chapter twenty-six

*******

to feel the fire

*******

“We’re going to need to stop for the day soon.”

“Aw, come on, you mean you *don’t* want to be fried to a crisp? I hear it’s *such* a good look.”

“Ve-very funny.” Eren could feel the vibrations of Bertolt’s chest as the vampire chided Ymir and struggled to keep his eyes closed… well, ‘struggled’ wasn’t quite the word as it would be so easy to give into the exhaustion that weighed down his limbs, that made him want to fade into the greyness which fogged his mind. Part of him was so numb, so *tired*, and part of him… he pressed his right hand against his chest, his breast bone and felt the lack of a small bundle that had rested there for so long that it had almost become an extension of his own body. There should be the yielding stiffness of the leather followed by the small hardness of the key and the tiny stones, not this… this *flatness*. Its lack gave him the focus to push back the grey, to concentrate on the voices around him. Though if they gave him another damn injection he feared that the grey would win.

“Just a little longer, Lumier,” Bertolt murmured against Eren’s forehead, and Eren didn’t have the strength just then to complain or pull away or do anything, really. In fact, for a moment it felt like they were back in that small, bare apartment, in the large bed he shared with Mikasa during the day, except when Reiner and Bert were there during the night when they would burn through the hours in the most pleasurable-

“Hey! What if the Malform don’t come back? It’s taking them a long time, isn’t it?”

Ymir’s loud, tense voice cut through Eren’s memories and made him jerk his head away from the crook of Bertolt’s shoulder, where he’d tucked it into without any thought on his part.

Bertolt made a rare growling sound, and Eren noticed a falling sensation; they were moving quickly, jumping about as if traveling by rooftop or trees. Trees. They were traveling through a forest, so they weren’t in New Paris, he remembered that now. “If you’re worried about them, go on looking.”

“An excellent suggestion,” Reiner added, sounding just as annoyed. “What, you getting hungry?”

“No,” Ymir huffed, “but I do hope they didn’t run into too much trouble.”

“Not likely. Now keep your eyes open – we should be coming up to a series of caves in a few more miles. And try keeping your mouth shut for ten minutes, why don’t you?”

Eren didn’t know what they were talking about, but he was grateful to Ymir for snapping him out of whatever… ‘spell’ he’d been slipping into back there. Whenever the grey had threatened to take over, she would speak up and jolt him out of it, often starting an argument with Reiner and Bertolt in the process. Unfortunately, it looked as if their patience with her interruptions were wearing thin, leaving him to worry about what would happen when they stopped for the day.

His hand pressed to his chest once more, he did his best to push back the numbness, the thickening fog and to make sense of his scattered thought when a familiar scent flooded his senses. He began to growl as his eyes popped open, the world as grey as he felt except for Bertolt, when he heard Reiner curse. The sensation of moving stopped as the sound of something rushing toward them grew louder.

“Damn things have the worst timing! What has them in such a hurry?”

“Why don’t you go see,” Ymir chided him.

“Why don’t we both? Bert, you stay up here with Eren.”

“Be careful.”

“It’s just the damn Mutates.” There was the sound of rustling and then two loud impacts, and more cursing. “Stop!” Reiner took to growling a moment later, but the rushing sound – that of clawed feet moving quickly – didn’t slow down. “What the hell?”

“Uhm, where’s the rest of them?”

Eren attempted to see what was happening, but he couldn’t see much more than Bertolt’s chest and some of the trees around them with the way that Bertolt was carrying him. When he attempted to twist his head, Bertolt clutched him even tighter to his chest. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know, but it’s not good. Let’s get-“ Reiner didn’t have a chance to finish, as there was a familiar ‘snick’ sound and then something slashed through the air. Eren missed something when Bertolt cried out Reiner’s name, and then they were moving again, jostling steps that made him grit his teeth. He dug his claws into Bertolt’s arm and struggled to get his body under control, to do something, as Bertolt came to such a sudden halt that made them teeter about for a few seconds.

“Give me Eren.”

The foreign voice, so deep and sounding utterly furious, jolted through Eren and caused his already recalcitrant body to refuse to obey him – he couldn’t move, couldn’t understand what Bertolt said in response as he struggled to place it. He knew it. He *knew* it. The memory was just there, hazed by the drugs and the past and-

“Then I’ll just fuck you up until you’re a shitty puddle of goo and take him!”

Levi. It was Levi. Levi was here, wherever here was. Eren breathed in as deeply as he could and even then barely picked up the man’s scent, past Bertolt’s and the trees and the background of the forest. Levi. The grey lifted a little more and he slashed his right claws along Bertolt’s chest as he lunged for the asshole’s throat-

Something sharp was driven into the base of his neck, right above his spine. It felt like a burning spike that sent white sparks of agony through his nerves, and then the grey took over with the vengeance. His last thoughts were that Levi was here and then there was nothing.

*******

Levi kept the four remaining Malforms in his sights as they tore through the forest, leaving just enough distance between them that those asshole vampires shouldn’t have too much of a warning for the shitstorm that was about to arrive. They’d killed another Malform to give these undead fucks some ‘added’ incentive, and he had to say that he’d never seen the creatures so terrified; Eren had explained to him how the older ones tended to avoid Eren and Mikasa, and Levi had to say that if these fucks slipped away that he doubted they’d ever get within a thousand feet of a hybrid again.

“It can’t be much longer – the sun will be up in less than an hour,” Mikasa said as she ran beside him. “Vampires don’t like cutting things that close.”

“Just as long as these shitty bastards aren’t leading us on a wild chase.” Levi glared at the pale forms racing ahead of them and promised to tear off all of their limbs before he chopped off their heads if that was the case.

“It’s not, I noticed a couple of the signs that Ymir’s been leaving us along the way.” Mikasa’s mouth twisted into a grim line above the edge of her scarf; if Levi was any judge, he’d say that she wasn’t too happy about the help they were receiving from a back-stabbing bitch who couldn’t seem to make up her mind on which side she really was on, and couldn’t say that he blamed Mikasa.

He motioned for her to be quiet so they didn’t give themselves away and they continued chasing after the Malforms, which put on a sudden burst of speed. When he picked up on an odd scent that made his fangs descend and his eyes begin to glow, he couldn’t help but smile in anticipation.

They slowed down a little to try to mask their approach and could hear muffled voices ahead. Levi and Mikasa exchanged glances as they crept forward, and once they cleared a particularly large specimen of oak they could see two shapes on the ground and what looked to be another figure up in another tree. It was when Levi caught sight of a tangled thatch of dark brown hair that he raised his left arm and fired off a wire so he could rush into action.

Mikasa muttered something behind him but quickly fired off a rappelling dart as well; he left it to her to deal with the two vampires on the ground while he went after Eren. It took two wires to catch up to the fleeing vampire – Bertolt – but he managed to cut him off before he got too far away.

Landing in front of the asshole, he quickly noted how the tall vampire carried what looked to be an unconscious Eren – at least the brat appeared to be in mostly decent shape, except for his left foot. Still, Levi wasn’t used to seeing Eren so still like that, so… so passive.

“Give me Eren,” he ground out while struggling to hold back the need to tear into this asshole – as long as Bertolt held onto Eren, fighting was going to be difficult.

“That’s not going to happen!” Bertolt bared his fangs and took a step backwards. “We’re not going to let him go this time – he belongs with us.”

Some people just had to learn the hard way. “Then I’ll just fuck you up until you’re a shitty puddle of goo and take him!” The asshole couldn’t hold onto Eren if he didn’t have any arms.

Levi had just taken a step forward when it seemed as if Eren had snapped out of whatever catatonic state he was in and finally had gotten back to normal since he started snarling and lashing out at Bertolt with his right hand. Just when it looked as if he was going to take a chunk of the asshole’s throat with his own teeth, Bertolt swore and shoved Eren away long enough so he could fumble something out of his left pants’ pocket and then slam it into the back of the brat’s neck.

Not fast enough to stop that, Levi was there to pull a suddenly limp Eren off of a bleeding Bertolt. “What the hell?”

The asshole managed to look guilty even as he snatched futilely at Eren. “We were doing fine until you showed up, dammit! Now it’ll be that much harder!” When he failed to retrieve Eren, he slashed at Levi’s face.

Fuck. Levi had about three seconds to backpedal and dump Eren’s unconscious ass against the thick trunk of the tree and hope that the pain in the ass didn’t tumble over and fall over thirty feet to the ground. Then he had to kick a shitty vampire away from said pain in the ass, since Bertolt was still intent on grabbing Eren.

Not giving the asshole much time to recover, Levi followed up quick slash to the stomach that drew blood and then an elbow strike that broke several ribs; he still had his blades on his hips but even though Bertolt had a height advantage on him, Levi found out that he was the faster and more vicious fighter of the two. Bertolt landed a couple of blows and slashes on him, but Levi would mostly duck beneath his longer reach and end up close to do the most damage – damage he was only too happy to inflict after everything these assholes had done to his personal squad, after what they had done to his headquarters, after they had taken Eren away from him. Oh, was he going to *enjoy* this.

He had just landed a kick hard enough to do some serious damage to the asshole’s spleen, sending Bertolt staggering backwards and nearly falling off of the large branch, when the vampire coughed up blood. Steam rising from the myriad wounds that Levi had inflicted upon him, he nearly fell to one knee as he shook his head back and forth. “Reiner!”

Levi flexed his claws and prepared to lunge forward for the killing blow, but the shitty vampire stumbled over the edge of the branch, dropping to the ground in an inelegant heap. As he watched, the blond vampire, Reiner, called out the fallen vampire’s name as he shoved Mikasa aside and staggered toward Bertolt to half pick him up and then go off.

“Dammit.” Levi whirled around to retrieve Eren, unwilling to trust that those assholes had given up the fight as easy as that – yeah, they were getting their asses kicked and it was almost daylight, but he’d trust Erwin not to be busy plotting something before he’d believe that those undead fuckers had given up when Eren was concerned. Speaking of the brat….

Eren still appeared completely out of it, but he stirred a little when Levi bent down to pick him up, his face turning toward the bit of blood that stained Levi’s left sleeve. “Oi! You in there, you little shit?” He gave Eren’s face a light slap, concerned about the slight hollows of his cheeks; when was the last time Eren had fed properly?

It took a moment for Eren to open his eyes, their usual golden color appearing hazy and his pupils blown. He stared at Levi for several seconds before attempting to talk. “Lehvaaah.”

Oh, someone had been given the good shit, hadn’t they? “Close enough,” Levi sighed as he leaned over to pick up the brat, a frown forming when he noticed how limp Eren’s muscles were and how he didn’t react to being manhandled. “What were those bastards doing to you?”

“Nnn… touchnngg.”

If that was an actual answer and not just drug-induced gibberish, Levi was pissed as *hell* that he hadn’t gutted both those assholes as soon as he’d come across them. As it was, he grit his teeth together while he draped Eren over his shoulder and fired off a wire so they could rejoin Mikasa on the ground.

The sight waiting for him when he touched down was almost comical; Mikasa was chasing after Ymir, who seemed more interested in keeping out of Mikasa’s way than fighting the furious woman. “Look, I didn’t have a fucking choice!”

“You betrayed him, it doesn’t matter!” Mikasa lunged at Ymir, her claws barely scraped along the taller woman’s back. “I told you what would happen if you ever hurt him!”

“Dnnnn-“

“What was that? You better not be drooling down my back or I will kick your ass even if you can’t feel much of anything right now,” Levi warned Eren as he helped to settle the poor bastard into more or less an upright position by draping Eren’s right arm over his shoulder. Eren’s eyes fluttered open as his head lolled to the side, but he seemed to be staring at his sister.

“Doonnn… Ymmrrr.”

“Yeah, we know not to trust her – give your psycho sister another minute and the bitch will be dead.”

“Doonn’tt.”

Okay, that was unexpected. Levi rubbed a rather dirtier than he’d like hand over an equally dirty face and sighed. “Did you just say ‘don’t’ in regards to killing Ymir?”

“…yeaah.”

“Any chance it’s the damn drugs talking?”

Even doped out of his increasingly dubious mind, Eren managed to summon a bit of annoyance in lieu of speaking anymore before closing his eyes and slumping against Levi’s side.

“Yeah, I thought so.” Levi hitched the damn brat a bit closer before turning back to the… hell, he didn’t know what it was going on before him. “Oi! Stieger!” Well, no need to call her that anymore, but it seemed weird to call her ‘Ackerman’, too. “Your brother wants the backstabbing bitch to live, okay? So stop being so psycho.”

Mikasa finally seemed to realize that she had an audience, and once Levi had her attention, gave up on trying to behead Ymir in favor of rushing toward him – well, toward Eren. “Eren! Oh – what happened to you?” She nearly knocked Levi over as she threw her arms around Eren.

The poor brat managed a soft grunt and buried his face in the crook of Mikasa’s neck, but couldn’t seem to get his body to work to do much else. “That fucker Bertolt shot him up with something to keep him from fighting back,” Levi explained when Mikasa actually began to cry.

Ymir had taken a few careful steps forward and nodded. “Yeah, they’ve been dosing him pretty regularly ever since we left the dome. I don’t know what it is, but it knocks him out and messes with his head.” She flinched a little when Levi shot her a nasty glare. “Hey, I wasn’t giving him the shit.”

“No, you just handed him over to the assholes who did.”

She flinched again at the accusation before she shrugged. “It was hand him over or lose Krista and Maria dome, so I did what I had to.” She threw her hands up in the air before Levi could say anything else, while Mikasa kept fussing over Eren. “Look, I know I fucked up, okay? But they had me cornered and I didn’t see a way out. I just… I didn’t think it would be so bad. I didn’t think they’d fuck with Eren like they did or that they’d try to destroy the Corps.”

They could argue all fucking day about how badly Ymir *had* fucked up but it wouldn’t do them much good – what was done was done. For some damn reason, Eren didn’t want her dead so they’d keep her alive for now, but that didn’t mean they’d trust her ever again. “How long does this shit last? The stuff they gave him.” Eren was allowing Mikasa to comb fingers through his hair and pat his face as if he was a wayward child returned to his mother – that shit just wasn’t right. Levi tugged Eren a bit closer and narrowed his eyes when Mikasa glared.

