir telling her that vampires and hybrids tried to avoid feeding from each other too much, she guessed that she hadn’t thought of the whole ‘taste’ thing when it came to feeding. “This is more complicated than I’d believed.”

“That’s life for you, or whatever passes as life for us.” Ymir paused for a moment so she could take a few deep breaths. “Think we have to go this way.” She changed direction a little more northeast.

“Guess I could have been turned at a better time, what with us being out in the middle of nowhere and all.” Hange laughed a little, and noticed how Ymir and Mikasa failed to join in. “Ah, I thought it was funny.”

The two were silent for about a minute, and then Ymir sighed. “Look, I’m not going to say too much, considering how I’ve been turned and I had Eren turn Krista for me. But yeah, running about like this to feed your ass? Not the best timing.” Her eyes flared red as she stared off into the distance.

“I’d rather be back there making sure Eren and Jean’s safe,” Mikasa admitted. “But you’ll be a danger to them if you’re not fed soon, and fed properly.”

Ouch, wasn’t that a bit of a blow to the ego? Hange pushed up her glasses and concentrated on keeping up with the two women for a minute. “I suppose that really does explain why you didn’t just try to feed me yourselves, then. Still, there must be some benefit gained from Eren turning-“

“*Not* Eren,” Mikasa insisted, cutting her off before she could even finish what she was about to say. “You can thank Levi for the fact that you’re still alive, since he made Eren turn you.”

Was it Hange’s imagination, or did Mikasa sound a bit bitter about that fact? It did explain the comment she heard earlier, when Eren said that Levi had ‘made’ him turn her. She’d thought at the time that perhaps Eren had turned her just because he knew that Levi cared for her, but apparently her sweetie had played a more important role in it than she’d thought.

“Oh, I will, by turning back on those vampires the shit they’re shooting into your brother, how about that?” She gave Mikasa a smug grin as she hopped along the tree branches. “Think I’m worth the effort for a bit of exercise now?”

Mikasa came to a stop for a moment to stare at her in wonder, while Ymir cackled. “Not bad, Dr. Who, not bad. Can see why Napoleon likes your ass so much.”

“Hmm, it’s not *my* ass he likes, not when he has his cutie.” That made Ymir laugh even harder.

Mikasa shuddered as if in horror and caught up with them. “Enough talking, let’s find some Malform,” she insisted before charging past the two of them. When Hange cocked an eyebrow Ymir’s way, the vampire shrugged and flipped her right hand about.

“Eh, she’s moody when she’s not able to fuss over Rebel, you’ll get used to it.”

Hange supposed she would, as well as a lot of things over the next few centuries – supposing she lived through the next few weeks.

*******

“Can you really see much of anything out there?”

Levi looked away from the entrance of the cave and accepted the mug of coffee that Rico handed to him; it was at times like these that he craved tea so bad he could knife someone over the fact, yet he forced himself to nod as he accepted the beverage and mutter ‘thanks’. “Well, the damn rain wasn’t helping much, but you’d be surprised.” It reminded him a bit of Tartarus, the world outside; the dome had always existed in a twilight state due to poor lighting and funding, the Chairman not about to waste money the infrastructure when people could get by with a bit of darkness. If that hadn’t been the perfect metaphor for the dome… but there’d been an odd sort of beauty in the shadows, in what was often obscured and left to the imagination. And there’d been so much there that one really didn’t want to see, that it was best *not* to see. The wilderness at night reminded Levi of that, and even though he could see it so much more clearly now, the post-rain fog was a veil over much of it, and shadows still fell to hamper night vision.

“Fuck, I mustn’t have gotten enough sleep or something, I’m thinking all stupid,” he muttered before he sipped the coffee. As he lowered the mug, he glanced aside at Rico, who crouched near the entrance. “Speaking of sleep, shouldn’t you be getting some?”

“I tried… guess I’m too used to taking shifts.” There were dark rings beneath her eyes, but otherwise the Engineer appeared awake, a few faint bruises on her face from last night’s fight, her left hand swollen and wrapped but otherwise functional as she held on to her own mug of coffee; that must have taken a good bit of nanos and blood to speed up the healing. “I’ll feel better when the unholy trio return.”

Levi had to chuckle a little and checked to see if Krista had heard that; she appeared to be talking to Eren about something and fussing with the small fire that kept the coffee warm. “See you’re picking up on the nickname habit.”

“Well, if I’m going to be stuck with ‘Dollface’, might as well get some of my own back.” Rico grimaced as if to show what she thought of her new name. “But yeah, I’ll sleep better when we’re back to full strength. I don’t know how those kids are doing it.”

