chapter eight

*******

dark side

*******
Levi stalked down the hallways leading to his quarters, daring anyone he came across to say something. *Something*. Just a word. That’s all they had to do, because he would use that as an excuse to make them regret the day their mothers had ever open their legs to their fathers, had birthed such moronic failures of shitstains. However, one look at him and they scuttled away as quickly as possible, faces blanched and jaws agape, so his temper rose to an even more furious level without any source of an outlet.

“Levi? Levi! Holy hell, what happened to you? You decide to become one with the grass or what?”

He whipped his head around upon hearing Hange’s dementedly cheerful voice and gritted his teeth together at the aches, the *fucking* *aches* the quick motion produced. “You!* he snarled out as he stomped in her direction. “You and your shit for brains, lunatic ideas!” he shouted as he reached up to grab her by her ponytail to haul her into the nearest room, which ended up being the crazy bitch’s lab. Moblit looked up and blinked in surprise at their arrival, what with Hange shrieking like a scalded cat and all. “Get *out*,” Levi ordered, and one more look at his flailing captain and then back at Levi, Moblit wisely chose to scurry out of the room.

“Traitor!” Hange wailed at her assistant’s departing back, right before Levi shoved her onto a stool. “What’s your problem, you psychotic little shit!” She swatted at him before she sniffed while fussing with her ponytail, mouth turned down in a displeased frown.

“Problem?” Levi fought the urge to go for his blades. “Did I yank your eyes out by pulling too hard there or something?” he asked as he stood in front of her, his voice deceptively quiet.


Taking the time to adjust her glasses, Hange looked him up and down, her frown lessening the slightest bit. “Like I said, you look like you seriously played in the dirt. What’s up with that, Mr. Clean Freak, and why the hell does that give you the right to beat me up? I’ve been in my lab all morning.”

Levi ran his hands through his hair and nearly growled when he found a blade of grass tangled in the strands. “Because it was your shitty idea for me to go easy on that bitch! *She’s* the psychotic one!” Just the thought of Mikasa Ackerman made him want to choke someone – preferably a certain scarf-wearing, black-haired bitch.

Hange’s brows drew together as she stared at him in confusion for several seconds… and then the lunatic had the audacity to laugh. When Levi lunged at her, hands held out to grab her by the throat, she scrambled off of the stool and bolted behind a table covered in glass beakers for safety. “You, one of the Corps greatest if not *the* greatest, got your ass handed to you by a little girl? I can’t believe it!” She laughed some more while she continued to dodge his attempts to catch her, until she tripped over her own feet and fell down. She was still laughing when he pounced and pinned her to the floor. “This is so great!”

“She didn’t ‘hand me my ass, she just… gah!” Levi shoved Hange’s heaving shoulders against the floor and stood up so he could stalk his way over to a chair, which he dropped into despite the various aches and pains of his abused body. “I’m *filthy*, Hange.” Damnit, why did he sound like a petulant brat just then?

Stifling her laughter, Hange forced herself up into a sitting position. “Yeah, I sorta noticed that.” She wiped away a tear falling down her face and shook her head. “Must have been rather impressive, today’s training session. You happen to be rethinking that ‘they’re just kids’ theory yet?” She propped her chin up on her right hand and stared evenly at him, her left eyebrow arched above her eye.

He scowled at a dark green stain on his right knee for a moment before he answered. “We focused on hand-to-hand training like I planned, dividing the first half of the session on the brat and then the second half on his sister.” His scowl worsened as he thought about well the latter part of that had gone. “Eren… he picks up things quick, I’ll give him that, but you can tell he wants to go by on instinct and not formal training.”

“Not too surprising, when you consider the Malform nature.” Hange’s brown eyes became unfocused as if she was forming some hypothesis in her head. “I wonder just how much the hunting instinct takes over in his daily life….”

“It better not at all while he’s wearing a Corps uniform,” Levi informed her as he brushed some dried dirt off of his jacket sleeve, his teeth grinding together at the thought of how *filthy* he was just then. Dammit, he really needed a shower – was willing to forgo lunch so he could spend the hour just standing beneath a constant stream of hot water.

“Unless we can put it to good use.” Attention focused upon him once again, Hange smiled and motioned at his disheveled appearance. “So, Eren’s not exactly the stuff of legends, but workable. On to Mikasa.”

His teeth grinding together even harder at the mention of Eren’s sister, Levi forced himself to let out a slow breath before he began ranting. “The first pass or two, she started out just like her brother, going down without too much effort. Turned out that the bitch was just sizing me up. Then she decided to show me what she had.” As much as he hated to admit it, she had quite a lot.

Hange seemed to read his thoughts. “I’m going to assume she’s rather impressive, judging from your appearance.” She motioned in his general direction. “In a way, you really shouldn’t be too surprised,” she seemed to take great delight in pointing out. “From the little I could see back at the market, she had a very impressive kill rate, and she *is* extremely old. Also, if you stop to think of what she survived through, she has to have developed impressive skills.”

“Yes, but she got attacked at least once in that lifetime.” Levi derived some satisfaction in reminding his friend of that fact.

All it got him was a disapproving sigh as Hange shook her head. “A vast majority of the population was attacked and killed by Malforms during the initial solar flares and collapse of civilization. The ones who survived unscathed were basically the best at hiding and evasion.”

Feeling very tired and not seeing how this was getting him any closer to that desperately needed shower and a change of clothes – his skin was *twitching* from the feel of the dirt and grass clinging to it, not to mention the drying sweat – Levi ran his hands through his disheveled hair and let out an exasperated sigh. “Can we at least agree that Mikasa doesn’t need any hand to hand training? I’ll be too tempted to kill her if I’m involved and she’s above the level of my personal squad.”

“Agreed.” Hange tugged at the top of her left boot and grinned, the expression too pleased all of a sudden. “And what about Eren? He sounds as if he has promise but is still a diamond in the rough.”


Levi thought back to how the brat had taken him down that one time, and how fun it had been to spook him – he hadn’t expected such a startled reaction from the smack like that, and it amused him to finally be able to shake up Eren so much after all the trouble the kid had brought into his world. “Erd and Petra can probably help a bit with practice sessions, but I still want to be involved with his training. I suspect that unless it’s drilled into his thick head, he’ll slip back into old habits.” The last thing they needed was a member of the Freedom Corps going after a Malform with claws or teeth.


Hange’s grin became even wider. “I think you just want to spend quality time with your cu-“

He cut her off before she went any further. “May I remind you that I’m filthy, I stink and I barely resisted killing one person already today,” he said in a low voice.

“You’re no fun.” Hange pouted for a few seconds. “So, what’s the plan for this afternoon? Move on to gauntlet training?” She seemed to perk up at that idea. “Maybe I’ll give Armin a break and tag along – he’s been wonderful in providing me so *much* information but I think I’m wearing him out already.” She looked a bit sad and confused at that.

The thought of dealing with Mikasa again so soon was enough to give Levi a headache. “Honestly? I might just have Erd show the kids around the base or something. Not quite sure I’m up to a few more hours of ‘instruction’.”

