chapter seven

*******

beginning to see the light

*******

Eren struggled with the urge to lash out at Short Bastard – Captain Ackerman – to make him release the hold on his arm and stop dragging him around as if he was an unruly child, reminding himself that this was what he’d gotten himself *and* the others into by following his instincts. He had to hope that he’d made the right decision, that he’d done something to strike back for once instead of running away. It was just difficult to believe that he’d made the right choice when he wanted to rip out a certain rude, short asshole’s throat just then. 

“So, do you do this to everyone or am I just special?” he found himself unable to hold back as he was dragged around another corner. 

He got a sneer for his curiosity as Captain Ackerman came to a pause in front of a door marked with a symbol for falling water and what appeared to be unisex facilities. “You’re a special pain in my ass is what you’re are. Now get in here so you’re not a foul-smelling one at that.” He used his hold on Eren to whip him into the shower room ahead of him. 

At least he was free of the short bastard, Eren thought to himself as he rubbed his sore forearm, the bruises already healing. About to ask just what he’d done to rate the special status, he caught Armin’s pleading look and let out his breath in a huff that blew aside the bangs falling onto his face. Don’t let the puny, narrow-minded bully get under your skin, he told himself. Imagine Mikasa stringing him up by his entrails. You’ll both be dancing on his grave soon enough. He’ll be dust and forgotten and another bitter idiot will take his place, though maybe not this short….. “What, are you going to show me how to take a shower, too?” 

Armin muttered what sounded to be a prayer under his breath while Mikasa gave Eren a disgusted look as if she couldn’t believe that he was deliberately antagonizing a rabid animal. As for Captain Ackerman, the man stared back at him for several seconds through narrowed eyes. “If you’re too stupid to have learned by now, then I’m not wasting my precious time on you.” 

It was just then that the crazy woman – Captain Zoe – arrived with an armful of fabric. She came to a sudden halt and glanced back and forth as if picking up the tense atmosphere in the shower room. “Uhm, okay, were there inappropriate jokes about dropping the soap or something?” she asked with a shaky smile.

“No, but I just turned down a lewd proposition,” Captain Ackerman told her with a bored tone as he began to sort through the clothes, his back to Eren and Mikasa.

“Oh, you wish!” Eren had to be quick to grab Mikasa as she lunged for the delusional bastard, half-tempted to let his sister have at it after all she’d been put through so far. Instead, he had her under control by the time the asshole turned around, a suspicious frown on his face. 

“Here, take these.” The short captain shoved bundles of clothes, towels and washcloths at the three of them. “Women bathe on the right, men on the left. Is that going to be a problem?” he demanded to know, another sneer lurking beneath the surface of that bored expression that seemed to be his default when Eren was concerned. 

“Yeah, because there’s so many private bathrooms around after the collapse of civilization,” Eren shot back, his voice thick with sarcasm as he was careful with the clean material. “We barely went a day without bidets and hot water.” 

Instead of a sneer, Captain Ackerman graced him with what was becoming his second expression of default – a scowl. “You’re a fucking smart-ass, brat.” 

“It takes one to know-“

“Let’s go get clean!” Armin all but shouted as he tore a page from Captain Ackerman’s book and dragged Eren off to the left to take a shower, along a long corridor of clean walls set with white tiles. “Mikasa, we’ll meet back here, okay?” 

All right, so Short Bastard got under skin, Eren admitted to himself as he allowed Armin to lead him far enough away from the two Freedom Corps fighters, toward the back of the showers. Once they were suitably alone, he took great pleasure in removing his torn, bloody and dirty clothes; he was grateful that no one from the Freedom Corps had realized that not all of the blood that he and Mikasa were wearing had come from the Malforms. Their wounds were long-since healed and they’d brought up their healing abilities, but it would be beneficial to keep the entire extent of that ability to themselves just in case this alliance fell through. 

At least the Freedom Corps base used real water for their showers, even if it was recycled waste water judging from the carbon scent; Eren still remembered with immense distaste the times in the early domes when the only choice had been chemical showers and how they were among the few things that could drive his sister into a full-on rant. It had gotten so bad that they’d abandoned the domes for a few decades and clung to the outskirts, hunting lurking Malforms at night, preferring the solitude and occasional lack of meals to their preserved dignity. 

“What are you thinking about?” Armin asked, busy scrubbing at his skin underneath the nearby shower as if determined to rid himself of the outer layer.

“Oh, just that it’s nice not to be stuck with chemical showers.” Eren grinned when his friend’s eyes went wide and he did a quick search of the immediate vicinity, as if to make sure that Mikasa hadn’t overheard the dreaded phrase. 

“And here I thought you might have more important thoughts in that hollow head of yours,” Armin grumbled as he splashed some water Eren’s way. “Like what about this current situation.” 

Glancing back to where he was certain Captain Ackerman and probably Zoe were waiting for them, Eren judged that they were far enough away that the two couldn’t overhear them. “Eh, I think Mikasa would have *our* heads for discussing anything without her.” At Armin’s weary sigh, he shrugged and swiped back his now clean hair. “I think… this is why I wanted us to go along with them. It’s like you said – maybe it’s time to stop being on our own.” Armin was good at seeing things that Eren and Mikasa often overlooked, what with his different viewpoint on things. They often took the long view, saw things with the perspective of what would be there in the long run, whereas even with his enhanced youth, Armin had a human lifespan. There was also that brilliance going for him – Eren had to wonder if the changes wrought by his father’s serum, by having to fight for survival for so many years had made other fundamental changes to him and his sister. You wanted to win a fight? That was Mikasa’s specialty. Unpredictability? Eren had that covered. Meanwhile, Armin was definitely their best hope for strategy, which was why Eren hadn’t battled his way free when both his instincts and Armin’s intellect had indicated that they should trust the Freedom Corps. 

Armin ducked his head, a blush spreading across his cheeks that had little to do with the heat from the water.  “Just because I think something’s a good idea doesn’t mean you and Mikasa should risk your lives on it.”

There were times when Eren wished that his young friend had a bit more faith in himself; he realized that it couldn’t be easy, being raised by and living with people who were so much older than him, but they had done their best to instill what confidence they could in Armin, to never make him think that they found him lacking in any way. The truth was, they needed him as much as he needed them, and for more than just his intelligence. If anything, they had come to realize just how far from humanity they’d gotten once they’d taken him in as a child. “Considering that you’re right in this with us, there’s worse ideas we could follow. Such as mine.”