“They’re exhausted.” Sasha and Connie were curled up together and so still that they might be dead to the world, while Jean seemed a bit more restless and would shift about now and then. “They’ve picked up on the habit of crashing whenever they get the chance.”

Rico snorted, the sound rather inelegant and at odds with her neat appearance, the bruises aside. “That and riding as if Malforms are nipping at our heels for how many days straight.”

“Hmm.” Levi drank some more coffee while Krista patted Eren on the shoulder and got up to rejoin the watch at the cave’s entrance. “So what, the Ymir fanclub meeting come to an end?”

Krista smiled in the face of his sarcasm and settled into a comfortable position. “You should know I’m about the last person you have to worry about with him – I mean, we’re not even each other’s types.” She spoke in such a condescending manner that Levi ached to toss what remained of his coffee at her, but forced aside the anger. “He was letting me vent a little about Ymir, how she just decides things and then goes off and does them. She’s been alone a bit too long.” Something dark flashed across Krista’s face and set a harsh angle to her jaw, something that probably didn’t bode well for Ymir.

“What, you mean with her winning personality she didn’t have tons of-“ Something moving outside caught Levi’s attention and made him set aside his mug. He inhaled a deep breath as Krista scrambled to the side of the entrance, furious that a Malform could have snuck up like that, except… except….

“Is that them?” Rico whispered as she drew a blade with her right hand.

“I don’t think so, it doesn’t smell right,” Krista whispered back. “I think-“

Levi slashed his right hand through the air to shut them up as he continued to drag in deep breaths, his attention narrowed down to the large – too large – shape sauntering toward the cave. Huge. *Huge* It glowed so bright against the dark, like a flame, and its eyes…. They bored down at Levi above the dangling form it held in its mouth, some sort of… baby horse? No, hog? Baby hog? Whatever the fuck, the cat had some sort of supper in its mouth and apparently wanted a dry place to eat for the night. Hadn’t Ymir said something about the cave housing some cats? The vampire hadn’t mentioned those cats being *huge*.

The monstrosity came to a stop right in front of the cave, dropped its dinner and then let out a low rumble. Rico cursed and edged behind Levi, who felt the oddest sensation of the hair on the nape of his neck standing on edge, while Krista hiccupped before turning around and calling out Eren’s name at the top of her lungs.

Startled by the noise, Levi damn near jumped a few feet in the air and then glared at the idiot. “What the fuck?” Then it sunk in what she’d done. “No, don’t! Stay the hell away, get ba-“

While the baby MPs and Sasha began to wake up from the noise, a blur came to a stop in front of Levi, Krista and Rico; Eren, his eyes glowing as bright as the cat’s and his fangs on full display, stood just outside of the cave’s entrance and before the monstrosity. Levi made to grab at the moron, to drag him back, but Krista snatched at his arm and stopped him. “No, no, trust him, he’ll handle this!”

“He’ll get eaten!” Levi hissed.

“Just watch!” Krista ignored him and focused her attention on Eren instead. The brat continued his staring contest with the cat, the *huge* cat, neither looking away from each other, and after what felt to be an eternity, the cat began to rumble even lower, not quite a purring sound but not a growl, either. Eren’s shoulders slumped as the noise reverberated inside the cave.

“Okay, give it some space,” Eren ordered as he took a few slow steps back into the cavern.

“What the fuck?” Levi blinked a few times and thought he’d misheard that, but nope, Eren kept backing up and the damn cat picked up its supper and started to amble into the cave as if it belonged there.

“Uhm, is that a cat? Am I still sleeping?” Connie’s garbled voice rang out through the cave as Krista and Rico scrambled to get the frantic horses out of the monster’s way, while Eren continued to lead it further into their nighttime dwelling.

“No, it’s real so step the fuck aside,” Levi snapped as he trailed after the odd duo, his claws flexing as he tried to decide which of them he wanted to gut the most. Connie blinked at him a couple of times before letting out a high-pitched yelp and leaping back, then lunged to pull a bemused Sasha along with him. Jean was already pressed as close to the wall as possible, his blades held at the ready and mumbling about suicidal brats; Levi was right there with the Horseface in spirit.

Once they were about fifty meters or so away from where everyone had settled for the night, Eren sank down to his knees, his eyes still focused on the cat. It circled around him several times, the dead baby hog in its mouth, and while Levi held his breath, the cat curled up behind his lover’s back with the kill between its front paws and nuzzled its pale underbelly. Levi could only stare on in shock as the immense creature bared its fangs, his body lunging toward Eren, but before he could yank the suicidal idiot to safety, the cat tore into the hog.

