chapter eight

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make a shadow

*******

Krista lay stretched out on top of Ymir, warm and drowsy and… well, not quite content. Despite feeling all loose-limbed and mellow enough from sex to be able to curl up and sleep, she was still a bit upset about the conversation from earlier, about what Ymir had done in Monaco. She knew it had been years ago, *centuries* even, but still…. It was one thing to realize that the woman you loved was a blood-sucking vampire, but another to confront the truth that she had killed people for blood, that she had used them as disposable things just so she could live.

“Hey, you’re dwelling on it, aren’t you?” Ymir’s warm hands rubbed circles on her back in an attempt to soothe.

“What do you expect?” Krista shifted her fists beneath her chin so she could look up at her lover, and found a pensive expression on Ymir’s freckled face, her dark eyes hooded as if she was afraid to expose too much in their depths. “I know it’s the past, that you’ve changed but… did you really have to treat her that way?”

Ymir sighed and raised her left arm to shove it behind her head as if for support. “If it wasn’t likely that those bastards would taunt us with it, I’d kick Rebel’s ass right now.” She closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. “I told you, it didn’t start out like that, okay? It wasn’t like I saw Sabine and was all ‘eh, look at such a pretty mark’. But we were there for a while and had to work on a means of safe transportation, which meant that *Eren* had to find some new guy with a boat to sucker in and screw over, and… if anything it was all his fault.” Ymir rubbed at her eyes with her right hand. “I guess I figured that if he was getting some, why not me, and there was no way Mikasa and I were getting it on together.” That remark prompted a quick laugh from Krista as she imagined two hissing cats circling each other. “I’d hoped that we’d get out before we were tracked down, and when we didn’t… yeah, Sabine was collateral damage.” At least Ymir’s wince just then appeared real. “To be honest, hadn’t been with the Wonder Twins long enough to care at that point.” She paused for a moment. “Hadn’t met you at that point,” she admitted in a softer voice.

Krista ran the fingers of her right hand along Ymir’s sharp collarbones, enjoying the feel of smooth, warm skin beneath her fingertips. “Sometimes I wonder about how things could have gone differently with us. If you had left me there in that alley, if you didn’t drive away those Malform….”

Ymir caught Krista’s hand and raised it to her lips to kiss her fingertips. “Maybe… maybe if I didn’t know Eren and Mikasa I could have turned my back on you and walked away… but I doubt it. There’s something about you, Princess. Something that makes me want to do better, want to be there for you.” Her thin lips curved as she glanced beyond Krista at the door. “I think it’s the same thing that drove Eren to turn Captain Napoleon despite the way that asshole drives him crazy. We’ve lived an awful long time and have met so many people, it must be something inside of us that slaps a part of our hind brain to tell us ‘don’t let this one go’.”

Krista laughed again as she used a claw to trace along Ymir’s bottom lip. “Oh, and do I drive you crazy, too?” She gave her lover a sly grin before she curled her hand back beneath her chin.

It should be illegal, how well Ymir could pull off such a wicked smile like that. “Princess, you drive me crazy, make me so horny, put me under your spell and a thousand other cliché things, none of which I give a damn about as long as you’re mine and I’m yours.” Those dark eyes sparkled as Ymir’s tongue snuck out to wet along the path where Krista’s finger had been moments before. “All of it makes me feel more alive than I have in… I really can’t remember.”

“Which is a good thing.” Krista didn’t like it when Ymir got in one of her dark moods, especially not when they had so much against them right now. “So the others, they really going to be all nasty about what you did? Drag out the past and all?”

Ymir was quiet for several seconds, leaving her to wonder if the change of topic had been too abrupt, at least until she looked up to find her lover frowning at nothing in particular. “Ymir?”

“I think they’re going to be nasty about everything,” Ymir admitted as she began to toy with a strand of Krista’s hair. “I think they’re going to do their best to get between Eren and Mikasa, to pry him from Levi since they *have* to know by now that the short bastard is going to come charging right at them to keep his boyfriend safe. And they’re definitely going to do whatever they can to hurt me since I’ve fucked with them for way too long.” She sighed as she scrubbed at her face with her left hand. “Reiner and Bert were desperate to get Eren back to the Elders all nice and broken, and I helped fuck that up for them, so yeah, they’ll do whatever they can to make sure I suffer.”

Krista knew it was bad whenever her lover skipped out on the nicknames, and that wasn’t counting the despair that was plain in Ymir’s raspy voice just then. She reached out to cup Ymir’s left cheek, her fingers brushing along the scattered freckles, and offered up a reassuring smile. “Nothing they say can drive me away, you know. Yes, you’ve killed people. Yes, you’ve done things you’re not proud of, that aren’t… well, it’s the past. You survived. I get the feeling Eren and Mikasa have similar things in their past, too. It’s all those centuries, and a world that’s been shattered how many times? I don’t care about any of that, not when you’re the person who saved me, who taught me to stand on my own two feet, who rescued your friend and who’s helping him right now.”

Ymir threaded their fingers together and tilted her face into the caress while her lips curved into a hint of a smile. “One could argue that I betrayed that friend in the first place.”

The remark earned her a thump to the chest. “Didn’t you say that you did it to protect me and the domes?” Krista reminded the snarky idiot.

“Ow. Yeah, okay, no arguing the fine points,” Ymir pouted.

“Wise decision.” Krista rewarded her with a smile. “Let them say what they want, it won’t matter. And if they try to take me down, they’ll be sorry.”

“Yeah, I think they’ve spent too long dealing with humans.” Ymir twisted their hands about so that she could place a kiss against the back of Krista’s. “Though maybe we’ll check out the tunnel tomorrow, see if there’s enough space where we can get some practice in. Knowing Rebel and Sunshine, they shouldn’t have sealed off everything.”

“That’ll be fun.” They hadn’t much of a chance to spar together since Krista had turned, so it would be nice to get a little training in with her enhanced strength and speed.

“Yeah, but until then….” Ymir’s slight smile turned into a leer as she moved with blinding speed to flip over their positions. “Whatever will we do to keep ourselves busy?” She toyed with the hem of Krista’s overlong t-shirt.

Pretending to think about it as she draped her arms over her lover’s shoulder, Krista made a humming noise. “Maybe offer to take Eren’s shift as a sign of friendship?” She burst into laughter when Ymir growled before leaning down to mock-attack her neck. “Maybe not,” she murmured as she tugged at her girlfriend’s tank top.

*******

Levi woke to the sensation of warmth draped on top of him and faint noise in the background, for the moment disoriented by the feel of softness beneath him. His body tensed as he took in his surroundings, the unfamiliar room illuminated by faint lights running along the bottom of the walls to prevent total darkness and Eren sprawled out more or less on his chest. The latter was becoming enough of a fixture these last several nights that he was growing used to finding the brat there, messy bedhead tucked beneath his chin and gangly limbs tossed over his own as if a living blanket. For someone who had spent the vast majority of nights sleeping alone… yeah, this was bearable.

There was another burst of racket from somewhere out in the main room, which caused Eren to groan and mumble something against Levi’s chest. The words sounded a mix of English and guttural German, and Levi thought he heard mention about Armin. “Oi, what was that?” he asked as he tugged on a tangled dark brown strand.

There was a weak hiss in response as Eren attempted to bury his face even deeper into Levi’s chest. “Tell Armin to be quiet,” Eren muttered.

Well, Levi supposed as mental mix-ups went, that wasn’t as bad as the brat thinking he was back with a bunch of perverted undead assholes, but still…. He grabbed some more tangled hair and used it to haul a now squalling lover up enough to mash their lips together; he got a slashed top lip for his troubles, but by the time it healed, Eren appeared more awake and was kissing him back. The idiot settled onto his lap, the duvet pooled around him, when Levi tugged on his hair to break it off. “Again, what was that?”

Eren blinked twice, his beautiful eyes huge and glowing, then frowned. “Huh?”

Yeah, it was going to be one of those days, Levi thought to himself with a sigh. “What about Armin?” he asked as he gave the bane of his existence a smack on the ass, which prompted a yelp and a glare.

“You really are a sadist,” Eren grumbled as he scratched his nails along the sides of Levi’s neck. “What’s going on out there?” He glanced over his shoulder at the door of the small bedroom, his glare downgrading into a confused frown. “Sounds noisy, reminds me of when Armin got up on his own and into something.”

Ah, guess that explained it. “He do that often?” Levi remembered Isabel doing something similar a few times, often when he and Farlan had too much to drink the night before. The memories were still painful as hell but somehow, with Eren in his lap like this, he could bear with them and recall the good before the bad.

The question earned him a laugh as Eren teased with the longer ends of his hair above the undercut, which made Levi shiver. “Much too often, which is why I never understood how come Mikasa wouldn’t let me chain him up at night or lock him in his room. I mean, it wouldn’t have been forever, I would have left him a water bottle and a bucket, but just long enough to keep him out of trouble for a few- oh, not you, too!” Eren pouted when Levi gave him an incredulous stare.

“You. Are not. Allowed around kids. *Ever*,” Levi commanded as he flicked the idiot on the forehead. No wonder Armin survived dealing with Hange so well.

“Stop that!” Eren bared his teeth as he snatched at Levi’s right hand, while Levi smirked and flicked him again with his left. When Levi got a snarl in return, he chuckled and tumbled Eren back onto the bed, unsurprised to be yanked into a kiss which had him wondering if they were about to pick up from where they’d left off last night before their shift watching the security camera feeds. Eren had been rather worn out then, but if he was ready for more now… Levi slid his hands beneath the soft white t-shirt his lover was wearing and began to push it upward when there was a loud laughing sound before the bedroom door burst open and lights flared on.

“Eren! Fresh eggs! Fresh eggs for breakfast!” Sasha beamed down at them while a stunned Connie stood beside her; the girl appeared oblivious to what she was interrupting and waved her hands about, brown eggs held in each. “Mikasa says you make the best omelets!”

“Uhm, maybe now’s not a good time,” Connie mumbled as he edged back toward the door while Levi glared at the two morons, his vision gone grey. Beneath him, Eren had gone still except for grinding his fangs together.

Sasha frowned at her boyfriend for a moment before waving the eggs in the direction of the bed. “Don’t be silly, they’ve been in here forever. It’s about time they take a break and make us some breakfast, right?” She smiled anew at Eren. “Fresh eggs!”

“Vielleicht hat Annie recht. Vielleicht hätte ich mehr von diesen Typen auslöschen lassen sollen,” Eren muttered as he rubbed at his eyes with the palms of his clawed hands. “Hätte was weiß ich wie viele Gliedmaßen über die Jahre retten können, wenn ich einfach gehört hätte.”

