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Flesh and Bone

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Prologue — Wishes

 

The monster wakes.

For a split second, his brain reels with disorientation. He’s trapped, blind and suffocating, but the warm shell of his true body is gone, the cage of bone and muscle broken, the nerves burrowed deep beneath his skin ripped away like uprooted ivy. He’s tiny and weak, and the cold air around him and the cold metal table beneath him raise goose bumps on his naked skin. He takes as deep a breath as he can around the gag in his mouth. The feeding tube inserted into it is warm and his stomach churns with discomfort — they must have fed him while he was unconscious.

The brace holding his head down stops him from shaking the cloth off his face. Following a line of thought is so hard and it would be so much simpler just to go back to sleep… He’ll have no choice, if those people with their masks and long gloves are nearby; if they notice he’s awake, they’ll make him sleep. They like him quiet and pliable. Crumbs of leather escape into his mouth as he grinds his teeth on the gag. He’ll make it down to the metal sooner or later. There has to be a sharp edge somewhere —

He freezes, a soft sound somewhere off to his right snapping him into vibrating alertness — and he doesn’t know who he is or why they’re doing this to him, but that soft clinking of metal against metal, he knows that sound. Now he’s concentrating, he can hear barely-there footfalls too, so much softer than those of the people with the masks and knives.

“Are you trying to play dead? If you’re pretending to be still asleep, you should try breathing.”

And he knows that voice. That voice is burned into his brain as deeply as the sound of clanking metal, unmistakable in its combination of rough accent — Lower Sina, his brain supplies, as if that’s supposed to mean something — and cool, measured delivery. He feels the table move as someone hops up onto it, and something shifts inside his head, letting him put names to the sound — the rattle of blade boxes — and to the smell he’s suddenly breathing in — gear oil and antiseptic soap. Light stabs into his eyes as the cloth is plucked from his face.

He throws all his weight against his bonds. Smoke pours from the wounds on his body, and the man he’s attempting to attack settles back on his heels, wreathed in the smoke like a demon out of a storybook, come to offer up three wishes in exchange for a soul. His face is as familiar as his scent, as familiar as the leather strapping running across his body and the metal and wire contraption attached to it —

“Freedom?” The word’s hopelessly mangled around the gag, and he’s almost glad, because it might have been the first word to come to his mind, but it’s not the man’s name, he knows it isn’t. The man stares at him, and he remembers a flash of ice-bright eyes and pain exploding through his mouth and jaw and neck. An enemy, then? He yanks at his cuffs, and the bastards have been so fucking careful with him — he wants to gouge his wrists, tear off his hands and attack the man with the bloody stumps, but the cuffs are so well padded he can’t even feel the metal. His frustrated howl sounds like a cockerel getting its neck wrung; it dislodges the tube in his throat and he retches around it, fighting to breathe.

“Disgusting,” the man mutters, reaching for the gag. Pain flares in a hot line from his stomach to his mouth. He chokes as the feeding tube is moved, but as the end knocks against his tonsils, flooding his mouth with the taste of blood and bile, it tastes like… well, freedom.

“I’m taking you out of here,” the man says. “It’s up to you whether you’re conscious or not.” His hands feel swift and gentle as he deals with the other tubes. Air whistles around and through the gag as the monster sucks in air, shame just adding fuel to his anger. Just one comment about piss or shit and he’ll — “They haven’t gouged out your brain. Use it.”

They did, he thinks wildly. Or pieces of it, anyway. Perhaps it didn’t heal right, and this is all a hallucination. The man — and, enemy or not, he knows him — takes a knife and a set of bolt cutters out of his coat and pulls off his gloves; his brain could have summoned up a more reassuring figure.

Fingers brush against his scalp as they follow the gag’s padded chain through his hair, and the man leans in close enough that the monster can see the precise color of his eyes — ice grey, rimmed with slate. They’re framed by long black lashes and underlined by dark shadows, and he stares at them as their owner deals with the gag like he’s performing an amputation, neatly slicing through the padding and peeling it back to get at the chain. He thinks of the people — the doctors — with their face masks and goggles, rubber gloves and long-handled instruments, so eager to get their hands on — and inside — him when he was unconscious, but so terrified of him while he was awake. The man’s fingertips are barely warmer or softer than the bolt cutters pressed against his cheek, but only the brace across his forehead saves the monster from the humiliation of rubbing his face up against them.

“This is fucking sick,” the man says, and looks at him like everyone else, disgust in his eyes.

Just one punch, that’s all he wants. Or just one bite. He’ll gladly take a beating to feel that knife-like little nose crunch under his knuckles or that pale skin split between his teeth. Fuck him. Fuck his callused fingertips. Fuck his stupid grumpy face. He feels the snap of the chain giving way right down into his bones, and fuck that too.

He spits the gag out in a spray of drool and blood, and gets a kind of mad satisfaction from the man’s expression as he jerks his head back. The monster snaps at his fingers; the man grabs his face, grip so hard he can feel it in his bones.

