chapter fifteen

*******

looking too closely

*******

Eren continued to watch Levi hesitate to sit for a few seconds before he gestured about to the roof. “It’s a pretty big surface – I can always go sit somewhere else if you like.” 

It seemed like it took the man a little bit to figure out what Eren was referring to, since Levi continued to frown for a moment before shaking his head. “No, it’s okay. Should have figured that you’d be up here anyway.” He surprised Eren by reaching into the back of the black pants he was wearing to pull out what appeared to be a folded bit of cloth and began to unfurl it, until he had a large enough square of fabric that he could sit upon. The bastard really was a clean freak, Eren thought to himself, watching as the man smoothed out the material a couple of feet away from him until it met some internal standard and then sat down on it. Levi still appeared tired, his handsome face bearing lines of exhaustion that normally weren’t apparent, the dark circles of fatigue more pronounced beneath his eyes and his shoulders slumped forward. Instead of the Freedom Corps uniform, he was dressed in a white t-shirt and an overlarge grey sweater a few shades darker than his eyes. 

“I needed a break from everyone,” Eren tried to explain as he hugged his knees to his chest. “It’s just…” How did you put into words that after so many years of seeing the people around you die, you got so tired of dealing with the living? Of wondering who would be next to be gone?

Levi grunted as he rested his left elbow on his knee and then propped his chin up on his left hand. “It’s so damn annoying, how everyone reacts right about now. If I hear one more moron tell me how sorry they are, I’m going to kick their head in.” 

Eren couldn’t help but chuckle upon hearing that, and earned a sullen glare as a result. “Sor – uhm, I thought that threat was reserved for me.” 

Levi continued to glare for a few more seconds before shaking his head, a hint of a smile on his thin lips. “You’re not quite that special, brat.” He took to staring out across the base’s courtyard as some of the tension eased from his shoulders. “I should be used to this by now – sending messages to their family, dealing with the rest of the squad, training their replacements…” 

“You never get used to it.” Eren rested his chin upon his knees and closed his eyes for a few seconds. “At least, I’d worry about it if you did. But I’ve lived… sometimes I think I’ve lived too long,” he admitted in a quiet voice as he felt each and every one of those years weighing upon him, as suddenly his skin became so tight and his joints ached too much to move. Psychosomatic, was what Armin called it, something that was in Eren’s mind and not his body, but he swore sometimes that his age really did press upon him. “And each time a death like this makes me wonder why Mikasa and I don’t just stay far away from everyone else.” It was funny – it never weighed him down when *he* was the one doing the killing. Maybe someday he’d find a shrink who wouldn’t be freaked out by his mere existence and uncover a reason for that fact. 

“I thought you said that death was a part of your life.” Levi didn’t come across as derisive; he twisted about enough to give Eren his full attention, his chin still propped up on his hand and his eyes more heavy-lidded than normal. 

“It is.” Eren ran his right hand through his hair until it rested against the back of his neck. “I just don’t accept it when someone dies because of me.” When it appeared as if Levi was going to say something, Eren shook his head. “Don’t – you think Gunther would still be dead tonight if Mikasa and I hadn’t come to this dome? If we had fled as soon as we realized that the others were here and searching for us?” He struggled to keep his voice down, aware that sound could carry below. 

Levi continued to regard him for a minute or two, barely moving during that time except to blink and breathe. “I think we’re all living on borrowed time, in the Corps.” He let out a slow breath and rubbed his free hand along the shaved part of his hair, his head bowed as if he had given in to the exhaustion just then. “I think that Gunther wouldn’t be blaming you right now, if he could say anything.” 

“Yeah.” Eren had heard something similar over the years – from Mikasa, from Armin, from people he’d considered friends and acquaintances… he still felt guilty as hell for what he saw as blood on his hands. What it came down to was the fact that the others killed whomever they viewed as being close to Eren and Mikasa, either as a means to extract information or as a warning, or even just to hurt them or break them. 

Levi let out another long breath, the end of it sounding a bit like a twisted, broken laugh. “Besides, it was my call tonight. I chose to take him out with us, I let him deal with that big vampire on his own. Think the blame lands on me.”

Recalling how broken, how worn down Levi had been earlier tonight, Eren knew that the man was shouldering all the blame. He shifted onto his knees to face him and shook his head. “No – Gunther chose to do that all by himself. Your team is really good, Levi. Don’t sell them short. They’re not going to just stand there doing nothing if there’s a challenge to face.” He thought back to the day’s practice session. “I don’t think anyone in the Freedom Corps is just going to do nothing if they come across those three.” He slumped back onto his heels and ran his fingers over his gauntlet. “That’s why maybe it was a mistake that-“

He was startled when Levi reached over to grab hold of his ruined and filthy jacket. “What, that it was a mistake that you joined us? That you thought we could fight together?” Levi’s grey eyes blazed with anger and he gave Eren a rough shake. “Don’t insult us like that. Maybe we’re just puny humans, but we’re not useless!”

“But isn’t that what you’re saying about Gunther,” Eren pointed out, his hands rising up to grasp Levi’s. “Aren’t you sitting here taking the blame for him, taking away his choices, his ability to fight?” When Levi stared at him in shock, Eren slumped forward until his head rested against the captain’s right shoulder. “Look, all I know is that I’m so tired of the people around me being killed while I live on. I want it to end – I want to kill those bastards and I want some peace for Mikasa and myself, for Armin to live up to his potential. I don’t even know if I care about the rest of the world at this point.”

“And you feel that we’re just going to keep on dying?”

The anger had returned to Levi’s deep voice, forcing Eren to glance up. He gazed into those grey eyes, eyes that could be so cold yet searing at the same time, and wondered why the thought of Reiner or Annie killing *this* man hurt so damn much. “Yeah, I do. Tonight brought that fact home. Maybe I didn’t think it through back then, maybe I already saw you guys dying in that market and thought it would be fine, but I know you now.” He knew *Levi*, and it was a matter of time before the trio managed to kill the annoying bastard, no matter that he was the Freedom Corps’ best fighter.

Levi made that tsk’ing sound of his, which was really starting to annoy Eren, and let go of Eren’s jacket as if it disgusted him – which was probably the truth considering its ratty state. “At least we’re doing something other than running, you shitty little brat. You think I’m afraid of dying? It’s a reality that’s stared me in the face since I was a kid. At least this way I’m doing it on my own terms and for some damn reason.” He sneered at Eren as he pressed his hand against Eren’s chest, right against the spot where the bag which held the key to the safety deposit box and the diamond ring rested. “You running away for any other reason than you’re afraid?”

Angered by the taunt, it was Eren’s turn to grab hold and pull the asshole in close. “No, I want to run away to *save* some lives, you stupid bastard. Didn’t you hear Reiner back there? If I stay, they’re only going to keep going after you guys!”

“And you really think that if you run that they’ll leave us alone? That they won’t pull a Ragako or Utgard to show you what happens if you don’t stay so they can catch your dumb ass all the quicker?”

The question caught Eren off-guard; his hands clenched in Levi’s white shirt, the material soft and warm beneath his fingers. “I…” He hadn’t considered that option, not when any other time the trio and their brethren had chased after him and Mikasa. Yet this time… this time the vampires did seem determined as hell to catch them one way or another. “You don’t know that for certain,” he answered, his voice sounding weak even to his own ears.

“Yeah, it’s just my life and everyone else’s you’re gambling with if you’re wrong.” Levi reached out to grab a handful of Eren’s hair and gave it a sharp tug. “Is there a working brain in here or just shit?”

“Dammit, I’m trying to keep people from dying! That’s always involved fighting or running in the past, not-“

“Not thinking, obviously,” Levi finished for him in a succinct manner, his fingers still tangled in Eren’s hair. “I can see why you’re counting on Armin so much to get those answers for you.”

Eren wanted to strangle the smug bastard just then – screw Reiner getting the chance to kill him. “Like you can do that much better? Seems to me that your answer to everything is kick it in the head, not apply reason,” he spat out through clenched teeth. “You think that’s going to work in this situation? Try that with Annie and she’ll snap your legs in half before she twists off your head.”

Levi gave him a narrowed look for several seconds, his pale skin glowing as the lights above them dimmed. “Why do you care so much? I’m just going to die on you in one way or another.”

Yes, he would. If Annie or the others didn’t get him, some Malform probably would one day when Levi eventually let slip his guard or began to slow down due to age or injuries. On the chance that the man didn’t die while fighting the undead, then old age or illness awaited him, the same fate as the rest of humanity. Eren had seen it happen so many times before – well, he’d stood back and glimpsed it from afar as he’d moved on, as he’d always done and come back decades or even centuries later…. The mere thought of death taking Levi away from him made his chest seize in agony and a gasp catch in his throat, made him jerk the bastard forward as he closed his eyes and pressed their lips together.