That earned him a weak laugh then they finished their showers in silence, mindful that Mikasa and probably Captain Ackerman were waiting impatiently for them. In the communal locker area, they dressed in the outfits that Zoe had brought them, Armin blushing again at the clean underwear which turned out to be a decent fit along with the white pants and grey jersey-like shirts that Eren assumed were the more informal version of the Corps uniform. There were even small kits so they could brush their teeth before heading to meet the others; he handed the shaving materials in the small plastic bag to Armin, long used to the fact that he’d never age to the point where he’d need them.

His damp hair tucked back behind his ears and the pouch containing the few things he couldn’t risk losing safely tucked beneath the grey shirt, Eren indicated to Armin that they were ready to go. They could hear Captain Zoe prattling on about something now that the water was turned off, and as they approached, it turned out to be the crazy scientist explaining to Mikasa that she’d arranged for the three of them to spend the night in an unused captain’s quarters. “-think it would be best since we still need to get you settled in. Tomorrow we’ll start your training, so you can meet everyone then. But for tonight, get some rest and adjust to everything, all right? You guys have to be tired.”

“Thank you, Captain Zoe.”

“Oh no! Call me Hange, everyone does.”

Dressed in the same outfit as him and Armin, her black hair tangle-free and her scarf wrapped around her neck, Mikasa skirted around Captain Ackerman as if to keep temptation safely out of reach and joined the two of them. “What we need most is to feed. Armin is the only one who really sleeps.” She brushed the fingers of her right hand along Eren’s left arm before taking position between him and Armin, her attention fixed on the two captains while she waited for their reactions to her politely phrased demand.

Captain Hange let out an excited squeal at that revelation and made an arrested motion for the notepad tucked into the waistline of her dirtied pants before the short bastard elbowed her in the side. “Look, we’ll have dinner sent to the room but we’re not taking you out tonight,” he snapped. When Eren was about to argue with that, he made a curt motion with his right hand. “Right now, all of those shitstain MPs will be crawling around the dome, trying to act as if they have everything under control. Everyone knows it’s the Corps who fight against the Malforms, but they do this act every time there’s an attack, and tonight won’t be an exception.” He shifted his glare to Mikasa, and scoffed when she gazed at Eren and made a slight nod in acknowledgement; it pained them both to admit that the bastard was right. “We’ll go out tomorrow, when things have calmed down.”

“All right,” Eren agreed, more than a little surly. “But it won’t be wise to wait much longer than that.” They’d both been injured during the fighting since they’d had to act ‘human’, which meant they needed blood to replace what was lost and to recoup expended energy.

Captain Hange lost her excited demeanor and folded her arms over her chest. “What do you mean, ‘it’s not wise’? Are you a threat to the Corps?” Beside her, Captain Ackerman’s hands dropped to his blades.

Well, nice to know how far they were trusted, wasn’t it? Eren could feel his sister tense at his side, ready to tear into the two at any hint of a true threat. “No, we’ve never attacked humans unless they’re proven themselves a danger to us first, but the hungrier we get, the… more obvious it is what we are,” he tried to explain.

Armin pushed himself forward, in front of them, and held up his hands. “I can attest to that. They’ve never once harmed me or made me feel threatened in the entire time I’ve known them, and there’s been plenty of occasions when food’s been scarce. We just think you don’t want the rest of the Freedom Corps to see them walking around snarling at everyone, their fangs and claws out and their eyes all shining,” he said in a rush.

Her posture relaxing, Captain Hange let out a loud guffaw and slapped a scowling Ackerman on the back hard enough to knock him forward. “Aw, that sounds like Levi in the morning! I doubt anyone would even notice!”

“Fuck off, you shitty glasses!” he yelled at her as he shoved her away, but at least his hands were away from his blades. “Now show these damn brats to their room so I can take my own shower.”

 She might be crazy and obsess a bit too much about his bastard of a father, but Eren thought he just might like Captain Hange a little. He glanced at Mikasa and smiled, feeling like this might actually turn out all right. 

******* 

Levi has just settled behind his desk with a freshly brewed pot of tea when he heard a knock at his door. Worried for a moment that it was Erwin, he relaxed a moment later when he recognized Hange’s distinctive knocking pattern. “Get in here,” he ordered as he relaxed back into his chair. 

She made a show of opening the door slowly and peering from behind it as if expecting something to be thrown at her. “I don’t know, is it safe to enter?” When he tsk’ed in annoyance and blew onto the surface of his tea to cool it, she raised an eyebrow then sauntered into the room, all lanky legs and a cocky smile. “You were on a tear there, earlier today. Wash off some of that bad attitude along with the stink?” she asked as she dropped into the chair set in front of his desk without a care for manners or proper alignment of the spine. Fuck, it hurt just looking at her. 

“I wasn’t ‘on a tear’,” Levi grumbled as he set his cup of tea aside. “I was-“ 

“You called one of our newest recruits a bitch, you hauled that poor kid around like he was your disobedient puppy, I got more roughed up from you than I did fighting Malforms and I think you used your grumpiness quotient for the entire week in about an hour.” Hange ticked off the items along her fingers as if going through a report. “This tops the Maria incident, which is something I *never* thought I’d say.” 

“It’s something you never were supposed to,” he gritted out between clenched teeth. They had all promised to move on from it, dammit. “So what, you want me to come over there and kiss it to make it better? Dream on, I’ve seen your quarters, no way am I touching you.” 

Hange pressed the back of her right hand against her forehead in a dramatic manner. “Oh drat, my clever plan has been foiled again. How am I ever going to get you to fall into my ample bosom and realize that you are my one true love?” She laughed when he started gagging over her foolishness. “Aw, as if you’d ever swing my way – especially when your cutie is just down the hall.” A predatory grin settled on her face as she shifted to lean forward in the chair. 

He picked up the tea cup and used it to gesture at her, mindful of its hot and precious contents. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you using that word earlier today – you’re getting your ass kicked in practice this week.” It was a good thing that the brats were too shook up from Erwin’s tactics to pick up on it, or else Mikasa would have probably gutted Levi and Hange before running off with her darling brother. 