“It usually lasts a few hours at a time, depending on the dose. But if Eren was fighting back, they might have had something stronger on hand for an emergency since he’s really out of it right now.” Ymir began to fidget as she hopped from foot to foot. “Look, I appreciate that I still have my head right now, but the sun’s going to come up soon.”

“Then find a nice hole to hide in and be thankful to my brother for the rest of your miserable life,” Mikasa spat at her, sounding the nastiest that Levi had ever heard her speak.

For a moment he was tempted to agree with Mikasa, but it just wasn’t practical. “No, she’s coming with us.” When Mikasa turned toward him with obvious indignation, he held up his free hand. “She’s the only one who knows what happened to Eren these last few days, as well as might have a clue what those assholes are up to and what they want. She comes with us for now, so give her your cloak and whatever else she needs to survive out in daylight.” He thought about it for a moment. “That is possible, right?” As a working theory, it should – the Corps’ cloaks had UV protection for the times when the solar radiation was still a little high… or for when they *thought* the radiation was still high but they wanted to push their time outside a little longer.

Mikasa’s face was set in a furious glower as she shrugged off her cloak. “It won’t be comfortable for her, but as long as direct sunlight doesn’t touch her skin, she’ll survive. *Right*?”

“Yeah, it’ll be like a fucking walk in the park.” Ymir sighed as she accepted the cloak and then went to investigate the pack or two that had been tossed aside during the fight. “Maybe I can find something of use here….”

“Any chance they left the shit they injected Eren with behind,” Levi asked as he shifted Eren a little closer. The brat murmured something and sounded half-asleep.

“I doubt it – Reiner usually carried it on him.” Ymir dug through a blue pack and pulled out some spare clothes. “He never let me get close to it.”

“Imagine that, someone not trusting you,” Mikasa commented in a bitter tone.

Wasn’t it going to be such fucking fun, traveling back to the camp with these two?

“mm baagh.”

Levi brushed back the tousled hair falling onto Eren’s face and sighed. “I hope that shit burns through quickly, because you sound like you’re talking with a mouthful of mush, which is disgusting. Now, what was that again?”

Eren fumbled about with his left hand, which Levi noticed was missing the top half of its fingers. “Muh baagh.” He seemed to be trying to touch his stomach or something.

Mikasa stared at him for a few seconds and then gasped before she reached into the white shirt he was wearing.

“Hey! Stop gro-“

Levi didn’t get a chance to finish yelling at the bitch for over-stepping her boundaries when she let out a loud moan and whirled in the direction where Reiner and Bertolt had fled. “We have to go after them! They-“

Ymir gave up on her rummaging to hold up something in her left hand. “If you’re freaking out over Rebel’s pouch, don’t. I have it right here.” She let the small bag fall from her hand, dangling from what appeared to be a broken string. “Reiner had it, and I snatched it as soon as you guys showed up. Figured that there was a chance he might run if the fight didn’t go his way.”

Mikasa lunged at Ymir and swiped the bag from her. “That’s what you two were fighting about, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, before you gave him something else to worry about.” Ymir didn’t seem offended that Mikasa didn’t thank her for saving the bag; Mikasa turned her back on the vampire and quickly knotted the broken cord so it could be hung around a neck once more. When that was done, she approached Eren to show him what she had.

“See? It’s all right, I have it now.” She offered him a reassuring smile.

For the first time since they’d found Eren, a hint of light shown in Eren’s eyes. His left hand shook as he reached for the bag, but it fell away after a few seconds.

“I’ll hold onto it for now, okay?” Mikasa waited until Eren nodded to slip the bag over her head. “Just until you’re stronger.”

“’kay,” Eren sighed. He slumped a bit more, leaving Levi with the impression that he no longer had the energy to stand, even if someone was mostly supporting him. About to lower him to the ground, something occurred to Levi.

“Hey, hold him up for a minute, will you,” he asked Mikasa.

“Why?”

“We need to check him for trackers,” he explained as he handed him off. “What are the chances of those assholes slipping a tracking device on Eren,” he called out to Ymir, who was once more digging through the packs to find something to help her ward off the sun.

She paused a moment to consider the question before shrugging. “I didn’t see them do it, which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Sorry.”

For someone who didn’t want to be killed, she wasn’t proving that helpful with the information. Still, Levi did a quick check of a dazed Eren, patting him down while Mikasa held him propped up, running fingers through his hair and feeling about his clothes. “I’m not finding anything,” he announced after a couple of minutes.

Mikasa gently shifted Eren back into Levi’s arms. “I’ll search the bags to see if there’s anything of interest and then we need to return to camp; while the sun will rise soon, I don’t trust that those two won’t find some way to come looking for us as soon as the sun goes down or maybe even do it sooner. They fled too quickly.”

Wasn’t that a cheerful thought? Levi grunted in acknowledgement and held onto Eren for a moment before noticing that the poor brat was basically dead on his feet; the drugs had mostly overcome whatever struggle he’d put up against them. Lowering him slowly to the ground, Levi waiting until Eren was sitting huddled with his knees bent and his arms and head resting on top of them. Figuring that the drugs were really going to knock the brat out any moment now, Levi removed his cloak and draped it over Eren’s shoulders to keep him warm while he helped Mikasa search through the abandoned packs before they returned to the camp.

Since Eren’s eyes were closed, he thought the brat was out of it and so was startled when his left arm was grabbed. “The fuck?”

“…don’go.”

The words were still slurred and rather faint, but Levi had less trouble understanding them than some of the others. He allowed himself a slight smile as he ran his fingers through Eren’s tangled mess of hair. “You’re the one who goes away, you little shit, not me. Don’t worry about me. We’ll be leaving together in a few minutes.”

He continued to work on the tangles until Eren let go of his arm, almost a minute later. Eager to be away from here before any more shit happened, he left Eren’s side with the intent of keeping his word and them leaving as soon as possible.

*******

“Dammit, I said to have the horses ready by now! And why isn’t the fire out?”

Captain Hange yelled at Connie and Sasha who were huddled around the low burning fire, busy brewing one last pot of coffee to get them through what was probably going to be a very long day. Meanwhile, Marlo and Rico hurried to herd the riding horses together while Jean finished putting the last of the bags on one the pack horses. All the while, the usually easy-going captain glared at them, doing a damn good impersonation of Captain Ackerman.

Marlo understood that she was good friends with the foul-tempered bastard – according to Rico, they’d been in the Corps together for years. Everyone was worried about Captain Ackerman and Mikasa, especially Jean and Krista, so that didn’t give the older woman the right to be such… such a *bitch* when all of them were on edge, uncertain if there would be another attack from… well, anything at any minute or if they would ever see their companions again. While they’d faced danger several times already between some close calls with feral cats, the pigs the other day and now the two late night Malform attacks… this was the first time that Marlo truly realized that not all of them might not make it back.

He scrubbed his hand over his face and felt the rough scrape of uneven stubble beneath his fingertips; somehow he doubted that he’d have much time to shave the meager beard away today. “And people think that MPs are lazy….”

“Yeah, well you guys are about as far from the MPs as you can get, if you haven’t noticed,” Rico remarked in a remarkably dry tone. “You’re not even wearing the uniform anymore.”

Marlo let out a weary sigh and stepped away from the horses. “We sorta went from wearing horses to riding them. Not sure it’s a fair trade.”

“Never understood the whole symbolism behind that, to be honest. Wings I get, and roses have always been prized. But some weird horse?”

He gave the sardonic woman a shy smile as they left Jean to brood with the horses and rejoined the small group by the now smoking fire. “Ah, I never understood it either.”

“Big surprise there.” He winced at the jab against his intelligence and let it slide, since he was certain that Rico would just come back with something even more scathing.

They had just rejoined the others when Krista leapt up from the log she’d been sitting on and jumped at the nearest tree, using her claws to climb up it with almost too quickly to track. “Someone’s coming!”

Since the sun had been up for about an hour, that meant it *couldn’t* be any more Malforms… but things had been weird enough lately that who knew for certain. Marlo looked up at the trees with a mix of excitement and dread as he heard the rustle of branches from what sounded to be something coming in fast.

“You better have those damn horses ready, you shitty glasses!”

Captain Hange broke into a raucous laughter as she jumped up and down. “Of course, you sadistic psychopath! Anything for my sweetie!”

Marlo could finally make out what appeared to be three fast moving shapes jumping through the tree branches: Mikasa, Captain Ackerman with someone draped over his back, and another figure wearing the green Corps half-cloak with the hood pulled over their head.

“So you found your cutie,” Captain Hange asked as the three figures hopped down to the outskirts of the camp; everyone rushed forward to meet them.

“Yeah. He’s pretty out of it, seems those fucking assholes were doping him up to keep him from fighting back. They managed to escape so we need to get the fuck away from here, ASAP.” Captain Ackerman didn’t pause for anyone, he just headed straight for the horses. All Marlo could see of the much sought after Eren was a bit of tangled dark brown hair since the rest of him was covered by the captain’s green cloak – oh, and his… fuck, what was wrong with his hands and feet? They looked… had he lost the tips of his fingers and toes?

“Levi! Dammit, let me take a look at him!” Hange hurried after him, while Jean rushed toward Mikasa and gave her an almost desperate hug.

While that went on, everyone stared at the stranger completely covered in the cloak and even gloves. Krista took a hesitant step toward her and held out her hand. “Ymir?”

“Heya, darling.” The mysterious figure chuckled a little and shifted about. “Long time no see, right?”

So this was Ymir, the vampire friend who had betrayed Eren. Marlo was more than shocked that she’d been allowed back here, considering how much vitriol had been associated with her name in the last few days.

Krista sobbed a little and took a step toward the cloaked woman. Just when Marlo thought that she was going to throw her arms around Ymir’s neck, she pulled back her right hand… and punched the other woman with what looked like a lot of force in the stomach.

“Huh, nice,” Rico commented.

Ymir made a choking sound and bent forward, the hood of the cloak shifting enough to reveal that the upper part of her face was covered by a loosely tied piece of cloth. “You left me,” Krista hissed. “After all those promises, you left me!”

“I… ah… you….”

“*Don’t*,” Krista told her. “Not now. We’ll talk about this later!” She bent down to help Ymir straighten up and fussed with her hood. “Look at you! What are you doing out in the sun, you idiot!”

“Like… have a fuckin’… choice,” Ymir stammered out. She rested her mostly covered face against Krista’s shoulder for a moment. “Sorry.”

“I’m sure you are.” Krista sighed and slid a hand inside the hood of the cloak for a moment. “Lots of groveling, you know. And things have to change – that’s just for starters. And don’t think I’m finished with punching your fool ass.”

“I know.”

“It’s all so very touching,” Rico drawled as she went for her own horse. “I can’t believe that they’re trusting her again.”

Marlo didn’t say anything, since he’d grown to like Krista. Also, it was kind of difficult to speak over the ruckus that the two captains were making.

Captain Ackerman had managed to get Eren up onto his own horse, though from the looks of how she was hovering about and glaring, Mikasa wasn’t too happy about that. What had the short man yelling now was the way Captain Hange was stalking about with some sort of syringe in her right hand.

“I’m telling you, let me take a damn blood sample! If they’ve been dosing him with something, I need to try to figure out what it is and work up some type of antidote!”

“Like he hasn’t been fucked with enough that you want to do some of your shitty, perverted tests on him now, too? Just leave him the fuck alone!”

“It’s just a damn blood sample,” Captain Hange practically shrieked. “And if you want to talk perverted, let’s-“

The cloaked figure on the horse stirred a little, causing both captains and Mikasa to rush forward and fuss over him, with a huge grin breaking forth over Captain Hange’s face. “See! He said it’s fine!”

“Yeah, because he’s so drugged that-“

“Just let her do it,” Mikasa muttered as she reached up to run her hand along her brother’s bowed back. “We’re wasting daylight with all of this arguing!”

Captain Ackerman looked as if he wanted to yell some more, but instead he just narrowed his eyes, which had taken to glowing, and nodded at Captain Hange. She made a happy humming sound as she rolled up the sleeve of Eren’s white shirt and wiped the crook of his arm clean before she began to draw blood. “Just a few more seconds, and it’ll be done,” she crooned. “I’ll take another sample or two later on to see how his body is processing it naturally, and can work on it later on.”

“What?” Captain Ackerman pressed his fingertips to the bridge of his nose before he shook his head. “No, I’m not even-“ He waited until Captain Hange was finished and then shoved her out of the way. “We’re going. I don’t want to hear any shit about anyone getting tired or needing to do crazy shit, or *someone* being fried by sunlight. Tough shit. Suck it up,” he bitched as he swung up in the saddle behind the seemingly unconscious Eren.

“Ooh, three shits in about thirty seconds, you know it’s bad. Better do as the grumpy man says, kiddies.” Captain Hange tucked the vial of blood into one of the pouches on her belt before she practically ran to her own horse.

Marlo noticed that Ymir chose to ride with Krista, which seemed to make sense since the vampire needed to stay covered up and everyone else was ignoring her. He decided to ride next to them, just in case the vampire proved not to be trustworthy after all. Since his attention was on the two women, it took him a moment to realize what direction they were headed in – and it seemed he wasn’t the only one to slowly figure it out, either.

“Ah, aren’t we headed in the wrong direction,” Rico called out after a couple of minutes.

“No.” Captain Ackerman didn’t seem willing to elaborate any more than that; he glared ahead at the forest as if it annoyed him on some deep, personal level, his left arm wrapped around Eren’s waist to hold the unconscious man pressed against his chest.

Rico looked more than a little annoyed herself at the moment. “So what, you finally get the kid you’ve been after, but you bring back the traitor as well and we’re *not* going home?”

“Hey!” Ymir called out from her spot on the back of Krista’s horse.

Captain Ackerman did that clicking thing with his tongue that he always did when he was either pissed off or felt that he was dealing with idiots. “Ymir’s here on sufferance since Eren said that she gets to live. One wrong move on her part and she’s dead.”

“Love you too, Napoleon,” Ymir muttered.

“Not helping things,” Mikasa warned. “I don’t care what you did *after* you stabbed my brother in the back, but-“

“Uhm, can we get back to the fact that we’re not headed toward the dome,” Connie called out as he glanced between Ymir, Rico and Mikasa with a great deal of evident apprehension.

