chapter ten

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young blood

*******

Levi rubbed at his eyes, feeling as if they were full of sand; he’d spent a good bit of the night reading over the numerous reports that Erwin had sent him, double-checking duty rosters, giving input on supplies and the latest political maneuvering of Trost’s Chairman and Ministers and those of the neighboring domes as well, reviewing the communications from various Corps…. It was a good thing he got by on just a few hours of sleep, because he certainly hadn’t been doing much of it last night. 

He didn’t bother to announce himself before entering Erwin’s office, he just opened the door and stalked inside, certain that he’d find the overachieving bastard hard at work behind his desk and had yet to be disappointed. Erwin didn’t even look up from the datapad he was busy reading, he merely waved Levi toward the nearest torture device masquerading as a chair by way of greeting. 

Neither of them said anything while Erwin finished reviewing whatever the document was and Levi resigned to pouring himself a cup of coffee in order to ingest some much needed caffeine. After a couple of minutes, Erwin signed off on it and set the device aside. “So, I assume that you had a very good reason for spending the evening with Eren Jaeger when there were important matters that needed attention?” He had a perfectly civil smile on his face as he asked the question, but there was a hint of coldness to his blue eyes which revealed what he thought about Levi ‘slacking’ in his duties. 

Well, someone sure was grouchy this morning. Levi slurped his coffee just to be annoying, drawing out the process until he saw a faint twitch below Erwin’s left eye.  “You telling me that you didn’t have the situation under control?” 

“Of course I did.” Erwin frowned, the expression slight but there if you knew what to look for, and pressed the tips of his fingers against the top of his desk. “I’ve assigned the two women to Hange, since it’ll give her a chance to examine Ymir’s species and observe their relationship. I want to know for certain that she’s not coercing or taking advantage of Krista in any manner. I made it clear to both that they will follow the rules of the Corps at all times while they are members, and they’ve sworn to obey. What I wanted from you was your opinion on their sudden appearance.” 

“Which is why I’m here now.” Levi paused for another sip of coffee, mentally grimacing at the strong, bitter taste. “I don’t think it’s good that they’re showing up now, considering the situation here and to a lesser extent in Bern and Maria – every indication I’m getting from Eren is that Ymir is out for herself, first and foremost. If she was willing to risk her neck by revealing herself, then that means she must want something very important.” 

Erwin nodded along, showing that he believed much the same. “Yes, and what do you feel are her goals?” 

Levi hated it when his friend played this ‘what do you think’ game instead of just coming out with what he knew. “I ‘feel’ it’s two-fold.” He groaned in exhaustion as he set the empty mug aside. “Shit, it’s too early for this crap. She obviously cares about her girlfriend, and she’s serious about Eren turning her. That plays into the second thing – she wants both of them to be safe. So we have two people who feel that something bad is coming their way and want to ensure that they’re going to survive it at any cost.”

“Even if it means going into the headquarters of the people of might kill them, because those people should act as interference to the creatures who are hunting them down.” Erwin tapped his fingers against the desk, hard. “Or they’re hoping to use us as a shield.” The way his eyes flashed in anger at the mention of the idea, Levi didn’t think that Erwin would allow it to happen so easily. 

“Yeah, that’s my thoughts exactly.” Settling in the chair with his right leg crossed over his left thigh, Levi smoothed his fingers over the thick leather of his boot. “It looks as if we’re of similar minds, so you didn’t need me last night. Explain to me what crawled up your ass this morning.” 

A small, amused smile tugged at the corners of Erwin’s mouth while he poured himself some more coffee from the carafe on his desk. “Eloquent as always. Did you enjoy your chat with Eren? I thought you found him rather annoying, considering the effort you go through to put him and his sister in their places.” 

Huh, someone was keeping track of him, weren’t they? Levi clicked his tongue a few times and glared at the smug bastard from beneath his bangs. “I’m just making sure they know their spots in the pecking order – they’re used to doing whatever their want for a very long time.” When Erwin’s smile took on a condescending nature, his eyes narrowed even more. “If you’re going to be like this, I won’t bother to tell you what I learned from the brat last night and go do something of value, such as brief my squad.” 

Erwin spread out his arms and shook his head. “I’m sorry, did I give you the impression that I’m not taking you seriously?” 

“You exist, of course you do,” Levi snapped. He continued to glare until Erwin managed a mostly contrite look. “It was an interesting discussion,” he continued, a bite to his words to let his friend know that he was still on to him. “It had to do with our assumptions about the outside world and how long until it’s habitable.” 

“Assumptions?” Erwin’s thick brows became furrowed as he questioned Levi’s wording. “What assumptions? That it’ll be even longer than projected before humanity is able to leave behind the domes?” When Levi continued to stare evenly back at him and remain quiet, his face reddened and he stood to his feet in a rush. “Are you saying it’s the opposite? How is that possible?” 

Levi flicked away a piece of lint before he answered, thinking back to Eren’s almost pitying look last night. “Because we’re naïve, blind fools, apparently.” He huffed and jerked his gloved fingers through his hair. “We put our absolute faith in machines provided by others and never stop to think for ourselves or use our own senses.”

Erwin continued to stare at him for several seconds, until the realization sank in; Levi could see the fury build in his friend. “Are you telling me that our readings, the ones we’ve risked our lives for all these years, the ones that humanity depends upon, have been wrong?” Erwin’s voice had dropped to a quiet level that never was good for someone.

What, like this was his fault? Levi shrugged and let his hand fall back into his lap. “Eren said that those fucking ‘others’ have had a hand in certain industries since before things went all to shit. One they made certain to retain after the shit hit the fan dealt with solar radiation sensors.”

 There was a sudden, loud sound as Erwin punched his desk, causing datapads to bounce and skitter about. He swore under his breath, the sound a furious hiss, before he seemed to regain control over himself. “Do you know what this means?”

“Yeah, that Hange’s going to be impossible to live with once she finds out.” That lunatic had been begging to be left outside the domes for years, claiming that her research indicated that the solar flare cycles were lessening in impact despite the ‘official’ readings. 

Erwin looked at Levi as if he’d gone mad for several seconds before laughing, the expression a touch hysterical, and falling back into his chair. “Well, yes, there’s that,” he admitted, a slight hiccup to his voice before his demeanor turned serious. “How could they have gotten away with it for so long? And why?” 

Now they were getting somewhere. “To answer your second question first, they’re doing it because it keeps their food source trapped in neat little containers for them to hunt in, where they don’t have to worry about bothersome things like sunlight.” Levi pushed up the sleeve of his left arm. “And the first part? Hmm, who do we also know who has just the slightest of reasons to want to keep people restrained inside the domes?” His left hand flexed into a fist, prepping a rappelling dart. “I’m drawing a blank.” Erwin raised an eyebrow at the last remark, probably because of the amount of sarcasm in his voice. 

“Yes, who do we know indeed.” Erwin began to restore order to his desk in a manner that was a little too restrained. “Did Eren say he has proof of the true vampires working with Chairmen or their Ministers?” 

“No, but when I brought it up while we were returning to our rooms for the night, he was quick to change the subject. I’m learning that’s his rather unsubtle way of indicating that I’m right but he doesn’t want to deal with the mess of admitting I’m right.”

Erwin’s left brow arched and a pleased smirk curved his lips. “Hmm, you seem to know an awful lot about the ‘brat’ now. Just what all did you do yesterday while all alone?” Both thick brows rose up and down a few times in a suggestive manner.

“Oh fuck you.” Levi gave his friend the finger. “We just talked.”

“Levi, for you to ‘just talk’ to a person is a miracle in and of itself.” Erwin stared at him in astonishment. “Your concept of a relationship with a fellow human being is to smack them once and then ignore them from that point onward.”