Hange waved aside her impending date with a hard surface with surprising ease and cackled. “What I find so interesting is that you don’t seem to be objecting to the ‘your’ part.” When Levi blinked at her in shock, she cackled again and leaned back in the chair. “Yeah, I thought so.” 

Taking a sip of tea to help settle his jumbled thoughts, Levi let the delicious, hot beverage wash down his throat before he tried to speak again. “Look, I found the brat, so-“

Hange cut him off with a lazy wave of her hand. “We don’t have the time to get into this.” It wasn’t often when she dropped the easy-going, smiling exterior and let that ruthless, utterly focused side of her come through, but Levi knew to pay attention when she did. “I want to know what we’re doing with those three moving forward, and if you’re going to keep being such an officious prick like today.” Her eyes, behind the glint of her glasses, were calculating and distant, as if examining a specimen and not a friend. 

He rested back in his chair and held his cup against his chest, its warmth soothing. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he told her in a flat tone, his eyes narrowed as he stared back. 

Her demeanor relaxed a little, becoming less cold but still retaining some distance. “Look, today was as fucked up as it can get, I understand. We lost some good people, there were a lot of deaths and not all of them were at the hands of the Malforms. This job can suck at times.” She held up her own hands as if searching them for signs of blood. “We’ve been under a lot of pressure since hearing about Ragako and Utgard, waiting for the ax to fall, so to speak. Then comes along Eren and his friends, who seem to have a good bit of the answers we’ve been bleeding out trying to find.” 

“Yes, and I had *every* *right* to push that brat and his bitchy sister to get those answers!” Levi drained his tea and almost slammed the cup down onto the desk before he remembered in time just how fragile it was. He set it down with care and then let out a slow breath, then pressed his trembling hands against the desk. Tension he didn’t realize that he still possessed, not after standing so long in the hot shower, in coming back here to his clean, quiet quarters and changing into clean, *non-uniform* clothes and partaking in his ritual pot of tea…. Perhaps Hange had a point. Ever since hearing about Ragako and Utgard… no, the stress had been building longer than that. They had been going for so long without any clear hope of winning, had been losing so many good people…. And along came this brat who shook up his already fractured world. 

“Want some?” he asked as he poured himself another; he didn’t wait for Hange’s curt nod, just reached into the top drawer of his desk to pull out a clean cup so he could prepare one for her as well. “So you’re saying I was a bit of an asshole,” he remarked, voice utterly dry as he handed the tea over to her. 

That earned him a faint smile as Hange accepted it. “If by ‘a bit’ you mean ‘complete’.” She sighed and sunk back into the chair, careful not to spill a drop of the tea. “You were effective, I’ll give you that – you and Erwin both. Maybe it ended up working to our favor as it showed them how driven you were to find out what’s going on, to get the information we need. But you can’t keep going on that track, Levi, not if we want to earn their trust. Try to think like them for a moment – they’ve lived *so* long. You have to respect them for that and for the fact that they’ve decided to open up to us, to risk the secrets that they’ve kept hidden for so many years and from so many people that it’s more than second nature to them.” 

“Like drooling over then as if they’re precious lab rats is any better?” His jab earned him a dramatic wince which Hange tried to hide behind a sip of tea. “Yeah, I thought so,” he muttered with some smugness. 

“Oh, all right, so I have to work on a few things myself.” She appeared chagrined for a moment before she resumed being serious. “Even if it sounds like Grisha Jaeger was a major bastard for what he did to his own son, using him as a test subject against his will, the man was brilliant. Excuse me for being excited for the chance to work with his projects.” She appeared to think about something as she drank some more tea. “Now, what are we doing tomorrow?” 

Wishing just then that he could shove his friend out of the room so he could go back to enjoying his tea in peace, Levi rubbed his forehead and let out a slow breath; Hange could be a meddlesome bitch, but she was right in that they needed to figure this shit out. “While you take the kids to breakfast, I’ll gather my personal squad together for a private chat.” He knew he could trust Petra, Olou, Erd and Gunther with the truth, and judging from Hange’s nod, she did as well. “You spend the day with Armin finding out how much he knows about Jaeger’s research, while I’ll go through basics with Eren and Mikasa. Then we’ll split them up at night to take them feeding.” At least the brats had agreed to wait one more day for things to calm down enough to risk that. 

As expected, the ‘feeding’ part brought a glimmer of excitement to Hange’s eyes, yet she remained focused on figuring out a suitable plan. “Just so you know, Moblit’s reported that there’s already some rumbling from the troops about our latest arrivals. We weren’t the only ones to notice them fighting at the market.” 

He tsk’ed at the thought of idiots gossiping before another sip of tea. “Nice to know that they can multi-task.” Setting the cup aside, he leaned forward to rest his elbows on the desk and propped his chin up on his left hand. “So, I assume that you’ve a story in mind to tell them?” There had to be a point to this, as well as the slight, pleased grin tugging at the corners of Hange’s mouth. 

“Well,” Hange drawled until Levi began to scowl. “You might say that I was inspired by the fact that you and the lovely Mikasa share the same last name.” She laughed when he snorted in disdain over that fact – like there weren’t several members of the Corps who didn’t have a surname in common. “Despite the fact that so much time’s passed and there’s no way to tell if you’re related, you must admit that you two share certain similarities, such as a pissy attitude, impressive fighting skills and an interest in a cutie with one of the finest asses I’ve seen in years.” She cackled when Levi threw one of the datapads stacked on his desk at her, catching it with ease. “In all seriousness, it’s the second item that we’re going to exploit,” she explained as she set the datapad back on the desk. 

“How so?” 

“I really do think we can get away with claiming her as either a distant relative or the daughter of an old friend of yours that you happened across at the market.” Hange once more became perfectly serious as she met Levi’s gaze. “We don’t give out much of an explanation, we just say that you know each other and that’s why you brought her and the others here. Let them fill in the blanks, since they’ll come up with a better story than we ever could. Just let them think that you two have a past in common and it’ll be enough to distract them from the truth.” 