Captain Ackerman leaned his head against the hooded one resting on his shoulder and sighed. “I’ll explain this once to you dumb fucks, so listen up. Right now there’s at least two vampires out there who are after our asses, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to strike after sundown. If they don’t, then more than likely they’ll regroup with whomever they were taking Eren to and *then* they’ll come after us. The first place they’ll look for us is… anyone have something other than shit in their heads and able to tell me where that will be?”

Marlo felt his throat become dry as he thought about that. “Ah, how many vampires in total are we talking about?” If Mikasa and Captain Ackerman hadn’t been able to take them down….

“I wasn’t able to find that out,” Ymir admitted. “Reiner just said that there would be help waiting for us at some point, and I got the impression that it would be where we’d hand over Eren.” She sounded nervous all of a sudden. “It… they seemed real eager to get him… well, under control by then, so I suspect that we were meeting someone important. Someone *powerful*, and more than just one person at that. They kept saying ‘they’ would break Eren.”

It took Marlo a few seconds to realize that the ferocious growling sound was coming from Mikasa. “You were going to-“

“Hey! I stopped them from-“

“Enough already!” Captain Hange drove her horse between the sight line of the two scary women and shook her head. “What’s past is past, and at least we know what we’re up against. I’m with Levi in that heading straight for the dome is suicide at this point – it’s what they’d most expect from us and would make us easy to track. Let’s just ride out at random for now and then we’ll figure a better plan tonight, when we’ve put enough distance between us and our last known camp.” She glared at Mikasa until the other woman looked away and seemed to allow Jean to try and distract her.

It got quiet after that, as if everyone was worried about setting off another fight. Captain Hange returned to Captain Ackerman’s side and the two of them took to whispering to each other, either about Eren or the day’s ride or what the hell they were going to do to survive out here, Marlo didn’t really know. Mikasa and Jean joined them after a few minutes, with Mikasa reaching out to touch her brother as if to reassure herself that he was still there.

Rico caught up to Marlo and first looked at him, then gave a significant look up at Captain Ackerman – no, at the bit of green hood that could be seen peeking up over his shoulder. Marlo bet that he knew what the Engineer was thinking – that first vampires had nearly tore a dome apart all for one person, and now they would scour through the wilderness for him. *Powerful*, *important* vampires at that. Not for Mikasa, not for Krista and not for Captain Ackerman, but for Eren. It was definitely past time for someone to tell them why exactly that was, before they all got killed.

*******

Armin ran some new tests on the blood sample that Captain Hange had taken from Captain Ackerman before the man had left the dome; he had a few theories about the drug used by the vampires and couldn’t wait until the scientist returned so he could get some feedback from her. Some of the chemical compounds were entirely new to him….

“Captain Hange is going to freak out when she sees this,” he told Annie. “It’s really complex stuff. How long have you guys been working on it? I mean, is it new? I’d think that you’d have used it on Eren by now if it wasn’t, but maybe you had to be certain that you could capture him or risk someone else discovering it.” He stared at the chemical formula on the screen in front of him a little longer before spinning in his chair to look at the large crystal cocoon that seemed to faintly glow. “If it works so well on Levi, what does it do to vampires – or better yet, to Malform? If we can reproduce it, would we have a new weapon on our hands?”

It didn’t bother him that she didn’t respond, it was just nice to have someone nearby in some sort of form and the two guards by the door didn’t count. Everyone in the Corps was so tired and stressed out from the fighting and the deaths, though Commander Smith’s announcement late last night that they should be receiving some replacement members soon had cheered up a lot of people. For himself, Armin hoped that Mikasa returned with Eren in a few days so he could know that his family was safe and whole once more. Also, maybe then Annie would have some incentive to wake up, and they could figure out some sort of peaceful resolution to this whole mess.

He should be doing some work on Eren and Mikasa’s bloodwork, but that would involve looking at Petra’s samples and… well, he didn’t want to think about what had happened to the poor woman right now, not with Annie right there. “They’ve got most of the wall rebuilt, you know,” he told her. “Some Engineers are out there helping with it, so it’ll probably be better than it ever was. And so far no Malform attacks, for which everyone is grateful.” He paused for a minute so he could save his work so far that morning. “Wouldn’t happen to have a clue where all of them have gone, would you? The Engineers have found some in the tunnels, but not as much as they’d expect.”

Annie looked so peaceful while encased in the clear, faintly golden crystal. She had to have been so young, back when she’d been turned into a vampire, approaching the threshold of adulthood when forced into a life of darkness and death. Armin couldn’t imagine having to kill to live, and he knew that for vampires, at least back before the great collapse, that was the only choice left to them since a survivor to a feeding could mean the betrayal of their true nature; Eren and Mikasa chose not to feed on humans not only because of the ‘weaker’ blood, but because of the risk of what they were becoming known even if they took great care in knocking out their victims. Even living on donated or bagged blood ran too much of a risk since that could be traced back to them in the end. As cruel as it sounded, the easiest thing to do was to drain and kill all victims, ensuring no witnesses and no accidental turnings, but it also meant seeing humans as nothing more than livestock. Annie’s will to survive must have been great, for her to turn her back on what she’d been and to endure such loneliness. If only Armin could convince her that it didn’t have to be like that.

He’d just risen out of his chair and approached the crystal when he heard the door to the lab open. Expecting to see Moblit or Commander Smith enter, he was surprised when it was indeed the latter who was among his visitors, but followed by several unfamiliar men dressed in MP uniforms. “Commander?”

Commander Smith gave him an unapologetic smile while circling around Annie’s crystal to stand by his side. “I’m sorry, Armin, but Chairman Fritz has issued an order that we are to surrender the vampire into the MPs’ custody.”

“What?” Commander Smith wanted him to give up Annie? “But – she’s safe here!” Armin rested a protective hand on top of the warm crystal. “Why do they want her?”

“We’re barely at strength to protect ourselves, let alone ensure that nothing will happen to… such an important hostage.” Commander Smith’s deep voice was even yet his blue eyes narrowed slightly as he stared intently at Armin as if trying to convey a warning. “It’ll be best for everyone involved if the vampire is transferred to a more secure location.”

“She’s perfec-“ Armin’s protest was cut off when the commander reached out to grab onto his right forearm and gave it a painful squeeze. “Sir?”

“As always with you scientists, never willing to let a lab specimen go without a fight.” Commander Smith made it sound like a joke, even as he kept his gaze on Armin while he motioned to the MPs standing behind him. “I’m certain that it’ll be all right for you to stop by the MP base to resume your examinations there.”

One of the MPs who were shuffling around the crystal sent the commander an unhappy look. “I’m not sure that-“

“I specifically told Nile that I expected Armin and Hange’s research to remain unaffected by this relocation when I agreed to it,” Commander Smith informed the man in a tone that didn’t brook any argument. “So you can count on seeing Armin in the near future.”

“Uhm… yes, Sir.” The lanky man practically genuflected before assisting his comrades with securing various ropes and levers around the crystal before removing it from the lab with the aid of a small moving bot.

Armin and Commander Smith remained quiet during the entire move process, until the MPs and the two guards at the door were gone. Then Armin turned to face the man he normally respected. “You let her go?”

“Yes, because it’s not worth it to fight with the damn Chairman,” Commander Smith pointed out as he tugged on the hem of his grey coat, a weary look on his face. “We might have some damning information on Minister Zackly, but they timed the request for… for Annie right before the new Corps will arrive at the dome.” His jaw jutted out as his right hand fell onto the hilt of his blades. “Nile didn’t come out and say it explicitly, but I got the impression that the shuttles bringing those much needed people could be blocked from entrance into the dome if I didn’t hand her over.”

They needed the new fighters if they were to protect the dome and the people inside of it, but didn’t Annie deserve some protection, too? How was Armin going to convince her that she could regain some humanity, that she didn’t have to keep on killing if she was just handed back to the people who would use her? “Couldn’t you have done something,” he pleaded. “What about the information I found out about Zackly?”

The commander gave him an almost pitying look. “You’ll be able to visit her at the MP headquarters – Nile didn’t want to give in on that but I pushed back on the fact that he had three vampires in his organization and a couple of other things to make him give in. That way we can make sure she stays there and doesn’t escape.” When all Armin did was stare back at him, Commander Smith shook his head. “Armin… I have a whole dome to look out for – more than a dome, really. Humanity is teetering on the brink here, and I can’t reveal some of the most important information we have just yet – and over a vampire that killed some of our own and tried to tear apart the 104th. I’m sorry.” He gave Armin a pat on the shoulder before walking away.

Armin let him go and stared at the blank spot where Annie’s crystal had been for the last couple of days, and had to wonder if Eren and Mikasa weren’t right in their general opinion in that being around humans only brought pain and confusion. He had to wonder if there might be a point in listening to Annie explain about why vampires hated humans so much, because right now… right now he wasn’t so happy with his own kind.

*******

Reiner moaned as he dropped down onto the dry, musty soil that lined the bottom of the cave. “I’m not sure I ever want to feel the sun again after today.”

Bert collapsed next to him in an exhausted heap, the wounds he’d gained from the fight earlier finally healed. “It feels great to be out of it.” He was quiet for a few seconds as he curled up next to Reiner. “What are we going to do now?”

Thankful to be out of the sun and able to rest, Reiner didn’t want to think about anything just yet except how grateful he was that they both were safe and that they could finally rest. He sighed as he pulled Bert against his chest and buried his face in the soft hair of his lover, for a moment willing to believe that everything was all right, that it was just the two of them left in the world. Unfortunately, he could still smell Eren and that bastard hybrid that had done his best to tear Bert apart….

“We’ll have to meet up with Zeki and the others and admit that we lost Eren,” he said after a minute or so, his fingers clenched tight in Bert’s shirt as he spoke. “At least we have a copy of the key so it wasn’t for nothing, and Eren’s out of the dome.”

“For now.” Bert shifted against him, his breath warm against Reiner’s neck.

“No, he has to know that we’re watching the tunnels now. It’s safer for him to remain outside.”

“Eren’s not always known for doing the sensible thing.”

That was true. Reiner rubbed at Bert’s back and tried to figure out how this plan had gone all wrong – first there had been Annie failing to meet up with them and then Eren being so difficult to bend, and finally that damn captain along with Mikasa tracking them down. It had been such a simple plan – snatch Eren, break him down and then get him to Stockholm, but nothing had gone the way it should….

“We affected him somewhat, we’ll just have to hope that it’ll have some effect when we run into him again,” Reiner said as he held Bert close. “But for now… we’ll see what Zeki wants to do next.”

Bert shivered against him, and Reiner couldn’t blame his lover; they’d done their best to break Eren free of the dome and to bring him to heel, to redeem themselves of the mistake made centuries ago, but Eren had proved to be too stubborn. Now… now the Elders would be involved.

******

Hange glanced out of the corner of her eye and had to bite her lip before a ridiculous grin spread across her face; okay, so they were riding as if Malforms were nipping at their heels through the forest, but *damn* if that wasn’t a picture she so wish she could capture without notice and send back to Erwin, Mike and Moblit right now. Levi and Eren were riding on the same horse with Eren’s head lolling back on Levi’s left shoulder, his right hand latched onto Levi’s left forearm so tightly that faint trails of steam rose where from where his claws were digging in, and Levi actually… *actually* looked content at the moment. Levi, Mr. ‘I am perfectly happy being a sadistic, lonely pain in the ass bastard’ looked happy to have his arm wrapped around another human being – not to mention he wasn’t yelling at other people and threatening vast amounts of physical abuse at the moment. Oh-ho, this was one for the record books.

And then Mikasa had to nudge her horse a little closer and frown. “Are you sure that you’re holding on tightly enough? He looks as if he’s slipping a little there. Maybe we should switch-“

“Back off, you fucking mother hen,” Levi snapped, his slight content smile slipping away to be replaced with a scowl. “He’s fine where he is.”

“He should be with someone he’s known for longer – you’re little more than a fuck-buddy to him at this point!”

“To hell with that! I think you’re just a jealous-“

“Stop fighting,” Eren mumbled as he lifted his mostly healed left hand to his face and rubbed it about. “Everyone’s always fighting.” He opened his blurry eyes and blinked several times. “Where am I?”

“Don’t worry, it’s all right,” Levi murmured as he held Eren against his chest, but for some reason that didn’t seem to calm the poor guy down. When Eren went stiff against Levi and attempted to pull away, Krista’s horse charged forward until it was next to Levi’s and Ymir’s cloaked form reached for Eren.

“Look, Rebel! Rebel!” She ignored Levi’s snarl and grabbed at Eren’s face with her gloved hands. “Mikasa’s here! Mikasa! And Levi, too. That grumpy bastard you like so much! Just… just breathe, okay?” Ymir allowed Mikasa to push her aside and take her place.

While Mikasa and Levi sought to soothe a confused Eren, Hange nudged her horse forward until she was next to Krista’s. “What was that about?”

It was difficult to make out Ymir’s face, what with all the protective covering against the sunlight, but she could see the way Ymir shrugged even with the way the vampire sat behind a defensive Krista. “Those assholes were fucking with Eren’s mind thanks to all the drugs – from what I could tell they were trying to mess up his sense of time and everything, attempting to make him think that it was back before he found out that they were vampires. But one thing that they kept telling him was that he was all right, that they’d take care of him.”

“In other words, they assured him that everything was fine and then screwed him over.”

“Yeah, basically.” Ymir sighed and rested against Krista’s back. “Just keep shoving Mikasa in his face and he should be okay. Mikasa and the grouchy bastard – he kept asking for him, too.”

Hange smiled a little at that revelation. “Somehow, I doubt either of them are going to let him out of their sights anytime soon.”

“Yeah, so do I.”

Well, it was good to know that Eren considered Levi just as important as his sister. Hange turned to tell her friend the good news and found Levi glaring around at everybody staring at them. “Okay, we’re stopping here for a break. A *short* break. That means rations for lunch, *Blouse*, and don’t try to drag Stieger off to the bushes for a quickie, Horse-face.”

“Hey! I wouldn’t- that was totally- why are you such an… I mean….” The poor former MP appeared totally flustered even as his partner sniggered into his sleeve.

Mikasa spared an impressive glare at Levi before she reached out to push back the hood covering her brother’s head far enough to expose his face. “You’re *such* an asshole.”

Eren blinked his dilated eyes several times, probably at the exposure to sunlight. “Huh?”

“Not you,” she assured him in a gentle voice, a sharp contrast to the vicious snarl a moment before. “Get him down while I see about something that’ll help him wake up,” she ordered Levi as she swung to the ground before heading off toward Sasha.

