*******

chapter three

*******

under pressure

*******


Levi evaluated the new recruits they had picked up before leaving the Maria dome and felt his left eye twitch as he noticed one in particular, a young woman with her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail similar in style to Hange’s. That alone should be a sign that this one would be another pain in the ass, but no, this brilliant specimen of humanity decided to use hand to hand combat training time as a chance to half-ass it, apparently.

“Erd.”

“Yes, Captain?” Levi’s second in command came over from where he was assisting another new recruit with a gauntlet fitting, a curious look on his face as he stood at attention.

“Go beat some sense into that idiot’s head,” Levi ordered and gestured to the girl, who was currently standing in some ridiculous pose that she’d probably seen in a vid, one leg bent and both arms in the air above her head, a long blade in her *mouth* of all things. “Beat her hard,” Levi added, disgusted that she’d sullied a perfectly clean, functional weapon like that, even if it was just a training blade.

A corner of Erd’s mouth twitched as he bowed his head in acceptance, his hands lifting to make sure his blond hair was snug in its ponytail as he turned on his heel and went to do his captain’s bidding. Certain that the recruits would soon learn the importance of taking their training serious, one in particular, Levi resumed his stroll through the training grounds.

Space was always at a premium in a dome, but the Freedom Corps rated as important enough for their headquarters to allow them barracks and enough open ground to practice hand to hand and rappelling drills. Levi didn’t truly feel free until the two months when they could leave the domes and go on foraging runs to find new supplies and any spaces that might support a new dome, but it beat the cramped quarters where everyone else but the elite and the MPs lived. The only other alternative if you wanted space were the agri-domes, but Levi would rather cut off his fucking hands than live in one of them.

Convinced that most of the new recruits would last at least a few minutes against a Malform, he went to see what was happening inside the barracks; Hange was occupied going over some data with Moblit, but Erwin had been suspiciously quiet the last couple of days. A quiet Erwin was a plotting Erwin, and a plotting Erwin meant that somewhere, someone was about to suffer. Now that could be a very good thing, except that Levi was almost always involved in said suffering somehow - either by doing a shitload of work to bring it about, and sometimes by being a target of said suffering. Chances were 90/10, depending on how off-target he’d been on orders lately. Presenting the Chairman of Maria with a bucketful of Malform goo and telling him it had more of a spine in that form than the asshole did might have been satisfying as hell, but it tilted the odds toward that 10%.

Levi’d always insisted to Erwin that his diplomatic skills weren’t worth shit.

He was halfway across the open plaza that served as the training ground when he recognized the uniforms of the three people striding toward him, the black, green and white standing out among the grey and white of the Freedom Corps. What was even more remarkable was the fact that sandwiched between the two younger men was Nile Dok himself, his grizzled, dark hair and trimmed goatee in stark appearance to the lighter hair of the MP on his right and the shaved head of the short MP on his left. He stalked forward as if he had every right to be on Corps’ property, but then again, arrogance was the bastard’s default setting.

It wasn’t much of a surprise when Erwin came out to join Levi, a bland smile on his face as he called out a greeting to the MP commander. “Good day to you, Nile.”

“That remains to be seen, Smith.” Nile came to a stop in front of them, the two baby MPs halting a step behind him. “Well, let’s get this over with in a more private setting, shall we?” He motioned toward the building behind them.

Erwin’s smile increased by the slightest increment. “By all means.” He nodded at Levi, a silent invitation to join them. Knowing that he’d enjoy seeing Erwin take this shitty bastard down a notch or two, Levi figured that he didn’t have anything better to do at the moment and followed.

They drew some curious stares as they made their way to Erwin’s office, but the Corps was too well-disciplined to do more than that while in Erwin’s presence. Oh, there certainly would be much mocking of the MP shitstains at dinner tonight, which Levi would look forward to, but it would wait until then. Once in Erwin’s office, he took position next to Erwin’s desk and bit back on a smirk as the MPs were left to deal with those horrid chairs. The short kid lucked out in that he got to stand by the door.

Nile sneered as he looked around the cramped space, filled with the two chairs for guests, three filing cabinets, a bookshelf and a desk topped with a vidcom and several datapads. No doubt the asshole thought that Erwin deserved better as commander of the Freedom Corps, and failed to understand that he wasn’t a man who put on useless airs; that was part of the reason why the Corps followed him. Erwin devoted himself to action, to wiping out the Malforms and protecting humanity, and everything else was just background noise as far as he was concerned.