“Bullshit. I don’t-“

“To hell you don’t. You’re the most repressed bastard I’ve ever meet.” Erwin leaned forward to glare at him over the desk. “The only reason Hange is still your friend is that she has a very high tolerance for pain and is just as fucked up as you in her own way. Your squad adores you, but none of them are really close to you. They consider being able to follow your orders and not piss you off on a daily basis to be such an amazing feat that they gather together to drink on a weekly basis to celebrate the fact. What I’m trying to say is, you’re an asshole, Levi.” Erwin’s expression softened to some sort of pity. “I understand that you lost- that it’s difficult, what we do. If you can connect with Eren Jaeger in some sort of manner… all I can say is, good for you.”

Levi glared at Erwin, for a moment hatred bubbling up in his chest hot and potent. This was the bastard who had pulled him out of Tartarus, him and Isabel and Farlan. There was no guarantee that they’d have been fine if they’d been left there in that dome – hell, they’d probably be all dead for years now, but…. He shook his head. Erwin had done what he’d felt was needed, for both humanity, the Corps and, oddly enough, Levi, Isabel and Farlan. It was just a sign of the fucked up world they lived in that joining the Freedom Corps meant that you usually had only a few good years in you – if even that long.

“He’s just a fucking brat who has the answers we’re looking for,” he snapped, refusing to think about certain things this early in the day. “Talking to him gets us those answers easier than me kicking his ass.”

“But you usually enjoy kicking people’s asses.” Erwin pointed out.

Levi narrowed his eyes. “Am I conversing with you or just blabbering nonsense?”

Erwin smiled, the expression bland while the sparks in his eyes were sharp. “No, it’s true – you do seem to derive a sort of pleasure in beating people up. So why don’t you continue to beat the answers out of him?”

Pushing himself up onto his feet, Levi gave Erwin another rude gesture as he turned to leave. “Look into what those fucking vampires have been doing to mess with the results of our tests. I’ll be taking the brat out for my patrol today to see if we can track down any Malforms, since something has Ymir so upset,” he snapped, fed up with the conversation and needing to get away from the base for the day.

“Have fun,” Erwin called out to him. “Try not to cause too much mayhem.”

“Whatever.” Levi had had enough already, and it wasn’t even past breakfast. No wonder he was always in the mood to ‘beat people up’. He left the office to go seek out his squad.

*******

Eren stared at the food on the tray before him and wondered when human food had become so unappealing – he couldn’t imagine taking a bite out of the bland scrambled eggs, greyish slab of meat and white lump of grits. He thought of the frittatas or omelets his mother used to make for him and Mikasa, or the plates of cheese, sausage, boiled eggs, smoked fish, bread, jam and fruit for his father. Back when he was young - back when food was more or less bountiful – he had enjoyed eating, but even after humanity had found a way to manage their limited resources, they never regained the diversity before the collapse.

“Is something the matter?” Sasha asked. “You don’t look too hungry this morning.” There was a hopeful note to her voice.

“Sasha! Don’t tell me you’re trying to get the poor boy’s food again!” Daz chided. “I don’t see how he has the strength to get through training with the way you hijack his meals all the time.”

“I don’t-“

“It’s all right,” Eren interrupted. “I was up late last night so I grabbed a bite to eat before going to bed. I guess I’m still full.” He pushed his tray aside, other than the cup of coffee. “She can have it.”

Mikasa ate a few bites of her eggs then pushed her tray aside as well. “I’m full as well. I never do have much of an appetite in the morning.”

“I know what you mean. It’s that damn gluten intolerance.” Ymir grinned as almost everyone at the table stared at her in confusion, except for Sasha who looked as if this was one of the happiest days in her life as she gathered the trays closer.

“So, what’s the agenda for the day, Rebel,” Ymir asked while she sipped her coffee, her elbows on the table. Beside her, Krista picked at her breakfast as if afraid it would turn on her somehow.

Eren glowered at the use of the hated nickname, but before he could say anything, Sasha paused in shoveling eggs in her mouth and blinked. “Uhm, why do you call him that? Him ‘Rebel’ and… and Mikasa ‘Sunshine’?”

Ymir blinked in apparent surprise at the question and took a moment to pick up her coffee, while Eren moaned internally at the question and Armin chuckled beside him. Then she grinned and leaned her elbows on the table, the cup of coffee held up near her chin. “Well, Eren’s pretty easy. After all, he’s always charging off half-cocked into some sort of trouble, so I dubbed him ‘Rebel without a Cause’. Though it’s more like ‘Rebel without a Clue’ since he never thinks before he goes crashing into things, but still, very James Dean.” When Sasha, Krista, Armin and several of the others just stared blankly at Ymir, she sighed and shook her head. “Kids these days, no appreciation of the classics.”

“What do you expect,” Eren grumbled as he eyed his own coffee with some trepidation, swearing that it smelled worse than the day before.

“Oh hush, or I’ll change your name to ‘Grumpy’.” Ymir sipped her coffee then winced, leaving Eren to suspect that yeah, the coffee was particularly bad today. What he wouldn’t give for a Starbucks…. “As for Mikasa, she got stuck with ‘Sunshine’ because that’s what she is, a fucking ray of sunshine all of the time.” Sarcasm practically dripped from her voice just then.

Mikasa didn’t bother to look her way, she just gave Ymir the finger while managing to drink her coffee without any obvious sign of distress.

“You guys are weird,” Daz muttered, a blush spreading across his face when he noticed Krista glaring at him for the insult. “I’m… I mean, I’m sorry!”

Ymir smirked as she watched the poor kid grovel in the face of her girlfriend’s ire. Eren glanced at the blonde ‘girl’ over the rim of his mug, trying to place what he knew about the Reiss heir and the young woman in front of him. There was an obvious core of steel in ‘Krista’, one that she didn’t show too often, but it made sense if she was with Ymir.

He had just forced himself to swallow another sip of coffee when Armin nudged him in the ribs. “Uhm, I think someone wants your attention.” He looked up to find Gunther from Captain Ackerman’s squad motioning to him, a heavy scowl on the man’s face.

“Ah, looks like I have to go,” Eren explained as he stood up from the table.

“Should I come along?” Mikasa pushed against the table-top as if to stand as well.

“Captain Ackerman said something last night about me following him today.” Eren gave his sister a reassuring smile. “You’re probably assigned to Petra and Olou.” He thought he caught a glimpse of the auburn-haired woman making her way to the table and was about to call out to her, when Gunther waved again. “Bye!” Shit, the man looked *pissed*.

Weaving his way through the crowd, Eren offered the taller man a shaky smile in greeting once he was close. “Ah, good morning.”

Gunther grunted instead of answering and turned around, his right hand motioning for Eren to follow. Great, looked as if someone still hadn’t warmed up to him. Nothing else was said until they were outside, where Captain Ackerman was waiting for them.

“We’re heading out now, so keep your mouth shut and don’t do anything stupid for once,” the captain ordered before striding off at a brisk pace.

So much for getting any answers or explanations. Eren ground his teeth together and decided to just obey, tagging along behind the two assholes. No one said anything for several blocks, which was fine by him because he was sure he’d just snap back and start a fight. To think that he thought that they were finally starting to get along. Why did the sudden return to ‘normal’ in their relationship bother him?

“Get up here, you’re making me nervous, trailing along back there.” 

Eren did his best not to flinch when Captain Ackerman snatched at his left arm and hauled him up to walk beside the shorter man, especially when Gunther eyed him with suspicion and stepped aside to put more space between then. While he was grateful to spend the day outside of the Freedom Corps’ headquarters and on patrol, something seemed to be bothering the captain today; last night they had parted on relatively good terms and with some sort of understanding. Eren wasn’t sure what had pissed the man off today, but he was tired of being glared at as if it was his fault. Gunther eyeing him as if he was two seconds away from draining the man dry of all his blood wasn’t helping, either…. 

