chapter twenty-four

*******

Hurricane

*******

“Are we there-“

“You finish that sentence and I will gut you with my own claws and use your spleen as Malform bait.” Levi didn’t even bother to look back to see which of the MP asswipes in particular was currently whining as they had *all* gotten on his nerves in the past hour – he’d gut them all right now on general principal – but the sincerity in his voice must have convinced them that he was perfectly serious as they all fell silent.

“Aw, tell me again why you haven’t had any kids? You’d be such a great dad.” A huge grin broke out over Hange’s face, a clear sign that she was too amused at her own joke. Meanwhile, Mikasa rolled her eyes while Rico couldn’t keep a rather dubious expression off of her sweaty face.

“So fucking funny. Why don’t I start to practice my gutting with you?” Levi reached out for the lunatic, but she just laughed and managed to dart away despite all of the shit she was carrying.

Krista made an annoyed sound and shook her head. “I thought we were out here doing something important.”

Hange’s smile slipped away as she regarded the young woman. “We are – there’s nothing saying we can’t act normal while we risk our lives undoing the damage your girlfriend caused.”

That was Hange for you, going for the throat when you least expected it. Krista looked as if she wanted to argue just then, but Mikasa came up beside Hange to give Krista a cold stare so the girl dropped it; someone else clearly wasn't in the mood to hear Ymir be defended. Considering that the backstabbing bitch had helped Eren be carried off and have the headquarters be partially destroyed, Levi wasn’t about to listen to that shit any time soon, either.

Still, it was one thing to put up with whining asswipes and another to deal with the depressing air that had settled upon the small party. “Oi, we should reach the station any minute now.” The sooner they got their supplies and horses, the better – he was sick and tired of hearing about how damn much these babies’ feet hurt from walking.

“It’s about damn time,” Jean complained. “Don’t see why we couldn’t have just used our wire to get us here.”

“Because not everyone had enough to go the distance, you idiot. And these trees aren’t the best for supporting our weight – they’re recent growth. Haven’t you been paying any attention?” Rico sounded as if she was just as tired as Levi from dealing with these morons, and the mission had barely started.

“Who are you calling an idiot? Just because I-“

They were spared more of the argument and from Levi having to carry through with his threat from earlier by the Freedom Corps’ storage station finally coming into view; it was a low building partially built into the ground, designed to weather any storms and conserve energy. Levi felt a rush of relief upon seeing it, since now they could speed up things and get back on track to rescue Eren.

He started jogging toward the light brown building, prompting complaints from Blouse and the MPs while Hange laughed in delight. As soon as he approached the large sealed main door, it began to slide open to reveal two figures highlighted by light behind them.

“Captain Levi?”

Recognizing Kailash Omar’s deep voice, Levi held up his right hand. “Yeah,” he called out, and could make out the features of the older woman standing beside the middle-aged man; working manned storage stations like these was the closest thing that served as ‘retirement’ for the Corps. Kailash and Jovita Neumar had managed to live long enough to deserve a quieter post where there wasn’t so much active fighting, along with the few others who helped to tend to the horses and maintain the supplies that were needed when the rest of the Corps went out exploring. “Me and some others.”

Kailash grunted once, a wary look on his weathered, tan face as he waved Levi inside with the prosthetic hand that didn’t hold a blade. “Captain Mike gave us a brief head’s up that you and Captain Hange were headed this way. Can’t say it made any sense, but we’ve been watching out for you.”

“Oi! Get your asses in gear so they can close the fucking door,” Levi ordered, and glared at the others until everyone was inside. Connie and Blouse came limping in last, hanging on each other as if for comfort, and then Jovita closed the door behind them with a bemused expression on her broad face. “Mike say much of anything else?”

“Just that we were to give you want you need and to pass on that the Commander’s handling things.” Jovita watched Levi carefully as she relayed the message.

“Great, Erwin’s always ‘handling’ things, that’s what gets us in so much trouble.” Fuck Mike and his apparent dislike of words, couldn’t he have said something along the lines of ‘Erwin’s got the fuckers on the run’ or ‘the bastard’s not in jail yet’? Levi found himself gritting his teeth together and forced himself to stop before he sprouted fangs. “Whatever’s going on, we need a horse for each of us, plus a spare and three others for supplies, and enough supplies to last us at least until we can hit another station.”

Jovita frowned and looked back at Kailash, who was busy pulling up a screen on a datapad. “Where’s the next station that you plan to hit? Never mind the fact that you’re outside when no one’s supposed to be outside, which we’re doing our best to ignore.”

Levi waved that last bit aside. “That’s just it, we don’t know where the next station will be, so estimate for the worst.”

Kailash swore beneath his breath while Jovita threw her hands up in the air. “You just love making our lives difficult.” The man typed a few things on the datapad and then nodded. “Give Henri half an hour to work on your packs while Amy and Jan get the horses ready.”

“I’ll go help them with the horses.” Jovita smiled at Levi and Hange, her teeth bright against her dark skin, as she passed them by. “Next time you’re by, I expect to hear one heck of a story.”

“We’ll even supply the vodka,” Hange promised.

Half an hour was a bit of a wait, but Levi supposed that it couldn’t be helped since he hadn’t planned on them being much faster. “Hange, show everyone around so they can grab a bite to eat and take a shit – we’re going to take advantage of the fresh horses as long as we can.”

“Yes, Sir!” The crazy bitch executed a perfect salute before waving everyone deeper into the building. He watched them leave for a moment before heading toward the area where they prepped the travel packs.

Kailash followed, his prosthetic hand busy as it typed on the datapad. “So, you guys are outside when there’s supposed to be too much solar radiation, I’ve never seen the majority of your team before and something’s going on with the commander?”

“Something’s always going on with that bastard,” Levi grumbled as he rubbed the back of his neck. He glanced aside and caught the ‘don’t give me any shit, you young brat’ look that Kailash was giving him and sighed. “First off, apparently we’ve been lied to for decades at the least about the solar radiation levels, which is how we’re outside without getting fried. Not sure that Erwin and Shadis are ready to go public with that yet, so keep it quiet – especially since I get the feeling it’s part of the reason why Erwin’s probably in trouble right now. Apparently we pissed off a minister back in the dome who has some… rather shady friends.”

“When *don’t* you two piss off someone?” Kailash shook his head before he opened the door leading to the prep room. “Makes me glad to be stationed out here, even if we’re eating rations by the last month or two.”

A rather high-pitched voice bellowed forth at their entrance. “I *told* you half an hour!” Henri, an older man who had to be nearing his sixties and even shorter than Levi, was racing back and forth along a table as various bots brought him supplies. “Who the hell rushes packs for ten people during the damn dome season?” He looked as if he’d been pulling at the bit of grey hair that he had left in-between prepping the packs, and came to a halt when he spotted Levi. “Should have known it was *you*.”

“Yeah, always a pleasure to see you, too, Ducha. I’m gonna need you to supply some spare uniforms for the mission, just enough to get us to the next station.” He picked up the datapad at the table and began typing in the various sizes they’d need, guessing when it came to the MPs and Rico – if they didn’t fit well, tough shit, they’d have to manage until they could restock. At least they’d have clean clothes.

“Such a pain in the ass. Clean clothes, don’t skimp on the soap, pack the water purifier tablets, don’t forget the tarps…. Prissy bastards like you shouldn’t be outside in the first place,” Henri sneered. “In my day we’d live out there for a month with a horse, a blanket and knife and be damn thankful for the blanket.”

“Don’t bitch at me because you were a dumb fuck, and don’t stint on my pack or I’ll come back to kick your ass.” Threat issued, Levi glared at the grumpy old fuck for added measure before going to take care of a few basic needs while still able to enjoy the luxury of running water and evenly heated food.

When the half hour was up, he led his grumbling, rag-tag team toward the stables to find their horses saddled, packed and waiting for them in front of another large door that led outside. Kailash was there, along with two of the women who looked after the horses for the Corps.

Jan limped over to Levi and handed him the reins to a black and grey striped gelding that was a hand or two smaller than the others. “Here you go, he should be just your type.” He patted the horse on the neck a couple of times before mounting, pleased at how it settled after a few steps. Hange was cooing to her horse, a roan and white spotted gelding, while Mikasa was already on her dark brown mare and waiting for Blouse to mount.

Rico eyed the white and black striped gelding presented to her for a moment and did a semi-decent job of getting into the saddle, while the MPs stared in a mix of confusion and dread at the animals. “Uhm, I don’t think any of us have ridden before,” Jean admitted as he took a hasty step back from the bay gelding as it turned its head toward him.

“Then you better learn quickly,” Levi snapped. “Get on the damn horse or I’m leaving you behind.” He didn’t have any time to waste.

“You just put your foot in the stirrup, like this,” Blouse tried to explain. “No, the other one,” she warned her boyfriend.

“Is it trying to eat me? I think it’s trying to eat me!” Marlo cringed as the horse sniffed at his hair.

