*******

chapter four

*******

we will not grow old

*******

As their newest home, it certainly wasn’t much; it basically was one big room, barring the bathroom and a closet, with a minimal kitchen set off along one wall. There were two small beds, a kitchen table, a desk, a few shelves, a couch that looked mostly comfortable and a couple of small end tables – and almost everything was composed in shades of pale beige and white.

“We’ll need to get a screen or two for privacy’s sake,” Armin said as he wandered around the cramped space. “I didn’t think the beds would be such an issue considering your sleeping habits, but I couldn’t find any bigger quarters when I hacked the system.” There was a clear note of apology as he explained, and he was a few seconds away from wringing his hands. Eren didn’t need to look at Mikasa, they both moved to go assure their friend at the same time.

“It’s fine,” he told the worrywart while Mikasa rubbed his back. “We knew that Trost had limited resources due to its popularity. Frankly I’m surprised you found something this, er, ‘big’.”

Mikasa nodded in agreement. “We’ll manage. It’s better than the place in Mosca.”

That made Armin laugh as he reached out to hug them both. “Oh please, don’t remind me!” He shuddered for a moment, the motion exaggerated. “The only reason I didn’t catch any bedbugs was because of you two!” Stepping back, he looked over the place again. “At least it’s clean, and we’ll improve upon it. Pick up some stuff to make it a proper home.”

“Of course! Half the fun of moving someplace new is buying stuff,” Eren agreed with a rueful grin. There was only so much they could carry from dome to dome, so they’d made a game of it over time, what they’d eventually leave behind; Eren and Mikasa only possessed a few precious belongings that had lasted in one form or another through the many years, and Armin had learned from their example. He touched the small leather pouch handing heavy on his chest that held most of the precious items he owned. “We need to go grocery shopping first.”

Mikasa smiled at that, as he’d thought. “Yes, our first meal in our new home.” She went over to investigate the kitchen, opening the few cupboards and poking around until she was satisfied. “There’s enough plates and cooking utensils for now. You did well, Armin.”

“Trost is one of the more organized domes,” he explained as they made their way to the front door. “It’s why so many people want to live here.” Since they’d barely taken the time to check out their new apartment, they still had their coats and shoes on and were ready to explore outside. Mikasa merely wrapped her red scarf tighter around the lower part of her face once they exited the apartment building.

Eren grimaced a little at the stale, recirculated air that always filled a dome, wishing that he was still outside, but smoothed out his expression upon the worried look from his sister. They were here for a reason, he would have to get used to Trost and its artificial environment. It was just that it seemed with each passing year, he grew to tolerate life in the domes less and less. There were too many people, too many senseless rules, too many ingrained customs that kept people from thinking for themselves, from being little more than brainless sheep. They just followed the same patterns day after day, cowed by tradition and the MPs, ruled over by near invisible Chairmen.

“Eren.” Mikasa gave his left arm a gentle squeeze; after so long together, she knew his mood down to its every minutia. He smiled at the near invisible signs of worry she was radiating and leaned in until their foreheads were touching.

“I know, stop spoiling the moment,” he whispered. Before Armin could catch on, he straightened up and smiled. “So, what do we want for dinner?” It wasn’t as if it mattered as much to him and Mikasa what they ate, as they would more or less be going through the motions of it for the enjoyment of the taste alone, but it made Armin happy and brought back some good memories for them.

Armin and Mikasa took the time to consider the question and answered together. “Ragout.” Their agreement made Eren laugh and he linked their arms together as they headed toward a nearby market.

“All right, I think I can manage it as long as they have enough vegetables available.” He refused to feel a stab of pain at the thought of making one of his mother’s recipes - it was amazing at how strong the pain could be after so long - and instead focused on how pleased she would be that one of her favorite dishes was appreciated by his loved ones. “Mikasa, you’re in charge of picking up some wine.”

She tugged her scarf up higher before she nodded. “I should be able to manage that.” Since she appeared the most physically mature out of the three of them, she usually had the best luck. That and her more serious demeanor helped – they all had fake IDs which stated that their ages were a couple of years older than their physical appearance, but there was only so much that they could push and not cause any trouble. If Armin got accepted into Trost University, then he would start aging normally… which was something that Eren didn’t want to dwell on just then.

Armin had done a better job than he would admit in finding an apartment, as there were several markets located within a few minutes of it, not to mention the University itself. They chose one of the smaller ones, eager to just find enough ingredients for dinner and save a proper shopping excursion for another time. While out, Eren saw a couple of Freedom Corps fighters on patrol and a snotty MP who thought she lorded over everyone; Armin dragged him along before he could cause any offense with the arrogant blonde woman. What had happened to the organization that had been created to restore order in a time of chaos? At least the Freedom Corps remained mostly true to their original vision, even if they were being misled by the MPs and Chairmen into thinking that the outside world was still so tainted.

“You’re doing it again,” Mikasa murmured as she shifted the large bag she was carrying from one arm to another. Eren heard the clinking of several bottles and perked up at that – she must have done better than they had hoped in securing alcohol.