“Uhm, Eren?” The corners of Sasha’s mouth began to droop as she stared in his direction.

Levi was about to jump up and shove the damn eggs – shells and all – down her throat when Eren latched onto his arm. “Give us a few minutes,” Eren told her, his voice rough and his golden eyes brighter than normal.

“Yes!” She spun around and nearly knocked over her boyfriend as she headed for the door. “See, it’s all right. Mikasa wouldn’t have sent us back here if it wasn’t.”

Hearing the name of Eren’s troublesome sister made Levi pause as he rocked back onto his heels, and he caught the way that Eren’s eyes narrowed as well. “Wasn’t that nice of her,” Levi remarked once they were left alone.

“Yeah, I had my suspicions once Sasha mentioned the omelets.” Eren sighed as he sat up as well and leaned forward enough to rest his head against Levi’s right shoulder. “Only reason I didn’t let you do the whole entrails thing you’re always threatening. That and it’s my bedroom.”

Levi smiled a little at the joke. “True, don’t want too much of a mess in here.” He attempted to comb his fingers through some of the messy brown strands and gave up after several seconds; seriously, how did his lover’s hair become so tangled so easily? “You going to get all pissy when I go after her for this?” he asked as he tilted Eren’s head back.

He was glared at for the question. “I don’t get ‘all pissy’.”

Ah, so that was the problem. “You want me to go out there and take a vote on the matter, brat?” When the glare went up a notch, Levi smiled in victory. “So that’s a ‘no’ to both?”

“Fuck of-“

A quick kiss silenced a certain little shit’s objection, and then Levi was off of the bed so he could get dressed. Since they had showered before their shift last night, he supposed he could wait until after breakfast for another one and grabbed pants and a t-shirt out of one of his saddlebags. As for Eren, he fetched a pair of loose pants out of the dresser, the pants hanging low on his hips once he pulled them on and showing some of the blue band of his boxers when his t-shirt raised up. Levi almost snapped at him for being out of uniform, before he remembered that they were basically in a private residence in the middle of nowhere. “Comb your hair.”

Eren grumbled but did as he was told, or at least attempted to, before they left the room.

Things were louder in the main room, and everyone seemed to be awake; Levi knew that he and Eren had finally gone to sleep after sunrise, so it had to be after nine in the morning, which was a rather late start of the day for anyone in the Corps unless they’d had the night shift. Ymir and Krista were curled up on one of the couches, some sort of handheld device shared between them while Krista laughed and Ymir smirked as she made the device beep and chirp. Toward the kitchen, Sasha and Connie were poking around various containers, while Mikasa appeared to be brewing coffee with Jean’s help.

“Second pot already?” Eren asked as they approached.

“Third of the morning, actually,” his sister informed him as she stepped back from the counter. “Rico just took the second pot over to Hange since she seems determined to stay awake.”

Levi frowned as he glanced aside at Eren, who shrugged at the silent question. “She’s fed recently so a day without sleep shouldn’t affect her too much. We’ve gone as long as four when pressed, but things get… yeah, not good.” He shrugged again so Levi looked over at Mikasa for a better explanation.

“You don’t want to go there when there’re humans about,” was her rather calm answer. “Too much snarling and snapping. If she doesn’t sleep tonight, knock her out tomorrow.”

Yeah, he didn’t think he’d have a problem with that, did he? Levi flexed his fingers in anticipation while Eren tugged him over to one of the shelves. “Here, I think we have some tea sealed up,” the brat told him.

“What? Why didn’t you say anything last night?” He frowned and made to swat a certain shit’s ass, but Eren scooted out of the way too fast.

“Because I was saving it for after dinner, and *someone* distracted me!” Eren did some frowning of his own before he found what he was looking for and snatched up a small container. “Found it!” He smiled at Levi while he twisted open the seal. “Still smell goods, too.” A smoky aroma became evident when Levi inhaled, and he forgot about his anger as he followed his lover over to the stove. While he watched, Eren fetched a tea kettle and filled it with clean water, then set it on the heat element. “Should just be a few minutes,” he was told, while Eren pulled a pot out of another cabinet.

“It better be good tea.”

“Hmm, not quite as good as what you have, but it’s not bad at all.” Eren rinsed out the pot but didn’t fill it with the leaves just yet, and set two clean mugs from the drying rack next to it. “Though our milk is reconstituted from powder, so….” He shrugged as he fetched it from a small fridge set below the counter.

Beggars couldn’t be too choosy, especially since they were outside the dome. “I’m surprised you’re so well stocked here,” Levi admitted as he waited for the water to boil.

“Lot of stuff is flash frozen or dried, and of course we seal everything shut before we leave,” Eren explained while they waited. “The back-up generators have back-up generators, though we learned the hard way to never bother with anything too perishable after being away for a long time and coming back to an awful mess.” He wrinkled his nose while Mikasa made a faint gagging sound as he removed the boiling water from the stove and poured a little into the pot to heat it up first. “Thought we’d never get the stench out,” he complained as he dumped out the water and began measuring tea into the pot. “At least the place doesn’t get too hot or it would have been worse.”

Sasha came over while they waited for the tea to steep. “Uhm, what about breakfast?”

Eren sighed as he pushed back the hair falling onto his face, which made Levi realize that he’d forgotten to put the barrettes back in it after their shower last night. “Yeah, okay. Grab a bowl from over there and start cracking them, and don’t get any shells in ‘em,” he ordered the girl.

Sasha looked at him as if he’d just told her he was going to drain Connie dry. “Of *course* not! We’ll-“ She paused to look over at a confused Connie for a moment. “I’ll do it.”

“Uhm, how do you eat the eggs if you only crack them?” Connie asked as she grabbed a large bowl that Mikasa handed to her.

“Just watch for now,” she told him. “They’re not as good if they’re all crunchy.”

“Ah, okay.” The two of them went off to deal with the eggs while Eren continued to search through the cabinets and pull out various items; Levi left him to it and poured them some tea after it had steeped long enough. He fixed his own and gave it a tentative sip, mindful of the heat, and found it passable.

Around then, Rico strolled into the ‘kitchen’, appearing rested and the most at ease he’d seen her in days. “How’s that shitty glasses?”

She shook her head at the question and went over to pour herself a cup of coffee. “As deranged as usual. There was some babbling about cracking some, and I quote ‘nasty as Levi covered in mud-fuck’ chemical compounds and you adoring her forever, at least once she synthed something even nastier. When she started hinting about needing a test subject, I got the hell out of there.” Rico paused to take a sip of coffee. “So, when’s breakfast going to be ready?”

Eren paused in sorting out his stack of ingredients and looked at the bowl of cracked eggs. “Less than half an hour.”

“All right.” She turned toward Mikasa, who had taken to putting away the dishes left out from last night. “What about the horses? They going to be okay pinned up all day?”

“It’ll probably be best to take them out a few at a time to give them some fresh air and to help clean out the room.” Mikasa glanced over at Jean, who was standing nearby as he drank his coffee. “The three of us can start on that while we’re waiting for breakfast.”

“But-“ Jean’s complaint was cut short by one lingering look from his girlfriend. “Fine. Guess we’ll play with horses on a day off.”

“The sooner we get it done, the sooner we have the day to ourselves,” Mikasa reminded him as she dried her hands on a towel.

“Go on,” Eren urged the two of them. “It’ll be fun, playing with your siblings, Horse-face.”

Jean narrowed his eyes in anger and pulled away from Mikasa so he could poke a finger in Eren's direction. “Ha, ha, very funny from a person who can’t seem to go more than a week without someone wanting to dose your smart ass catatonic. How about we-“

He was prevented from Levi doing something that would really piss off Mikasa just then by Connie of all people, who tossed an egg to Sasha so he could grab his friend’s right arm and jerk him away from a glowing-eyed and bared-teeth Eren. “Ah, ah, you never tick off the chef, haven’t you heard that? I’m not about to risk something nasty being in my breakfast, so you go have fun being stepped on by the horses.” He patted Jean on the back as he shoved him out of the kitchen. “Do some work for once, you slacker!”

Mikasa shook her head as she followed after her unhappy boyfriend, while Rico poured herself some more coffee before she left. “You going to be okay in here?” Levi asked while Eren began soaking some weird dried shit.

“I have a drawer full of knives, so yeah, fun times for all,” Eren assured him as he motioned to the large knife out on the counter.

“Great, just what we need with all of that weird shit in your system,” Levi sighed before he leaned in for a kiss. “Blouse, if he starts spouting any foreign shit, bash his head in with a skillet.”

“Uhm, yes, sir!” Sasha gave him a half-decent salute while holding an egg in her hand. “Hopefully breakfast will be done by then.”

“I’m definitely spitting in your omelet,” Eren warned Levi as he shoved him away; while his hands were occupied, Levi managed to get a flick in and left the room with a mug full of tea and to the sound of his lover calling him a sadist.

A faint smirk on his lips, he sought out the ‘lab’ and was puzzled when he came across the sound of… music? Was that music? It was unlike anything he’d heard before, almost discordant with a thumping beat and that weird not-quite English wailing along to the sounds. Wondering what the hell Hange had unearthed, Levi opened the door and found her scooting along in the chair between two workstations.

“What the *fuck*?”

“Eh?” Her hair even more of a rat’s nest than usual, with several long strands loose from the ponytail and straggling down her back or along the sides of her face, what looked to be scorch marks on the lab coat and even smears of… fuck, he didn’t want to know what on her face and her glasses gone missing, Hange blinked a few times and then smiled at Levi. “Morning! It’s still morning, right?” She grabbed the carafe of coffee that Rico had left and drank straight from it.

“Yes, you raving lunatic, it’s still morning. What the hell is going on here? What’s that noise?”

Hange set aside the carafe and wiped at her mouth with the sleeve of her left arm. “Amazing, isn’t it?” She bopped her head along with the ‘music’ for a few seconds before she turned it down. “You won’t believe the files I found on the network here! All this media dating pre-Collapse! Music! *Videos*! Videos, Levi! You can see how they lived back then, the culture and the social interactions and the politics and… and… *amazing*!”

He took a sip of his tea to help calm himself down before he went over there and kicked a certain idiot. “So you’ve been watching shitty videos all night?”

Either it was the way he asked the question or the fact that his vision had shifted that made Hange sit up straighter and stop grinning like an idiot. “Uhm, no, just while I was waiting for some lab results.” The subdued response lasted all of about four seconds. “But really, *amazing*.”

“Yes, you’ve said that like three times already.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and wondered if Erwin would find out about him killing Hange all the way out here – he could blame it on the vampires, right? The others wouldn’t rat him out, not after putting up with the deranged scientist for this long… well, Mikasa might be a problem. “What about the fucking cure, serum, whatever it was you’ve been working on, hmm? The reason we’re still here today?”