At first he wasn’t truly aware of what he’d just done, his body moving on automatic as he sought to push away the pain with something better, with something that would drive away the bad and make him forget things for a while. Sex was good, was a way to shut off his mind and shut out the world for a little while, and he *wanted* Levi. He didn’t think he realized just how much he really wanted Levi until he tasted the man, until he felt the rough lips part against his and that hand tighten even more in his hair. Moaning in desire, Eren shifted forward in desperation until he was on Levi’s lap so he could deepen the kiss, his tongue seeking forward into Levi’s mouth, his fingers sliding along the undercut of Levi’s hair to the neatly razored part beneath. He was just grasped roughly around the waist and pulled tight against Levi’s muscular body when just as quickly he was shoved away, falling backwards onto the roof to land hard on his ass.

“What the hell!” Eren fumbled to sit up, his abraded hands already healing.

“That’s what I want to know!” Levi scrambled to his feet while he wiped at his mouth with the back of his right hand as if to clean it, his eyes narrowed once more. “What, there’s no shitty vampires around here so you figure it’s time to move on to something new? Want another notch in your belt so you’re tackling Corps’ captains now?” He almost sounded hysterical with the way he was spitting out the venomous words, but there was too much spite in them for that. “After you fuck me are you heading down to Erwin’s office to give him a go, too? Or you saving him until you make your way through all of the captains first? Is Hange lucky enough to-”

Eren stared up at the asshole for a few seconds and let the verbal abuse spill out, too stunned to do anything but take it. While Levi ranted on, he braced himself, his anger building with each word, with each second that judgmental look continued, until he had enough. Without any warning he pounced, pulling back just enough with his strength to keep from breaking the bastard’s neck as he punched Levi in the face. “Go to *hell*,” he told him as he continued past, not looking back as he heard the bastard hit the roof from the impact of the blow.

Uncaring if anyone saw him, he leapt over the edge of the roof and dropped down, using his claws at the last minute to slow his descent. Once on the ground, he stalked into the building, doing his best to regain control of himself before he completely ‘fanged’ out. He had to flex his claws a few times before they would entirely retract, and he could still feel his fangs if he pressed his tongue against his teeth – it was a good thing that it was late enough that the hallways were mostly deserted.

Returning to the common room which housed the newer recruits, he wasn’t surprised to find most of them now asleep – what did puzzle him was that Mikasa’s bed was empty, as was Armin’s. He continued past the bunk beds to the ‘living area’ set aside for lounging around, a cluster of couches and low tables where everyone congregated to talk or share entertainment on their datapads. Still up for the night were Mikasa, Armin, Krista and Ymir, talking in hushed voices so they didn’t wake anyone else.

“Ah, so the anti-social one returns,” Armin commented when Eren joined them. “Haven’t you taken a shower yet?”

Suddenly aware that he was still wearing his ruined uniform, Eren shrugged and removed his torn jacket. “In a little bit.” He dropped it to the floor and then knelt beside it, his head level with Mikasa’s lap. “Why are you still up?” Mikasa and Ymir still being awake, he could understand, but Armin and Krista? He leaned against Mikasa’s leg and almost purred when she began to comb her fingers through his tangled hair.

“We’re too tired to sleep.” Armin shook his head when Eren rolled his eyes at the old saying. “A lot’s happened today. Maybe we’re just trying to take it all in.” He had circles under his blue eyes and his face appeared a bit pinched.

“That’s no excuse to not sleep, especially after you….” Eren motioned to his left wrist with his right hand, where he could still see a slight bruise on his friend’s arm.

“Hmm, I was just returning the favor.” Armin rubbed at his wrist and shook his head again. “I’m okay. What’s going on with you? We didn’t think we’d see you until morning.”

“Yes, why are you back so soon?” Mikasa, her fingers still busy stroking through Eren’s hair, used them to tug him closer so she could sniff at his neck. “And why do you smell so strongly of the Short Bastard?”

Why was this all about him so suddenly? Feeling some of his anger from before returning, Eren groaned and rubbed at his face with his left hand, which prompted Mikasa to let go of his hair.

“Eren?”

“Oh, he’s blushing! Something tells me that Rebel has a story to tell!”

“Fuck you, Ymir.” Eren dropped his hand so he could glare in the pest’s direction, and then turned the look at a smirking Armin. “And fuck *you*, too.”

“What?” Armin struggled a moment to sit up straighter in the couch, where he’d been lounging against the corner just a moment earlier. “Why me?”

“Because it was *you* who said that the man liked me! Your bright idea that I should *emotionally grow up* and have a *relationship* with him.” As Eren spoke, Mikasa first gasped and then went incredibly still, while Ymir’s jaw dropped and Krista’s blue eyes grew wider while she glanced back and forth between Eren, Armin and Mikasa. “So yeah, it’s *your* fucking fault when I kiss the guy and he basically calls me the world’s biggest slut who’s only trying to fuck him since there’s no vampires around and I need to check off my ‘let’s screw the entire Freedom Corps’ scorecard!” Eren was hissing toward the end in an effort to keep from waking up the entire room.

Armin stared at him for several seconds after the tirade, his expression inscrutable, and then he huffed. “Wow, go figure. He really is even more of an emotional idiot than you are.”

Only Mikasa’s quick grab at the back of Eren’s shirt kept Eren from throttling his dear friend just then. “I’ll show you-“

Ymir’s braying laugh cut off Eren’s tirade before it could really start. “Yeah, but Eren, you *are* a slut!” She laughed some more, tucked into the opposite corner of a couch than Armin with a sleepy-looking Krista held in her arms. “I mean, you’re willing to screw just about any guy if the price is right, and any cute guy for free. I sure as hell haven’t heard you complain about the label be-“

Krista twisted around to look up at her girlfriend while grabbing onto the arms that were wrapped around her waist. “Uhm, Ymir?”

“-not now, sweetie, I’m talking to Eren about how-“

“*Yes*, now.” A very displeased look came over her pretty face, and Ymir finally seemed to realize that Krista no longer seemed happy. When Ymir glanced down at her, Krista continued. “I think it’s a good idea to refrain your comments to when you only have something constructive and polite to say.”

“But you don’t understand, I’ve known Eren for a very long time and over those years, he’s slept with a *lot* of men. I mean, we’re talking about a *lot*. He should be teaching classes, he’s such a sl-“

This time, Krista reached up to grab onto her lover’s jaw to reinforce her point. “Now, I don’t happen to find this as something terribly constructive or polite, do you,” she asked in almost as scary a voice as Mikasa, with a *too* cheerful grin on her face. “No, it isn’t. So I suggest you sit here and listen until you do have something polite and helpful to say, all right?” Then she released her hold on her now suitably cowed girlfriend.

Wow, maybe it would be worth it to turn the girl if she could keep Ymir in check like that, Eren thought to himself.

“I can’t believe that Captain Ackerman would be such an asshole.” Armin tugged at the sleeves of his light grey jersey until they covered his hands. “What were you guys doing to lead up to the kiss?”

Eren sighed and tucked back the strands of hair falling onto his face, missing Mikasa’s touch from before – his sister now was sitting very still on the couch. “He came up to the roof to get some peace and quiet but ended up staying when he saw me. We talked a bit about Gunther’s death and stuff, and… I don’t know, I guess a part of me hated the thought of something bad happening to him and I just reacted to it. He seemed into it for a few seconds, and the next thing I know he’s shoving me away and insulting the hell out of me. So I punched him and left.”

Armin winced upon hearing that last bit, while Ymir resumed smirking and Krista buried her face in her hands. “Eren… you really need to learn to control your temper,” Armin proclaimed with a slight moan.

“But he deserved it!”

“Yeah, he did, but he’s also your superior officer.” Armin looked as if he wanted to say more than that, but gave up after a few seconds and shook his head.

A bit surprised that his sister was being so quiet, Eren tilted his head back to see her reaction to the news, and frowned when he saw that she was still sitting there perfectly still. “Mikasa?”

She didn’t answer him, and a moment later she stood up in a rush and began to walk away.

“Mikasa?”

“I’ll be back.”

“Where are you going?” Armin reached out to grab her arm.

“To kill the Short Bastard,” she told him without looking down.

Oh *hell* no, this was not what they needed just then. Eren scrambled to his feet the same time that Armin did, and reached his sister in time to keep her from taking another step forward. “You can’t do that!”

“Why not?” She stared back at him, her eyes glowing and a hint of fangs peeking past her lips. “He insulted you!” Her right hand reached out to touch his cheek. “He hurt you.”

“Because it’s not worth it.” He reached up to touch her as well. “He’s not worth it, Mikasa. I’m just upset – I’ll be better in the morning.”

She shook her head. “He has no right saying those things to you.”

“I know, but we need him.” He ran his hand down her arm and gave her left wrist a shake. “He’s the best fighter in the Corps – don’t take that away from them just because he’s also an asshole.”

“An emotionally immature asshole,” Armin murmured.

Not sure that was helping the situation, Eren shot his friend a quick glare before focusing back on his sister. “Look, it’s not the first time I’ve been turned down and it won’t be the last. As much as I adore you for looking out for me, it’s not a good enough reason to kill the asshole, okay?”

She was quiet for a few more seconds before nodding. “All right, I’ll let him live for now. But I’m not forgetting about this.”

Great, so the man would probably get his ass kicked when he least suspected it – and Eren couldn’t find it in him to really care right now. “Okay.”

Mikasa gazed back at him intently for several heartbeats before stepping back. “Good.”