He handed his credit chip to the vegetable seller and indicated the assortment of vegetables that he’d picked, a little disappointed in that they were all hydroponically grown but what could one expect from the dome? “Did you think I’d react anyway else?” he asked, more than a little exasperated.

Her brows became furrowed, and then a small but beautiful smile slipped past the edges of the scarf. “True. Some things never change.”

He had to take his credit chip from the stunned vendor and bag his own purchase, but it was worth it to have his sister in a good mood. Their arms linked together, they went off to find Armin, who was busy haggling over a plate of pastries. Their friend grinned when they joined him and finished his purchase of some cherry tarts. “They’re not as good as yours, but I didn’t want you to cook so much tonight,” was his explanation for the buy, his blue eyes bright with mischief.

Eren reached out to tousle Armin’s shoulder-length blond hair. “No, you’ll just come home with a basket of cherries another day and have me bake!” They all laughed at that, familiar with how Eren basically gave in to Armin’s requests, and headed back to their new home. It was a pleasant walk, even if Eren was a little warm with his jacket on, and they took the stairs to the seventh floor rather than the lift; Armin was left a bit out of breath yet he didn’t complain.

Mikasa and Armin unpacked their few belongings while Eren cooked, putting away the clothes that they’d brought with them, along with the precious personal items. Clothes would be the next thing on the shopping list, and knowing Armin, he’d be scouring the pawn shops and markets for any books or old datapads that related to pre-dome or immediate post-dome science that he could find.

The place slowly began to smell like delicious food and the three of them, which helped to put Eren at ease. Mikasa poured the wine and Armin set the table, and while he was busy, she used a sharp claw to slice her finger and add several drops of blood to his glass. Eren felt a hunger pang at the scent of his sister’s blood, a reminder that they would both have to go hunting tonight. He swallowed the flood of saliva in his mouth and turned off the stove so he could carry the pot of ragout over to the table, where a heat pad was waiting.

Armin and Mikasa raved about dinner, with Armin enjoying several bowls along with a good bit of wine, while Mikasa and Eren barely had half a bowl each.  They did have several glasses of wine, even though it would take more of the alcohol to affect them then it did Armin; the liquor helped to calm their hunger.

“Do you really think I can get into Trost University,” Armin asked as he poked at his dessert, a slight slur to his voice from the alcohol.

Not this again, Eren thought with a sigh as he pushed aside his tart and picked up his glass of wine. “*Yes*. You’re one of the brightest people we’ve ever known, and we’ve known a *lot* of people.”

Returning to the table with a glass of water, Mikasa took the fork out of Armin’s hand and replaced it with the glass. “Eren’s right. You’re brilliant, and you’ve done nothing but study all these years. They won’t know what to do with you,” she assured him, then urged him to drink.

He took several sips before he resumed voicing his concerns. “But what if I don’t get in? What if they figure out that my ID is fake? You’re sacrificing so much for me,” he said, his blue eyes growing watery.

Eren reached over to smooth his hand over Armin’s hair, much as he used to do when his friend was a small child. “Don’t worry, you’ll get in,” he promised with a tender smile. “Just pass the exam, okay? Don’t worry about our IDs, they’ve held up until now.”

Armin looked as if he wanted to continue arguing, but it had been a long day and the wine was catching up to him. His breath hitched a few times as he allowed Mikasa to lead him over to his bed, and without too much effort he was soon asleep. While his sister fussed over him, Eren cleared the table, put away the leftovers and cleaned the dishes, forsaking the dishwasher to do them by hand; technology was nice, but sometimes you had to stay in touch with the simple things, like cooking and cleaning.

When he was finished, he joined Mikasa at Armin’s bed. He could tell his friend was deeply asleep already, which wasn’t a surprise with how much traveling they’d done the last couple of weeks to sneak into the dome. Mikasa stroked Armin’s bright hair a few more times and then moved a couple of steps away from the bed. “He’s worried about us.” She fussed with her scarf, something she did when she was upset. “He knows you don’t like it in domes, especially big ones.”

What Mikasa was trying not to say was that *she* was worried, too. “I’m sorry.” He reached over to tuck back a strand of black hair that had fallen onto his sister’s lovely face. “I’ll try not to do anything stupid.”

That earned him another one of her beautiful smiles. “As if such a thing is even possible,” she murmured as she motioned for him to join her on the couch, farther away from Armin. “If you haven’t changed by now, I doubt it’ll ever happen.”

“Hey!” he protested, mindful of Armin sleeping not too far away. “When was the last time I did something – oh, never mind.” His shoulders drooped and he slumped into a corner of the couch, which wasn’t too uncomfortable. “You try living so long with Miss Perfection,” he grumbled.

“That doesn’t explain you going off half-cocked most of the time,” she pointed out as she leaned over to give his left ear a flick. “Anyway, we’re talking about Armin. Is there anyone we know who can help us out,” she asked, all traces of humor gone from her manner.

Busy rubbing his sore ear, Eren gave the question some thought. “Nobody that I can think of – we chose Trost in part because there’s no one around who should recognize us.”