“Please, you’d be missing chunks if that was the case,” Amy told him, her tone exasperated as she nearly shoved the idiot up onto the horse. “Just sit there and let Captains Ackerman and Hange be in the lead, okay? The horses will follow them.” She gave Levi a scathing look that let him know she wasn’t happy about her horses being taken out by a bunch of senseless rookies. “And don’t yank on the reins – in fact, don’t touch them until you learn to ride.”

“I’ll help them out,” Mikasa offered as she nudged her horse over near Jean’s, where the idiot MP was nearly lying sprawled out over the horse’s neck.

“Me too!” Blouse had managed to get Connie up on the horse and had taken over its reins as if to lead it along.

Levi checked to make sure that Rico and Krista looked as if they weren’t going to fall off any time soon and found them both settled on top of their mounts; Rico appeared nervous but trying not to show it while Krista seemed to be doing the best out of all the new riders. He wondered if Ymir had managed to get her lessons somehow but didn’t really care as long as it meant that she wouldn’t be a problem. “All right, keep your asses in the saddles because we’re not going to stop for a few hours.” He ignored the groans that came from the baby MPs and nodded toward Kailash to open the door.

The older man nodded back before he did just that and waved them onward. “Be careful out there.”

Levi waved as he rode on past, focused on finally being able to hunt after Eren now that they were prepared. He heard Amy’s gruff voice call out some helpful instructions to the baby MPs as they rode out through the exit, as well as a few yelps and cries when the horses began to move in earnest. As long as he didn’t hear any bodies impacting onto the ground, he figured they were all good.

Mikasa had said that those bastards would come out from the south of the dome, so they needed to get there as quickly as possible and then start tracking them; they wouldn’t make it by sundown, but they’d close the gap as much as possible.

Hange rode up toward him with an uncharacteristic frown on her face. “You think we’ll be able to make much time with this bunch?”

“We better.” Levi glared as he glanced over his shoulder to see the baby MPs clinging to their poor horses’ necks while Mikasa and Blouse kept offering advice on how to sit properly; Rico was picking up the skill quickly and Krista was once again keeping some distance from everyone. The spare gelding for Eren and the pack horses were strung together and following along, trained to stay with the ‘herd’. “Because I’m not allowing us to be slowed down for anything.”

Hange made a sniffing sound and even went so far as to wipe at the corners of her eyes. “It’s so touching to see you finally care about something other than taking a shit or violence for once. Eren must be a spectacular piece of a-“

“Do you really think I won’t leave you strung up as Malform bait?” Levi bared his teeth at her, his fangs on full display as the colors drained out of the world.

“Oooh, already a day without sex and you’re getting all tetchy.” Hange shook her head back and forth. “Guess we better get your cutie back as soon as possible.”

He glared at her for a few seconds before realizing that she was serious. “Damn right we better,” he mumbled, a little embarrassed by her fervent response. They were going to get the brat back, end of story.

“Dammit, my ass hurts. Do we really have to ride these things?”

Correct that – he, Hange and Mikasa were going to get the brat back. It was seriously looking as if the rest were going to end up as Malform bait at this point.

*******

Eren was warm and wrapped in Levi’s strong arms, feeling drowsy at the moment and unwilling to move. He could hear Mikasa and Armin arguing about something in the distance, but he was so comfortable where he was, so content just to rest against Levi’s broad chest that he murmured a little and let his head loll backwards, his eyes closed as the sense of exhaustion weighed him down. Why did they have to argue? Couldn’t they just be quiet and enjoy the peacefulness of the moment? It wasn’t like Mikasa and Armin to disagree so loudly like that – no, normally it was Mikasa and Levi who would be arguing about something. He tilted his head to nuzzle at his lover’s jaw, his limbs unresponsive for some reason, and was confused when he felt soft material against his cheek. Was Levi wearing a turtleneck or something? Maybe a scarf like Mikasa? Why was his scent all wrong…?

Forcing his heavy eyelids to open, Eren found the world to be blurry and dim at first, until it slowly came into focus. He stared in confusion at the figures gesturing wildly on front of him as they weren’t Mikasa and Armin; they didn’t look anything like his sister and dear friend, weren’t the people he’d lived with for the past few decades. Wasn’t that Ymir? And… and wasn’t that….

His chest seized as he struggled to draw in a breath; he attempted to back away, to put some space between himself and Reiner, but he couldn’t move, couldn’t gain any traction for some reason. First, there was the solid weight behind him, the strong arms wrapped around his chest, and then his legs… oh *fuck* what was wrong with his legs?

“Relax, Eren, it’s okay. It’s okay.”

Bert, wasn’t that Bertolt’s voice? Eren continued to panic at being unable to move, to free himself, his arms flailing as his legs – his fucked *up* legs – moved about to no good and he remained still, remained trapped. Air moved in and out of his lungs, faster and faster as he was couldn’t escape, couldn’t seem to move or think or-

Reiner was suddenly in his space with his hands on Eren’s shoulders, which caused Eren to snarl and snap his teeth, his right hand lashing out with claws fully extended. There was the scent of blood and then his arm was pinned against his side and a flash of pain in his neck and….

… and the world grew soft and fuzzy, slowly lost its focus as his body felt flushed and loose and warm all over. There seemed to be two Reiners before him, and for some reason he didn’t seem to care at all.

“Fuck, but he’s burning through this stuff faster than we thought,” the Reiners said while running their hands through his hair and pushing it back from his face. “We’ll need to up the dosage.” He found himself closing his eyes and leaning into the touch for some reason, the world too confusing just then to focus upon. Where had Mikasa and Levi gone? Why did they leave him?

“It must be his hybrid nature. We were never able to retrieve a proper sample from him.” The arms around him tightened and hugged him back against that almost satisfying warmth – it would be better if it smelled like Levi. Smelled like tea and soap and *Levi*. But at least it was familiar, he thought as he rested his head against the cloth-covered surface and sighed.

“Sleepy,” he mumbled, annoyed at all the talking.

“We know,” the deep voice told him, sounding amused. “You just keep sleeping for now and it’ll be all right.” Warm lips pressed against his forehead, but something wasn’t right. The scent wasn’t right, and the words were too kind. Where was the gruff tone? He missed the gruff tone.

“Okay, this is getting creepy – your guys into narcolepsy or what?”

“We’re doing what’s necessary, so shut up and mind your own business.” Eren didn’t like how sharp the voices had become and stirred a little, only to be held tighter.

“Yeah? Well, my business is not being caught by a bunch of pissed off people with swords, so when are we getting our asses into gear? You can’t tell me that his sister and boyfriend aren’t on our trail so the longer we sit here, the bigger a target we have on our backs!”

“Annie-“

“Is *late*, so just accept the fact that she ran into some shit and will have to catch up whenever!”

“Yeah, it breaks your heart if we have to move on without her, doesn’t it?”

Eren didn’t like the loud voices, didn’t like that they weren’t Mikasa’s or Armin’s or Levi’s and struggled against the weight pressing against him, struggled against the exhaustion that made him just want to keep his eyes closed and accept everything. He moaned and tried to open his eyes, to move his arms even though it actually *hurt* to do so. Immediately, the pressure around his chest, his arms increased and someone whispered in his ear to relax, to just go back to sleep. Someone who wasn’t Levi, but who seemed so familiar….

“Look, you want to stay here and get caught? Fine. You want to get him away before his family catches up? Then let’s get our asses into gear, because the last thing I want is to run into Mikasa or that shitty captain right now.”

There was some shifting about and then another painful bite against Eren’s neck and the feel of warm, soft lips against his forehead. “Later, Eren,” someone murmured as the darkness overtook him.

*******

Erwin watched as the MPs descended into the battle-scarred courtyard of the Freedom Corps’ headquarters and took some comfort in being flanked by Mike and Armin; it wasn’t quite the same as having Levi and Hange by his side, per usual, but Mike was a highly capable member of the Corps and had been with him for a very long time while Armin was so much more than he seemed. He’d taken note of the ‘young’ man ever since Armin had joined the Corps, paid attention to Hange’s updates and had been even more surprised during their hectic preparations for the MPs’ arrival today. Oh yes, he’d chosen wisely in asking for the siblings’ foster child to help him out with this little show down.

His back straight and chin held high, he stepped out to greet his old friend Nile Dok. “Nile, it’s good to see you.”

Nile stared at him in blatant confusion while the squad he brought with him gaped at the scene around them, at the destroyed wall, the puddles of Malform goo left out and obvious signs of a hard-fought battle. The final thing that drew their attention was the remains of the 104th clustered behind Erwin with their blades held at the ready. “Erwin, we don’t want a fight on our hands – just come with us peacefully, you and Ackerman.”

“Well, I can only speak for myself – I’m afraid that Levi isn’t here anymore.”

Nile’s narrow face darkened upon hearing the news. “What, did he flee? He can’t possibly be trying to hide for us within the dome.”

“That’s just it, he’s not in the dome.” Erwin smiled when Nile’s expression turned into one of confusion.