It looked as if Hange was going to harangue him about his decision, perhaps call him to task about being lazy or letting a ‘little girl’ get the better of him, and then a huge smile spread across her face. “Oh, I have an idea! What if I ask Mike to go over the basics with Armin to give the poor kid a break and you bring your two here after lunch?” When he stared at her in confusion, she jumped up from the floor and waved her arms around the lab. “I can start interviewing them about their abilities!”

On the surface, it seemed like a good idea, but that’s usually how these things went when Hange was involved. It all *started* out okay, then turned into a huge flaming pile of shit. “I thought we agreed to take it slow with them, to earn their trust.”

“That’s why I said to *interview* them, not tie them down and start the dissection.” Hange rolled her eyes as if Levi was an idiot. “I’ll save that for the second session.”

Unsure if she was kidding about the dissection part and not really caring at this point, Levi grunted in agreement as he forced his tired body to stand up. For fuck’s sake, he was *sore* right now; he’d stand back and do nothing if the lunatic decided to start the carving on that black-haired bitch today. “Fine, we’ll be here after lunch.”

“Yay!” Hange did some sort of weird dance that he *really* didn’t need to see.

Heading toward the door so he could take that much needed shower, Levi recalled something and paused. “Hey! Crazy person! You remember your history lessons, right?” He waited until Hange stopped twitching and nodded. “Napoleon was some sort of general, right?”

She chewed on her bottom lip a few times as if it helped with her memory. “If I remember correctly… yeah, general and a dictator, I think. Something about wars named after him. Flash in the pan, for the most part.”

The brats had probably saddled him with the nickname because of the ‘dictator’ thing, Levi thought to himself as he waved goodbye, leaving a confused Hange in his wake. Well, there were worse epitaphs out there, he supposed. He could certainly prove to them how he lived up to it if given the proper incentive.

*******

Eren tugged on Mikasa’s left elbow as they headed toward the cafeteria and pulled her into what looked to be an empty hallway. “Really? Did you have to beat him up that much,” he asked once they were far enough away from everyone else.

She tugged down her scarf and gave him a hurt look. “Are we talking about the same asshole? The one who’s been treating you like a piece of meat and actually manhandled you earlier today?” From the angry gleam in her eyes, the hint of gold in the dark brown, he suspected that she was still furious about the ‘friendly’ pat from before.

Running a soothing touch up and down her arm, he smiled in a reassuring manner. “I don’t think he meant anything by that, honest.” Eren was skilled at judging when someone had an ‘interest’ in him and twisting it to their advantage over their years – it had helped in more than one difficult situation. Hell, if Mikasa knew about the last time he’d used that…. “I knew you were going to put in him his place, I just didn’t think you were going to do it *that* much.” He winced a little to prove his point. “You know you’re totally bad-ass, right?”

A slight blush spread across his sister’s cheeks, which she tried to hide by pulling up the scarf; at least he’d managed to bank her anger somewhat. “He’s somewhat skilled himself, so I figured that he could keep up,” she mumbled.

Eren smiled to show that he wasn’t too upset and tucked back a lock of Mikasa’s hair. “I think – and try not to have too much of a heart-attack here – that the bastard might have been holding back a little today.” He laughed at Mikasa’s incredulous look. “Yeah, the benefit of having him smack me around so much was that I felt a bit of tension in his muscles and reactions.” When she continued to stare at him, he sighed and stepped back. “Am I really considered to be such an idiot in comparison to you and Armin,” he whined.

A slight smile tugged at the corners of Mikasa’s lips as she slipped her left arm into his right. “Well, it’s not as if I have *extensive* examples of when you’ve been exactly that.” When he growled at her words, she let a rare, exuberant laugh slip free. “You know you’re not the brains of this partnership,” she chided as she led him back to the cafeteria.

Eren huffed in annoyance for a couple of seconds before he gave in with an embarrassed laugh. “All right, maybe you have a point. I just think that anyone would be considered an idiot when compared to the two of you.”

Mikasa spared him a sympathetic look before focusing on weaving her way through the crowd of hungry Freedom Corps’ members intent of their mid-day meal. “All right, what was *that* supposed to mean?” Eren demanded to know as he dug in his heels and pulled on his sister’s arm.

She made a frustrated sound and basically yanked him along, always being the stronger one. “Let’s just say it’s best that you leave the planning to Armin and me in the future, all right?” She had the audacity to pat the arm she was using to haul him along.

Snapping his teeth together in frustration, Eren didn’t think it was so wrong to wish that ‘Captain Napoleon’ managed to best his sister at some point in the future training.

*******

Levi rested his elbows against the high table in Hange’s lab. His friend was practically vibrating with excitement as she glanced back and forth between Eren and Mikasa, the former whom appeared rather uncertain at the prospect of being interviewed by the crazy scientist and the latter whom had most of her impassive face buried beneath that damn scarf. Being inside a messy as hell lab probably didn’t help the situation – various in-progress experiments were scattered all about every surface imaginable.

“So, I promised to take it easy on you to start, yes!” Hange bounced on the tip of her toes a couple of times, setting her ponytail swaying. “I thought I’d ask you some questions, get a feel for your abilities and general life experiences.” For a moment she seemed almost normal – Levi knew it wouldn’t last for long. “There’s just so much we don’t *know*!” she practically wailed while she clapped her hands together. And there she went.

Eren and Mikasa shuffled together as if there were strength in numbers before glancing at each other and then practically forcing themselves to sit down on the stools that Hange – well, probably Moblit, who was busy a safe distance away typing notes on everything the two siblings were doing – had set out for them. “Ah, yeah, that sounds reasonable,” Eren said, his voice a little higher than normal.

“Great!” Hange nodded her head in a frantic manner and waved her hands about. When Levi cleared his throat, she smiled, the expression so wide and bright it was almost sickening, and gestured to the large beaker on a Benson burner behind her. “I even have some refreshments! Who would like some tea?”

That seemed to put the two brats at ease as they agreed, and Hange busied herself preparing their drinks; Levi had beaten into her over the years the necessity of keeping anything to do with their refreshments clean, so the mugs had been washed along with the spoons, and the sugar and milk was fresh. Mikasa took hers black, Eren with just a little milk and sugar, like Levi, while Hange’s was barely half tea since she sweetened it so much.

“There, now that everyone is ready.” Hange nodded as if to herself and settled on a stool, all long legs and excessive energy. “So, we can agree that you have greater than average speed and strength than most humans, yes?”

Eren fiddled with his mug, his thin fingers twisting it around in his grip. “Yes. I don’t think we’ve ever measured it, but we’ve been faster and stronger than any human we’ve come across, and we can hold our own against any Malform.”

“And each other,” Levi asked, deciding to play devil’s advocate. “As well as those true vampires out there?”

Eren’s face became a bit flushed at the question. “Mikasa and I don’t have any cause to fight each other, but I’d say she’s stronger than me just because she’s the better fighter and physically more developed. As for the others….” He scowled into his mug.