“Are you that pressed for space?”

“No,” Erwin replied, just the one word said in a mild manner, yet something in his expression wiped the snide look off of Nile’s face and made the two baby MPs sit/stand up at attention. “Now, may we get to the reason why you’re here, as I’m sure we both have other important matters that require our attention.” Levi just managed not to scoff in derision at that statement - Erwin, sure, but Nile? The man probably had a busy day of ass-kissing ahead of him.

Tugging on the hem of his jacket as if uncomfortable, Nile frowned for a moment and then leaned forward. “The Chairman wants to know what your plans are to deal with the Malform threat. He wants to be assured that the dome will be properly protected.”

He wanted to be sure that his precious neck would be protected, was what Nile meant.

Erwin laced his fingers together and rested his chin on them, blithely ignoring the opening that Niles had left for him since he could be diplomatic. “You can inform him that we’re devoting all of our resources to the problem at hand. We’ve increased our patrols as well as the training of our new recruits so they’ll be ready to step into rotations sooner than intended.”

“So you’re just gonna stand around and wait?” the baby MP with the long face and blond hair with a dark undercut spat out, appearing all indignant until Nile shot him a disapproving look. Ah, getting a silent smack-down from his superior sure took the wind from his sails quick.

Levi leaned against the desk and folded his arms over his chest, the sleeves of his grey jacket pulling up enough that it revealed the silver wire of his gauntlet. “Well, it would help if we had some fresh bait to draw out the Malforms. Wanna volunteer? They like them young and stupid.” That earned him a glare from the baby MP, who was still too cowed by Nile to do more than that. The other baby MP hid a smile behind his right hand.

Nile finished giving the young idiot the stink eye and turned his ire back to Erwin. “Just be sure to show some results.”

Erwin held up his hands and managed an innocent expression despite all the murky shit that went on in his head. “I’m not sure what the Chairman expects of us, as the Freedom Corps’ job has always been protection. While we are as proactive as possible, our skills are best put to service when the Malforms attack, and we are doing everything we can to be prepared for that possibility. May I remind you that the Chairman hired my division, which has the best success rate out of all the Freedom Corps.”

“And the highest price tag,” Nile muttered as he rose to his feet. “Make sure you’re worth it.” His shoulders sagged a little as he looked over the desk at Erwin. “I know you’re the best, it’s just that the news from Ragako isn’t good at all. The casualties are rising each hour. And they’re thinking that Utgard is a total loss.” The MP with the shaved head lost his smile at the mention of the Ragako dome while the other one took to glaring at Levi as if it was his fault that the Malforms were raging.

“I’m aware of the situation in those domes, and we’ve lost a lot of good comrades fighting Malforms,” Erwin reminded the MPs. “The only way they reach the civilians is after we’ve laid down our lives.” He touched the Wings of Freedom symbol on his right chest.

Levi met the baby MPs glare and returned it with a cold stare of his own. How many Malforms had this young shitstain fought? How many people had he beheaded to stop them from turning into more undead freaks? There were times when Levi’s hands shook from the shock of cutting through vertebrae long after he was done fighting, muscle memory taking over when he stood under the hot water in the showers desperate to be clean.

He wasn’t surprised when the kid turned his head away after a few seconds and scrambled to his feet to join Nile. “I’d rather you don’t have to pay that price,” Nile admitted before he made his departure, the baby MPs trailing after him like shit flushed down the drain.

Erwin and Levi were quiet for a minute after they left, and then Erwin let out a slow breath. “Is it me or are they getting younger each year?” he asked, probably referring to the baby MPs. “We must be getting older.”

“What’s this ‘we’ shit,” Levi grumbled as he sat down on an edge of the desk that was free of datapads. “You’re the one getting fat and lazy from sitting at this desk too much and plotting bullshit.”

Erwin grinned in a self-depreciating manner as he ran a hand down his chest, which was clearly defined through the white shirt he wore. “Perhaps I should partner with you during a rotation or two.”