“All right then. I think maybe I’m finally ready for sleep, now. Drama always wears me out.” Armin’s shoulders slumped and he took a few shuffling steps toward the sleeping area. “How about everyone else?”

Ymir let out an exaggerated sigh while helping Krista to stand up. “Well, if the floor show is over for the night, I guess we’ll head off to bed, too.”

“We really need to make better friends,” Eren complained to his sister as he followed her to the bunk beds, where he collected a change of clothes. “I’ll be back once I clean off.”

For a moment he thought that Mikasa was going to insist to come with him before she nodded and went over to her own bed. “All right. Be back soon.”

“I will.” At this point, all Eren wanted was to wash off and then get some rest. The sooner this day ended, the better. Tomorrow *couldn’t* be so bad.

*******

Levi lay stunned on top of the roof, flat on his back and his left eye throbbing from the force of the punch. Dammit… the brat had a seriously mean right hook…. Forcing himself to sit up, he gently touched his rapidly swelling eye and swore at the pain that radiated from the area. Didn’t it figure that he lived through an attack from two vampires, only to nearly go blind from… from….

What the *hell* had that kid been thinking? What the *hell* had Levi been thinking, to kiss him back? For a moment it had been just like his dream that morning, Eren in his arms and so fucking eager, his body so warm and pliant against Levi’s, and then the little details had begun to creep in – that Eren was still clothed, that they *both* were wearing clothes, that Eren smelled of sweat and blood and dirt, and even more damning, that he tasted of blood. It had finally clicked in Levi’s mind that something wasn’t right and he’d pushed the brat away, ashamed at his lack of control. He should know better by now, should know that letting people in close was a mistake and letting someone like Eren Jaeger in would… well, ‘cluster fuck’ wouldn’t begin to describe it. So he did what he did best and drove the brat away. Pressing his fingertips against the left side of his face until he hissed in pain, he’d say he’d done a damn fine job of just that.

Forcing his recalcitrant body to move – it had been one hell of a physically trying day, not to even mention an emotionally one – he made his way to the edge of the roof and stepped over it, using his gauntlet at the last minute to land safely on the ground. He went inside the building and headed toward his quarters when he surprised himself by changing course down another hallway instead – all he had waiting for him there was a bunch of paperwork that he didn’t feel like going through just yet, especially when about half of it had to do with Gunther’s death. No, might as well seek out some sort of distraction, and he had a perfect one in mind.

He didn’t bother with knocking, not when the pest rarely reciprocated, and he somehow knew that he’d find her working late after his meeting earlier with Erwin; upon entering Hange’s lab, he walked over to an empty stool not too far from her workstation and sat down, while she continued to enter information into her computer.

After a couple of minutes, she finished typing and looked up, still dressed in her uniform from earlier with a white lab coat tossed over it, her hair mussed in a disorderly ponytail and with dark circles under her eyes. “What are you doing here?” she asked as she pushed her glasses higher up on her nose. “And what the hell happened to your eye?”

Levi barely resisted the urge to touch his face again, since he knew it would just hurt. “Must’ve happened during the fight earlier. You still working on that shit for Erwin and Pixis?”

“Yes – Armin gave me some helpful information that I’m compiling for them, and don’t change the subject.” Hange’s voice grew sharp as she left her station to go over to one of the lab’s mini-fridges, from which she extracted an icepack. After slapping it around a little to break up the crystals inside, she then searched about for a clean towel to wrap it in. “That black eye is still bruising, so it happened recently. You finally push Erwin too far or something? Make the cleaning crew snap after calling them incompetent shitstains one too many times?”

“They are incompetent – that’s why I refuse to let them inside my quarters.” Levi frowned as he accepted the icepack and was careful to inspect it before he raised it to his sore eye. “I found dust after-“

“I’m not about to listen to you rant about that topic yet *again*, Sweetie.” Hange leaned back on her elbows against her workstation, her expression conveying just how much of a martyr she felt herself to be – which was a hell of a lot. “Now, who gave you the hell of a shiner – I want to thank them.”

Levi lowered the wrapped icepack enough so he could glare at her with both eyes, even if one of them was mostly swollen shut. “Go fuck off and die, Shitty Glasses.” When all Hange did was smile at him for the insult, he huffed and resumed icing his abused eye. “It was Eren,” he admitted with some reluctance, realizing that this would never end until the truth came out.

As it was, Hange’s shocked reaction almost made it worthwhile. “Eren? Cutie Eren hit you?” She stared at him for several seconds before laughing. “Oh *no*! I wish I’d seen that! What did you do to deserve being hit by your cutie?”

Okay, maybe it wasn’t. Levi’s glare went up a notch and he debated throwing the icepack at the bitch before deciding that it was actually making his face feel better. “What did my ‘cutie’ do? Well, the psychotic little shit just grabbed me, shoved his tongue down my throat as if I was a promiscuous little fuck like him and then had the gall to punch me when I pointed out that I’m not the Corps’ whore – that position is obvious being filled by him, considering his past.” There was a crunching sound as he clenched the icepack in his left hand, the chill of it as biting as the words that spilled out. “Guess he didn’t like me pointing out that shit to him, but I’m not just going to stand there and let him use me like he’s used everything else with a dick. Thinks he can just bat those eyes of his and I’ll queue up for his ass? He’s even more of a fucking moron than I figured.”

Hange stood across from him, her gaze as assessing upon him as it was on any of her experiments: steady and unemotional. She remained still for a minute and then straightened up, her movements almost languid as she approached.

“It’s a fucking bother, it is,” Levi continued. “I won’t have it affect the squad, him acting like a dog in heat. I’ll- what the hell!”

Hange kept up the slow pace of her approach until she was within arm’s reach, and then had casually snaked out her arm to smack him in the back of the head with an impressive amount of force.

“Why the *fuck* did you do that?” Levi tossed the icepack at the lunatic, which Hange caught with ease, her expression still unreadable.

Taking a step back – just enough so she was out of reach – Hange shook her head. “Are you done now? Had enough of badmouthing Eren?” When he stared at her in confusion, she threw the icepack back. “Because I’ll tell you why, then. I think you’re being an immense *ass* right now, one of the biggest idiots I’ve ever known and I’ve met a lot of them while dealing with the MP and various Chairmen and Ministers.”

“Listen, you crazy bi-“

“No, *you* listen,” Hange snapped back in a rare show of ire, her brown eyes blazing behind her glasses. “Right now things are rough – we’ve been over this before and the shit is getting even deeper.” For a moment her expression mellowed. “You just lost Gunther, which would be bad enough, but you lost him to one hell of a nasty fuck of a foe, and we have Erwin plotting on top of that.” Just as quickly, the anger made a return. “But that’s no excuse for you to be so stupid and to insult Eren,” she insisted, her hands fisted on her narrow hips.

Levi stared at her for several seconds, more than a little stunned. Then he shook his head before he put the icepack back to good use. “How the hell is it insulting when it’s the truth? You heard the brat – he admitted to fucking who the hell knows how many people!”

Hange let out an exasperated sigh and threw her hands into the air. “Who the hell among us are innocents, huh?” A wry grin tugged at the corner of her lips as she gestured in Levi’s direction. “Well, it’s been so long for *you* that you might as well have your cherry back, but I doubt that more than one or two of our rawest recruits are virgins so what’s the hang-up?”

Rather stung by the cherry comment – so what if he hadn’t found some random fuck in a while – Levi sneered as much as he was able while having a pack of ice pressed to a good bit of his face. “I’m not talking about losing your virginity, I’m talking screwing vampires. Two at a time, at that, and other deviant stuff.” Why the hell was he discussing this stuff? Dammit, this is what came out of talking to Hange.

“Hmm, but it makes utter sense if you’re dealing with an increased lifespan – well, maybe not the vampires, but then again if you counter all of itinto a longer life, I’m sure it means more variables.” Hange fell into that fucking ‘science’ mode of hers that could make you want to bash your head against the nearest hard surface to avoid listening to her ramble on. Considering that Levi’s head had had enough of hard surfaces that night… yeah, he was screwed. “So Eren has dealt with a lot of ‘variables’ in his life, even when dealing with sex. It’s completely understandable.” She tilted her head down to look at Levi over the rim of her glasses. “Especially when you take into account that he grew up after a major collapse of society. As we *also* discussed previously, things were very difficult back then and a lot of taboos were suspended. I would suspect that someone who grew up in a dome like Tartarus should understand it a bit.”

Levi found himself dropping the icepack to the floor and jumping up from the stool in one smooth motion. “Don’t you fucking say anything about Tartarus,” he warned Hange. “Just… don’t.” He’d gotten out of there – he’d done his best to get Farlan and Isabel out of there, too, before that place had eaten them out and spit them out. For all the shitty luck it had done those two.

Hange looked at him with blatant pity and held up her hands in a sign of surrender. “Okay, I won’t, but I just think that you’re being too hard on Eren and it’s for a rather obvious reason. You have a good idea of why he’s like he is, as least when it comes to relationships in the past. So why the hell did you insult him for kissing you, and are you tearing him down to me?”