He clicked his tongue a few times as if in objection to the demand but looped the reins around the horn of his saddle before urging Eren to lean forward so he could dismount. As soon as he was on the ground, he gently tugged Eren down toward him until the sleepy hybrid fell into his outstretched arms. “Such a pain in the ass.”

The hood slid back to Eren’s shoulders as he glared up at Levi. “F…fuck you.”

Levi sighed as he half carried Eren over to just a few feet away from where Mikasa was huddled with Jean, Sasha and Connie. “You’re pathetic with that shit in your veins, brat.”

Following behind the two, Hange had to agree – she was used to much more spirited fighting between them. “Come on now, Levi – the poor kid is fighting with a handicap right now.”

He looked over his shoulder to scowl at her with disgust. “The poor ‘kid’ is-“

“Hmm, missed this,” Eren murmured as he nuzzled at Levi’s neck. “Not grouchy enough.”

Again, Hange so wished that she could take a picture or video somehow, because Levi appeared so gobsmacked just then that it was unbelievable. He actually stumbled for a step or two before he recovered and his habitual scowl took over as his default expression. “You little shit – just what are you implying?”

“Wasn’t grouchy enough,” Eren continued to mumble. “Knew something was missing.”

“Aw, I think he’s saying that he knew you weren’t there because no one has as bad an attitude as you do. Isn’t that so romantic?” Hange batted her eyes at Levi. “Here, let me get another sample so I can judge how quickly that stuff runs through his system.” She began to pull out another syringe from one of her pouches while Levi mumbled under his breath about ‘perverted psycho scientists’. To think she almost didn’t know that he cared about her….

Levi sat Eren down on a smoothed out large rock with a bit more force than necessary. “Oi, wake *up*.” He gave Eren’s shoulders a harsh shake.

“Mmm tryin’.” Eren batted at Levi’s hands before slumping forward. Levi’s surly glower lasted all of two seconds before he sighed and began to fuss with the strands of Eren’s tousled hair.

“Is everything going okay here?”

Hange smiled at Rico and Marlo while she took another sample from Eren, unsurprised to find them hovering about; she knew that they had been digging into Eren and Mikasa’s past the last few days, trying to find out more about Eren since no one who really knew about him was being too forthcoming about why exactly he’d been kidnapped. “Nope, we’re just trying to sober Eren up a little – if you want to grab a bite to eat or take a break, I suggest you do it now since we won’t be stopping for long.” She hoped that they’d get the hint.

Unfortunately, neither of them did and backed off, they just took a few steps forward so they could get a closer look at Levi and Eren. “From all the yelling we thought that maybe something was wrong,” Rico explained. She shifted closer and frowned once she got a good look at Eren, who was allowing Levi to comb back the hair falling onto his face. “The hell? He’s just a kid.”

If Rico looked confused, Marlo appeared as if he’d just been punched in the stomach, his eyes going wide and the blood draining from his face. He kept staring back and forth between Eren and Levi several times before he shook his head, and just when he was about to say something, Mikasa barreled her way past him.

“Eren! Eren, I need you to drink this.” She fell on her knees in front of her brother and shoved Levi aside. “Come on, drink this now.” She thrust a thermos full of what smelled to be coffee into Eren’s face.

Jean, Connie and Sasha joined them as well, blocking in Eren as he frowned at the thermos and batted it away after one sniff. “No,” he whined, his face all scrunched up. “It smells like you. Not gonna drink it.”

Mikasa looked at Levi for a moment and motioned at her brother before surging forward, her left arm wrapping around his neck and lower face while her right hand raised the thermos to his mouth. “You *will* drink it because it’ll make you feel better. Come on now.” After a few seconds, Levi joined on and helped to hold him still while Mikasa basically forced the coffee down his mouth.

Eren struggled for a moment, the coffee spilling down the sides of his mouth and onto the green cloak he was still wearing, and then he began to drink. His eyes were glowing and narrowed in obvious anger, but he continued to drink.

“What the hell are we missing here,” Rico demanded to know.

Sasha made a sniffing sound and wrapped her arms around her waist. “I was saving that for later, but Mikasa said that Eren really needed it now. She went and added some of her blood to it so none of us could share it….”

“Fucking Eren and how special he is,” Jean muttered while he stared at the trio; meanwhile Mikasa urged Eren to drink all of the coffee. Hange watched them for a few more seconds and then went off for some answers from the two who were hiding in the shadows with the horses.

She noticed that Krista was still being a bit standoffish with Ymir, but the two were whispering to each other until she came in earshot. Hoping that the blonde girl was giving Ymir enough grief to make up for all the trouble that the vampire had caused them, she smiled at Krista first before she turned toward Ymir. “So, Mikasa gave Eren her blood? Can she do that?”

Ymir made as if to run her gloved hands through her hair before she remembered about the hood of the cloak. “Ah, yeah, she can.” She waved her right hand about for a second as if to do something with it before letting it fall back to her side. “It’s not something we do often, all right? It’s like… well, it’s not quite cannibalism, but it’s not a habit we encourage. The last thing we want is for one of us to get used to feeding off of each other and then for something bad to happen, and then to wake up and realize we’d turned on someone we care about. It’s better to feed off of humans or Malform – off of lesser beings, you understand?” She ignored the way that Krista hissed at her when she said ‘humans’. “Or animals, if nothing else is around.”

Hange smiled to show that she wasn’t bothered by the ‘humans as lesser beings’ comment – from a scientific standpoint, humans were nothing special compared to what Eren, Levi and Mikasa had become. It didn’t mean that she wouldn’t rip out Ymir’s spine if the traitorous bitch tried to bite into her throat. “So why wouldn’t Mikasa just ask one of us for blood now?”

“Because the fastest way to clear that shit out of Eren’s system is with something that’ll boost his healing, and that means potent blood. The most potent blood around right now is that of another vampire or a hybrid, and Mikasa is pretty old on top of that.”

And somehow, Hange doubted that Mikasa would be asking Ymir for anything in regards to Eren. “All right, that makes sense.” She nodded in thanks before turning away. “I suspect that we’re going to be leaving soon.”

“Yeah, yeah, just a stop for Eren, no big surprise there.” For all the sarcasm, Ymir didn’t sound too bitter.

On her way back to join the others, Hange stopped by the light grey horse that had been designated as Eren’s and rustled through the packed saddlebags until she found one of the cloaks that had been prepared for him at the storage station. The garment in hand, she returned to gathering to find that Eren had finished his ‘spiked’ coffee and actually appeared a bit more awake now.

“-bag, where is it?” He was clutching at his chest with his right hand while his left was entangled in the front of Levi’s white shirt, his eyes wide and glowing.

“Relax, Mikasa has it, remember?” Levi held onto Eren’s hand and jerked his chin in Mikasa’s direction, while the woman scrambled to pull out a small leather pouch which hung around her neck. Eren’s shoulders slumped forward when he saw the ‘bag’ and he let out a shaky breath. “Why don’t you let her keep it until you’re a bit better, okay?”

Eren reached out his right hand to touch Mikasa’s chest, above where the bag hung, and slowly nodded. “Okay.” He closed his eyes for a moment and he sighed again. When he opened his eyes, he looked at the people gathered around and frowned. “Where’s Armin? Why are these people here? They shouldn’t be here – I don’t trust them.”

“Oh fuck *you*, you *brat*,” Jean yelled. “This is the thanks we get for coming to save your ass?”

“*You* didn’t save shit, Mikasa and Levi-“

Sasha shouldered her way in front of a red-faced Jean and laughed, the sound a little strained. “Ah, remember me, Eren? It’s Sasha.”

Eren stopped shouting at Jean and blinked a few times as if confused. “Yeah….” He rubbed at his forehead with his right hand, his fingers held stiff to keep his claws out of the way. “Mikasa said we could trust you.”

Her smile growing a little stronger, Sasha motioned toward a still furious Jean and a nervous Connie. “Yes, you can. And Mikasa and I trust Jean and Connie, so that means you can trust them as well, right?” Her smile started to slip the longer that Eren merely stared back at her.

“…I guess so,” he mumbled after looking back and forth between his sister and Sasha. “But there’s still those two.” He pointed a clawed finger at Rico and Marlo – and then yelped when Levi yanked him onto his feet.

“I’m vouching for them, and since you forced me to bring along Ymir on *your* say-so, then you’re just gonna have to suck it up and deal with them, you little shit.” He gave Eren a quick shake as if to cut off any complaint and then yanked off the soiled cloak. “That shit better get out of your system soon before I throttle you.”

Somehow, that threat sounded a little hollow, Hange thought as she handed Levi the clean cloak. “I don’t know, I thought you’d enjoy him being all docile like this.”

Levi scowled at her for a moment before slinging the cloak around a grumbling Eren’s shoulders. “Not when it’s turning him into a paranoid twit.”

“’m notta twit…”

“Yes you are,” Levi argued. “Now get your ass back up on that horse. All of you, on your damn horses!”

Mikasa appeared at Eren’s side and tugged at his left arm. “You can ride with me if you want.”

“No, he rides with whomever he’s fucking.”

“He’s not fucking anyone right now! And that rule is for sleeping, not riding!”

“Yeah, well he’s doing a lot of sleeping in this condition, so it qualifies!”

Dammit, why didn’t Hange have a datapad hidden away right now? Erwin would completely give her that new budget to renovate her lab for this footage, of Levi fighting with Mikasa over Eren like two children bickering over a favorite toy. She chewed on a knuckle of her right hand in an effort not to squeal in amusement – only to have Rico put an end to the fun.

“Are the two of you out of your minds? What part of ‘important, powerful vampires’ after our asses did you not get? Yet you waste time arguing over *this*?”

Levi and Mikasa stopped glaring figurative daggers at each long enough to direct their ire at the Engineer, who didn’t look that impressed by the vitriol. Meanwhile, Eren shook his head and took a step away from the two idiots. “Uhm, maybe I’ll ride with her?”

Hange didn’t know who was more stunned by his decision – Levi, Mikasa or Rico, but Levi recovered first. “Like hell you will.” He lowered his shoulder so he could swoop up Eren and haul the poor ‘kid’ over to his horse, ignoring both Eren’s dazed squawk and then Mikasa’s loud curse.

“You go, Levi! Way to be an alpha male,” Hange cried out to her friend.

“You’re *all* out of your minds,” Rico muttered as she threw her hands up in the air before turning on her heel to stomp away.

“You’re just figuring that out now?” Hange grinned at the woman before going for her own horse – she had the feeling she wanted to be up close for the ongoing battle between Levi and Mikasa.

*******

“So… Mikasa really takes the whole ‘big sister’ thing seriously, doesn’t she,” Connie asked as he stared after the three horses trotting along in the lead.

Jean felt his jaw clench at question; ever since Captain Ackerman and Mikasa had returned with Eren, he’d barely been able to get two words out of… well, she was his girlfriend, wasn’t she? Things hadn’t been perfect, stuck out here in the fucking wild, but Mikasa had opened up to him somewhat, had confided in him about her past and what she really was, only for all of that to stop as soon as her brother had been found. He knew that Eren was important to her, that she cared about him, but damn, why was Jean getting the impression that if Malforms managed to wipe out everyone *but* Mikasa and Eren-

No, that was taking things a bit too far, but he had to admit that he was feeling a bit put out right now with the way that Mikasa was leaning yet again half off of her own horse so she could reach for her brother. “You look all healed now. How’s your head? Do you need more blood?”

There was a gagging sound and a tan hand batted at Mikasa’s. “No more. That was… gah, no more.” Eren still sounded a bit sleepy, but his voice was louder and clearer than it had been earlier.

“Yeah, if he needs more blood than he can drink mine – about time I got some payback with the brat,” Captain Ackerman insisted. “So go fuck off.”

“That’s not much better,” Eren muttered.

“You need to stop harassing him,” Mikasa told the captain. “I don’t see why he wants to be with you when you’re like this!”

“And you need to give him some damn space! He’ll get the damn drugs out of his system faster if he just sleeps them off so leave him be!”

“I’m not-“

Captain Hange broke them up by making a loud clapping sound. “Wow, fifteen whole minutes without fighting this time.” When she had both of the two idiots glaring at her, she gave them a mirthless smile. “Hate to say it, Mikasa, but I think Levi’s right – Eren seems to be recovering faster if given a chance for his body to recuperate, now that you helped out with the blood. So let’s give the poor cutie some peace and quiet, okay? I’ll make sure that Levi doesn’t molest him too much.”

“Fucking Malform needs to eat your shitty liver or something,” Captain Ackerman muttered while he tucked in the green cloak around Eren.

“Hmm, maybe some day.” Captain Hange continued to smile at Mikasa until she nodded with some reluctance and kicked her horse on ahead.

“Wow, to think that I believed Captain Ackerman to be all scary.” Connie shivered in an exaggerated manner while he stared at the bespectacled captain. “She really is crazy, isn’t she?”

“The story is that she was only partially nuts until she met Captain Ackerman, and then dealing with him pushed her over the edge until she was full bonkers.” Sasha sounded perfectly serious as she passed on that bit of news. “Even Commander Smith humors her on certain things, and you’ve seen her fight. It’s like she’s not afraid of the Malforms at all.”

“I think it’s a requirement that you have to be a little bit crazy to join the Freedom Corps,” Connie teased, and laughed when Sasha made a face in his direction. “Oh come on, look at your captains!”

“And what does that say about you, now that you’re one of us?”

“Uhm….” Connie looked so flummoxed for a moment and appealed to Jean for help. His pleading expression changed to concern when he noticed how Jean was brooding. “Ah, come on, what’s wrong?”

“Mikasa’s off by herself now.” He knew that she was one of the strongest fighters they had, almost as good as Captain Ackerman, but why did she have to go off by herself?

Connie looked at him for a little longer and then sighed. “You know, you can go talk to her – in fact, maybe it’s a good idea if you do. She’s probably upset at being shooed away like that and can use a friendly person in her corner right now.”

“I tried doing that earlier – she doesn’t seem to want anyone but Eren right now.” He tried to not sound too bitter about that and knew he failed miserably. Part of him wanted to kick at the horse he was riding and charge off as well… but yeah, he’d probably fall off in about thirty seconds or get kicked off by the damn horse even quicker. Even the damn trees were conspiring against him, being all tall and green and… and damn, it was beautiful out here with the sunlight streaming down through the thick foliage in golden dancing spots. It made him feel like a surly little brat throwing a tantrum while being surrounded by such majesty.