“You want to jizz on me next?” he snaps. “Wipe your sweaty balls on my shirt or sneeze on my boots?”

The monster struggles to make his voice work and fails. “I —”

“Aren’t you trying to introduce me to every single one of your bodily fluids?” His face disappears from the monster’s field of vision and he feels a tug on his cuff. “You stink. Have you ever seen a bar of soap?”

There’s something there — something in the man’s voice that makes his chest ache. “They hose the blood off,” he croaks, and his throat hurts so much but it feels so good to talk. And to think — his thoughts are moving easier. He listens to the grinding of metal against metal as the man attacks his chains, fulfilling his first wish. “You’re shit at this. The demon in Armin’s book could just wave his hand.”

There’s a startled grunt and an ominous clunk. “Useless piece of crap.” He hears the clank of a metal tool hitting the tiles — followed by another — and loses his wonderful new ability to breathe easily. He tests his cuff and finds it still attached to the floor. Perhaps the bolt cutters weakened the chain before they broke? He listens to the man going through the cell’s generous selection of tools and surgical instruments and tugs on the chain until his arm muscles ache and tremble and hot tears pool in the corners of his eyes.

“No bolt cutters.” There’s a twanging clang as metal hits metal. Splinters of broken blade spin past his eyes and nick his cheek. The man leans over him, and the puffs of steam escaping from the monster’s mouth raise patches of pink on his pale face. “And the steel’s forged harder than my blades.”

“My bones aren’t.” The monster hears the quiver in his voice and hates himself just a little more. The man studies his face, and he can’t move to hide — and why isn’t that bastard fucking moving? Does he want him to beg? “Captain —”

The man — the Captain — vaults back up onto the table, the broken blade from his gear ejected with a flick of his wrist. If he’s an enemy, he’s a known one — his name is on the tip of the monster’s tongue. He doesn’t flinch as the piece of splintered steel bounces by his head and clatters over the tiled floor, but grits his teeth and listens to the snap-snap of the Captain replacing his blades, the metallic hiss as he draws them. He feels the fear drain out of him. Freedom’s so close he can taste it.

Let’s do this, he thinks. His brain feels like it’s fizzing, and he rakes his gaze up the Captain’s legs and imagines his hands wrapped around them. Come on, you bastard. Cut me loose.

“They said you were a replica, not the real thing,” the Captain says quietly, “so how do you know Armin? Do you remember Mikasa too?” The steel table is suddenly very cold. The monster thinks of a boy with big blue eyes and a girl with hair as black as the Captain’s… chunks of broken crystal raining down from his shoulders… roof tiles crunching under his fist… “How about me? Do you know me, brat? Can you be —” He scowls even harder. “Not that it matters. You clearly know how to heal.”

The monster screws his eyes shut. Air whistles around the Captain’s blades as he slashes down, followed by the chunk-chunk of metal cleaving through bone, and he could probably appreciate the cleanness of the cuts but his ankles are nubs of flaming pain and he doesn’t scream but he sobs and he knows better — they’llgrowbackthey'llgrowback — but he can’t stop the panic — “Eren. Breathe.” Captain Levi shouldn’t pretend to be nice, he thinks wildly, even as he seizes on his voice to focus on. “Stop the bleeding, you little shit. I’ve seen you do it before.” His most reassuring comments come out like death threats and the boner-provoking pitch of his voice makes him sound about as kind and paternal as some backstreet hooker. “Stop whimpering and concentrate.” Of the kind that offers a flogging for seven copper coins — with a discount for new soldiers, tattoos and palm-reading on the side —

“Bast—” The blades come down again, and Eren bites back a howl, but this time the panic turns to exhilaration as he automatically goes to hug his wrists to him and they come away from the manacles and he’s free. “Oh.” Steam pours from him, the bleeding slows, and he feels Levi’s hands on his shoulders, helping him slide out of the head brace and sit up. “Captain Levi,” he starts, and feels Levi go still.

“Lying assholes,” he says, almost amiably, bending to dig pants and shirt and a thick cloak from his bag. “Lucky assholes. The sight of you should be enough to stop Mikasa from hunting them down. For now.” As he helps Eren to put them on, Eren gets to look at the room he’s in for the first time. The tables of gleaming tools and racks of samples (from him, the bastards) aren’t a surprise: the tiers of benches around the room are.

There’s a viewing gallery too.

His liquid dinner churns in his stomach and he needs to get off this table —

Ignoring the pain in his wrists, he heaves himself off the edge and drops to the floor. The table blocks his view of the gallery, but the floor is cold and now he’s got a good view of the heavy chains running into the tiles, obviously bolted to the stone beneath. Eren stares at one for a long moment, follows its coils to where one of the manacles sits in an expanding pool of blood, his foot still trapped inside it. It’s welded shut. Breathing should be easier than this, now the feeding tube’s gone…

His name is Eren Jaeger, he’s a soldier as well as a monster. He’s also a murderer.