“Because he’s a sl-“

“Call him a slut again and I will run you through with your own blades, I swear upon destroying all of my research that I will,” Hange stated in her most cheerful voice. “Now, try again.”

Levi doubted that she could do it… well, mostly doubted. Staring at the crazed woman and the way she continued to smile at him after making that threat… maybe it wasn’t in his best interest to put it to the test….

“Because….” *Fuck*, perhaps he would prefer to be run through with his own blades than deal with this touchy-feely shit. Maybe he could get some more blood from Eren before Hange did it and heal quickly…. “Because it’s all fucked up, all right?” He glared at the massive pain in his ass as he spoke. “The fucking brat comes into my life and it all gets fucked up – even *more* fucked.”

He didn’t think it was possible for Hange’s smile to become any brighter, but it did. “There, you see? I told you Eren wasn’t a slut! A little promiscuous, yes, but that’s going to work in your favor, Sweetie! We’re going to get you laid for the first time in forever!” She jumped up and down as she pumped her fists into the air! “Yes, tap that ass!”

That was it – Levi was going to wake Erwin’s ass up and tell the man that they needed a new Captain and head of research, that it was time to use Hange as bait for the good of the Corps. “Yeah, whatever.” He turned on his heel to leave before this conversation got even worse.

“No!” Hange snatched at his arm and pulled him back. “I’m serious! Can’t you see that you really like Eren? And that he likes you if he made a move like that? This is going to work out, I promise you!”

“Hange….” Levi yanked his arm free and then went to rub at his face, the day’s events catching up to him and making him feel exhausted, before he remembered about his eye just in time. “You’ve finally, *truly* cracked. Why would Eren kissing me mean anything, considering his past?”

Hange rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Because I know for a fact that he hasn’t kissed anyone else – Moblit is damn good at keeping track of the gossip for me. In fact, I know that he barely speaks to anyone other than you, outside of his sister, Armin, Ymir and Krista. So that makes you the special someone he goes off to have tea with, or chats with up on the roof, or has given a nickname.” Hange looked ready to grab hold of his arm again but stopped short after being given a warning scowl. “You’re the only one he’s let get close – you, the guy he didn’t kill that time back in the alley. Which is odd, because when I told Ymir about how the two of you met, she seemed shocked over that ‘slip’ on Eren’s part. They’re so not big on letting anyone discover their secret.”

Levi didn’t see the point of this conversation; he folded his arms over his chest and sighed, regretful that he hadn’t gone to his office and dealt with the paperwork after all. “So? I’m the brat’s buddy, how is that relevant to any of this?”

Just then, Hange actually appeared ready to go fetch his blades or something, what with the way she was gritting her teeth together and her eyes narrowed in a rare show of anger. “Oh my fucking- GAH!” She picked up a datapad from the workstation and actually *slammed* it down onto the hard surface with enough force that it shattered, causing Levi to jump in shock at the noise. “Are you always this dense? Are you listening to me at all?”

“No, you raving lunatic-“

“Just *shut* *up*!” Hange once more grabbed onto his arms despite the nasty looks, and Levi was so stunned by her brash actions that he didn’t shake off the hold. “When’s the last time you spent the night talking to someone, let alone someone you just met? When’s the last time I’ve heard you rant and rave so much about someone like you do about Eren? Why do you even care if he fucks half the Corps? *Think*, Levi!” She leaned in until their faces were just an inch or two apart, until he cringed at having someone so close to his personal space yet didn’t lash out. “You’re beyond infatuated with that ‘brat’, and it’s clear that he’s the same about you. Now *do* something about it, you repressed moron!”

As if she was done screaming at him, Hange stepped back with a very pleased air about her, a huge grin on her idiotic face and her hands clasped behind her back. Meanwhile, Levi felt his temper begin to rise the more he looked in her direction.

“’Repressed moron’?”

“Aw, you know I adore you, Sweetie, but yes, ‘repressed moron.” Hange fussed with the hair falling onto her glasses, her expression gradually becoming nervous the longer that Levi glared. “I mean, you have one hell of a cutie kissing you and you make him mad enough to deck you? You could have at least gotten a hand job or something before resetting to your default of senseless violence.”

Levi was *really* beginning to regret leaving his weapons back in his quarters, the threat from earlier aside. He took a step forward and inwardly smiled when Hange retreated from him. “My sex life-“

“*What* sex life,” Hange muttered as she hunched near her workstation, her arms folded over her chest in a defensive manner.

“*My* sex life is my own damn business, you shitty lunatic.” Levi jabbed his right hand in her direction before he jerked his fingers through his hair, pausing to massage for a moment at the undercut to help stave off the burgeoning headache he felt. “As is what I do or don’t do with Eren.”

“Then why come here to bitch about him, hmm?” Hange’s indefatigable sense of know-it-all rose from the grave once again. “Just admit it, you’re floundering when it comes to figuring him out and how to handle him, and you need help. You *suck* at relationships. Which is why you just need to ignore whatever that little psychotic voice inside your head is telling you to do right now and let someone in for once.”

“Right, when we’ve vampires in the fucking dome, after we’ve lost one of our best fighters and Erwin’s in full plot-mode.” Levi huffed as he looked around for another datapad he could smash as well. “Why not take some time to indulge in fucking around, and with a brat who’s two seconds away from breaking the seal to run for the hills?” There wasn’t a datapad, but an empty beaker made a rather satisfying sound as he picked it up and threw it against the nearest wall.

Hange watched him vent a bit of frustration and even handed him another beaker to be broken. “Levi… maybe now *is* the best time.” When he stared at her as if she truly had snapped, she gave him a sad smile. “Listen to me – I mean it. I believe that we all need something to fight for if we’re going to do our best, and you… you desperately need something.” She looked away, down at the broken datapad while she spoke. “You need someone to fight for, and I’m not certain that Erwin and I are enough.”

He held the beaker in his hand for a few seconds and debated whether or not to throw it; he used to have Farlan and Isabel, and there hadn’t been anything he wouldn’t do to keep them safe, to try to build a future for them. It had almost happened, it had seemed so close…. Then the Corps had become his new family, his new home, and he was good at what he did, was one of the best if not *the* best. He had friends here – Hange, Erwin and Mike – and he cared about his squad. Yet a part of him waited for them to die, because that’s what happened in the Corps. You did your best and gave your all and knew that you were only staving off the inevitable for so long.

Then came along this improbable brat, this… this seeming kid with the too innocent face and those gorgeous eyes and the snarky attitude. Maybe he wasn’t the brightest or the most talented individual whom Levi had ever encountered, but he was determined as hell and loyal, was a confusing, bewitching amalgam of so many traits that drew Levi’s attention back to him all the time. Just like his hair and eyes reminded Levi of all the time, Eren Jaeger was like the luxury goods Levi had heard about while growing up, was like a fine cup of tea and a jar of honey – something only the truly rich could afford, something that Levi had strived to possess for himself and become addicted to once he’d achieved them on his own through whatever means.

“You want me to take a chance on a fucking brat who has a bunch of vampires after his ass,” Levi continued, the beaker held clenched in his hand so hard that he was surprised that it hadn’t shattered yet. “Where are *your* blades, you Shitty Glasses, so I can run *you* through?”

Hange laughed, the sound nervous and high-pitched. “Well, yeah. Look at it this way – you don’t have to worry about him dying on you!” She even clapped her hands together for emphasis.

That’s it – he’d had enough of her ‘advice’ for the night. Levi threw the beaker at the lunatic, only to have Hange duck in time and let out a loud wail. He didn’t stick around to listen to her complain about how ‘mean’ he was, he left before she could spout anymore stupidity and returned to his quarters. However, he was stuck with what she’d said in his head for the rest of the night.

*******

Eren followed Petra down the hallway to the storeroom for another ‘clandestine’ training session, a bit apprehensive about seeing Levi after how things had ended the night before. Would the man be furious over the punch? Was he still upset over the kiss? Oh hell, please don’t let it be another surreptitious grope and rub session like the day before….

They took the steps to the lower level and Eren shook himself from his internal misery enough to realize that Petra was a lot quieter than normal this morning, lacking her usual smile and possessing circles beneath her amber eyes. “Uhm, are you all right?”

She started at the question and offered him a weak smile. “I’m okay,” she answered, her voice quieter than normal. “It’s just… we were up late last night, because of Gunther.”

Oh. Eren was quiet for a few seconds and wondered if he should say anything – if he should have done anything last night to pay his respects for the man, whom he’d only known for a short time. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know that there was anything for him.”

Petra reached over to pat his right arm. “It’s all right, it was a small gathering of those who knew him best,” she explained. “It’s something we do when… well, it’s a custom, I guess.”

He supposed that they had perfected it by now, considering the death rate of Freedom Corps, and had a better respect for the considering how well they handled the high risk nature of their job. “He… he was a good fighter.”

“I know.” Petra’s smile wavered for a moment. “We’ll just have to keep getting better and hope to avenge him soon.”

There was nothing that Eren could say just then – he was afraid that Petra and the others were fools for hoping to take on Annie, Reiner and Bertolt, but it was their job. He could just hope that when it came time to fight the others, that he and Mikasa were there to take the brunt of the attack.