Sasha leaned forward on her horse so she was a little closer to Jean. “I know Mikasa isn’t the most talkative person around, and she was always so protective of Eren even before this… well, before. But I really do think she likes you, too, and it can’t hurt for you to try to approach her now. I think part of the reason she likes you is you *do* approach her, you know?” When he stared at Sasha in confusion, she smiled back. “A lot of the guys in the Corps liked Mikasa, but no one dared get near her to ask her out. I think that’s in part why Eren and the captain are together, too – there was a lot of interest in him as well, but the captain was the only one who really talked to him all the time.”

Jean felt a slight blush heat up his cheeks, which caused him to duck his head. “Did you just compare me to that psycho captain,” he grumbled.

Connie flicked the end of his reins to smack them against Jean’s right thigh. “No, you dumb shit, she just told you to get your butt in gear and go talk to your girlfriend before… I don’t know, Marlo gets up the nerve to cut in on you.”

“Oh, please.” Jean made a rude gesture at his partner as he urged his horse forward. “Worry about your own girl.”

“Not gonna happen!” Connie’s laughter followed him as he cantered past the two captains; Jean looked back to find Captain Ackerman staring blankly at him while Eren slept with his face pressed against the man’s neck. Feeling a little flustered at seeing the two men like that, Jean turned his head forward and focused on finding Mikasa.

She was about two hundred feet ahead of everyone else, her head hanging forward as if she were upset or busy staring at her hands. “Hey, you all right,” he called out as he approached.

“Jean?” She twisted in the saddle to look back at him, her eyes golden and a slight frown on her face. “Is everything all right?”

“I asked you first.”

It took her a moment to answer, as if she hadn’t caught his question in the first place. A slight blush colored her cheeks and she ducked her head again as he came up beside her. “Ah, yes, I’m fine,” she answered in a quiet voice.

“That’s odd, because you don’t look it.” They rode along without speaking for about a minute. “If you’re really upset, you don’t have to talk about it. I just… well, I didn’t like the idea of you riding alone, not if there’s trouble out here.”

“Thank you.” Mikasa was quiet again for another minute. “It’s… it’s so… odd and difficult, you know.” She motioned with her right hand at something in the air, her slender fingers twisting about as if grasping for items he couldn’t see. “It’s always been Eren and me for so long – we were basically kids when we lost… well, when we only had each other. In a way, for me it’s always been Eren, that person I depend upon.”

He didn’t say anything since he was afraid that to interrupt her would stop whatever it was that she was trying to say, so he smiled instead, hoping that it conveyed the encouragement that he felt. She glanced at him and shrugged, her hand still twisting about in the air.

“I know Eren depends on me, too, and I know that what we’ve been through… that’s not something that can be easily changed, easily *broken*. It’s just….” She sighed and rubbed at her face with her right hand before she tugged up the red scarf so she could rub it against her cheek. “I think I’m finding it more difficult than I thought it would be to accept that Eren could find another person to depend upon.”

As much as Jean wanted to rush in and tell her that it was all right, he took a moment to put his thoughts into order before he spoke, to not mess this up. “Mikasa… it’s a big world. It can’t just be the two of you forever.” He put as much empathy as he could into the words.

“I know.” She closed her eyes for a moment before she let the scarf fall back down around her shoulders. “It’s not fair to either of us. Armin was right when he said that Eren… well, he was right.”

“*Both* of you need more people in your life,” Jean insisted. “I’m not a fan of Captain Ackerman – well, he’s an amazing fighter, yeah, I’d love to be able to do half the stuff he does – but he seems to care a hell of a lot for your brother. That’s important. And… and I’m not going anywhere, if you want me here.” He felt as if his heart was about to rip its way out of his chest, it was beating so fast and hard, and if Mikasa looked at him with pity or disgust then he… well, he figured he’d just keep riding on ahead.

For some reason Mikasa didn’t say anything, and then her eyes began to glow and…. “Oh no, no no no,” Jean repeated as she began to cry. “You’re not supposed to cry! That’s bad, right? I’m so sorry!” He nearly fell out of the saddle in the effort to lean over to stop her from crying.

She caught his hands and pushed him back upright, then gave his hands a quick squeeze. “No, it’s fine,” she assured him, her voice thick and low. Then she surprised him by laughing. “It’s fine, except we’re on horses and I bet that short bastard would yell at us if we stopped so I could kiss you properly.” Then she surprised him by leaning forward and brushing their lips together. “So take that for now,” she murmured against his lips.

He desperately wanted that ‘proper’ kiss, but the horses was already drifting apart and he could hear the others catching up to them. “Dammit, can’t we-“

“Oi! Stieger, you need to start scouting out a place where we can rest for the night. It has to be defensible as hell,” Captain Ackerman called out.

“-never mind,” Jean muttered. He wanted to whine in frustration, but the sight of Mikasa smiling at him helped to cheer him up a little.

“At least he’s talking about us camping out sometime tonight,” she whispered before she shifted her horse a little farther away. “How far out should I look,” she asked the short pain in the ass.

“I want us settled in before sunset, just in case,” Captain Ackerman told her. “So scout it out now and get back to us.”

Mikasa nodded in understanding and then pulled her horse to a stop. She handed the reins over to Jean before going over to the nearest tree to climb it. He caught a flash of a smile from her as if a promise, and then she was gone.

He allowed the captains to take the lead again and fell into place with Connie and Sasha.

“Well, someone looks all happy now. See what happens when you follow my brilliant advice?”

Jean scoffed at Connie’s ego and tried to find a comfortable position in the saddle. “This from the guy who thought it would be a great idea if we pranked the ranking squad leaders to show them that we ‘had initiative and guts’? No thanks.”

As Sasha demanded to know how well *that* ‘brilliant’ idea had gone down, Jean looked up at the canopy of trees to judge just how close it was to sundown and when he’d get a chance at that ‘proper kiss’.

*******

Eren rubbed at his face, still feeling a little tired but for the most part aware of the world around him; he could pick up the hint of Bertolt and Reiner clinging to his clothes and his skin that made him want to scratch himself bloody just to get rid of it, could feel the awful hollowness in his bones that spoke of too little feeding and too much healing over too long of a time. He still wanted to sleep, but he suspected that last part was more from how fucked up the last few days had been than from any lingering effects of the drugs – he needed to feed in the near future, and some time to let his mind figure out what had all happened to it.

He had just threaded the fingers of his right hand through his hair when Levi latched onto his right arm and yanked him onto his feet. “What?”

“Come on, we’re checking you out and changing your clothes.” When Eren stared at his… lover? in surprise, Levi clicked his tongue a couple of times and held up the clothes he was holding in his left hand. “We checked you over for tracking devices when we found you, but I’ll feel better after another check and once we get rid of those clothes, just in case.”

“Oh, is *that* what you’re calling it now,” Captain Hange teased. “Whatever makes you feel better, sweetie. Just keep the noise down.”

“Fuck off, you perverted shit for brains!”

Eren ignored the two’s familiar squabbling and remembered back to the feeling of hands along his body when he’d been rescued. Well, that explained that odd memory…. “Okay.”

Levi stopped insulting Captain Hange and gave Eren an odd look, as if he’d been expecting more of an argument from Eren. He huffed once and then led him away from the camp, not too far away to a small clearing where there was a small stream. From the smell of it, Sasha and Connie had already been here to fetch some water for the cooking, and Mikasa before that. Eren waited for Levi to lead him near the running water and then point him to a spot near the sandy bank. “Okay, stay there and strip.”

“Hmm, now that’s romantic as all hell,” Eren joked as he did was he was told. He smiled in the face of Levi’s glare and was slow in taking off the green cloak, which he folded and bent over to set aside. The white shirt and dark blue pants he discarded with less care, eager to be rid of anything that was associated with the trio. “Hey, what happened to Annie,” he asked as he tossed aside the pants.

Levi grunted quietly as he picked up the clothes and examined then quickly, checking the seams for any devices. “After getting her ass kicked by your sister, she somehow encased herself in crystal to keep from being killed or tortured for information.” Once he was done with his inspection, he piled the clothes on top of each other and doused them with flammable oil before setting them on fire. “Okay, now on to you. Wash up first.”

Glancing away from the small fire before it ruined his night vision, Eren took a step away from the burning clothes and gestured at his naked body. “With what?”

The bastard seemed to think of everything; he reached into his pouch to fetch what looked to be a bar of soap, and with the clean clothes was a towel and washcloth. “Hurry up – you stink,” Levi complained, his face its usual bland mask.

Wasn’t that a nice thing to be told? Eren sighed and figured it wasn’t even worth trying to argue about the lack of hot water, so he just stepped into the cold of the stream with another aggrieved sigh. The deepest part of the running water came up to his hip, and it certainly helped to clear out the remaining fogginess in his head when he washed up, especially his hair. Still, he didn’t linger in there any longer than was necessary, and at least Levi was waiting for him with the towel as soon as he stepped out.

If he was rubbed a bit more vigorously than was comfortable, he didn’t complain since it certainly helped to warm him back up. Levi was very thorough in drying him off, and as soon as his skin was dry, the towel was whisked away so he could be patted down and examined once more. “You know, maybe I should be insulted that the first time we’re alone in days and you’re only interested in getting me clean and checking me for bugs,” Eren teased, a little put off at being treated so coldly all of a sudden.

Levi’s fingers dug into Eren’s left hip for a moment and then he continued with the inspection, only to pull away a couple of minutes later. He didn’t say anything the entire time, not until he bent over to pick up the pile of clean clothes that he had brought along which he then shoved into Eren’s chest. “Do you have any fucking idea how difficult it’s been to smell those bastards on you all day? To wonder just what the hell they did to you while all I could do was chase after your ass?” His grey eyes turned golden and glowed brightly in the dimming twilight. “I’m not giving them another fucking chance to take you back,” he gritted out, his voice low and rough as he reached out to grab onto the nape of Eren’s neck and pull him forward until their foreheads touched.

Eren swallowed past a throat gone tight and nodded. “All… all right.” He closed his eyes for a moment and didn’t struggle against Levi’s hold, just content to be near him and to breathe in his scent. What would he have done if Levi hadn’t have come for him? Levi and Mikasa…. “Sorry.”

“Yeah.” Levi brushed his lips against Eren’s and then pushed him away, his eyes still bright. “Get dressed, you little shit.” His voice had become even rougher and his claws had come out. “Tonight’s not a good night for fooling around.”

“Who said anything about that,” Eren scoffed as he struggled to pull on a pair of boxer-briefs, followed by some pants. Levi clicked his tongue and helped him button up the shirt after watching him fumble with a couple of buttons. “Couldn’t have grabbed some jerseys, could you?”

“I didn’t do the packing, you lazy brat.” Levi brushed off a piece of lint only he could see and frowned. “Your boots, jacket and gauntlet are back at the camp.” He looked up at Eren’s face and his frown deepened. “Damn hair is as much of a mess as always.”

Eren made a face as he attempted to comb his fingers through the tangled strands. “Some things never change.” He laughed a little and shrugged. “I’ve gotten used to it over the years.”

“That’s still no excuse.” Levi’s expression turned thoughtful as he reached into a pouch with his right hand while his left first batted Eren’s hand aside and then fussed with the strands. “Something else is required.”

That… really didn’t sound good. Eren laughed nervously, especially when he caught sight of something in the grouchy bastard’s hand as it lifted toward his head. “What is-“ He was caught off guard as Levi grabbed hold of his chin. “What the hell?”

“Hold still,” Levi ordered him while he tucked back Eren’s bangs. Terrified that his hair was about to be cut, Eren held still when he felt something metal brush against his skin, his clawed fingers raising to tear into Levi’s left wrist. Yet what followed was a soft ‘click’ instead of a ‘snick’ and hair falling down around his face, so he froze in shock and allowed Levi to repeat the motion again. The bastard appeared pleased when he studied Eren’s face – no, his *hair* - a moment later and finally let go of his chin.

“What the hell,” Eren repeated again as he felt about his head to try to figure out what Levi had just done. His fingers pressed against something both hard and soft against the side of his head, something holding back his bangs. When he continued to play with it, Levi tugged his hand down. “What did you do?”

There was a very pleased, very *smug* smile on Levi’s face as he held up his right hand to display something long and thin in it – something with the puffy faces of black cats with golden eyes all along its length. A hair barrette. Levi was holding a fucking hair barrette. “Don’t tell me you just put a damn cat hair barrette on me,” Eren pleaded.

“Two of them,” Levi pointed out with evident joy. “I figure we can save the winged ones for special occasions.” He reached up to tweak the hair accessory on the left a little. “They work even better than I thought at keeping those damn bangs of yours out of your eyes.”

The crazy asshole was missing the point. “You put *cat* hair barrettes on me,” Eren repeated. “Wait, did you pick them out?”

“And you turned me into a vampire hybrid, so quit nitpicking,” Levi shot back while he returned the spare barrette into his pouch. The smug smile faded as he stared at Eren. “Actually… Petra picked them out.”

Petra, who wasn’t here when some strangers were to fight at Levi’s back. Eren took one look at the suddenly closed off look on Levi’s face and reached up to touch one of the barrettes in his hair with a weak smile on his face. “Did you hurt your brain thinking this one up?”

The closed off expression on Levi’s face changed into one of barely tolerance as Levi clicked his tongue and rolled his eyes. “Please – the only thing that makes my brain hurt is trying to figure out why I put up with your lame ass.”

Eren couldn’t help it – after the last few days… the last few days which he was very thankful for being a muddle blur in the back of his mind, finding out that not only had Levi come all this way after him but had also carried something so ridiculous along just to… to what? To put him in his place? Carry on their game of petty insults that passed as foreplay? It didn’t make any sense, but what about this fucked up relationship did? Eren’s last thoughts before… well, *before* was that it would be best to just walk away, and now he found himself draping his arms over Levi’s shoulders as he laughed, just so *grateful* that the bastard was there right now. “Fuck, what would I do without you,” he found himself murmuring into Levi’s ear before he stopped to think about what he was saying.

His entire being went rigid once the realization set in, part of him trying to figure out where the words had come from and the rest of him waiting for Levi’s reaction, for either something mocking or derisive to be shot back. At first Levi was still as well, barely even breathing, and then Eren’s chin was grabbed with enough force to leave a bruise.