The idea had merit – the few members of the Corps who had been around long enough knew that Levi would go out of his way for anyone he felt was his responsibility, and the brats – at least the siblings – had a feral enough air to them that it wouldn’t seem impossible for them to have spent time in Tartarus and picked up their survival skills there. “So that handles covering their sudden arrival.  Do you seriously think we should integrate them with the rest of the Corps?” 

Hange finished her tea then stared into the empty cup as if it were one of her old books. “I don’t think we have a choice – it’ll raise suspicions if we keep them separated any longer than tonight, and it’ll be for the best in the long run. They’ve probably been isolated too long, Eren and Mikasa. It’ll do them some good to be around normal people.” 

“Yeah, until the sister freaks out over someone getting too close to her precious brother,” Levi pointed out with just a *touch* of sarcasm. 

Looking up from the porcelain cup, Hange stared hard at him for several seconds, her expression inscrutable. “You know, you weren’t helping at all with your attitude back there in the office.” 

He snorted as he picked up his cup of tea by the tips of his fingers and settled back in his chair. “I think you’ve got that backwards – you mean *she* wasn’t helping the situation with the way she overreacted. Must’ve been hell to live with an over-possessive mother-hen for so long.” 

A disapproving frown slowly settled upon Hange’s face. “You really don’t get it, do you?” When all he did was stare evenly back at her, she sighed and rubbed her eyes beneath her glasses with her left hand. “Imagine having everything taken away from you: your home, your security, your hope for the future and almost everything and everyone you love.” The knowing glance she gave him before resuming her study of the tea cup told him that she was aware that he had some experience with what she was describing, and part of him was furious with her bringing up his past like this. “Imagine that it gets so bad that you’re actually on the brink of death – and a horrible one at that - and then there’s one person who saves you, one person who brings you back and gives you a center for your life.” Her expression became bleak for a moment as she stared deep into the cup, searching for something that he couldn’t see. “The loss and the devastation goes on, but that person is still there, still your center, still giving you something to hold on to while everything else is utter shit.” She finally looked back up to him. “Can’t you understand that’s what Eren is to Mikasa? Hell, I barely know those two and I can see it plain as day. I haven’t gone through all that she has, but I know I’d do anything for you and Erwin. What I can’t comprehend is living like that for so *long* and how much stronger her emotions must be as a result.” 

She leaned forward to set the cup on his desk. “And then *you* come along, all bad attitude and threats, and you think she’ll just meekly stand there while you harass the center of her world?” She made a rude noise and rolled her eyes. “Puh-lease. If anything, she showed remarkable restraint today.” 

He wanted to say that he hadn’t been as much of a shitty jerk as she was implying, but the words died in his throat. Instead, he thought back to how defensive and furious he had been when Erwin had forced him to join the Corps, how certain he’d been that he, Isabel and Farlan- “I can’t afford to baby them because they’ve had a long, shitty life,” he spat out, the words harsher than he intended due to suppressed emotions. “Too many lives are at stake.” 

“I know.” Hange appeared exhausted as he felt just then, her mouth opening and closing several times as if she struggled for words. “I guess… just try to think a little before you react. You’re usually good at that, when you’re not pushed to the breaking point like we all are right now. We needs those two, and people tend to look up to you for all that you’re a prickly, foul-mouth bastard.” She managed a smile, one that grew stronger when he made an obscene gesture in her direction. “And those are your good qualities, Sweetie.” 

“Why I put up with your shit, I’ll never know,” he mumbled before he finished off his now cold tea. 

“Too many blows to the head is my guess.” She slumped back in her chair and closed her eyes, appearing ready to fall asleep at any moment. “So you’ll go easy on them tomorrow?” 

“No.” When she jerked upright, ready to bitch him out, he held up his hand to shut her up. “I’m gonna kick them into shape so they’ll do the Corps proud and no one will question why they’re new recruits assigned to my squad, but I won’t give them any more grief than I would another newbie,” he promised. “If the girl starts up with her ‘mine, mine, mine’ crap, I’ll count to ten and just imagine kicking her in the head.” It would be difficult but he’d put up with worse. 

“Yeah, well try to remember that the ‘girl’ in question is a hell of a lot older than you, so that technically makes you the child in this scenario.” Hange seemed to derive a great deal of pleasure in pointing that fact out. She paused in the middle of standing up and stared off into the distance. “I wonder how we must come across to them, with our ‘short’ lifespans and limited world views.” 

Wanting the pest gone, Levi just shrugged before he rested his head against the back of his chair. “You’re thinking about this too much. They certainly seemed liked kids to me. Maybe the change did something to freeze more than just their bodies.” 

Hange gave him an odd look then merely shook her head as she rose to her feet. “Guess I’ll see you at breakfast then.” She paused as if to consider something. “Do they eat breakfast? Malforms don’t consume anything beside blood, but we saw them at the market around food. Oh, I can’t wait to find out!” Hand reaching for her ever-present notebook, she somehow managed to write down more notes while opening and closing the door, never glancing up the entire time. 

Why was he surrounded by so many lunatics? Levi probably didn’t want to know the answer. He rubbed his tired eyes and contemplated going through more reports that were stacked on his desk before deciding that he’d done enough for the day. Sparing the time to send a message to his personal squad that he wanted to meet with them before breakfast, he got up to wash the teapot and cups before preparing for bed; he had a feeling that tomorrow was going to be a long day.

*******

Eren stared at the formal uniform that he’d left out for the morning – Captain Hange had been very busy – either she or one of her squad had prepped the room with several sets of the uniform that Eren, Mikasa and Armin would need for their new lives in the Freedom Corps. Starting in the morning, they would be wearing the white pants made of a heavy duty material reminiscent of the denim from his youth, thick white cotton shirts and grey leather jackets with matching grey, over the knee boots. A grey leather belt held the holsters for the long, sword-like blades and another thicker one provided support for the rappelling cords as well as held several small pouches, and of course there was the gauntlet. He frowned as he picked it up. “What happened to the maneuvering gear they used to use?” he asked, careful to pitch his voice low since Armin was sleeping in the other room.

Stretched out on the makeshift cot like an indolent cat, Mikasa lifted her head off of her arms to look over at him. “Hmm? Oh, let me think.” She rose up in a smooth motion and joined him over at the desk, where his new outfit was spread out. “Didn’t they switch over a couple of centuries ago? After the incident with the Nanghai dome?”

