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chapter two

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demons

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Levi woke to the sight of two anxious Petras leaning over as they fussed with the blankets covering him, their hair falling forward in an auburn blur the longer he stared at them. “… the fu….” A dry throat made him cough, which in turn led him to wondering if there were any sharp objects around so he could stab himself in the leg as a distraction to the current agony in his head. Oh, he was going to *eviscerate* that brat….

“Sir? Are you all right?”

Opening eyes that had been clenched tightly shut from the pain, he was grateful to see that there was only one Petra now, though anxious enough for two of them. “Yeah.” His head felt as if it had been slammed against a stone wall a few times, but that was nothing new – occupational hazard, per Hange. Limbs trembling from the pain, he attempted to sit up. “What the hell happened?” The room spun a bit and became out of focus, but he managed to lift up a few inches and stay there.

“Captain! I’m not sure- wait until I get Captain Hange!” Petra fled the room, and he thought he saw Oluo lurking near the doorway as she darted through it.

Wonderful, now his headache was about to get worse. Wondering what the hell he must have been in a past life to make this one so determined to have him suffer, Levi gave in and fell back onto the bed, letting out a curse as his sore head hit the pillow. Still, since his head and to a slighter extent his left arm were the only things bothering him, he had to assume that the brat hadn’t torn out his throat and treated him as a nice drink. Or had his mind finally snapped after so many years fighting monsters and losing the only people he cared about that he’d imagined the entire thing after he’d slipped in the shower? What the hell had happened between him being knocked out and ending up in the Corps’ lame excuse of a recovery room?

While he was pondering that question, Hange burst into the room with her usual enthusiasm and then had the gall to seem annoyed that he was alive. “Oh, you look well.” She frowned as she approached the bed, her hands stuffed inside the pockets of the white lab coat that she was wearing over her uniform. “Head still hurt? Feeling like your usual homicidal self yet?”

“Yes to both, now come here so I can throttle you,” he gritted out as he struggled to sit up. Dammit, why did head wounds take such a long recovery? You’d think that they could do something about them by now. “Give me something for the pain, you sadistic bitch.”

A beatific smile spread across Hange’s plain face. “Ah, ah, ah, you know how this works,” she cooed as she held up the injector in her right hand and dared to wave it back and forth just out reach. “Who am I and where are you?”

Oh for the- Levi took a deep, semi-calming breath and promised himself that one day, *one* day he would make good on that threat to throttle her. “You are the pain in the ass that Erwin Smith inflicted upon me for some reason I will beat out of him yet, and we’re here in the Freedom Corps’ headquarters in Trost. That good enough for you?”

She shrugged and finally stepped forward to give him the god-damned shot with obvious reluctance. “Eh, it doesn’t sound like that blow to the head did any more damage than usual.” As she pressed the injector against his left shoulder, Levi realized that his entire left arm and shoulder were a mass of bruises in a pattern similar to his gauntlet. Huh, guess the head wound had been more serious than he thought. “So, you going to tell me what happened last night?”

Sighing in relief as the pain washed out of him as if water draining away, Levi slumped forward and ran his hands through his hair, fingers rubbing against the shaved undercut for a few seconds. “You go first. Who found me?”

The room was quiet for a minute, save for Hange shuffling about, and then she dropped a folded uniform onto the bed beside him. Since he’d been cleaned while being patched up, he figured he might as well get dressed and return to duty. “Funny that you should ask that. Becker and Martina were on rotation in the section where you were found and came across you and the liquefied remains of a Malform.” He looked up while pulling the uniform onto his lap to find Hange staring at him with a blank expression. “From what they could tell, you managed to decapitate it while midair, but it must have put up a fight and slammed you into a wall at some point. You passed out shortly afterward without either making it back to the ground or going up higher, and were hanging suspended. Your gauntlet took the brunt of your weight, but if you hadn’t been discovered within an hour or so, you would have dislocated your shoulder or worse.”

Well, that explained the sore arm; gauntlets were designed to bear the brunt of the weight while swinging and being pulled up heights, but they weren’t a long-term, dangle forever type of gear. Levi began to dress, feeling more certain that he hadn’t imagined last night and thoughts busy on how the brat put so much effort into covering his tracks. That wasn’t the work of a mindless Malform, that took intelligence. “So they brought me back here?”