“Drummond?”

That was a possibility… until Eren remembered the last bit of news he’d heard about the hacker. “I think he passed on over a decade ago.”

“Hmm.” Mikasa played with the hem of her blue tunic. “What about Ymir? She usually knows the network pretty well.”

Eren grimaced at mention of their… did they consider Ymir a friend? “I don’t know, she left me a message a few months ago that was rather scary. I think she wants me for something.”

That was all of an explanation he needed to give to Mikasa, as her dark eyes narrowed and a chilly air overcame her; Eren liked to think that he could look after himself, that he was a good fighter, yet Mikasa was in a class in and of herself and anything that he couldn’t finish, she would decimate. And anything that Mikasa was certain to decimate was something she considered a threat to him. “Never mind.”

“Yeah, I thought so.” That was why he hadn’t mentioned the message until now.

They were quiet after that, both of them going over a list of names in their minds that they quickly discarded; there were so few people they trusted with who and what they were, so few who lived with the secret for any length of time. The sad thing was, the trusted ones were felled by time and worse, while those who’d found out and that they avoided… well, they weren’t eager to seek them out anytime soon.

Another hunger pang reminded him that he couldn’t sit here and dwell on the past forever. He shivered and forced himself to get off of the couch while he held out a hand to Mikasa. “Are you going hunting tonight?”

“Yes. Do you want me to wait until you get back?”

He glanced over at a sleeping Armin. “It might be best.” That way Mikasa could get a little sleep herself; they didn’t need more than a couple of hours at a time, so when he returned, he could take his turn in the bed while she went out hunting feeling refreshed. “I won’t take too long.”

“Just be careful.” She leaned in to give him a hug, which he returned, holding her tight.

In another few years, it would more than likely be the two of them again, out in the world. There was a stab of pain in his chest at the thought of leaving Armin behind to make his way in the circuit of domes, yet that savage, hungry part of Eren looked forward to the day when it would be just him and his sister again, the way it had been for so very long.

*******

The night was quiet in a manner that was common to the domes; there was no rustle of the wind, no territorial calls of predators, no rustles and thumps of creatures roaming about as they sought safety or food. The relatively few birds, insects or vermin that flourished in the artificial environment were cautious to venture out at this level and while there were still some humans around, so the most common sounds were the hum of electronics and ventilation along with the occasional human voice.

Eren darted down an alley when he heard human footsteps approaching and began to climb up a building, not in the mood to deal with anybody at the moment. He was still in a foul mood from earlier in the day, his anger simmering from having to kowtow to the bastard MP in the market; the asshole had acted like Mikasa should be begging to have sex with him, and Eren should just stand there and let his sister be insulted? He didn’t care if Mikasa could remove the guy’s spleen with her pinky, it was the *principle* of the matter – his sister was too good to be treated like that. Damn MPs acted like they ruled the world and everyone should be grateful for the fact….

Eren forced himself to take a deep breath and tried to calm down; he knew why Mikasa hadn’t reacted to the insult and why Armin had intervened, and why he shouldn’t let the incident bother him. They couldn’t afford to draw attention to themselves – the best way to affect change was to get Armin into the University and unleash that amazing mind of his from the inside, to let him work from the inside while Eren and Mikasa tracked down Grisha’s work. There was no way that Eren and Mikasa could know that the child they’d saved all those years ago could be so special, that he would take in everything they’d shown him and make it his own, make it even better, but Armin was worth every horror and indignity that they’d ever suffered. He was more than worth Eren coming here and swallowing his pride.

Feeling a little better now, he could focus his attention on why he was out tonight, which was to hunt. He sniffed the air, searching for traces of Malform, and had to go three more blocks eastward before he picked up a scent. The fact that he was spending so much time tracking down prey in such a large, populated dome was a growing concern – normally it only took him and Mikasa half an hour to find a meal, but the last couple of times it was taking almost three times that long. Armin hadn’t found any news of Malform kills on the network, which was equally disturbing. Where were the Malforms hiding, and what were they feeding upon?

Eren kept to the buildings as much as possible while he hunted, blending into the shadows with his dark clothes and years of skill. After a few minutes, he caught sight of his prey and paused, waiting a minute to watch it to see what it was doing. It was huddled in a small, dark alley, yet it didn’t seem to be prepared to attack anyone who walked along the main street in front of it. Instead, it just seemed to be curled up and hiding from something.

Puzzled by its behavior but too hungry to wait any longer, Eren crept as close as he could without giving away his presence and then leapt at the Malform. This one must have been a big man back when it was human, as it weighed more than Eren even in its withered state, and it hissed as he slammed it into the concrete ground. Sharp claws bit into his arms and back, sharp fangs snapped at his face, the pain only momentary as his body quickly healed the wounds. He growled back at it while he slammed it several times against the ground with enough force to snap its bones, and while it lay stunned, leaned in to rip out its pale throat.