He stared at her in surprise. “Was that what broke the seal? I’d always wondered.” Looking back down at the gauntlet, he ran his fingers over the shining wire. “It’s a lot more compact, but I miss the old gear. Don’t we still have some old sets stashed up around Lake Constance?”

“We should, though I imagine that the leather’s rotted away by now.” Mikasa rested her chin on his shoulder as she watched him twist the gear about. “They always seem to think that they improve upon things, don’t they?”

“I certainly didn’t complain when they restored hot, running water,” he pointed out with a wry smile, “but yeah, that might have been the highlight of the last millennia.” Funny how it was the simple things that made one happy. He let a yelp when a sharp finger poked him in the ribs.

“I seem to remember a particularly ecstatic brother when we happened back upon air conditioning,” Mikasa remarked with a bit of smugness.

He did a snatching motion at one of the ends of her scarf to make her back off, both of them laughing softly. “All right, I still recall that day with much fondness. I didn’t think you were too happy about having an enhanced sense of smell and dealing with constant b.o..” He sniffed to illustrate his point and chuckled when she shuddered in exaggerated horror. “Yeah, I thought so.” Setting the gauntlet down, he ran his right hand through his hair and let out a slow breath. “So, now that Armin’s asleep, how mad are you with me?” He figured he’d get this out of the way sooner rather than later. Mikasa could be rather inventive if left to stew over things.

His sister trailed her fingers along the desk and took her time heading back to the cot, obviously putting her thoughts in order before she answered. Sitting down with her legs crossed and her hands wrapped in the ends of the long scarf, she stared at nothing for a few seconds before looking up at him and giving one smooth shrug. “Honestly? At one point I don’t know who I wanted to strangle more, you or that short asshole,” she admitted with a rueful grin.

“That sounds about right.” Eren pulled out the desk’s chair and sat backwards on it, his arms folded across its top and his chin resting on them. “I’m sorry for dragging you into this without giving you any warning, but after hearing that roar….” His hands clenched into fists and he struggled to keep his fangs from pushing out; they really needed to feed soon.

Mikasa’s gaze gentled and her hands relaxed around her scarf. “I know, which was why soon enough I merely wanted to gut that rude Captain.” She let out a shaky breath and tugged at her bangs. “I wish it had been done more on our terms, without Commander Smith knowing so much about us beforehand, but what’s done is done.” Pushing back the dark strands, she summoned a reassuring smile for him. “I do agree with you and Armin – we need allies if the others are coming after us. They’ve never been this determined, what with trying to cut off our escape routes and then a deliberate attack like today.”

“Do you think they knew we were there?” Eren chewed at a hangnail while he waited for the answer; he hadn’t brought this up in front of their friend, as there were still a few things they kept from Armin more for his own peace of mind than any sense of distrust.

“No.” The quickness of Mikasa’s answer was a relief of sorts. “I think one of them, perhaps Annie or Reiner, would have been there in person if they did. But we might have revealed ourselves to them if there’s any footage of us fighting.”

Wasn’t that a cheerful thought? If they asked Commander Smith to take care of it, it might raise flags that would draw the wrong attention to them anyway. Eren ran his hands through his hair and tugged on the strands in frustration; why was it that in trying to escape one trap, he only saw others? It would be so much easier to just breach the seal and run outside, except that would mean leaving Armin behind and vulnerable as there was still another month before the worst of the solar radiation faded. Those bastards knew that, too, which was why they were pushing so hard right now.

“How come whenever we try to be human, it always hurts us so much?”

He hadn’t realized that he’d spoken out loud until his sister was kneeling beside him, her arms wrapped around his shoulders and her forehead pressed against his. “But it’s not all pain, is it? We’ll get through the dark times, we always do.”

Hugging her back, Eren reminded himself that she was right – that this would be worth it in the end. It had been incredible to see Armin grow up from a small child, so frightened and unsure. And if they could do what they had set out to do, to retrieve Grisha’s research, then there should be a lot less darkness out there for people. Maybe then he and Mikasa could leave the domes behind and find someplace peaceful to live for a few centuries.

“If you want to do something fun, why don’t you help me teach that rude asshole some manners?” Mikasa asked, a hopeful expression on her face as she pulled away.

That made him laugh, even as he shook his head. “I don’t think he’d survive the experience, and then we’d be in trouble,” he admitted with some regret. “So you’ll just have to play nice.” He grinned at her disgruntled frown and fussed with her scarf. “Just wait until he tries to teach you something and you get to show him up, Miss Perfect.” The use of her old nickname earned him a pleased smile.

“Just remembered that I offered.” She rose up and sauntered back over to the bed. “You going to be up a little longer?”

“Yeah, so you can sleep first.” He settled a little lower on the chair and watched her curl up on the bed; this might be their home for the foreseeable future, but that didn’t mean they needed to lower their guard entirely. He’d take first watch while his sister got the rest she needed, then they’d switch out.

The room was quiet after Mikasa fell asleep, leaving Eren to sit there, alone with the memories that always pressed at his mind whenever he had nothing to distract him, that reminded him of all that he had lost and all those he had failed.

*******

Levi entered the private meeting room where he’d requested his squad to assemble and found them waiting for him, ready for the day despite the early hour. Gunther was leaning against the projector screen wall with a mug of coffee in his left hand, Petra sat on top of one of the tables while Oluo hovered nearby, and Erd scanned the a datapad in his right hand.

“Sir, here’s the latest updates on the squadron’s condition.” Erd handed the datapad over to Levi, which he tucked into an interior pocket, next to the datapad he’d brought with him.

“Thank you. I appreciate everyone taking care of the entire squad while Erwin and I handled other matters last night,” Levi told his people; it wasn’t often that he delegated to such an extent, but it was good to know that they were up to it.

Oluo puffed out his chest in obvious pride while everyone else murmured something to the effect that the recognition wasn’t necessary. With that out of the way, Levi cocked a hip against one of the tables and folded his arms over his chest, the gauntlet a solid presence against his ribs.

“So, you’re probably wondering what this is about.” When everyone nodded, he continued. “We have two new members to this special squad – Eren and Mikasa Stieger. You’ll be meeting them after breakfast and helping me train them.”

