chapter twenty-five

*******

cannonball

*******

Kenny Ackerman stood with blatant impatience in Minister Zackly’s stuffy office and gave the older man a cold look while the fool gestured about the ornately furnished room. “But I met with the cre- with Leonhart here, in this office! My people have removed whatever traces they could of the cooperation we’ve provided to our… esteemed colleagues, but that won’t do us any good if it - *she* wakes up and is forced to reveal what she knows!”

Someone didn’t have a very astute grasp of the situation, did he? Kenny fought the urge to flex a knife free since his orders didn’t extend to this fool and he was behind schedule as it was – he needed to leave for the tunnels as soon as possible, if it wasn’t already too late to slip out of the domes that way. “Look, covering your ass is your concern as of this moment. You have sufficient authority to demand that Commander Smith turn over Leonhart so exert it as quickly as possible – he’s savvy enough that he’s probably already expecting it. Once she’s in the custody of the Military Police, ensure that she’s safely stashed away and then wait for further orders. That’s all I have to say at this point.” And all the blathering fool should be expecting, too.

Minister Zackly pushed up onto his feet, his hands flat against the desk and his face flushed. “What about what we were promised? Leonhart said-“

Kenny cut him off with one quick wave of his hand and nearly smiled at the flinch the motion produced. “Not for me to say, and if you want to keep living then you’ll shut your damn mouth about it *now*.” He gave the idiot a hard stare to drive home his point before turning around to leave, his black coat flaring out behind him. He could hear the old fool fall back into his chair, the leather squeaking beneath the old man’s weight, and continued onward, eager to be away from here. Kenny had done what he’d been ordered to do and it was time to move on to the next assignment.

At least this one seemed to have been a success on his part, the loss of a decent work partner aside. He’d provided support to the ‘higher-ups’ as ‘requested’, gotten the target to the tunnels and stuck around long enough to ensure that no one else had followed them out that way. Unfortunately, it looked as if the Engineers had cottoned on to those escape routes, which was *not* a good thing. He had to wonder if the one vampire-hybrid was behind it, but it wouldn’t fall back on him – nope, Leonhart was supposed to take care of her, not him. He’d just been tasked with getting the target out of the Freedom Corps headquarters and slowing down anyone who followed.

And what a surprise it had been to see little Levi appear, blades in hand and eyes glowing like the flames of a candle. Kenny had to laugh, just a bit, at the thought that the boy he’d raised had managed to obtain the one thing he’d been chasing after for so long, this after he’d given up on him. He’d gone off for a few years to take care of some work and come back to find out that Levi had gone all soft on him, had left Tartarus to join the Freedom Corp instead of hardening up some more, and that was that. There was no way that someone who fought Mutates for a living would ever work for vampires, or so Kenny had believed. Then he found out that the boy had gone and latched on to the one person in the world who could turn others into the closest thing to immortal; Levi always had the weirdest kind of luck.

And now that damn fool was going to risk that immortality by continuing to chase after the target, from the little that Kenny had been able to find out. Ah well, the boy wasn’t his concern anymore. Just… would be nice to have a chance to fight him again, without being in such a rush like last time, he thought to himself as he went to check to see if there was still an unguarded entrance to the tunnels.

*******

Okay, Ymir was beginning to consider the idea that she had grown soft living in the domes the last few decades – all this mad dashing through the forests and then spending the day in some sort of cave or overhang was starting to get old, and it wasn’t even a week yet. Not even half a week. Sure, it was great to get away from the stale air and LED lights and the feel of people and bots everywhere, but there was dirt and a lack of running hot water and no comfy beds. Plus, she forgot how much feral pigs stunk until they’d come across a herd of them. Pack of them. Whatever you called a whole shitload of the pungent things. At least the Malform had been happy to feed.

And now they were spending another day in a poor excuse of a cave, in what looked to have been something hollowed out by machines centuries ago but everything else had rotted away. She was tired and growing hungry and fed up with the silent treatment from Reiner – yeah, she wasn’t sorry about breaking up his little ‘let’s molest Eren’ fun-time yesterday. Bastard was lucky he still had his nuts attached to his body.

At least they seemed to be weaning Eren off of the drug a little, allowing him to ‘wake up’ enough that he appeared to be almost like a sleepwalker rather than a comatose patient. He would occasionally mumble something and shift about on Bertolt’s back, his eyes fluttering a little but never opening for more than a second or two. His body continued to heal at a very slow pace, his legs now formed about halfway down the calf and his left arm nearing the wrist.

She watched as Bertolt set him down on the ground and then walked away, over to the packs that Reiner had set aside. As for Asshole #1, he slowly approached Ymir while she drank from her half-empty water bottle. “Hey, I have some questions for you.”

“What’s in it for me?” She smiled at the look of anger that crossed his face, having decided that if they wanted rid of her that they’d have done it long ago – with Annie’s lack of arrival, they probably needed some help.

His right hand clenched in a fist but after letting out a huff of air, he forced his fingers to flatten out. “How about a bag of blood?”

She pretended to think about it for a couple of seconds. “All right, I’m in.” She tossed aside the empty water bottle and straightened up from the wall she’d been leaning against. “What do you want to know?”

“Eren – just how much does he care for that Winger captain he turned?”

Ah, she’d been wondering if it was the short asshole’s name he’d been muttering, along with Mikasa’s. “Honestly? I’m not too sure,” she lied while keeping her expression uninterested. “I know he was pissed off at him the last day or two since they were fighting a lot – the whole base was buzzing with rumors about the two of them and how the captain was dragging Eren around whenever Eren tried to run away from him. In fact, that’s how I set Eren up – we were going to hit the tunnels so he could escape from the asshole for a bit.” The best lie was one that contained a hint of truth, was what Ymir had learned over the years.

Reiner stared at her for several seconds, his expression one that contained a hint of disbelief. “Yeah? Then why did he turn him?”

She waved aside his suspicions and rolled her eyes. “Hormones? Who knows? They were hot and heavy for a while, I’ll give them that, but the short asshole got really possessive afterwards and I think it turned off Rebel. You know how he is, anything more than a couple of weeks and he’s chewing at his own arm to get free. I think it was sinking in to him that the whole thing might last longer than he’d wanted and he didn’t like that.”

Reiner glanced over his shoulder at Eren and smirked. “He didn’t have any problems with us.”

Yeah, not until they ended up being a bunch of manipulative vampire assholes, but Ymir kept that part to herself since she really wanted that bag of blood. “That was also a long time ago – from what I’ve seen, Eren’s relationship issues have gotten worse of the years. Whatever the reason, he’s been on the outs with the captain the last few days.” Which was mostly the truth, but it didn’t mean that Eren didn’t care way too much for the short, grumpy bastard. After all, it was how Ymir had broken him down on the Krista- no, she wasn’t going to think about her lover just then. Refusing to do so was what helped her to keep moving away from the dome.

“Good, then that gives us something to work with.” He looked up at Bertolt and smiled, which seemed to be the sign that Asshole #2 was waiting for since he approached them with a bag of blood in his hands. Ymir tried to not drool or snatch at it when it was handed over. “Now stay the fuck out of our way, you understand?”

“That depends, you gonna get all rape-y again?” She was proud of herself for holding off on the blood to wait for an answer.

Bertolt appeared offended by the question. “We won’t do that!” A slight blush colored his cheeks. “We want Eren to like us again.”

“Whatever.” Ymir waved them away and took a cautious sniff of the bag before biting into it gingerly. As difficult as it was, she sipped at it at first, careful to taste the blood to ensure that it hadn’t been tampered with in any way. When she was certain that it was all right, she allowed herself to feed properly.