“It’s difficult to say.” Mikasa spoke up, her eyes intent on Levi and bearing a spark of heat as if she hadn’t worked out all of her issues with him from earlier in the day. “We do our best to avoid them, so there’s been little actual fighting between us, and some of them are physically bigger and older than us. That should give them some advantage. But we’ve fought against worst odds.”

Hange shot Levi a warning look before she focused back on the siblings. “So you’re saying that you’re probably about equal with them.”

“Yeah.” Eren shrugged, mindful of the mug he was still clutching between his hands.

“Okay.” Hange gulped down the rest of her flavored sugar water and yanked out her notepad so she could write down her own notes. “And the healing?”

Levi thought he caught a flash of amber being rolled beneath the curtain of dark brown hair hanging over Eren’s face, and couldn’t really blame the brat – it was like Hange was going down a predictable checklist with the questions. “I thought we already said we had the increased healing.”

“Yes, but how good is it?” Hange leaned forward in a predatory manner. “Can you regrow back limbs? We’ve seen that happen in happen with Malforms before. How long would it take for cuts to close? Major blood loss! Would it be okay if I-“

“Hange!” Levi set down his own mug and took a step in her direction.

She glanced at him and then leaned back on her stool, a pout on her face. “I wouldn’t do anything *bad* to them, maybe just a little cut or two. I’d even numb the area first,” she mumbled, acting like a child that just had its favorite toy snatched away.

Mikasa was clutching at Eren’s left arm as if about to grab him and run, while Eren’s unusual eyes were wider than normal, seeming to take up most of his face. He opened his mouth a time or two before shaking his head, sending the long strands of his hair flying out. “Uhm, yeah, we can heal rather quickly from a lot of damage.”

Interesting manner to answer Hange’s question, Levi thought, and judging from the quick glance she sent his way, she’d noticed it too. The brat hadn’t given a definitive answer to if he could regrow limbs – considering how much the two mimicked Malforms and the fact that he hadn’t said ‘no’, Levi surmised that Hange would go with ‘yes’ and that Eren was still leery about giving away too much information just yet. Something like that might come in handy if either of them needed to sacrifice a limb in order to escape, after all.

Hange scribbled something down and nodded. “All right, so you can heal from a lot of damage. That’s most likely what keeps you from aging at all – as I mentioned, Malform cells are constantly replenishing, which is why they can heal so well. Have you noticed anything about your current physical conditions?”

There was another look exchanged between the siblings, a little longer this time. Eren sighed as he tucked back the hair that had fallen onto his face. “It took a while before I noticed that I’d stopped aging – things were confusing back then, it was hard enough to tell how much time had passed when you’re barely surviving day to day and only have the seasons to go on. Even those were all messed up because of the solar flares, what with winter coming later and all. We know we’d both passed fifteen, maybe even sixteen when I was… changed, but again, time was messed up, we’d spent over a year on our own outside scraping to survive on barely any food or rest.” He gestured to himself, and Levi took it to mean how young he looked, his scrawny appearance. “I think the only thing that changed after I was attacked was my eyes and, because of regular feeding, I did put on a little weight.”

If this was the brat with a ‘little weight’ added, Levi wasn’t sure he wanted to have seen him back then… but from what he’d heard of the times after the solar flares and civilization collapsing, it hadn’t been pretty.

Mikasa set her empty mug aside and fussed with her scarf. “Things got a little better after Eren…. Well, there was more food for me since we weren’t sharing it, and we were better at hunting thanks to his new skills. Also, some of the Malforms were reluctant to approach us, then. It seems the older they are, the better they are at sensing what he was, that he saw them as prey and they knew to avoid us. That gave us a bit more safety, so until my… ‘attack’, it was less stressful for me during the warmer months. That’s probably in part why I appear in better shape. We were never able to figure out why my eyes didn’t permanently changed to gold.”

“You’re Miss Perfect, of course you’re made of pure muscle,” Eren muttered, but with a smile. That earned him an elbow in the ribs.

Levi made a gagging sound as he got up to pour himself some more tea. That earned him twin glares from the siblings, but it put a stop to their antics so he wasn’t particularly bothered – not that he would had been bothered in the first place.

Hange glanced up from something she’d been jotting down in her notebook to study Eren, her eyes narrowed and her head cocked to the side. “Yes, I’d wondered about that as well, and can only assume that it’s something to do with you being the ‘originator’ of whatever your fa- Grisha Jaeger injected into you.” She made the hasty substitution when Eren sent her a virulent look at the mention of his father. “Perhaps there are only certain changes that you pass on yourself, which seems to be the case since Mikasa said she couldn’t transform another person. A… dilution, if you will.”

“That doesn’t make too much sense, but not much does about this situation.” Eren rubbed at his eyes, doing that thing again where he sounded so much older than he physically appeared.

Levi swallowed his sip of tea before he spoke up again. “Think of it this way, brat – you don’t inherit all the traits of your parents, do you?”

Hange gave Levi a delighted smile for his contribution while Mikasa frowned and Eren grimaced. “I really don’t want to think of my sister as my *child*,” Eren said with evident distaste. “That’s just… weird.”

“Yes, we’ve come across a few ‘I am my own grandchild’ scenarios in our time.” Mikasa shuddered then leaned against Eren, who rested his head on her shoulder with an easy sort of comfort that annoyed Levi for some reason.

“Hmm, yes, I’ve read about the inbreeding that happened in the isolated communities after the initial solar flares.” Hange perked up as she tapped her pen against paper. “You’ll have to tell me about them someday!” At Levi’s warning kick against the table and the siblings’ exaggerated winces, she visibly deflated. “Or maybe not. Dammit.”

“Crazy, perverted freak,” Levi muttered into his mug of tea.

“But it was such an interesting time back then!” Hange twisted on her stool so she could properly frown in Levi’s direction. “Social mores were broken left and right due to the collapse of organized civilization. Long established cultural lines were crossed, taboos were forgotten – it was a basic free- for-all on so many levels.”

“I think you just want to know how people got off back then, which obviously these two brats can’t help you with,” Levi shot back, not about to waste his time catering to Hange’s perverted tastes. He gave her a warning glare before sipping his tea.

“What, you *actually* believe that we didn’t have sex back then?”

The question, stated with such blatant incredulity and by *Eren* of all people, had Levi choking on the tea he had just swallowed. Coughing it back up, he stared in confusion at the brat, while Hange crowed in delight.

“Really! So you’re sexually active?”

“Of course we are.” Eren kept glancing back between her and Levi, his brows furrowed, while Mikasa shook her head and tugged up her scarf as if to indicate she didn’t want to take any part in the conversation.

“How- how is that possible?” Levi demanded to know while he searched about for something clean to use to wipe himself. Moblit paused in typing to hand him a towel, a leery look on his normally passive face as if waiting for the current conversation topic to blow up.