Hot, viscous blood poured into Eren’s mouth, making him want to moan and close his eyes as his hunger was assuaged. The flavor was so sweet to him, so invigorating, filling him better than any human food could ever do. Gathering the Malform up in his right arm, he used his left arm and legs to climb the nearest wall, seeking a safe place to feed. The Malform struggled against him, claws once more digging at his arms, its escape efforts growing weaker the longer that Eren fed. The savage, monster part of him reveled in its struggle, in the blood that poured into him, in how much stronger he grew with each swallow.

He had nearly drained the Malform when he recognized the sound of footsteps and a sharp, indrawn breath. Looking away from his prey, Eren found a member of the Freedom Corps staring in shock at him, right hand on the hilt of his weapon.

“Shit,” Eren muttered in his native language as he shook his head and dropped the Malform to the ground so he was prepared to fight. He followed the Malform moments later, landing on his feet.

The Corps member continued to stare at him, grey eyes wide in his pale face. Eren stared back for several heartbeats, torn over what he should do; he knew better than to let himself to be discovered like this, yet it wasn’t some random person, it was a Freedom Corps fighter, someone who struck back against the Malform. Deciding that he couldn’t kill the man, Eren burst into action, moving forward with all his speed. He had to push back that savage part of him, to deny it the urge to lash out and kill, and managed to make the blow an incapacitating one instead of a killing one. The Freedom Corps fighter crumbled under it, a muttered curse fading out as he fell, and Eren caught him as he tumbled to the ground. He laid him down as gently as he could while he still felt blood on his tongue, still hungered somewhat; his hands stroked along toned arms and through soft, black hair before he forced himself away.

No, he had to leave before he did any more damage. Drawing one of the man’s blades, he went over to the mewling Malform and in one quick motion removed its head, then used his shirt to wipe the hilt clean and tossed it aside. He went back to the man and pulled back the left sleeve of his jacket, forcing himself to breathe through his mouth so he didn’t take in the man’s intoxicating scent. Dammit, he had just fed, he shouldn’t be affected like this when his hunger was mostly assuaged. It took a moment to figure out how to work a gauntlet while it was on another person, but he managed to fire off a few rappelling darts and wires which he set loose before he picked up the man and then climbed the nearest wall, then fired off one more.

He felt a bit bad to leave the man hanging in the air like that, but hopefully someone from the Freedom Corps would come looking for him soon. All Eren knew was that he had to leave now, before Mikasa tracked him down and came across this; she would kill the dark-haired man without any hesitation if she thought it would keep them safe.

Sparing the man one last glance before he left the alley, Eren hurried away as he scrubbed at his face with the sleeve of his jacket, mindful of his appearance and doing his best to avoid running into anyone on the way home. The good thing about wearing brown was that it usually hid any bloodstains, and he was careful to tug up the collar of his jacket to hide signs of his feeding as he entered the apartment building. Considering how late it was, he didn’t run into anyone on the way to his apartment.

Slipping through the door and locking it behind him, he wasn’t surprised to find Mikasa still awake, but it was unusual to see Armin still up as well, the two of them over at the desk. Armin was busy typing at the computer while Mikasa leaned over him; she looked up at Eren’s arrival and hurried over to greet him. “How was it tonight?”

For a moment he considered lying and telling her that everything had been fine; if there was one thing he had learned over the years, it was that it didn’t pay to try to hide the truth from his sister. Shaking his head, he held out his right hand as a sign to give him a minute as he went into the bathroom to wash his face; he came out a minute later with a damp towel and was wiping it clean as he sat down on the couch.

By then, Mikasa was almost vibrating with worry and almost pounced on him as she waited for him to explain. “I found something to eat, but it took a while. As I was feeding, someone from the Freedom Corps stumbled upon me,” he admitted, his hands twisting the cloth between them.

Even Armin gasped at the obvious importance of what he had just said, but it was Mikasa who clutched his shoulders and gave him a rough shake. “Where did you hide their body?”

Knowing that she would be furious with him, Eren dropped the cloth and reached for her hands. “I… I didn’t kill him.” When Mikasa let out a choked sound, he rushed to explain. “It was dark! I don’t think he saw me very well and I knocked him out! I made sure to stage it so anyone who comes across him will think he killed the Malform.” When all Mikasa and Armin did was stare at him, he tried to explain his actions. “He was Freedom Corps, Mikasa, not some MP or random person. They fight the Malforms – we can’t go about killing the only protection people have just to save ourselves.” Over so many years, the Freedom Corps had been the only thing between humanity and the Malforms; Eren hadn’t been willing to dishonor that sacrifice.

Mikasa’s face twisted as if she fought some internal battle, and then she leaned in to give him a brief, almost savage hug. “You idiot,” she whispered into his ear, the words saved from being an insult from the obvious love she felt for him. He hugged her back with the same intensity, feeling terrible for the amount of grief he made her suffer.

“Look, if we think that they’re at all suspicious of me, I’ll go hang out in the tunnels for a while, all right? I won’t cause any trouble for you and Armin.” He was serious – he had thought about it the entire way home and was ready to pack a bag and head down there tonight. A few months hanging out in the tunnels wouldn’t be so bad, not if he could come out late at night and see Mikasa.