“Sector 43E clear,” Captain Ackerman reported into his comm, his expression bored even as his grey eyes roved the streets around them. He paused to wait for an answer from whomever was on the other end before responding. “Get up there and check, you stupid fuck. Why do you think you have that shiny shit on your left arm?” He swore under his breath. “I swear, you brats are getting stupider by the hour.” He glanced at Eren while he said that. At least it sounded as if he was pissed at the world in general and not just Eren.

“Problem, Captain?” Gunther asked, his right hand on the hilt of his sword while he kept in step with Levi’s hurried pace. 

“Linke-Jackson thinks they found the remains of a Malform kill in sector 38A.” Levi continued to gaze at Eren. “There’s a blood trail leading up the side of a building.” 

“It’s more comforting to eat higher up,” Eren explained. “Less likelihood of being interrupted.” He met Levi’s intent gaze and smiled, the emotion behind it deliberately taunting. “You never know who’s going to be rude enough to come along and disturb you.” 

“Cheeky brat.” For the first time that morning, a hint of a smile cracked Captain Ackerman’s frosty demeanor, along with the slightest bit of amusement in his voice. “So what’s your take on this situation, *Rebel*.” 

And then the asshole had to go and do something like that. Eren really wanted to punch Ymir right about now, he thought to himself as he jerked his fingers through his hair, forgetting for a moment about the grey gloves. Deep breathes, he told himself. The way the captain’s smile strengthened in light of his annoyance didn’t help matters any. “It’s usually the older, more mature Malform who have the… ‘smarts’ to feed higher up. The younger ones will feast wherever they’re lucky enough to latch on to a person, which is normally on the ground.” A young married couple who were walking down the street near them caught part of the conversation, their faces turning pale as they hurried away. Eren grinned in with a bit of sick humour at their departing backs for a moment before turning toward Captain Ackerman. “I’d say you have at least one older Malform on your hands.” 

It didn’t need to be said that the older the Malform, the more difficult it would be to track it down and kill it. Captain Ackerman’s amusement seemed to fade as he rubbed at his eyes, the dark circles beneath them more pronounced than usual. “Aren’t you a fucking ray of sunshine?” 

“No, that’s Mikasa,” Eren couldn’t resist saying. The startled snort of laughter it wrung out of the asshole was worth it. 

“Yeah, I think that all of the time.” It appeared as if the captain was about to say something else, but stopped to listen to something over his comm. “Let Captain Hange and Commander Smith know about it. Keep your eyes open – we think it’s at least one mature Malform loose.” Captain Ackerman closed his eyes for a moment before looking at both Eren and Gunther. “They confirmed it – remains of what looks to be two separate feedings. Just an arm and a hand but they don’t match.” 

Gunther grunted while he clutched at his hilt. “Then the victims might have turned.” 

Eren couldn’t help it, he rubbed at his right arm as memories of the day when he was turned came flooding back. He was lost in the sensation of pain and confusion until he realized that someone was calling out to him. 

“Oi! Brat! What’s going on in that thick head of yours?” Captain Ackerman had a hold on his arm again and gave it a shake. “You picking up something?” 

“No.” Eren forced himself to smile, to push aside the memories. “Ah, just wondering when you’ll let me have a comm of my own.”

Judging from the suspicious look he was receiving, the captain wasn’t buying his weak excuse but for some reason decided to let it go this time. “Right, you’ll get one when I’m certain you won’t spend the entire time checking in with Mikasa over stupid shit.” He yanked Eren along, his hand wrapped tight around Eren’s wrist as if he doubted in Eren’s ability to follow without getting into trouble. Eren would’ve objected, but… yeah, he’d be quiet for the moment. 

They made it about a block or two before Captain Ackerman decided that Eren had behaved himself enough to walk unassisted, busy the entire time barking out orders over the comm to his squad about checking this sector and that. Eren caught an odd look sent their way from various people on the street as well as Gunther.  He rubbed his left wrist once it was released, impressed despite himself at the amount of strength that the asshole possessed – too bad it was often directed his way. 

“So, *are* you picking up anything,” Captain Ackerman asked once he was done communicating over the comm. 

“Not really. There’s a lot of people here, but they’re moving too much and it’s so bright.” Eren paused for a moment to consider the street before him, to ‘see’ it in terms of hunting and prey. “Once they start panicking, they can escape so easily into the buildings.” Painful memories rushed to the fore. “Unless the Malform go inside to hunt.” 

Gunther swore, something about ‘undead bastard’ and took a step toward Eren, his right blade rising from its sheath. Captain Ackerman threw out his right hand to stop the man, a cold look in his hooded eyes. “Stand down,” he ordered before resuming his study of Eren. “So where would *you* hunt?” 

A sick feeling rose up in Eren’s stomach as he met the captain’s cold, assessing stare. “I’m… not… not Malform but-“ 

“Yes.” There was no sign of pity or compassion in those steely grey eyes. “I need you to think like one of them right now.”

“But I’m *not* one of them, dammit!” 

“I know, but you’re the closest thing we have.” Captain Ackerman stepped forward with his right hand raised to Eren’s face; Eren refused to flinch, to back down, and let out a low whine when the man tucked back a lock of hair that had fallen into his eyes with a surprising gentleness. “Do it before there’s another massacre,” the captain ordered, his voice as harsh as the touch had been kind. “I don’t like the fact that it’s been so quiet again yet your ‘friends’ still came looking for shelter, and now another death.”

Eren whined again as he closed his eyes, thoughts focused on the surrounding area of the dome. He hunted *Malform* and he preferred the dark alleys where the monsters hid at night when on solitary hunts or nesting. Humans weren’t prey; they were confusing, amusing, heartbreaking creatures who were so fragile and cruel, who were mostly to be avoided. Yet there had been a time…. He whined again as he buried that memory, unwilling to think about it now. No, he just needed to think like a Malform, to try and figure out where they would go if pushed to hunt. 

Another memory flashed through his mind – running through the grass, desperate to reach shelter, some sort of protection, of how fast a Malform could move, how easy it was for them to run their prey to the ground…. 

Bile rose to his mouth as he opened his eyes. “I have an idea.” The words came out garbled since he struggled not to throw up the bitter coffee from breakfast, hampered by the fact that his fangs had surfaced as well. He didn’t wait for Captain Ackerman or Gunther, he merely headed in the direction that best fit his memory. 

Along the way he heard someone call out Captain Ackerman’s name, which caused the captain to curse about ‘baby shitstains’. Eren ignored the incident since he focused entirely on his destination, on picking up any trace of Malform that he could sense; he didn’t take to the air just yet, afraid of scaring away the creatures or revealing himself, so he kept his speed within human limitations as he ran through the streets, knocking into the occasional person. 

“What’s that moron’s problem?”

“Go fuck off,” Captain Ackerman snapped. “We’re busy.” 

“Jean! We’re supposed to be delivering-“

“Shut it, Connie! I want to know what these Wingers are up to!” 

Picking up the scent of grass, plastic and chemicals, Eren rounded the corner and came into what was considered a wide, open space for a dome, a rare park spread out before him. The grass was chemically treated and carefully trimmed, and the trees that lined its perimeter and scattered about with the plastic play equipment were rather anemic when compared to their majestic cousins which grew unhampered outside. For many of the adults and children who were taking advantage of the park, this was the closest that they would come to any ‘true’ greenery, as most wouldn’t leave the dome in their leaves – those that did only ventured outside in enclosed shuttles. Beneath the stink of chemicals, Eren thought he could smell… was that a trace of…. 

Captain Ackerman stomped over to Eren and snatched at him by the collar of his grey jacket. “Get this through that addled head of yours – no more running off like that, *understood*?” He was almost growling as he spoke, his eyes narrowed in anger and his compact body tense, as if ready to lash out at any second. He hauled Eren in close, so close their faces were almost touching. “And you wonder why I like beating you up so much.” 