The question earned him a blank stare for several seconds, and just when he was about to gulp down the rest of his tea and throttle a certain someone, Hange blinked and grinned. “Ah, yes, my baby.”

“Hange, you are one seriously fucked-up-“

“Love you too, sweetheart,” she interrupted him. “Now let me tell you about my baby,” she crooned as she spun about in the chair and began to type away at the computer. “It’s still gestating, I’m gonna need a few more hours here, but it’s forming, yes it is.”

Levi had some more of his tea and reminded himself that brilliant minds were often bug-fuck crazy as well, just look at Erwin. He just didn’t know why *he* had to deal with all of them. “So Rico said. Just what the hell exactly is ‘gestating’?”

In the middle of reaching for more coffee, Hange paused and blinked again. “Oh. *Oh*. Yeah, think I’m a little tired.” She laughed and rubbed at the rat’s nest that was her hair. “So, I said something about them using weird, illegal and unethical stuff to shoot into our cutie, right?”

He headed over to the nearest chair and pointed a clawed finger in Hange’s direction. “Yes, and Eren is not and will never be your anything.”

“Oooh, someone is *so* getting some, isn’t he?” Hange cackled as she jotted notes down in her book. “When this is all over with, I really need to get some information out of you on how good he is at sex, how he differs from a human partner and if all the years-“

“You insane, shitty glasses….”

The warning seemed to help get her back on track. “Just saying! Valuable research there,” she mumbled as she set the notebook aside. “Antidote, yes?” She gave him a huge grin and thumped her hand against the top of the workstation. “Not sure you can call it exactly that, maybe more of a counteragent, but I believe I’ve identified most of the stuff in the samples.” Then her grin flattened out and she turned serious. “Time for more of the good news, bad news stuff. Ready for it?”

Levi swallowed the rest of his tea and was beginning to understand why Pixis always carried a flask on his person. “Good thing there’s a wine cellar in this place.”

“That’s the spirit!” Hange’s lips twitched upward for a moment but the smile failed to materialize. “The samples I took from you right before we left Trost, the ones from when you retrieved Eren and then the ones from this latest attack don’t all match up. The first two are the closest, but there’s a definite difference from what they shot into him this last time.” She picked up a tube of something and twisted it back and forth between her long, thin fingers while she stared at him. “I mean, I suspected it, but now we have confirmation. A *lot* of confirmation.”

He thought through what wasn’t being said and jerked the fingers of his left hand through his hair. “So they’re changing the drugs on us and not just upping the dosage? I guess they didn’t like the fact that Eren fought back so much against the two fuckers when they had him.”

Hange nodded then stared at the vial in her hand. “The first dose was probably meant to purely incapacitate, to knock him out long enough to get him out of the dome – him and likely Mikasa if she gave them any trouble, perhaps even Ymir though I have to wonder how these will react to a vampire versus a vampire hybrid. The second drug had a little something extra to not only keep him complacent but to also help disorient him and ensure his obedience. The third… that’s where they were going for the complete mind-fuck. I honestly believe if Eren had received the full dose that….” Hange shook her head as she wrapped her fingers around the vial. “Well, let’s just say at best, it would have been a good thing that you and Mikasa were there, so there’d be some hope he’d retain his original personality. It would just have taken him a lot longer than a day or two to snap out of it. If they’d gotten him away from us and dosed him, those type of drugs could tear his mind apart.”

Shit. Levi held the empty mug between his hands and stared into it as he thought about Eren being in the hands of those twisted fucks, his brains scrambled to the point where he couldn’t tell the past from the present and friends from foe. “I thought his nature would help him heal.”

“It can only do so much, and if it’s given time. Something tells me that they won’t let that happen.” Hange sighed as she tapped her forefinger against the top of the vial. “I mentioned it before, but Eren’s brain has a lot going on in it, which can be a negative in a situation like this. It’s clear looking at the drugs they’re using that someone knows what they’re doing, and what they want. And they’re going to keep tweaking things until they get the desired result.”

“So what, you think they’re going to do it again? They failed this time because they got their asses kicked.”

She shrugged and set the vial down. “They might, but I’m doing my best to take that into account. As is, I’m having to improvise a bit since we’re out in the middle of nowhere, but at the least I should be able to negate some of the worst symptoms.”

“And those are?”

“The mental instability and the sedatives for the most part, among a couple of other things.” Hange appeared drained for a moment, and then a rare expression, one that Levi had only seen a few times before and directed at people who had gone out of their way to make the Corps suffer, lit a fire in her brown eyes until they burned into gleaming gold and her lips pulled back to expose a cruel grin made even sharper with pointed fangs. “As well as a little surprise of my own, a sweet, thoughtful gift to show them that they’re not the only ones who can righteously fuck up a person’s mind if they want to – and I get the impression that most of them are even older than Eren. Oh yes,” she crooned, “my sweet little gift is going to tear those *fuckers* apart, taking just long enough for them to realize that they got bested by a human.” Then she blinked and returned normal. Well, what was normal for her. “Hmm, a former human, I suppose,” she added with a laugh.

And this was why it was considered normal in the Corps to drink before noon – fuck, before breakfast. “Just get some sleep when your ‘gift’ and your ‘baby’ are done… whatever the hell they’re doing,” Levi told her with a grimace. “You’re disturbing enough as is without the sleep deprivation.” He turned to leave and then took a deep breath. “Add a shower to that, too.”

“Yes, sir!” Hange sounded amused rather than insulted, which he guessed was a good thing. There was the clatter of the chair’s wheels sliding across the concrete floor and then the ‘music’, if one wanted to call it that, was turned up again – only this time, Hange’s awful voice started ‘singing’ along with it. Levi took that as his cue to hurry back to the kitchen to see if any mass violence had taken place while he’d been gone.

*******

Content to leave the dishes to Ymir and Krista, Eren wandered away from the kitchen while Levi took a tray of food to Hange, muttering all the while about crazy idiots and horrid noise. Once out in the main room, it was weird to see various items scattered about the place: pieces of uniform, saddlebags, protein bar wrappers and bits of tack, whereas before it was usually datapads, books and, well, yeah, Eren had been guilty of leaving clothes and the occasional wine bottle or two here and there. Nothing too bad, since over the years it had been drilled into his and Mikasa’s, and then Armin’s, heads to never leave things lying about in case they had to leave a place in a hurry. This was one of their rare sanctuaries but they still didn’t take it too much for granted, and now they had shared it with several outsiders and risked the others following them back to it.

He sighed as he rubbed at the back of his head, his fingers tangling in the strands of hair for a moment to give a couple of tugs as he thought about Annie, Bert and Reiner breaking in here, at the artwork he and Mikasa had labored over keeping in one piece being snatched away, at all the research of Grisha’s that had been pieced together over *centuries* ending up in those bastards’ hands after all.

He had to take a deep breath to keep from snarling at the disturbing thoughts, and ended up kicking at a bag that smelled like Jean as he headed for one of the many bookshelves. The thing was, it was easy to picture such a thing because something similar had happened all too often in the past; the others had tracked them down time and time again, had taken so many things from them that Eren and Mikasa had learned to place little value on anything that they didn’t carry hung around their necks. Well, Armin was an exception to that, Armin and….

Eren shook his head as he plucked up an odd looking fabric bundle from a shelf, the material a dingy greyish blue that contained a hint of Armin’s scent. He held it to his nose and took a deep breath as he thought about his dear friend and hoped that Trouble was doing all right back in Trost – hell, he was probably well on his way to ruling over the dome right about now if he wasn’t under arrest.

“What is *that* thing?”

Turning around, Eren found Levi standing a couple of feet away with a look of disgust on his face. “Hange appreciate getting some breakfast?”

“She barely acknowledged my presence, she was so busy tinkering with some no doubt inhumane concoction that violates at least five of the Aredale Conventions, but you didn’t answer my question. What is that filthy thing and why are you touching it?”

“What, this?” Eren held up the… well, he had been going for a puppy at the time. “It’s one of Armin’s stuffed animals, and it’s not filthy. Mikasa made sure of things like that.”

“*Mikasa* did, huh?” Levi sighed as he pressed the heel of his right hand to his forehead. “Why do I get the impression that she’s the only reason that poor guy is alive?”

That earned the asshole a glare as Eren held the toy cradled against his chest. “Hey! I did a lot of things for Armin! I kept him fed and I was the one who made him toys like this.” He stroked his left hand over the soft, almost threadbare material. “So what if he ended mistaking bear cubs for kittens as a result, it wasn’t like it ended badly.”

Levi gave him an odd look, the one Eren got from time to time from people before comments about mental instability were bantered about, then shook his head. “I’d let Erwin take my head the moment we’re back in the dome except it’s clear you’re the exception – Mikasa and Ymir aren’t as bugshit crazy as you are so it can’t be just from old age.”

“Ha, ha.” Eren glared at his lover as he returned the toy to its spot on the shelf. “I must be ‘bugshit crazy’ to put up with all this abuse from you.” He turned to stomp away, but only got about two steps before he was jerked back by the hold on his right wrist.

“Actually, it’s probably the sanest thing you’ve done in centuries, brat,” Levi informed him before kissing his protests silent. Eren managed a displeased noise or two before he gave in, along with a scratch to the nape of Levi’s neck. He shivered at the feel of that demanding mouth against his own, the way it skimmed its way down to his neck, toward the sensitive spot which made his knees weak when sharp teeth scraped just right….

“Great, Rebel and Napoleon are putting on a show for us.”

Levi pulled away from Eren’s neck with a growl while Eren tried to remember why he had insisted on bringing Ymir along with them all those days ago. “Ymir… is this all part of some curse or something? Is that why I’m stuck with you forever?”

She laughed as she approached and gave him a pat on the left cheek, which caused Levi to growl some more. “Sorry, Reb, but not that kind of gypsy.” Her dark eyes grew unfocused for a moment. “At least… don’t think so.”

He could understand the confusion since there were times when his memory was fuzzy or blank, and so remained quiet while Ymir stood there until Krista tugged on her hand. Then she grinned in a feral manner and winked at Levi. “But maybe I can try to whip up a curse for impotency if you need to get a night’s rest.”

It was his turn to tug his lover away when Levi lashed out with his claws at the troublemaker. “Very funny. We’re both fine as is, but you might go missing a few vital body parts in the immediate future, like your head,” he warned as he dragged his furious lover toward the kitchen. “Come on, let’s go brew some tea,” he offered in an attempt to placate. “Then we’ll watch some movies.”

“Eh?” Levi frowned at him, so Eren wasn’t sure at first what had snagged his attention, the offer of tea or entertainment. “Watch what?”