They reached the room and Petra keyed the door open, so he steeled himself to enter and find out how Levi was going to react to him today – how the rest of the private squad was going to react. Walking into the improvised training room, he found Erd in the middle warming up and Olou off to the side talking to Levi.

Olou gave him a curt nod in greeting while walking past to meet up with Petra, leaving Eren to deal with Levi alone. He noticed that the captain had some bruising around his left eye, which must be from the punch. Eren winced a little but forced himself to greet the man. “Good morning.”

Levi eyed him for a few seconds before grunting softly. “That remains to be seen.” He didn’t sound angry or anything, just his usual pissy self and he met Eren’s gaze head on. “I told them all about how Gunther died, so we’re going to practice you leaping at us from above. Erwin’s going to do his best to figure out a way to get us some private time so we can practice with rappelling gear, but until then, we need to improvise how those bastards use their speed and agility to take us down.”

That sounded good in theory, but all of this was going to wear Eren down when he still hadn’t fed properly after last night. “Okay, but I’m going to need to go hunting within the next night or two,” he warned. “Bertolt really messed me up and I’m still not fully recovered.”

“You look fine.” Levi’s brows drew together and he made that annoyed, tsk’ing sound. “They took you down hard on purpose, I’m not about to let you back out there for a second try right away when you seem nice and *frisky* to me.”

And the bastard just had to bring up last night, didn’t he? Eren grit his teeth together and wondered if he could get away with punching Levi in the right eye. “That’s because Armin and Krista donated some blood to me last night, *Sir*.”

“You really can drink human blood?” Petra, Erd and Olou had gathered near them to listen to the discussion – well, they probably wanted to know about the day’s training, but had overheard everything else. Petra stared at Eren in surprise while Olou fussed with the color of his white shirt as if to protect his neck.

Eren grimaced while he pushed his hands away from his sides and answered Petra’s question. “It’s not preferred – Mikasa and I stick with Malform blood whenever possible, or even that of vampires. Human blood is… well, it’s weak. We get more of a ‘kick’ from other blood drinkers and so don’t have to feed as often. But we’ve taken from volunteers when in a pinch.” Or dealt with a couple of necessary problems….

Levi continued to give him that annoyed stare. “Then you can make due now – we’ll find a few donors to get you through the next week or so.”

Dammit, they were seriously going to listen to Ymir about keeping him inside? Eren was going to strangle her! He scowled at Levi before he shifted a little closer to Erd, feeling the need to annoy someone just then. “What could I *possibly* do to thank those people for helping me out?” He made sure to lower his voice until it was husky and to look at Levi through his lashes while he spoke, his tongue dashing out to wet his bottom lip.

“Considering that they’ll just think they’re donating for the most recent blood drive, you can ‘thank’ them by getting your ass up the nearest wall.” There was a snarl in Levi’s voice as he snatched at Eren’s left wrist and hauled him away from Erd, not stopping until they were across the room. “Off with the blades, you fucking brat.”

“So demanding, Captain Napoleon,” Eren griped, but he did as he was ordered. He handed his weapons to Levi and was surprised when he was openly swatted hard on the ass when he turned toward the wall, so much so that he failed to gain traction for a second. What the hell? Did the short bastard actually just do that in front of the others?

“Now get up there and if I catch you going easy on us, it’ll be my foot next time.”

All right, so that had actually happened. Eren snapped his teeth, his fangs fully extended as his eyes took to gleaming. “How about I get to feed from you if I take you down a dozen times today, hmm?” He was angry enough now to drain the man a couple of pints, human blood or not.

“See, I told you that you were in a frisky mood,” Levi shot back as he took his and Eren’s blades over to a stack of boxes.

“Uhm, did the Captain hit his head yesterday?” Olou asked.

*******

Levi used a towel to wipe at the sweat gathered on his forehead, feeling a bit pleased with himself for the day’s workout. He once more ached all over and was certain that there would be some impressive bruises beneath his clothes – hell, his left arm was probably a lattice of green and purple right now because of all the times he’d used the gauntlet to stave off Eren’s attacks. Yet he’d barely, *barely* avoided that dozen limit of Eren taking him down, even if he hadn’t formally accepted the challenge. Damn if the brat hadn’t been driven today.

Yet he had some hope of the bruises fading quickly, much like his black eye was already well on its way to healing despite how impressive it had looked last night. He supposed that one of the effects of drinking vampire-hybrid blood was that it lingered in the system for a while, which was a very good thing when one considered the last few days. If he’d fought those shitty bastards last night with an injured leg…. Well, Gunther most likely wouldn’t be the only one dead.

He looked over to see Olou sprawled out on the floor, gasping for air and face flushed a splotchy red from exertion. An equally exhausted Petra was hunched over the man and poking him with the toe of her left foot while she cajoled him to stand up so they could leave, while Erd was slowly putting back on his blades in their hilts with trembling hands. His team was broken but slowly recovering, having dealt with loss in the past. He’d have to choose someone else to replace Gunther… but not just yet, not when the loss was so raw, not when they had Eren and Mikasa to hide.

“Good job, today,” he called out, and nodded when the three of them managed to smile back in weary pleasure at the acknowledgement. Gunther’s death had driven them hard to do their best, and they’d given it their all during the training. He could only hope that it would be enough when they took on those undead fuckers again – and he knew how much good hope would do them in a fight.

Against the far wall leaned Eren, his dark hair made darker by sweat but otherwise appearing unaffected by the day’s training. He sipped some water while staring at the floor, a slight frown on his face while he seemed lost in his own thoughts. He’d taken some good hits during the training and given out even better ones, doing what he could to prepare Levi’s squad for that upcoming battle, and judging from his somber air, Levi doubted that he felt them ready to take on the vampires, either.

Motioning to the others that they could leave ahead of him, Levi went over to join the brat. “So, that seemed to go a little better today.” He watched as Erd lingered for a moment, but eventually left with Olou and Petra.

Eren sighed and shook his head, his hair slipping free from being tucked behind his ears and falling forward to frame his face. “They’re still so slow. Olou pauses to gloat, Petra hesitates too much and needs to show more initiative, and Erd… well, he’s all right. But he could be faster.” He placed his hand over his chest for a moment and then moved it up to rub at the back of his neck. “They’re fighting against enemies who’ve centuries of experience and won’t hesitate to take advantage of any weaknesses.”

The brat made some good points. Levi fought the urge to lean over and tuck back those unruly strands. “And what about me? No complaints?”

He thought that he saw a hint of a smile peeking through that dark hair. “Well, who am I to critique the great Captain Napoleon?” The hint smoothed out. “You need to stop worrying about me, you know. If we’re in another fight, you need to focus on taking them down and forget all about me – as long as I can get some blood into me at some point, I’ll heal from anything short of decapitation. And they’ve made it clear that they want me alive. I might not be whole, but I’ll recover.” There was such a weary acceptance in Eren’s voice just then that Levi had to wonder about how much damage Eren had taken over the years that he could blithely write off ‘anything short of decapitation’.

“Yeah, and who has to answer to your sister if I bring you back without any arms or something?”

Eren snorted in response, the sound lacking any true amusement. “I think Mikasa will find it in her heart to forgive you as long as you bring most of me back. If it’s without my legs, then I can’t run away while she bitches me out for being an even more spectacular idiot than usual.”

Levi folded the towel in his hands while he contemplated that image. “I’m beginning to see the appeal of the whole thing.”

“Asshole,” Eren muttered and set the bottle of water aside, yet the insult was lacking any true heat. “Just when I was beginning to feel sorry for punching you last night.” He shook his head then ran his right hand through his hair, momentarily tucking back the long strands. Levi caught a glimpse of his face and confirmed a slight smile.

“You do realize your ass could have gotten in serious trouble for that shit, right?” He glanced over to see how Eren reacted to his teasing and noticed that the smile had gone flat and there was a hard gleam in those huge, luminous eyes. Well, so much for the good mood just now. Feeling a bit like an ass and Hange’s words from last night echoing in his head, Levi clicked his tongue a few times while he dropped the towel to the floor. “Well, I might have said a few things I shouldn’t have, so I’ll overlook it.”

It was almost amusing, catching the brat’s over-reaction to his half-apology out of the corner of his eye. Eren jerked away from the wall, his hair swinging away from his face with the sudden motion as he turned to glance at Levi, then turned to look ahead just as quickly. “Uhm, well, ah, I could have handled it better.” He let out weak laugh for a few seconds and rubbed his hands up and down his arms. “I have a bit of a temper, but that’s no excuse to punch you.”

“Hmm.” Levi looked out around the room – empty save for the two of them – then moved to face Eren. “You seem to have impulse control issues.”

“What?” The brat’s cheeks became flushed, either with embarrassment or anger or both, it was hard to tell, but it made his eyes even more luminous and was rather fetching. Dammit, what the hell was it about this one person? Why couldn’t Levi do the smart thing? “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Poor impulse control. You just say or do things that pop into that idiot head of yours without thinking things through. There’s a time and place for things.” Levi edged closer to Eren, until he had him pinned against the wall. “Unlike last night.”