“Did… is he dead? I thought he was one of the Corps’ best, if not *the* best.”

“No, he was fine the last I saw of him, he’s just not in the dome anymore.” Erwin continued to smile until it finally sunk in, what he meant.

The blood drained from Nile’s face. “But that… that’s impossible.”

“Is it?” Erwin gestured around him. “I’m sure if you asked people, they would say that it’s also impossible that Malforms would be able to attack like this, using explosives to take down a wall. Or to destroy several domes in unison. Yet this is what we’re seeing, no? The impossible is happening all of the time and people aren’t batting an eye.”

“But that’s….” Nile shook his head. “We’re here to take you and Captain Ackerman into custody. If he’s not available, then we still have to-“

“*Have to*? Since when do you have to do anything?” Erwin folded his arms over his chest. “Look about you, Nile. My headquarters was attacked in an obviously planned attack, something that couldn’t be carried out by Malforms alone. We’re the only thing standing between this dome being overrun by the creatures. Yet you’re going to take me in? What’s going to happen then? Are the MPs going to face the Malforms themselves? Will *you* be the frontline to protect this dome?”

Nile’s face continued to lose color as he shook his head in either denial or disbelief, and the people gathered around him began to shift about, their expressions suddenly uneasy. “We have our orders, Erwin.”

“Yes, your orders. Did they ever say why Levi and I were to be brought in?”

“For insurgence and instigation.” Nile was almost apologetic as he listed the crimes. “You’ve been spreading malignant rumors.”

“And what rumors would those be, hmm? What exactly have you heard?” Erwin smiled at his old friend and waited for an answer, during which time the sweat continued to drip from Nile’s face. “Can’t think of anything, can you? Well, let me see if I can’t provide *something*, no?” He spun around and began to walk toward the main building.

“Erwin. Erwin, dammit!” He heard Nile scramble to follow, while Mike and Armin fell in step beside him. “This – this isn’t supposed to be happening! You should be coming with us quietly!”

“Unless you want to fight what remains of the 104th, you’ll follow me,” Erwin informed the man in as cold a voice he could muster. “There is something you really should see.”

Nile grumbled a little but ordered his squad to remain outside as he hurried to catch up to Erwin. “You know this will only delay the inevitable, correct? I have my orders – I have to obey them.” He paused for a moment. “Dammit, you should have run with that captain of yours.”

So Nile truly had tried to give him a chance to escape; Erwin smiled a little as he shook his head and wondered *where* he’d escape to – commandeer a shuttle and hide in another dome, maybe? Nile really didn’t know him very well, did he? “I don’t run from a fight, especially when people’s lives are on the line.” He led the way to Hange’s lab, where they’d taken the one good outcome they’d gotten out of the fight earlier, if you’d want to call it that. “So, my understanding is that I’ve upset a minister, no?”

Nile swore beneath his breath and then eventually nodded. “I don’t know what you did, but yes, it seems you’ve got a minister after your head. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do. Just turn yourself in and I’ll see what can be done about sparing the rest of your division.” He was probably telling the truth. Probably.

Erwin’s smile was genuine when he shook his head, and he had to hold up his hand to keep Mike from attacking the man. “Thank you, but no thanks. I believe it’s more important for you to see what’s in one of our labs here.” He motioned ahead of him while meeting Nile’s gaze. “Did you ever wonder where your minister got his information on my ‘insubordinate’ activities?”

It wasn’t much of a surprise when Nile ducked his head and no longer met his eyes. “It’s not my job to question my higher-ups.”

“Hmm, no, I suppose not. But it is your job to monitor those who report to you, yes? I understand that you had some new recruits this season?” Erwin paused while Armin opened the door to Hange’s lab. “They all should have passed the usual background checks, yes?”

Nile’s face became flushed and he hesitated to enter the room. “Look, where are you going with this? If this is a trap of-“

“No trap, I promise you that. You’ll understand my questions once you enter.” Erwin motioned for his old friend to proceed him into the room. “No harm will come to you, that I swear.”

Nile continued to hesitate for a few seconds before storming into the room. “You’re only delaying the inevitable, Erwin. It’ll go so much better for you if you quietly-“ His voice died out as he spotted the large, golden crystal that Armin and Mike had moved into the lab before the MPs had arrived.

Erwin gave him a few seconds to take in the sight before speaking. “Impressive, isn’t it? I’m sad to say that Hange didn’t have much time to examine it before she left as well, but I’ve every faith in Armin here that he can provide some answers in her place.” He walked around the crystal and placed a hand on its smooth, hard surface. “The little we *can* tell is that she’s still alive inside of it. You do recognize her, don’t you? Several of my people place her as one of your own MPs.”

His mouth moved several times before any sound came out. “That’s… that’s Leonhart. Annie Leonhart. She’s a new recruit – how the *hell* did you get her in there! Get her out, now!” Nile reached for Erwin, only to have his hands knocked aside by a scowling Mike.

“No, I’m afraid that we had very little to do with her ending up in there – it was by her own choice.” Erwin reached for the datapad that was on the workstation near the chrysalis and handed it to Nile, the video footage edited quickly by Moblit just before the MP’s arrival. “See for yourself.” The video started to play as soon as Nile touched the device.

Erwin knew what the man was viewing and watched Nile’s face instead as he stared down at the edited footage of Annie’s dramatic arrival at the headquarters and her fight with Mikasa; Moblit had done what he could to hide Mikasa’s true nature and features, instead picking scenes from the cameras scattered around the courtyard that showed Annie leading the Malforms through the destroyed wall and her slaughtering anyone who got in her way – including Petra. The last few images were of Annie lying on the ground and the crystal forming around her. “Try to tell me that she’s human, Nile. Just… just *try*.” His hands clenched as he wondered if his old friend could be that delusional.

Nile stared at the datapad for several seconds after the footage stopped, his hands trembling and his face almost ashen with… fear? Disbelief? “How… I *talked* to her! I gave her orders! She… she seemed so *human*!”

Erwin almost felt sorry for the man – almost. “Yes, her kind do an amazing job at fooling us, don’t they?” He reached over to retrieve the datapad. “So what we have here is proof that one of the MPs’ own attacked *my* base, a *Freedom Corps* base, and you want to arrest *me*?” His voice grew louder as he continued to speak. “When it’s so blatantly clear that if there’s any insubordination or instigation going on, it’s happening within your own ranks!”

Nile flinched at the words and shook his head. “I… I have to leave. This needs… they don’t know about this.” He wiped a trembling hand over his sweat-slick face and took a hasty step backwards.

“Just so you know, I’ve shared the video you’ve just viewed and footage of the chrysalis with both Commander Pixis and my fellow officers in the Freedom Corps,” Erwin warned as Nile continued to retreat from the room. “It’s already spread past this dome.”

The only response he received was a look of pure fear from Nile before the man went running into the hallway. Erwin watched after him for several seconds and when it seemed as if Nile wasn’t about to return with the rest of his squad, sighed and set the datapad aside. “Well, that went better than I expected.”

“He’s terrified,” Mike grunted while he rubbed his nose. “Doesn’t know what to do so he’ll go running back to that minister.”

“Yes, and we’re prepared for that.” Erwin nodded to Armin, who went over to the nearest computer and logged on. “Are you able to access their network?”

“The IDs weren’t perfect, but they got me in far enough that I could push a bit further on my own.” Armin glanced over his right shoulder and smiled. “It’s good enough that I’ll be able to catch any attempts they make at wiping out Annie’s ID or any other attempts at a cover-up. Then I’ll follow them back to the evidence.”

Erwin knew it would be helpful to have someone around who could hack into the networks, even if Armin didn’t believe himself to be very skilled. “Find whatever you can – it’s probably not going to be enough to take down the Chairman or Zackly, but it’ll get them to back off for now. We just need a bit longer to put all the pieces together.” Hopefully Levi and Hange would find something of use while outside.

Armin nodded and resumed his typing for another minute. “Uhm, what’s going to happen to Annie?”

A bit surprised by the question, Erwin frowned and shared a confused look with Mike. “I’m not sure – we’ll have to move her someplace more secure in case she can dissolve the chrysalis as easily as she created it.”

“Oh, okay.” Armin sounded a little upset about that, but he continued to monitor the MPs’ computer network.

“Let me know if there’s any activity,” Erwin ordered before leaving the room with Mike. Armin nodded in agreement, clearly focused on the task, and both men were quiet until they were out in the hallway. “Station at least two people in there at all times while the vampire is on the premises,” he asked Mike, well aware of how badly their numbers were depleted at the moment.

Mike paused for a moment before nodding. “You don’t think she’ll be here very long?”

“I think the disadvantage in us revealing her is that we’ll receive an order shortly demanding that she be taken into custody, either for the safety of the dome or for research purposes.” Considering that his division was in desperate need of able bodies, Erwin wouldn’t be able to fight the order, not if handing the vampire over meant that he’d bought more time for him, Pixis and Shadis to come up with a better plan – he was just grateful that Hange wasn’t here to wail about the loss of her scientific experiment.