“Someone’s hungry.” Eren shrugged off Levi’s hands and settled against the cat’s mottled grey, black and white side as if he was making himself comfortable, going so far as to unfurl his legs as he sat down. He reached out to stroke along the dense fur and smiled as he watched the cat bury its immense muzzle inside of the hog’s belly.

“… you have fucking lost it,” Levi whispered as he squatted as far away from the monster’s mouth while still keeping the *fucking* *moron*, whom for some reason he’d grown attached to, within reach. “Lost it!” he hissed. The sharp noise caused the cat to pause in eating long enough to turn its huge green eyes Levi’s way for a few seconds before it emitted a sharp rumble and then resumed its pork supper.

Eren made that annoyed huffing sound of his, all the while petting a damn cat the size of a *horse* as if it was a shitty lap cat. “What? This? It… uhm, she? She’s happy now, so what’s the problem?” The way he frowned at Levi just then, his eyes glowing in the dim light of the cave, made it clear that he thought that *Levi* was the crazy person.

And maybe he was, considering the recent life choices he was making. Feeling a headache coming on, Levi pressed his fingers against his temples and took a few deep, calming breaths – or tried to, but smelling hog guts and huge fucking cat musk just then *did* *not* *help*. “I thought you said that we – us, whatever we are – scared away cats. So why isn’t it, excuse me, *she*, scared?” His right eye began to twitch when a long as fuck, grey and black striped tail flopped around to land in Eren’s lap; the damn thing was thicker than his arm.

“Hmm, no, we tend to scare off some cats. Domesticated ones aren’t as troubled by us unless we get all hissy, and the same goes for some of the smaller wild ones.” The damn brat actually smiled as he skimmed his fingers along the tail. “I guess they believe they’re too small for us to really notice unless we get bitchy about it. Now the bigger ones… they’re the ones that Malform and even some vampires will hunt if they’re desperate enough, so they’ve learned to be more cautious. They tend to give us a bit more space.”

That was clearly what was happening here. “I can see that,” Levi replied in as bland a manner as possible, more to keep the cat from reacting than anything. Still, the world kept snapping back and forth between grey and color, and he’d clench his hands if he could if it weren’t for his claws. “Lots of space there.”

“Well, Flocki here isn’t your average Miezekatze, is she?” Eren crooned a little as he rubbed along the monstrosity’s side, which prompted that low grinding sound. “Once they reach a certain size, then it’s more of a ‘live and let live’ attitude between us since they’re too dangerous for the Malform to attack. I bet when Ymir found the cave, Flocki must have been out hunting or else the other cats wouldn’t have been scared off so easily.” He grinned as he looked over at Levi. “I don’t think she’s going to want to come back in here when they return – which also means, as long as Flocki’s here, I highly doubt there’s going to be any Malform or worse near us.”

“Someone’s going to be in a good mood, then.” Nice to know that Levi wouldn’t be the only one having a lousy night, but at least he didn’t have to worry about guarding the entrance anymore. “So what, we get along with these fuckers?” He shifted forward a little, only to freeze when ‘Flocki’ paused in crunching in some rib bones to once more fix him with an unblinking green gaze. “Guess not.” For some reason, he had an overwhelming urge to bare his teeth just then, which he fought against; yeah, bright idea to pick a fight with a damn cat who could take his head off with one bite.

Eren repeated that crooning sound from earlier and resumed his petting until the cat huffed and began eating again. “I’ve never had a problem with them. Mikasa usually gets along with them as well, but….” There was something about the way that Eren’s mouth twisted and he ducked his head without finishing what he had been about to say that caught Levi’s attention and tugged at his memory.

“Wait, wasn’t there something the other day about Siberia?” Hadn’t Mikasa mentioned a cat following them? Following *Eren*?

There was a sudden hissing sound as Eren shook his head; the cat paused in its decimation of the baby hog for a few seconds before it made a low grunting sound and continued. “Look, there was something off about that one, okay?” Eren tugged at a lock of hair and frowned. “I mean, yeah, they seem to like me, but – not gonna talk about it anymore.”

Oh yes, Levi *had* to get the rest of the story out of Mikasa now. “So is this one going to be a problem or what?”

“Flocki?” Eren tilted his head and managed to watch the hog continue to be torn apart without any apparent problems. “No, don’t think so – I’ll just stick around a little longer until she’s settled in and then we’ll leave her alone for the rest of the night.” He hummed a little as he once more ran his fingers along the monster’s tail and smiled when it flicked back and forth in response. “Why, what’s wrong?” His brows drew together as he looked up at Levi. “Don’t you like cats or something?”