He was yanked around until Levi could stare into his eyes, and it was only then that he realized that his vision had shifted, that his eyes had to be glowing – and that Levi’s were glowing as well. “Good, because a shitty little brat like you is never going to find out otherwise. Take my eyes off of you for a damn hour and look at what shit you get into,” he muttered before pulling Eren into a kiss that started out ferocious and only got even more intense from there.

Eren was damn grateful that his arms were around Levi’s neck since he needed something to help keep him on his feet, he was quickly becoming dizzy from the rush of desire that slammed into him. He slumped against Levi as the kiss deepened, Levi’s mouth fervent on his own, strong fingers pushing into his hair and….

He pushed away with a shuddering breath as memories became jumbled in his head for a moment, of other mouths on his own, on his neck.

“Eren?”

He tensed at the sound of the voice, but when Levi said his *name*, in such a hesitant manner, he let out another breath and opened his eyes. “Yeah.” He realized that he’d taken a step back and bridged the space between them so he could rest his head on Levi’s firm shoulder, his eyes closed once more as he breathed in the man’s scent. “Yeah.”

Those fingers returned to gently tease at the knots in his hair at the back of his neck. “I ever tell you that you’re one fucked up idiot?” Levi’s deep voice was as gentle as his touch and contained a hint of humor to it, almost enough to mask his concern.

“Hmm, maybe a time or two.” He nuzzled Levi’s neck for a moment. “That feels good.”

Levi didn’t respond back, at least not verbally; he continued to play with Eren’s hair while his free hand carefully, slowly, wound its way around Eren’s waist. “Should… I can get Mikasa, if you want,” he offered after a minute.

“No.” Eren didn’t want his sister just then, especially if Levi let slip that he’d freaked out after them kissing. “Look, I’m… well, I’ll be okay.” When Levi answered that with a rather eloquent snort, he sighed a little and snuggled closer. “I will be after the memories settle a bit more – right now everything is still all jumbled in my head. But the reason I didn’t want you to kill Ymir and I’m letting her tag along is that, from what I *can* remember, she stopped it from getting worse. There was-“ he shook his head to push back the feel of hands and mouths on him and focused on Levi’s scent. “And then she was there and they stopped.”

Levi scrunched his fingers through the back of Eren’s hair and let out a slow breath. “Then I’ll back off of her until she fucks up. But if you-“

Eren cut him off before he could try to be all noble – it would just be too weird. “You’re not *them*. I know that. Just… just need to get all this shit out of my system.”

It was quiet again for about a minute before Levi used his grip on Eren’s hair to force him to look up. “Yeah, well you *will* let me know if it’s not all better once that shit’s all gone.” He gave Eren a piercing look before leaning in to give him a relatively chaste kiss. “Not gonna have you claw up my damn blanket or something when we’re in the middle of nowhere.”

“Oh for the- *one* time. One *fucking* time. Are you going to harp on that forever?”

“Yes.” Levi smirked at him before giving him a hard smack on the ass and letting him go. “Now go fetch me a clean set of clothes and a towel – I’m going to wash off as well.”

“I should drop them in the damn stream or something,” Eren muttered as he stomped off. “Or let the horses chew on them!” He thought he heard Levi chuckling behind him but wasn’t certain, especially since he was barely a few steps from the clearing before he ran into Captain Hange.

“Just making sure the two of you didn’t get too distracted and eaten by some Malforms,” she chirped as she fell in step beside him. “So, all clean now? No trackers?”

Eren almost made a joke about how Levi had failed to perform a cavity search to be a 100% certain, but was afraid that Captain Hange would offer to fill in for him. “Ah, yeah, it looks good.”

“Great. There’s no way of knowing if they injected you with something, but from the little I saw of your healing factor, even if it’s suppressed I doubt it would allow a foreign object to reside in you for too long so we should be good.” Captain Hange fiddled with her glasses a little along the way back to camp.

Didn’t that just make him feel better? He grimaced a little at the thought and excused himself to get Levi’s stuff.

*******

Levi sat on one of the logs that had been dragged around the small camp fire and sipped at the precious cup of tea that he’d brewed himself in celebration of finding Eren; everyone was gathered around in a circle around the fire, the ‘humans’ among them still busy eating while the ‘hybrids’ settled for nursing cups of coffee. Eren was curled up at Levi’s feet, content with coffee while he leaned back against Levi’s legs, his left arm slung across Levi’s lap.

“Mikasa?”

“Hmm?” She stirred from her seat a foot or two away, where she was damn near pressed against Jean’s side. Those two had been cozy all evening long, which was fine with Levi since it meant she was finally giving Eren a bit of space. “Are you all right?” She leaned in Eren’s direction as she spoke.

“Yeah.” Eren flashed her a grin and motioned in her direction – or more toward her chest. “Can I have my bag back?” He rubbed at the nape of his neck as if he felt bothered by the lack of the leather laces around his neck.

“Oh, sure.” She took a moment to figure out the two set of pouches around her own neck and handed the right one over; Levi noticed that everyone else had paused their own private conversations and were paying the siblings close attention, especially Rico and Marlo.

“Thanks.” Eren set his mug aside so he could hang the pouch over his neck and was quick to open it up to inspect the contents; having done so earlier to make sure that there weren’t any tracking devices in the bag, Levi knew what he’d find inside. He had to admit that he’d been impressed to see all those diamonds and would have to talk to Eren later about why the little shit was selling his ass for credits when he had a small fortune in precious stones, but it was the small key that Eren pulled out and frowned down upon after a moment.

“Is something wrong,” Mikasa asked while she shifted away from Jean.

Eren didn’t answer her, instead he held the key up to his nose and sniffed at it, then gave it a quick lick, which caused Levi to grimace in disgust – who know how filthy that thing was? “Ymir, how long did Reiner have the bag,” Eren called out.

Free of the protective clothing that had spared her from the worst of the sun, Ymir was now dressed in a spare uniform of Hange’s and blended in better with everyone. She eyed Eren warily for a moment before she answered. “It was one of the first things they did, taking it from you.”

“Did you see them do anything with it?” Eren stared at her intently, his eyes beginning to glow.

She rubbed at her neck as if expecting a blade to be pressed at it any moment, while Krista shifted about in a protective manner beside her. “No, but I had to sleep at some point, and Reiner made sure that one of them was always awake when I did.” When Eren continued to stare at her with the key clenched in his hand, she motioned toward him. “Why, is something wrong?”

He was quiet for a moment before he nodded, his gaze turning toward Mikasa. “There’s something on the key – something chalky. I think they might have traced or taken an impression of it.”

It was kind of difficult to tell in the flickering light of the fire, but Levi thought that Mikasa might have paled at the news and her eyes began to glow. Meanwhile, the others took to looking about in confusion. “So what’s the big deal about the key,” Rico asked.

Levi exchanged a long look with Hange before he focused his attention on Ymir. “Oi! What exactly did they get out of Eren? Anything about what the key was for?”

She shook her head back and forth while never once taking her gaze off of Eren. “Not that I ever heard – he was too out of things for something like that. No, they were trying to get him to trust them, and the one time he saw the pouch he freaked out on them so I’m willing to bet that if they brought up the key when I wasn’t awake or around, it wouldn’t have gone very well.” She paused for a moment to glance at Krista before she continued. “I will say that they know a bit about… well, they know about his father and the guy’s research. It’s why they want Eren.”

Shit, this was getting worse by the minute. Levi cursed beneath his breath and reached down to grab onto Eren’s left shoulder; he could feel how tense the brat was beneath his hand, as if in a classic fight-or-flight situation. He knew that Eren didn’t react well to mention of Grisha Jaeger under better times, so this had to be really messing with his head.

“All right, I’ll flat out ask – who the *hell* is the kid’s father? It’s about damn time that we get some answers here!” Rico rose to her feet and stood with her hands fisted on her hips. “Especially if this has to do with the vampires!”

Eren made to run his hands through his hair and seemed to remember about the barrettes just in time; he muttered a curse and rubbed at his eyes instead. When he lowered his hands, he glanced first at Mikasa and then tilted his head back to look up at Levi – when neither of them made any formal objection he slumped forward and sighed while he wrapped his arms around his bent knees. “You might not want to know – this is probably going to get really messy.”

“As if things are just fine right now?” Rico gestured all around her. “We’re in the middle of a *forest* right now, running from *vampires*. I’ll admit it that it was worthwhile to find out about the tunnels and get some answers for why my friends are dying, but now I’m finding out that I’m still flailing around in the dark!” She stalked forward to stand in front of Eren and Mikasa. “Please, *tell* me what the hell is going on! Why are you so important that Trost was flooded with Malforms? What’s with that key?”

Eren remained quiet for several breaths, during which the only obvious sounds were the crackling of the fire and the shifting of the horses. Then he leaned back against Levi’s legs as if for support. “The vampires are after me because I’m Grisha Jaeger’s son.” He waited a little bit for the importance of that to sink in, during which Levi began to rub the back of his head, his fingers buried deep in that soft, tangled mess of hair.

Rico stared in confusion at Eren while Jean, Marlo and Connie glanced back and forth at each other, Mikasa stared at the dirt between her feet and Sasha… well, she appeared the same as usual. Hange pushed up her glasses while waiting for the fall-out of the revelation, finger tapping against the wire frame as if in some internal countdown. “What… you can’t mean *the* Grisha Jaeger,” Rico finally asked after about a minute or two.

“Yeah, *the* Grisha Jaeger.” Bitterness shaded Eren’s voice and lent it an unfamiliar depth. He gestured to Mikasa before letting his hand fall back to his side. “I’m his son, she’s his adopted daughter, and for some brilliant reason, he decided that it would be a great idea to inject me with the only version for a cure against Malform attacks. The thing is, we didn’t know it at the time, and found out the hard way when I was attacked a year or two later and turned… well, when I became this. Then I accidentally turned Mikasa a little later.”

Marlo shook his head and pointed a finger in Eren’s direction. “But what, that would make you… how old? That’s….”

“That’s back to the time of the collapse, yeah.” Ymir was helpful as usual, and didn’t sound as if she had much pity for any of the poor former MPs or Rico. “Look, can we skip the whole ‘OMFG, you’re *how* old’ and ‘wow, the great Grisha, really?’ or even ‘what was it like before the world turned to shit?’. Because we *so* don’t have the time right now.” She left Krista’s side to storm her way over toward Eren and Levi, careful to not get too close to Mikasa. “I don’t know what the vampires know about the key other than it’s important, but I *can* tell you why they want Eren so badly.” She rubbed at a reddish mark on the back of her left forearm and gazed intently at Eren. “Reiner told me that while searching for you, they came across some of your father’s research. I get the impression that they already had some of it since apparently, he was working with at least one of them back before he disappeared.”

Hange made a squealing noise and jumped up from her seat. “Wait, you’re telling me that vampires were working on the Malform issue?” She flapped her arms about as if having a seizure.

Ymir didn’t even bother looking in the lunatic’s direction as she nodded. “Yeah, from what Reiner told me they were trying to find a cure and were working undercover, which makes sense – the vampires would want to at least find a way to solve the issue of those they’d infected turning into mutated freaks or get it down to an acceptable level to insure that those they wanted would turn into vampires like themselves.”

“Ooh, harsh,” Connie muttered.

“But true – vampires are only concerned about themselves and their food source,” Ymir pointed out.

“Yourself included,” Levi couldn’t help but ask.

At least Ymir had the grace to appear a bit ashamed just then. “At times… yeah, you could have said that about me. I’m getting better, though.” She glanced over her shoulder at Krista for a moment. “Anyway, back to why this shit matters – the vampires know what Grisha was working on. They know his work. Apparently, he *did* have a cure, so it was that or an earlier version that he injected into Eren. While searching for Eren and Mikasa, they came across more of Grisha’s notes that referenced the cure… and the fact that Eren’s the key for fixing vampires to withstand daylight.”

Levi’s fingers clenched in Eren’s hair for a few seconds, until he felt Eren shift against him. He forced his fingers to relax even as he wanted to latch onto the brat to ensure that he didn’t vanish again. Dammit, this meant that those asshole vampires weren’t going to let Eren go – not without a hell of a fight.

“Did they say what they wanted the pouch for,” he demanded to know.

Ymir shook her head. “No, they just took it from Eren and then did their best to fuck with his head. Reiner did check to make sure the key was there, I know that much… but maybe part of the reason they needed Eren to trust them again was that they needed what he knew about the key. Maybe.”

“And what is it with the key, eh?” Jean sat with his arm around Mikasa, his eyes shadowed but his head held up as he looked at Eren. “Why is it so damn important?”

“Because my father gave it to me – from what we can tell, it should hold his research notes.” Eren tilted his head back to rest it against Levi’s knees. “And right now, it’s buried beneath a shattered dome.” He closed his eyes as if he was suddenly exhausted. “Mikasa and I… by the time we figured out what all was in there… we didn’t have the resources to go dig it out.”

“Yes, but now you’re outside a dome with *friends*,” Hange shouted. When everyone stared at her as if she was crazy – scratch that, as if she’d finally lost that tiny, miniscule bit of sanity that she still had going for her - she stared back as if *they* were the crazy ones and scoffed. “Oh *come* *on*. Are you seriously going to tell me that you’re going to risk the chance of a bunch of sadistic, power-hungry vampires getting their hands on Grisha Jaeger’s research first? You… you damn snot-nosed wussies!”

Mikasa gave the arm that Jean had wrapped around her a squeeze before she shrugged it off and then stood to her feet. “Let me see if I understand this – you want to risk my brother, whom those ‘sadistic, power-hungry vampires’ are currently hunting, along with the rest of us, to go cavorting across the wilderness to another country – excuse me, over a thousand kilometers or so, and then burrow beneath a shattered dome just so you can find some new research?” Her eyes were blazing now, and her fangs were out in force.

However, Hange didn’t back down at all, she merely adjusted her glasses and dusted off her hands. “Those vampires are going to chase your brother down wherever he goes, so him being on the move and headed toward the last place they’d expect seems wise. Also, if we don’t take a chance getting that information, do you really want to risk it falling into the wrong hands? It was one thing to leave it alone where it was doing no harm if not any good, but you said yourself that you refused to allow it to be used to benefit only a few. What if those few are vampires?”