Mike sniffed once and shook his head. “Better to kill it now, then.”

“I would if I could figure it out.” Erwin rubbed at the nape of his neck, the day’s frenetic pace finally catching up with him. “I suspect that the only thing that might break her out of there is either another vampire or something she does herself, and there’s little we can do about the latter.”

“But the former?”

He smiled at his old friend. “Well, if we see the bloodthirsty bitch about, we have even more proof that Zackly’s dealing with vampires, no? Why should Levi have all the fun of playing with them?”

Mike peered at him from beneath his overlong bangs for a few seconds in a clear ‘you are *insane*’ look and shook his head. “Levi’s right about you,” was all he mumbled before strolling off.

*******

Ymir timed breaking the branch just as she landed on the larger limb of the tree; she kept leaving ‘markers’ for Mikasa and that short bastard of a captain, certain that at least those two would be out here soon enough looking for Eren. She had to hope that one or both of them had done something to Annie, because if the other vampire caught up to them and noticed the trail she was leaving… yeah, Ymir would have some serious explaining to do.

“How’s he doing? Do I need to dose him again?” Reiner slowed down enough to let Bertolt catch up to him and checked up on Eren, who was strapped to the taller vampire’s back. Ymir hopped forward so she could rest on a thick tree branch not too far away, close enough that she could easily see and hear everything.

She pretended to be more concerned with taking a sip of water from the bottle she’d snatched from their supplies while Reiner tilted back Eren’s head and looked at his face. “He still seems out of it, but maybe I should give him another shot.”

“We don’t want him to build up too much of an immunity to the stuff,” Bertolt chided.

“Yeah, but I also don’t want him to wake up and tear into you like he did that one time!” Reiner didn’t sound happy over the memory and his fingers tightened in Eren’s tousled hair. “Maybe I should-“

“He’s fine where he is, and leave him alone for now. We can’t keep him doped up all of the time.”

“I know.” Reiner sighed before he let Eren’s head rest back against his boyfriend’s shoulder. “All right, let me know if he seems to wake up. We’ll keep moving for another hour or two before we stop for daylight.” He brushed the back of his fingers along Bertolt’s left check before he resumed leading them through the forest.

Well, that was some good news there, Ymir thought to herself as she twisted the lid back onto the water bottle; Eren would be waking up at some point in the near future. Now all she needed was a chance to talk to him… and to hope that he wouldn’t try to rip out her throat over her betraying him. If she could get him to see that she hadn’t any real choice in the matter and that they both needed to cooperate with each other to get out of this mess alive, then so much the better.

But first, she needed to get Eren alone. Something told her that wasn’t going to be so easy, considering how clingy those two were being and how little they trusted her. And all this before someone else arrived to save Eren’s ass. Ymir fought the urge to rush forward and smack the back of Eren’s head while he slept on in blissful ignorance, leaving all of the complicated shit up to her to do. Okay, so maybe she betrayed him and had gotten them both into this mess, but she had a little trouble feeling sorry for his ass right then when he was being carried around like some princess while doped up to the gills and she had at least two psychopaths gunning for *her* ass. The little shit better show some gratitude her for getting him out of this mess, was all she was saying.

*******

“Listen, you brain-dead *fucks*, if I hear *one* *more* *word* of you whining about your sore asses or empty bellies, I will pull out your shitty entrails, wrap them around your necks and leave you behind in the trees for the shitty undead freaks to feed upon, do you hear me?”

Someone was in rare form tonight, wasn’t he? Mikasa shared a look with the quiet Engineer riding beside her and shrugged, used to Captain Ackerman’s profane outbursts by now. To be honest, the whining from Jean, Connie and the unfamiliar MP had been grating on her nerves as well, since all she wanted to do was to find Eren. It was frustrating to be slowed down by people unfamiliar with horseback riding and being outside, even if she realized that they may prove useful in the near future.

“But-“

“What the fuck did I just say?” Captain Ackerman’s eyes glowed in the fading light, two golden spots that bobbed up and down as his striped mount trotted along.

“Uhm, it *is* getting really dark out,” Sasha stuttered out. “How much longer are we going to ride?”

“The horses are used to it, and that’s why you have the fucking night vision goggles in your kit.” The captain sneered as he spoke before he turned to look ahead.

Sasha sent a pleading look at Mikasa, then glanced back over her shoulder; Mikasa knew what she was trying to catch a glimpse behind them of anything that might be following. She might not have the enhanced senses of vampires or… whatever Mikasa and the short bastard were, but she could apparently sense that they weren’t alone anymore. From what Mikasa could smell, there had been a few cats stalking them, and a couple of Malform as well.

“Sir.” Mikasa forced herself to speak in as deferential a manner as possible. “I want to find Eren as quickly as you do, but it won’t do us any good if we’re attacked.” It galled her to admit that, to slow down the hunt for Reiner and Bertolt, for *Ymir*, but the most important thing was being *able* to reach her brother. “We’re almost at the exit of the tunnel – let’s see what we find there before we decide to continue pushing on for the night.”

He turned on his horse to glare at her, his eyes even brighter in the darkness, but instead of cursing her out he clicked his tongue a couple of times and nodded twice. Emboldened by his silent assent, she urged her horse forward so she could scout out the tunnel’s exit.

She could still smell Malform lurking about, but for now they were too few in number to dare approaching when they sensed her and the captain. Hissing for good measure to try to scare them away, she scanned around the smooth wall of the dome until she spotted the barely disturbed soil that indicated where the access panel had opened and closed. “It’s here,” she announced as she pulled on the mare’s reins to slow her horse down enough before she leapt to the ground.

Captain Ackerman was quick to join her, along with Sasha and Krista. “How long ago do you think they were here,” he demanded to know. “Can we catch up with them?” He took a deep breath and exhaled it sharply. “I… dammit, I can barely smell them.”

“That’s the downside of being outside.” Mikasa cast about for any other sign of her brother, for some tracks that might let her know where he’d been taken, but Reiner and Bertolt were too old, too skilled, and knew how to disappear. “There’s too many other scents to cover over things.” She growled as her own fangs extended. “Damn them!”

Sasha, her body glowing against the greyness of the forest in Mikasa’s hunting vision, paused for a moment as she fumbled for the pack slung over her left shoulder and pulled out her night vision goggles. “Wait a minute.” She shoved them over her head, her bangs plastered against her forehead, and fiddled with the adjustments. “There’s something in that tree over there.” Uncaring for the animals that crouched in the underbrush, she took several steps forward.

Mikasa rushed to her side and bared her fangs to scare off the knee-high speckled cat that was crouching less than a foot away. “Be careful! There’s Malform around here, and worse.”

“There’s worse than Malforms out here?” Sasha turned her goggled face in Mikasa’s direction for a moment before she resumed examining the trees. “Uhm, look up there.” She gestured upward to the huge oak tree looming above her.

Mikasa stared in confusion for a moment until she noticed the broken branch hanging at a nearly 90 degree angle. “It’s broken!”

“Yes, and there were slash marks in another tree closer to the clearing.” Sasha nodded while she pushed up the goggles. “I think someone is leaving us a trail to follow.”

By that point, Captain Ackerman and Krista had caught up to them, and Krista gasped as she stared into the tree. “It’s Ymir! She’s letting us know where they’re going!”

“Of all the bullsh-“

“No!” Krista spun around to face the short bastard, her eyes glowing and fangs fully extended. “I know it’s her! She didn’t go with them because she wanted to, she went because that man was going to shoot me! She could have killed people before she left but she didn’t, so she’s not the enemy!”

“She gave them my *brother*,” Mikasa shouted, not in the mood to hear Ymir be defended when the bitch had betrayed her, had betrayed *Eren*.

“Did you ever stop to think if she had any choice in it?” Krista pointed a clawed finger at her, her expression just as furious as her tone. “Because she’s not acting like someone who chose to betray a friend! Not if she’s helping us now!”

“How do we know that this isn’t-“

Captain Hange approached them with her hands held up in a placating manner. “Uhm, can we leave this debate for another time, before all this yelling attracts every single predator around for miles?”

Hating to admit that the human was right, Mikasa growled in anger before she threw her own hands up in the air. “She’s going to pay for what she’s done.”

“That’s fine, but we have to find her and Eren first,” Captain Hange pointed out. “At least it looks as if now we have a way of doing that.”

“And what if it’s a damn trick, huh? A way of luring us away from Eren,” the short bastard demanded to know.

Captain Hange shook her head while giving Krista a warning look to keep the girl quiet. “Somehow I doubt that – it would take up too much of their resources to have one of them lay a false path.”

“We don’t know that,” he argued, but he sounded more surly than anything.

“No, but why would Ymir go through the trouble of telling us that they were fleeing outside and then give us a false path to follow? If she wanted to trick us, she would have told us to look for them in one of the other domes first.” Captain Hange pushed up her glasses while she waited for the stubborn man to see reason, and Krista looked vindicated by the logical argument.