Meanwhile, the two were once again tag-teaming Eren, trapping the poor guy between them while holding a bag of blood up to his mouth. “Hey, Eren, you hungry,” Reiner asked while stroking his hands through Eren’s ragged hair. Was that a dumb question or what?

Eren stirred a little, his golden eyes fluttering open as he stared with obvious confusion into space. Bertolt wrapped his arms around Eren from behind and murmured into his ear while Reiner tilted his chin upward and guided him to bite into the bag. The assholes seemed to be using his need to feed today to worm into his good graces rather than a sense of lust, whispering quietly to him while he fed and touching him gently until the bag of blood was gone. As underhand tactics went, Ymir had to agree that it was pretty good.

Eren shuddered when the bag was empty and whined when it was taken away, his pink tongue swiping out for any traces of blood that lingered on his lips and chin. Reiner captured his chin again and gave him a lingering kiss, but before Ymir could complain, he broke it off.

Eren stared at him with bleary eyes, his right hand lifting to push the larger man away. “Reiner?” He sounded an equal mix of angry and confused just then.

“Hey, Lumier,” Reiner murmured to Eren before he dipped his head to nibble along Eren’s jaw.

Pure anger flashed along Eren’s face for a moment, only to crumble to confusion. “Don’t… don’t call me… where’s Mikasa?” He sounded almost plaintive as he asked for his sister.

Bertolt rubbed his face along Eren’s hair while his hand slid beneath the cream colored shirt they’d dressed him in the night before. “She’s off with Thierry – don’t you remember?”

Eren shook his head but didn’t try to pull away. “Wait, that doesn’t make sense.” He let out a low growl and pulled his head away from Bertolt’s. “Shouldn’t… shouldn’t she be with… with Armin and Levi?”

“Who are those two? It’s not nice to talk about old lovers when you’re with us,” Reiner chided Eren, even as he pressed the shot injector against Eren’s neck. Ymir was intrigued to notice that the drug ampule seemed to contain less of a dose than usual this time.

There was a frown when the dose entered Eren’s system but he didn’t pull away. “Armin’s not… he’s a….” He seemed to lose his train of thought and relaxed back against Bertolt. “Levi’s not here?” He sounded upset at the possibility.

“No, should he be,” Reiner asked while he set aside the medical device.

Eren scowled for a moment before closing his eyes. “No….”

“But we’re here, aren’t we? We’re here for you always.” Bertolt tucked Eren’s head against his neck while sharing a pleased smile with his lover. Eren made a grunting sound and pushed at Reiner’s hand when it touched his cheek, but he soon settled against Bertolt and allowed himself to be held close.

Reiner hovered close for another minute or two before leaving to safely tuck away the shot injector. Before he could return to Bertolt’s side, Ymir flagged him down. “So what’s the big deal here? Why are you fucking with the poor kid’s brain so much?” This wasn’t good, what they were doing – she needed Eren to be fighting back if she had any hope of them both getting out of here in one piece.

For a moment she thought that Reiner was going to lash out at her, and then the asshole bit at his lip while he glanced over at Bertolt and Eren. “Look, you think we like doping him up and messing with his head?” He didn’t give her a chance to answer, even if there was anything she could say that wouldn’t end up antagonizing him. “What we’re doing is a hell of a lot better than what the others would do to him if they got their hands on him. We’re just trying our best to make him cooperative without breaking him.”

Yeah, right, because almost raping him and fucking up his head with drugs and shit wasn’t ‘breaking’ Eren; Ymir had to struggle with the urge to smack the asshole just then. The thought that Eren was a resilient bastard helped to calm her down just then. “What’s so special about him?” She held up her hand when Reiner looked at her as if she was an idiot. “Other than the whole ‘he can turn people’ shit. You don’t need to break him for that.” No, they just needed wait until he was starved beyond reason, really.

Reiner sized her up for a moment and then seemed to come to some sort of decision. “You know about his father, about Grisha Jaeger, right?” When she nodded, he motioned toward Eren. “Well, the thing is, back in the day there were vampires working on the whole Mutate outbreak along with humans, undercover of course. Jaeger was one of the humans on the project, and he apparently took the research and ran with it, made leaps that no one else could figure out and injected the finished product into his son.”

“The hybrid formula.” Ymir had wondered how one man had figured it all out.

“Yeah, the hybrid formula.” Reiner touched the bag that now hung around his neck. “Not only does it seem that he may have cured the whole Mutate issue, but from what we can tell, he solved the problem with sunlight.”

“For the hybrids,” Ymir pointed out.

Reiner grinned, yet the expression contained no sense of humor to it. “No, for *all* of us.” He waited for the importance of that to sink in, causing Ymir’s jaw to drop. “At least, that’s what we can tell from the bit of notes that we came across while hunting down Eren and Mikasa. Eren’s the key, so we need him if we have any hope of ever being free of the domes before the humans realize that we’ve been keeping them trapped for the last few centuries.”

“...*fuck*.” No wonder they were desperate to get hold of Eren these last few years.

“Yeah, exactly. So chew on that if you’re thinking of screwing us over yet again, and don’t stop us from making Eren our ally.” Reiner warned her as he took a step toward Bertolt and Eren. “If you want to keep scurrying around in the dark, keep on looking out just for yourself.” Having said his piece, he went over to the other two and knelt down beside them. He leaned forward to give Bertolt a quick kiss, then focused his attention on Eren to run his hands along the semi-conscious man’s body until Eren stopped squirming from his touch.

Ymir thought she was beginning to recognize the weird mix of obsession that the two assholes fixed on Eren any time they looked his way – part of it was affection, oddly enough, but part of it was hope as well, hope of a future where they wouldn’t be trapped in the darkness forever. And that meant part of their gaze whenever they looked at Rebel was an icy determination to do whatever it took to get him to bend to their will, which was a truly frightening mix when you thought to consider it. They’d do whatever they had to and claim they were doing the poor ‘kid’ a favor because they weren’t those ‘others’ who would ruthlessly ground out Eren’s sense of self beneath their heels. No, what they were doing was with a sense of ‘kindness’ – bah, Ymir had to stop dwelling on it before she started gagging.

All she knew was that Mikasa and Napoleon better get their asses in gear, *pronto*, if they wanted to find Eren in his right mind… and before she started thinking a bit too much on what Reiner had just told her.

*******

Levi shifted about on his horse and watched impatiently as Blouse and Mikasa examined the claw marks that Ymir had left them in the tall oak tree above. “Well,” he finally asked after they poked at the scored bark for what seemed to be the tenth time.

Mikasa glanced at the forest ahead and fussed with her scarf. “I think it’s indicating that they’re shifting a bit more west.”

“They changing their destination on us or what?”

Mikasa shook her head as she leapt for the nearest tree and Blouse followed her by firing off a wire. “I’m not sure – maybe they’re trying to avoid something.”

“Isn’t that wonderful.” He left the tracking to the two and scanned what he could see of the forest ground in front of him – it looked like the same old shit, just overgrown plants and dirt and the occasional scurrying animal.

“You think it’s a trap?”

He scoffed at Hange’s question and shot her an incredulous look. “I think those fuckers want us dead, and they’d prefer it happen sooner rather than later so we’re less of a hassle to them.” He tossed a quick glance over his shoulder to the rest of the team. “Hustle your asses together, *now*. No sense in presenting as big a target as possible unless you want to do me a favor and die today.”

“Aw, you always say the most encouraging things, Sweetie.”

He flipped Hange the finger before calling out to the idiot bouncing around in the trees. “Blouse, you seeing anything from up there?”

“Not really, and it’s Sasha, Sir.” She laughed nervously when he gave her a blank stare. “Uhm, you call everyone else by their- ah, never-mind.”