Ah. “We have a bunch of old media files we scavenged,” Eren explained as Levi fell into step beside him. He frowned as well as soon as he realized that they were all in languages or dialects that his lover didn’t understand, but there were a few that weren’t too reliant on dialogue. “We’ll curl up on my bed with a pot of tea and some wine, and make an afternoon of it.”

Levi hesitated for a moment and then took the lead. “I get final say on the movie, and *no* music.”

“But you don’t even know any of them!”

“Then you better do a good job of describing them, and if they look stupid we’ll move on to another one.” Levi had on his bland ‘don’t bother me with the details, I’m too far above a filthy worm like you’ mask on which made Eren want to smack him.

“I’m beginning to see why I didn’t bother with this whole ‘dating’ thing,” Eren muttered, then yelped when Levi twisted his hand about to dig his fingers into Eren’s wrist. “Ouch!”

“Ever think that maybe you’re part of the problem, brat?”

Eren narrowed his eyes as he bared his teeth at the sadist that for some unfathomable reason he found attractive. “I don’t know, Marquis, I tend to think that certain people bring it out in me.”

Levi paused when it sunk in that he had just been dealt another nickname. “That better not be another short joke,” he snapped as they entered the kitchen.

“Nope, no short joke at all.” Eren smiled as he tugged his wrist free so he could fetch the tin of tea. “In fact, it’s a title for nobility.” He hummed in good humor as he set some fresh water on to boil.

His answer provoked a scoffing sound from Levi, who was busy warming up the teapot and a set of mugs. “Right, there has to be more to it than that.” When all Eren did was smile at him, he clicked his tongue a couple of times and use a handful of Eren’s hair to pull him down for a quick kiss. “I will kick your ass again if it’s an insult.”

“I tend to think of it as an adequate description of your personality.” Eren laughed when he got his butt smacked for that answer. “Aw come on, where would we be without you threatening me with bodily harm and me annoying the hell out of you?”

“Huh.” There was a hint of a smile on Levi’s thin lips as he pulled away. “Guess all of that shit has finally worked its way out of your system.”

Eren rolled his eyes as he stepped closer to the stove. “You’re going to take credit for that fact, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” One moment Levi was still, and the next he was pressed against Eren’s back as he pinned him against the counter. “I think I did an excellent job, but let me know if you’re suffering from a relapse and we need to do another session,” he murmured against Eren’s neck, his lips warm and dry as they brushed against sensitive skin.

Shuddering from the pleasure that skittered through his body at the light touches, Eren moaned and reached back to thread his fingers through his lover’s thick hair, to tug that teasing mouth closer. “I’m feeling a bit faint right now.”

“Hmm, that so?” Levi’s hands slid around Eren’s hips, one sneaking up his t-shirt to caress his belly while the other-

“Okay, what *is* it with you guys and kitchens? Just because you barely eat doesn’t mean you have to turn the rest of us off of food.” Rico sounded an equal mix of disgusted and angry just then.

Levi snarled as he pulled back a little from Eren, while Eren blinked and realized that the water was now boiling. “Uhm, what’s with you walking in on us?” he pointed out as he poured the water into the waiting pot.

A slight laugh escaped from Rico as she fetched a pack of biscuits from one of the cabinets. “I’m a bit torn between the universe hating me and it just having a very sick sense of humor. Right now I have access to alcohol and hot water and the weather’s nice, so I’ll go with the latter.” She gave Levi a halfway decent salute before she sauntered back out again, probably on the way to fetch a bottle of wine to go along with the biscuits as she sought someplace nice to hole up.

“I think I agree with her,” Levi remarked as he rubbed at his face. “It does often feel like we’re the butt of some cosmic joke.”

“Wow, deep thoughts from the man whose favorite solution to everything is ‘kick it, then kick some more’,” Eren teased as he sidled closer. His flippant observation earned him another smack on the ass before Levi’s hand settled on his right hip.

“Yeah, and what about you? Any thinking at *all* done in there?” Eren didn’t duck his head fast enough to avoid a flick right between his eyes.

“I’m a man of action, not reflection,” he grumbled as he rubbed at his abused forehead.

“Yeah, I’ve seen you in action.” Levi shook his head while he gave Eren’s hip a squeeze. “No wonder Mikasa was the one to raise Armin, since she had so much practice with you.”

Eren made sure to dig in his claws a little when he patted the bastard’s hand before slipping free. “Keep that up and you can watch movies with her instead of me.” He huffed a little as he gathered the tea, mugs, a small pot of milk and another package of biscuits on a tray before motioning for Levi to head to his room. “I’m willing to bet that you’d be subjected to a marathon session of Swedish existentialism.” When all Levi did was give him a blank look, Eren sighed and shook his head. “Trust me, you’d be bored. Not enough violence for you.”

“If you weren’t carrying the tea right now, I’d show you some violence.” Levi made a flicking motion with his fingers in Eren’s direction.

“Whatever you say, Marquis.” Judging from the way Levi’s eyes narrowed just then, Eren got the feeling that he was really pushing his luck at the moment but this was so fun – it wasn’t often when he felt as if he was having fun. Usually it was running for his life and getting a limb torn off or something.

“I think we just found a volunteer for that shit Hange’s busy whipping up.” Yet Levi continued to head back to Eren’s bedroom.

“Someone’s a bit grumpy today.”

“I think I’m reaching my limit of dealing with insane people.” Levi slowed down enough so that he walked beside Eren.

For some reason that answer made Eren laugh; he had to pause in order to not spill the tea. His actions made Levi stare at him as if he was indeed losing his mind; he hiccupped a time or two as he shook his head. “Oh man, you are royally screwed, aren’t you? ‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’”

His lover continued to stare at him for a few more seconds before sighing and taking the tray away. “I’m not the crazy person talking about imaginary cats. What’s with it with you and those things, brat?”

“What? No!” Eren hurried up to catch up to the illiterate heathen. “It’s from a classic! How can you not know it? I read it to Armin all the time!”

“Yeah, beginning to understand why that guy is so messed up. For the sake of future humanity, stay the fuck away from any and all kids, do you hear me?”

Oh, just for that, Eren was going to break out the ‘no happy ending’ file for the bastard.

*******

Sasha smiled while she watched Connie turn almost green as he struggled to push a hook through a worm. “You’re getting it!” she encouraged him as she cast her line out into the seemingly placid lake; this might not be as exciting as shooting rappelling hooks, but it should be a fun way to spend an afternoon. After they caught enough fish, they could take them back inside and return to do some swimming.

Finished with the bait, Connie let out a sigh of relief and then drew back his right arm like Sasha had shown him before flinging it forward, the baited hook and bobble landing in the water closer to the shore than Sasha’s had. “This seems a weird way to catch a meal.”

“My dad always says that the more effort you put into it, the better it tastes and he’s right.” Her smile changed into a grimace as she thought about the animals trapped in their cubes and pumped with feed, hormones and antibiotics, the huge tanks packed with fish genetically modified to survive the conditions, the plants farmed constantly under lights to hasten their growth cycles. Everything in an agro-dome was down to an exact science, and the result was so, so *bland* as a result. “Nothing beats the stuff you can find out here, *nothing*.” Her smile returned when she felt a tug on the line, which she yanked back gently on a few times before reeling it in to find a trout that had to be at least several pounds hooked through the bottom lip. “Yes!”

Connie laughed at her good luck until he had a ‘bite’ as well, and then he concentrated on landing his catch, following her instructions as she talked him through it. The look of pride on his face as he finally landed the fish, only a little smaller than hers, warmed her through, so she gave him a kiss on the cheek when she unhooked it and tossed it into the waiting bucket of water; he was still a bit squeamish about that part. He grinned and gave her a proper kiss once she finished, then groaned when she handed him another worm. “How much do we have to catch again?”

“More than we did yesterday, since I want some left over for breakfast tomorrow.” The eggs had been delicious, but she had a feeling that they wouldn’t have much time to find any before getting back on the ‘road’. No, better to have some leftover fish and then find eggs as they headed to this ‘Shiganshina’ dome, and have hope for a nice dinner whenever they stopped for the night. Sasha was picking up some cooking tips from watching Eren so even if he didn’t feel like making them, she could.

“Hey, you think we’re going to have any problems tonight?”

She looked from the floating red bobble to find Connie staring out over the lake, a frown on his face as if he was thinking about something unpleasant. “Eh, probably not,” she told him after giving the question some thought. “I mean, they should know what Eren’s going after by now, right? If he was just running to hide, we wouldn’t be with him and we don’t seem to be headed for the nearest dome. So why not let him get what they want and then grab him? Or better yet, just get him when he goes back to a dome? He was pretty easy to capture there.” After all, the best place to catch prey was its usual haunts, where it felt comfortable. You wasted energy chasing it all around, but if you laid a nice trap at a place where you knew it frequented… yeah, quick and easy.

Connie gave her a look out of the corner of his eye then shook his head. “You can be a bit… remind me not to get on your bad side, okay?”

“Nope, because you deserve whatever you get if you do,” she informed him as she reeled in another catch; oh, would Eren and Mikasa mind if she just lived here? A lake full of fish and trees full of bird nests, what more could she want?

Her answer prompted a laugh from Connie, who held onto the fishing rod with one hand while he gave her a hug. “Fair enough. But still, it’s scary to think of those… of them following us back into a dome. Just three of them did enough damage.”

“Well, three of them and Ymir,” she reminded him. “But I think Krista will make sure Ymir doesn’t do anything stupid like that again.”

“Yeah, I hope so.” He frowned again as he put his left hand back on the base of the rod. “If not, Mikasa’s going to be real unhappy.”

“That’s one way of putting it.” ‘Gratuitous violence’ was another way. Sasha didn’t think that Captain Ackerman would just stand by and allow Ymir to do whatever she wanted, either, not if it meant Eren was going to be hurt and kidnapped like before. “If she does switch sides again, she also gets what she deserves.”

Connie shrugged as if it didn’t matter one way or another what happened with Ymir. “I’d just feel sorry for Krista, since she seems rather nice.”

“She should know by now what she’s gotten herself into with Ymir.” On one hand, Sasha understood Krista’s appeal, that she was cute and tiny and people liked that. But it didn’t excuse her for being an idiot and not realizing that her girlfriend could be a trouble-making, backstabbing bitch at times.

“True.” Connie looked ready to say something else but laughed instead when he caught another fish. “So, how long do you think it’ll take us to catch enough this way?”

Sasha helped him with the fish then cast a critical eye at the squirming pile of fish in the bucket. “Probably another hour or so.” At least Eren, the captains, Ymir and Krista didn’t eat much, though Mikasa really liked the croquettes; she thought about Marlo with a bit of regret that he hadn’t stuck around long enough to try the fresh fish. “Tonight you can help me clean them.”