Eren’s expression of disbelief morphed into exasperation. “Well, first you use this product called lube, because it’s painful as hell if you don’t. Then you-“

“I *know* how two guys have anal sex, you shitty brat!” Levi snapped, the towel clenched in his right fist. “I want to know how it’s possible a fucking kid like *you* can have sex!”

“Maybe because I’m *not* a ‘fucking kid’?" Eren’s eyes took to glowing as he leaned in Levi’s direction. “Yeah, the package might not be the most mature, but it’s in perfect working order!”

Hange jumped onto her feet and began to circle the two siblings. “Oh, I really want to run several blood panels on the two of you! See what hormones remain unaffected by the change. What are the cellular and DNA changes? Are you still fertile?”

The last question made Eren become pale beneath his tan skin color and Mikasa produce a strangled sound. “No… no pregnancies,” Mikasa whispered. “That’s… why are we even talking about this?” She glared at Levi as if it was his fault.

Finished drying the tea spots from his jacket, Levi shrugged and refused to feel guilty. “It’s for the good of science, so suck it up.” He was still trying to grasp the fact that Eren, bratty-looking Eren, wasn’t a virgin. So much for that startled reaction during training. “So what, you have sex with guys? They actually like the jail-bait look,” he asked while staring at Eren.

In the process of tucking back his long bangs, Eren paused and frowned, as if surprised at being asked the question. “Uhm, the ‘older’ guys do – it became creepy to sleep with the younger ones after a few decades. But unless I tell the guy something about my past, which I quickly learned not to do, then yeah, it’s basically going after the ones who have a thing for the younger looking partners.” He continued to stare at Levi, his eyes going wide, his lower lip relaxing slightly, his whole demeanor changing somehow to make him appear younger, more innocent, more vibrant…. “Are you one of them, Captain Napoleon?”

“Wha?”

Levi ignored Hange’s mangled question while he stared back at Eren, for a moment distracted by the sight of him. Then the meaning of the words sunk in, the odd nickname and then he scoffed. “I think I hit your head too hard earlier if you believe I’m one of those sick fucks, brat.”

Mikasa mumbled something into her scarf while Eren smirked, the illusion from before shattered. “Shame, because fourteen centuries of experience isn’t something to easily dismiss.” Then he yelped in pain when his sister punched him in the left thigh. “I was only joking! Like I’d really follow through.”

“Wow, that’s an entirely new topic of research that I need to follow up on,” Hange remarked as she frantically added new notes into her book. “Maybe we can make some demonstration videos-“

“I will beat your shitty head in!” Levi shouted while even Moblit appeared appalled at what his beloved captain was planning. “How the *fuck* does that have to do with curing Malform attacks?!”

“Exactly!” Mikasa cried out as she jumped to her feet, standing in front of her brother as if a living shield. “I thought we were supposed to help you fight, not put on shows for deviants!”

Hange’s jaw dropped as she glanced back and forth between the two of them. “That’s – I didn’t – dammit, it’s almost worth it to see the two of you agreeing on something.” She grinned when Levi noticed Mikasa staring in horror at him.

Meanwhile, Eren peeked around his sister. “Uhm, can this mean we’re finished for the day?”

Not seeing how they could really recover from something like this and needing to just go back to his quarters where it was quiet, Hange-free and relatively sane, Levi nodded. “I’ll send Erd to get you about two hours after dinner is over; Mikasa will go out with Hange and Eren will be with me.” When it looked as if Mikasa was ready to argue with the two being split up, Levi held up his right hand. “It’ll look less suspicious if we’re taking the two of you out on normal patrols to show you the routes.”

The siblings exchanged a quick look, and something that Eren did seemed to calm Mikasa down. “All right,” she said as she fussed again with her scarf. “Let’s go.”

“It’s been…” Eren wrinkled his nose as he fell into step beside his sister. “Yeah, definitely a day that stands out, which is saying something.” He didn’t elaborate any more as he walked out of the room.

Finished with her notes, Hange looked up and beamed at Levi. “Well, I feel like I have something to work with, how about you?”

Levi didn’t answer for several seconds, only staring at her as if she were a blithering idiot. Then he shook his head and headed for the door as well with the intention of imbibing a few drinks before dinner. Before the door closed, he heard her berating poor Moblit for the notes he’d taken during the ‘interview’.

*******

Eren followed Captain Ackerman and Erd Jinn out into the dome’s streets, mindful to keep his head down in case he caught the scent of a Malform – he didn’t want people to notice his eyes flaring in reaction due to how starved he was just then.

“Any idea where we should start, Stieger?”

Eren considered the captain’s question for a moment, mentally going through what he had marked as *his* territory in the dome. “I usually find something to eat around Court Street.” There was an entrance to the tunnels there, so the Malform would always linger around a convenient place to hide.

Captain Ackerman peered over his shoulder to give Eren a displeased look. “You can’t think of anyplace closer? That’s halfway across the damn dome.”

“Anyplace else and we run the risk of stumbling across Mikasa,” Eren pointed out with as innocent a smile as he could muster while his stomach was cramping with hunger. “Perhaps the two of you could continue your lesson from earlier, Sir.”

He swore that he saw Erd bite his lip in an attempt to stifle a smile while ‘Napoleon’s’ eyes became even narrower. “Seems to me that you’re the brat who still needs some lessons pounded into that thick head of yours,” Captain Ackerman threatened before looking ahead.

Great, nothing like being caught between a pissing match between an asshole with an inferiority complex and Mikasa with her protective instincts in high gear, Eren thought to himself as he rubbed the back of his head. Maybe he could hide out in the lab with Armin? It would be worth a few pokes and blood samples to be spared the drama of the next ‘training’ session.

The streets at this time of night were basically empty, considering the previous day’s attack. There were other members of the Freedom Corps out and about on patrols, a couple of which gave the three of them some curious glances which Captain Ackerman and Erd utterly ignored. Since Eren was gaining the impression that most of the 104th had a healthy dose of fearful respect for the short bastard of a captain, he could understand Captain Ackerman’s logic of ‘don’t give them a reason for being out because we don’t need one’. People would wonder about his presence with the two ‘older’ Corps fighters… but they would wonder regardless of any given reason, so best to just let them settle on Captain Ackerman was doing things his way and that Captain Hange and Commander Smith were humoring him, as always.

They did run across a few MPs along the way to Court Street, one who was too busy playing something on a datapad while his partner cheered him on to pay them much attention and another pair busy talking on their comms. Eren had to hold back a growl at the sight of them slacking off, memories vivid of the days when the young men and women used to give their lives to restore order to the rebuilding communities. This was what the Military Police had become? This was the legacy that his friends Gerd, Sonja and Francesc - along with so many others - had died for so many years ago?

“Are you finding anything yet? We’re only a couple of blocks away.” Captain Ackerman sounded annoyed, his expression the bored mask that he wore so often yet his hands hovered around the hilts of his weapons. Standing next to him, Erd kept glancing around as if expecting Malform to leap out at any second.