He let out a yelp when Mikasa gave his left ear a rather painful flick. “Such an idiot.” Before he could protest, she dragged him over to the computer. “Armin and I were looking into why there’s been no reported Malform attacks. We still haven’t found any official reports, but he hacked into the MP broadband and he….” Her voice drifted off and she shook her head, her body becoming tense with concern.

Armin enlarged a screen to show Eren. “I found reports about Malform attacks at the Ragako dome, and that no one’s heard anything from the Utgard dome,” he explained, his face drawn and tone subdued. “Obviously this isn’t on any official channel, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is out in the next day or two.”

Eren felt his knees weaken at the news, and his right hand sought out Mikasa’s while his left pressed over the bag hanging against his chest when the locations sunk in. Over the years, they’d spent a lot of time in various domes: Ragako and Utgard had been two favored safe havens of theirs. They hadn’t been to either of them in over a century, but they still had safe houses in the domes that they could count on retreating to in times of needs. More importantly, it was known among their ‘kind’ that they’d gone to ground at those domes.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence.” He leaned against Mikasa, his head resting on her shoulder as he sought a familiar comfort.

“No, neither do I,” Mikasa admitted in a quiet, dangerous voice as she wrapped an arm each around him and Armin. “This was done either to flush us out or to cut us off.”

For a moment, all Eren could process was the sounds of people screaming and yelling in anger, the terrible feeling of losing everything that mattered to him, the sensation of intense pain, of the world fading away… and then Mikasa was there, holding him close and murmuring in his ear that he was all right, anchoring in the present as she always did with her scent and her warmth, her voice and her strength. He held on with everything in him, with such desperation, because just like that awful day so long ago, he didn’t know what he’d do if he had to go on without her; there were times when her clinginess and mothering drove him crazy, yet she was also what kept him human and sane.

He held on for a few more precious seconds and then forced himself to let go, his left hand once more seeking out the leather pouch. “What are we going to do?” His voice was rough with barely suppressed rage and concern. The thought of all that death and destruction, just to get at him and Mikasa…. “Should we go find out-“

“Nothing foolish!” Mikasa cut him off before he could even begin to voice his thoughts. “The last thing we’re going to do is allow them to force us into a plan of action!” She glared at him, her mouth set in anger, and gave him a rough shake before letting go and leaning back over the desk.

Armin glanced up from the screen and gave Eren a sympathetic smile before he resumed searching for more information. “I agree. For all we know they might have staked out the tunnels, waiting to see if you use them to either flee outside or to go to another of your safe houses if they fail to provoke you into a more… aggressive action.”

“He means you rushing straight to Ragako like an impulsive idiot,” Mikasa mumbled into her scarf.

“I knew what he meant,” Eren snapped, rising to her bait. Dammit, you’d think that after so long he would be able to ignore her barbs…. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that she was his sister and had his best intentions at heart, while Armin grinned in amusement at the two of them. “I just can’t believe that they’d go so far over us.”

It was quiet after that, save for the quick, steady clack of Armin’s fingers on the keypad. Then Mikasa shook her head as if to escape from her thoughts. “Something is definitely going on, between them openly attacking domes and the Malforms being so quiet in this one and two others we’ve identified. I truly believe that they’re trying to flush us out, but other than breaching the dome’s seal, I can’t think of a way to escape.”

At first Eren’s attention was snagged with considering the possibility of breaking out of the dome by one of the official gates, and then he realized what his sister had said about the other domes. “Wait, there’s been a lull in attacks in two other ones?” He glanced back and forth between Mikasa and Armin.

His friend nodded; the glow from the screen making him appear haggard. “Yeah, from what I can tell it’s the same for the Maria and Bern domes.” His face became even more worn, which led Eren to believe that it wasn’t just the poor light casting dark shadows against his eyes.

He rubbed Armin’s shoulders in an attempt to provide some comfort. “So they’re what, looking for us? Planning on something for three of the major domes?” Armin was the best when it came to plotting, while Mikasa had a cooler head than Eren; even before his change, he tended to act on instinct more often than was good for him.

Giving up on searching for information for now, Armin nodded and rubbed his eyes. “Probably a mix of both. I think it fits together somehow with what happened at the other two domes, and if they find you and Mikasa while achieving that other goal, then so much the better.” When his hands fell into his lap, he appeared much older than the seventeen or so human years that he had been maintaining.

Feeling so frustrated that he just wanted to go out and destroy something, to use his hands to rip something apart until it was nothing more than tiny pieces, Eren growled as he whirled around and headed toward the couch; there wasn’t anything in the small apartment that he could break and it was too dangerous to the others for him to go outside, especially after tonight. So instead, he sat down and pounded his fists into the beige cushioning, mindful of his strength, while guttural sounds escaped past his lips.

After a minute, Mikasa came over and knelt in front of him, her hands snatching at his and forcing them to still. “Eren,” was all she said, but it was enough, as was the concern shining in her dark eyes.

“I’m so tired of this.” The words came out hoarse and low, little more than a whisper, past a throat made sore from all the rage he fought to hold back. “For too long they’ve been tearing everything apart. Every time we think we find a bit of peace or try to put it back together, they fucking rip it apart again.”