This was the shit he put up with, and why he refused to allow himself to become a commander when being a captain was bad enough. He clicked his tongue twice and then sniffed, his vision shifting when he noticed a foul scent. “What the fuck?”

“There’s large shapes moving ahead,” Mikasa shouted down to them. “It’s feral hogs! Everyone, group together!”

“Listen you shits, cluster around those trees,” Levi barked out while motioning to a throng of smaller oak trees that were growing close together. Hange was already driving her horse toward it, and had snagged Rico’s reins so she could herd her and the spare horses along as well.

Marlo was quick to follow suit, but Levi had to snarl at Jean and Connie to get their asses in gear. “What about Mikasa and Sasha,” Jean argued, slow to get his horse moving.

“They’re fine up in the damn tree! Move your ass, now!”

Krista knocked her horse into Connie’s to get him into gear, and a low growl from Levi seemed to provoke Jean’s horse into motion. They reached the tiny grove just in time and had the horses huddled together when the small wave of huge fucking pigs came crashing through the forest.

Levi *hated* the damn things almost as much as he hated Malforms; sure, they weren’t undead, blood-sucking freaks but they were huge, stunk like hell and they tended to destroy most things in their path. He’d had more than one camp obliterated by the awful beasts, and seen a few friends in the Corps gored by those nasty tusks or trampled underfoot if their horse wasn’t fast enough or by a bad wire move. It seemed that at least once a wilderness campaign that some dumb fuck took it into their head to go ‘hunting’ and paid the price of messing with half a ton of pissed-off pork. The best thing to do was to stay the hell out of their way.

Fortunate for them, the herd seemed more intent on just going on their way, and thundered through the cleared part of the forest. Levi did his best to hold his breath at their passing, and noticed that Krista held her right arm up to her nose as if to breathe through the sleeve of her jacket. Fuck, his clothes were going to *reek* for days, he knew it.

After a couple of minutes, the cacophony of the pigs’ passing died down, though the dust kicked up from their sharp hooves hovered in the air. “Hmm, that seemed like a rather small passel, all in all,” Hange remarked while she removed her glasses to clean them, her face smudged with dirt.

“Passel?” Marlo stared at her in confusion while he tried to calm down his agitated horse.

“Yes, as in ‘passel of hogs’.” When that didn’t seem to clear up the situation, she sighed and shook her head. “Youths these days.”

About then, Mikasa and Blouse – oh, wait, *Sasha* - joined them by swinging down to the ground. “She’s right, it did seem like a small herd.”

“*Passel*.”

“Whatever.” Mikasa shrugged off Hange’s criticism and tugged down her scarf to frown in the direction that the damn pigs had disappeared into. “Some of them looked wounded, too.”

“It was difficult to tell from down here.” Levi leaned forward to rub at his horse’s slightly sweaty neck and thought about the fact that Malforms were known to feed off of the nasty feral fucks while their preferred snacks of humans were tucked away in the domes. “You think they ran into our ‘friends’?”

“It might explain the shift in direction, considering if they had some Malform to feed. That and maybe they needed somewhere safe to spend the day,” Mikasa explained as she swung up onto her horse.

Rico wiped at the dust covering her face and let out a weak laugh. “Food and shelter are two of the most basic needs, after all. Just never thought I’d think of them and vampires at the same time.”

“You’re not going to find any five star hotels out here,” Hange pointed out. “We can improvise with the shelter part because we don’t have any special needs as long as the weather’s decent, but they can’t say the same, can they? And I’m thinking that even if they have supplies, they can’t feed themselves that way forever, and they definitely can’t feed a squad of Malforms if they’re on the run.” She gave Levi a reassuring smile. “It’s all in our favor.”

If that was so, why did Levi feel as if they weren’t making any ground? That Eren was farther and farther away with every passing hour? It was going on their second day out here and he still hadn’t gotten the little shit back, still didn’t know if Eren was all right. “It doesn’t feel that way.”

“Of course it doesn’t to you, you pessimistic bastard,” Hange sighed. “Have a little faith for once!”

“In what?” As far as he was concerned, the only thing he trusted was for the situation to get well and truly fucked up as soon as he thought it was going all right – looked what had happened with him and Eren.

She muttered something under her breath about assholes driving her crazy and kicked her horse forward, out into the forest, and Mikasa took her place at Levi’s side before he could join her. “We’re going to find Eren – I refuse to give up,” she told him with a fierce glare on her face before she spurred her horse on as well.

Oh, he was nowhere near ready to give up. Levi did some glaring of his own as he ordered everyone else to get their asses into gear. He wouldn’t until he had Eren back and those vampire assholes had paid for taking the brat away from him – he was just growing anxious over what shape Eren would be in by the time they got him back, the longer this dragged on.

*******

Erwin rubbed his right hand over his face then picked up his mug of coffee before he continued his conversation with Keith Shadis. “So you think you can round up another seventy-five people for us?”

“That’s how many volunteers have come forward, but the issue right now is getting the permits to allow them to leave the domes for Trost.” Shadis’ eyes appeared even more sunken than usual, probably from the recent stress and overwork. “I’ve argued about how shuttle travel is technically safe during this time of year in limited amounts but I’m getting nowhere.”

It wasn’t as if there hadn’t been emergency evacs of domes before, or special runs for medicine or food supplies, but those situations were few and far between. Erwin sipped some more coffee and wished that he had cause to spike it for a little ‘pick me up’ ala Pixis. “You think someone’s blocking us?”

“Yes, I do.” Shadis ran a hand over his bald head and let out an annoyed breath. “Just how much did you tick off that one minister?” The question came out in a teasing tone, but his brown eyes were bleak.

“Levi had no interaction with the man,” Erwin teased back, but he had to wonder – they truly had no interaction with Minister Zackly at all, so this had to be either the vampires’ orders or someone taking some initiative. Erwin *hated* initiative in situations like these. “Can he really not see how disgruntled the people will become when there’s not enough Corps to defend the dome?”

“Maybe he thinks the matter will be resolved by then.” Wasn’t that a cheerful thought? Shadis shared a bleak look with Erwin before motioning to something off-screen. “I’ll keep working on things here on my end, so see what you and Pixis come up with, all right? Worse come to worst, we’ll put those damn tunnels to use to get the people to you.”

And end up losing half of them to whatever Malforms and vampires that lurked inside of them, but Erwin merely nodded and wished his old mentor a good day before signing off. He took a moment to hang his head and rub at the tension headache building in his temples at everything building up – trying to restore a greatly decreased division, fending off Minister Zackly, keeping the dome safe and wondering what the hell Levi was up to, among other things, when his comm beeped. Wondering what the hell new mess was about to be dropped into his lap now, he keyed the device on… and was surprised when there was nothing but grey and white static for several seconds.

When the screen finally came into resolution, he was shocked to see the visage of Maria’s own Chairman, the reclusive Rod Reiss. His hair and mustache heavily threaded with silver, he stared intently at Erwin through the screen. “Good day, Commander.”

“Good day to you, Sir.” What the hell was a Chairman doing contacting Erwin directly, and on an encrypted channel at that? “Is there something I can do for you?”

“Yes, there is.” The Chairman held up a datapad and played part of a video, a video that Erwin recognized as the footage of Annie’s attack on the compound from the other day – how had the man gotten hold of it? Had it disseminated that far already? After a few seconds, Reiss paused the footage and did something to enlarge it, until a blurry image of a young blonde woman came into view. “I would like to know where this girl is right now.”

It took Erwin a few seconds to recognize the ‘girl’ as Krista; he hadn’t realized that she’d been included in the video since she hadn’t fought Annie. She must have been chasing after Ymir at the time. “Ah, that’s one of our newest recruits, Sir.”