“Yeah.” Of course Hange didn’t bother to look aside as Levi stood up to pull on his pants, she merely raised an eyebrow and then made a show of yawning, the bitch. “You might find it interesting that Mike was present at the time and said that you smelled ‘odd’.”

That earned a snort of derision while Levi stepped into his boots. “*Mike* is odd.” Did he smell the brat? What did a blood-drinking, wall-clinging kid with eyes like glowing honey smell like?

“Oh sweetie, we *all* are odd,” Hange pointed out with conviction. “That’s why Erwin keeps us.”

There wasn’t much sense in arguing with that statement, so Levi saved the energy so he could finish healing and sat back down to finish with his boots. “What’s so funny about me taking out a Malform and being brought back here, other than Mike’s freaky nose?” he asked once he was finished dressing save for his jacket, gauntlet and weapons. All it took was for him to look around a couple of times for Hange to motion to a cupboard over to the right.

“Hmm, maybe because I know you better than you like, and I can’t see one little Malform giving you enough grief to render you unconscious.” She leaned back on the bed and batted her eyes, probably trying for a sexy pose but only looking more demented than normal. “Come on, it’s just you, me and the bed, you know you wanna spill your guts and confide in me the deepest depths of your depraved soul.” She even stuck out the pathetic excuse of her chest as if she thought that would help.

He hadn’t nearly been given enough pain meds today, Levi thought to himself as he paused in slipping on the gauntlet to rub at his face. When he was done, he looked back at a leering Hange and once again wondered what he’d done to deserve this present life and the insane bastards who populated it. When Erwin had dragged him out of the all-too appropriately named Tartarus dome and forced him into a Freedom Corps uniform, he’d also inflicted Hange on him to ‘show him the ropes’. At first Levi had thought the insane woman was clinging to him and- to him out of some weird type of pity, what with the constant attention and inane chatter, but then he realized that she was much like that with everyone and that it must be some bizarre type of experiment to see how long it took for people to break down in the face of her psychotic personality. He became determined then and there to skew her test results in the worst possible manner and never break under the onslaught… but damn if it wasn’t difficult some days, and dammit if she hadn’t grown on him over the years. He never thought he’d consider the science-obsessed psycho a friend.

Which was why he actually found himself pulling up a chair and, after ensuring that it was up to his standards of cleanliness, sat down in it with his arms folded over the back. “So you think something else happened last night?” If he truly had imagined the brat, Hange would call his mind on its bullshit.

“Definitely. No one as strong and skilled as you would let a measly undead freak take him down.” Hange continued her pose for a few more seconds before laughing, folding forward until her arms wrapped around her knees. “Seriously, you’re more a killing machine than they are.”

Since he knew that she meant it as a compliment, he nodded once and ran his right hand through his hair, mindful that he was still missing his gloves. “All right, but don’t go running around babbling about this, okay?” When she merely grinned in response, he glared and stabbed his right index finger in her direction. “Promise me, or die of curiosity.”

A loud, drawn out gasp squeezed its way out of Hange. “Oh! Add cruel and manipulative to all those other adjectives,” she said with a pout. However, she was soon back to her annoying, bouncy self. “But I love you that way, so spill!”

Definitely not enough pain meds, Levi told himself. “You remember that brat who was dumb enough to mess with the MPs but smart enough to take off with your books?” He couldn’t shake the image of those eyes, so big and golden in a face that seemed so young and innocent, the garish contrast of all that blood and those teeth….

Hange began to actually bounce on the damn bed; someone better disinfect it really well before they brought in a new patient. “Oh! The pretty blond or the cute brunet?” When he resumed glaring at her, she laughed and clapped her hands together. “Aw, you know they both were pretty, why do you think I called you a pervert for noticing them?” she snickered.

“How pretty would you think they are after seeing one of them rip out the throat of a Malform and drink its blood?” He could still recall the undead freak’s weak struggles and the sound it made as it hit the ground. “Fuck,” he groaned as he rubbed at his own throat, which ached at the thought of how he might have been the next meal.

“Which one?”

It took a few seconds for Levi to realize that Hange was asking him something. “Huh?”

She put her feet down on the floor and leaned forward, her hands resting on her knees. “Which one? The blond or the brunet. You said ‘brat’, singular, so which one preyed on the Malform.” There was a familiar gleam in her brown eyes, the one she got when she felt she was about to unlock a great scientific secret – or about to unleash mass chaos.