Still upset about the MPs, Eren shook his head and let out a low curse as he pulled off his gloves; if he had to unsheathe his claws, the dense grey fabric would get in the way. “No, but they probably will be closer to the street.” He doubted that they’d be too far from the tunnels right now, not that he wanted to mention the escape route to the captain. “They’re most likely hiding after yesterday.”

“Hey! What are you doing- oh, it’s you guys.” A bright light was flashed there way, making Eren hiss for a moment and struggle not to ‘fang out’ as two people approached. Since he’d smelled more humans, along with leather and the metallic tang of gauntlets, he had assumed that they were either more Freedom Corps or MPs and that they’d react the same way that the others had earlier – which was basically leaving the three of them alone.

“Get that fucking light out of our faces, you shit for brains,” Captain Ackerman gritted out at the approaching MPs. “Who was stupid enough to let you out of your cribs for the night?” He casually stepped in front of Eren and tilted his left blade just enough to smack him on the knee-cap; Eren got the hint that he was to stay back and kept blinking his eyes to help restore his disturbed night vision.

The taller of the two MPs came to a stop in front of Levi while his shorter partner lingered several feet away. “Hey, you guys usually travel in pairs, not threesomes so we had to make sure.” He seemed to peer in Eren’s direction. “So, on the topic of cribs, are you raiding them now? Don’t you have an age requirement?”

“We recruit based on talent, which is something the MPs should look into,” Captain Ackerman shot back as he tugged on the left sleeve of his jacket.

Not about to stand there and be insulted by someone who looked like a horse – and what was with that undercut hairstyle? Was it the required one for assholes in domes this year? Eren huffed as he tucked back the strands falling into his eyes. “If they did that, Sir, then there wouldn’t be any MPs. Everyone knows that the only ones who join are lazy pricks who look forward to spending their days kissing ass.”

It was worth the smack to his knee – much harder this time – to see Horse-Face appear so stunned at the insult. His long, narrow face became flushed and his jaw dropped open for several seconds, then snapped shut as he lunged forward. “You little shit, I’ll-“

Before he could get within a couple of feet of Captain Ackerman, the MP’s partner, a shorter kid with a shaved head, grabbed hold of his arm and pulled him back. “Jean! We have to finish our patrol and report back or we’ll be in trouble! Come on!”

The taller MP produced a frustrated growl and waved his fist in Eren’s direction. “We’ll finish this later!”

“How fucking cliché,” Eren muttered as he watched the MPs run off, and then almost yelped in surprise when Captain Ackerman spun around and nearly stepped up into his face. “What?”

“Do you not understand the concept of ‘don’t draw attention to yourself', you shitty brat?” He reached out to grab hold of Eren’s white shirt and pulled him even closer, until their noses nearly touched. His breath smelled fresh, like minty toothpaste; each time he breathed, Eren could also pick up the aroma of soap, shampoo and beneath it, the man’s unique scent. “What the fuck possessed you to mouth off like that?”

Feeling himself become flushed for some reason, Eren struggled to control his teeth and fangs. “Because I’m tired of seeing those damn MPs walking around all the time as if they own the domes! They used to stand for something, used to do more than just boss people around! At one time they would die for people and now they’re just a bunch of dogs for rich bastards!” He bared his teeth, aware that his fangs had begun to show.

Captain Ackerman stared at him for what felt to be minutes before letting him go with a rough shake. “They get on all of our nerves, kid. Don’t go stirring shit with them without my permission or I’ll give your head a kick, you understand?”

“Yes, Sir.” Eren tugged his shirt back in place.

Erd pushed away from the wall he’d been leaning against while the captain had been taking Eren to task and motioned in the direction that the MPs had gone off in. “Well, one good thing about this is that they’ll definitely believe that Eren’s your protégé, Sir. After that little display, everyone will trust that you’re training him up right.”

Captain Ackerman shot his second a sour look for that observation, while Erd had a slight smile on his face as if he was trying to be helpful. Eren huffed at the men’s antics and upon inhaling, caught a familiar scent.

“Actually, I think we really do need to thank those idiots,” he told his companions as he took a few steps forward. “Them being so loud attracted a certain attention.” Sniffing again, he attempted to narrow down where the scent was coming from, turning his head to and fro. “This way,” he told them as he held up his left arm and shot out a rappelling dart, barely resisting the urge to use his claws to climb the walls.

Eren heard the captain mutter something about damn brats as he and Erd followed, swinging through the streets as Eren tracked down the Malform as swiftly as possible. He thought it may have been tracking prey, but as he approached, it switched directions as if looking for somewhere to hide. Swinging in fast, he managed to block it in a closed alley, landing at the entrance with Captain Ackerman and Erd joining him within seconds. The Malform huddled toward the end wall, fangs bared and hissing, fear radiating from it in a strong stench that made Eren want to gag.

Captain Ackerman stood to his right and motioned at the creature with one of his blades. “Well, are you going to eat?”

“Just a minute, Sir. Something doesn’t seem ri-“ Just then, the Malform launched itself forward, but not at Eren. It angled its leap at the captain and Erd, clearly intent in taking on the two humans. Eren growled as he leapt as well, into the air to meet it. The Malforms claws dug at his arms and shoulders, a flash of pain that was easy to ignore with the hunger spurring him on; he wrapped his hands around its neck and twisted sharply until bones snapped, the two of them falling to the ground. With the Malform beneath him, he sunk his teeth into its neck, the feel of warm, thick blood flowing into his mouth would be heavenly if not for the bitter tang of fear so heavy in it. Still, he was so hungry….

The sound of someone gagging brought him back to himself – he opened his eyes to see Erd slumped against the wall, his hands covering his mouth. Captain Ackerman was still for a moment and then began to step forward, only coming to a stop about a foot away from Eren and the quietly hissing Malform. He crouched down in front of them, his eyes intent on Eren’s face, and the attention made Eren pause in his feeding and growl once in warning. When the captain continued to only stare, he resumed his meal, desperate for the blood. Between the fight the other day, the lack of feeding and the injuries, he drank a lot more than usual. Eventually sated, he let go of the Malform and sat back on his heels, feeling languid from all of the blood.

“All done now?”

He started at the captain’s voice and smiled, the expression a bit rueful. “Yeah, I guess.” He made to wipe at his face with his sleeve and then remembered that he was wearing light grey. When he saw a blade rush forward, he was quick to jump back, but it was just the short bastard chopping off the head of the Malform. “Hey, some warning!”

The bastard let out an amused snort as he pulled out a cloth to wipe his blade clean. “It needed to be done.” The look he gave Eren made it clear that *he* wasn’t doing it. Eren wasn’t in the mood to say he usually tore their heads off, but guessed that was a bit messy in his new, *light* uniform. He was pondering what to do about his face again when the captain pulled out something from one of his pockets and handed it over. The chemical stink warned Eren was it was before he touched it, and he flinched from accepting it; the memories of chemical showers, the way the odor clung to his skin, his hair….

Captain Ackerman made that annoying tsk’ing sound of his and grabbed a handful of Eren’s *hair* of all things, yanking on it to pull him close. Protesting from the painful hold, Eren soon shut up in an attempt to hold his breath as the awful cloth was rubbed against his *face*, his eyes screwed shut and lips pressed together as the wetness swiped all over it.