Levi pinched the bridge of his nose and wondered why it was that he had to put up with so many lunatics in his life. “Eren… you are snuggled up to the biggest cat I’ve ever seen, one the size of a *fucking* *horse*. A fucking horse. What next? Sleeping with a pack of wolves or coyotes?”

“Don’t be stupid, dogs hate us,” the brat told him as if *Levi* was the crazy person just then, as if the *fucking* *horse-sized* *cat* part of the conversation was utterly irrelevant. “It’s why the vampires wiped out most of them.”

He couldn’t help it, Levi opened the palm of his right hand and smacked it several times as hard as he could into his forehead, because it was too much effort to get up and walk over to the nearest stone wall. The action did nothing for his headache, but he did feel a little bit better; when he looked up, it was to see two sets of huge, glowing eyes staring at him, one honey-gold, the other glass-green, and damn if they didn’t appear almost identical. “No wonder they like you so much,” he muttered.

“What?”

“I know this is a mistake, because almost every conversation with you leaves me confused, pissed off or both on some level, but why did the vampires wipe out dogs?” He was going to regret asking that question, he just knew it.

The brat took to scowling at him, while ‘Flocki’ resumed her nasty hog dinner. “Because back after the collapse, some humans figured out that dogs reacted to the presence of Malform. There weren’t many of them around back then, as a lot were left to fend for themselves due to the lack of food, but some were still kept on as guard dogs and for protection.” The pissed-off look on Eren’s face changed into something much more contemplative and closed off as he seemed to lose himself into memories. “Mikasa and I tried to approach any unknown settlements during the day because of them, but… there were a few times when we ran into trouble because of the guard dogs reacting to us. It… it wasn’t good.” He scrubbed at his face a couple of times, his eyes gone dark and expression gaunt, before he shook his head; Levi wanted to shift closer, to touch, and then ‘Flocki’s’ tail damn near whapped him in the face.

“I heard that some disease wiped them out, all except for those stupid yapping fluffballs you see in some of the richer domes,” he commented as he glared at ‘Flocki’. The cat opened one eye at him for a few seconds before resuming munching some more on a hind leg.

Eren shook his head. “No, the story about some new strain of distemper came out right around when the cities were being repopulated, and the only breeds that were ‘immune’ to it were the ones too inbred to recognize anything… well, not human.” He rubbed at the back of his neck as he petted the cat. “Lot of people released their pets into the wild rather than let them be rounded up and put to sleep, and Mikasa and I saw their offspring in the wild. Some bred with wolves so you have this new breed of coyotes running around. Or what you call coyotes, at least.”

Growing up, Levi had cause to hate a lot of people; there were those shitstains who had used his mother, there had been Kenny for abandoning him, the bastards running Tartarus and the bastards there who thought they could take advantage of him, the lazy assholes in the MP, basically every Chairman and Minister he came across…. It wasn’t until he met a certain honey-eyed brat that he’d learned that the true source of all that rage and bile should be the shadow puppet-masters behind it all, the immortals who had been fucking things up for millennia.

Edging closer to the shitty cat that thought it was Eren’s pet – when he got another baleful blast of green, Levi risked baring some fang as he draped an arm over *his* brat until the damn thing rumbled for a second or two and resumed its meal – Levi made himself comfortable next to his lover and had to admit, the dual sensation of being wrapped by both Eren’s and the cat’s warmth was comforting. “Okay, I don’t care if I have to put up with Ymir, fucking huge cats with horrible table manners, baby asswipes or Erwin’s insane plans, just so long as there are vampires to kill.”

Eren snuggled closer and dared to use the ‘Flocki’s’ tail to brush the bottom of Levi’s chin; it was official, the brat was the most insane person in Levi’s life, which was saying something. “You left out Mikasa.”

“No I didn’t,” Levi growled as he flicked the brat’s left ear. “I figured if I’m putting up with her for centuries, I’m so going to make you pay for it.”

That earned him a faint snarl which for some reason ‘Flocki’ ignored, the traitor, and Levi took great delight in silencing it with a kiss. Hmm, note to self – to earn some quality time with an insane lover, just curl up next to a huge-ass cat. When he managed to haul a whining Eren onto his lap without any interruptions except for the sounds of bones being cracked, he chuckled to himself and thought maybe ‘Flocki’ wasn’t so bad after all.

*******

Rough translations:

Still tired. Go to the bar without me

So cheerful, you are.

It’s all messed up inside.

*******

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