Oluo stiffened in apparent outrage while Erd stepped forward. “These are the children we brought in last night? The two who were fighting with us at the market?” he asked. “Does this have anything to do with why you were chasing after them before the attack broke out? Rumor has it that you know them, Captain.”

“Yes and no.” Levi reached for the datapad that he’d brought along to the meeting. “I’ve been looking for them for a while, but not for the reasons in the rumor.” Powering up the datapad, he made sure to catch everyone’s attention. “What I’m telling you now is a secret that is you will *not* reveal to anyone else.” He let his tone and his expression convey how serious he was, aware that his personal squad knew him well enough by now that threats weren’t necessary. “The Commander, Hange and I are the only ones so far who know this, and I’m trusting you, too.”

“Thank you for your faith, Captain.” Petra approached the table where he had settled with Oluo trailing after her, and Gunther joined in as well, his coffee set aside. “We won’t disappoint you.”

They better fucking not, but Levi left that unsaid. “It’s Hange’s harebrained scheme to let everyone think that the brats are someone connected to me, and I’m not going to argue with her. We can’t risk anyone figuring out who they really are.”

“What, are they related to the Chairman or something? They don’t look that spoiled.” Gunther came to stand beside Erd, a disgruntled look on his face as he considered the possibility of some pampered brats joining the squad.

Wouldn’t that be something, Levi thought as he showed them the image that Erwin had tracked down. “Not quite. Though their dad is rather famous.” He gave them a minute for the importance of the picture to sink in, who was the man in it, how old it was….

Erd was the first one to catch on, judging from the way his face paled and his jaw dropped. Petra was next; she emitted a loud gasp and her gaze shifted to Levi’s right away. Gunther shook his head as if to deny what was in front of him, and Oluo frowned while he glanced back and forth between the datapad and everyone else as if unsure of the situation.

“That isn’t real, is it?” Erd reached for the datapad, his fingers stopped just short of the device. “I’ve seen those kids myself, they can’t be the same.”

“They’re real, and so is that photo.”

“But… that would make them how old?” Petra’s brows furrowed and she wrapped her arms around her waist as if for comfort. “Over a dozen centuries? That’s not possible.”

Nice to know it was only freaks like Erwin and Hange who were able to so easily accept that there were people who could live so long, Levi thought to himself. “Apparently, when your father is one of the best scientists alive, he can create a serum that not only makes you immune to Malform bites but turns you into some sort of Malform hybrid. These brats have all of the best traits of Malforms without the whole ‘must eat humans’ side effects.” He’d stated that as dryly as possible to lessen the impact, but his squad still took the news rather hard.

“Those kids are monsters?” Spittle flew from Olou’s lips as he nearly knocked the datapad from Levi’s hand with his wild gesturing. “How can you let them near us? They should be-ouch!” He grasped at his mouth, his eyes shut tight in pain since the idiot had probably bit his tongue nearly in half in panic.

“Sir, you’re bringing Malform into the Corps?” Gunther grasped his blades and pulled them partially from their sheathes. “I don’t see how that’s-“

“No, you don’t see *anything*.” Levi cut him off, his voice utterly cold. He set the datapad down behind him and rested his hands on his own hilts. “You think we decided this just on a whim? That we saw two kids with fangs and said ‘yeah, no problem here, come on in and join us? Let’s take bets on how long before you tear out our fucking throats?’” He pushed forward to get in Gunther’s face. “Have you not noticed how many of us are dying? You think it’s fine that those shitty freaks are wiping humans out and we’re unable to stop them?”

“Nuh-no Sir!” His face covered with sweat, Gunther took a hasty step backwards.

Levi turned his attention towards Oluo. “What about you? You think you’re doing anything other than dulling your blades and making a nice target during the next attack?”

“We-we’re doing our best, Captain!” Oluo managed to stutter out, his knees trembling and his weight bent onto a table for support.

“As if our best is fucking good enough.” Levi tsk’ed as he shoved back the hair falling into his eyes. “And now we’ve got two brats who know the enemy better than we do, who have a lead on research that might lead to a cure, and you want to kill them? I don’t keep any shitty morons on my squad – if that’s what you want then turn in your blades and leave.”

He stood there watching them as they struggled with how they would normally react to a situation like this and with what he was asking from them. Petra was the first person to come stand beside him, her head held high, soon followed by Erd. Oluo appeared lost for a moment, then he tugged on his grey jacket and hurried to Petra’s side. Gunther wiped his right hand over his face and let out a slow breath before giving Levi a nod.

“Can I at least complain if they try to drain anyone dry, Sir?”

Levi huffed in amusement and smiled, just a little. “Sure, why not. I’ll even let you join in when I start kicking their asses,” he promised.

That seemed to put the whole squad at ease. “I can’t get over how young they look! I really thought the one boy was only about fourteen or so! And what about the other one – the blond? He’s not in the picture.” Petra turned to look at the datapad.

“Seems they picked him up along the way,” Levi explained as he grabbed the datapad and turned it off; it wouldn’t do for anyone else to come across it. “They think he’s the second coming of Grisha Jaeger or something, so Hange’s got her hands on the poor kid to pick his brains.” Chances were split if the kid would still be sane after a day spent in that lunatic’s care. “As far as we can tell, he’s still human.

Erd rubbed at the back of his head, beneath where his blond hair was neatly tied back, and allowed some of his unease to show through. “Sir, you said that these… uhm, ‘kids’, had some Malform traits. May I ask what they are so we won’t be surprised when training them?”

Done tucking away the datapad, Levi tugged his jacket even and shrugged. “To be honest, I don’t entirely know.” He frowned at that, thinking back to yesterday. “I got the sense that the damned brats aren’t telling us everything, but between Hange hounding them for her own research and us training them, we’ll learn more.” He wouldn’t let them hold anything back – they needed to know *everything* if they were going to wipe out the fucking Malforms. “What I can tell you is they look pretty normal except for when their eyes start getting brighter, or go gold in the girl’s case, and that’s when the fangs and claws come out. They have the enhanced speed and strength of Malforms as well, just how much I don’t know, but if they use it in front of the Corps, that’s going to be a reason for them to get their asses kicked.”

“So we’re to discipline them if they exceed human parameters,” Gunther asked, his body tense and his hands hovering around his hilts. “Two recruits with above normal strength and reactions who also possessive fangs.”