Even Mikasa had to agree that it made sense, and wasn’t surprised when Captain Ackerman grunted once and turned away. “Fine, then if we have a trail to follow, we can camp here for the night. I want everyone to be ready to bust their asses as soon as daylight breaks.”

“Now you’re talking! There’s more daylight hours than night so we’ll make better progress that way, and it’ll be easier to follow the trail then!” Captain Hange hurried to catch up to him and started babbling about camp perimeters and watch schedules.

Krista went after them, but paused near Mikasa. “You’ll see that I’m right – Ymir’s not like the other vampires.”

“Ymir’s not like anyone else because she’s *only* interested in taking care of herself,” Mikasa shot back, and hurried away before the foolish girl could try to argue anymore. As much as she wanted to blame Krista for trusting Ymir so blindly, this was as much her fault as anyone’s – she knew that Ymir couldn’t really be trusted, so why had she put any faith in the vampire? Why had she ever let her get close to Eren? She should have killed her the moment she showed up at the base.

Seeing that the two captains were busy talking to Rico about something and that Jean was huddled together with Connie and the other MP – Marlo, she had to think of him as Marlo since he was here to help rescue Eren – Mikasa went to check on the horses. Someone, probably Rico and Hange, had tethered them together, so she began to remove their tack so they could be comfortable during the night. She was in the process of removing the saddle from Rico’s horse when she heard someone approach.

“Hey, do you need any help?” Jean eyed the gelding with some caution and smiled nervously.

Mikasa handed him the saddle and motioned over to where she had stacked the rest of them. “Put it there and then watch me so you can help out tomorrow night.” It would be best if he got a little more familiar around the animals first before becoming so hands on with them.

“Do you think they’ll be all right during the night?”

She shrugged while she moved on to the next horse. “They’re bred and trained to be pretty tough. Look at their hooves.” She pointed down at the mare’s hooves, which were very large for its size and had edged metal gleaming around its base. “The last thing you want is to have one of them kick you. About the only thing that’ll willingly take them on are starving Malform or rabid hogs.”

Jean began to edge away from the horse he was standing by while eyeing it as if it would attack him at any moment. “I thought they were supposed to be nice and domesticated.”

“Most are, but the Corps bred in the genes of a wilder strain a couple of centuries ago because they needed something that could survive better out here.” She handed him another saddle.

He paused as he accepted it and frowned. “You sure know a lot, don’t you? About these horses, being outside, the vampires and even the tunnels.” He went to put the saddle down and then came back, his expression serious as he stared intently at her. “How do you know so much about these things? I mean, not even the captains know about everything you do.”

Mikasa tugged up her scarf while turning back to deal with the horses; she didn’t want to face this right now, didn’t want to lose this… this tenuous thing with Jean. “We need to finish with the horses before-“

“*No*, the horses can wait.” Jean grabbed hold of her arm for a moment and gave it a quick squeeze. “Please, Mikasa. I gave up the MP, something I worked so hard for, and it didn’t matter to me as long as you were all right. I followed you out here even though I still can’t believe I’m outside the friggen dome, so don’t you think I deserve some answers?” He sounded so earnest just then, so plaintive, that she had no choice but to look up at him.

He didn’t look frightened or angry or upset, just desperate as if he expected her to ignore his request, so she found herself reaching out to cup his face as she sighed. “You’re not going to like what I have to say.”

Relief flashed through his brown eyes and he smiled, just a little. “You don’t know that. The truth can’t be worse than what I’m thinking right now, can it?”

“I don’t know about that, as it’s… well, it’s pretty damning on its own.” It had driven more than one friend and lover away over the years, and she found that it hurt more than she would like to think that it was about to do that again. She had believed herself prepared for the day when she’d have to leave Jean behind, for when she’d lose him like so many others, yet…. She shook her head and led him away from the horses.

“It’s best for your sake for me to not tell you everything, but for now, know that I’m a lot older than I look.”

Jean’s smile grew at that explanation. “How much older are we talking? Like a few years older? Ten?”

“Try centuries,” she told him, and continued to stare evenly at him until he realized that she wasn’t joking.

“You mean… but that’s.” He shook his head several times while taking a step back as if unsteady on his feet. “How is that possible?” He didn’t pull away further away from her, but he stared at her as if she wasn’t real.

Her eyes stinging with tears, she pressed the scarf against her chin and wished fervently that Eren was here. “It’s because of what Eren and I are – we don’t seem to age. We’re… we’re like vampires, in a way, but we’re not bothered by sunlight. That’s how we survived outside for so long.”

“But… *how*?” Jean reached out to touch her face as if doubting that she was real, and his fingers trembled against her cheek. “How is that possible?”

“So-someone created a serum that did this to us. It’s why they want Eren – he was the first one turned that way.” She dared to tilt her face into his touch and hoped that he wouldn’t push her away.

Jean let out a shaky breath and laughed, the sound a little weak. “And I thought he was a kid? He’s as old as you?” When she nodded he laughed again. “I knew there was something special about you,” he breathed out. “You’re just… you’re just so amazing. I knew you couldn’t be like everyone else.”

Tears slipped free as she rushed forward to press her face against his neck, too stunned that he wasn’t pushing her away, wasn’t calling her names - calling her a freak - for her to say anything. He held her close and pressed kisses against the top of her head while he told her that it was okay, and for a minute or two it was, for that brief time she could forget that Eren was gone, was hurt and in trouble and that she had failed to keep him safe.

But she couldn’t forget that for long so she pulled away and wiped away the tears. “I have to find him – my brother. We’ve been together – he’s all I have.”

“Centuries, yeah?” Jean let out another slow breath as his arms remained wrapped around her. “We’ll get him back.”

‘We’ll’ he’d said. She pushed aside her scarf so she could smile up at him, even as she shook her head. “You don’t have to do this, you know.”

“Yeah, but I want to.” He grinned as he tucked aside the hair falling onto her face. “I hear it makes a great impression on your girlfriend’s brother if you save his ass.”

“That’s if you don’t fall off of a horse before then.”

The reminder of his poor riding skill seemed to deflate some of Jean’s good mood a little. “Ah, yeah, let’s hope we find him soon.” He held out his left arm to lead Mikasa back to the horses so they could finish their task, his steps more of a shuffle than a walk. “So, ah, what about Captain Ackerman and the blonde girl, Krista? Are they as old as you, too?”

“No.” Some of her good mood faded at the reminder of those two. “Not at all.”

Jean looked as if he wanted to ask more questions, but the sharpness of her tone probably warned him away from the topic. “Ah, okay. I just thought that there might be something going on with the captain and your brother, considering how he always looked after him when I ran into them and is so hard-ass about getting him back.”

If he only knew. “You could say that there’s… something.” When Jean gave her a curious look, she merely shook her head to show that she was unwilling to go into it… well, *ever*.

“Okay, so we’re not going to talk about the homicidal captain and the bratty looking… well, your brother.” Jean shuddered a little as he rubbed at the small of his back. “Yeah, this is gonna be a fun trip, isn’t it?”

Mikasa thought about dealing with Captain Ackerman, Captain Hange’s general insanity, Krista’s insistence that Ymir hadn’t betrayed them, the myriad dangers that awaited them as they ventured away from the dome and the inexperience of most of their party – she had to agree with the sarcastic comment. Still, she smiled at him while she fussed with her scarf. “What’s life without a bit of adventure?”

That prompted a laugh from him as he hugged her arm tighter to his side. They both were smiling as they returned to the small camp.

*******

Ymir scrambled as far back from the edge of the overhang as she could, nervous about the band of grey that slowly began to show against the darkness. “Fuck, but did you guys cut it close or what?” The Malform must be frantically burrowing into the ground or finding whatever hollows or dens they could in order to wait out the daylight.

“We have to put as much distance between us and the dome as possible, especially since it looks like Annie didn’t make it,” Reiner snapped while he unloaded the packs he’d carried away from the cave.

Aw, wasn’t it a shame that the bitch had failed to show up? Ymir always had suspected that Mikasa was the better fighter of the two, and it looked as if that debate had finally been settled. It was just a shame that she hadn’t been around to see it, to watch Annie get taken down after all of the shit the meddling bitch had gotten her into with this grand plan to kidnap Eren. “You never know – there’s that saying about bad pennies.”

Reiner scoffed and went over to join Bertolt, who was once again fussing over an unconscious Eren. “Yeah, as if you’re that eager to see her show up.” He knelt down and reached out to touch Eren’s slack face. “He responding any?”

“A little – I think the drugs are wearing off a bit.” Bertolt brushed aside the thick bangs that fell onto Eren’s closed eyes and frowned, the expression appearing to be more one of consideration than anger or upset. “He’s got to be starving because of the healing and everything.”

“Not to mention we know he hasn’t been out to hunt for days.” Reiner ran his hand down Eren’s chest, which was clothed in a blue long-sleeved t-shirt, the left sleeve hanging limp by his side. “He feels a bit thinner than usual.”