His mind was as empty and bright as the crystal hall, before its walls were cracked and covered in blood. Now it’s filling up. He doesn’t remember everything — but it’s enough.

Levi picks at the sleeve of his coat and clicks his tongue.

Looking past him, Eren can see through the doorway, to the dead or unconscious guards sprawled on the floor. “What are you doing?”

Levi blinks. “Blood spots,” he says, and then, “from the arterial spray,” and that’s not what Eren was asking and he knows it. He turns neatly on his heel and pads over to the instrument table. “You were supposed to be dead. Who knew how much essence of you could be recovered from a stolen chunk of spinal column?” He picks up one of the big glass bottles of chemicals and looks over at Eren thoughtfully. “Guess we still don’t. So here’s a memory test. Go on, doctor’s brat — which of these drugs burns best?”

Eren wants to help, doesn’t want to admit his ignorance, but his mind turns to liquid just thinking about it. He hugs his arms around himself, rests his head against the table leg, and he doesn’t want to pass out in front of Levi either, but he’s struggling to keep his eyes open. “I don’t…” He feels queasy, woozy, can’t think —

“Relax. Don’t damage your brain by trying to use it.” He hears the clink of the bottle being returned to its table. “Burning the place would only draw attention we don’t need,” Levi says quietly. “But it is fucking tempting.”

As the dizzy blackness swallows Eren up, he hears another voice, recognizes it as his own: “Try the ether.”

Chapter Text

 

01 — The Bleeding Man

 

Eren slits open his eyes and sees mountains and trees crowding in above him, dark blue sky fading into red. The whole world is bouncing and swaying with the unmistakable gait of a cantering horse. And he’s wedged uncomfortably into the gap between the saddle horn and the crotch of the man he’s sharing the horse with. His balls are bruised to hell, the buckles of his companion’s gear harness must be embossed into his skin by now, and the way he’s being held steady is cutting off the blood to his arm. And he can smell gear oil and service issue soap…

“You are bad at this pretending-to-be-asleep thing,” Levi says. “I’m embarrassed on your behalf.”

As if he knows how to be. Eren’s surprised at how quickly that thought forms as he twists in the saddle, so completely awake now. “You’re real,” he says.

Captain Levi lets the horse — and its companion, currently loaded with baggage but probably intended for Eren when he stops being dead weight — drop their pace to a trot. “No fucking kidding. So are you. Which presents a puzzle.” He glares. “You were dead.”

No fucking kidding. Eren tries to blink away the images crowding behind his eyes. At least he wasn’t himself for most of it. Until they got to his face. Then he saw his skin from behind, the twisted cord of his optical nerve stretched taut as an eyeball was taken with it, and everything hurt as his skull split open. He sucks in a deep breath. Then another. “Surprise,” he says weakly.

“If you’re going to be sick, lean away from the horse. My pants don’t need the decoration.”

Under his palm he can feel a leather strap so worn it’s fabric-soft, and the aching, steaming stumps of his fingers dig into the tough material of service pants pulled tight over firm muscle. Somewhere in his pounding head, it occurs to him that that isn’t his own leg he’s got such a good grip on. It concentrates his thoughts. It really concentrates his thoughts. “They’re safe,” he manages, “sir.” He should really move his hand, but instead he curls his stubby fingers around the strap as best he can. Captain Levi isn’t warm to touch, but he’s solid and human and not flinching away from him.

“Listen to those birds. Messed-up little fuckers think it’s dawn already.”

He’s human. He’d be so easy to break — No. Eren trips over the thought. No, he wouldn’t.

“Sasha ruined birdsong for me back in Training,” Eren says. “It’s hard to think of it as pretty when you know what they’re saying. It’s all fighting and sex, like soldiers on leave. Like some soldiers on leave,” he adds quickly. “I don’t, and I know you —”

— don’t do half the things mess hall rumor says you do. Fortunately, that part of the thought remains firmly in his head.

Eren feels Levi’s arm tighten around his ribs, his leg moving under Eren’s hand as he nudges the horse back up into a canter. “Sleep some more if you have to.”

And miss all this? True, one tree is pretty much like another to his mind, especially when they’re lined up in ranks like cadets on the parade ground and merging together in the evening gloom, but the air is cool on his face and smells of pine forest and distant hot springs. If he closes his eyes again, there’s always the risk he’ll wake up back in the cell.

Of course, he was safe in the cell, with no chance of hurting anyone. He wants to ask Captain Levi why he took him out of it; he wishes he could be sure he’ll like the answer.

The horse rears underneath them, and Levi must be staying seated with just the sheer strength of his thighs, because he’s got Eren balanced with one arm, the guide rope of the panicking baggage horse wrapped around the other. He stops it from bolting with brute force. The horse they’re riding dances in place, clearly still spooked. But why —

“Karl!”

Eren sees people crouched by the side of the road, a woman and two children bundled up in what looks like every piece of clothing they own. Another bundle of clothing picks itself up from the road — uncomfortably close to the horses’ hooves — and before the kid scrambles over to his mother, Eren gets a glimpse of a tear-streaked face and a stuffed bear brown with road mud but clutched tight like a treasure.