Finally, it ended. “What are you, a big baby,” the bastard teased as the hold on his hair was released.

Eren glared as he scrubbed the left sleeve of his jacket over his face to get rid of the awful chemical feel. “You try using one of those things when you can *sense* them so strongly!” he spat. Now he’d be smelling it all night, until he got back to the base and showered.

For his troubles, the arrogant, *insensitive* bastard rolled his grey eyes at him and handed him the bloodied wipe. “Here, make sure to get rid of that.” Then he turned on his heel and sauntered away, hands resting lightly on the hilts of his blades. He didn’t even pause as he went past a visibly shaken Erd, who straightened up and made an effort to pull himself together as he fell in step beside him.

Biting back on a snarl, Eren crumbled the wipe in his hand and hurried after the two, wishing that he had some excuse for mistaking ‘Napoleon’ as a meal. Oh, he wouldn’t really feed off of the bastard, just take a bite or two to satisfy his temper just then. Dumping the foul-smelling wipe in the incinerator out on the main street, he took his position at Captain Ackerman’s right, feeling a little out of sorts from his foul mood and scrambled senses. Besides the cleaning chemicals, the fear scent from the Malform clung to him, still left an acrid taste in his mouth, to the point that he wished for a cup of coffee as well as a shower when he got back ‘home’.

Thoughts drifting a bit from the post-feeding haze and the fact that the two Freedom Corps fighters didn’t seem in a mood to talk now that their task for the night was done, Eren was more or less on auto-pilot just then, following them as they chose a path back to headquarters. He wasn’t aware of the streets around him at first, until he caught sight of a certain landmark out of the corner of his eye. Then it was as if his body reacted without thought, his feet moving before he could stop them, body going at full speed down the block toward a certain crevice between two buildings, too small to properly be called an alley. All he was sure about was that the fear that clung to him, that flavored each swallow he took, had become overwhelming enough to kick off his instincts.

He came back to himself in front of the small panel that was one of the entrances to the tunnels that lead out of the dome; the metal sheet old and blending in with the rest of the wall. To most people it looked as if it covered a service panel – either electronics or plumbing, the access port long broken. Eren could open it, but if he went inside it would mean leaving Mikasa and Armin behind, a fact that finally brought him to his senses. He realized that it was the Malform’s fear that had driven him here, his own instincts reacting when it recognized a familiar escape route. Perhaps he didn’t trust Captain Ackerman as much as he thought….

Speaking of which – he spun around as he heard something flying through the air, right before they arrived a moment later to drop at the front of the ‘alley’. They must have taken to the air as soon as he’d run off, and judging from the look on Captain Ackerman’s face, the man was *pissed*.

“What the hell was that about!” the captain demanded to know as he stormed into the cramped passage, causing Eren to take a defensive step back. There was just enough room for Eren to extend his arms out on both sides, but the evident fury the man radiated made the narrow space seem even smaller.

About to explain himself, Eren stopped when he thought if he really wanted the Freedom Corps to know about the tunnels – what if he, Mikasa and Armin had to flee at some point? “I… just needed some space,” he said, wincing internally at how pathetic the excuse sounded.

The way the captain’s eyes narrowed in anger should have been some sort of warning, but Eren was nervous at the weak lie and fighting his own instincts just then, busy trying to see some way out of this mess. The kick aimed at his head was very fast for a human and struck with surprising force – enough to let him know that the captain had indeed held back some during their training earlier. Still, he struggled not to lash back on his own, to take the blow that knocked a tooth free and him to his knees instead of launching himself at the shorter man and ripping out his throat.

Spitting out the tooth and a mouthful of blood, he glared at the bastard through the hair falling onto his face and rubbed at his once more bloody mouth. “Feel better now?”

Captain Ackerman frowned for a moment before letting out a slow breath and reaching down to pull Eren up by the front of his jacket. “Listen, you little shit, I know you’re lying. Don’t make me hit you again – tell me why you went off like that.” When all Eren did was stare back at him, his expression turned carefully blank as he looked away, at the alley around them. “It’s about something here, isn’t it? You’re hiding something. I wonder what that could be….”

Dammit, why did the man have to be smart as well as vicious? Eren attempted to pry off the hands gripping his jacket. “It was just the first place I could find that I thought might offer me a few minutes away from you, Sir.” He drawled out the title as much as possible.

His insolence earned him a shake from the bastard. “I can have the rest of my squad and Hange here in twenty minutes to check this place over, you know,” Captain Ackerman told him. “Maybe even some people from the Engineers. I hear that they’ve been trying to find these rumored tunnels connecting the domes to each other – I would think that some brats that have been around since the domes were built might know about things like that.”

Judging from the way that the captain stared intently at him as he spoke, he was making more than a guess just then. Eren swore under his breath and dared to smack the hands holding onto him. “So what if I do?”

Something dark flashed across Captain Ackerman’s face at the question. “Were you trying to escape just now?” he asked as he dragged Eren in close.

“Fuck you.” Eren finally had enough and lashed out, hitting the bastard in the stomach, but the man just wouldn’t let go. He got a punch to the jaw and what was meant to be a knee to the stomach, but he blocked it in time and managed to tackle the captain to the ground. Off in the distance, he heard Erd yelling at them, but his attention was on taking down the arrogant asshole who thought that Eren was some kid he could just boss around.

They ended up rolling on the ground, and Eren grinned at the thought of the poor guy ruining another uniform that day. There was the sound of a blade being drawn, a warning that the asshole wasn’t relying on fists and feet anymore, and then Eren was on his back with steel at his throat.

“Listen up, you little shit, you’re going to behave and answer my fucking questions or we’ll see how well you heal from a slit throat!” Captain Ackerman had a bruise forming on the left side of his jaw, his black hair was tousled and falling into his eyes and his expression was the most livid that Eren had seen it yet – even after Mikasa had finished with him earlier.

Eren grinned up at him and flexed his claws the slightest bit, causing those grey eyes to go wide. “You might want to shift that blade back a little, or do you think you can cut faster than I can slice?” It seemed that someone had just realized where Eren had his right hand. “Trust me, femoral arteries bleed out like a *bitch*.” He rested his hand a little heavier on the captain’s left thigh.

“Have the two of you come to your senses ye- ah, I’m going to go make sure no one comes by here.” Erd turned his back to them and went to the front of the alley. Eren was actually feeling a little bad for all the poor man was going through tonight since he seemed pretty decent.

Ignoring his squad member, Captain Ackerman continued to glare at Eren. “Two questions. Were you trying to escape, and what’s so important about this alley?” The arm across Eren’s chest increased its pressure, but the blade along his neck lifted the slightest bit.