“Hmm, it would be a welcome change from Hange’s endless chatter.” Levi hopped off of the desk and prepared to leave. “So what do you think that was all about? As if we don’t know how important it is to do our job.” He rolled his eyes to show what he thought about Nile’s little show.

In the process of picking up a datapad, Erwin paused and seemed to consider the question. “I think it’s Nile’s way of letting me know that the Chairman and his council are growing concerned, and it’s never a good thing if they feel they have to take a matter into their own hands.” He acknowledged Levi’s ‘no shit’ expression with a smile. “Yes, they don’t have a history of making wise decisions. Hopefully Hange will have some data for us soon so we can concentrate our numbers in key areas and make a show of force.”

“It’s a pretty sad day when we’re counting on Hange to pull our asses out of the fire,” Levi complained as he went out to see if there were any more idiot recruits he could beat up for their own sakes.

******

“You know what I miss? I miss rain.”

Levi wondered how he could get his hands on more pain meds, now that his head injury had fully healed. “You know what *I* miss? Com silence unless you’ve spotted Malforms,” he gritted out in response to Hange’s senseless prattle. They were stationed apart and he *still* had to put up with her, dammit.

“But-“

“*Com* *silence*,” he repeated with such a fierce tone that Erd shot him a concerned glance. They continued with their patrol for almost an entire rotation around the large market plaza before he heard an offended sniff over the private com channel.

“I think someone hasn’t seen a certain cutie in too long and is feeling frustrated. Just find a decent ass to look at and make do for now, you grump.”

That was it, he was going to kill her. He was going to kill her and hang up her body as a warning to all other lunatics that-

“Uhm, Sir, doesn’t that hurt?”

Levi realized that he was grinding his teeth together and stopped, his jaw now aching from the pressure. Since Hange seemed content to have the last word and finally shut her fucking mouth, he decided that he could settle with her later and focused on work, which was patrolling the market. Despite being the biggest pain in the ass ever, Hange had filtered through the data and concluded that if the Malforms were going to attack en masse, that they would be drawn to human gatherings where their prey felt secure yet were out in the open. Markets were ideal in that there were plenty of places for the Malforms to lurk, what with all the side streets and alleys feeding into the open spaces which housed the many booths set up to display wares, not to mention the sewer system below.

There were four main markets in Trost, and one didn’t count as it was a tech market and held inside a warehouse with controlled entrances/exits that would make it almost impossible for Malforms to attack as a large pack. Of course, ‘almost’ didn’t mean it was ruled out, which was why there was still a Corps presence there, it just didn’t rate Erwin’s, Hange’s and Levi’s attention.

Much to Hange’s dismay, Levi was assigned the University Market, downstreet from the Trost University, while she was stuck with the South Gate Market. Erwin, the most ‘diplomatic’ of the three of them, not to mention the highest ranking, took duty of the Stohess Market, which was close to the elite area of the dome. The rest of the Corps, including the recruits, were scattered about the dome, with most of them clustered about the markets so they could respond quickly if the Malforms attacked in any concentrated area.

Levi didn’t know if the plan would work or not, but considering that both Hange and Erwin had put a lot of effort into it, the Malforms were screwed if they showed their fucked up faces.

The University Market was busy, full of people who didn’t seem to have anything better to do than spend their time looking at a bunch of crap. The open space was filled with the sound of people bartering and calling out to each other, their voices melding into a low cacophony that was giving Levi a headache. He glanced down at a table covered with what looked to be necklaces made out of crude, multi-color beads and shook his head. People wasted credits on this shit?

Something must have shown on his face because Erd stifled a laugh. “I hear that there’s a demand for hand-crafted goods,” he explained as they continued their patrol around the circumference of the crowded market.

Levi clicked his tongue in disgust. “I make my own shit, you don’t see me here selling it.” People were idiots, it was as simple as that. Their lives had to be so boring that they latched on to anything to fill the void, when they should be thankful that they had warm, clean beds, someplace safe to sleep and food to eat. None of them had to risk their lives for any of that shit, yet here they were, parading around as Malform bait when they didn’t have to, all in order to buy fucking knitted tea cozies.

… well, maybe he could understand that last item.