“Ehhh?” The color drained from Connie’s suntanned skin and he nearly dropped the fishing rod. “Really? What if I cut myself?”

“You’ll heal fast thanks to Mikasa’s blood.”

“But-“

“Nope, time you learned,” she insisted. There was no telling how long they’d be out here, and she was all for putting off returning to the domes as long as possible. Connie needed to toughen up and learn some basic survival skills, something beyond how to fight, and then he’d be perfect.

There was another sigh, this one longer and louder than before, and Connie cast out another lure. “Nobody better bitch about how much we eat after all the effort we put into dinner tonight, that’s all I’m saying. One word out of Jean and he’s getting a fat lip, girlfriend with fangs or not.”

She beamed at him as she cast her own line; she didn’t care that he wasn’t a captain or all mysterious like Eren, Connie was beautiful just the way he was. And once he knew how to gut fish and prep game, he really would be perfect.

*******

Armin squirmed about on the metal chair left out in what he’d come to call the ‘dungeon’, the room where he spent some of each day checking on Annie. “Okay, remind me to bring a damn pillow tomorrow,” he told the still figure with a mocking grin as he shifted the tablet to his left hand. “Now where were we? Something about the virtuous Myra yearning for her hero to save her from a lurking Malform?” The grin turned into a slight smirk as he pointed the datapad at the faintly glowing chrysalis. “Yes, it’s not Pride and Prejudice, I’ll give you that, though I’d love to hear your thoughts on that story considering how much muttering Mikasa did as she read it to me. But it’s a punishment of sorts, you see. Maybe the next time you think about attacking a Corps’ base, you’ll remember all this horrible prose and butchered characterization and reconsider.”

He thought he saw a faint curve to Annie’s lips just then, but it was only a trick of the light. “Yep, and as bad as ‘The Hero of Haylon Dome’ is, watch out, I’ve got almost a gig of even *worse* books just waiting to unleash upon you.” He leaned forward until his face was inches away from the glass-like surface of Annie’s cocoon. “Simpering, spineless female characters just waiting to be saved by brainless idiots so overdosed on testosterone that you’ll be screaming for the Malform to eat them just to save you from the agony of another chapter.” Then he leaned back, his eyes wide as he gasped. “But wait, you *can’t*, can you? Oh no, you have to float there and listen to each and every word.” Humming a little as he ‘flipped’ to a new page, he nodded to himself with a feeling of satisfaction about the upcoming redeeming torture he was about to unleash not only upon Annie but to those unfortunate souls stuck listening in on his visits. “Oh, look, there’s something ‘stirring’ in Myra’s ‘loins’. This promises to be absolutely dreadful. I’m so thrilled to be sharing this with you. How about I do the voices? Eren used to always do these voices when he read the books, at least until I had the worst nightmares and Mikasa made him stop.”

Clearing his throat so he could produce a suitable screech, he barely managed to get out a word or two before the door opened to admit Hitch, who stalked forward as if she had an agenda in mind. “Oh, what, you want to listen to this, too?”

She stood a few feet away with her hands fisted on her hips and her tousled brown hair falling onto her flushed face. “Why!”

“Uhm, why what? Why did this author insist on such poor characterization and a thin plot? I’m thinking it’s an insult to the readers, personal-“

Hitch produced a decent growl as she stamped her left foot. “No, why are you here day after day? Are you spying on us? Do you think something is going to happen?” She gestured with her right hand at Annie. “She’s as good as dead, you do know that? There’s no readings, no sign of life, *nothing*! Her fellow vampires have abandoned her so it’s a waste of time!”

Armin leaned forward until he could rest his left elbow on his knees and propped up his chin. “That or she’s a Trojan horse, maybe.” At Hitch’s blank stare, he sighed and waved the tablet in Annie’s direction. “Weißt die Klassiker wohl nicht zu schätzen, was?”

The slip of German earned him a sour look. “There’s something odd about you, something that doesn’t add up. I remember that you came looking for her, you know,” Hitch accused as her right forefinger stabbed in his direction. “She called you a friend. How can something like her have a friend, and a Winger at that?”

He shrugged as he leaned back in his chair. “Anyone can have a friend. She’s someone who doesn’t have many and… well, I could always use one, too.”

“She’s someone who eats *people*,” Hitch spat out, her eyes narrowed as she crossed her arms over her chest.

Growing annoyed at this conversation and curious as to its point, Armin let out a huff of air and jerked his left hand through his bangs, for a moment filled with loneliness at the loss of Eren and Mikasa. “Yes, and humans eat just about everything else, to the point that they drove the world to the brink of destruction,” he reminded the judgmental idiot. “And you didn’t seem to mind the fact that she was a vampire the last time we talked. No, you just seemed to care that she was a vampire and hadn’t turned you into one, if I remember correctly.”

A faint redness spread across Hitch’s cheeks. “That’s – that’s not it at all.” She tugged at the hem of her black jacket and took a step back. “You don’t know what’s-“ She caught herself and shook her head. “You Wingers never know what’s going on,” she mumbled as she spun around to leave.

Well, that didn’t sound the least bit ominous, did it? Armin rubbed at his left temple as he imagined sharing this conversation with Commander Smith as soon as he returned to headquarters; what had been the goal of the visit? He doubted that Hitch had come here on her own, not with all of the cameras within the room and the guards outside. Who had sent her, and for what reason? To get him to say something about his past association with Annie? To reveal something about Eren and Mikasa? To find out if he was a hybrid or vampire?

“Ich glaube hier nimmt sich jemand die lausige Handlung der Bücher zu Herzen,” he complained to Annie as he stood in front of her, and was about to say something else when it felt as if something had slammed into his chest. Yes, the light was a bit tricky because of the way it filtered into the chrysalis, but he’d studied Annie every day since her ‘transformation’. He knew by heart the stains and tears in her clothes, the way a lock of blonde hair trailed across her face… and how her fingers were loosely curled as if her hands were in rest.

Except now the forefinger on her right hand was curled a bit more inward, as if reaching for her thumb. Just as her brows were drawn closer together, her expression one of concentration or annoyance instead of exhaustion. Armin caught himself before he did something to give away his surprise at how she continued to move in minutia and covered the lower part of his face with the datapad.

“’Ich fürchte, alles was wir getan haben, war einen schlafenden Riesen zu wecken und ihn mit schrecklicher Entschlossenheit zu füllen’,” he whispered as he reached out to touch the hard surface of the chrysalis. After a moment’s pause, he forced himself to smile and go sit back down in the chair. “Now where were we? Something about Myra’s loins and a pathetic excuse for a hero, yes?” He tabbed the device out of sleep mode and prepared himself for more drivel. “Just so you know, this pains me almost as much as it does you,” he informed Annie before he resumed the punishment.

*******

Ymir’s lips tugged into what she hoped was a seductive smile as she grasped onto Krista’s delicate left wrist and pulled her toward the bedroom. “Come on, enough of old vids, I’ll ask Rebel for a spare tablet and copy a bunch of files so we can watch more another time. We’re not gonna have a nice, soft bed for much longer.”

Krista sighed, the sound exaggerated and drawn out, as she allowed herself to be led away from the couch. “I think you’re just enjoying all the ‘defiling’ we’re doing to poor Armin’s bed.”

“Oh, don’t tell me you’re not having fun as well, Princess.” Ymir’s tongue poked out for a moment as she grinned at her lover. “If it weren’t for the healing factor, I’d have the puncture wounds to-“

Strolling past some of the shelves, she noticed out of the corner of her eye that Sasha and Connie were playing with something they’d found, their faces lit up with excitement as Sasha held up the shiny- “Mierda! Al suelo!” she shouted out as she shoved Krista to the ground and then threw herself over her lover, her arms over her head as she braced herself for the shots.

There was the sound of running and confused voices. “What the hell? Ymir, did you - oh for *fuck’s sake*, give me that!” Eren was snarling at the end, and Sasha yelped in what sounded to be pain.

“Hey, don’t hurt her!”

“Is that what I think it is?”

Since the underground safehouse wasn’t being filled with ricocheting bullets, Ymir slowly unfurled herself from Krista, who also raised herself up in a cautious manner, her expression curious as she leaned against Ymir. A furious Eren now held the gun, with a golden-eyed Levi next to him and a robed Mikasa running into the common room with a half-dressed Jean at her heels.

“What’s going on?” She gasped when Eren held up the gun in his hand. “Why is that out here?”

“I guess Armin must have forgotten to put it in the safe when we left,” Eren explained, his eyes luminous and his fangs exposed. “I don’t care if he’s taller than me now, I’m kicking his ass when we get back.”

“If I leave anything for you,” Mikasa muttered as she brushed back the bangs falling onto her face. “He knows the rules about putting away weapons like that.” She turned to Sasha and Connie, the former of the two who was nursing what looked to be a sore right wrist and the latter who was still glaring at Eren. “Where did you find it?”

Sasha motioned with her left hand at one of the shelves. “It was mixed in with some datapads, which we were going through to see if we could find something to watch until dinner. I thought I recognized the gun – it is a gun, right? My dad had an old crossbow he taught me to use for when we’d go hunting.” She tried to peer past Levi, who had edged closer to Eren to get a better look at the projectile weapon.

“Yes, it’s a gun.” Eren sounded tired and held the gun in both hands for a moment, before he flipped it so the nozzle was pointed toward the ground and handed it to Levi. “Here, you want to see it, right?”

“Are you nuts? These idiots don’t know the first thing about one of them!” Ymir chided her friend as she pushed Krista behind for protection.

“Relax, it’s a Glock G28EB,” he assured her while Levi handled the thing as if it were poisonous.

Oh, well, at least they were smart enough to not have any old type of projectile weapons lying around. Still, Levi didn’t seem too reassured. “What the hell does that mean?”

Eren helped to show him the proper way to hold the gun. “It means unless your DNA is coded into the gun, it won’t shoot. They’re a bitch to find because not many were on the market before… well, before, but we tracked down a few.” The growl was back in Eren’s voice and he didn’t look so much like a kid anymore.

Mikasa flexed her claws a few times, her eyes almost as bright a gold as her brother’s. “It’s not often that we carried weapons like them, especially after guns became so rare, but when we did, the last thing we wanted was them snatched away and used against us.” Yeah, she was all growly as well, not that Ymir could blame her one bit. The others certainly knew how to fight, and a belly full of bullets could slow you down long enough for them to get the upper hand. If those bullets came from your own gun? That was something the others would love to do, yet another way to twist the knife, so to speak. “Since Armin doesn’t have claws we coded the guns to him and he usually carries a couple on him when he’s out in the wilderness, but he’s supposed to lock them up before we head back to the domes. He must have forgotten one he’d stashed about while we were staying here.”