Something quickly flashed over the Chairman’s face, something that Erwin would say was relief. “A recruit? So she’s on your base?”

Erwin paused for a moment before he answered and gathered his hands in front of him. “Sir, I must ask what this is about – I take my people’s welfare very seriously and must admit that I’m concerned about why you’re contacting me so secretly in regards to this young lady.”

Chairman Reiss let out a slow breath and set the datapad aside, the fingers of his right hand lingering over its screen for a moment. “Commander Smith, I can assure you that I have no ill wishes in regards to the young lady.” He was quiet for another moment before looking straight at Erwin. “I’ve been searching for her for a very long time.” Something hardened in his expression as he repeated the last few words again. “A *very* long time. Somehow, I think you understand what I mean when I say that, yes?”

Yes, Erwin did, but he wasn’t entirely sure if he should say anything – he didn’t know of Chairman Reiss by anything other than reputation and wasn’t willing to take any risks with someone so unknown – and the little that was known wasn’t the best. Despite his bland expression, some of that hesitation must have shown.

The Chairman leaned back in his dark leather chair, his eyes hooded as he once more touched the datapad. “Let me inform you of a couple of things you might not know, Commander. A couple of things that I’ll refute if you try to tell anyone else, and of course you won’t be able to record from this transmission. I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that some of my… compatriots are working with certain… individuals who don’t have the best interest of the human race at heart. But do you know what is currently being offered to them for their cooperation?” When Erwin remained silent, the Chairman smiled, just the slightest bit. “It’s a chance at immortality, of living forever with all the blessings of good health and no chances of being turned into those monsters that are decimating our populations. Wouldn’t that tempt you to turn your back on your fellow people?”

“But that’s-“ Erwin found himself unable to speak just then, too many choices caught in his throat. ‘Despicable’? ‘Impossible without Eren’s help’? ‘Short-sighted’? All of those, and much more.

“They’re fools if they think their… ‘patrons’, we’ll call them, will go through with it, at least with all of them, but desperation tends to cloud the brightest of minds.” Chairman Reiss shrugged before he glanced down at the tablet. “And so some of them are holding up the approvals for the transfer of Freedom Corps members to your dome since they know that you’ve angered those patrons.”

Erwin’s hands clenched into fists for a few seconds before he forced them to relax. “And I’m to trust that you don’t have a patron or two of your own?”

Chairman Reiss looked back up at him and met his gaze. “I won’t lie to you and say that I’ve no association with them, not at my level but….” He stroked his fingers along the datapad. “They’ve tried to take away what is important to me. I’ve no reason to go along with their wishes, and to prove that, I’ll ensure that you receive the permissions you need for the new staff to arrive.”

It couldn’t be as simple as that – finding out what was motivating Zackly *and* receiving the people Erwin desperately needed to help defend Trost. Not from a man that Erwin rather doubted he could trust. “And what do you want in return?” Unfortunately, Trost would fall without adequate support.

The older man smiled as he held up the datapad by way of answer.

Letting out a slow breath, Erwin closed his eyes for a moment and hoped that he wasn’t betraying Krista – at least she wasn’t on base at the moment. “Her name is Krista Lenz. She joined us a short while ago.”

The expression was most definitely hope that brightened the Chairman’s face. “Is she well? Where is she?” When Erwin paused, Chairman Reiss’ expression hardened and he slammed the device onto the table. “Do not attempt to hold anything back from me, Commander Smith, not if you want those people.”

To think that some considered this Chairman to be willing to hide away and leave the running of his dome up to his ministers…. Erwin wondered if it was all an act so the man could do what he wanted unnoticed. “The last I saw her, she was well. However, right now she’s outside of the dome on a special mission.” He noticed that the Chairman didn’t seem too surprised by the ‘outside the dome’ comment.

“But she’s well,” the Chairman pressed. “She wasn’t harmed during the fighting, yes?”

“No, she was fine.” Erwin paused for a moment. “She’s had a companion who’s been looking after her – she’s gone after that companion and I don’t expect her to return until they’re reunited.” For both their sakes, he hoped that Ymir had a good excuse for what she’d done to Eren.

“Good.” Chairman Reiss seemed to close his eyes in relief for a moment. When he opened them again, he seemed almost embarrassed “I take it that… well, something happened to her to ensure her… ongoing health. Is it… what those… ‘patrons’ spoke of?”

It took Erwin a few seconds to understand what he was asking. “Yes.” He spoke in a curt enough manner to hopefully discourage the man from digging any further, but judging from his comments earlier, he knew that Krista had been around vampires – and the benefits of that relationship.

“Ah.” Chairman Reiss stared down at the datapad. “She always was such a special child. This will just make her stronger.” He was quiet for a moment before looking back up at Erwin. “Expect to hear about the shuttle clearance by tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

“Keep me appraised of anything that happens to… to ‘Krista’. In return, I’ll help you out as much as I can.” The Chairman didn’t say anything about keeping their arrangement a secret before he terminated the call, but that didn’t need to be mentioned since this was an encrypted conversation. As it was, Erwin knew how his word would rate against a Chairman’s.

Erwin stared at the blank screen of his comm for several seconds before he rose up from his desk and went in search of someone who could probably provide him with the answers he wanted right then; the hallways were depressingly deserted just then, the few remaining Corps members busy with repairing the courtyard wall or out on patrol if they were fit for duty. It didn’t take Erwin long to reach Hange’s lab, and he nodded to the two young men who were stationed just inside the door.

So far Minister Zackly hadn’t send anyone to take Annie away, though Pixis had reported that he’d already heard complaints from two other ministers about how were the greatly reduced Freedom Corps supposed to guard such a dangerous threat? When the Engineers’ commander had suggested that his people could take over guarding the crystalized vampire, the ministers had hemmed and hawed, so it was clear that they were already trying to drum up support for the MPs to step in and take Annie away.

Erwin found both the crystal cocoon and Armin near each other, with the cocoon festooned with various electrical tabs that led to a stack of machines and Armin sitting at a computer a couple of feet away. “How are things going?”

“Well, it looks as if someone’s busy trying to erase not only Annie’s workload, but Bertolt and Reiner’s as well,” Armin told him, not even bothering to look up from the computer. “I’d have to say that Annie was primarily in charge of altering the missing person’s log, but they’re busy falsifying their duty shifts to cover the fact that the trio were off during periods when the Corps were attacked.” He typed for a minute and finally turned to face Erwin. “I have logs of all of their changes.”

“Good job, and Annie?” Erwin motioned at the crystal.

Armin’s smile quickly vanished. “There’s no change with her that I can tell – it’s as if she’s in some sort of hibernation, just like Captain Hange hypothesized before she left. If there’s some sort of internal trigger that’s supposed to wake her up, I can’t tell what it is – maybe some internal clock. But that could be years, considering what she is.”

“Yes.” Erwin pulled up a stool and made himself comfortable. “I have another question for you, in regards to Krista.” He noticed how Armin shifted back a little to put more space between them. “What do you know about the girl?”

“Ah, not much since I never met her in person before her and Ymir showed up here.” Armin reached out and began to fiddle with one of the cable leads that was attached to Annie’s chrysalis, a sure sign of nervousness if Erwin had ever seen one. Erwin also noticed how he’d said ‘never *met* her’.