About to say because the man was a sadistic asshole, Eren forced himself to swallow and think for once before he spoke. “Ah, well, we’re here?”

“Aw, isn’t this touching.” A somewhat familiar, annoying voice called out as the person approached. “You two look so cute.” 

Captain Ackerman’s eyes narrowed even more and his lips pressed into a thin line, almost disappearing from the force of his anger. He stepped back yet kept a hold on Eren’s jacket. “Is there a reason why you two shitty brats felt a need to tag along? Isn’t there some Minister you’re supposed to be babysitting? You flunk at ass-wiping or something?” 

Ah, it was Horse-face and Baldy, from the other night. Eren smirked when the two MPs flushed at the captain’s insult; Horse-face took what was probably meant to be a threatening step forward, but the sight of a glowering Gunther tilting his right blade forward as if to draw it put a halt to that real quick. 

“Jean, we’re already on double-duty, don’t make things worse,” the bald kid hissed out as he kept glancing back and forth between Gunther and the captain. “There’s people around!” 

Horse-face – Jean – spared the time to glare at his partner. “I know that!” He turned his attention back to Captain Ackerman. “I also know that it’s a bit odd, someone so high up in the Freedom Corps dragging along a new recruit. So what’s the deal? Is he some Minister’s son? What’s he doing with you Wingers, then?” 

The captain hissed in annoyance and waved aside the MP’s questions. “We don’t have time for this, some of us are actually doing work.” He turned to the side and looked at Eren. “Well, anything?” 

Eren continued to take deep, even breaths so he could ‘taste’ the air. “There’s a lot of people around, and these assholes aren’t helping.” He continued to search the small park, trying to spot any tell-tale signs of Malform. Were there any unusual shadows? Were the animals reacting abnormally? Was that a hint of prey in the air?

“What the hell is going on here?” 

“Kid, just go back to you fancy sections and stay there!” 

Eren did his best to drown out Horse-face and Gunther’s voices, his senses straining to find some sort of clue. He thought he picked up the scent of Malform, but was it so unusual when they might stake out the park occasionally? Was the scent growing stronger? There were so many people about, so many children, courting couples, parents and adults on break – wait, who was that person quickly walking away, the tall figure with the hunched shoulders, the short, brown hair - wasn’t he familiar? Wasn’t that scent, that faint, elusive scent enough to cause Eren’s fangs to drop and the world to wash into grey? He took a quick step forward, desperate to get a better look, and started to choke when his collar was yanked back with force.

“What the *fuck* did I just say?” 

He glanced away from Captain Ackerman’s deliberately blank face to the departing figure, and caught a glimpse of tan skin and a red, glowing eye. “Now! Call everyone now!” he shouted as he forced his hands to go for his blades instead of using his claws. His heart clenched inside of his chest when a moment later, a loud roar echoed over the open space. “*NOW*, dammit!” 

The captain let out a curse of his own and released him so he could unsheathe his blades, busy ordering all of the Freedom Corps fighters in the immediate vicinity to the park. He seemed to realize the same thing that Eren did – the lack of buildings in the vicinity and the stunted trees meant that their gauntlets would be next to useless in the park. 

“What the hell is going on?” Horse-face pushed himself forward to stand next to Eren.

“Let’s hope you can use those blades for something other than practice,” Eren warned him before dashing off in the direction where the scent of Malform was the strongest. 

Gunther was yelling at the parents to gather up their children when what looked to be a sewer grate popped into the air and several Malform surged forward. Great, the fucking sewers, the captain was just going to *love* this. “Hey, Napoleon! Think you’re going to get a little dirty today!” Eren called out as he leapt into the fray, twisting about with blades held high. He gritted his teeth as he felt claws slash into his right thigh and along his back yet kept his arms moving, slashing out with the blades whipping through the air. That was two Malform down before his feet touched the ground, right leg sweeping around to help launch him again, just missing another swipe of claws, left arm extended out and down. It was difficult to keep his speed in check, to not move as quickly as he could when there were constant stings of pain, but at least he could channel the hunger and the urge to kill into the strength it took to force metal through muscle and bone. 

There was an annoyed grunt as the captain landed next to him, already covered in grime and Malform blood. “I keep telling you, that’s *Captain Napoleon*, *brat*.” His left eye twitched at the sound of a child screaming, the noise cut short. “Come on, we’re supposed to be working.” 

Wondering how much longer until reinforcements arrived, Eren followed the captain into the fracas, watching the man’s back as they did their best to scatter the attacking Malform from a cluster of children huddled inside a pile of brightly colored pipes, the bodies of adults lying in a ring outside. Eren could understand why the captain was considered one of the Corps’ best as the man cut through the Malform with a misleading ease, his blade in constant motion despite the few times the creatures got through his guard. He didn’t even falter when the rest of the Freedom Corps began to show up, their gauntlets dropping them off on the outskirts of the park. 

“Save the civilians first!” Captain Ackerman barked out. “Then contain the Malform and eliminate them!” He barely blinked when Eren ran his left blade through a Malform that was about to slash along his spine, merely nodded in acknowledgement before taking off its head. Eren grimaced as he had to pull his blade free from its rapidly decomposing body and took a deep breath, only to hear a scuffling sound behind him. 

He spun around to find a small body hurtling itself at him, what appeared to be a child but what must have been one of the first victims now turned. “Shit, they’re turning fast!” he warned as he cut off its head. 

A startled moan of pain from his left side made him turn to find Captain Ackerman standing over a similar small, beheaded corpse, left hand pressed to his thigh as red spread quickly along the white material. “Are you all right?” Eren asked as he stumbled forward, hands fumbling for the pouch on his right side which contained some bandages. He managed to open it and toss a packet to the man before another Malform lunged at them. 

“Yeah, I’ve just never seen the dead turn so quickly.” There was a sharp grunt which probably meant that the captain was applying the pressure bandage, but Eren was a little busy trying to keep his face from being clawed off – yeah, it would grow back, but that always hurt like a bitch. “Have you?” 

“One… sec.” A low growl slipped free while Eren hacked his blade through the Malform’s neck. “You’re not gonna like what I have to say.” 

“I’ve noticed that trend.” Captain Ackerman picked up his dropped blade and took a tentative step toward Eren’s side, as if testing his wounded leg, and then strode forth with more confidence into the fighting. “What?” 

Eren paused to remove the head from a body that they came across, trying not to think of how young the boy looked. “Either these Malform are really, really old, or they’ve recently been turned by a true vampire.” Glancing up at the blank look on the captain’s bloodied face, he knew that he’d have to give more of an explanation than that, but now wasn’t the time when people were dying all around them. Especially when the next body they came across was one of their own, wearing a Freedom Corps uniform. Captain Ackerman handled that task, his expression grim as his blade swung down. 

The fighting soon thinned out, thanks to the arrival of the Freedom Corps, but the Malform continued on to the bitter end, driven by the true vampire’s call earlier. It didn’t help that anyone infected and gravely wounded or dead was beginning to turn as well, which added the Malform numbers. Eren felt that the remaining Freedom Corps fighters were battling not so much the undead creatures but themselves, worn out by their wounds and having to put down fellow humans. He bit back on a snarl as he lashed out with his blade at a turned woman who was trying to rip out Gunther’s intestines while the man took care of another badly wounded child. The man managed a tired ‘thanks’ before forcing himself up to tend to another still figure lying a few feet away. 

Now that most of the Malform appeared to be killed, Eren went in search of Captain Ackerman, who had split from him in the last few minutes. He found the man yelling at one of the two MPs who had followed them to the park and actually managed to hold their own during the attack. Horse-face was covered in dark Malform blood and nursing his left arm while standing in front of a wheezing child who couldn’t be more than four or five years old. Kneeling beside the little girl, Baldy was doing his best to stem the slowing flow of blood from her copious wounds. The scent rising up…

“I’m telling you, get out of my way,” Captain Ackerman growled out, his right blade held up as if he was ready to strike down the idiot MP. 