Too bad they were too dangerous in the domes, since the weapons could have been useful back there. “I take it you don’t just have the usual ordinance in there?” Ymir gestured to the gun in Levi’s hand.

Mikasa appeared offended. “Of course not, the bullets are hollowpoint and pack quite a punch. A couple of headshots will slow a Malform down nicely… and they do a lot of damage to a vampire.”

Trust Sunshine and Rebel to think up something fun like that. Ymir shook her head and had to be grateful that she managed to get on their good side all those years ago.

Finished getting dressed, Jean leaned in to poke at the gun, which got him his hand swatted by not only Levi, but Eren and Mikasa as well. “Ow! That thing can do all that damage? Really?”

While Eren muttered under his breath about idiot horses, Mikasa sighed and patted her boyfriend’s arm. “With the right bullets and good aim, yes. Guns and other projectile weapons were banned because of how much damage they could do to the infrastructure of the domes, or worse, the people trapped inside.” She gestured to Levi. “You should give that to me so I can lock it up.”

Levi continued to hold on to it. “I’m not so sure.” He pursed his lips together as if thinking while he looked over at Sasha. “Hange told me about the damage one person with something similar to this did at our headquarters. You’re right, they’re a powerful weapon.”

“Which is more reason it should be locked up!”

He shook his head. “We’re not headed back to the dome just yet. Blouse!” Upon hearing her name, Sasha snapped out a quick salute. “Your coordination’s above average and you had good aim with those flares. Just how good are you with that crossbow?” He glanced at Eren, who had begun to frown but didn’t move to stop or argue with his boyfriend. “Well?”

Appearing stunned for a moment, Sasha blinked a couple of times and then smiled. “Sir! I always hit what I am for, sir!”

“Yeah, but this isn’t dinner,” he reminded her with a touch of bitterness.

“No, it’s survival,” she answered with a surprising seriousness for someone who often came across as a bit half-assed.

Levi grunted once and gave Eren a quizzical look. Eren’s expression remained the same for a moment and then he shrugged.

“Seriously? You’re going to let him give away one of our guns?”

Eren reached out to run the fingers of his right hand along his incredulous sister’s arm. “We’ll go outside and see how well she does with some targets, all right? If she’s as good as she says… what’s the point of letting them sit here unused? Might as well take them along and give the others a bit of a surprise, no?” He smiled at Mikasa until she shook her head and began to smile in return.

“Let me get the key that’ll code the gun for her, and some target bullets,” she said as she turned around. “But you’re still staying inside until we leave tomorrow!”

Eren sighed at the reminder that he wasn’t to risk leaving any more of a ‘trail’ as necessary and glanced at a beaming Sasha. “It’s going to be really loud, you know. There’s a reason we preferred that Armin used the thing.”

“Loud. Gotcha.” She appeared ready to snatch the gun away from Levi at any moment.

Levi clicked his tongue a couple of times and shook his head. “Have any mufflers?”

“Yeah, let me get what we use when we practice with Armin.” Eren set off toward where Mikasa had gone, while Ymir tapped Krista on the shoulder.

“Yes?”

“I wanna watch and see what happens,” Ymir explained. “Let me go fetch my gear.” She hadn’t seen anyone shoot a gun in ages, and this might be fun even if it was loud. “I want to see how good Annie Oakley is over there.”

Krista laughed as she tagged along. “Just remember, don’t make too much fun out of the girl who can shoot you.”

*If* she could shoot. Eren hadn’t warned her about the gun’s kick – he had probably forgotten all about it because of his hybrid strength, so this might be interesting….

*******

A loud groan slipped free from Hange as she arched her back to help work free some of the kinks that were a result of too much time spent huddled in front of monitors and various bits of lab equipment. However, a certain short, temperamental bastard would be pleased to know that she was done, and with… eh, with hours to spare. It was evening still, right? She didn’t think someone had been by with dinner yet, so it should still be evening.

She ran her fingers ever so gently over the rack of vials that she’d spent the last day and a half slaving away at, the ‘antidote’ and the ‘fuck-you-up’ doses, respectively. Well, the first really was more of a counteragent, since it wouldn’t be a hundred percent effective against whatever those undead assholes decided to shoot into poor Eren next time; there was no way even a humble yet brilliant genius like herself could anticipate everything, and she had limited resources here. She’d done her best, though, and it would help to keep the cutie’s brain from being any more scrambled.

Her touch lingered on the red-capped vials. Now it wasn’t often that she got to tread on the other side of the biochemical spectrum like this, not when it was damn near impossible to bring in a Malform for research in any form other than liquid and most of her efforts were in keeping her human comrades alive and well. She had to admit, there was a bit of vindictive fun in whipping up something that would indeed ‘fuck up’ the evil assholes who were behind so much of the suffering her friends had been through, to turn back on them their own weapon. If she had more time and access to better – ah well, she had to be thankful that Eren and Mikasa had adopted a scientific genius like Armin and encouraged him to work on figuring out what he could of Grisha’s research. The little she’d found of the ‘boy’s’ notes, Armin had a very good basis down and probably would have been running Trost University within five years.

She lingered over the vials for a few more seconds before she busied with cleaning up the lab, returning various compounds back to their rightful place and wiping things down; she missed Moblit, who usually did a lot of this for her, and hoped that he was doing well. She also hoped that Erwin, Mike and the rest of the 104th was doing all right, and wondered how Erwin had taken their message the other day. Well, a couple of days. Time was a little odd out in the wilderness, especially when you were on the run. Hange hoped that they reached Shiganshina soon but knew they still had some distance to go, which was so damn annoying. She *wanted* to see what it was that Grisha had left behind for Eren, wanted to know if it was a cure or some new type of medicine or something to wipe out the vampires and Malforms completely. There was so much they didn’t know, and it was clear that Grisha had been a lot further along than anyone else – had there been some reason why he’d injected just Eren with his formula besides a father’s love for his son? Ymir had confessed that she’d been told that the vampires had been working with the humans to figure out a way to stop the Malforms and so knew that Grisha was close to some sort of breakthrough. Did that mean he he’d done what he’d did to Eren in order to hide his results from them?

Hange was so tempted to try one of the vials from the gun on Ymir, to see how much the drug affected a vampire as opposed to a vampire hybrid, since her theory was that Ymir would be affected much worse than Eren had by the psychotropic compounds. Just the little she could tell from the sample Ymir had given her indicated that was the case, but it would be best to see how it affected the chemical reactions in the brain and not just the blood. However, Ymir was a capable fighter and so far trustworthy, so Hange didn’t have an excuse to tear the vampire’s mind apart just for a ‘test’, dammit. No, best to wait for another attack and then she could compare the ‘old’ dose to the ‘new’ dose. Hmm, maybe she should add some sort of tagging agent, too, so everyone knew to leave the poor test subjects alive long enough for her to collect the sampling data she needed as well.

She paused to jot down a few notes before she finished up for the time being and then headed for the door. About to go join everyone in the kitchen, she remembered Levi’s complaint about needing a shower and returned back to the lab so she could fetch a fresh set of clothes and then set out for the bathroom, which she found empty; some people were just too finicky, it wasn’t as if she reeked or anything, right? Normally, she knew it was bad when people pressed against the walls to let her pass or abandoned their meals when she showed up in the mess hall, and she doubted that she was at that point yet. Some people were just too damn OCD for their own good, but she supposed that the stress of the mission and all was probably getting to her sweetie at the moment.

However it *was* nice to have access to hot water, she did have to admit. Hot water, decent soap and soft towels, luxuries that weren’t to be found while outside a dome and even then were iffy in certain ones. Once she was certain that she would pass the ‘grumpy bastard’ test, she dried off, dressed and went in search of everyone else.

The scent of frying fish filled the air, so Hange followed her nose, which lead her out to the main room to find… Jean sliding along the floor as Levi did something to send the poor kid almost head-first into one of the couches that had been pushed aside to clear an area large enough for what looked to be hand to hand combat practice. Everyone except Eren was standing around in a circle: there was a sympathetic expression on Sasha and Krista’s faces, a wince on Connie’s, an unimpressed look on Rico’s while Mikasa stared on blankly and Ymir laughed. “Oh, yeah, way to go, Mr. Ed. Trip the assholes for the rest of us to kick ‘em while they’re down.”

“Ymir,” Mikasa warned while Jean stumbled to his feet, his face red and sweaty.

“What? I’m being serious, from what I’m seeing it’s your boyfriend’s best chance at an offensive attack, Sunshine.”

“He just got lucky,” Jean insisted as he held up his arms in a defensive position.

Connie’s wince grew more exaggerated as he shook his head. “I think we bought that the first five times he knocked you down, but not the last ten.” When Jean shot him a nasty glare, Connie shrugged but didn’t look away. “Hey, better you than me getting your ass kicked.”

“I’m not getting my ass-“ Too busy talking and not paying attention, Jean missed Levi’s foot lashing out at his head and ended up going down like a sack of wet laundry.

Mikasa shouted out her boyfriend’s name and rushed to his side while Connie made a groaning sound and Krista gasped. Hange took the opportunity to stroll over to Levi, who was poised on the balls of his feet as if waiting for a counterattack and smiled. “Having fun?”

“Shitty MPs don’t teach their recruits a damn thing other than how to kiss ass,” Levi muttered. “Blouse could wipe the floor with them, especially if we offered her an *omelet* afterwards.” His words made Sasha stand up straighter and beam with pride, while for some reason Mikasa, in the process of wiping away the blood trailing from Jean’s bloody lip, paused so she could scowl at Levi with her now glowing, golden eyes.

“Du verdammtes Arschloch” she snarled as she twisted about to stand on her feet, her clawed hands now reaching for him. “Ich werde dich ausweiden-“

All of a sudden Eren was in the room, the white and blue apron he’d tied over the loose grey sweatpants and blue t-shirt he was wearing fluttering about from the speed of his arrival. “Ah! No bloodshed before dinner, okay? It’ll freak out the horses and it’s a bitch to clean up.” As if without a care, he got between his sister and Levi and shoved the two apart.

“Weißt du was er getan hat?” Mikasa still sounded furious, but at least she wasn’t still trying to claw Levi’s smirking face to shreds.

Eren sighed as he caught at her hands and gave them a squeeze. “Nein, ich weiß nur, dass du diesen Morgen angefangen hast, richtig?” Whatever he said made his sister blush and hang her head. “Dinner’s just about done,” he replied a moment later so everyone could understand. “Lots of fried fish and croquettes.” He gave Mikasa’s hands another squeeze.