Wondering what it was about this man that got under his skin so much, Eren closed his eyes for a few breaths. When he opened them again, he found the captain gazing at him intently, as if trying to puzzle him out. “Technically, it seems as if the one question would answer the other.” When the glare returned, he sighed and rolled his eyes. “No, I wasn’t trying to escape. The Malform was so rank with fear that I guess it overloaded me with it, too. If I’m not careful, if I stop thinking or ‘zone out’ too much, instincts can take over. This was one of those times – only it wasn’t so much *my* instincts. I got sucked in by its fear and when I saw an escape route… I took it without thinking.”

The captain leaned back a little, the blade pulling away an inch or two. “So there is a tunnel here.”

Mikasa was most likely going to kill Eren for this. “Yes. It’s probably why the Malform was in the area in the first place.” As the blade pulled back a little more, Eren let his hand fall from the captain’s thigh.

“And you weren’t intentionally planning on running away.”

Why was he so stuck on that? “No, not when it would mean leaving Mikasa and Armin behind.”

That didn’t seem to reassure the man too much judging from the return of the glare, but at least he was now sheathing the weapon. “So is this ‘instinct’ thing a result of the change you went through after the Malform attack?” Captain Ackerman asked as he stood up. The glare morphed into a displeased frown as he noticed the dirty state of his uniform.

Grateful that the bastard was distracted by his appearance, Eren shrugged as he rose as well. “Yeah,” he lied. Amused by how the captain fussed over his uniform, he suddenly remembered his tooth from earlier and went in search of it, finding it after a minute. At the curious look he received, he shrugged again. “It’s not good to leave evidence like this behind.”

“I’m sure Hange will be delighted to have something to study,” Captain Ackerman remarked as he fussed with his gloves.

Eren gave him a sour look as he tucked the tooth in one of the pouches on his belt. “Oh, wonderful. I’ll be sure to let people kick out more of them just to make her happy.”

“Don’t see why you’re complaining, you got a free grope out of it in the end.” That said, the insufferable bastard sniffed and went to join Erd out in the street.

Eren stared after him for a few seconds in shock. “How the hell was *that* me groping you?” he shrieked as he ran after the two. Perhaps he should seriously consider that escaping thing….

*******

Armin hurried after Captain Hange, grateful to be away from the Freedom Corps for the day. It had been rather tense being around Mikasa and Eren since yesterday, ever since they had spent some time with Captain Ackerman. Not even going out feeding the night before seemed to put the siblings in a better mood.

At least he was given a break from both being constantly accosted by Captain Hange and being forced to act as if he knew how to fight as if he was Mikasa or Eren – the siblings had done what they could over the years to teach him basic defensive skills, yet he knew his best chances for survival were to run and hide while leaving the fighting to them. The training session yesterday with the rather scary individual, Captain Zacharius, had just driven that point home. It didn’t help that the odd man had constantly sniffed at him while beating him down into the ground….

At least Hange and her rather stressed second in command Moblit Berner seemed decent, even if the man had stayed behind at headquarters today. Since there shouldn’t be much to collect at the small apartment that Armin had shared with Mikasa and Eren, he and Captain Hange would be able to collect it between the two of them.

“So in your opinion, how long should they go without another night-time excursion,” Captain Hange asked as they headed in the direction that Armin had told her once they left the base.

It took Armin a moment to realize what the question exactly meant, since the captain was trying not to be too explicit. “Uhm, they should be good for several days, unless something happens to injure them or demand too much physical exertion from them.” He didn’t think it was betraying his friends to supply that information, especially since they had a session with Captain Hange yesterday.

The answer seemed to please the woman, as she smiled and reached for the ever-present notebook she carried and made a quick notation. “Good. I would think it would last them a while, considering the ratio of human population to what we’ve surmised as… well, you know, but it’s nice to have it basically established. Though Levi might be unhappy to know that his romantic strolls will be curtailed.” She did this thing with waggling her eyebrows that frankly disturbed Armin, especially in the context of Captain Ackerman, ‘romantic’ and anything that remotely had to do with Eren – he had the feeling if he reported this information to Mikasa that she’d go on a rampage, especially since she was extremely protective of Eren in matters such as these. He knew that there were things that the siblings were hiding from him, mostly to do with anything that they had dubbed ‘the others’, but there were also a few things over the years such as how they’d sometimes manage to get legal documents and establish identities between the domes so easily. He also knew that it was a sore point for Mikasa, one that Eren was quick to dance around whenever possible. For a supposedly bright person, he could put two and two together, especially after the way Eren had left the one night back at Mosca….

He realized that Captain Hange had called his name and blinked his eyes at her as he did his best to focus on the present. “I’m sorry, what were you saying?”

“I was just saying that it must have been challenging growing up, with two people who have… well, we’ll call them ‘food allergies’.” The captain’s smile was more amused than sympathetic at the moment, as if she thrived on the challenge of continuing the topic of Eren and Mikasa while out in public.

Scratching at the back of his head while he wondered if this woman *ever* dropped a topic she found interesting, Armin shrugged to show that he didn’t have any upset feelings. “Actually, Eren’s a really good cook. Just because they don’t like to eat a lot doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy tasting good food, so he’d make stuff from their childhood.” Armin paused and again hoped that he didn’t give too much away. “I think it helps them, the good memories.”

Captain Hange appeared to consider that as they approached the apartment. “Food and the senses it evokes – smell, taste and vision – would be a strong tie to memories. It makes sense.” Then she took to cackling in that disturbing manner of hers. “Oh, this just keeps getting better and better!”

Afraid to ask her what that meant, Armin was relieved to see that they had reached the apartment building. “We’re here!” He took to the steps leading upstairs with more enthusiasm than usual, preferring the exercise to being trapped in an elevator with the over-inquisitive woman.

The apartment was just how they’d left it before going to the market the other day; Armin felt a pang of regret that the quiet days when it was just him, Mikasa and Eren seemed to be behind them, that their ‘simple’ plan of him attending the University had been so drastically altered even if their goal was still in sight.

“Is this… really where you all lived?” Hange turned around a couple of times while she surveyed the small apartment.

“Yeah.” Armin blushed a little as he imagined what she was thinking. “Since I hacked the system for our living quarters, I couldn’t risk giving us anything too extravagant. Besides, this isn’t too bad, considering some of the other places we’ve lived.”

Standing with her fists on her hips, the Freedom Corps captain regarded him with a carefully blank expression for a few seconds before shaking her head. “So, what do we need to take back?” Her brow furrowed as she glanced around. “There doesn’t seem to be much here – no wonder you said the two of us could carry everything.” A flash of interest broke over her face when she noticed the stack of books on the desk in the corner of the main room. “Ah, there are my books!”

Deciding to let the ‘my’ part go, Armin went over to the desk to gather the datapads and the important hard drives. “If you want them, you can take them – I already scanned them.” He held up the three hard drives. “This is really want we came for, these and a few change of clothes. Any time I find some books, we scan them so the knowledge is saved digitally.”

The captain practically lunged at him, stopping herself just short of snatching at the drives. “How much information do you have?” she asked, her voice almost at the level of a shout.

Doing his best not to flinch, Armin took a half-step back. “Uhm, it’s about ten terabytes now.”