“No! The medics should be arriving any minute now! They can save her!” Horse-face held up his own blade, the weapon wavering in his grip. “You’re as much a monster as those undead freaks!” 

Oh for fuck’s sake… Eren stepped forward, struggling hard not to let his true nature reveal itself in face of the danger. “You’re going to get yourself killed, you fucking idiot,” he snarled as he shoved the idiot aside, using just a touch more speed than natural. He heard Captain Ackerman move behind him and assumed that the struggle was from the captain subduing Horse-face; Baldy looked up at him, doing his best to appear fierce, and quickly yelped and ducked aside to avoid the swinging blade.

“You’re murderers! Both of you are murder-ah…” It sounded as if Horse-face was about to lose his lunch as the flesh began to melt away from the beheaded body, leaving a small skeleton in its wake, still wrapped in a torn and blood-stained pink and white dress. Baldy knelt on his hands and knees and did vomit. 

Wiping his blade on his already filthy pants, Eren turned to glare at Horse-face. “She was a few seconds away from tearing out your friend’s throat. Now stay out of the way of people who know what the hell they’re doing before you get anyone else killed.” 

Horse-face, his face pale and his throat moving up and down as if swallowing to keep himself from throwing up as well, shook his head. “How… how can you do such a thing? She was just a kid!” 

“And some of them are our own people,” Captain Ackerman ground out as he pushed the asshole away as if disgusted by his presence. “It doesn’t matter who they are once they’re infected because they’re gone for good – only the living matter. Get out of my sight while we do the real work and save lives.” 

Eren watched the short-tempered man limp away for a few seconds and followed, not even bothering to look after the two MPs anymore. Some people got what the Freedom Corps had to do in order to protect humanity, and some didn’t. More than likely, it was why the two assholes had joined the Military Police in the first place, willing to spend their lives in a mostly comfortable position rather than risk it and face true hardship. They didn’t know about how you had to sacrifice to ensure survival, how life was messy, tragic and demanding as hell… and yet so satisfying at the same time. 

They assisted in preventing several more victims from turning before Captain Ackerman’s left leg gave out on him. Noticing how the man’s skin had taken on an ashy pallor and was damp to the touch, Eren swore and dragged him over to an abandoned swing set away from everyone else. 

“I’m fine,” Captain Ackerman hissed, his eyes glazed and his voice lacking its usual virulence.

 “How much blood did you lose?” When the stubborn bastard just sat there, Eren sighed in exasperation. “I can’t tell what’s yours and what’s Malform because you’re covered in both, but you *reek*. That’s not a good sign.” He reached into a back pouch to pull out a small flask of water. 

Captain Ackerman snorted, the sound weak as if he was lacking in energy. “Your bedside manner sucks, brat.” He made to run his hands through his bangs, stiff with sweat and gore, then caught sight of his filthy glove. “Damn but I want a shower. The medics will be here soon.” 

Yes, and they’d treat the civilians first, once they were assured that there were no more Malform lurking around and no chance of anyone else turning. Eren drank a mouthful of water then glanced about to make sure that no one was paying them any attention. “Something tells me it won’t do you much good to wait that long.” Wondering why he was so driven to do this, he tugged up the heel of his right glove to expose the fleshy part of his hand and bit into it, grateful that his teeth were sharp. The blood began to flow immediately, enough for several thick drops to fall into the flask before the wound healed. Captain Ackerman stared at him in confusion during the process. “All right, drink this up.” 

It was rare to see such a look of surprise on that elegant, tired face. “Are you out of your fucking mind? Did your brains get scrambled today or what? You’re the va-“ Captain Ackerman forced his mouth shut and shook his head. “No *fucking* way.” 

Eren let out a sharp breath as he shoved the flask toward the stubborn bastard. “Yes, fucking way! Look, your leg was bitten, right? You’ve lost a lot of blood and you’re partially infected, the muscle’s torn and you probably messed it up on top of that by fighting,” he insisted. “Captain Hange’s on to something when she said we’ve got a healing factor, that our cells regenerate. It’s in our blood. If you drink it, you get the same benefits for a little while.” When the man just stared at him in abhorrence, he leaned forward, voice dropping even lower. “How old do you think Krista really is?” He wasn’t ready to give up the truth about Armin just yet, but Ymir and Krista were fair game. 

“What?” Startled by the question, Captain Ackerman accepted the small water flask and blinked a couple of times, the shadows beneath his eyes more pronounced due to exhaustion and blood loss. “She’s what, sixteen? Seventeen?” 

“Make that at least thirty-eight and you’d be right.” Eren forced the man’s long, slender fingers to tighten around the bottle. “Long term drinking nearly halts the aging process and ensures constant good health. Short term promotes accelerated healing.” 

Assessing grey eyes studied him intently, as if looking for some sort of trap. “And? What else?” 

“Nothing else.” Eren slumped against one of the thick wires holding up the plastic swing. “I promise you, I wouldn’t do this if there were any adverse effects. It’ll help you heal and fight off the infection better than anything a medic can do for you right now, until Captain Hange patches you up.” For some unfathomable reason, he didn’t like the idea of losing this infuriating man – the Freedom Corps certainly needed someone of his caliber.

Captain Ackerman continued to study him for a moment longer before raising the flask to his lips. He grimaced for a few seconds before drinking it straight down, the look on his pale, sweaty face almost adorable. “Ugh, gross,” he complained once the bottle was dry. 

“Oh, please, you could barely taste the small amount that was in there.” Eren frowned as he took back the metal bottle. 

“It’s the thought that I willingly drank brat blood.” Captain Ackerman wiped at his lips as if to rid himself of some awful taste. “I’ll probably be bratty by osmosis now.” 

Eren couldn’t resist himself. “No, but you’ll be my willing sex slave from now on, burning for my touch.” He laughed at shock on the man’s face. “Just kidding! I told you no side effects.” He laughed despite the smack to his ribs he received, deciding that being able to recall that alarmed look for years to come made the hit worthwhile. 

He wasn’t surprised when he found himself yanked onto his feet, the captain already appearing well on the way to recuperating. What was surprising was when another hit didn’t follow, but a question after the captain let go of his torn jacket. “If that stuff is so potent, why is Ymir after you to do her a favor?” 

“Because it just makes you healthier and… well, we’ll say ‘freezes’ you. It doesn’t make you stronger or faster, and once you stop taking it, you go back to normal. If she were to be separated from Krista, Krista would be defenseless.” 

The man grunted once and wiped at his lips with the back of his right hand again. “Makes sense.” He looked out over the once pristine playground, now covered with gore, disintegrating bodies, wounded and exhausted Freedom Corps fighters as well as huddled groups of civilians. A tall figure was striding in their direction; from the glint of gold in the low dome lights, Eren recognized the man as Commander Smith. Behind him were two dark-haired figures, probably Captain Hange and Mikasa. “We’ll talk some more once I’m done with Erwin’s debriefing – come to my quarters after dinner is over. You owe me an explanation about that vampire comment and how that scream set everything off. It happened back at the market, too.” 

“Yeah, I know.” Eren pulled off his ruined gloves so he could rub at his tired eyes, wishing this was one of the times when he could just climb something and hide for a few days. Yet there was Mikasa rushing toward him with an anxious expression on her face, so he forced a weary smile and allowed her to hug him close despite the amount of grime he was wearing. She didn’t let go for at least a minute. 

“You okay?” she asked once she stepped back to take a good look at him, her sharp eyes quick to notice the tears in his uniform, all the spots that a Malform had scored a hit; the wounds were long healed, and thankfully he was covered in enough gore that no one would notice that some of the blood was his own. 