“Sorry, sirs.” The woman’s eyes flick to Levi’s maneuver gear as she hoists her bag onto her shoulder and ushers her children back onto the road — a safe distance past Levi and Eren. Eren’s never seen her before in his life, but her appearance is painfully familiar. He looks around for — yes, there they are, coming down the road toward them, little groups of people, some with wagons and mules, pushcarts filled with caged chickens or the family cow trailing unhappily after them on a rope. There were no animals allowed on the boat to Trost, but Eren knows this scene.

Perhaps it’s a false alarm, like last time —

The refugees begin to pass them by. Levi gets the horses moving with a nudge of his knees and a tug on the guide rope, dropping into position next to a heavily laden wagon. The man perched on the front of it looks at the horses — and they may not be the Survey Corps purebreds they started with, because Eren has vague, sleepy memories of swapping horses at mountain inns, but they’re still the expensive, elegant animals ridden by aristocrats and their messengers... and highwaymen, when they can get them — and hunches down, clutching his reins to his chest.

“Hey, you!”

The man completely ignores Captain Levi… which Eren could have told him wouldn’t go well.

“You have five seconds to tell me what the fuck is going on here.”

“Piss off,” the wagoner snarls, snatching up a wooden bat from behind his seat. “We’ve got nothing to steal —” His rant turns into to a squawk as he finds himself in mid-air, Levi’s fingers twisted in his collar. He flails his arms as he gets a better look at Levi’s face in the dim light. “My young un’s got your wanted poster,” he gasps. “You wouldn’t want to hurt me in front of him, right, Captain? It’d break his heart!”

Eren looks down at the man’s wagon. A pair of too-big eyes stare back at him from a bony face. The kid’s almost old enough to join up. At least the military will feed him.

“Just tell me what you’re running from,” Levi snaps. “Is Wall Rose breached?”

“There’s… Red Mary… in Klorva Distr—”

“Papa!”

“Captain, he’s going blue!”

Levi tosses the wheezing man back into his wagon. Eren watches the kid panic over him, his mind whirling. Haven’t the people of Wall Rose taken enough? Is it any wonder they’re running? The “Curse of Red Mary,” bleeding sickness… The common name of the disease doesn’t begin to describe the terrifying range of its symptoms. It’s a disease that can wipe out an entire village in just over a day — and then disappear for a decade before appearing again in a far-distant district. The last bleeding sickness epidemic was in Shiganshina; Eren’s father managed to stop it.

His throat closes up. Breathing is suddenly impossible.

He feels Levi tense up behind him. “Get your family off the road.” He jumps down from the horse, dragging Eren with him. “Now!”

Eren’s about to protest when he hears it — galloping hooves, lots of them, coming from the same direction as Captain Levi and himself. Soldiers or bandits? Either way, it’s unlikely to be good news for them.

He struggles to walk on his partially re-formed feet; Levi gets his arm around his waist and half-carries him off the road, the horses trailing obediently behind them. He dumps Eren behind a bush and hustles the horses further into the woods.

Some of the civilian travelers take Levi’s advice, but the majority stay with their belongings or huddle together with their families as the riders arrive. Their torches light up the double rose badges on their cloaks, and Eren watches from beneath the bush as they form a barrier across the road.

The light out on the road makes the gloom under the trees seem all the darker. Eren still feels exposed. He tells himself that Captain Levi wouldn’t go to all that trouble to free him, just to abandon him at the first sign of trouble.

“You can go no further! Please return to your homes!”

A wave of protest ripples through the crowd. The soldiers not encumbered by torches have their muskets in their hands…

“Food and medical supplies will be provided for everyone living in the quarantine area!”

Eren’s so focused on the road, he jumps when Captain Levi drops down beside him. “We can cut through the woods. Even the horses should make it. I got them through the worst of it.” He follows Eren’s gaze and scowls just a little harder. “This will go badly.”

“We should help,” Eren says automatically. He could make them stop, he has the power — even if the knowledge he needs to use it is just out of reach in his brain —

On the road, one of the travelers has stepped forward to argue with the soldiers. No one is moving back toward Klorva District. No surprise there.

People are going to get hurt…

Levi hauls Eren to his feet — and Eren gets the impression he’s one more protest away from being slung over Levi’s shoulder like a sack of flour. He hears raised voices from the road as he stumbles through the bushes. “Try worrying about yourself instead,” Levi says. “I need you fit to use maneuver gear, so concentrate on healing —”

“Hey! You in the woods!”

“Keep moving. Mind your step.”

It’s dark. Branches clutch at his clothes, exposed roots at his clumsy feet. He hears more shouts from the road — shouts and screams and the sharp crack of muskets. He feels sick. Levi gets a bruising grip on his arm to steer him around a big oak, and Eren doesn’t understand — surely one way around it is as good as another.