He was about to glance back to see if they had any in some other colors besides ‘ghastly’ and ‘putrid’, and nearly got ran into by a teenaged girl who was actually shorter than him. What the hell was it with kids these days? He grabbed her by the arms to keep both of them toppling into a table covered with what were probably boot-legged vids and earned a scowl for his troubles. The hood of the cream-colored tunic she was wearing beneath a brown jacket slid down to reveal her blonde hair, and the look in her blue eyes were rather virulent considering that she was at least as much to blame as he was for their near collision.

Grunting something that may have been either an apology or a ‘fuck you’, she jerked her arms free and immediately headed in the opposite direction before Levi could tell her off for her manners. Grateful that he’d never managed to procreate and so contribute to the plague of teenagers that seemed determined to annoy the hell out of him anymore, Levi glared at her the entire time she was in his sight, noting when she met up with two other kids who towered over her. One of them glanced his way and seemed to jump in nervousness, quick to pull the other two away into the crowd.

Well, that wasn’t suspicious at all, was it? Levi shook his head and resumed stalking through the market, his thoughts drawn back to the brat with the golden eyes. What was it with suspicious kids hanging out in threesomes? Was it some rule that you had to pair up two guys and a girl? There was a pain in his chest when he thought about- No, now wasn’t the time, he told himself, his hands clenched into fists as he forced the memories aside.

Erd must have realized that his mood took a downward turn after that, because they finished the rest of the rotation with very little said between the two of them, other than the occasional check-in over the coms with the rest of the squad.

*******

“Do you really believe that they’ll target a main dome like Trost?”

Levi considered Erd’s question as he rubbed at his tired eyes, wishing that he’d had more tea that morning before leaving his quarters. There was probably a booth somewhere here that served coffee, but his stomach felt too unsettled for the brackish swill that passed for the beverage this far north. He hadn’t gotten much sleep last night, taunted by dreams of Isabel and Farlan, by how he’d- dammit.

“Who the hell knows what those things think, other than wanting their next meal. It’s just better to be prepared than be caught with our pants around our ankles.” When Erd frowned but didn’t say anything, Levi sighed and rubbed the back of his neck instead. “It’s not normal, how long they’ve gone without an obvious feeding. Erwin has a right to be concerned.”

That didn’t seem to put the man at ease, but then again, who would be when they’d just been told that there was a good likelihood that a bunch of undead monsters would attack soon? At least all Erd did was drop his hands closer to his blades and resume scanning the market instead of running away screaming in terror, as if Levi would have anyone made of lesser stuff on his squad.

Over a month without a Malform kill, other than the one that the brat had fed from and let Levi ‘claim’, and the whole Corps was getting twitchy. It was more than the fact that it was their job, it was that the Ragako dome was pretty much decimated by now, and no one knew what had set off the Malforms there before the attack. Had it been a similar lull in kills? Too bad the experts were the first ones to fall, and the survivors too busy screeching for help that they knew could never come to answer any questions.

The Corps also knew that if the Malforms had somehow refrained from feeding for so long, that they would be ravenous when they finally attacked. Malforms were always hungry, but a starved Malform? That would make their job even more difficult, and they lost enough lives on a good day. If you wanted job security, you joined the Engineers and maintained the domes. If you wanted status, you strove for the MPs. If you wanted to kick ass, die young and have a chance to see what was left of the world, you joined the Freedom Corps.

Fuck, but his thoughts were grim today. He should his head to try to clear it of them. “Oi, Shitty Glasses, please tell me that a Malform is currently chewing on your liver.”

Hange’s bright laughter rang clear over the com. “If that’s your idea of a pick-up line, sweetie, it needs more work before you run into any cuties again. Speaking of which, have you seen one?”

He’d take that as a ‘no’ on the Malforms. “Would I be bothering with you if I did?” Maybe he needed to hang out in dark alleys some more, but Erwin had forbidden anyone from going out by themselves at night, including Levi. Normally he’d ignore orders such as that, except he had the feeling the bastard would start prying into things if he disobeyed. “All I see are a bunch of stupid people buying garbage.” He ignored the offended gasp of some stuck up prick walking past and Erd’s chuckle.

“I’ll be sure to let you know if I see a Malform or a cutie. Good luck hunting!”

The fact that she sounded equally happy about both prospects was disturbing as hell, yet she managed to put Levi in a better mood for a short while. Soon enough he grew annoyed over the fact that he was spending yet another day surrounded by crap and people stupid enough to buy it, waiting for undead monsters to attack, and he had yet to see a bunch of bratty kids.