“I’m…” Why was it so difficult to lie to her? He sighed and closed his eyes, his forehead resting against hers. He kept his eyes closed as he mouthed one word, ‘Bertolt’. He could feel the shock as it moved through her body, the way it tensed up in a fight or flight reaction. 

“Are you certain?” 

“Yeah.” He forced open his tired eyes and gave her a sad smile. “So if he’s here….”

If he was here, then that meant it was more than likely the rest of the trio were, too. 

******* 

Levi shuffled over to his desk, a pot of hot tea held carefully in his hands; Hange had looked at his wounds, shocked at how well the Malform bite on his leg in particular was healing. He’d felt the teeth tearing into him and knew it was deep and nasty, knew that a wound like that would take weeks to heal even with the aid of medical nanos to clean it and keep the remaining vessels going. Yet Eren’s blood had sped up the process so much that he’d be out only a matter of days, if that. Levi had lied to Hange and said that the bite wasn’t too bad, but he knew his friend wasn’t buying it. However, she merely gave him a knowing look, patched him up and told him they’d talk about it later.

Dammit, he *hated* it when the crazy bitch pulled this ‘understanding’ shit, it just meant that Hange would wait until his guard was down and then wring every last bit of information out of him. She’d use the time until then to gather all of the data she could and *nail* his ass with it. Manipulative, insane, shitty glasses….

He’d just set the pot of tea down when there was a tentative knock on the door. Careful to not put too much pressure on his left leg when he turned around, he went to let Eren in.

The brat was dressed in the Corps’ ‘casual’ outfit of white pants and a grey pullover, the laces left undone. His hair was damp as if he hadn’t bothered to do more than run a towel over it after getting out of the shower – hell, the kid didn’t seem to do more than run his fingers through his hair, either. The highly tousled strands framed his face, a few of them falling into his luminous eyes which were wide as they stared back at Levi.

“Uhm, are you sure I should be here?” He peered warily into the room as if it were some sort of trap.

“Why shouldn’t you?” Levi shrugged before hobbling back to his desk.

“But, you look as if you want to be alone.” Eren hovered next to the closed door. “Captain.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, I’m not in uniform all damn day.” Levi glared at the brat while he settled in the chair. “And I drank your shitty blood, I think you can call me ‘Levi’ while we’re in private.” He didn’t understand what the big deal was about him sitting here in a pair of black pants, a white shirt and a black cardigan. Wasn’t as if he was parading around in just his boxers.

Eren hovered near the door for a few more seconds before letting out a slow breath and creeping toward the desk. “I keep waiting to get my ass kicked or something.”

“Give me a day or two to get back in fighting form, first. Now, tea?”

His answer managed to wring a smile from the brat. “When you put it that way, it makes sense. And yes, please.” Eren sat down in the chair positioned in front of the desk and seemed to relax, though his eyes retained a hint of wariness. “I don’t think I’ve seen you out of uniform before.”

Levi clicked his tongue while he poured the tea. “I wasn’t born in the damn thing. And with the way they’ve been destroyed since I’ve met you, I’ll be running around in my robe pretty soon.” He glared at the brat as he handed over a tea cup.

A spark of interest lit up Eren’s face as he accepted the beverage, making him appear more than his usual jailbait self. “That might actually be fun to see. Imagine the Malform wouldn’t know what to do with you flying through the air at them, robe flapping in the breeze and mooning them as you chop off their heads.” His golden eyes sparkled over the rim of his cup when he took a sip. “Oh, this is good,” he moaned a moment later.

“Of course it is,” Levi scoffed as he forced himself to look away from the ‘kid’. “And don’t think I’m not going to kick your ass for that nonsense. *Such* a brat.” He tsk’ed while settling back into his own chair while holding his own cup of tea.

“Yeah, yeah, do it after I finish my tea.” Eren made happy little noises while he continued to drink. “Oh, speaking of kicking ass, how’s the leg?”

It was nice to find another tea-lover, since Levi now knew how to bribe the brat. “I’m very pleased to report that you’ll be drained dry once Hange makes the connection between you and how I’m healing so quickly.” He gave Eren an evil grin when he paled beneath what seemed to be a natural tan. “Yeah, thought that’d make you happy. Meanwhile, I’m delighted to say that most of my injuries are nothing more than scratches now, and the bite’ll probably be gone in a couple of days.” Levi finished his tea and set the cup aside. “No side effects, *right*?” Other than feeling better than he ever had after a nasty battle with Malforms, he didn’t notice anything different about himself.

“I told you, nothing.” Eren scowled for a moment, failing so adorably at trying to appear bad-ass. “We wouldn’t use our blood like that if there were – do you think Ymir would allow Krista to drink it?”

The snarky bitch did seem to have it bad for the blonde… “It’s a pretty good argument, I’ll admit. But if I grow fangs tonight, I’m-“

“You’re kicking my ass. Sheesh, your threats are rather lame, you know?” Eren huffed out a breath, causing his long bangs to pop up in the air before falling back into those mesmerizing eyes of his.

“Because it’s not the words you need to look out for, but my foot connecting with your foolish head.” Levi bared his teeth in a ‘grin’ at the idiot. “Now that we’ve settled that particularly gross topic, on to the amusing other things that happened at the park.” He lifted the teapot and waited for Eren to hold up his cup to be refilled. Once they both fixed their tea, he leaned back in his chair, his cup held between his fingertips. “How did everyone turn so quickly?”

“Glad I don’t have much of an appetite,” Eren muttered against the rim of the porcelain teacup. He took a long sip before setting it aside, showing appropriate concern for its delicateness. “Look, it’s important to remember what Ymir said about her and the last pureblood. Mikasa and I don’t know too much about vampires because we’re not ones,” his eyes flashed as he spoke the words a bit too harshly, as if being too insistent about the topic, “and we’ve spent a good bit of our lives running *from* them. But we’ve picked up information here and there. From what we’ve gathered, purebloods had the best chance of turning people into other vampires.”

Levi made a tsk’ing sound, annoyed that he wasn’t getting a straight, simple answer. “Will you be getting to the point sometime tonight?”

Eren glared at him, his hands clenched into fists as if annoyed that he wasn’t being taken seriously. “There *isn’t* a straight, simple answer when it comes to vampires, get used to it,” he snapped. Then he took a deep breath before he continued. “Anyway, she’s mostly responsible for the death of the last one. Then things got all messed up – the environment, humans with their diseases and what they were putting into their bodies – something happened and the majority of vampires turned after that ended up being mutated, they’re what we call the Malform. From what we know, the remaining true vampires are either very old or are like a one in a million chance of someone being turned the ‘right’ way.”

“So vampires could theoretically still turn people…”

“But most of the time – almost *all* of the time – they’ll end up as Malform,” Eren agreed as he leaned forward in the chair. “Ymir *could* try to turn Krista, but the odds aren’t in her favor. She’d almost certainly turn into a Malform.”

Levi was understanding why the vampires wanted Eren so badly, and not only because of the whole sunlight thing. “But you turned Mikasa and she was fine.”

“Yeah.” Eren’s expression became strained and he took to playing with his hair again. “I mean, maybe the next person I turn won’t be fine, but I’m still mostly human and so is Mikasa, there’s no reason to suspect that the serum won’t continue to work. Especially since Grisha implied that it would.” He gave his head a quick shake. “Anyway, back to the vampires. So whomever they turn will most likely be Malform. They’re pretty good about not leaving any evidence behind – they have to be if they’re living among humans, but if they do let their victims turn, then those Malform are stronger and faster than the others. They also have a faster infection rate. It dissipates over time – their own progeny are a little weaker, they can’t infect as quickly, so on and so forth, but the first and second generation are usually a nightmares to fight. It’s why they were able to overwhelm mankind so quickly during the solar flares.”