Erwin let him fiddle for a minute and then cleared his throat. “Look, I noticed that Eren and Mikasa seemed to recognize her back when she showed up, and that Ymir wasn’t happy about it. I also know that they take you into their confidence about a lot of things. Now I happen to have a very high-ranked person who is willing to do us favors because of Krista.” He held up his hand while he spoke and made sure he had Armin’s attention. “A high ranked person who is going to remain nameless, yet I can’t help but notice right now that you don’t seem too surprised about that fact.” Armin was staring at him, but more in resignation than any type of confusion or astonishment.

Letting go of the wire lead, Armin glanced around as if to make sure that the other two guys weren’t close enough to overhear them. “All right, I’ll tell you what Eren and Mikasa told me since it seems important.” He tucked back the bangs falling onto his face and chewed on his bottom lip as if buying time to figure out *how* he wanted to put his thoughts into words. “This person who’s helping you, he’s from Maria dome, right?”

That was one hell of a guess – except Erwin doubted that it was a guess. “Correct.”

“And he’s… well, he’s way up there, right.” Armin made a jerking motion with his right thumb. “As high up as you can get.”

“Pretty much.” Erwin folded his arms over his chest and frowned a little. “Why is he so concerned about Krista?”

“Because that’s not her real name.” Armin reached for a datapad and typed on it for about a minute. “Look… Captain Hange figured out a few things with… well, with how Eren and Mikasa helped out Captain Ackerman and Petra, right?” His gaze shifted from what he was doing on the device and waited for Erwin to look back at him. “I’m sure that she either told you or you figured it out as well, since you always seem to know what’s always going on here.”

“If you’re talking about the… ‘added benefits’, then yes.” Erwin did his best to make it seem as if being given vampire or hybrid blood wasn’t that big of a deal considering that he was talking to someone who was very close to two hybrids – he didn’t want to drive away Armin or make him feel that Eren and Mikasa would be used for their blood. “It’s useful, but then so are a lot of other things.”

“Yeah, it’s ‘useful’ all right.” Armin paused in his search to rub at his right wrist. “And you guys also figured out that me and Krista are also helped out by it?”

Erwin had suspected with Armin because for someone so ‘young’, Armin rarely acted like a typical teenager, while Ymir clearly would do anything to keep Krista safe and at her side. “Yes, though I don’t know to what extent.”

Armin nodded as he handed over the datapad. “I was telling the truth when I said I never met Krista in person before she joined up, but I do remember when she disappeared. We were all so grateful that we weren’t in Maria at the time because of the search – it’s never a good thing to come under too much scrutiny.”

Holding the device between his hands, Erwin stared at the article it displayed and read it a couple of times before it made sense; it was from one of the rumor sites and detailed how Malforms had overrun a decent neighborhood, slaughtering several households. One of them contained an elderly couple, a woman and their servants, and missing was a young woman. The article went on about how the household was connected to the dome’s Chairman….

Erwin jerked his head up to stare at Armin. “You’re telling me that she’s related to him?”

“She’s his daughter, Historia.” Armin took back the datapad and shrugged. “Illegitimate, of course, but after what happened to his other children, the only surviving one he has left. Rather funny that she somehow ended up with Ymir, but Eren and Mikasa could tell you that weirder stuff has happened over the years.”

No wonder Chairman Reiss was willing to help out the 104th in return for whatever information Erwin would give him about Krista – what had it been like to see the daughter he’d probably thought dead all these years, not only alive but frozen in time by the gift of immortality? By the very gift that people were willing to betray humanity for without a thought? “This could prove useful to us.”

Armin eyed him warily before turning back to the computer. “I don’t know – I’d be careful about that if I were you. I don’t think Ymir will be happy about it, or Krista that willing to let herself be used. And I’m not too sure that I’d trust her father all that much, either.”

Yes, but Ymir had proven herself to be a traitor and Krista was in need of allies. As for Rod Reiss… the man was a Chairman, so Erwin really didn’t think he needed to be warned about being careful there. However, he just nodded as he stood up. “Let me know if anything happens with Annie or the computer profiles.”

“I will.”

Certain that Armin had a handle on things here, Erwin returned to his office so he could inform Shadis that they would soon have the approvals that they needed – and may have another cause for concern.

*******

Eren lay on a thin blanket spread over soft, musty smelling dirt. He was outside. Was he outside? Where was the sunlight? He could smell fresh air but there was no sunlight, just a cool breeze that blew over his face and mussed the hair falling onto his eyes. His eyes that were open. He blinked slowly and realized that he was staring at a stone wall a few feet away, the grey, uneven stone covered with moisture and a greenish-brown moss. A small spider crept across the surface, its mottled grey color helping it to blend it.

“-get some help, eh? Thought you said that there’d be others.”

“There will be, but once we reach a pre-arranged location. We weren’t certain on the time when we’d get Eren, after all, or if we’d run into trouble along the way.”

“Ha! And fucking with everyone’s communications is coming back to bite you on the ass, isn’t it? Too bad you guys never allowed more satellites to be sent up, right? Talk about hoisted on your own petard!”

“I fail to see why you find this so amusing! If Mikasa and the humans are after us, they’re going to want you dead, too!”

“I’m used to having a target on my head – I’m just finding it funny that after all the centuries of scheming you guys have done, they left something so important to you three and didn’t have a vampire army waiting outside of the dome to pick you up.”

“They can’t risk any evidence of their existence getting out right now, especially with things being so volatile!”

Why was everyone always arguing? He rarely fought with Mikasa, it just wasn’t worth it when it made her so upset and she usually was right in the long run anyway. But Levi liked to fight, liked to argue about the stupidest things… except he wasn’t here, wasn’t he? He wasn’t around at all because… was there a fight? Hadn’t Eren decided to end things? Then why was he still looking for him? Why didn’t the voices droning on sound right?

“-just think they could have given us a damn shuttle or something!”

“What, to risk it being tracked back to St-, to where we’re going?”

They were so loud and annoying. Eren growled as he opened his eyes and tried to sit up, his left hand scrambling against the soft blanket – what was wrong with his hand? “Shut up,” he slurred as he tried to focus on his hand. Where were his fingers? Hadn’t… hadn’t something happened to his arm? There were memories of pain and blood, of fighting but it was all so fuzzy.

The voices stopped and suddenly it seemed as if he was crowded, as if too many bodies were around him; Reiner and Bertolt were practically pressed against him while they helped him to sit up and Ymir hovered nearby.

“My, someone woke up cranky tonight, didn’t they?” Bertolt’s long fingers threaded through Eren’s hair to brush it back from his face and lingered at the nape of his neck for a moment. Eren wanted to shake off the touch, to snarl, but he was so tired. Were they in France? Ymir hadn’t been in France, had she? But Mikasa was off with Thierry or else she’d be here with him….

Feeling confused and somewhat distrustful of the situation, Eren attempted to hunch forward, only to be trapped by Reiner’s arms. “I’m not cranky,” he snarled, upset at how he was being boxed in like this. He went to push at Reiner and remembered about his left arm, his legs. “What happened to me?”

Reiner caught hold of his forearms and pushed them downward while making a soothing sound. “It’s all right, Lumier, you’ll be better soon.”

The use of the… was it an old nickname? Bertolt and Reiner took to calling him it because of his eyes, so why was he annoyed by it now? “What happened,” he repeated, feeling an edge of panic creep in with the anger.

“Humans did it to you,” Bertolt told him in a quiet voice. “Isn’t that the truth, Ymir?” He continued to stroke his fingers through Eren’s hair, much like Mikasa did when Eren was upset.

Ymir frowned for a moment before looking at him. “Yeah, Rebel, a couple of humans chopped you up.” She didn’t look happy for some reason, but she didn’t seem to be lying. “Don’t worry, we’re taking care of you.”