There had been no signs of the brat and his friends, nor the other weird threesome. Hell, he hadn’t even seen the two girls again so he could question them about their connection to the brat. If he were a paranoid man, he’d begin to think that they were avoiding him when the simple fact was that Trost was a big dome. Still, the only good thing about being stuck on market duty was that this was the type of place where most people came through at some point.

They were coming close to the end of their shift and when Petra and Olou would take over the rotation when Levi caught a flash of gold out of the corner of his eye. He turned to the left and saw a small blond figure running toward the corner of the market, the hood of his dark brown jacket slipped back from his head due to the rapid motion. Recognizing the kid as one of the brat’s friends, he felt a rush of excitement and stepped forward without thinking.

“Captain?”

“I need to catch that kid and anyone who’s with him,” Levi explained to Erd as he pointed at the blond teenager. “I think they might know something about the Malforms.” It wasn’t much of an explanation, but Erd had followed him long enough that a simple command was all that was really needed. Nodding once, Erd moved with him through the crowd.

They were close enough to the kid that Levi could make out two other hooded figures, one with a bit of red peeking out at the collar of a brown coat, when he heard what sounded to be a loud, enraged roar. Part of him wanting to leap forward and grab the three kids in front of him, Levi let out a growl of frustration as he spun in the direction of the noise, his hands falling to his weapons in one smooth motion as he went to investigate what the fuck it was. When a panicked scream then echoed through the plaza, he didn’t waste any time and sent a rappelling dart at the nearest wall so he could gain air and see what the hell was happening.

As soon as he cleared the heads of the crowd, he could spot at least ten Malforms pouring in from the northwest streets, and what looked to be another dozen from the southeast. “Fuck, Malforms are closing in on University Market and sealing it off! Converge here and come in high!” he sent out on the com’s open channel, hoping like hell that this was the only place they were hitting right now. Sensing that Erd was behind him, he motioned that he’d take the south and for his second to take the north.

Erd sailed past him while he ditched the wire and fired another one to change course, the sensation of freefall almost calming before the tug of the wire caught him. People were truly panicking now, everyone shoving about as they tried to get away from the Malforms, and the scent of blood filled the air.

He came in hard and used momentum to barrel into two of the undead freaks, knocking them down as they cushioned his fall. They were beheaded before they could regain their feet, and then he was on to the next Malform, a snarling six footer still partially clothed in the garments it wore when it had been turned. Spinning to the right at the last moment, he lashed out with his foot to knock it aside, then sliced through its neck while rappelling past it. That took him near a throng of feeding Malform, the motion enough to distract a few of them from the poor bastard they were tearing apart.

Three of the freaks leapt up to follow him, their claws digging into the walls as they climbed, and he fired off a few more darts as he weaved back and forth across the building’s facade. When he had them lined up just right, he swung downward, right hand lashing out to strike down two of them, the third disabled but not decapitated.

“Oh! Mark this down, Levi missed!” Hange crowed as she swooped in for the kill. She landed a moment later, and behind her, Moblit was taking care of the victims unlucky enough to not be able to survive their wounds by removing their heads. As Levi joined her on the ground, he noticed that the Corps were arriving in droves – but that more Malforms were also pouring in.

“How many of these fucking bastards are there?” He allowed himself a moment to check his blades before he launched himself back into the air, Hange following him while he searched for the nearest target. Unfortunately, there were more than enough.

“I can’t tell you for certain, but it’s at least triple the estimated hundred.” For once, she sounded suitably dour. “They’ve completely enclosed the market and have turned it into a killing field.”

“Wonderful.” Spotting two Malforms who were giving a new recruit a hard time, he released his wire and dove for a loose one, the gauntlet taking the brunt of his body’s impetus while his gloves protected his hands from being sliced open as it gripped the thin cord. He swore when he saw one of the Malform tear out the throat of the recruit in one bite, his blades slicing through several seconds too late, and twisted around to take out the other one.

All around him were the screams of the panicked and the dying, the screeches of the Malforms as they attacked and feasted. The Corps fought on the ground and in the air, the hiss and thud of rappelling darts almost as constant as the impact of steel into flesh. Soon they would run out of wire to shoot, but at least they were in an enclosed environment and could reuse what had already been expended.