Oh, Hange was going to *love* hearing about this – and insist upon getting her hands on one of those undead fuckers like the insane psycho she was. Levi rubbed his face with his left hand and wondered if he could get Erwin to agree to tranqing the hyper bitch after she was told the news. That or let Mike handle her for the next few days. “So you’re basically saying that vampires made the Malform we were fighting today.” As if he didn’t have enough reasons to hunt down and kill the undead assholes.

“Hmm, that would be it.” Eren picked up his teacup and drained it in a couple of swallows. “One of them was even there right before it started – that was him you heard roaring. Somehow, whenever they do that it draws the Malform out of hiding and makes them berserk.”

“Great, so they know how to do a Malform dinner call.” Levi felt a headache coming on – this brat should have a warning label slapped on his forehead. “You know how to do anything like that?”

Eren’s eyes went wide and he slumped back in his chair. “Control the Malform? No! I’ve never tried to do anything but eat or kill them! I’ve just been happy that most times, my presence drives the bastards away!”

“Relax, there’s no reason to get your panties in such a twist,” Levi told the brat. “Just saying it would be good if you knew something like that. You share a lot of the same characteristics, after all.”

The kid sat there and scowled as if he’d offended him, but he kept his mouth shut and appeared to be thinking it through for a minute or two. “I wouldn’t even know where to start. Maybe Ymir might have an idea.”

“It’s worth a shot.” Levi didn’t point out that Ymir would probably demand something in return for helping out Eren, such as that favor for Krista; he really didn’t see how Eren was going to squirm his way out of that for much longer. Oh well, it wasn’t like it was his problem, not unless Mikasa took it into her fool head to go after the manipulative vampire. Then Erwin would probably insist he separate the two….

The room was quiet for a couple of minutes, him sitting there thinking about how ridiculous his life had become lately and Eren probably trying to figure out how to approach Ymir without becoming the woman’s bitch.  It surprised Levi, how comfortable this was – normally he just wanted to be alone at night to drink his tea and deal with the endless paperwork. Yet Eren could be quiet, could put away the attitude and snark as he’d proven last night, silent until some random thought crossed Levi’s mind that he found himself willing to share. He had enjoyed that surprisingly easy companionship, that comforting warmth soaking into his side…

All of a sudden, the quiet was too much. “So tell me, how old is your friend, Armin? He can’t be just eighteen or so.” Levi watched Eren closely to see how the brat would react, wanting to break the peacefulness of the room.

Eren stilled for a moment before he rose from the chair and then half turned while looking at Levi. “What makes you think he’s any older than he appears?” There was a friendly, innocuous half-smile on his attractive face, a smile that had probably fooled thousands of people over the years. No – much more than that.

“Because I can’t see some kid without any formal schooling being smarter than Hange,” Levi huffed. “Even if he is brilliant. She’s devoted her life to science.”

The explanation earned him a nonchalant shrug. “So what if he didn’t go to any school? Mikasa and I picked up a lot of knowledge over the years.”

“Yeah, and you’ve admitted to spending a lot of time just trying to survive, too. How long have you been feeding him your blood?”

There was a bit of added luminescence to Eren’s golden eyes, as well as some heat to his words when he spoke. “I’d rather you didn’t pursue this line of questioning. We’re talking about Armin’s life – it’s his decision to come forward about it.”

Levi considered that for a few seconds. “Why don’t you just turn him?”

He thought that maybe he’d pushed too far, judging from the way Eren’s lithe body tensed at the question, but a couple of seconds later it relaxed as Eren let out a quick, sharp breath. “Because he’s not the type to be turned.” The decisive way he answered made it clear that the brat had put a lot of consideration into the matter. “He’s of too much value to the living, with that mind of his.”

‘The living’. Something bitter inside of Levi twisted upon hearing that. He ran his fingers along the fragile porcelain of his tea cup and frowned. “I’d think he’d be of more value to them if he could live for centuries, putting that precious brain of his to use.” A hint of sarcasm crept into his voice.

Eren turned fully to face him, his expression tinged with sadness and his hands fidgeting with his hair, combing through it and tucking it back. “Not really. There’s a lot of death involved with living so long, and we – Mikasa and I – don’t want that for Armin. It would change him too much.” The sadness deepened, darkened those beautiful eyes of his. “We don’t want to see what would happen to that mind of his if it became warped with death – we *have* seen something like it, and humanity’s been through enough. It’s best that he lives long enough to find Grisha’s research and do something with it.” There was a sense of finality to his words, a sign that he wouldn’t change his stance on the topic.

At least someone knew where to draw a line in this fucked up world. “And what about you? Do you ever regret what Grisha did to you?” There were days that Levi certainly regretted being the one left to survive, yet he still kept going.

That sad smile returned, along with some of the light to Eren’s eyes. “Me? What’s to regret? This life means that there’s always death around me, but if there’s one thing I’ve accepted over the years, it’s that the death was always there in the first place. I just have to turn it around, to make it matter somehow and protect the ones I love. Then I have meaning.” He didn’t wait for Levi to ask any more questions, he just nodded in goodbye and left, quiet as a shadow while Levi stared at the delicate tea cup on the desk before him.

Eren’s final words reverberated inside Levi’s head as he stared into the empty cup. For so long, death seemed to define his world, too. The deaths of those he cared for, the deaths of those who sought to tear him down, the deaths of those shitty undead and the poor bastards he couldn’t save. Eren was right in that the only sense of victory to be gained was in keeping those he’d allowed in, those he’d taken on as his own, safe. Who would have thought that he and an ageless, blood-sucking brat would have so much in common?

He forced himself to stand up and carry the dirty cups and teapot over to the sink so he could wash them before preparing for bed, mind busy thinking about everything that Eren had told him tonight. It would be another fun morning chat with Erwin, but at least he could sit back and watch while that conniving bastard was unleashed on the plotting vampires.

Figuring that he’d get a couple of hours sleep before waking up and tackling his paperwork, Levi lay down in bed, mind haunted by the image of luminous golden eyes shadowed by sorrow.

*******

Mikasa hurried after Captain Hange, annoyed at how quickly the quirky woman walked. She certainly put those long legs to good use, and could babble on and on about useless things at the same time. “-structure is rather bland, isn’t it? I mean, I’ve read about the various styles pre-collapse and must say I’m very impressed! So many famous architects! So many different creative styles! Imagine making a home out of paper and wood with no nails whatsoever.” She turned to look at Mikasa. “Did you ever live in a home of paper and wood? Pre-collapse, I mean.” 

“Uhm, I lived in an apartment building, two refurbished farmhouses and then a condo. Lots of nails, I believe.” 

“Oh. Well, I believe it was your ethnicity that favored the wood and paper.” Hange appeared disappointed to have her theory shot down. “You did say that your mother was-“

Mikasa had reached her limit of what appeared to be senseless questions and tangents. “Captain, *what* are we doing out here?”  

The insane woman slowed down for a few steps and blinked a few times, appearing as if an owl with her eyes enlarged by the thick glasses. “What, I didn’t tell you?” 

“No, you did not,” Mikasa gritted out through her teeth. “You just told me to ‘come’.” As if she was a dog. 

“Oh.” Hange blinked a few more times. “Well, we’re meeting up with Anka Rheinberger from the Engineers. She’d like our opinion on the Malform using the sewers yesterday.” 

The explanation was a bit surprising – it was better than going on some silly errand for scientific equipment or the captain seeing how Mikasa would react to shopping or ‘outside stimuli’. Still, she’d rather be at the base, where Eren was, in case there was trouble. “Do you do this often, working with the Engineers?” 