The two of them being a bit touchy-feely with the poor guy when he wasn’t awake made Ymir nervous – she didn’t know what their intentions were, but somehow she doubted they were as truly concerned as they seemed. After all, they’d allowed Eren to be chopped up to get him out of the dome and kept him all drugged up, and Reiner wore that precious bag of Eren’s around his neck as if it were a prize. “Hey, don’t you think you should really leave him alone until he wakes up? Considering what happened last time?”

Reiner left Eren with Bertolt and turned to face her, his brows drawn together and his expression stormy. “Look, you’ve been useful so far so I’m going to give you another warning – back off. Eren is *our* concern.”

She held up her hands in a sign of surrendered and took a step backwards. “Whatever. I mean, I just thought that I knew him better and you’d appreciate the advice, but fine.”

“We know him just fine.” Reiner watched her back away a few more feet before going over to the packs he’d dropped and rummaging through them. Ymir watched with what she hoped wasn’t too much obvious interest, an act that was discarded when she saw him pull out what appeared to be two bags of blood.

“You’re carrying food?” She wasn’t starving yet, but it was always good to know if a food source was readily available, unless they wouldn’t mind if she snacked on the ‘hired help’ outside – the last thing she wanted was to have to hunt down a feral pig or something, which was always a last resort.

“Keep being good and maybe we’ll let you have some,” Reiner told her as he returned to Bertolt’s side and knelt down so that Eren was cradled between them, his back pressed against Bertolt’s chest and sandwiched between the tall vampire’s knees. Reiner handed a bag to Bertolt but kept his attention focused on Eren, a slight frown on his face that changed into an even slighter smile when Eren shifted a little at Reiner’s touch to the unconscious hybrid’s face.

“Yeah, he’s coming back a little. The blood will probably help some more. Let’s see how well it works.” Reiner lifted the bag of blood to his mouth and bit into it, and saliva rushed into Ymir’s mouth as the delicious scent of blood filled the small enclosed area of the overhang. It even affected Eren – he stirred a little between the two vampires, his sunken eyes still closed and his movements languid, but for the first time in hours he was more than a motionless doll.

Reiner and Bertolt drank from the bags quickly, thin trails of blood running down from the corner of their mouths, and as Ymir stared hungrily at them, Reiner tossed the bag in his hand aside and then reached for Eren’s chin so he could press his closed, bloody lips against her friend’s.

*******/////

Blood. Eren tasted blood. He was so hungry, his body *aching* for blood, for sustenance, that at first he didn’t trust it, didn’t believe it was real, and then warm blood filled his mouth and trickled down his throat. He moaned slightly in delight and parted his lips some more as he swallowed, his tongue swiping out for more blood, more of that deliciousness, and was met with resistance, with something slick and warm rubbing back.

At first he was confused, but it – the tongue, someone was kissing him, was it Levi? – tasted like blood so it was fine. It was more than fine. He wanted more blood. *Needed* more blood. Desperate for it, he reached out to keep that tongue, that mouth, from pulling away and was confused when only one hand latched on to soft fabric. Something was wrong, but his mind was so muddled just then, so tired, and the only thing that made sense was his hunger. So he gave in to it.

The taste of blood began to fade away and the mouth against his grew more instant. Eren made a low whining sound and twisted his head aside, only for the mouth to trail down to his neck and softer, less insistent lips to press against his. He tried to pull away but fingers twisted in his hair and kept him there, and then there was that taste of blood again, enough to make his hunger override the bit of resistance he struggled to build up. The blood was so good, so warm… and gone so soon.

He did his best to open his eyes, to see what was going on, but he was still so tired, so numb to everything but the hunger gnawing at him and the budding sense of pleasure building inside from the lips pressed against him and the hands moving along his body. Yet something was wrong, something kept him from just giving in to it.

Hands…. Lips…. The sense of warmth enveloping him from behind and in front…. Two bodies…. Two…. Two Levis? How…?

Confused over what was happening, he redoubled his efforts to force his eyes open and finally managed it after several seconds, his vision blurry at first. When he didn’t see the dark hair and scowling visage in front of him that he was expecting, he tried to pull away, his befuddled mind busy attempting to make sense of what was going on.

“Wha-“

His jaw was held still so he could be kissed again, the other man… Reiner? It was Reiner. Reiner pressed hard against Eren’s mouth, his hand beneath the back of Eren’s shirt as he pulled Eren’s hips closer. Another mouth nibbled at the base of Eren’s left ear and made him shiver even as Eren began to shake his head.

Not Levi. Reiner, not Levi and- “No,” he attempted to say, his throat dry and is voice raspy. He fumbled with his hands, his right one rising to push at Reiner’s chest. “No!” The word came out clearer this time.

“Hush, it’s fine. You’ll like this, you always did,” Reiner assured him as he caught Eren’s hand and held it down.

“I don’t know, he’s beginning to panic.” Who was that? It wasn’t Levi.

“He’s just confused.” Reiner picked up something and drank from it, something that made Eren’s hunger flare and his vision shift into grey. He growled in need and his head jerked forward, toward the bag, only for his chin to be caught again and Reiner to press bloody lips against his own. Without pausing to think, Eren lapped at his mouth in desperation and parted his lips as blood trickled against them, the hunger overriding all other needs. He continued to feed, only pausing to whine when the hands resumed touching him, his body twisting against the touch.

“Reiner, I don’t-“

The last of the blood gone, the mouth pulled away to leave Eren whining again and shifting about as he tried to break free. “A little more, he just needs to get used to us again.” He flinched when Reiner brushed at his hair. “We need more blood.”

“Fuck that!”

Reiner was suddenly pushed aside and strong, bony hands pulled Eren free, pulled him away from Reiner and… Bertolt? He snarled a little, still confused, still so hungry and tired, but the hands were only wrapped around his arms and then his shoulders so he felt… safe, for some reason. Ymir. It was Ymir. Was he angry with her? “Leave him the fuck alone! He said ‘no’!”

Reiner got to his feet and lunged at them, but Bertolt pulled him back. “Didn’t you hear me tell you not to interfere?”

“I’m not going to sit here and watch you rape him!”

“We weren’t-“

“Bullshit! He said ‘no’!” Ymir’s arms were protective around Eren, and despite the furious voices, despite his hunger, he was finding it difficult to concentrate; it was almost as if Mikasa was here to watch over him. Mikasa always made sure everything was all right. Where was she? Would she be here soon? Where was Levi? Why was it so difficult to think? “You wanna fuck him? Do it when he’s not doped up to the gills and fighting back!”

“We’re not going to get anywhere with him when he’s so upset,” Bertolt said. “She’s right about that. Let’s stop here for now – he didn’t attack us so it’s still good.”

“You know we need to make him accept us! It’s for his own good! If the others find him fighting us then they’ll break him!”

Why was everyone shouting? Eren closed his eyes and tried to remember what had happened, what had brought him here, but everything was a jumble in his head – the hunger didn’t help, either. There was blood, was it his? Someone else’s? Was he mad at Ymir? He was mad at someone - why did he feel angry with everyone? With Levi and Ymir, Reiner and Bertolt and… no, not Mikasa. Where was Mikasa? “Mi-mika-sah.”

Rough fingers pushed through his hair. “Yeah, I’m sure she’ll be here soon, Rebel. Just relax.”

“Nu-not funny.” Green eyes caught Eren’s attention as Bertolt knelt in front of him. “Look, we need you to sleep again. It’ll be okay when you wake up.” He cupped Eren’s face, the touch a gentle counterpart to the quick flare of pain in his neck right before the world grew blurry and the sense of exhaustion overcame everything else. His last thought was that he hoped that things made sense when he woke up.

*******/////

Jean gritted his teeth as his horse – which he’d named Pita because of how much *his* fucking ass hurt just then, along with the rest of his poor body – seemed to fucking *hop* over a decaying log, causing him to clutch at its neck to keep from falling off even as new waves of pain jolted through his spine. Riding next to him, Connie moaned, the sound low and mournful.

“Do you think Captain Hange can give us more of those pills? Or fuck, just numb us from the neck down?”

“I don’t think I’m ever walking again,” Jean complained as he did his best not to think about the agony that was currently his abused thigh muscles. He’d thought that the pain was bad when they’d camped last night – it was *nothing* after a few hours spent tossing and turning on the ground, barely able to sleep because of all the weird damn noises around him and the thoughts of a Malform trying to eat him in his sleep. As soon as he’d tried to sit up when that sadistic, short shit of a captain had ordered them all awake *before* dawn, his entire body had cramped in one massive complaint over the abuse he’d put it through the day before and refused to move. Captain Hange had shown up with some meds for him, Connie and Marlo, who were the worst affected, though Sasha and Rico had been a bit stiff, too.