Levi made a tsk’ing sound again and shook his head. “You’re supposedly to be among the best, aren’t you? And you’re to *reprimand* them if they slip up. If there’s a problem with them being unable to hide what they are or they actually harm anyone, *I’ll* deal with them. In the end, they’re my responsibility.” He’d already told Erwin that, he’d taken them into his squad, so he’d deal with any trouble they brought into the Corps. “Now, unless there’s any more questions, I suggest everyone finish getting ready for the day. We’ll start early, before it gets too busy, in the adjunct corner of the training yard.”

That assurance seemed to put everyone at ease; Gunther relaxed and went to fetch his coffee mug while Petra chided Oluo about something. Erd approached Levi, and the solemn look on his face wiped away the feeling of accomplishment inside of Levi.

“Sir, the bodies are ready for inspection.”

Grateful that he hadn’t had time to eat anything yet that morning, Levi went to see the fallen members of his squadron to pay his final respects.

*******

Eren followed Captain Hange into the dining room, Mikasa on his left and Armin trailing behind. “Mealtimes are usually at 07:00, 12:00 and 18:00 and last an hour, with snacks available throughout the day. If something happens to interrupt the schedule, the kitchen will open up to make sure everyone gets something to eat,” she explained as she led them toward the serving line. They picked up polymer trays and metal silverware – Eren and Mikasa shared quick grins over how some things never seemed to change – and waited their turns for what turned out to be mugs of murky coffee, mushy oatmeal, a lump of multigrain bread and a tube of some yogurt/fruit blend. To think that at one point that Eren had been repulsed by the fact that he survived on Malform blood….

Still chatting away about the Freedom Corps’ daily schedule and what would probably be lunch – Eren really, *really* hoped that they managed to go out hunting later as he didn’t want to try ‘garbage can stew’ – they were led toward a table half-filled with Corps members who looked a couple of years older than his physical appearance. “Hey, I’d like you guys to meet our latest recruits. You might have seen them yesterday,” Captain Hange explained while she motioned for Eren, Mikasa and Armin to sit down, her tray wavering back and forth in her left hand. “These are Eren and Mikasa Stieger and Armin Aubert. Eren and Mikasa will be reporting to Captain Ackerman’s squad, while Armin’s all mine!”

Everyone paused in their eating to look and offer up greetings, except for a teenaged girl with dark brown hair pulled back in a ponytail who continued to eat even though she smiled and waved hello. “So were you the two civilians who helped us out yesterday?” asked a girl with black hair. “Oh, I’m Mina. Mina Carolina.”

In the process of sitting down, Eren managed a nervous laugh and nodded. “Yeah, that’s us.” He pushed the oatmeal aside and picked up the bread. Were they supposed to talk to these kids? What were they going to say?

“Aren’t you like Captain Ackerman’s cousin or something?” a sandy-haired boy asked as he leaned around the girl, Mina. “Did he give you private training?”

Remembering what Captain Hange had told them on the way to breakfast, Eren shook his head and shoved a piece of the dry bread into his mouth. Beside him, Mikasa murmured something about them picking up the skills ‘back home’. That was one way of putting it, he supposed.

Another kid, one with spiky hair and who was busy eying up Mikasa, looked back and forth between her and Eren. “Are you to related by blood or did-“

“Come on now, give them a chance to eat their breakfast,” Captain Hange chided the table. “They’re not going anywhere, so you can you can talk to them afterwards.”

Grateful for the captain even if she was a bit strange, Eren hunched over his breakfast tray and attempted to pretend that he was busy eating. The coffee was relatively easy to drink – he’d had worse, at least this water was lacking parasites – but the bread was about all the food that he could stomach. Beside him, Mikasa wasn’t faring any better, tearing much of her bread into crumbs and eating only bits. Armin seemed to be doing his best to distract people’s attention by asking where everyone was from, but Eren noticed that Captain Hange was staring at their mostly full trays.

It appeared that the captain wasn’t the only one who was watching them ‘eat’, as the hungry girl with brown hair leaned across the table to motion at their trays. “So, are you going to finish that or what?” she asked, some oatmeal stuck to the left side of her mouth emphasizing her hopeful smile.

“Not really,” Mikasa replied before Eren could answer. “I guess we’re too nervous about our first day of training to eat much.”

“Then can I?” The girl reached out her hands, fingers twitching right above the trays.

“Uh, yeah, sure,” Eren told her, not seeing any sense in the food going to waste. He watched in amazement as she snatched away, crowing in excitement while she stacked the bowls and yogurt tubes on her own tray.

“Ugh, you’re going to be sick from working out on such a full stomach, Sasha,” the boy sitting next to her remarked, an appalled expression twisting his mouth as he turned his back to the girl.

“That’s impossible,” the girl – Sasha – mumbled out in-between bites. Eren watched on in sickened fascination as she shoved the oatmeal in as quickly as she could, like an animal terrified that its food was about to be taken away. “I’d only get sick if my stomach was empty.”

There were muttered comments about ‘freak’ as everyone else finished their breakfasts at a much more leisurely pace, while Eren nursed his brackish coffee. It was fortunate that he’d just swallowed the last mouthful because the footsteps he heard approaching from behind turned out to belong to Short Bastard; the man formally announced his presence by smacking his hand onto Eren’s right shoulder. “Come on, brat, we’re going to start your training now.”

About to snap back that he had a fucking name, Eren caught himself just in time, mostly by the stunned looks on the faces of most of the kids at the table. He was supposed to be one of them, damnit, that meant he couldn’t respond like a fellow ‘adult’. So instead, he pulled on the well-worn mask he used when dealing with morons who thought they had some sort of age advantage over him – usually strength, weight and height as well.

“Uhm, ye-yes, Sir!” He ducked his head as if overcome with embarrassment or shyness, his eyes wide and anger lending his face some heat as he scrambled to stand up. Beside him, Mikasa managed to do so in a much more elegant manner, her face the expressionless mask that *she* wore when doing her best not to ‘fang out’ in fury but that most people mistook for natural reserve. “I’m sorry, Sir!” Standing in front of the asshole with an obvious Napoleon complex, he bit into his bottom lip as if nervous and kept his head bowed – while inside he was laughing at the new nickname he came up with for Short Asshole.