He didn’t… he didn’t want them to take care of him, did he? He wanted Mikasa. Something wasn’t right here, something was off – why would Mikasa leave him alone if he was wounded? “I… I don’t need you, I need Mikasa,” he insisted and once more pushed at Reiner’s chest. “Get Mikasa for….” That’s when he noticed it, the bag that hung around Reiner’s neck. The bag that should be hanging around his neck – the bag that contained his father’s legacy and the last precious bits that his mother had given him. Eren’s eyes went wide has he felt with his left hand - *tried* to feel with his left hand – at his own chest for what he now realized was missing, and Reiner swore softly as he quickly shoved the bag beneath his brown shirt.

Just as Eren bared his fangs and readied to lash out with his clawed right hand, there was that now familiar sting to his neck followed by a new wave of dizziness. “Sorry,” Bertolt murmured as an overwhelming sense of weariness replaced the fury Eren felt, and the world tilted around him. His last thought before the darkness took over was dammit, he had to stop letting this shit happen to him….

*******

Marlo let out a low moan of joy when he noticed that the sun was beginning to set – just a little longer, and the demon that was Captain Ackerman would begin to scout for their nightly camp.

“Is… is it that bad?”

Startled to hear Krista talk to him, he stared at the normally quiet girl for a couple of seconds before answering. “Uhm, well, I think my saddle sores have saddle sores at this point….” He laughed nervously when he saw her smile, dumbstruck by how pretty she was. “Is that funny?” She really needed to smile some more.

“Well, it’s not very original,” she teased. “But it gets the point across.” She sat with ease on her horse and didn’t appear tired at all, despite the fact that she’d been riding most of the day – he remembered that she’d also helped to scout up in the trees a little after lunch. “We should be resting soon.”

“Yeah, that’s just what I was thinking, about how the sun setting means we’ll be stopping for the night soon.”

Her smile faded a little while she looked straight ahead. “Funny, I was thinking about how beautiful it is. Ymir… well, she always told me that sunsets were beautiful, that they’re all these different colors depending on the weather and where you are in the world. I’m so happy to finally see it for myself.”

Marlo wondered if he should say anything or not, considering how this ‘Ymir’ character seemed like such a verboten topic to everyone else. “Uhm, you… you really miss her, don’t you?”

Krista gave him a narrowed-eye look for a moment as if trying to figure out if he was serious for several seconds before speaking. “We… we’ve been together for all these years, just the two of us. I… it’s almost unnatural, her not being here. So yes, I miss her.” She took to staring straight ahead again. “I know she has a good reason for what she’s done, I just wish everyone would wait until they know what it is before they judge her.”

Well, from the little that Marlo could tell, everyone was upset because the woman had betrayed a very old friendship and let the enemy kidnap a friend so…. However, he had the sense not to say anything just then. “So you forgive her?”

Krista was quiet for almost a minute before she shook her head. “I want her back.”

Well, *that* was interesting, wasn’t it? Marlo glanced at her out of the corner of his eye for a moment before he cleared his throat and decided to change the topic. “So what’s this Eren like? From the little Mikasa says about him, he seems like the perfect brother, but Jean makes him out to be an annoying brat whenever she’s not around and Captain Ackerman….” He felt his cheeks heat up and he shifted a little in the saddle before the pain made him stop. “Ah, yeah, those two? I’m not imagining that there’s something going on there, right? I mean, Captain Hange’s not just making weird jokes and stuff….”

The discomfort was worth it to hear Krista laugh for the first time… well, the first time since he’d met the pretty girl, even if it was clear that she was already taken. “You’re not imagining things, no.” She was smiling again while she stared off at Captain Ackerman, who was – surprise, surprise, glaring at Captain Hange about something, probably where they would be camping for the night. “I haven’t known Eren for very long in person, but Ymir always talked about him and Mikasa. I got the impression that she liked him despite herself since she wasn’t used to trusting people, and that it was mutual with him, too. They needed each other to get out of trouble one day and it just kept happening again and again until they became friends.” Her blue eyes grew hazy as if she was seeing memories and not the forest in front of them. “He’s a bit impulsive at times and can be quick to temper, and if you’re one of the few people he does consider a friend then he’ll do anything for you. Mikasa means the world to him, which anyone can see if they spend more than ten minutes together with the two – they’re… they’re such *siblings* with the way they have their private jokes and always stand up for each other. He doesn’t think too highly of himself, but if he believes that something should be done, he’ll push to see it done and he won’t let you stand in his way.” It was her turn to laugh nervously. “Talking about him that way, I can see why him and Ymir fight a lot sometimes, but it’s never anything serious.

Marlo smiled and shook his head. “I can see why Jean thinks of him as an annoying brat.”

“Hmm, a ‘brat’ who’s a lot older than him. That must have come as a shock.” Krista chewed on her bottom lip for a moment. “It can’t be easy, Eren looking as young as he does yet being so old. I know Ymir told me that there were times when she wished that she looked a little older.”

He turned to face her a little better, puzzled over what she meant. “Older? You don’t look… that is….” Should he talk to a woman about her age like this?

Krista’s small smile took on a wicked edge. “Oh, wait until you see him.” She actually chuckled when she glanced back at Captain Ackerman. “I really feel a bit sorry for the poor man.”

Before he could question her any more about what she meant, Captain Ackerman called out, his voice heavy with annoyance. “Lenz! Stop smirking and get your ass up here so you can help Stieger and me scout out our damn camp for the night! And there better not be a single Malform around within a mile or I’m dragging your sorry ass behind us tomorrow – without a horse!”

“Yes, Sir!”

“I keep telling you, Sweetie, if you need some alone time to-“

“Finish that sentence and we’re leaving you here strung up in the trees by your fucking intestines, you perverted lunatic.”

“Yep, a definite build-up in testosterone. Boy, is Eren in for a rough time when he gets back.”

Marlo swore that he heard a distinctive growling sound not only from Captain Ackerman but from Mikasa as well before she kicked her horse into a trot and went off to search for a suitable camp in the growing twilight. Krista seemed to be stifling a smile as she rode off, and Captain Ackerman slashed a clawed hand in Captain Hange’s vicinity before he left. All the bespectacled woman did was cackle in response.

Rico nudged her horse in Marlo’s direction, an impassive look on her face while she fetched her water bottle. “Find out yet why this ‘Eren’ is so special yet,” she asked in a soft voice.

“No, but Krista’s talking to me at least,” he whispered back. “Maybe she’ll feel a bit more talkative later.”

Rico grunted quietly and took a sip of water. They dropped the topic before someone overheard them, even if Connie and Sasha were busy chatting about what to make for dinner and Jean seemed to be staring off in the direction that Mikasa had ridden off into; Captain Hange was watching out over them, obviously paying attention to anything that might be trouble.

Marlo didn’t regret leaving the MP behind, not when it had turned out to be more corrupt than he had suspected, and he’d never thought that he’d have a chance to witness the wilderness like this. So much was being kept from humanity, so many important things, and right now he felt as if he was contributing to fighting back against the creatures that keep mankind ignorant and trapped in the domes. He just felt a bit of resentment that the very people he had decided to help and risk his life with were still keeping secrets from him, such as why exactly they were out here and who it was that they were fighting to save. That was a secret that he and Rico would find out, one way or another.

*******

The screen was starting to grow bleary the longer that Armin stared at it, leading him to believe that it was probably time to head off to bed. He’d spent most of the day in Captain Hange’s lab, working on a couple of projects: tracking whatever Minister Zackly and his people were up to in trying to erase the fact that they’d had Annie, Reiner and Bertolt work for them, studying Annie’s latest condition and doing more research on Eren and Mikasa’s bloodwork. Basically, he was doing whatever he could to keep busy, especially if it meant that he could stay out of the very empty hallways, common room and dining room. It didn’t help that he was really missing Eren and Mikasa.