She was still for a second or two before she lifted her head and smiled at him. “Thank you.”

“So no more practice? Seems to me that some people who didn’t get nice, shiny weapons could really use it.” Ymir reached behind Krista to give Connie a poke on the right shoulder, which made the poor kid yelp in surprise.

“Hey! I was kicking ass the last time we fought,” Connie insisted.

“No, you were hiding up in the trees and using flares to save said ass,” Ymir reminded him. “It was a smart defense, I’ll give you that, but you’re fucked if caught on the ground. Well, actually, you’ll be drained dry and ripped apart, being fucked is just a figurative thing unless you’re Rebel.”

“Ymir,” Eren snarled as he pressed the heel of his clawed right hand against the space between his eyes, a hint of brilliant light seeping through his closed lashes while beside him, an aura of utter rage radiated from Levi. “You… I just… so *much* regret right now.”

When she laughed at his response, Hange was quick to step forward before there really was bloodshed. “Ah, well, how about we get just a little practice in before dinner, right?” She was thinking that there was going to be some wine opened soon to help cool some tempers down, but before then, it wouldn’t hurt to improve their skills and work out some aggression. “Mikasa, you can look after Jean while I train Connie, all right? Levi, that leaves you with Sasha since Ymir *and* Krista will practice with Rico.” She figured having Krista on hand would tamper Ymir’s destructive impulses somewhat. “So, half an hour and then we’ll eat?” That last was directed toward Eren.

The light in his eyes cooled off a little as he glanced her way. “That should be okay, I’ll get everything set up so dinner’s ready as soon as you’re done. Just… no one kill each other before then. No need to do the others a favor,” he muttered as he went to jerk his fingers through his hair, only to stop just in time. The aborted habit made Levi smile, his own right hand rising toward Eren’s forehead before the cutie caught it and made a hissing sound. Levi continued to smile as he pulled Eren in for a brief kiss.

“All right, Blouse, let’s see what you’ve got. Come at me as if there’s a steak dinner riding on you landing a hit.”

Hange nearly laughed when Sasha rushed forward with a hopeful expression on her face. “Yes, sir!” Meanwhile, Connie eyed Hange’s approach with something resembling trepidation.

“Aw, come on, how bad can I be?” she asked as she held her hands out loosely by her side.

“No offense, ma’am, but we’ve all heard about how crazy you are, how you took on six Malforms just by yourself back in Maria that one time.” Connie’s form was good, but he was too tentative. As Levi would say, time to smack some fight into the kid. “I’m not sure you’re that much of an improvement over Captain Ackerman.”

He seemed to be trying to feint to the left where there was more clutter in the way, which would limit Hange’s longer range; the kid was smart, but again, he was too tentative, was dragging things out too long. “My sweetie *is* in a league of his own,” she admitted, right before she pretended to fall for his feint and then blurred into motion, her right leg sweeping out to knock Connie off-balance and then her left arm shoving him hard onto the floor, where she followed to pin him down with her hand clamped around his neck. “But both of us learned that being crazy, determined and strong won’t stop a vampire from taking you down, so that’s why we’re going to pound you into the ground every opportunity we get.” She smiled down at him while her claws pricked his neck, and he stared up at her with eyes gone wide in a face drained of blood. “Honestly, it’s done with love,” she insisted, then shrugged when she heard someone grunt from the impact of being slammed into the hard floor, followed by one of Levi’s disgusted tongue clicks. “Okay, love, amusement and a sense of ‘you guys suck’.”

“You really do,” Ymir chimed in as she dodged a kick from Rico. “Well, some more than others. Dollface might last a whole minute.”

“Please, stop with… the praise,” Rico gasped as she continued to lash out with feet and hands while Ymir danced about just out of reach.

Connie’s hands tugged at Hange’s on his throat as he seemed to grow more determined than shocked. “Well, can’t let an Engineer show me up, right?”

She laughed as she let go and jumped onto her feet, then circled back a little to give him space. “That’s the spirit!”

“Uhm, will I really get a steak dinner if I land a hit on you?”

“…. Fucking babies…..”

*******

Erwin watched as the bots scurried about, busy on both the ground and the halfway finished wall; Moblit examined their programs daily to ensure that there were no ‘viruses’ to throw in any surprises with the new construction, but Erwin preferred to have someone watching over them just the same. While Lauda was doing a good job of overseeing the machines, Erwin had a few minutes to spare from his hectic schedule to enjoy a bit of… well, fresher air and feel some of the weight on his shoulders lessen as the walls that helped protect his people slowly rose higher.

Besides, there would be a visitor stopping by any moment now.

The wall rose another few centimeters by the time that Anka strode forward, a slight smile on her face as she surveyed the construction and the bots in particular. “Ah, the Aughtzeds; they’re pretty reliable if not the fastest construbots out there.”

“After everything that’s happened lately, I’ll take reliable,” Erwin replied with a slight smile of his own, and even added a bit more pronounced bow. “Thank you for coming, I appreciate the opinion of an Engineer in the hopes that these walls will last a long time.”

“Barring any more restricted class explosives being lobbed at them.” Anka had the grace to wince at her poor joke even as she resumed her scrutiny of the walls, the excuse for this meeting; considering that the MP had dropped the charges against Erwin and never attempted to take Pixis into custody, Erwin hoped to give Chairman Fritz and his ministers little reason to target the Engineers in the near future and keep the focus on himself instead. He would gladly act as a diversion for the vampire’s minions, especially since it seemed that true progress was being made outside of the dome… and beneath it.

Under the pretext of a closer examination of the new construction, Erwin and Anka walked along the wall, where the hum of the bots along with the racket from their work would drown out the sound of any conversation. “So, how are things progressing?”

Anka frowned as she bent down to pick up a loose piece of concrete and then held it up for inspection. “We managed to investigate only a little bit inside the tunnel network, and that was with bots of our own. What we found….” Her lips pressed together for a few seconds before she dropped the rubble and then brushed her hands clean with a bit too much force. “It’s clear that they were keeping the Malforms in the tunnels, and that they were freshly turned. From the bit of debris the bots recovered, we believe that they… well, when they were human that is… the poor things were from Ragako and Utgard.”

It took a force of effort for Erwin to keep his expression even, to keep up the mask of polite interest as they went about this pretense. “So the tunnels do in fact connect that far.”

“That’s our belief, since it’s the easiest and quickest way to get them from the domes without using some sort of shuttle, and that would have set off alerts if something tried to land near a dome.” The Engineer paused to run her hands along the wall as if feeling for irregularities; even if it was a pretense, her being here to inspect the new wall, she seemed to take the task to heart. “Unfortunately, there’s so many traps that the bots can’t advance too far, and it’s too dangerous for us to enter ourselves. Commander Pixis refuses to ‘throw people away on what is clearly a suicide mission’ at this point.” She spoke the words in an almost teasing tone, but from the way her brows drew together, Erwin knew that the orders were not well-received.

“Armin did warn that the tunnels would be rigged to deter Mikasa from following that way, so it shouldn’t be a surprise,” he offered as they neared the end of the repaired outer wall. “It’s why they went through the gate.”

“I know, and at this point in time we don’t want to go too far ourselves and reveal that we know about the entire network.” Anka indicated that they should turn around so she could go over the wall again. “It’s just… I imagine it’s like coming across the ocean for the first time, and only being able to dip your toes into the water.” She gave Erwin a wry grin. “I want to swim in it, to build a ship and see how far I can go.”

He laughed a little at the analogy. “You and every other Engineer I imagine, including Pixis.” He knew how much the older man had wanted to find those tunnels, and even though they had been handed the secrets by Mikasa, they still had to take it slow rather than risk unwanted attention from certain Chairmen or worse, the vampires. “Unfortunately, I agree with your Commander.”

Anka’s shoulders slumped forward for a few steps, until she sighed and kicked at a piece of debris. “We all understand why, but it’s a difficult thing to accept when we’ve spent so much effort dredging the sewers for some hidden panel leading to the tunnels.”

Effort and blood. “Still, you have the knowledge now, and with a bit more patience you’ll be able to put it to good use,” Erwin assured the young woman. “Just not when it’s likely you’ll walk right into maws of a horde of Malforms.”

That earned him a weak laugh in response. “Very true.” Anka patted the wall before she turned to face Erwin. “It looks good. If anything, it’ll still be standing while the rest crumbles around it.”

“That’s reassuring to hear!” Erwin bowed his head in thanks. “I appreciate you taking the time to come and look at it for us.”

“Eh, it beats checking out the same old perimeter or prowling the sewers for Malforms.” She waved in goodbye and headed for the front gate. Erwin watched her leave and continued to monitor the bots while they worked, until Mike joined him a few minutes later with Lauda trailing behind him.

While the shorter man took guard over the bots, Erwin and his taciturn friend paced a similar path to what he and Anka had done just a short while ago. “It looks as if the vampires used the people of the Ragako and Utgard domes as more than just food, they’re using them against us.” There was no reason to soften the blow for Mike, not after all of the years they’d fought together, after all of the horrors they’d seen. Still, Erwin had to wonder why it was that those horrors never stopped….

As always, Mike digested the news in silence, but the reaction there if you knew him in the way his hooded eyes narrowed even more, his lips pressed together in a thin line. He could make the simplest ‘huh’ such an eloquent answer of disgust and anger to the point that Erwin had to smile despite the situation.

“Yes, my thoughts exactly.” He smiled some more when Mike slanted him a look that clearly said he wasn’t amused, and Erwin’s good humor melted away as he focused on the depressing topic. “One has to wonder how many of those poor people are left down there. We’ve faced a good many of Malforms over the last several weeks.”

“Then there’s Levi,” Mike offered as they continued on past the repaired portion of the wall.

“One can’t forget about him,” Erwin admitted with a sense of frustration. “The Engineers can’t venture too far into the tunnels, not without risking their own lives or alerting the vampires, but yes, I have to wonder how many have gone off with the two who attacked our base.” His fist clenched at the thought of the lives lost that day. “Dammit, I wish the bastard would send us another message.”

Mike grunted softly as he smoothed his hands along the top of his blades. “Lot of space out there.”

“I know, and there’s no telling where he’s going so as to predict the nearest supply station.” Oh, Erwin could force some sort of definitive answer out of Armin if he pressed hard… but sometimes it was best to be able to claim ignorance in these things. He could still be called before the Chairman and the Ministers about his wayward Captains, and as it stood right now he could face them with a smile while he told them that he had no clue where they were other than ‘outside’.

He’d long ago learned to take joy in the little things.

The heavy sigh from Mike shook Erwin from his thoughts. “Yes?”