People are dying back on the road, and there are no monsters involved, just perfectly ordinary people killing perfectly ordinary people —

“Stop!” Splinters of wood explode into the air as a musket ball buries itself in the oak. The soldier who fired it is as noisy as Eren is as he lumbers through the undergrowth. “I said —” His voice is lost in a sudden crash and rustle. Eren hears a whimper, then a pained shout. “Help me!”

Eren stops. He’s not going to the soldier’s aid — he can see torches among the trees and hear the guy’s comrades moving toward them. They’ll get him. But Eren spent weeks learning to build traps like that in Training — wasted weeks, because what good is that kind of thing against titans? And you still have to kill the — very angry — bear once it’s fallen into the pit.

He never once thought of using the traps against humans.

It’s gloomy under the trees, but if he squints he can see the last of the light glinting off wire strung between them, calf high and neck high to hamstring legs and slice through throats, but also high in the branches. He feels the anger build until it's pushing at the constraints of his skin. How fucking dare they? This forest is borderland, butting up against Wall Rose. It belongs to all humanity. What if the titans come? How could anyone fight them here?

Petty, stupid

“Eren, fuck.” A branch cracks him in the back of the head as Levi lifts him off his feet, and he swears again. If they were as quick to fight the titans as each other, they’d be at the ocean already.

And if Eren never existed, they would have a better chance at it. He bites back his anger and frustration. Whatever reason Levi has for snatching Eren from his containment, whim or orders, he’ll want the weapon, not the reckless, self-pitying weakling.

He holds his tongue until they push through onto the narrow path where Captain Levi tethered the horses. Eren takes the canvas satchel of food Levi presses on him, lets Levi pull him up behind him on his horse without protesting — and doesn’t offer any unwanted advice when Levi struggles to light his torch. As they ride on, he does as he’s told and stuffs his face with crusty bread and smoked cheese and spiced apple pastries — hardly a hardship. But he can’t keep his mind from racing.

Levi is not in uniform, and he’s certainly not treating the Garrison soldiers as his comrades. “Is the Corps outlawed again?” Eren says, and he can’t quite keep the bitterness and blind stupid hope out of his voice. “Or are you disobeying the Commander?”

“You make me sound like a badly trained dog. It’s not flattering.” That’s not a denial, not at all. “If Erwin wanted the Medical Branch to keep hold of you, he would have found some way to rein me in.” And neither is that. “Look, just do as you’re told a bit fucking longer, and I won’t have to regret doing this.”

“I thought you made a point not to regret anything?” The words come out of Eren’s mouth without thought or permission, delivered with a spray of pastry flakes. Levi twists in his saddle, looks back at Eren over his shoulder, and Eren refuses to squirm as Levi he stares at him — like he’s just encountered a new class of titan, Eren thinks uncomfortably, and he’s working out how best to get at its nape. “I’m glad you’re on my side.”

“Then you’re a fool,” Levi says flatly, turning his eyes back to the path.

After a moment, he transfers his reins to the same hand as the torch and sets about using a corner of his cloak to brush the flakes of pastry from his hair and shoulders. Eren flicks off the bits he misses with finger stumps that are suddenly billowing steam. His grin hurts his face. “I never said I wasn’t,” he says, and shoves another roll into his mouth.

And almost chokes on it when lights flare in the trees around them and a voice shouts out, “Halt!” When his eyes adjust he sees the lights come from opened-up blackout lanterns held by gear-equipped soldiers… and at this point he can tell a Military Police badge in the dark and at fifty meters. This is the last thing he ever wanted to do again, but he brings his hand up to his mouth. If they try anything, he’ll risk it. He’ll just have to be careful to protect Captain Levi as he transforms —

*

Levi has never claimed to be psychic, but as he feels Eren shift his weight behind him, he has a vision of the future worthy of the most convincing backstreet crystal ball juggler. “Eren!” The kid has every right to be wary of the MPB — hell, Levi is going up against decades of ingrained experience here himself — but his ass is numb, his thighs feel like he’s done time with every single member of the Trost Garrison wrestling team, and his patience is shot to pieces. “You make me cut you out of your titan and I will make it hurt.”

“Captain?” Eren manages to pack a lot of questions into that one word, but he’s not fifteen meters tall and swallowing musket shot, so they’re still ahead.

And as yet, there’s not a single musket aimed their way — even better. He hears a shout float down from the treetops. “Hey, look! Reinforcements! I feel better already!”

“Some other Survey Corps guys following you, Captain? Or have they lost their nerve?”

“No taking sick leave on us this time!”

“It’s a sign of the times,” Levi says. “Zackley’s lost his mind, Erwin and Dot Pixis are starting to hate each other’s guts, and Reiss’s minions and the Wall Cultists and Kenny’s followers and the fucking Royalists are all still a fucking nuisance, but joint operations are easier to organize than ever.” And it’s not as if an approaching winter of food shortages, plague and civil war actually makes the titans any less terrifying, so the fact that they have volunteers now impresses him slightly.