Eren’s eyes began to glow as he raised his hands to rest against Levi’s chest, yet he didn’t push free just yet. “What, because I kissed you? That might have been impulsive, but it wasn’t like I planned on screwing you then and there! It seemed to me like you enjoyed it at first!”

“I know.” Levi had thought about that damn kiss all night, about his reactions to it – before and after his freak-out, to Hange’s messed up advice and just how fucked up his life had become. “Time and place, brat.” As soon as he’d finished speaking, he leaned in and pressed his mouth against Eren’s before he thought any more.

It gave him some satisfaction to feel Eren’s body stiffen in surprise as he initiated the kiss, to know that *he* could throw the damn brat off-balance for once. He waited to see if Eren would pay him back for last night with another punch or by pushing him away, yet all that happened was Eren let a low moan as his hands settled on Levi’s hips.

Taking that as a sign of assent, Levi deepened the kiss, slipping his tongue past Eren’s parted lips and was relieved when there was no taste of blood today, just a hint of that awful coffee they always served. Eren tugged his hips closer until their bodies fit snug together, not shy in the least in proving to Levi just how ‘happy’ he was about the kiss, about Levi sliding his left thigh between the brat’s legs for him to rub against. Perhaps it was because of the workout from earlier, but Eren’s body felt so warm, radiated so much heat that Levi wanted to just lean into it even more and soak it all up….

He let out a hiss when one of Eren’s hands slid along his hip and cupped his own stiffening cock to give it a ‘friendly’ rub, pulling back enough to break off the kiss. Eren chased after his mouth and bit gently into his bottom lip for a few seconds, not hard enough to break the skin, before letting go.

Eren’s eyes were still glowing, pupils blown and lids half-closed, his cheeks still flushed and his breath a bit ragged. “Seriously,” he panted as he slumped against the wall, his knees bent just enough to make him shorter than Levi. “*This* is the right place?” Damn, but he looked utterly fuckable just then.

Levi bent his head forward so he could lick along the brat’s lower jaw, smirking at the deep moan the caress produced. “We’re in a locked room, not on a rooftop where sound carries.” Another lick and a nibble had Eren shuddering against him; note to self – Eren had one hell of a sensitive neck. His hands slid around to grab the brat’s amazing ass and to give it a squeeze, to encourage Eren to ride up on his thigh a little more. At least Eren wasn’t that much taller than him, unlike some other lovers in the past. “Or where there might be a security camera that could spot us.”

“Ah! I… didn’t consider… that.” Eren’s other hand gently grasped Levi’s hair as if to keep him from moving his head while he continued to gently fondle Levi’s cock through his pants. “I… didn’t spot any….”

It was getting difficult to think right now…. “Bastard Erwin mentioned us up… on the roof.” Levi rested his face against the crook of Eren’s neck for a moment and jerked his hips forward to delight in the feel of friction, of heat from another body against his… and then thought of how embarrassing and messy it would be to come in his pants. “Control freak that he is, probably has his own feed.” He enjoyed the feel of Eren’s hand on him for a few more seconds, tormented the brat with another nibble and then forced himself to take a step back.

Eren’s eyes blazed even brighter as his hands snatched at Levi’s arms and there was a flash of sharp white teeth. “What? Come back here,” he snapped, sounding more than a little petulant.

“Time and place, Rebel. Time and place.” Levi took an almost savage amount of satisfaction in saying those words, which helped placate his raging hormones just then. “Consider it a lesson in-“

“Say one word about my ‘impulse control issues’ and we’ll see how well I hold back on bashing your head in,” the brat muttered, his clawed hands currently buried in his mussed hair as if to prevent them from lashing out at something – or something. He muttered a little more under his breath, the words in an incomprehensible language or languages since the cadence sounded different each time.

Levi allowed him his hissy fit and set about adjusting himself in his pants before he went to collect his and Eren’s blades. By the time he returned with the weapons, Eren seemed to have himself under control.

“Are you really going to make me drink human blood?”

The question surprised Levi; he had expected Eren to either complain some more about their abbreviated make-out session or to question why Levi had changed his mind about it occurring in the first place, but Eren appeared willing to just accept… whatever the hell they were doing at face value, no questions asked. That would make this whole… whatever a lot easier to manage. “Yes. It’s clear you’re a target for the vampires, so we’re going to limit their chances of getting to you as much as possible.”

Eren’s mouth tightened into a grim line, the enticing flush of desire from earlier disappearing from his cheeks and his huge eyes losing their glow. “I’m stronger on Malform blood. Like I said, it’s more potent. Also, they won’t accept me ‘hiding’ for too long. You’ll just drive them to do something to force me out.”

“That’s if we don’t get to them before that point.” Levi debated mentioning the Pixis thing to Eren but held back; he’d trust Erwin just enough to keep his promise on not revealing Eren and Mikasa to the head of the Engineers. If it looked as if Erwin had lied about that, then he’d let the two hybrids know that their secret was out and that they needed to take care of themselves.

“Yeah….” Eren appeared as if he wanted to say something else just then, but merely shook his head as he reached out for his blades. “Yeah, okay.” He fastened them around his waist and tugged his jacket on straight, doing his best to make himself appear presentable. His hair was still a mess and his pants dirty from climbing all over the damn walls, but at least he didn’t look as if he’d been a few minutes away from being fucked *into* said walls. Levi rubbed at the back of his head to try to refocus himself.

“So I guess that means no more night patrols in my near future,” Eren continued as he fell in step beside Levi.

“Wow, there’s hope of there being a few brain cells in that thick head of yours after all.” Levi kept his face expressionless as he poured on the sarcasm, and was rewarded with seeing Eren roll his eyes while grinning at the jab. “I’m sure Erwin can find a use for you.”

“Great, a stroll down memory lane or something.” Eren reached around his neck to adjust a thin strap that hung beneath his shirt, his expression as bitter as his tone. “Fun times.”

Levi couldn’t really blame the brat – Erwin would be ruthless in his quest for information and while he’d apologize if the questions brought up any bad memories, he’d push on regardless. “Be a good boy and maybe there’ll be a reward later.” Eren arched an eyebrow and smiled slightly at the suggestion. Since they’d left the training room, Levi arched an eyebrow as well before he continued. “A little something to… perk you up… and a cup of tea to chase it down.”

Eren’s smile transformed into a grimace. “Meh, hearing ‘little’ lets me know that it’s not going to be nearly as fun as I’m hoping.” He crossed his arms over his chest and glared at nothing in particular ahead of him while Levi struggled not to smirk. “Suppose I should be grateful for the tea.”

“Damn right you should.” Levi had to remind himself that Eren wasn’t really a kid, that he’d lived a long time and handled sexual relationships before – he wouldn’t think of just how many right now. This… *thing* could work out. He’d just be another ‘one night stand’ to the brat and get some sex out of it for himself, and Hange would shut up about him never letting anyone ‘in’. It could work.

As if summoned by his thoughts, Hange came around the corner, her nose stuck in that damn notepad of hers. She nearly walked right into them and let out an excited yelp when she finally noticed them. “Hi! Are you done training for the day?”

“Yeah, what about you, you blind idiot?” Levi glared as he straightened out his blades, which had gotten jostled when he’d scrambled to keep from tripping over Hange’s dumb ass.

“Oh, I finished over an hour ago with Ymir so I could go over some notes.” She blinked a few times while rubbing her left ribs. “She’s… very enthusiastic.”

Eren snorted through his nose and tucked back a lock of hair – why the brat didn’t just cut it short or pin it back, Levi didn’t have a clue. “You’re putting her to work while giving her a chance to beat up people, gee, I wonder why she’s being so ‘enthusiastic’? Maybe you should have Krista sit in on the sessions to make sure she doesn’t play too dirty.”

Hange shrugged, busy tucking away her notebook. “Eh, she’s also teaching us how to fight, so I figure she can be as ‘dirty’ as she wants. It’ll only toughen us up in the long run.”

For once the lunatic seemed to be thinking ahead. “Shouldn’t hurt anything if she slams your head around, that’s for certain.”

“Aw, is someone a bit extra grumpy today?” Hange grinned and motioned at Levi’s face. “Considering – hey, wait, your eye looks a lot better now. Guess that ice helped a lot.” She frowned and took a step closer, as if to examine it better.

Not wanting her to question how it had healed so fast, Levi held up his hands to stave her off. “Were you going somewhere?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah.” Hange’s frown deepened, no doubt from being denied her chance to study something interesting. “I’m supposed to be in Erwin’s office to speak to him and Pixis.”

Levi thought he caught a quick flash of gold from Eren’s direction at the mention of the commander of the Engineers. “Well, we wouldn’t want to keep you if it’s something important.”

“I should still have a few minutes before Pixis arrives.” Hange reached out as if to touch Levi’s face. “Did you ice it after you left my lab last night?”

“Oi! Crazy bitch, mind my personal space,” Levi snapped.

“Uhm, I think I’m going to go find Mikasa.” Eren sounded nervous all of a sudden, which was understandable if Hange was poking her crazy nose into matters related to Eren sharing his blood. “Good afternoon, Captain Hange.” He managed a smile for Levi. “See you later, Captain Napoleon, Sir.”