Feeling that he might be setting loose the latter, Levi wondered if it wasn’t too late to crawl back into bed and feign unconsciousness. “The brunet with the big eyes. I interrupted his meal and before I could drag him back here for you to dissect or whatever, he knocked me out. Must have been him who strung me up and killed the Malform, too,” he admitted with a touch of reluctance; it wasn’t so much that someone had gotten past his guard, but a damn kid who was probably half his age.

However, he was spared any teasing from Hange over that fact as she only nodded a few times and mumbled something to herself for at least a minute, until Levi got tired of the extra-crazy routine. “Oi! You gonna share?”

At first it seemed as if she was going to continue to ignore him, at which point he started to rise from the chair. “Apex predator.”

“What? Don’t speak nonsense,” he complained as he shoved the chair back to the desk and leaned against that instead.

Hange pushed up her glasses and motioned at his weapons, which were still on the shelf. “Apex predator, which is the top predator in the food chain. For millennia, you could say humans were that, to the point that we ruined our environment and killed off thousands of species. Maybe that’s why the Malforms came into being, as a way to cull us back into sustainable numbers. Only now, there seems to be a new apex predator, something that can hunt and feed off of Malforms.”

Fuck, it sounded like she truly believed him; she even had a working, albeit insane theory for what he’d seen. The sad thing was, as bugshit crazy as Hange’s theories could be, they often were proven true if given enough time and effort. Levi wondered if Erwin still had any of that whisky left as he fetched his blades. “And what if this apex predator decides he wants to snack on something other than Malforms?”

Hange jumped to her feet and followed him out of the recovery room. “He left you alive, didn’t he? I would take that as a ‘no’, at least for now.” Once they were out of the room, she smiled in the face of his warning look and made a show of pressing her lips together. “So, if you’re feeling up to it, I’d suggest you have something to eat. Maybe a nice warm drink, too, if you have anything *special*.” Judging from the way her left eye was twitching, the bitch was alluding to what he had stashed in his room and the way she’d kept *that* a secret. Not like she had much of a choice, as she was complicit as hell in raiding that warehouse back in Nedehl, and ‘accidentally’ forgetting to tell Erwin about the crate of tea when they turned over everything else.

About to start ranting that it was the people he worked with whom made him so glad that he routinely smacked his head into walls, Levi found himself stopped after just a few words when Keji came racing toward them. Appearing flushed from the run, Keji made frantic motions toward them and then back in the way he had just come. “Captains! Commander Smith needs to see you both right now!”

Sharing a grim look with Hange, Levi hurried down the hall toward Erwin’s office with Hange right beside him. Somehow, he doubted Erwin was that concerned about his health and wanted an immediate update – had someone else seen the brat last night? Or had there been a feeding in broad daylight?

Erwin was busy on the vidcom as they entered the tiny office, so Levi and Hange remained close to the wall while he finished the conversation. Hange sprawled on one of the chairs as if she lacked both bones and nerves while Levi didn’t want to waste the effects of the pain meds so leaned against the wall instead.

“Keep me updated.” Erwin ended the call and then covered his eyes with his left hand, quiet for a moment as if gathering his thoughts. Unused to seeing his friend at a loss of words like this, Levi fought the urge to reach for his blades in reassurance and folded his arms across his chest instead, the fingers of his right hand stroking along his gauntlet. Letting out a slow breath, Erwin sat up straight in his chair and turned to face them.

“That was Shadis. He called to let me know that the Ragako dome has taken heavy casualties from Malforms within the last twenty four hours and that there’s been no contact with the Utgard dome at all.” Erwin’s hands folded beneath his chin and his demeanor was calm, as if he was reporting on the usual rotation status and not the loss of thousands of lives; Levi recognized the mask after years of working together and knew that behind the seemingly placid exterior, Erwin’s brilliant mind was trying to connect the pieces together on what was happening and why.

Hange shoved her chair back against the wall and jumped to her feet, too upset to stay still. “They’re doing it again.”

“Obviously, even if we don’t know what ‘it’ is other than mass slaughter of humans,” Erwin agreed. “Something has stirred up the Malforms, and all of us are on watch in case they decide to do the same here.” He turned his attention to Levi. “You fought one of them for the first time in weeks, was there anything unusual about its behavior?”

Levi was aware of not only Erwin’s regard but Hange’s as well; she would follow his lead if he decided to tell Erwin about the brat, yet something held him back. “No, it was the normal undead freak,” he replied, careful to not come across as too bored or defensive.