One of the soldiers drops down, cable reels whirring. “Captain Brzenska didn’t tell us you were coming,” he says. “Are you joining the mission? You know, those guys are all hot air.” He’s young, only a year or so older than Eren and his buddies, and his solemn face reminds Levi of the Marlowe kid. “They’ll be as relieved as anything to have you with us.”

If that “relief” is because they think he’s some kind of protection from the titans, Levi could give them a list of soldiers who died thinking just that. He’s failed to protect even people he actually gave a damn about — what makes them think they’ll be different?

The kid shifts uncomfortably under his stare, then snaps into a salute. “Sergey Bocker! Ehrmich Military Police Brigade, Squad Three!”

A trickle of steam drifts past Levi’s face, and he sees a flicker of sheer panic shoot across the Sergey brat’s face as he takes a hasty, awkward step back. “What the —” he starts, then, “Oh, hell… My superiors didn’t say anything about this, either! Are we supposed to be taking that thing with us?”

Eren’s chin digs into the back of Levi’s head. Levi can hear his labored breathing, the hissing and crackling as his flesh reforms. Between Utopia and here, he took the time to dunk Eren in a mountain stream, potentially ruining a whole district’s water supply, but he still smells of the cell, blood and piss and shit and sweat and science. Levi counts the length of time he left him in there in weeks and days and hours and narrows his eyes at Sergey. Making him bleed will not be satisfying at any level. Right at this second, Levi doesn’t care.

“With the greatest respect, sir, I trust your skills and I’m sure you can handle it, but —” Sergey catches his eye and stumbles to a halt, whitefaced. Eren is mercifully silent, but Levi feels the tension sing through the body pressed up against his.

He stretches slowly, feeling all the eyes on him and carefully marking the location of their owners. If even one of these bastards raises their musket, he’ll feed it to them whole.

“Unclench before you burst something,” he says. “It’s hard to get stains out of service-issue pants. I’ll argue it out with Rico. You can run and get her if you want, but first, show me to your field showers.” Sergey hesitates. “Or bring me a few buckets of hot water and a big block of soap, because it’s been a long day, I stink like a titan’s armpit, and I’m not that fussy. Or that shy.”

Sergey tears his eyes away from Eren. “Um, that won’t be necessary, sir.” He gestures awkwardly, like a boy waving his date through a door before him, a sweep of his arm and a dip of his knees and head that’s almost a bow. Levi kicks his leg over his horse’s neck and drops to the ground, reaching out to steady Eren as he follows. Eren manages a dignified dismount, which could mean he’s almost healed. Or not. When Levi got to him last night, he was pumped full of enough sedatives to kill a team of draft horses, and he still tried to take Levi’s fingers off with his teeth. There’s no overestimating the power of Eren’s sheer bloody-minded determination.

“You okay to walk?” he murmurs. He gets a curt nod before Eren marches toward Sergey. His gait is lacking its usual firmness, that impression he gives, even in human form, that nothing short of a high-explosive shell will knock him down, but his head is held high and it is possible Sergey can’t even tell how bad his balance is. It’s impossible to see how complete his feet are through the steam, and Levi hopes for his sake he’s paying attention to the ground in front of him. A combination of bare feet and horse shit has the potential to scupper even the best attempt at dignity.

Sergey skitters back and heads off between the trees, Eren trudging after him. Levi leaves the horses in the care of one of the MPs and follows them, saddlebags slung over his shoulder.

As the forest canopy breaks up above them and they step out onto a road, a Midwinter festival’s worth of flaming torches lighting up the maze of drab service-issue tents and large, solid houses around them, he gets a glimpse of the night sky. Just a glimpse, though. Wall Rose dominates the view, a great dark mass rising so high above the trees it swallows up the stars. Its curvature creates an uncomfortable optical illusion; it seems to be listing toward him, as if it could collapse down on the village huddled beneath it.

And it could, if the titans inside it wake up. Levi feels a tickle run down his neck as he stares up at it — like he’s some damn wild animal with its hackles raised. Some damn prey animal, at that.

The moment passes; diving off the path to let a couple of heavy wagons rumble past will do that. There are a lot of soldiers about, he notices, but very few civilians.

“The main Garrison force has been here a couple of days,” Sergey says. “While they were waiting for the rest of us they got quite comfortable.”

He’s not kidding. They’ve made the market square their headquarters. Levi smells the mess tent before he sees it, and though he’s eaten enough service rations to know the dangers, he’s still tempted. Then he sees the sandbag-walled enclosure next to it, steam and smoke distorting the flames of the torches around it, and all thoughts of food are swept from his head.

It takes all the self-control he has not to sweep Eren up and go straight over the barrier with him. Sergey sends the soldiers inside packing, and it is unfair, when they’ve drawn the water and tended the fires, that they shouldn’t get to enjoy the baths they’ve prepared. Levi can’t bring himself to care; he’s never claimed his approach to the needs of his body is anything other than completely selfish.