Levi clicked his tongue. “Cheeky brat.”

“Hey, wait a second.” This time Hange snatched at Eren. “Your collar is all messed up. Let me straighten it for you.”

Eren frowned as he reached up to touch his shirt collar, and then a hint of red colored his cheeks. “Ah! No, it’s fine. Thanks!” He turned around and hurried down the hall, all but running from Hange and Levi.

“Huh, that was odd, wasn’t it? I was just being helpful.” Hange turned in confusion to face Levi, who was purposefully being as expressionless as possible. “Levi?”

“I’ve no fucking clue. Now go bother Erwin, you annoying pest.” Levi headed in the direction in which Eren had just fled, hoping to get away from Hange.

“Levi? You’ve got a button undone, near your collar.”

Dammit, when had the brat touched his shirt? Levi raised his right hand to correct his uniform, and realized too late that he’d fallen into Hange’s trap.

“Ah-ha! ‘Practicing’, were you? I’ll be catching up with you later to hear all about your ‘lesson plan’,” Hange shouted after him, making Levi want to fling his blades down the hall to spear the harping lunatic.

Screwing around with Eren Jaeger better damn well be worth putting up with Hange’s shit, Levi thought to himself.

*******

Erwin smiled at Dot Pixis and held up the carafe of coffee. “Would you like something to drink while we wait for Hange to arrive? She should be here any moment now – unless she’s found a new specimen to study, which in case I’ll have to send out half the Corps to drag her here!”

The lines on Pixis’ weathered face crinkled as he grinned at the ‘joke’. “Ah yes, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting your rather… eccentric captain in the past and can easily imagine her being distracted.” He nodded in the direction of the carafe and settled back in the chair. “I’ve always been of the opinion that great minds should be allowed their quirks.”

“Yes, a few allowances here and there often produces the best results,” Erwin agreed as he poured the older man a cup of coffee. Once done, he handed the mug over and wasn’t surprised when Pixis reached into his dark green jacket to pull out a small flask.

“I agree, one should always be open to a few allowances.” There was a twinkle in Pixis’ golden eyes as he expertly flicked open the lid to the flask and poured what smelled to be a rather potent alcohol into the mug. “Especially when the Chairman keeps the good beans to himself.” He raised his mug in the air as if in a silent toast before taking the sip, his left hand busy tucking the flask back into his jacket.

Erwin raised his mug as well – unfortunately bereft of anything to help doctor the horrid coffee – and had just swallowed when Hange burst into the room. “I’m here! I’m – oh! Sorry, thought I was actually early for once.” She appeared a bit chagrined to find that Pixis had beaten her to the meeting.

Erwin poured another cup of coffee and held it out to her, used to Hange’s antics by now. “You’re not as late as you could have been,” he assured her, relieved that he really hadn’t had to send out a search party like the one time back in Tosca.

Hange blew at the bangs falling onto her face as she accepted the mug then collapsed into the other chair set out in front of the desk, somehow managing not to spill any of the coffee. “Sorry. I thought I was doing so good on time, and then I ran into some people on the way here.” For a moment a huge grin spread across her face and there was an evil gleam in her eyes, which she quickly hid behind the rim of the mug. Erwin had a feeling that someone was in for a world of trouble later and suspected he knew whom it was – but as it wasn’t him and Levi usually had it coming, he really didn’t care.

“Since it seems that the two of you know each other already, we can dispense with the introductions.” There was a point to this meeting, and he wanted to get to it before something happened to derail it, such another attack or Levi deciding that he wouldn’t risk any danger to Eren Jaeger. “Commander Pixis, I must thank you for your time and prompt response to my invitation.”

Pixis continued to smile at him, but there seemed to be a sharp edge to it now, as if he suspected that all pleasantries were about to be over. “You’re welcome, Commander Smith. I’ve always believed that it’s in our best interest if our organizations work together to defeat the Malforms – if only the MP would feel the same.” There was a slight grimace before he took a large swig of his ‘enhanced’ coffee.

“Yes, I feel the same, and it’s even more vital now.” Erwin hesitated for a moment then gestured toward Hange, who quickly drank from her mug before setting it aside so she could pull a datapad from a pocket inside of her jacket. “Recently we’ve come across some very important information which we feel it’s critical that we share.”

“Does this have anything to do with the sewer system?” Pixis leaned forward, an intent look on his face as he glanced back and forth between Hange and Erwin. “We found several Malform nests and two older layers that weren’t on any documented blueprints. Anka is confident that we’ll find the fabled tunnels before the seals open.”

Erwin’s smile thinned as he wondered if a rash of sudden deaths within the Engineers would signal if the organization was growing too close to discovering that secret: he couldn’t imagine that the vampires would allow their escape route being revealed if they planned to capture Eren any time soon.

“No – at least, nothing at this time. However, Hange has been studying the solar radiation levels outside for years and she’s had a bit of a breakthrough.”

“Yes!” She jumped to her feet while she waved the datapad clutched in her hand about, her ponytail bouncing about from the sudden motion. “I mean, it’s always seemed suspicious to me, our tools’ readings when the plants appear to be thriving so well and the mutation rate has dropped off over the years. It’s easier to track with certain plant and animal species – those with shorter life spans such as-“

“Hange.” Erwin spoke loudly and with as much authority as possible, very familiar with how the… enthusiastic scientist could ramble for *hours* over a beloved topic.

She pouted for a second before she recovered a bit of her spark and resumed waving the datapad about. “Ahem. Yes, my research. I’ve finally been able to crunch the data and it’s telling, *very* telling.”

“I’m sure it is, dear. But *what* is it telling?” Pixis appeared amused, but there was a calculating look in his eyes, his chin propped up in his right hand.

Hange handed over her datapad with a flourished bow. “What it tells, distinguished sir, is if I build my very own solar radiation sensor from scratch and then compare the results to one supplied to us, that the results are drastically different.” That was the story they were going with to explain Eren and Mikasa’s data – what Eren and Mikasa had basically done over the years. “Of course the data from our own instrument is supported by supplemental data.”

Pixis’ expression remained unchanged as he flicked through the datapad; Erwin sipped his coffee while Hange practically thrummed in anxiousness, her hands clasped beneath her chin while she waited to see the man’s reaction. It took several minutes for Pixis to read enough to feel satisfied, and when he was finished, he held up the datapad. “Is this the only copy,” he asked Erwin.

“No, we have everything backed up.”

“Then may I keep it?”

It was a show of trust, so Erwin nodded. Pixis tucked the datapad into his jacket, next to his flask. “It looks aboveboard to me, but I’ll have some of my subordinates verify it.” Hange gasped as if mortally wounded, no doubt at the thought of anyone doubting her research. Pixis’ expression remained aloof for a few more seconds and then he smacked his right fist into the arm of his chair. “Damnit! If even a *part* of this is true!” He reached into his jacket for his flask.

Erwin held up his hand while he reached into his desk for his bottle of whisky – his last good bottle of whisky, thanks to Levi raiding his stash the other day. “Then it means we’ve been bleeding out for no good reason, kept herded like sheep inside of the domes for most of the year while our leaders know better.”

Pixis was quick to hold out his empty mug for Erwin to fill with the whisky, yet his attention remained on Erwin. “You really believe it goes that high, this conspiracy?”

“I think they are among those with the most to gain for keeping humanity trapped in the domes, captive to their rule. I know that they are responsible for outfitting the Freedom Corps when we leave the domes to survey the wild to see if it’s habitable and to find new resources, and the Chairmen, Ministers and MP largely control any and all corporations. The Tenebris Corporation has a stranglehold on producing all solar radiation sensors and that hasn’t changed for centuries because our leaders will it. Why is that so?”

Pixis didn’t answer right away; he sipped his whisky while gazing at nothing, his eyes unfocused while he appeared to be deep in thought. After a minute, he rested his mug on the arm of his chair. “The Chairman position is for the most part hereditary, barring the lack of direct heirs. Most Ministry positions are passed along bloodlines as well. There are a few records of democracy, but it’s a foreign concept in this day and age. Once humanity leaves the domes… the balance of power shifts.”

“At the least, there will be new Chairmen arising as new settlements are created, at best new societies will form that will allow people their own voice in their rule.” Erwin set his mug aside so he could clasp his hands together on top of his desk, while Hange came to stand to the side of him. “There hasn’t been a new dome built in over three centuries – our current political structure, if you can even call it that, has been static for hundreds of years. Our ‘esteemed’ leaders are very invested in keeping things in stasis for their own sakes.”

“For their sakes.” Pixis’ mouth twisted in a bitter parody of a smile as he stared into his mug. “Lack of adequate space, lack of sunlight and fresh air, some domes barely having enough food to keep their inhabitants fed – and don’t even get me started on the food! Add to that the fact that we’re sitting targets for the Malforms to pick us off like fish in a barrel. And this is all for *their* sakes?” He quickly tossed back the remaining whisky and held out his mug for more.

So far, Pixis seemed to be accepting of the truth; Erwin hoped that the next part wouldn’t be too much for the man. “It’s… not just them.”

That earned him another sharp, assessing look. “And what does *that* bated statement mean?”