And Captain Ackerman? The sadist had just sniffed while he drank his cup of coffee and told them to get their asses in gear, because he wasn’t going to let a bunch of ‘baby asswipes’ slow him down at all. Jean didn’t know what he hated the most about the asshole right now, that he’d been so wide awake after keeping watch most of the night, had appeared unaffected after the day’s ride or didn’t seem to give a shit about anything other than getting back Eren. What, were they supposed to kill themselves for the sake of one ki- er… well, for Mikasa’s brother?

As it was, Jean was out in the middle of a damn *forest* for *Mikasa*, surrounded by huge ass trees that seemed to go up and up and *up*, so much bigger than anything that he’d seen in the domes, so much greenery and leaves and *bugs* the size of his hands and cats that came up to his knees and didn’t seem that scared of the horses and… and *damn*. It was nothing like in the movies, which yeah, had been filmed in agricultural domes and all of that, maybe with some scenes shot right outside of a dome during those few weeks when everyone believed it to be safe, but this was the real thing. The captains were riding up front in part to keep an eye out for any signs of feral hogs as well as vampires, while Rico was trusted at the rear in case any of the larger cats started stalking them. *Cats*. Jean and Connie had thought that Captain Ackerman was joking about that, until Mikasa had calmly stated that at least the wolf packs wouldn’t be a problem unless they headed farther north. *Wolves*. He’d signed up to fight the undead, not a damn zoo.

Yet here he was, riding a horse that seemed determined to cripple him by the end of the day, threatened upon the hour by the one of the meanest bastards he’d ever had the ill-luck to run across, utterly lost in a forest where one tree looked exactly like another and chasing after *vampires*. All because he couldn’t stand the thought of the most beautiful, enchanting girl he’d ever come across going outside on her own. Well, relatively speaking….

“I’m fucked,” he moaned, mostly to himself.

“Hey, there, I don’t want to know about any inappropriate relationships between you and that horse,” Connie protested.

“Ha, ha, very funny.”

Connie grinned at his joke, the expression turning into one of pain as his own mount tossed its head and stepped aside for some reason. “These things are evil. Do you think Captain Ackerman will let us walk if we ask nicely?”

Considering that the man in question was currently yelling at poor Marlo that if the poor kid fell off of his horse, that the sadistic bastard would personally see to it that the horse trod him into the ground as a punishment for his shitty riding skills.

“I’m…. gonna take that as a ‘no’.” Jean shook his head at Marlo’s frantic attempt to salute the scowling captain while scrambling to remain seated in the saddle. “What the hell is that guy’s problem? He’s always been a bit of a hard-ass, but this? We’re here to help him! He-“ Jean clamped his mouth shut when Captain Ackerman glanced back at him, his grey eyes turning to gold. He managed a weak grin until the captain huffed and resumed searching the trees in front of him.

Connie groaned a little while he shook his head. “Oh man, that was close,” he whispered. “Sasha said that he’s really missing Eren.”

“What does that have to-“

“There’s another one!” Up ahead, Sasha sounded excited and lifted up to stand in her stirrups as she pointed at a large tree in front of her. “Up a bit higher!”

Mikasa took a running leap from the tree she was currently in, treating a thick branch as if it was a broad swatch of ground, and landed nimbly near the spot where Sasha had pointed as if she was part cat. “Yes, I see it!” She touched the marred bark of the tree and nodded once. “It’s definitely claws from a vampire and it looks….” She frowned and peered around the trunk of the tree for a few seconds. “I think it’s pointing northeast.”

“They’re not quite going in a straight line, but they seem to be headed in a general direction,” Captain Hange commented after she looked up at the sky and then back down at the tree. “This gives us some idea of where to keep looking for our ‘breadcrumbs’.”

“As long as it’s not a fucking trap or a trick to lead us around by our noses,” Captain Ackerman complained even as he urged his horse forward.

“I keep telling you that it’s *not*!” The quiet blonde, Krista, practically hissed out the words as she followed after Ackerman. “It would be easier for Ymir to disappear if she really had betrayed… had betrayed you!” Her eyes did that weird golden thing as she stared with obvious fury at the asshole’s back. “And she’s good at doing just that! You’d never find a trace of her unless she wanted you to, so she’s doing her best to help!”

The captain clicked his tongue in obvious annoyance before he looked up at Mikasa, who was keeping pace in the trees. “Well? What do you think?”

Mikasa held her scarf up to her nose as if to breathe through it. “She’s right about Ymir being good at fading away if she doesn’t want to be found, though I still say it’s a bit too late if she’s trying to be helpful now.” She ignored the growling sound that Krista made. “However, this direction… it makes sense.” Her eyes turned a bright gold as well. “I can think of a few places where it will lead that….” She shook her head and paused as she jumped to another tree. “Eren and I always had to be careful when we were in those areas, because they were old territories for the vampires.”

It was odd, hearing Mikasa talk like this, about vampires and things that sounded as if they had happened a long time ago. About what she and Eren had probably done to survive, about that ‘be careful’ – you knew it wasn’t something as simple as stay inside after dark when dealing with creatures like *vampires*. No wonder she was such a strong fighter.

Captain Hange let out an excited cackle. “So we’re headed toward vampire strongholds? Yes!” She even pumped her right fist into the air. “They’re probably taking your cutie where they feel safest,” she told Captain Ackerman. “That would be the most logical choice.”

He hung his head and pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose as if he had a headache. “Listen, you shitty glasses, I will gladly let those undead bastards feed on your liver right now.”

“Yep, the withdrawal symptoms are getting worse – we need to get Eren back ASAP.”

Jean watched in shock as the grouchy bastard actually bared *fangs* at the crazy woman, who merely laughed in his face. Meanwhile, Mikasa climbed down from the tree and back onto her horse, which Rico had been leading along. He managed to slow his own horse down somewhat so that he could ride along with them, abandoning Connie to Marlo.

“Uhm, do the two of them always fight like that,” he asked.

“The captains?” Mikasa tugged down her scarf and frowned in the direction of the two Corps captains who were now squabbling about the best way to predict where the next ‘breadcrumbs’ would appear – whatever they meant by that – while Krista took over Mikasa’s spot in the trees. “Yes, it’s normal for them.”

“I’ve heard that they’ve been in the 104th for a while now.” Rico adjusted her glasses as she stared ahead at the two. “They’ve both got an impressive kill record, for all that Captain Ackerman’s generally considered the best fighter alive.” She cast a wayward glance at Mikasa. “Though his… condition might explain some of that ability.”

“It’s a recent change, so I wouldn’t downplay his skill,” Mikasa remarked. “In fact, I believe the people we’re chasing are going to be in for a bit of a surprise once we catch up to them because of that fact.” Her eyes, which had turned back to their normal dark brown, flashed gold for a moment.

“Those three guys who took your brother? I don’t know, they got away once.” Rico’s frown became more pronounced as her hands clenched around the leather reins she was holding. “But then again, that older guy seemed to shoot something at him that messed him up.”

“Hmm.” Mikasa once more tugged up her scarf, which Jean was beginning to take as a sign that she was either disturbed by something or thinking about it. “Annie didn’t have any drugs when I fought her, so they probably only had so much.”

“That or they didn’t want to risk you getting your hands on it,” Rico pointed out.

“Yeah, not with someone like Captain Hange running about,” Jean added. The woman seemed way too eager to take on vampires as it was, what would she be like if she had some sort of drug that could knock them out?

“What I don’t understand is why are they focused so much on your brother and not you? Why didn’t they try to take you or Captain Ackerman as well?” Rico watched Mikasa closely while she talked. “It’s clear that you’re following after him as if bait, but it’s also clear that they’re doing their best to prevent just that.”

Mikasa stared straight ahead while she fussed with that damn scarf. “Eren’s… special,” was all she said.

Rico frowned in a manner that made it appear that she wasn’t too happy with the answer, and Jean couldn’t really blame her – the woman had gotten some necessary information out of Mikasa in return for getting them outside, but she was still risking her life for what seemed to be a mostly unknown reason. Despite their talk last night, Jean knew that Mikasa was holding something big back from him, something about her and Eren’s past and what was behind this mission; he could only hope that she trusted him with the truth at some point.

“Yeah, well let’s hope he’s not special enough to get us all killed,” Rico muttered as she went back to surveying the forest around them while she rode.

Mikasa didn’t reply, and Jean was left to wonder if it was because she felt the same way… or she didn’t.

*******

Levi kicked at his saddlebag in frustration while he surveyed the camp. “I still say that we shouldn’t be stopped for the night, dammit.”

Hange sighed in what sounded to be frustration as she handed him what smelled to be a cup of coffee. “So you’ve said for about the tenth time already. Now shut up – dinner will be ready soon.”

“I’m not hungry.” He wasn’t, not for the rabbits and squirrels that Mikasa and Blouse had caught during the ride today, but he could stand for some blood between his injuries the other day and – dammit, he had to get Eren back just so he could smack the shit out of the brat for doing this to him. “We could have pressed on for another hour or two.”