She wrapped her arms around him and rocked him back and forth; for a moment he was reminded of his mother, of how she used to do this when he was young and tormented with bad dreams or fits of temper. So many years, so many, many years and such a memory could still bring the prickle of tears to his eyes….

“It’ll be all right, you’ll see,” Mikasa promised him. “We won’t let them win. We’ll figure something out, we always do.”

He hugged her back, his hands clenched into fists. They had come here to find the answers that had been left to them for so long, to use Armin to decipher the secrets buried in the past. While there was still some hope of doing that, Eren wasn’t going to rely solely upon that plan now – he was tired of running and looking to the future to do something about fixing their fucked up world. Did those bastards really think they could keep pushing him into corners forever? They were about to see what happened when he fought back in earnest.

*******

“Eren! Your hood!”

“Oh for-“ Eren gritted his teeth together and jerked the hood of his brown jacket forward, obeying Mikasa’s hissed warning even though he wanted to rip off the annoying garment and throw it at her. All that would do would have her chastise him for being childish, when he was ‘much too old to be acting like a spoiled brat’, and make his sister become even more of an overbearing mother hen. There were times when he swore they weren’t so much siblings as mother and child, what with the way she was so determined to look after him, but they were all the other had. He certainly hadn’t been able to let go of her all those years ago….

Face once more obscured by the hood, he followed Mikasa like an obedient dog through the busy market so they could finish their shopping for the day. Armin was occupied with finding the few things he needed for the University entrance exam that would take place in another week, their friend growing more panicked with each passing day. At least the approaching date was distracting him from the issue with the other domes and the too-quiet Malforms, even if Mikasa and Eren were worrying about them enough to make up for Armin’s lack.

Spotting a glimpse of grey and white in the distance, Eren twitched the hood a little farther over his forehead and steered his sister toward the right, where there was a table selling some apples. The one Freedom Corps member looked suspiciously short and dark-haired, but perhaps it was just Eren’s paranoia making him think it was the guy from that night. He distracted himself by picking up a green apple, lips turning down at the corners when he reflected on how much bigger and heavier they’d been when he was… well, young.

Mikasa reached over and took it from his hand with a gentleness that let him know she was thinking of the past, too. “Remember the pies that Mother used to make? They were so big and juicy, and the house would smell of them all day.” The lower half of her face was hidden by the knitted red scarf, yet he could tell that she had a sad, slight smile on her face.

He knew that there were people who would do anything to trade places with him and Mikasa, to have a fraction of their lifespan, and here he would give up almost anything to have another day back in their home in Wannsee, to spend it with his mother and Mikasa before the world had turned insane with death and blood. “I think you just liked to see me wearing an apron and covered in flour and spices while I helped Mom. You used to take pictures all the time and post them for your friends,” he teased.

Those memories helped to turn Mikasa’s expression into a genuine, pleased smile, and she picked out several apples that Eren suspected would become tarts or turnovers later. It wouldn’t be the same as when they were children, but if there was one thing they had learned over the years it was that they had to move on and make their lives their own or go insane. Well, more insane. He supposed that perhaps he had been a lost cause in the first place.

They had finished their shopping and were searching for Armin when they caught sight of him running toward them. His hood had slipped back because of his bouncing around, and Eren looked forward to Mikasa chiding someone other than him for once. She reached out to fuss over their friend and his jacket when a loud, enraged roar echoed through the market.

As soon as Eren heard the sound, his body tensed in anticipation for violence; color washed out of the world, leaving it in flat shades of grey except for the glow of living beings, beings for him to feast upon, to bite into and drink deeply from until he was sated. He could feel the teeth push out from his gums, the claws from the tips of his fingers and struggled not to snarl.

“Eren? Mikasa?”

Moving as one, Eren and Mikasa dropped the bags they’d been holding and snatched at Armin as they began to shove their way through the stunned crowd. Mikasa kept her head bowed, probably to hide her now golden eyes, her right hand tugged up the scarf while her left was wrapped firmly around Armin’s arm. “We need to get you somewhere safe.” She spoke with a slight lisp because of the teeth.

“I think I saw a storage room back by the wine table.” Eren shoved a man out of his way with a nonchalant brutality, well aware that any second now, there would be screaming. He wasn’t surprised when the man’s curses at him was drowned out by the sound of a woman’s shrill scream, and was grateful when they came across the door where he’d remembered seeing it. There was a lock on it, from the looks of it keyed to a handprint, but a quick kick broke it. All around them, people were running away to see what was happening, and Eren knew that wouldn’t last for long.

Armin resisted going into the small room at first. “What about the two of you?”

“We’ll manage,” Mikasa assured him. “Stay in here until it’s quiet, and then make a run for it. We’ll clear a path for you.” When it looked as if he was about to argue, she shoved him inside with what appeared to be spare chairs and decorations and gave him one of her infamous cold stares. “When you can heal almost instantly and have centuries’ worth of fighting experience, then you can help us.” From somewhere beneath her jacket, she pulled out a sheathed knife and handed it to him. “Stay safe.”