“But one who managed to get the drop on you,” Erwin pointed out in that annoyingly calm manner of his.

Levi made a disgusted clicking sound with his tongue and rolled his eyes. “No, that was me getting cocky and misjudging how far away the damn wall was in the excitement of having something to do for once. If a rookie had done such a stupid thing, I’d have them so busy with training exercises they’d fall down in exhaustion before dinner, but I’ll cut myself a little slack,” he drawled.

There was a brief staring contest between the two of them until Erwin decided he had better things to do than try to browbeat Levi with only a dirty look. Well, he did have the advantage on the ‘brow’ part there. Perhaps sensing that Levi wasn’t taking this serious anymore, Erwin huffed and turned to look back at his vidcom. “You have patrols to do,” he told them.

“Yes! We’ll be sure to let you know if we come across hordes of Malforms!” Hange practically chirped as she tugged on Levi to leave the office. “Have a *great* day!”

Well, it was a good thing that someone was in a nice mood. “I need my gloves and a ball-gag for you.” Levi pulled his arm free and set about getting his stuff while Hange screeched something about him being no fun.

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“Why do you think the Malforms are attacking now? There doesn’t seem to be a cyclical pattern to their destruction, as the last time something like this happened was over ten years ago, and almost thirty-five years before that.” Hange was consulting the little notebook she carried with her that was a lot more durable than any datapad, considering the high probability of going airborne or into a fight at any moment, and scribbled something down. “They don’t seem to be tied to any solar flares or environmental stimulus that we’ve noticed, either. So….”

Levi scowled at some dumpy woman and her squalling spawn until both hurried out of his way and then shrugged. “Don’t see how what happened last night could affect two domes over a hundred miles away,” he told her, guessing what she was alluding to with the leading question. “But by all means, ask the brat when I find him.” He clenched his right fist, very eager to have that ‘question and ask’ session with the kid. “Maybe he’ll know why they seem determined to wipe out their main food source.”

Of course Hange caught the motion and sniffed in disapproval. “I need him in some sort of condition to talk, remember.” She went back to scribbling in her notebook and muttering to herself, somehow managing to avoid walking into people or tripping over anything. No doubt about it, the woman was a freak.

People seemed happy to see the two of them out and about, whispering and pointing at their uniforms and the wings emblazoned on their sleeves and backs, at the long blades on their hips and the hint of silver at the left wrist. Levi was willing to guess that word was starting to spread about Ragako and Utgard, which was only confirmed when he started to spot all of the MPs on duty. He’d never seen so many out in uniform unless there was some special function, and while a few sneered as he and Hange walked past, for the most part they were left alone. Lots of MP shitstains *and* they were on good behavior? Hell yes, something was going on.

Nile Dok was probably trying to show that his people were just as serious about protecting Trost as the Freedom Corps, even if the MPs weren’t worth shit in a true fight. No, the MPs would scatter and run at the first sign of a Malform, more worried about saving their own necks and those of the elite than anyone in this section of the dome. If the Malforms did decide to massacre everyone, the MPs here would only make sure that they were able to stave off a mass riot headed toward the heart of the dome, where the privileged lived.

Doing some sneering himself, Levi forced his attention away from the assholes with their stupid green and white emblems and focused on his job. There were certain signs to watch out for that would indicate a prowling Malform, as they preferred to lurk in the shadows before attacking, certain ways the light and darkness would twist. It wasn’t a completely sterile environment in a dome; over the centuries domestic pets such as birds and cats had gone free or been set loose/left neglected, and of course it seemed impossible to have humans without vermin such as rats and cockroaches as well. They were other signs to read, as they always fled from a Malform’s presence.

Right now, it appeared to be just another day in the dome, with the temperature control a little on the cool side, people out and about as they found something to do or completed their work assignments, mindful of the MPs and the fact that they all lived in a closed environment. Levi didn’t know how they put up with their boring existences without going crazier than Hange.

Busy surveying the crowd and answering the occasional check-ins from his squad, he almost missed the sight of blond and brunet heads grouped close together as they hurried past over a dozen feet away. Their backs were to him, but the way the brunet’s shoulders stiffened as an MP called out something was familiar, as was the manner in which the blond attempted to tug his companion away before trouble started. Levi acted without thinking; he shoved his way through the crowd, his strength and uniform helping to make the people give way, and within seconds he was laying gloved hands on the brat’s shoulders and spinning him around.