At first he’d thought it would be pretty easy, letting Mikasa go after Eren without him, with him staying behind to look after Annie and helping out the Corps. It was only after Mikasa was gone that the reality had set in, that for the first time in his life that he was truly alone. Even after his parents had died his grandfather had been there, and his grandfather had made sure that Eren and Mikasa had taken him on before letting go of him. Ever since then… ever since then the siblings had always been there for him, even hunting alone so he was protected….

He rubbed his eyes before he clicked on the ‘saved’ icon and then leaned back in his chair. “I think I’ve had it for the day,” he told Annie. “Last thing I need is to mix up the DNA analysis and when we apply the cure, create a whole new breed of monsters.” He got up from the chair and went over to the chrysalis, which he stroked with his right hand. The crystal actually felt warm beneath his hand, and he swore he felt a sort of pulse in return. “Don’t you think the world has suffered enough? Unless it’s a cute type of monster – maybe some sort of fluffy monster. Maybe something that just tries to subdue you by sitting in your lap all day and cutting off your circulation.”

Feeling tired, he stretched out his arms and lay his head down on them, until he could gaze at Annie’s sleeping figure inside. “Did you ever get tired of being a monster? Not that *I* think you’re a monster, you’re just being what you are, but everyone here thinks you’re a monster, and I know it wears down on you, what other people think. Humans don’t think about all the shit we’ve inflicted on the earth, all the damage we’ve caused, how *we* can be considered monsters. Yet we’re so easy to fling that word about.”

He closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against the crystal. “I guess what I’m saying is… if you can hear me, is that I don’t think you’re a monster. So whenever you feel it’s safe to come out of this… please talk to me.”

Resting there another minute longer, he enjoyed the peace of the moment before forcing himself away to go get some sleep for the night. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he told her as he shuffled toward the door, his voice pitched low so he didn’t disturb the two guards standing nearby.

*******

Hange chewed on her roasted rabbit while she looked around the campfire at everyone gathered together: Connie and Sasha were snuggled at each other’s sides, of course, and Jean was urging Mikasa to eat, which the quiet girl ignored with a shrug. Krista was actually interacting with Marlo and Rico for once, a shy smile on her face, while Levi… yeah, he was being an anti-social shit, big surprise there. Hange gnawed on a rabbit leg while she pondered what to do with her friend – somehow she doubted that he’d allow himself to get drunk while out here so no breaking out the vodka to get him to talk about his relationship woes. Ah well, there went that fun.

Mikasa and Sasha swore that they were only a few hours behind from Eren now at the most – they would lose some time by resting tonight, but they would have more time during the day tomorrow to track the bastards down while they were holed up in some cave or wherever they took to hiding from the sun. At least, they better, because Hange had basically promised Levi that they would find Eren tomorrow to force the obsessed asshole to give up the hunt tonight so everyone could get some rest before a horse broke its leg or someone collapsed. She knew that they’d be back on the trail before daylight tomorrow.

Glancing aside at her friend again, at the way he stared into the darkness as if searching for something, she couldn’t believe how determined he was to find Eren. When she’d suggested that he take a chance on a relationship, she hadn’t thought that he’d get so… so involved. Yet Eren was a good fit for him, between the ‘kid’s’ life experience, only semi-jaded outlook and willingness to stand up to Levi’s bullshit. They needed to get him back, not only because of how valuable he was to humanity, but for Levi’s sake – Hange wasn’t sure how much more loss the man could take.

She tossed the picked clean bone aside and smiled. “So, what’s the plan for tonight?”

Levi finally looked at her and grunted softly. “You’ll have first watch with Lenz and Jean, while Stieger, Blouse and Rico will take the second. Connie, Marlo and I will handle the third.”

So he’d be able to rouse everyone nice and early, in other words. Hange sighed and wondered if she should argue about how the lack of sleep was affecting everyone, but didn’t think it was a battle worth winning – if she was right about them finding Eren the next day, then they should finally get a reprieve once the hybrid was safe. Well, as safe as he could be when there were still a bunch of vampires after him….

“All right, then I guess it’s no sleep for me for a couple of hours. Might as well get a new batch of coffee on, yeah?”

Levi got up from the fire without eating anything. “I’m heading to bed now. Anyone disturbs me, I’ll-“

“Oooh, don’t tell us. Sometimes it’s much more frightening to let us stew in our own terror,” Hange crooned as she shivered in mock fear.

Levi gave her his patented bland stare before he clicked his tongue a couple of times and turned his back to go over to where he’d left his bags for the night. Hange watched him leave and let out a slow breath before getting up herself to brew some more coffee.

Yeah, the grumpy bastard was definitely going through sex withdrawals.

*******

“He’s being really cooperative now. Did you change the dose?”

“I just upped it a little… maybe we hit on the right amount, finally.”

Ymir finished snapping a tree branch and glanced over at the other two, who were huddled together not too far from where Eren was sitting quietly on a large tree branch. He seemed to stare off at the ground below, his golden eyes huge and unfocused, and his hands – well, his right hand and what had regenerated so far of his left – lay idle in his lap. It was odd to see him sitting so quietly, for once not fussing with his tousled hair, not trying to chat with anyone, not scanning the world around him for something of interest or danger….

Nor was he reacting whenever Reiner or Bertolt was near him, whenever they touched him. In fact, he tilted his face into Bertolt’s hand when the tall vampire cupped his cheek before picking him up to resume carrying him while they continued their journey. “You feeling sleepy, Lumier?”

Gah, she didn’t know what made her sick to her stomach more, the nickname or the way that Eren smiled slightly while resting his head against Bertolt’s shoulder. “A little,” he murmured.

“Just get some rest, then. Not too much is gonna happen other than us hopping around for a bit.” Bertolt shifted Eren higher up and grinned when Eren wrapped his arms around Bertolt’s neck.

Yeah, definitely vomit-inducing. Ymir fought the urge to curse and glanced around, only to notice that Reiner seemed to have disappeared. “Hey, where’d your boyfriend go?”

“Hmm?” Busy making sure that Eren was settled comfortably, Bertolt seemed to remember that she was there. “Oh, he’s taking care of the Mutates – giving them some orders for the night.” His arms tightened around Eren’s relaxed form and his eyes flashed red for a few seconds. “Should help with the… problem we have behind us.”

‘Problem’… he meant Mikasa, Captain Ackerman and whomever else had decided to follow Eren into the wilderness – for a moment, Ymir hoped that Krista had the sense to stay in the dome before she ruthlessly squashed any thoughts of her lover. “Yeah, good thinking.” It was because she was so desperate to not think of Kr- to not think that she was focused on Bertolt and Eren just then, and caught the way that Eren’s golden eyes brightened just for a moment.

“Yeah, really good thinking,” she repeated as she brushed off her hands and checked the straps on her packs, anything to keep occupied just then and her head bowed. “So we’ll be moving again in a few minutes?”

“Yes, as soon as Reiner’s done.”

“Great, because all this jumping around trees is getting old,” she grumbled.

“Not like you don’t tell us that about five times each night,” Reiner remarked as he joined them back up in the tree. “If everyone’s done bitching, let’s get going.”

Motioning for the asshole to lead the way, Ymir allowed the two vampires to set the pace and fell into place at the back of the ‘pack’; from that position she could continue to leave a few markers as well as keep an eye on Eren. His head rested on Bertolt’s left shoulder, but after about ten minutes, he opened his eyes to look back at her for a few seconds.