Mike’s thick bangs flared about as he shook his head. “Always causing trouble. Should’ve gone with those two.”

The forlorn answer startled a laugh from Erwin. “Sorry, but you’re stuck here with me and my trouble-making,” he informed his friend as he slapped Mike on the back. That earned him another weary sigh, which helped to restore Erwin’s good mood. “Come on, do you really want to be out there with Levi when he runs out of tea?”

There was a low grumbling sound from Mike which meant that Erwin had won the argument. “I thought so.” Erwin gave his friend another pat on the shoulder before they parted, him for his office to deal with even more paperwork and Mike to continue his surveillance of the grounds. Some days the job never seemed to end, but he couldn’t imagine his life without the Corps. At least now it seemed as if all he’d given up for the organization was finally bearing some fruit.

But dammit, would it kill Levi to send him another message?

*******

Zyanya continued to pace back and forth, which distracted Fatima from the book she hoped to lose herself in for the day. “I don’t think that’s going to make the time go by any faster,” she informed her friend.

A slight blush spread across Zyanya’s high cheekbones as she paused for a moment. “I’m sorry, but I find it difficult to just sit and do nothing. How soon do you think Nadia will return with a message?”

“As swiftly as she can.” The answer hadn’t changed upon repetition, but Fatima understood what weighed down on her friend, what weighed down on them all; something had caused Jäger’s trail to vanish in the last two nights, after the disastrous attempt by Indira and the others to capture him. After the Mutates had failed to find a trail the first night, Reiner, Bertolt and Hal had been sent out to the hybrid’s last location, only to report that any and all trace of scent had been obliterated, and all hopes of tracking him by visual means had been erased by rain and wildlife.

Fatima was used to being among the cleverest people around, and it looked as if Jäger had gathered some very clever people of his own to his side; he and his sister had always done an excellent job of making themselves a challenge to pin down, but Indira had insisted that some of those on Jäger’s part had been killed and wounded, and Jäger himself at least partially tagged by Jonah’s sedative. That they had still been in good enough shape to not only flee but to put some thought on how to do so well enough to cause this much difficulty…..

Zyanya had managed about a dozen more passes before they were joined by Zeki, the elder vampire’s face even more of an impassive mask than usual. “Sir?” Fatima asked as she rose from the chair where she’d been reading.

Zeki made a curt motion with his left hand. “It appears that we won’t be leaving soon, so you are to work on producing more of the drug,” he ordered. “I want enough to be able to equip several guns and to keep Jäger subdued for months.”

As she nodded in acceptance, Zyanya took a cautious step forward. “Sir… we’re not leaving? What about tracking the boy down?”

Her audaciousness earned her a virulent look, one that made her bow her head so fast that her chin smacked into her chest. “Are you questioning me?”

“No… no, sir! I just… I don’t understand,” Zyanya whined as she fell to her knees.

For a moment Fatima feared that Zeki would lash out at the poor girl, but instead he sighed and tucked his clawed hands into the voluminous sleeves of his dark grey robe. “Shen’s returned with new instructions from the Elder,” he explained, a slight crease forming between his dark brows the only sign of what must be the annoyance that he felt. “We are not to waste any more resources or risk… more temptation by chasing after Jäger, but will meet up with the Elder at what he feels to be the boy’s final destination now that he’s laid a strong enough path to follow. “

“Even with his sudden disappearance?” Fatima risked Zeki’s and even the Elder’s displeasure by pointing out the recent development. “He might be backtracking right now or switching direction.”

Zeki frowned as he hugged his arms close to his body. “A valid observation, but no, I don’t believe so, not after chasing after him for so long. Jäger is too direct, too brash a fighter – even his sister is one to go right for the throat when she is in the mood for a kill. They can melt with the shadows when they need to lick their wounds, but they always return on target sooner or later.” For the first time since he had entered the room, he smiled as if in anticipation. “For all their denial, such true killers they are. Jäger will be magnificent once he’s properly broken.”

Fatima wondered to whom the girl had been promised, but supposed it wasn’t a concern of hers, not as long as the drug worked as it should. It did sound as if Zeki would take part in ensuring that Jäger would soon learn what it meant to be a vampire.

“So the research is in Shiganshina?” Zyanya dared to look up from her spot on the floor.

“Yes, or at least the first vital clue to find it will be there. We will unearth it and Jäger,” Zeki assured them.

Fatima bowed her head. “I will have everything ready within two days.”

“Good. The sooner we can join the others, the better.” Zeki nodded once before leaving, the hem of his robe flaring around him from the haste of his steps.

Zyanya remained kneeling for a moment before she rose up, her movements slow as if something caused her pain. “I better see to the Mutates, then, if we’ll be here a little longer.”

Fatima didn’t watch her leave, being too busy gathering the supplies she needed to work on creating more drugs; it was enough to hope for a future where she could roam free in the sunlight, but to face the wrath of the Elder if she failed? She would work without rest if she had to in order to complete the task as soon as possible.

*******

Levi left the showers with a feeling of regret; sure, he could probably wash off again before they rode away in the morning, but it would be a couple more days at least before they reached another supply station and had a chance at hot water. As much as he loved the freedom of the wilderness, he was getting to a point in his life where hot water was a daily requirement.

Eren was waiting for him in the bedroom, already clean and dressed only in a pair of plaid boxers and a dark blue t-shirt, busy tapping away on a datapad. He didn’t even bother to look up when Levi entered the room, at least until Levi asked him something.

“So, tell me you’re still not doing the cold water bath thing while out of the dome all the time.” Levi remembered Eren complaining about it a few times.

“Eh?” Eren blinked as if confused and set the tablet aside. “Cold water?” He stared as Levi rubbed at his wet hair with a towel and must have figured things out. “Oh, yeah, no thanks, it was bad enough for about a century or so, been there and done that. If we’re not in one of our safe places like this, then I think we’ve mapped out just about every hot spring in the Northern Hemisphere.” Eren grew quiet for a moment, and then a tentative smile crept across his lips as he reached over to tug on the edges of Levi’s towel. “There’s… there’s one or two not too far away from here, you know, and some really spectacular ones up north. Maybe… maybe when… I mean, not to jinx anything, but….”

Levi let go of the towel so he could snatch at the brat’s hand instead. “Once we get back to Trost with whatever the hell Grisha stashed away, running off to some ‘spectacular’ hot spring sounds just about right – we’ll need an escape from Hange’s latest science freak-out and Erwin’s plotting.” He couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken any time off for himself, but fuck it, he was more than owed it at this point. Time away from the shitstorm that a potential cure would unless upon the domes *and* Mikasa? Yeah, it would be worth the trip to wherever those hot springs were, however far away.

The smile Eren gave him just then was… was almost painful, the way something in Levi’s chest clenched at the sight of it. Those gorgeous eyes were huge, were shining so bright and golden that he could just stare into them all night. In fact, he *was* staring into them, and was startled when he felt the touch of fingers sliding into his damp hair.

“You actually give me hope that we’re going to pull off this insane… this insanity,” Eren whispered as he tugged Levi closer, his expression fey despite the almost forlorn tone to his words. “That we’ll get in and out of Shiganshina, back to Trost and then can do whatever we want.”

Sinking down onto the bed, Levi pulled Eren onto his lap. “And what did you believe would happen before?”

Eren sighed as he settled down, his arms wrapped around Levi’s shoulders. “I… I guess all that mattered was that I fought on. We tried to figure out Grisha’s legacy, but it seemed too ephemeral while the fighting, that was real. Now, I might have to choose between the two.” He chewed his bottom lip as he stared at Levi. “I don’t want what that bastard couldn’t just hand over centuries ago to cost me… well….” He ducked his head so that the damp, unrestrained strands hid his face.

Levi brushed them back to tuck them behind his lover’s left ear. “It won’t come down to that, you’ll see. I’ve fought too long to let a bunch of assholes win out in the end, your father included. Doubt me and I’ll kick your ass.”

The familiar threat brought a smile back to Eren’s face as he raised his chin. “Ah, I should have known better.” He reached with his right hand to rest it over the bag Levi wore beneath his white t-shirt. “Who needs to worry about a horde of vampires or controlled Malform, hmm?”

“You’re learning – slow as fuck, but you’re learning, brat.” Levi inhaled, and savored the scent of clean skin, mint shampoo and something that was pure Eren. “Maybe you’re not as senile as I feared.” It was so fun to see the way that Eren allowed his emotions to flash across his face, the disbelief followed by indignation and then a heated resolve.

“’Senile’, eh? You know what?” Eren made as if to pull away, but Levi latched on to his waist to keep him there. “I think I need to take a nap since I’m feeling my age.”

“Oh, there will be some ‘feeling’ going on.” Levi arched his eyebrows as his hands roamed downward to cup his lover’s firm ass.

Eren stared at him for a few seconds, his expression back to disbelief as he shook his head. “Oh my…. Did that sound good in your head? Really?”

Levi clicked his tongue as he fell back onto the bed with Eren held close. “Doesn’t matter, you’re still here, right?”

Things were quiet after that, and then Eren began to laugh. “Okay, I’ll give you that.” He leaned down to nuzzle at Levi’s jawline. “Though it’s not for the scintillating bedroom talk.”

“Then it must be for my amazing co-“

Levi found himself silenced by a kiss, Eren’s mouth hot and ardent on his own. He slid his right hand beneath his lover’s boxers as Eren settled more on top of him, determined to enjoy the bit of time they had before their ‘shift’; a small part of him still feared what might come with the new day, that something would happen to take Eren away from him, but more and more…. More and more having Eren like this, at his side or writhing against him, so passionate and unpredictable, was as much a requirement as his daily shower. Damn brats and their gorgeous eyes and tight asses and fucked up sense of humor-

Eren gasped as he was rolled onto his back, his legs lifting to wrap around Levi’s thighs while the bit of his eyes visible beneath heavy eyelids shone a bright and pure gold. His clawed hands reached for Levi, mindful of fragile skin, and pulled him down, pulled him into feverish heat and against a chest within which a heart thundered with a racing beat. Levi settled as his mouth set out to find an echo of that heartbeat, to feel it against his lips and tongue, his hands slipping beneath cloth to stroke along smooth, heated skin as he lost himself in the sense of contentment found between the two of them.

*******

Rough translations:

Maybe Annie’s right. Maybe I should have been letting more of these idiots get wiped out.

Could have saved how many damn limbs over the years if I’d just listened.

No appreciation of the classics, eh?

I think someone’s taken the lousy plot of these books to heart.

’I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.’

Fuck! Get down!

You damn asshole.

I’m going to gut-

Do you know what he did?

No, just that you started it this morning, right?

*******

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