“Ten!” Captain Hange clutched at his arms and moaned, sounding in pain. “How did you gather so much data?”

Wondering if he should have brought Mikasa along after all, Armin did his best to squirm away. “Be careful about the drives!” That worked to make the crazy captain release him. “Mikasa and Eren have been working on this for a long time! I’ve done my best to help out however I can, but it’s really their hard work,” he explained.

Looking as if she was about to drool at any moment, Captain Hange moaned again, her eyes a bit glazed behind her glasses. “You said that you had important research here, but I never could have imagined….” She reached for him again, this time to pull him in for a hug. “We’re going to have so much fun going through those drives!”

“Uhm, yeah, okay,” Armin mumbled, wondering if he was ever going to be let out of the woman’s lab now. At least he had learned things from her already. “Why don’t I get everything else so we can leave?”

He was let go so quickly he nearly fell to his knees. “Great idea!” The drives were snatched from his hands, Captain Hange cradling them in her arms as if they were infants. “I’ll take care of these precious babies,” she crooned.

Captain Ackerman was right, the woman *was* insane, Armin thought to himself as he hurried to gather everything that they would need; Eren and Mikasa always kept on them the few items that they refused to be parted with, other than the hard drives which were too fragile to be carried everywhere, so most of the other stuff were just some clothes and personal odds and ends. Within a few minutes, he had the things gathered into a spare bag and was ready to leave. Because of them traveling so much over the years, it was a skill he had honed to perfection and he was used to leaving both things and places behind.

Once they were done, he headed for the door without looking behind – if there was one thing he had learned over the years, it was to always look ahead. Captain Hange gave him odd little glances out of the corner of her eye as if he wasn’t aware of her attention, which he was careful to ignore, and soon enough they were back on the street. She cleared her throat a few times and then went on about how excited she was about the hard drives – as if he wasn’t perfectly mindful of that – and began planning out what exactly they would do as soon as they got back to headquarters. Since he didn’t think he had much of a chance of dictating anything, Armin merely let her go; as long as he got to learn something, he’d be happy. If at some point he needed to take control he’d do his best to do so, and if his best wasn’t good enough, he’d call in Mikasa for help.

His attention wandering around as Captain Hange prattled on, he spotted what he thought was a familiar face standing on a street corner – Eren and Mikasa’s friend Ymir. The dark-skinned woman grinned at him, the expression almost predatory, and then she vanished into the crowd.

His throat going dry and his heartbeat speeding up, Armin did his best to hide his emotions while following Captain Hange back ‘home’ – he knew that Eren and Mikasa had an odd relationship with the mysterious woman, that she was technically one of the ‘others’ yet the siblings trusted her… somewhat. Did it really matter that she’d seen him in a Freedom Corps uniform? Neither Eren nor Mikasa were around, so Ymir might not make the connection that they had joined the organization as well. Would she even care? Other than helping the siblings with some favors now and then – never without a price – she always did her own thing as far as Armin could tell. He needed to talk to Eren and Mikasa.

The trip back to the Freedom Corps base left him high-strung, on high alert for any sighting of Ymir that he could catch, yet he didn’t see the woman anywhere. Had he imagined her that one time? Meanwhile, Captain Hange became more hyper the closer they came to headquarters, and was actually hauling him along once they crossed through the front gate.

“I- I want to let Eren and Mikasa know that I have their stuff!” Armin shouted as they crossed the courtyard, doing his best to dig in his heels.

“Pfft, Levi’s having them swing through the rappelling courses today. Trust me, you do *not* want to be anywhere near that, considering what went down yesterday. He’s probably having Mikasa spin enough to make her puke right now.” Captain Hange slowed down enough for a moment as she seemed to consider something. “Can she puke?”

Armin really didn’t want to find out. “Uhm, she did have some coffee and toast at breakfast, so I think it’s possible.” Oh, Captain Ackerman *really* didn’t know what he was in for if he continued on this course of action, but it wasn’t Armin’s problem. Deciding that he didn’t want to get in the middle of that particular war right now, he allowed himself to be dragged back to the lab.
The rest of the day basically went the way that Armin had expected – Captain Hange cracking upon one of the hard drives and diving into it with maniacal glee, even sending out poor Moblit for food and drink rather than break for lunch. As much as Armin wanted to seek out Mikasa and Eren, he found himself distracted by the lure of science, with the chance to talk about hypotheses and past research with someone who actually understood everything for once. He was debating the possibility of Grisha Jaeger using retro-viruses with the captain when there was a beeping noise.

Captain Hange blinked her eyes several times as if forced abruptly back to reality and patted around the top of the tabletop until she found the comm device. “What? We’re busy, Erwin.”

There was silence over the channel for a moment. “Sorry to bother you, Hange, but here I thought I might have something of interest for you.” Commander Smith’s voice was deceptively mild, containing only the slightest hint of sarcasm. “I thought you, as well as Levi, might be interested in two new recruits being brought to my office.”

Heaving a loud sigh, Captain Hange tapped her fingers near the comm device. “So? What, am I the welcoming committee now? Let Levi and his sparkling personality scar them for life. I’m *busy*,” she snapped.

“Oh, so the fact that they said they’re friends of a certain pair of siblings isn’t a concern of yours,” Commander Smith drawled before the captain could hit the disconnect button.

A myriad of emotions flashed across Captain Hange’s face as her hand hovered over the unit. Then she seemed to settle on dubious as she glanced at Armin. “This isn’t a prank, is it? Like that time you told me you had a captive Malform only to get me out of the lab so it could be cleaned?”

“Hange, get your ass to conference room D. *Now*.” After that, the comm line went dead.

Huffing a little as if upset at being denied over having the last word, the captain hit the keys with an exaggerated effort to save her work on the datapad and then looked up at Armin. “Well? I’d think that you might have a clue about if these two recruits are any friends of Eren and Mikasa or not.”

“Uhm, it depends on how ‘old’ these friends are,” Armin pointed out, a sinking feeling building in his stomach. Maybe he should have made more of an effort to seek out the siblings when he had returned….

Following the captain through the hallways, Armin felt his steps grow heavier with each heartbeat. It seemed as if everyone was staring at him, as if people were whispering behind his back. Suddenly hating himself for allowing himself to be distracted, he found himself waiting for the captain to open a conference room door, a sense of dread building inside of his chest.

The door opened, and all that registered at first was that Mikasa and Eren were there, alive and well. Relief washed through him, until he realized that Eren was doing his best to hold back a furious Mikasa, her eyes glowing gold and her fangs out sharp and bright. Captain Ackerman was stationed in front of the two, his attention seemingly divided between Eren and the two people not dressed in Freedom Corps uniforms – a smirking Ymir and a pretty blonde girl who was pressed against her side, a worried frown on her face as she kept glancing back and forth between Ymir and Eren.

The door slammed shut behind Armin, making him jump in place. He turned to see Commander Smith, expression carefully neutral, nod to him and Captain Hange. “Welcome. Perhaps you can shed some light on this situation.”
*******

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