Spotting a Malform that was about to attack what appeared to be a family huddled beneath a table, Levi slid down the wire and dropped the last ten feet or so, his boots absorbing the shock of the fall. He rolled within striking distance and lashed out once close, taking it out before the bastard could do more than claw at the man trying to protect the others, and then he was back on his feet, looked for the next Malform. Scattered around him were ragged, bleeding bodies and severed limbs, some of the corpses belonging to civilians but too many of them wearing the Corps uniform.

Dammit, this was worse than what had happened at Maria…. He yelled, the sound inarticulate from rage, when he witnessed several Malform swarm Ilse and was too far away to do anything. Gunther and Erd swooped in with their blades flashing, but he knew that they would be too late to do anything but keep her from turning – if there was even that much left of her.

Ahead of Levi was someone struggling in midair, dangling from a wire as they writhed about in pain. He finished with another Malform and was about to shot a new wire to go assist, and then saw that Erwin was already there, grabbing hold of the wounded fighter – Renaldo, from Hange’s squad. Considering that the man’s entire right arm had been torn off, there was no hope of him receiving medical attention quickly enough to replace the blood loss, so Erwin gently lowered him to the ground before putting him out of his misery.

There wasn’t any time to mourn fallen comrades, so Erwin, like Levi and the others, went once more immediately into the fray. He swept past Levi towards some outnumbered recruits who needed assistance, while Levi decided to take on several Malform who were climbing an apartment building. Undead bastards were probably planning to drop on those fighting below, so he used a rappelling dart to take the fight to them, tangling two of them in the wire so he could handle the others first. He got a ripped sleeve, a cut to his left cheek and one less wire for his efforts, and five more puddles of goo on the ground.

Casting about for a free wire to use, he was confused when he saw two brown blurs swing past; that wasn’t anything like the Corps uniform. It took him a moment to realize that the two people who just landed on the top of a table and who were leaping at a pack of Malforms as if they were suicidal idiots were the brat and one of his friends, the girl with the red scarf. They’d picked up Corps long blades somewhere along the way and were putting them to use cutting down Malforms as if the freaks had flashing targets on their necks.

Not about to question the assist if it meant less undead freaks tearing into his own people, Levi threw himself back into the battle, determined to kill every last Malform. He didn’t allow himself to feel exhaustion or pain, he didn’t allow himself any remorse or sorrow, he only channeled the fury he felt at each comrade’s death, at every sight of a child’s body lying as if a broken doll on the blood-soaked ground, at every instance he had to kill his own kind to keep the enemy’s number from growing. There were less and less of those wearing grey and white every time he looked up, but there were also less pallid, withered, fang-faced freaks as well.

Sometimes, he swore the only way he knew he was winning was that the red of blood on the ground was slowly being overcome by the brackish sludge of Malforms liquefying. It still didn’t make up for each time he looked at the lifeless or dying face of someone he knew, someone he had trained or was a friend, someone who should have had a long life ahead of them, whose neck his blades sunk into so there wouldn’t be a new threat to face in this awful battle. The number of Malforms were falling, but there was only so many strikes before Levi’s blades would dull and his strength would give out, and this battle was testing the limit of both. A Malform scored a blow to his left arm when he was too slow to block it; anger lent him the speed to strike back and finish it off with a savage, swift swing.

“They’re almost gone,” Erwin’s voice rang out over the com. “One final push and we’ll finish them.”

Levi almost remarked that it was easy for the asshole to say, except that he could see Erwin, face and chest splattered with dark blood, lobbing off the head of a Malform that had just nearly beheaded an old man with one ferocious bite. Instead, he forced himself to lift his arms and to move forward, face sticky with drying blood and muscles screaming from exertion, and found that fucking brat beating him to the Malform chasing down a wounded recruit. Their eyes met for several seconds, his staring into pools of glowing gold while he attempted to wipe away the blood, until the bitch with the scarf pulled the brat away.

“Hange, follow me,” he spat over the com channel as he followed the kids, aware of the two of them heading toward the one of the alleys. From what he could see of the remaining Corps, they had the few Malforms surrounded and well on their way to being liquefied.

“You’re in my sights.” For once there was no snarky remarks from Hange, no nonsense or gibberish. Just the assurance that she would have his back, which allowed him to focus purely on the brown coats fleeing for the nearest exit.