“Try something, you little-“

The dark brown hair was cut about jaw length around a face that was actually tanner than the brat’s, adding to the illusion that it was him from a distance, but it was longer in the back and pulled back in a messy ponytail. Also, this person’s face was thinner and dusted with freckles, and lacking those huge, golden eyes.

“What the hell is your problem!?”

Levi let go of the stranger at the same time that Hange finally caught up with him, a confused expression on her face. She looked back and forth between the scowling stranger and the puzzled blonde girl who was now huddled at the brunette’s side, both dressed in worn but clean pants and tunics that had seen better days, and sighed. “So you’re really into girls now?”

“No!” Levi pinched the bridge of his nose and barely suppressed the urge to smack the idiot. “I’m-, look, I mistook you for someone else, okay? You’re about the same height and looked just like him from behind,” he tried to explain to the teenaged girl who appeared ready to punch him.

“But she’s a girl,” Hange pointed out, being not very helpful. “And the eye color and facial structure’s not at all the same. Your observational skills suck, Levi, if you can’t even tell gold and brown apart!” She slapped him on the back as she laughed. “Guess we know what *you* were looking at on the-“

He didn’t bother turning around, he just kicked backward and barely smiled when he connected, *hard*, with the pain in his ass’ shin. The muffled yelp of agony almost distracted him from the fact that while the scowling bitch in front of hardly blinked at Hange’s antics, the blonde let out the slightest gasp at Hange’s description of the brat and glanced up at her friend.

“Ymir?”

The scowling bitch, who seemed to enjoy scowling *down* her nose at Levi, scoffed once and shrugged her right shoulder, her left arm wrapped tight around the blonde girl. “Yeah, well, get your eyes checked and learn some manners, Shortie. You might get punched if you go grabbing the wrong person.” Her condescending tone made it clear that she was sparing him that beating this time, and she nearly brushed against Levi as the two of them went on their way.

He watched them leave, the way their heads were clustered together as if whispering to each other. Hange hobbled over to him and glanced back and forth a few times before pulling out her notebook again. “So, what was all that about, besides you nearly molesting a woman for the first time in your life?”

“How are you *not* some new type of Malform that feeds off of the emotional suffering your presence inflicts upon people rather than blood?” Levi asked, perfectly serious and not expecting an answer as he resumed their patrol.

Of course all that question did was provoke a pleased laugh from the lunatic. “Good, good! It would be an interesting twist in evolution, wouldn’t it?” Hange scribbled a little more as she tagged along. “But seriously, you let her get away with a crack to your height like that? I’ve seen you make more important people cry for such a thing.”

He chose to ignore that last part. “Something was up with those two. I think the bitch was taunting me to try to cover for the fact that her friend let it slip that she recognized the brat when you described him.”

“Really?” Hange stopped scribbling and scrunched her nose as she seemed to consider the situation with the two girls. “Do you think they’re friends? Would they know about… and be covering for him?” Her voice grew higher in pitch as she became excited about the prospect.

“Calm down, Shitty Glasses,” Levi hissed as he grabbed hold of her left arm and dragged her in close. “Don’t cause a scene,” he reminded her. “If they do know about him, the last thing they’d want is someone from the Corps looking for him. Or maybe they’re looking for him for some reason, too. It can’t be much of a secret if a bunch of people know.” That was common street wisdom.

“Yeah, yeah.” Finished with her notes, Hange tucked away the book, then clasped her hands together and stretched out her arms in front of her. “Just think, a few days ago we were bored out of our minds, just waiting for a Malform to appear and tired of sitting on our asses. Now we’re on alert for a horde of them to start a slaughter, hunting down a cutie who kicked your butt and who might already have a girlfriend or two, and left with a big mystery as well as possibly an entirely new species.” Judging from the amount of excitement in her voice, she was loving every minute of it.

Levi stepped closer so he could smack her on the back of her head, purposely using his left hand to do it. “Moron, don’t go tempting fate like that, and the brat didn’t kick my butt. He just got a lucky shot in,” he grumbled. Anyone would have been left stunned in Levi’s shoes; the next time, Levi’s guard wouldn’t be down those precious few seconds. The next time the two of them crossed paths, there would be bloodshed and it wouldn’t be Levi’s.

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