“You too,” he told her as he accepted the weapon. “Both of you.”

“Barricade the door!” Eren yelled out to him as he shoved it closed, and took the time to push an abandoned table across the doorway so Armin would have a few seconds warning in case a Malform got this far. Now that their friend was as secure as they could manage, he and Mikasa turned to face the carnage.

They could smell the blood and sensed that there were already dead among the crowd; what surprised them wasn’t the number of Malforms that had already descended into the market, but that so many of the Freedom Corps had arrived.

Mikasa gasped and sought out Eren’s left hand as they spotted the bodies already fallen, the Malform pulling the fighters from the wires and feasting on the people in the crowd. “This is as bad as that time in Rose,” she whispered.

“Let’s hope it has a better ending. What are we going to do? If we fight like normal, we may be considered little better than Malforms.” Things were a little bit out in the open for their usual fighting style of ripping and tearing things apart, which favored darkness.

“You think?” Eren turned to glare at his sister, who yanked him out of the way of a swooping Freedom Corps fighter on her way toward a feasting Malform.

“I have an idea,” Mikasa told him as she tugged him toward a fallen member of the Corps. “You still remember your wire training, right?”

“How do you think I covered up things with that guy from the Corps?” Eren muttered. He spotted several Malform finally headed their way and growled. “Mikasa!” Whatever plan she’d come up with, she better reveal it quickly or else he was about to tear out some throats, a bunch of witnesses be-damned.

She dashed forward and snatched up a pair of long blades that lay near a fallen member of the Freedom Corps in a smooth motion. Still running, she charged forward the Malform, raising the blades in a smooth arc as she leapt and whirled about, decapitating two of them within seconds of each other. No sooner had her feet touched the ground was she in motion again, spinning and jumping as she took out the rest of them.

While she fought, Eren searched about and found a set of blades for himself; the sad thing was that it wasn’t difficult to do, considering the number of dead Freedom Corps fighters scattered around the market. Remember what Mikasa said about the wires, he also pulled off a pair of gloves, feeling a bit guilty over doing so but deciding that he could put them to better use than the poor, headless body could that was lying here.

Now that he and Mikasa had weapons that wouldn’t look too suspicious, they joined the fight in earnest, hunting down Malforms on the ground and clinging to the walls. The newly created ones didn’t seem to have developed enough instincts to avoid them and rushed toward their destruction, while the older ones sensed what they were and preferred to deal with the Freedom Corps. It might not be as satisfying as chasing down and feeding upon prey, yet a part of Eren was energized to soar through the air and fight with Mikasa by his side, to know that he was doing something more than just existing for once.

Mikasa was grace personified beside him, twisting and spinning as if she weighed nothing both in the air and while on the ground. It was a good thing he’d given up on feeling jealous and overshadowed by her skill a long time ago, used to the way she mastered everything; he almost wanted to just stand there and watch while she tore through the Malforms.

To his surprise, one of Freedom Corps was just as mesmerizing, the dark-haired man who’d stumbled upon him several nights ago. Eren almost slammed into a wall the first time he’d spied him soaring past, blades flashing before they sliced into a leaping Malform. The man was a talented fighter, making Eren feel clumsy as he hacked away with the blades in his hands.

A Malform screeched its defiance at him and swung its claws at his face; Eren held up his left arm to take the blow, the pain a brief flare that only fueled his anger/strength as he wrenched around, right arm swinging up to behead the creature. Smoke rose from the wounds for a few seconds and then his arm was whole again; he would need to feed within the next day or two, if there were any Malforms left in the dome after this attack.

A light touch on the back of his neck startled him, he raised the blades in his hands and spun around to find Mikasa pulling up the hood of her jacket, both of her weapons held in her gloved right hand. “I think we should leave now – the Freedom Corps can handle the rest.”

Surprised to find himself wanting to argue, Eren forced himself to nod in agreement and stepped in place behind her; they may have fought like normal humans, but there would still be uncomfortable questions to be answered if they stayed too long. It was best for them to leave now and make sure that Armin was safe, perhaps try to find a Malform straggler or two and feed. Still, something inside of him was urging him to stay.

They were skirting along the edge of the plaza when a Malform leapt down about a dozen feet ahead of them, intent upon a wounded Freedom Corps fighter who was limping along with a bloody leg. Not pausing to think, Eren raced forward, blades held at the ready, and was lashing at the creature around the same time that another member of the Corps was coming to the girl’s aid. He looked up from the falling Malform in time to realize that the other fighter was the short man from the alley.

They stared at each other for several seconds, long enough for him to realize that the man did indeed recognize him, and then Mikasa had a grip on the back of his jacket and was pulling him away.

Wondering how furious his sister was going to be with him when she found out, Eren allowed himself to be dragged along like a truant child, his mind distracted by the image of that pale, bloodied face. Who was he? Why had he looked almost happy to see Eren?