Mikasa opened her mouth a time or two as if to respond, and finally resorted to a fierce snarl before she whirled away to go stand by Eren. “Do you agree with her?”

He was quiet for a moment before he shifted away from Levi with some reluctance and slowly stood to his feet. “What she said made some sense – obviously Reiner or Bertolt copied the key for a reason, and if they don’t have me then they might attempt to locate the box themselves.” He glanced down at the key that he held in his palm. “At least by now the engraving is all worn off, so they don’t have that to help them.” He closed his fingers around it and looked back up. “But we’ll do it ourselves, we don’t need to-“

“*Bullshit*.” Levi was on his feet within seconds and stomping toward the brat. “Don’t even *think* that you’ll head off on your own – you’ll end up kidnapped again in a day, tops, without someone looking after your fool ass.”

Eren bristled at the reprimand while Mikasa took to hissing, and Hange laughed while she rushed forward. “Yes! You know I’m not letting you go anywhere without me! This is like a dream come true!”

Jean was the next one to step forward, a little tentative first and then he was right at Mikasa’s side. “I guess it’ll be impressive as hell, returning to the domes with a cure. Can’t let some brat show me up, now can I?” He might talk big, but the smile he gave Mikasa was nervous until she smiled back and hugged his left arm.

Meanwhile, Eren took to frowning while he looked at the former MP. “Wait, why is he-“

“Count us in, too!” Sasha and Connie jumped forward together. “I’m not ready to go back to agro-grown food just yet!”

“And there’s no way I’m letting Jean hog all the glory!”

Marlo inched closer to the fire as if he was waiting to be yelled at for something. “Uhm, I’d like to join, too.” He waved his right hand a little. “This sounds really important – more important than what’s going on at the domes.”

Great, so it looked as if Levi was stuck with babysitting these damn asswipes for the foreseeable future. He glared at Hange for dragging him into this mess before looking at the remaining three members of the party, and wasn’t surprised to find Krista at Ymir’s side. The vampire didn’t look too happy all of a sudden, but Krista’s expression was resolved. “We’re in this, too. You can count on us, Sir,” she told Levi. “*Both* of us.”

Levi nodded at Krista before he turned toward Ymir. She grimaced and rubbed at her left arm again. “I’m gonna need some better gear if I’m gonna keep up with you guys during the daylight.”

“Hange will help you out for now, and we should be able to restock soon at a supply station – there’s always some solar radiation gear there just in case.” It wouldn’t be ideal, but it would help cover the bits that weren’t protected by the cloak and boots.

“Great.” Ymir didn’t sound too happy about that, but one look from Krista had her falling silent. Levi still wasn’t too sure about having the vampire tag along after what she’d done to Eren, but she had helped protect him from those assholes and Krista seemed determined to keep the bitch in line, so….

That left one more person. Rico was mumbling to herself while she glanced at the group and seemed to notice his attention. She chewed on her bottom lip for a moment before finally nodding. “I did say that I wanted answers, didn’t I?” She sounded a bit rueful now, her smile a bit lopsided as well. “If we do this, it’ll hurt those bastards, won’t it?”

“Yeah, and maybe put an end to the Malform attacks – at least save the humans they hurt.”

Her nod was more certain this time. “Then it’ll be worth it.” She snuck a quick look at Eren. “Jaeger’s kid, huh? He sure doesn’t look it.”

“Yes, so keep any comments about robbing the cradle to yourself,” Levi snapped as he rejoined his… fuck, lover? Yeah, safest to just think of Eren as his lover, he supposed, since they were having sex. Better be having sex again sometime soon, whenever they had a quiet moment away from these morons and Eren… yeah, not thinking about that.

Eren glanced at him and frowned. “Who’s robbing the cradle?”

“You are, technically, and I think Mikasa, too.” He nudged Eren in the side and pointed at the bi- at the woman.

Eren shuddered a little and closed his eyes. “Not going to think about that – if I stay out of her relationship, maybe she’ll stay out of mine.”

Hmm, someone sure was hopeful, wasn’t he. “So do you think the vampires have any clue where to start looking for your father’s stuff?”

“They probably have an idea of the general area.” Eren placed his hand over where the pouch hung around his neck. “There’s the Shiganshina dome, and the Berin one as well. Both of those are over what were major cities back in… well, back in the pre-collapse day. They could go for either of those, since we lived in the city beneath the Shiganshina dome for a short while before the collapse, but my father also worked a lot around Berin, as well as in the pre-Londonium dome area. I bet they’ll focus in areas he would frequent pre-collapse.”

Hange had drifted closer during the discussion. “You said it’s the Shiganshina dome, right?”

“Yeah.” Eren appeared so tired just then, the light fading from his golden eyes until they appeared so pale. “A major Malform attack took it out not long after it was built – there were always nests of them about in that area, so I don’t know why they even bothered with a dome in the first place. Guess people didn’t want to give up on the history or something.” He yawned just then, his mouth opening wide even as he attempted to stifle it.

Hange shot Levi an amused glance while she began to make shooing waves of her hands. “Aww, it looks like someone is a bit tired – it’s been a long day for you, hasn’t it?”

“I really need some blood soon – some Malform blood,” Eren reiterated. “It’s been too long since I fed properly.”

“Hmm, and being chopped up and all that hasn’t helped, I’m sure.” That was Hange for you, no sense of tact at all. “Get some rest – I’m sure we’ll be charging off on the horses bright and early tomorrow.” When Eren turned toward the stacked pile of packs, Hange shoved Levi as well. “That means you, too. You’re not on watch until the last shift, so go curl up with your cutie.”

“Hange, I fucking swear-“

“Hmm, nope, no swearing, just go make sure he sleeps okay.” She dropped her smile to order him about, her expression perfectly serious. “He’ll probably rest easier that way,” she whispered.

Grumbling beneath his breath about how everyone was such a damn busybody, Levi gave in with ill grace and went to make sure that the damn brat grabbed the right pack. At least this way they had two blankets to use for their ‘bed’, gaining a little extra padding on the hard ground.

Since they might need to fight at some point in the night, they just stripped off their belts, gauntlets, boots and jacket, making certain to leave the gauntlets and boots close to hand, and had their weapon belts closest. They did switch their shirts for t-shirts for comfort sake and then were ready for bed – Levi swore that Eren was out as soon as he stretched out on the blanket and didn’t make a sound as Levi hugged him closer. Not quite tired yet, Levi held Eren against him and listened to the sounds around him, the noises of the forest, the shifting of the horses and the soft murmurs of the others as they talked while around the fire. It all blended together after a while, with Eren’s even breathing being the most distinguishable sound, and it was all comforting in a way. Certain that things were all right in his world for the time being, Levi was finally able to let go of the stress of the day and allow sleep to claim him.

*******

Eren rubbed at his eyes before glancing around him; even though he pretty much felt like his old self, he rode in front of Levi again since he’d slept through most of the night instead of only a couple of hours. Mikasa and Levi had agreed that until he managed to feed that he should continue to be ‘babysat’, and the sad thing was that Eren couldn’t work up the energy to argue. So yeah, okay, it actually felt nice to just lean back against Levi’s warmth and solidness and zone out a bit while everyone else bitched around him.

“It’ll take us over a week to reach Shiganshina, *if* everything goes our way. Won’t the Corps get worried about us,” Mikasa argued. “I know Armin will fret.”

“Not all of us are so lucky to have people to be so concerned about us.” Levi sounded more sarcastic than upset.

“Now, now, Levi, you know Erwin will be all bothered about what mayhem we’ll be up to without his guidance,” Captain Hange pointed out. “He gets all twitchy if he’s not there to say ‘no’.”

“Mikasa has a point.” Rico didn’t sound too happy just then. “We should let someone know what’s going on and what we’re doing.”

Levi let out such a heavy sigh that Eren could feel it against his back and tilted his head so he could look up at his lover, who appeared distinctly disgruntled just then. “Uhm, I’m not sure how you want us to contact Trost since the vampires monitor most communication channels,” he admitted.

“Yeah, Rebel’s also right. Those pricks made sure to wipe out all of the satellites so they could control the communication between and in the domes. Any signals going out, they’ll notice.” Ymir’s voice was muffled by the fabric covering her face. “It’s why they restrict the comm channels with the bullshit story about ‘frequencies affecting the environment’.”

A bit surprised that she was being so free with the information, Eren watched as expressions of first surprise and then anger and indignation spread across his companions’ faces. Behind him, he could feel Levi tense up for several seconds. “Are they monitoring shortwave radio?”

“Eh?” Ymir sounded confused for a moment. “You mean someone actually remembers that stuff?” She laughed for a couple of seconds and then fell silent. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, someone in the Corps knew about it and we keep the gear in all of our supply stations as well as headquarters,” Captain Hange explained. “We believe in having a way of communicating that’s off the grid, so to speak, but it’s only to be used in case of emergency.” She pushed back her glasses and stared at Ymir as if she was some sort of specimen. “Can the vampires track it?”

Ymir cursed beneath her breath in what sounded to be Spanish for a moment before speaking out loud. “Fuck, I didn’t even know anyone remembered that stuff anymore, so I’ve no clue. If you’re on an obscure bandwidth and send out a short message, then I’m willing to bet they’ll miss it – I know Reiner and Bertolt weren’t using it to contact the others and if they would have thought of it, then it would be a great way to communicate.”

Eren started when he felt a jab to his left side. “Oi, brat, what do you think,” Levi breathed into his ear.

“First off, leave my damn kidney alone,” he growled as he batted Levi’s hand aside. “Second, I can’t remember the last time the damn system was used so I think it’s worth the risk. You guys really do use it?” He twisted around enough to glance back at Levi.

Levi frowned at him for a few seconds before nodding. “Once or twice from what I’ve heard. We can send a general message at the next station we come across, nothing specific but enough to let Erwin know that we won’t be heading home right away.”

“Maybe try to get some help to figure out which dome will be the safest for us to head to after we hit up Shiganshina,” Rico added as she flicked her reins against the side of her saddle. “It won’t do us any good if we rescue whatever Grisha Jaeger hid away and can’t get it back to where it’s needed.”

Connie groaned as he leaned in a dramatic manner against his horse’s neck. “Gee, someone sure as hell is optimistic about our future. Why don’t you tell us about how we can’t save mankind if we end up as Malform dinner? Or that we can’t reach Shiganshina if we all fall off our horses and break our necks?”

“Ooh, I know! We can’t find a cure if we stumble around in the dark and impale ourselves on branches,” Sasha added with particular vigor. “Or if we end up pounded into the ground by a bunch of wild pigs!”

“What about if we get struck by lightning one night,” Jean added. “It can’t be good to be riding around with metal blades if it starts to rain.”

To Eren’s surprise, Mikasa joined in on the ‘what ifs’ while Rico’s eyes narrowed in obvious annoyance and Marlo’s face grew red as he attempted to stifle his laughter. “Hmm, you’re lucky we haven’t really run into any of the bigger cats yet. Or wolves. You just don’t realize how tasty you humans are, do you?”

“You do know that your sister is psychotic, right?,” Levi murmured in Eren’s left ear.

“I like to think of her as unique, and you really shouldn’t be throwing any stones.”

“Yeah, well she just described the majority of our squad as ‘tasty’.”

Eren sighed as he rested his head against Levi’s shoulder. “And Captain Hange’s now explaining why the human’s omnivore diet makes them so ‘tasty’.” He stared at the bespectacled captain for a moment before shaking his head. “Got any more of those drugs?” Maybe he could spend most of this ‘road trip’ unconscious….

Levi seemed to read his thoughts just then. “As if, you little shit. If I have to put up with all of them, so do you.” He nipped at Eren’s ear as if to reinforce his point. For once he was mindful of his sharper teeth – that or had finally gotten used to them – so Eren shivered in response and shifted about in the saddle as warmth flooded through his body. Unfortunately, that just pressed his ass even firmer back against Levi’s crotch… and yeah, suddenly he hated the fact that he was riding along with his sister and a bunch of people he barely knew.

“I… I was all for us going on alone,” Eren reminded the idiot as he took a deep breath and thought about how Mikasa was just a few feet away in order to get his body back under control. Behind him, Levi wrapped his arm around Eren’s hips as if to keep him from moving any more and muttered about ‘damn brats’ while breathing a bit heavy.

There was some more teasing and joking going on as they rode through the forest, especially when Marlo’s horse got spooked by a knee-high cat that darted out of the underbrush and nearly unseated the kid, but Eren and Levi didn’t participate in it. Levi even snapped at Captain Hange when she asked him a question, but she merely laughed it off and said that obviously the lack of cleaning bots were beginning to get to him.

About an hour later they finally stopped for a mid-day break, after putting up with some whining from Sasha about how she’d pass out if she didn’t get something to eat soon. Eren expected Levi to yell at the girl or something, and was surprised when the normally grouchy bastard actually signaled everyone to stop once they reached a spot with running water.

“All right, since you’re whining so much about it, you and Connie are in charge of prepping our meal,” he told Sasha while he dismounted from the horse. “Rico, Marlo and Jean, tend to the horses while Mikasa and Hange check our maps and make sure we’re still on course and can reach a decent place to stop for the night.” When Krista held up her hand, Levi gave her a flat stare and shook his head. “Your job is still the same as yesterday – make sure your girlfriend doesn’t fuck anything up.”

Eren felt a little bad for Krista – it was clear that she hadn’t any clue what the hell Ymir was going to do and that she was still pissed at Ymir for helping the vampires, but he also knew that even though Krista hadn’t completely forgiven her that she still loved Ymir. Hell, *he* hadn’t really forgiven Ymir, he just didn’t think she deserved to be killed… well, not yet anyway. So he offered Krista a reassuring smile to help take the sting out of Levi’s gruff words before turning to face the tactless bastard. “And what are we doing?” He barely got the words out before a water flask was tossed at his face, which he just managed to catch in time.

“We’re restocking water bottles, so get your ass in gear. We’re headed upstream,” Levi called out to the camp as he tossed a few more flasks Eren’s way and picked up the rest. “Don’t fuck up everything while we’re gone.”

“Have fun,” Captain Hange called out in a sing-song voice while reaching out to prevent Mikasa from following them. Eren waved his sister off before going after Levi with his armful of empty flasks.