Glancing through his bangs, he saw ‘Napoleon’ eying him with suspicion while a pretty woman with auburn hair trying to hide a smile behind her hand stood to his left. After a few seconds, Captain Ackerman grunted and waved his right hand toward the dining room’s far exit. “Come on, we’re going to start your training before it gets too crowded.”

“Stop by the lab if you need a break!” Captain Hange called out when they began to walk away. “We’d appreciate the company!”

Captain Ackerman muttered something along the lines of ‘lunatic’ under his breath and didn’t bother with a proper answer. For such a short guy, he sure could walk fast, a fact that Eren had found out the hard way from being dragged all around yesterday. At least he wasn’t being manhandled this morning, something his arms very much appreciated. Still, Mikasa stuck close to his left side as if to block the captain if he reached for Eren; catching her eye, Eren mouthed the word ‘Napoleon’ while jerking his chin in the grump’s direction. His sister’s dark eyes lit up as she made the association and she had to stifle a giggle with her scarf.

They crossed a large, open courtyard that Eren remembered from last night, and kept walking until they came around a bend to a smaller area cordoned off by the headquarter’s building and the outer walls. Waiting for them were three other men, two of them several inches taller than Eren and one just a little more. In fact, the only one who was shorter than him, other than the captain, was the auburn haired woman.

“Meet the members of my special squad,” Captain Ackerman said as Eren and Mikasa approached the men. “These are the only ones besides Commander Smith, Hange and myself whom you can trust, unless Hange includes her assistant as well.” He came to a halt and motioned to the woman standing beside him. “Petra Ral.” She gave him and Mikasa a friendly smile. “Oluo Bozado.” The man with the dirty blond hair cut in a similar under-cut style to the captain as well as sporting the same cravat to go along with his white shirt eyed the two of them as if they would rip out his throat at any moment; Eren had a feeling they wouldn’t be friends any time soon. “Gunther Schultz.” The dark-complexioned man was another one who eyed the two of them with suspicion, merely giving them a curt nod in greeting. “And Erd Jinn, my second in command. You’re to follow his orders if I’m not around,” Captain Ackerman informed them, his tone sharp as if he expected to be obeyed without any question. At least this guy looked at them as if they were something other than monsters, his face more solemn than condemning.

“A pleasure to meet you.” Eren managed to summon up a smile while Mikasa pressed against his side; they may have decided to trust the Freedom Corps and Commander Smith may have insisted that the Corps could be trusted, but he was certain that his sisters was thinking the same thing that he was – at the first sign of betrayal, they were heading straight for the walls and would be back at nightfall for Armin, assured that their friend would be kept safe until then for the knowledge he might know about Grisha’s research.

Captain Ackerman snorted as he undid the buckles of his weapons belt. “Relax, brat, you look like you need to take a shit.” He handed the belt with its blades over to Oluo, who almost tripped over himself to hold the gear. “Now, we all saw that you can use the gauntlets so we’ll save that for another day. Besides, we always start out the recruits with hand to hand training first, working with them from the ground up. So I’ll assess your skills and then let the squad beat you into shape.” He assumed a standard fighting pose, feet roughly shoulder-length apart and hands held at roughly shoulder height in loose fists, ready to block or strike.

Mikasa made to stand in front of Eren, at least until he grabbed hold of her shoulder and shook his head; they exchanged a long look before she shrugged and waited for Eren to hand her his belt and weapons; while he was a better fighter when using his claws and teeth, he had some hand to hand skills learned over the years. However, Mikasa was the much better fighter, so he’d rather the bastard take him on first and *then*, after having his expectations set low, deal with Mikasa.

Smiling in anticipation with what would soon happen, Eren took his position in front of the smug bastard. “All right, Napoleon, enlighten me.”

A dark eyebrow arched over a narrowed grey eye, yet all the man did was snort again. “That’s ‘Captain Napoleon’ to you, brat.” Just as Eren had suspected, the short bastard had no clue about the historical reference – so much had been lost after the solar flares, after all. “Oh, and remember, there’s no telling who’s watching us,” the bastard just had to point out before he rushed forward.

Gritting his teeth as he struggled to keep his reactions to a human level, Eren managed to block the first blow to his face and most of the punch to his ribs, only to end up face down on the ground a few seconds later as his feet were swept out from underneath him. Struggling to keep his teeth hidden, he breathed in and out a few times before he pushed up onto his knees.

“Pathetic.” Captain Ackerman sneered at him as he danced back just out of reach. “How have you managed to survive this long?”

“I suppose dumb luck and dogged determination helps.” Eren stood back up and waited for the next attack, which didn’t take long. He allowed the asshole another opening, used to being knocked down, used to pain, mind following along with ease despite the fact that the captain was pretty fast for a human, a *human*. The sounds of Olou cheering on Captain Ackerman when Eren hit the ground again was inconsequential, since he was too busy playing back the few seconds before he was falling through his mind to care that someone was mocking him.

Standing up once more, he met Mikasa’s gaze and acknowledged the slight smile she gave him with one of his own. This time when Captain Ackerman dashed toward him, he didn’t just stand there, he shifted to the right and raised his left arm to block while turning just so, his foot coming up to hook around the bastard’s calf while he used momentum to shove him forward and toward the ground.

As the arrogant bastard fell hard, Eren went with him, pinning him down with knees on either side of his waist. “But mainly?” Eren said, carrying on the topic from before. “I tend to learn quickly, *Sir*.” He leaned in so that his face was barely centimeters away from the man’s and bared his teeth, revealing the fangs that he had kept hidden for a second then pulled away.

To give the man credit, Captain Ackerman stared evenly back at him before nodding once. “Good to know you’re not as clueless as you look. Now get your scrawny ass off of me so I can beat a few more moves into your thick head.” He gave Eren’s ass a smack as if to emphasis the order.

“What?” Startled by the contact, Eren practically jumped straight up, his face flushed. Looking rather smug at the reaction, Captain Ackerman rose at a more leisurely pace, straightened out his uniform and then indicated that he was ready to resume the sparring match.

Judging from the golden gleam in Mikasa’s eyes, ‘Napoleon’ was going to regret that little joke when it was her turn for the lesson. Eren almost felt sorry for the bastard.

*******

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