They were almost at the entrance to one of the side alleys when something slammed into them from behind, knocking both Eren and Mikasa to the hard ground. At first thinking it was a Malform, Eren breathed in deep the scent of sweat, leather, blood and some sort of astringent shampoo as he was yanked onto his feet, his hands scrambling for the blades that he had dropped.

“You’re not going away, you damn brat,” the dark-haired man spat out, his voice hoarse and crackly. “Don’t even think of knocking me out this time, or else I’ll fucking gut you.” Eren was shocked by the amount of venom in the man’s deep voice, echoed in his pale grey eyes. Then he began to struggle in an attempt to free himself, to get back to Mikasa, as other members of the Freedom Corps formed a rough circle around them, several of them holding the long blades in their hands.

“Eren!” Mikasa rushed forward, her own blades held at the ready, clearly only moments away from taking on the entire Corps in order to defend him.

Shit! The last thing they needed right now was for his sister to wipe out the only thing standing between humanity and the Malforms. Motioning with his right hand for her to stand down, Eren pushed back as much as he could on the rage and hunger inside of him, relying on the innocent façade that had fooled so many in the past. “What do you want from us?” he asked as he focused his attention on the short, angry bastard, hoping he could trick him again as he had that night.

“Answers,” was the immediate response. Dammit, it didn’t look as if the guy was falling for it this time, as Eren was being dragged further back into the market. Mikasa followed, still ready to rain mass carnage down on the Freedom Corps if they seemed about to harm Eren. He did his best not to resist and trigger that disastrous event – at least, as long as they stayed away from his sister. As soon as anyone approached too close to her, he would pull as far away from the short bastard here holding onto him with a death grip and lash out with his fist.

The stalemate held out until some tall, blond asshole liberally splattered with blood shoved his way through to the center of the circle. “What is going on here? We have wounded and worse to deal with, what has you-” He stopped when he noticed Eren, Mikasa and the short bastard, his expression smoothing out as he stared intently at Eren and Mikasa. “Weren’t you the two fighting with us against the Malforms?”

Eren had a bad feeling about this and tried once more to pull his arm free, but Short Bastard was stronger than he looked; unless he wanted to break the bastard’s hand, he was stuck.

“I want them to come back with us,” Short Bastard said in a rush, just like a little kid trying to explain why he’d done something bad to his parents. “I think they might have some idea of what’s going on with the fucked up situation here.”

Upon hearing that, Mikasa latched on to Eren as if she was his human shield. “We don’t know anything, we merely fought to save ourselves.”

Yeah, and they were certain to believe that, Eren thought as he hugged the arms wrapped around his chest. Yet despite that, he had to wonder if there was a way to turn this to their advantage; Short Bastard wasn’t calling for their deaths, he said he wanted answers. What if that was true?

As if on cue, the man grunted and tugged on Eren’s left arm as if it was a fucking leash. “You’re coming back with us.”

Ready to let Mikasa beat some sense into the rude bastard, Eren pulled back as much as he could so he wouldn’t be caught in the cross-fire. It was then that he heard Armin all out his and Mikasa’s name, and a moment later worm his way through the Freedom Corps to join them.

“Are you all right?”

The shock of Armin joining them at least got Short Bastard to let go of Eren when he went for his blades, which allowed Eren to hug Armin in relief. Grateful that his friend appeared to have emerged unscathed through all of the fighting, Eren released him so Mikasa could hug him next. “What happened? You were supposed to get away!”

“I couldn’t leave without you! Not when I saw you two get surrounded,” Armin explained. “What’s going on? Why are they holding you?”

Mikasa shook her head. “Something about-“

The tall blond guy cut her off before she could explain. “We need to finish up here, but I want to continue this conversation later.” He motioned for Short Bastard and some other fighter, someone with glasses and dark brown hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, to step forward. “Take them back to headquarters as our guests.” When Mikasa once more held her blades at the ready, Blondie was quick to shake his head and hold up his hands in a placating manner. “We just want to talk to you, I promise,” he swore, with what was probably meant to be a trusting smile on his face.

Eren had lived more than long enough to never take a stranger at his word, but he had also lived long enough to know that sometimes, you had to seize a chance when it presented itself to you if you wanted to make things better. Right now their options weren’t good: he’d recognized the roar that had started the massacre and realized that even if he and Mikasa escaped from here, they might be running straight into a trap. So why not do something completely unexpected? That’s what his instincts were telling him to do just then, to fight one enemy by siding with another.

He turned toward Mikasa and Armin and saw the concern and fear in their eyes. While some of it was for themselves, he knew a good bit of it was also for himself. All he could do was give them a slight smile before glancing back at the people surrounding them, sighing and nodding, hoping that they understood what he couldn’t say just then.

If they couldn’t, Short Bastard clearly took that as a sign of his assent and once more latched on to his arm. Biting back on the comment that it would hurt less if the man put a fucking collar and leash on him, Eren allowed himself to be led away, hoping that his instincts weren’t making a huge mistake. One thing he was sure about – if the rest of the Freedom Corps were like Short Bastard here, the signs were clear that they’d make a better ally than an enemy.

*******

Return to Archive

Next Chapter