He’s shucked his cloak and jacket and is slipping off his torso straps and back plates before Eren’s even got his cloak off. Objectively, the camp’s hot tubs are poor things, big metal barrels propped on bricks over well-fed fire pits, makeshift seats of bricks inside them (wouldn’t want to burn your ass). The soap provided is good and antiseptic, but so hard it could be used as a weapon. It’s not bad. Not bad at all. He starts on his shirt buttons.

“Levi!”

Eren jumps and drops his cloak. Rico stops in her tracks and glares at him as if the very sight of him offends her. “Are you two on your own?” As always, she wears the done-with-life expression of someone who found dog shit in her saddlebags and spent the whole afternoon cleaning them out; it gets even grimmer when she looks at Levi. “Where’s Hange?”

“Hell if I know.”

“We’re going to have to do this,” Rico snaps, “with or without the Survey Corps — what’s left of you. I might not like it, but my troops stand a better chance of surviving if it’s with. And we can only hold on for another hour or so if we want to make the journey comfortably.”

“They’ll be here.” They will.

Eren looks concerned. He’s a fool. Hange hasn’t missed an expedition outside the walls in six years. Raging hangovers, broken ribs, fevers pushing forty degrees — nothing keeps Zoe Hange from the titans. If it is possible to slow Hange down, a smashed-up arm sure as hell isn’t going to do it.

“Are you planning to get in the tub in your clothes?”

Levi thinks he sees Eren roll his eyes before he hauls his shirt over his head.

He can easily guess at the things inflicted on Eren while in Medical Branch custody, but his guesses come from an active imagination and too much experience of human nature. He finds himself staring at Eren’s torso, searching for a single mark to prove or disprove them. There isn’t any, of course there fucking isn’t. He’s seen Eren’s skin ripped from his body, seen him heal it, seen him grow back whole limbs like he’s a giant lizard. Hell, he’s seen him torn into bloody chunks; the body he’s wearing now he must have grown back from nothing more than spinal column and a section of brain, and isn’t that a headfuck? He doesn’t even have harness calluses…

“What is this, anyway?” Rico says. “I was told Eren was dead, and here he is, large as life.”

The Medical Branch didn’t really lie to Hange, not exactly. That body is far from the one Eren started with. All that perfect skin of his is quite the novelty, but it’s the result of pain.

“You don’t seem surprised,” Eren says quietly.

Rico looks at him. “Are you joking? If there’s a way to make this mission more complicated for me, this world makes it happen.”

Eren flashes that rare grin of his at her, his face briefly as bright as one of the torches. Rico manages to frown even harder.

Levi goes to pull the lid off one of the barrels; she reaches out to stop him. “I need to talk to you.”

“You can’t do that while I wash?”

“In private.”

He could fight her on this. Does she know how long it’s been since he’s had an actual hot bath? The gates could open to reveal all the titans gone, and he’d still make time for this damn bath before venturing out to explore. He glances over at Eren. The kid’s undressed and climbing into the barrel; he’s got the right idea.

“It’s fine, sir. You need to make plans.”

“Plans.”

Eren stops, stares at Levi like he actually thinks Levi doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “To deal with me if I —” He waves his hand and looks thoroughly miserable. “I’m dangerous.”

“The only plan I’m making is where to dump you so I don’t have to listen to this. This self-pity is new,” Levi says. “I don’t like it. You’ve always been dangerous. Who the fuck cares? Get over it.”

“Very motivating,” Rico mutters.

“Thank you, sir.” Eren gets a weird look on his face. If he starts crying… “And thank you for coming to get me.”

“You keep talking like it was my choice —”

“Commander Erwin knew.” Levi blinks and stares. Eren flushes red, but he doesn’t flinch. Does he ever? “They told me so. And Commander Pixis. He said it was the safest place for me for now and that I should avoid causing trouble.” He stares back at Levi defiantly. “And you knew that, didn’t you, Captain? You found out, and that’s why you came.” His fingers are still steaming stumps, there’s a smear of spiced apple at the corner of his mouth and he’s going to burn his balls perching on the edge of the barrel like that… but that odd fierce gravitas of his is barely dented. “If I’m wrong, if this was orders, tell me and I’ll shut up about it.”

“You’ll shut up about it anyway.”

Sometimes being around Eren is uncomfortably like looking in a mirror. Levi sees Eren’s anger, his hunger for a fight, any fight — because your teeth in some poor bastard’s neck might be a poor substitute for kicking the whole world in the balls but you have to take what you can get — and it’s so familiar it hurts. And then there are moments like this, when the little fucker could wrap himself in his titan form and not seem any more alien.

Why is this so fucking important? What exactly does Eren expect from him?

Levi narrows his eyes. “Scrub down well.” He spins on his heel and marches out of the enclosure before Eren can think of a new way to be weird. As he leaves he catches a glimpse of him out of the corner of his eye, folding up his lean legs so he can slump right down in the water. He looks fucking happy, which is frankly bizarre but doesn’t grind on Levi’s nerves as much as it probably should. In a kinder world, he could be happy more often.