Using up the last of his rappelling darts, he shot forward until he was in close proximity, and then propelled onward with his arms outstretched to knock them both into the ground. He swore that he heard growling sounds from the girl before impact, and chose to ignore it so he could devote his attention to the brat. He pushed up off of the ground and latched onto the kid’s left arm before he could try to run away, aware of Hange landing a few feet behind him.

“You’re not going away, you damn brat,” he hissed out as he held on tight with both hands, startled by the heat he felt which emanated from the kid. “Don’t even think of knocking me out this time, or else I’ll fucking gut you.” The warning seemed to have some effect, as the brat’s eyes became even wider and his expression appeared shocked. He stilled for a moment before struggling against Levi’s grip, but at that point Hange and several other members of the Corps had them surrounded, some of them with their weapons drawn.

“Eren!” the girl with the scarf called out as she neared, the blades in her hands held at the ready, yet a gesture from him made her pause even if she damn near shook as if with the need to do *something*.

The brat stared at Levi, his eyes still wide and his face the innocent mask that might fool some people, sharp fangs nowhere in sight. “What do you want from us?” he whispered, his gaze unwavering from Levi despite the crowd they were gathering.

“Answers,” was Levi’s immediate response as he dragged the kid further from escape. He didn’t know why it was that he was so fixated on this one person – it wasn’t just that the brat had knocked him out, it wasn’t just those eyes… he wouldn’t let him go until he figured it out.

The girl followed as well, until the two of them were surrounded by what remained of the Corps. The brat seemed almost resigned until someone came too close to the girl and then he would flare up, eyes flashing and fists swinging about, while the girl glared daggers at anyone who dared to approach the kid. Levi was about to kick both of their asses to get them to headquarters when Erwin approached.

“What is going on here? We have wounded and worse to deal with, what has you-” He forced himself to the center of the circle and stopped when he found Levi in a face-off between two teenagers. “Weren’t you the two fighting with us against the Malforms?” He asked the question in a soft voice, but from the intent looks he was giving the kids, Levi knew he realized that something unusual was going on here. He stared hard at them for several seconds, his face void of expression, before he looked in Levi’s direction. Then he allowed himself to show a hint of curiosity, but something was off – now wasn’t the time to figure it out, though.

“I want them to come back with us,” Levi explained, the words coming out in a rush. “I think they might have some idea of what’s going on with the fucked up situation here.” He hoped that Erwin would settle for such a simple explanation.

“We don’t know anything,” the girl spat out as she wrapped her arms around the brat as if to protect him. “We merely fought to save ourselves.”

Yeah, right, like your average citizen would have a hope in taking on a Malform and surviving without any special training, let alone a shit-ton of them. Levi didn’t need to look at Erwin, he knew his friend would be thinking the same thing. “You’re coming back with us.”

For a moment it appeared as if the two of them would continue to resist; they pulled back as much as they were able and stilled as if readying for violence, and then a small form pushed its way through the crowd.

“Eren! Mikasa! Are you all right?”

It was the third member of their group, the blond kid who hadn’t been seen since before the Malforms had attacked. Levi forced his hands away from his blades and let the kid join his friends, especially once he saw how they relaxed at the sound of the kid’s voice. He also noticed how Erwin’s eyes narrowed, a sure sign that his mind was plotting something.

The three of them whispered back and forth; Levi caught ‘supposed to get away’ and ‘couldn’t leave without you’. It was all very touching and shit, but the fact remained that the MPs would be descending upon them any minute now and he wanted the kids out of here before then. He stepped forward – only to be stopped by Erwin.

“We need to finish up here, but I want to continue this conversation later.” He motioned for Levi and Hange to step forward. “Take them back to headquarters as our guests.” When the three kids once again tensed as if ready to react, Erwin shook his head. “We just want to talk to you, I promise,” he said while holding up his hands and even smiling, doing his best to come across as friendly. Hell yes, the bastard was up to something.

The brat exchanged a set of significant looks with his two friends, glanced at the Corps still surrounding them and then sighed before nodding, which was all that Levi needed as a sign to haul his ass away. He grabbed tight to his left arm and figured the other two would follow, and could only hope that some good came out of this blood-soaked day.

*******

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