Yep, she hadn’t imagined it back there when Bertolt had mentioned the Malform – that flash of cognizance. She gave him a quick grin and nodded once before he closed his eyes again, trying to silently convey that she supported him, and then schooled her face into the mask of mild annoyance that had gotten her through the last few days.

Really, she should have known better – when had Rebel ever really been so docile? He could be on his best behavior for Mikasa if required, but even then there’d be the usual fidgeting, whining and looks of martyrdom whenever he thought his sister wasn’t watching. Ymir doubted that a few days of drugs and brainwashing would be enough to take him down.

Still, while the spirit appeared unbroken, the fact that he could barely stay awake was going to be a problem. She hadn’t seen Bertolt or Reiner inject Eren with a new dose in the last couple of hours since he’d been so ‘well-behaved’, but if they thought this latest one was working so well, they might be keen to keep him on a regular schedule. She’d have to hope that at least the fact that he wasn’t getting shot up every couple of hours allowed him to be a little more clear-headed than usual and work with that somehow.

And hope that whoever was following them was prepared enough for the little surprise headed their way. Because while being doped up and pawed at wasn’t enough to break Eren… losing Mikasa and that captain of his just might.

*******

Levi had returned from the nearby stream where he’d washed himself and what few bits of his uniform that he felt would dry quickly enough next to the fire by the time they’d leave before dawn and began quietly packing up the rest of his gear. Mikasa, Sasha and Rico shuffled around the camp as they went about with their shift on watch, mindful of everyone else sleeping, and somewhere in the forest there was a damn owl hooting.

His bags packed for the time being, Levi left the sleeping area and went over near the fire so he could grab a cup of coffee; getting by on only a couple of hours of sleep was fine when you were in your quarters and didn’t have to worry about waking up a bunch of sleeping idiots a few yards away, and even better when there was another sleepless… vampire-hybrid or whatever looking to be entertained. Dammit, Eren better be safe and in one piece and waiting to get his ass rescued tomorrow. Of all the fucked-up things that Levi was going through for the shitty brat….

Busy sipping his awful coffee, he noticed that Sasha was yawning and that her eyes were beginning to droop so he picked up a small rock lying near her feet and flung it at her chest. The impact caused her to yelp and jump to her feet, her eyes now wide open as she searched about in the darkness.

“Stay awake, you moron,” he hissed.

“Uhm, yes, Sir.” She fumbled to give him a salute, her cheeks flushed red and her hands shaking. When she noticed that he was drinking coffee, she stumbled forward and poured herself a cup as well. “Just… just another hour.”

He should probably feel bad for pushing these kids so hard, but they couldn’t let those damn vampires get too far with Eren or risk… risk losing too much. It just wasn’t *Eren*, it was giving those fucking undead bastards a chance to create more Mikasa’s and Krista’s, more killers who could go out in the sunlight when humanity was so close to reclaiming the world outside of the domes. Fuck, it might even be more than that, if what Armin and Hange thought was true, if Petra’s… if Petra’s last few days had any significance. So yeah, this was about more than Levi not wanting to be bored at 03:00 in the damn morning or that he’d finally found someone who didn’t annoy the shit out of him after a week or two. That he couldn’t get a particular pair of golden eyes out of his mind for more than an hour or two, and everything else that went along with Eren….

Cursing as he tossed the remains of his shitty coffee aside, he stood to his feet and wondered if he could… he didn’t know, inspect the horses or practice with his claws or *something* until it was time to wake up these lazy asses and get them going.

“Uhm, Sir, is everything all right?”

About to tear into Sasha just to give him something to do, he paused for a moment to find something particularly savage to fault the girl about this time and noticed that the forest was quiet - *too* quiet. There wasn’t any hooting owls, wasn’t any rustling branches or undergrowth, wasn’t any annoying chirping insects or mewling animals. “Stieger!”

As soon as he called out Mikasa’s name, she was responding in an alarmed voice. “Malform, coming in quick! At least twenty!”

“Get your asses into gear!” He tossed back his cloak and pulled out his blades, then shot a wire into the nearest tree so he could hopefully get an aerial view of the attack, and noticed some white blurs coming in from the southern direction of the camp. Aiming his wire in that direction, he hit the tree hard, his claws digging into the bark to help give him some traction, and he cut off the wire so he could leap at the first Malform that was incoming. Slamming it into a tree felt rather satisfying, almost as much so as cutting off its head.

Between him, Mikasa and Rico, they helped slow down the first wave of Malform long enough to give everyone a chance to wake up and get to their blades. Sasha took out one of the bastards on the ground, and then the air was saturated with the stench of blood and rotting flesh. Levi’s hunger was still mostly satiated from the other night so he could focus on chopping off heads rather than feeding.

Using the trick that he’d seen those asshole vampires do back in Trost to knock a Malform out of the air only to ride it into the ground, he took a few seconds to recover his senses before slashing through its neck with his aching right arm. Dammit, that hurt more than those undead fucks had made it look, but his body was already healing by the time he took a few steps away. He glanced around the camp to find that everyone were still on their feet – well, Marlo was on his knees but being helped up by Jean – and the remaining Malform began to retreat back through the trees.

No. No way in fucking hell – not now that he knew what they really were and what he’d missed last night. He shot a look at Mikasa and recognized the same resolution in her glowing eyes. “Stay here in case there’s another attack,” he ordered Hange as he began to run after the fleeing freaks.

“Where the hell are you going?”

“To see if they lead us to Eren,” Mikasa answered for him, busy shooting a wire up into the trees as she dashed off, her Corps cloak flaring about her as if a pair of green wings.

“You idiots, what if it’s a trap!”

Levi ignored his friend and fired a wire of his own to join Mikasa up in the tree. He heard someone else join them and didn’t even look back to confirm who it was – wasn’t like there were many people who could keep up with him and Mikasa. “Go back, Krista.”

“But-“

“*No*.”

“If this is about Ymir-“

“It’s not.” He paused a second to glare over his shoulder at the girl. “One of us needs to stay behind to protect the camp and that’s you.” When it looked as if she would continue to argue, he bared his fangs at her. “You don’t really give a shit about Eren, so you stay. Argue, and I’ll break your fucking back. Now turn around before you slow us down.”

Her eyes burned a furious gold and she even growled a few seconds. “Fine, but you have to give Ymir a chance, you hear me! At least listen to what she has to say!”

“Sure,” he promised – he could listen to whatever lame excuse she spouted before he gave her the same side of the blade he did those two fucks who had taken Eren.

“I… I hope you find him.” Krista didn’t say anything else as she dropped back and returned to the camp.

That taken care of, Levi shot another wire so he could catch up with Mikasa, who was tearing through the forest after the Malforms. “We’re not going to hear the end of it if these things are leading us all around the fucking forest.”

“No, at least two of them are wearing remnants of clothes, just like the ones from last night.” Mikasa didn’t allow her attention to waver from pale, emaciated forms fleeing ahead of them. “I can’t be completely certain, but I doubt that they can be given complicated enough orders such as ‘attack so and so and then lead them on a wild chase’. They’ve never shown that much intelligence in all the time I’ve dealt with them, and that’s-“

“That’s a considerable amount of time, yeah.” Levi clicked his tongue as he landed on a thick tree branch and ran along it for a few feet, only to launch himself at another. Hmm, there was something to be said for this running and jumping around shit, since it was quicker than firing off wires. “All I know is that they better lead us to Eren or I’m going to be *pissed*.”

“When *aren’t* you pissed off?”

Levi clicked his tongue again and pointed after the Malforms. “Just shut up and follow the undead freaks, will you? You’re getting awful mouthy in your brother’s absence.”

He swore that the bitch was smirking beneath that red scarf of hers and couldn’t wait until Eren was back so he didn’t have to deal with her so much.

*******

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