“No, Levi, we *couldn’t*.” A rare note of anger shaded Hange’s voice. “Everyone’s exhausted – we’ve got several newbies with us and they’re barely staying on the horses as is. Both Sasha and Mikasa agree that we’re catching up with the vampires so we’re making good time. Give everyone a night to rest and we’ll make better time tomorrow.” She turned to stare at him, her gaze intent behind her glasses, to help drive home the point she was making.

He clicked his tongue a few times before drinking his coffee just so he didn’t have to give her an answer; he knew that what she said made sense, but he just… dammit, he was in a foul mood and desperate to move, to do *something*, so having to sit here all night wasn’t going to help things at all.

“We’ll get him back, I promise,” Hange whispered while she turned back to gaze out over the group gathered around the small fire. “Between you, Mikasa and Krista driving us on, we won’t get any rest until we do.” The right corner of her mouth twitched upward for a moment.

He clicked his tongue again and handed her his empty cup. “As if they’re anywhere in my league.”

“Yeah, you’re pretty nasty when you’re horny and missing your cutie.” She laughed as she just barely dodged him swiping at her head and then went to join everyone else; Blouse and Connie were gesturing wildly to each other while they fussed over the cooking food, while Mikasa and Jean sat not too far away all curled up around each other in a disgusting manner. Marlo, Rico and Krista were huddled together and seemed to be talking about something, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when Hange went to join them, probably to check up on how they were holding up. Levi had to admit that the baby MPs were doing all right for complete newbies out in the wild and that Rico had enough sense to keep out of trouble, while Blouse’s tracking skills were invaluable. They had a clear trail and were closing in on Eren, so things weren’t hopeless. Yet he couldn’t shake this urge to grab all of them, shove them on their horses and ride out into the night *right* *now*.

He’d dreamt of Isabel and Farlan last night….

Jerking his right hand through his hair, he turned his back on the scene before him and took a few steps toward the horses, away from the clearing so he didn’t have to hear any snatches of laughter and happiness and… and *people*. It had been a bit of memory, the dream, of the three of them in the Corps, out here in the wilderness, of Isabel so happy to be free of the domes and Farlan trying not to show how her happiness affected him and… fuck. Levi would never forgive himself for letting them down, for failing them, and here he was back out in the wilderness and chasing after some little shit who somehow had managed to worm his way- No. Levi was furious, so fucking furious right now at Hange for telling him to give someone else a chance, to let someone else in, at Mikasa and her damn shovel talk, after him to take responsibility, at himself for thinking that he could be remotely normal and just fuck some ‘kid’ with those incredible eyes and shitty attitude and…. And he was especially pissed off at Eren for doing this to him, for wrecking Levi’s life like this and then allowing himself to get dragged off by some vampires he had the audacity to-

All right, he needed to calm down since the horses were beginning to get spooked by him being all ‘vamped out’. He took a deep breath in order to try to return to normal and-

“*Fuck!* Malforms!” He drew his blades as he shouted out the warning, his ‘vamp’ vision lighting up with glowing spots as the undead bastards burst forth from the trees to rush at the camp.

He was already cutting one down when he heard Hange cry out from the camp, the sound a mix of rage and excitement, but he was too busy to pay much attention to what was happening behind him other than it sounded as if the others were getting their asses into gear. He fired off a wire to take the fight into the air since it was a disadvantage just then to remain on the ground and met another Malform along the way.

He had to say, enhanced vision was a benefit with fighting these freaks at night; he’d always been annoyed by the night vision goggles in his kit and how they pressed against his face, but his new sight was better than anything those shitty goggles provided. Plus, he could *smell* the things as well, giving him a head’s up when his back was turned. Spinning through the air, he managed to take out two more of them, then landed on a large branch near another one which he latched onto with his claws and fangs. Hunger spurred him onward, drove him to sink his teeth into its neck and drink even as his hands snapped its thin arms to stop any resistance until his appetite was sated. Once he realized what he’d done, he cursed as he sliced his right blade through the thing’s neck and then jumped down from the tree so he could race back to the camp.

He found everyone still standing, if a bit tattered around the edges. Mikasa and Krista were missing, but when he looked over at Hange, she shook her head while smiling. “They chased after some poor fools,” she explained while making swiping motions at her mouth with her right hand, bloody blade still held clenched in it; it took Levi a moment to figure out what she meant by that and he cursed again while he fumbled at a pouch for a cloth so he could clean himself up.

“So everyone’s all right,” he asked while he wiped at his mouth.

“Yeah, thanks to your head’s up.” Hange stuck her blades in the ground and pulled out a cloth herself so she could wipe them before she sheathed them. “Hey,” she shouted, “does anyone need medical attention?”

“Ah, I think we’re good,” Blouse shouted back from where she was putting a bandage on Connie’s left arm. “It’s just a scratch.”

“It better be,” Levi told the idiots. “Because I won’t hesitate to cut off his head if he starts to turn.”

That caused both idiots to pale and mutter to themselves before Blouse waved Hange over. She cackled a little while she smiled at Levi. “As always, such an inspiring leader.”

“Shut it and get your ass in gear.”

While Hange went to check out the baby MP, Mikasa and Krista reappeared, Krista with some slashes in her uniform and Mikasa carrying some bit of tattered fabric in her hands. “Oi, everything all right?”

That damn scarf was pulled up over Mikasa’s lower face, but Levi was becoming familiar enough with the woman to know that she was frowning none-the-less. “I don’t think so,” she answered him, and held out the filthy bit of fabric when she was about an arm’s length away. He scowled at it and refused to accept it.

“What is that?”

“It was on one of the Malform, Sir.” Mikasa stared at him until he realized what it meant.

“Shit.” He was about to rub his hand over his face until he remembered his claws in time.

“Is something wrong,” Rico asked as she approached, her face a bit dirty but otherwise appearing in decent shape.

He motioned to the scrap of fabric that Mikasa was still holding. “Did you notice anything odd about the Malforms tonight?”

“Other than them wanting to tear out my throat? Not particularl…y.” Rico’s eyes went wide as it sunk into her, too. “What, you’re telling me that they’re recently turned? That they’re still wearing clothes?”

“Yes, some of them,” Mikasa explained. “So that means that these ones haven’t been out here very long.”

“You think those bastards sicc’ed these on us or something? That they’re undead watchdogs?” Levi glared at Mikasa as he waited for an answer, both furious and hopeful at the same time; he was pissed off that his squad was nearly killed by these undead freaks, but it also meant that they were getting close, that they were being seen as a threat.

She paused as she stared at the cloth for a few seconds and then nodded while she dropped it to the ground. “Yes, I do. I don’t think they want to waste the time dealing with us directly and either hoped to slow us down or wipe us out entirely.”

Hearing it confirmed just made him angrier. “Well, they didn’t succeed, did they?” He clenched his hands, his claws biting into his palms as hatred and rage simmered through his blood; soon, he would catch up to those bastards and rip them apart. Soon.

“No, they didn’t.” Mikasa met his gaze, her eyes golden and bright; it looked as if she felt much the same as he did just then. Well, wasn’t it just great that they were on the same page for once?

He spun around to face the camp again and forced his hands to flex open. “All right, you dumb shits, get everything back in order *now*! I want Krista, Rico and Blouse to take the first watch, Mikasa, Connie and Hange will take second watch, while Marlo, Jean and I will take the last watch. There’s no telling if those undead freaks will be back so keep your eyes open or I’ll cut off your fucking eyelids, do you understand me?”

Marlo, in the process of kicking some dirt onto a pile of Malform goo, straightened up to give him a proper salute while everyone else managed some sullen ‘yes, sir’s. They all worked to straighten up the camp and Levi was on his way to check on the horses when he heard a piercing wail.

Rushing back toward the fire, he found Blouse kneeling by the overturned spits with what looked to be the charred remains of a small animal carcass in her hands. “What the *fuck* is going on here?” Was it another attack? Was someone turning?

“Duh-dinner,” she managed to stutter out between sobs. “I-it’s ruh-*ruined*.”

He stared at her for a few seconds before he took a step forward so he could kick her in the head – at least, until Hange latched onto his arm and dragged him back. “Ah-ah! We need her, so let’s go make sure the horses are all right, okay? There’s my favorite psychopath, yes,” she crooned.

“Let me just maim her a little,” he gritted out between clenched teeth.

“Nope, not tonight. Wow, you *really* are frustrated, aren’t you? Do you need to go off for a few minutes and rub one out or what?”

It was a little difficult with such a quickly moving target, but he managed a decent kick to one of Hange’s ankles with enough force to make her stumble. “Don’t think you’re irreplaceable out here, you crazy bitch.”

Hange scoffed at that even as her face twisted a little in pain. “Please, I’m your only medial expert *and* your only friend. Plus, how long do you think you’ll last out here with this bunch without me?” She beamed when Levi’s expression became completely impassive in order to hide the utter sense of doom he felt at *that* particular scenario. “Yeah, I thought so.”

He shoved her away once they reached the horses and swore that Eren better make all this shit up to him, once they got the brat back – it was a good thing that they could live for a long time, because one or two lifetimes wasn’t going to be enough.

*******

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