Captain Hange made a low, humming sound for a few seconds. “We haven’t so much in the past, but Commander Pixis and Erwin are good at thinking outside of the box and feel it’s pointless, this whole group rivalry thing. Both of them are big on doing whatever is necessary for the benefit of mankind, and they believe in pooling resources to do just that.” She sounded so serious just then, until she clapped her hands and laughed. “So that means we get to work together and find out fun new things!” 

All right. “So I’m here with you… why exactly?” If this had something to do with Eren revealing to Captain Ackerman the location of the tunnels, she would fillet that short bastard. 

“Because you should know more than anyone about the structure of the domes, right?” Captain Hange turned serious once again. “I mean, you’ve been around them… how long?” She stared pointedly at Mikasa until she had to squirm in discomfort. “Not to mention the whole Malform thing.”

“You may have a point.” She let her chin drop and her hair hang forward to hide her face, which seemed to signal to the scientist that she didn’t wish to talk anymore until they reached their destination.  

They found the female Engineer not too far from the park where the Malform had attacked the day before, dressed in dark green and grey overalls bearing the symbol of a quartered shield emblazoned with roses on the back. She smiled when she saw Captain Hange, the expression cooling a little when she noticed Mikasa. “I would have thought that you’d bring Mike or Moblit along.”

“No, this is someone even better!” Captain Hange laughed as she motioned toward Mikasa. “This is Mikasa Stieger, one of our newest members. She’s somewhat of a history and Malform specialist.” 

“Oh.” Anka smiled as she held out her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” 

“Likewise.” Mikasa shook her hand and was comforted by how strong it was, the feel of callouses that came from hard work. “So, what are you doing here?” 

“We’re looking into the sewers to try and figure out how so many Malforms were able to attack an open space without drawing any attention beforehand.” She motioned toward an open drain, where faint voices could be heard floating up out of the small portal. “We’ve found some evidence of them being down there within a block radius of the park, now if only we can track their progress beneath the dome to a possible nest or even one of the infamous tunnel exits.” 

That wasn’t going to happen – Mikasa had never come across a tunnel network that was tied into a dome’s sewer system, which was probably why the Malform had used the sewers yesterday. There was just too much of a chance of humans stumbling across the tunnels if they were part of the sewers, as sewers needed regular maintenance. “I’d be careful to search in large enough teams,” she warned. “If you do come across any Malform, they will most likely be wounded.” Any Malform left behind in the sewers would probably be too wounded to escape very far… or ones deliberately left there as ‘traps’. 

Anka nodded. “We’ll keep that in mind. The last thing we want is to give them any more casualties after yesterday.” For a moment, the woman’s pretty face hardened into something dark. 

“Another thing to consider is that Trost is one of the older domes. That usually means they built new sewers on top of the older, less effective ones.” Mikasa decided that it wouldn’t hurt to give the Engineers a bit of a warning, especially if the others were using the sewers. “I’d look for any unmarked panels that don’t match up on your blueprints, or odd seams and weldings. They should lead to the lower levels.” 

Both Captain Hange and Anka stared at her in shock, causing her to tug up her scarf in unease at the attention. “I… hadn’t thought of that,” Anka said, her tone subdued. Then she shook herself and pulled out a datapad, which she began to type into at a furious pace. “Lower levels. Of course. We tend to think of what’s there to be it.” 

Mikasa stood there and watched while the two women studied the datapad for several minutes, acting excited about several points on what seemed to be digital blueprints. The Engineers’ operation drew the attention of people out and about that day, mostly those single people busy going to some destination as the loss of so many children appeared to have spooked families and kept them indoors. 

It was easy to recognize the MP uniform from a distance, so Mikasa was willing to ignore the two women sauntering forward at a slow pace, checking this and that along the quiet street. Then a peculiar scent teased at her memory, making her heart pound in her chest and her breath catch in her throat. Her spine straightened as she snapped her head in the direction of the pair, doing her best to keep control of herself while her attention zeroed in on the shorter of the two, the one with her straight blonde hair pulled back in a low ponytail. 

“Hey, you Mudders find anything interesting down there,” the one with the wavy light brown called out, her voice heavy with sarcasm. “Other than a bunch of shit and roaches?” 

Anka scowled at the young woman while she tucked away her datapad. “Is there something I can do to help you?” Even though the words were polite, she spoke with enough of a chill to make it clear that the two MPs were unwanted there. 

The young woman with the wavy hair wrinkled her nose. “I hope not, if you’ve been playing in shit. Right, Annie?” She glanced at her partner, a cruel grin on her face, then frowned when she noticed that the other girl was busy staring at Mikasa. “Annie?” 

Mikasa stared back, desperate not to react, to not give in to the urge to lash out, to tear into a hated enemy before it had a chance to follow her back and harm Eren. No, don’t give the bitch the satisfaction, she told herself. Judging from the pleased grin on Annie’s sharp face, the back-stabbing bitch knew what was going through her head. 

“Let them play in the sewers if it makes them happy. *We* know the fun stuff’s up here, *right*? Just takes a little time and effort to find it, but it’ll be worth it in the end.” Annie lifted her left hand to her lips as if to wipe them clean and brushed a golden ring, one bearing a stone of amber the color of Eren’s eyes, against them. 

“Uhh… whatever.” The sarcastic one shrugged and followed Annie as she walked away. “Have fun playing in the filth,” she called out as they left. 

Mikasa forced herself to breathe, to control herself, to remain still. Don’t give in, don’t let Annie control you anymore than she already has, she repeated again and again until the vampire was out of her sight. Only then did she allow her body to react, to turn away swiftly and walk in the other direction, leaving Captain Hange behind, until she found the nearest alley where she could punch a wall with all her might and scream out her frustration.  

She was still struggling with her fear and anger when Captain Hange approached with caution. “Ah, is everything all right?” 

Wasn’t the answer obvious? Wishing that Eren was here, Mikasa wiped at her eyes before she answered. “Not really.”

“Yeah, I sorta guessed that.” Captain Hange slowly approached a little closer and leaned against the wall about a foot away, her eyes drawn to Mikasa’s bloody but mostly healed hand. “So, have a problem with MPs?” 

That was one way of putting it. Mikasa felt a small, strangled laugh escape from her. “You might say that, though it’s really one in particular.” She forced herself to meet the captain’s eyes. “The short one with the ponytail.” 

“Hmm, you mean the one whom Levi wouldn’t want to kill in an instant?” 

“I don’t know about that.” Mikasa wiped at the drying blood on her hand. “She’s a vampire.” 

Captain Hange snapped to full attention. “What? You mean one of them is in the MPs?” She snatched at her notepad and started to write quickly. 

“It’s even worse, because Eren and I know her very well. If she’s here, then there’s at least two others, and I’m willing to bet one or both are in the MPs with her.” She thought about Bertolt and Reiner as her fist clenched. “They’re usually a matched set.” 

The captain’s pen stilled for a moment. “Know each other well, eh? So a bit of history. That’s not good.” 

“No, because that means they’ll use that knowledge to come after Eren however they can.” And now they knew *where* Eren was. Mikasa clutched at her scarf. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence, them being here while we are.” Somehow, they’d tracked them down and were determined to get to him. There was no way that Mikasa was ever going to let that happen. Not while she drew breath, not while she had an ounce of strength left in her. 

“I see.” Captain Hange’s expression lost all of its usual jovialness as she tucked away her notebook. “Well, let’s tell Anka that we need to get back to the base. Erwin and Levi need to know that the enemy has infiltrated the MPs so they can get started on the battle plans.” She didn’t wait for Mikasa as she headed toward the street. 

Mikasa stared after her for several seconds; she had followed Eren and Armin into the Freedom Corps because they thought it was a good idea, willing to go along for the sake of the group. For the first time, she was beginning to see the logic in their decision, in how perhaps they were right in there being strength in numbers. If they had indeed found allies willing to stand beside them… well, she’d hold off on killing the short bastard for a little longer.

*******

 

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