“It means that the Chairmen aren’t smart enough to be manipulating things on their own. Who do you think is old and intelligent enough to pull their strings,” Hange shot back, ever the one to take the plunge without concern for how far she was falling. Erwin forced his expression to remain unaffected and waited to see how Pixis reacted.

The Engineers’ commander stared back at Hange for a few seconds and then drained the contents of his mug in one go. “I wish I could say that I’m too drunk to follow you, I really do.” He leaned forward to set his empty mug on Erwin’s desk and then fell back into the chair, his expression bleak. “Are you truly insinuating what I think you’re insinuating?”

Erwin steepled his fingers together and furrowed his brows, his body tense as he did his best to convey the seriousness of the moment. “If what you believe we’re implying is that vampires are manipulating the domes’ Chairmen, then yes, that is indeed what we are saying right now.”

Pixis muttered something beneath his breath as he wiped at his face with his right hand. When his hand fell into his lap, he looked up at the ceiling. “Couldn’t just call an old man here for some lousy coffee and to talk some trash about the MPs, could you?”

Erwin allowed himself a slight smile. “Where’s the fun in that?”

Pixis echoed his smile and rested his hands on his knees. “No, I suppose that’s true.” Then his demeanor turned serious. “Where’s your proof this time?”

“I’m afraid that we don’t have anything quite so concrete as the solar radiation data just yet.” Erwin reached into his desk to pull out a datapad. “However, I have pulled all of the public records of the Tenebris Corporation. Do you see anything that stands out there?” He keyed on the device and handed it to Pixis.

Taking a moment to scroll through the screen, Pixis began to frown as he flicked back through the pages. “Seriously? How far back does this family go?” He continued to read on.

“Pre-collapse,” Erwin answered for him. “What are the odds that a family line could survive a catastrophic event that wiped out well over half the human population *as well as* their corporation?”

“I’d estimate one in-“

Erwin held up his right hand to silence Hange.

“I get the idea,” Pixis remarked in a droll tone. “It’s damning, I’ll admit. And I suppose that vampires would support domes if the legends of them being vulnerable to sunlight are true. But this isn’t exactly the most definitive proof.” Yet despite his claims, he kept the datapad.

Not ready to reveal Eren and Mikasa’s existence just yet, Erwin nodded. “I agree. How about if I told you that one of my men was killed by a vampire last night?”

That announcement shattered Pixis’ calm façade. “What?” He dropped the device into his lap as he clutched at the arms of the chair. “How are you certain it was a vampire?”

“Ooh! Oooh, let me!” Hange waved her hands about in the air in excitement. “Because despite otherwise appearing human, they had red glowing eyes, sharp fangs and claws! The ability to climb walls, enhanced strength and speed as well as healing ability were also rather telling, but mostly it was the way one of them tore out poor Gunther’s throat with those fangs that tipped us off.” She recited the details while ticking them off on her fingers, as if describing a new plant specimen.

The look that Pixis was giving her just then clearly said that he was moving his opinion of her from ‘eccentric’ into ‘downright insane’, then he shifted his gaze over to Erwin. “You’re serious?”

“Perfectly. I believe that your subordinate, Anka, ran into one of them already.”

“Yes!” Hange bounced on the tips of her toes, her hands gathered behind her back. “When we met to discuss the sewer situation! That’s when we first began to realize that something was… er, well, when we began to suspect. The one blonde MP – she’s a vampire.”

Pixis gave a long, desirous look at the bottle of whisky on Erwin’s desk for several seconds before shaking his head. “You’re telling me that there’s a vampire in the MP.”

“At least one.” Erwin rested back in his chair. “Pixis… I know that we’re asking a lot of you on faith, but nothing we’ve said here is a lie. There’s at least one vampire in the MP, possibly two more. It was those other two who fought my people last night – who indicated that they will continue to fight my people.” At least as long as Eren and Mikasa were part of the Freedom Corps.

“This is….” Pixis burst out of the chair and began to pace around the small area in front of Erwin’s desk. “Do you know what this sounds like?”

“The ravings of a mad man, I’m certain, but *think* about what’s happening in Trost – what happened in Ragako and Utgard, and how quiet Maria and Bern have become,” Erwin insisted. “The attack the other day – have you ever heard of victims turning so quickly? Have you ever seen Malforms being so aggressive yet waiting to attack so sporadically? It’s as if they’re being *controlled*. But what could control them?”

“On average, it takes about twenty minutes for someone gravely wounded or dead to change into a Malform,” Hange added. “In the park, that time was cut down to about five minutes. *Five*.” She held up her hand to illustrate her point, her fingers waggling about for a few seconds. “Think about that infection rate if a more serious attack – or several coordinated attacks take place. No wonder Utgard and Ragako fell.”

“I thought….” Pixis stopped his pacing and tugged at the hem of his green jacket. “I thought it was either a fluke or confusion when Rico reported that Anders had turned so quickly in the sewers. I thought….” He shook his head. “Vampires?”

“From what I’ve been able to deduce, Malforms created by vampires are stronger, more powerful and their… progeny turn faster as a result. The subsequent speed of turning breaks down with each new generation, as does their overall power, but it’s easy to see why there was such an initial collapse of society over a millennia ago.” Hange’s whole demeanor was bleak as she met Pixis’ gaze. “If they set their mind to it, the vampires could easily bring about another collapse.”

His right hand wrapped around his gauntleted left wrist, Pixis turned to face Erwin. “So what do you want from me and the Engineers? I assume you didn’t invite me here just to spoil the delusions of an old man.”

Erwin rose to his feet and walked around the desk to stand in front of the commander. “No, I asked a potential ally here – someone who could help me as I attempt to investigate how far the vampires truly have sunk their claws into the governing body of the domes and then pull the cancer out before it continues to bleed humanity dry.”

Pixis laughed, the sound loud and deep as he reached for his flask. “You don’t do anything by half measures, do you?” He opened the flask and lifted it up in a toast before he tossed back a sip. “Well, why should I leave all the dirty work to you ‘Wingers’? You can count on the Engineers.”

Hange let out a loud cry of joy and lunged across Erwin’s desk for the bottle of whisky, which she then used to fill up everyone’s mugs. Erwin allowed that indulgence, a proud grin on his face as he shared a proper toast with her and Pixis, a rare kernel of hope building inside of him for the future.

*******

Hange hummed to herself while she wiped down the counter of one of the workstations, going through several cleaning wipes until the surface gleamed; that should be enough to satisfy the little germaphobe, so she set up the heating unit to make the tea and even broke out a tin of sweet biscuits she’d been saving. Between the meeting with Pixis going well *and* Levi seeming to get *some* type of action, there deserved to be a bit of a celebration.

Preparations for Levi’s arrival finished, she decided to kill the time before he showed up doing a bit of research – things had been so busy, what with Ymir’s arrival, the revelation of vampires being in the MP and the truth about the solar radiation that Hange hadn’t been able to follow through on something that had been niggling at her the last several days. Hearing Eren bring it up again had made her want to look into the background of Levi’s ‘nickname’; there had to be some importance to it, since Mikasa, Eren and Ymir didn’t hand out nicknames to just everyone. Hange had gotten Armin to admit that he’d been given a nickname as a child, but he’d just sort of laughed and said that Mikasa and Eren had quickly dropped it after a couple of years. She suspected that there was some sort of story behind it and would have to ask either of the two hybrids about it one day.

But for right now, she wanted to know about *Levi’s* nickname, especially after seeing Ymir’s reaction to it. Eren said it in an affectionate manner, at least lately, but Hange would bet her second best UFM microscope that there was a joke hidden in it somewhere.

So much information had been lost after the ‘great’ collapse, when society had been hit hard not only by the solar flares but waves of Malforms attacking humanity. Hange wanted to scream at the thought of all those libraries destroyed, all that digital information wiped out… to hear Ymir, Eren and Mikasa talk about being able to carry a tiny device around with them and access the ‘internet’ wherever they were, to do things like watch movies or read books, to ask for directions or find answers to almost anything…. What little information that had been cobbled back together was restricted, with total access only available at the highest level of society, but Hange was clever and gained favors along the way. It also paid to be good friends with people like Levi, who had few qualms about breaking rules if you helped support his tea habit.

Sitting in front of her computer, she powered it up and logged onto the data network with an alias account. She had to go digging to gain access to some of the history archives: the Chairmen weren’t stupid – they didn’t want people to know about past rights and abilities in case it gave them ideas on what to demand in the present.

Even with a higher level of access than normal, there still wasn’t that much out there on historical figures. Whoever had scavenged through the retrieved data had probably decided that there were more important things to be saved than who did what. Still, Hange kept digging, until she finally came across something to do with the ‘Battle of Waterloo’. From there, she was finally able to cross-reference some more personal information on ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’.

As expected, it wasn’t much. There was the historical facts, the battles, the losses and the exile. She could read about his famous marriage and his suspicious death. So far there wasn’t too much to mock unless it was about his disastrous Russian campaign. Then she came across a commentary about the man himself… and a term she’d never seen before – ‘Napoleon complex’. Hange stared at the screen for several seconds while she read the description and then pushed away from the work station, doubled over in laughter.

*******

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