They seemed to head a good deal farther upstream than just trying to get to a clean supply of water merited, and just when Eren was about to ask how far Levi intended to go, the man let his collection of flasks fall to the ground before whirling around to latch onto Eren’s upper arms. Startled by the sudden movement, Eren dropped his collection of flasks as well, and barely got part of Levi’s name out before he was silenced by one hell of an intent kiss.

Well, okay then, this he didn’t mind. He kissed Levi back, his right hand grasping at that hair he just loved to see all mussed up and his left pressed against the small of Levi’s back to pull him closer. As he nipped at the infuriating bastard’s lip, he realized that while Levi was kissing him, he seemed to be holding back on everything else. Of all the….

“It’s fine,” he told the idiot as he rocked his hips forward, his voice as raw as his nerves felt just then. “*I’m* fine, or else the last hour on that damn horse wouldn’t have been so painful. So either *do* something or I will fucking drown you in eight inches of water.” That wasn’t to say that he was crazy about the idea of just anyone laying hands on him, but… this was Levi. And right now, he wanted *Levi*.

Levi just looked at him, his grey eyes narrowed slightly and his lips pressed in a thin line, and then gold bled into the grey until they were glowing. “I’d like to see you try, you little shit. I would fucking *own* your punk ass.” While he spoke, he began to step forward, until he backed Eren up against one of the trees that lined the bank of the running stream.

“Funny, owning my ass is exactly what I want you to do,” Eren breathed as he lightly scratched his claws along the back of Levi’s neck, just below the shaved hairline. Then he ran the pads of his fingers along the soft, neatly trimmed hair and smiled when Levi shivered. “So get to it, you controlling asshole.”

“Little shit,” Levi murmured before he began to nibble on Eren’s neck, which prompted a moan of delight from Eren.

Oh, how he’d missed this – the taunts, the feel of Levi’s strong hands on his body, the way Levi pressed against him so hard and demanding…. Eren closed his eyes and tilted back his neck as his left hand fumbled between them to undo Levi’s belt buckles. “Fuck, but I want your cock right now.”

He could feel Levi’s deep groan against his skin as well as hear it, and his ass was given a hard squeeze as he was pulled even closer against Levi. “Don’t… fucking tempt me. Not now, though.”

This traveling in a group was going to be hell on their sex life – Eren would have to sweet talk his sister into covering for them during the night or something, sometime close to dawn. Groaning at the thought of how complicated things had become when he’d finally stumbled onto a relationship and just wanted regular sex, dammit, Eren refocused on ridding Levi of his belts and then undoing both of their pants so they could at least do something before they creamed their pants.

Moaning at the feel of Levi’s hand finally sliding into his pants to cup his cock, he had to take a couple of deep breaths to calm down so he lasted more than a few seconds; it didn’t help that Levi continued to lick and nip at his neck the entire time, even biting down hard every now and then. Eren stuttered out the bastard’s name when he felt Levi’s hard cock brush against his own and wrapped his hand and them, and even managed a weak laugh when he felt something soft be draped on top.

Levi’s hand joined his own and they moved up and down, the friction feeling so fucking wonderful after being frustrated for so long. He could breathe in Levi’s scent, could feel Levi’s heat and Levi’s solid presence all around him and Levi’s awful teasing mouth just below his left ear. His fingers digging into the bastard’s hips to keep him from pulling away, to yank him even closer, Eren kept his eyes closed so that it seemed as if his entire world was comprised of only the pleasure coiling within him and the man who tightened it with every stroke, every touch, every lick and bite. He forced away everything else with a desperate ruthlessness and gave in to that pleasure until the tension finally snapped, shattering him as he cried out Levi’s name while he came.

Holding on to his lover as he slumped back against the tree, he felt Levi’s hips jerk erratically and a sharp scrape along his neck before Levi came as well with a rough, choked-off growl. Levi buried his face in the crook of Eren’s neck and rested against him for what felt to be a good minute or two afterward, while Eren rubbed his left hand along Levi’s undercut and tried to catch his breath.

“Ugh, what I wouldn’t do for a shower,” the bastard had to grumble as he slowly pushed away.

“Please, we’ll be out here for a couple of weeks – try doing without one for *years*, you wimpy bastard.” Eren rolled his eyes at the pampered man who was busy frowning as he wiped himself clean with a handkerchief. He had to wait through Levi’s glare – so not impressed with them at this point – and be tossed another cloth so he could clean himself up before tucking himself back into his pants. Hmm, maybe at some point he should look to see what pouches were tucked away in his saddlebags….

“Remind me again why I get anywhere near your filthy ass.” Levi shivered in what was probably disgust as he went to the stream to rinse off the ‘dirty’ cloth.

Eren could feel a headache coming on, which wasn’t the best way to kill an after-sex buzz. “Oh come *on*, it’s not like I haven’t taken *thousands*, if not hundred of thousands of showers since then!” He went to run his fingers through his hair and yelped when he hit a damn barrette. “I swear, should have looked for a damn Chairman when Armin said I needed a relationship, not a potty-mouthed, clean-freak, sadistic, domineering asshole!” He gave Levi the finger before stomping over to pick up the flasks that needed to be refilled.

“Yeah, well too bad, you bratty little shit. I say you got exactly what you deserve - *I’m* the one who’s clearly suffering here. Probably will spend the next few centuries constantly having to save your ass from being kidnapped since you don’t have the common sense of a fucking flea - I mean, who the hell drags along the person who kidnaps them? Hopeless, utterly hopeless,” Levi muttered as he picked up the flasks as well.

“Hey! You said yourself that Ymir can be helpful!” Eren glared at the bastard before he picked a spot upstream to begin filling the flasks. “And I’m not hopeless!”

“Yes you are – now I know why Mikasa’s such a fucking mother hen around you. It’s amazing that you know how to shit by yourself.” Levi clicked his tongue and flicked water in Eren’s direction.

“Least I’m not about to go catatonic if I get a bit of mud on me!” Eren glared as he splashed water at Levi in retaliation. “Do you cry if you run out of soap?”

“Very funny.” Levi gave up on filling the water flasks so he could use both hands to splash water at Eren. “You like cold water so much, how about this?”

“Bastard,” Eren swore as he splashed back as well. Yet he couldn’t help but laugh as he thought about how here he was, in the middle of the wilderness with the sun shining down on him and Levi beside him as they splashed water at each other. He thought he caught a glimpse of a smile on the bastard’s face right before a handful of water hit his eyes, and then he redoubled his efforts to drown the son of a bitch. Both of them were soaked within minutes, and he was about to grab hold of Levi’s arm to drag him into the stream when he heard a loud moan of what sounded to be pain.

“Why oh *why* didn’t Mikasa let me bring my datapad? I could get *two* new labs with this footage!”

Eren turned to find Captain Hange clutching a tree about twenty feet away while she stared at them in what looked to be shock. Beside him, Levi sighed as he combed back the wet hair falling onto his face before reaching for the still empty water flasks. “What do you want, Shitty Glasses?”

“Well, I thought for sure that I’d find you and your cutie doing something naughty, but never *this*. Lunch is ready, if you’re interested.” She flashed them a grin before she sauntered away. “I better warn everyone that you two will be showing up in wet clothes. Hmm, gotta love these uniforms.”

Levi pressed the fingers of his right hand to the bridge of his nose and took two deep breaths. “One day I will kill her. One day.”

“Uhm, okay.” Eren wrung out the wet ends of his hair and grabbed at his abandoned flasks, too. “You’re sure she’ll stay dead though, right? I mean, lots of weird stuff in her lab and all.”

Levi seemed to consider that for a moment, then his frown became even more pronounced. “I don’t know who’s worse, you or her.”

Eren could live with that, considering that the annoying bastard had just called him ‘hopeless’.

*******

Mikasa set her saddlebags down and then went over to where Jean was waiting. “Give me a few minutes to check up on Eren, okay?”

He smiled at her before leaning down for a quick kiss. “Connie promised to cover for us for a little bit,” he whispered. “So….”

“He’s my brother,” she reminded him.

Jean flushed a little and then managed a weak smile. “Yeah, I know. I just… I’ll be with Connie and Sasha, okay? Take your time.” He leaned in to give her a hug, his arms lingering around her for a few seconds. “Look, I’m not good at understanding this whole sibling thing, so try to give me a little slack. It’s like friends only a lot more important, right?”

She laughed a little as she pushed him away. “A lot, *lot* more important.” She brushed her fingers against his lips before stepping back. “But Eren… I think Eren and I are working on adding a couple of people to our circle.”

“That makes me happy to know.” Jean gave her a wide smirk before he walked away, a cocky hitch in his step that made Mikasa stifle a laugh. She felt a sense of lightness that she hadn’t experienced in years, one that took away a sense of *years*.

Once Jean had disappeared from view, she went in search of Eren who of course could be found in the company of the short bastard. She stood in front of the couple and cleared her throat until Eren sighed and shrugged off the bastard’s arm that was draped across his shoulders. “I’ll be back soon, okay?”

The bastard captain glared up at Mikasa before glancing back at Eren. “Don’t forget to ask.”

A slight blush spread across Eren’s cheeks as he rose to his feet. “Yeah, all right.” He stumbled forward to clutch at Mikasa’s arm. “Let’s go somewhere private, okay?”

She swallowed a snarl since she could still smell a hint of sex and that short bastard clinging to her brother, but was quiet until they were far enough away from the camp so they could talk without being overheard. “So, you and the Short Bastard?”

Eren stared at her for a few seconds before sighing out loud. “Uhm, yeah. I think we’re good now.” He tugged at the bit of bangs that were tucked behind some weird barrettes that he suddenly had started wearing *after* he’d returned. She had her suspicions on where those barrettes had come from but didn’t want to start a fight over them when Eren was so tired.

“And are you happy about that,” Mikasa pushed, not ready to let this matter rest if Eren was merely going with this because he was too tired to fight with the bastard captain or if it was an effect of the drugs.

Her brother stared at her for a few seconds before leaning forward to enfold her in a hug. “Mikasa… look, he’s an asshole and all bossy and that… but he’s good.” Eren laughed a little after saying that. “Maybe I’m more fucked up than I thought if I’m admitting that.”

She shifted back a little in his arms and had to smile, even though it hurt a little. “No… I think I finally know where you’re coming from in regards to the bastard.” After seeing how much Ackerman had pushed to rescue Eren, how he had driven everyone on until they had caught up to Reiner and Bertolt… yeah, she knew that the bastard was just as obsessed with keeping her brother safe as she was so that was one thing she knew he would do well. She still would struggle to let go of Eren a little bit, but Captain Ackerman had proven himself enough that she knew that she really should focus some of her attention on her own life for once.

Eren laughed again and bridged the gap between them to rest his forehead against his. “Well, glad one of us does.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “So tell me that you’re not having as much of a problem with your love life even if you’re dating a horse.”

That comment caused her to laugh and punch him lightly in the ribs. “*Jean* followed me out into the wild, I’ll have you know. He gave up the MP for me.” She fell silent for a moment. “The truth about me didn’t scare him away,” she admitted in a quiet voice.

Her brother didn’t say anything for a moment, which caused her to worry. Then he opened those lovely eyes of his, so golden and bright, and smiled; she missed the aquamarine color at times, but the gold was so *warm* that she loved it even more. “Then I guess I better get used to him, no?”

As much as she loved Eren for all that he had done for her, for saving her so many years ago, for taking her in when she had lost everything, for giving her a new life and always being by her side… she loved him even more right now. He always seemed to look at what she needed the most and then just accepted it, would be there for her without question. “Yeah, I guess you better.”

He grimaced a little as he pulled away. “I could have had a Chairman and you… well, you could have had two!” He shook his head as if in dismay. “Hell, you could have been a Chairman.”

“Hmm, I’ll settle for a former MP who likes to make me happy,” she told him as she caught his right hand. “You’re the one who went for an asshole.”

“Don’t remind me.” He hung his head forward a little as he rubbed at his face. “So… do you think maybe you can cover for me and the asshole during the last watch?” She swore that a blush covered his cheeks as he asked.

“Hmm… only if you return the favor tomorrow.”

“Gah.” Eren’s left hand floundered around a little. “This is weird, the two of us being in a relationship at the same time.”

“It does seem to be a first.” Mikasa smiled at him a little and then grew serious. “On a serious note, it’s going to be difficult, once we reach Shiganshina. If the others figure out where we’re going, they’ll do their best to either stop us or to steal the research from us once we retrieve it, and they’ll take you alive.”

“I know.” Eren clutched at the bag hidden beneath his white shirt. “They may try to use you and Levi against me now. Everyone else may be expendable.”

She paused for a moment before she spoke again. “The others… as humans they’re too weak. If it comes to it… you might consider that some of them might be more use to us if they’re stronger.” She’d thought about it during the race to find Eren, about Captain Hange’s statement that she’d be willing to be turned. She… she wasn’t sure how much more she could lose now….

A dark look crossed Eren’s face before he looked away. “I’m not turning anyone against their will – it’s what the others would do. And I’m not doing the others’ work for them.” He took a few steps away from Mikasa’s side.

“Eren… I won’t lose you to them,” she called out as she reached toward her brother. Ymir’s admission that Eren could change the vampires to survive in daylight had shaken her deeply, enough that she had to worry about what it would take to keep him safe. “I *won’t* lose you.” He was the most important thing to her. But they were slowly accepting others as important to them, too.

He glanced back over his shoulder at her, his eyes glowing bright in the darkness and his smile a grim line. “I know.” That was all he said before he vanished into the darkness with an ease that frightened her.

Mikasa fumbled after him, lost for a moment despite her ability to see in the dark, and when she reached the camp she found Eren sitting next to Captain Ackerman as if nothing had happened. Eren gave her a smile even as he sat at the short bastard’s side, while the captain had an arm around his waist and assessing eyes for Mikasa when she met his grey gaze.

Captain Hange was on Eren’s left side, and she also had a cool gaze for Mikasa before she resumed tapping away at the datapad in her grip. Beside her was Krista and Ymir, and Ymir had a mocking smile on her face as if she knew something that Mikasa didn’t, which made Mikasa itch to wipe the smug expression off of the traitor’s face.

Feeling a bit left out, Mikasa went to sit by Jean’s side, where he made space for her with obvious enjoyment. While everyone talked about the day’s ride and what waited for them in the upcoming journey, Mikasa stared across the fire at her brother and tried to figure out just what had changed between them.

*******

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