Of course, despite the claims of the Underground’s peddlers of spells and woo-woo, no other worlds exist, kind or otherwise. This one is all they’ve got.

He hears a shout and sees half a dozen pigeons explode up over the rooftops in a whirling, shitting mass of feathers and panic.

“Bastards!” Rico gestures at one of her soldiers; he heads toward the disturbance. “They won’t leave the damn birds alone. If we end up with limited communication options just because some village kid wants to snack on messenger pigeon pie I’ll…“ She grimaces. “Well, what can I do to civilians?”

“Put a guard on them — the birds, not the villagers.”

“I did.”

Two village women scurry past and throw them hostile looks. Levi thinks about the old traps in the woods.

This village was rich once. The torches reveal peeling paint and rusty metalwork everywhere, but the houses are large and covered in an amount of decorative woodcarving that is all about showing off excess wealth rather than personal skill. Before the fall of Wall Maria, a village like this could have prospered as the base of smugglers, sneaking high-tax goods and people over Wall Rose. The winches and wealth are long gone now. The titans have no use for duty-free brandy.

“What do you want from me, Rico?”

Her eyes flick over his exposed chest like she’s calculating the fitness of a horse. “Well, if the reports from Utopia are all true, at least you’re back to fighting strength. Will you kill him if he loses himself?”

Levi blinks. “Didn’t I make myself clear?” he says. “He won’t lose himself.” She stares at him, matching him glare for glare. “He’ll do what he has to. And so will I. It’s better to have him on the boat, pissing over the side, than the other way around, right?”

“I’d rather he didn’t piss anywhere,” she says primly.

Out of the corner of his eye, Levi catches the twitch of a curtain in a darkened window. The soldiers have been here two days, acting as if they own the place. If the people here are down-on-their-luck smugglers, they won’t be enjoying this. And, old distrust aside, they might live far from the main population centers, but they would still hear the stories. Hear them — and pass them on.

They cut the bread ration in the cities. Gunned down rioters in the Sina Underground. Flogged the old mayor of Jinae. Hanged the elders of Heimstatte village.

They’re demanding all of the harvest this year. How will we survive the winter?

The King would never have allowed this.

“I have nothing against Eren, you know that,” Rico says, “but his presence is a complication I don’t need. This mission is already a long shot. Give me your honest opinion — will we pull it off?”

“If we fail, there’ll be no point in coming back.” He watches the villagers hauling water from the well. “Can I have my bath now, or do you want me to pat your hand as well?”

“You’d better hurry. We’re leaving as soon as Hange’s teams get here.”

Probably a good thing. He opens his mouth to reply — and is suddenly aware of the smell.

It’s the smell of a slaughterhouse waste heap; of titan vomit half liquidized and of dismembered bodies and bits of discarded stomach lining disintegrating in the sun. It’s the smell of a hospital tent where the battle against wound rot has been decisively lost. Levi’s sense of smell developed — and almost died a premature death — in the slums of the Underground, but life in the Survey Corps must have made him soft because he feels his stomach turn.

It’s coming from a tent set far away from the others. For a moment, he sees a figure at its entrance, half hidden in the shadows. Half hidden, but Levi sees the shape of the hands clutching the tent flap, their skin split over bulging, oversized bones, before their owner is led back inside by a soldier in face mask and long gloves.

There are hundreds of ways for life to be snuffed out — that man could have died of old age, shitting in a bedpan and surrounded by grandchildren desperate to see his will, or in a titan’s jaws, head popped off his shoulders and crunched between gravestone-sized teeth. He could have been shot by the MPB, or had a heart attack while riding a hooker’s dick, or been torn to chunks by wolves in the forest, contributing in the bloodiest way to the circle of fucking life. Instead, his body is falling apart, his bones mutating and his insides liquidizing, and if there’s a worse way to die Levi can’t actually think of it right now.

“Was that a soldier?” No wonder the villagers are hostile. “What the fuck?

Rico looks at him with wild eyes. “Some of the medics have volunteered to stay with them,” she says desperately. “And there have been no new cases in the last twenty-four hours. We won’t be taking it with us.”

Who is she trying to convince? Levi or herself?

“We’ve managed to keep it quiet among the troops. Morale is as good as it can be —”

He brought Eren into a village with bleeding sickness…

…and he’s almost certain Eren would be the last one standing, if the sickness were to spread. Which in some ways could be an even worse fate.

“Fuck.”

“Captain! We’ve got riders approaching from the southeast!”

*

Eren rests his head on the edge of the barrel and stares up into the night sky, idly picking out constellations. He’s so tired… His body feels like it weighs twice its usual weight, and when he looks at his hand, he sees his fingers have stopped reforming. He’s not too worried; he doesn’t know what the scientists learned from him these past weeks, but Eren now knows the sheer extent of his healing abilities, as well as some of its limits. If he gets some more food and sleep, it should restart. He sinks down into the makeshift tub, folding up his legs in an attempt to get more of his body under the hot water, and listens to the activity beyond the sandbag walls.

Too many people.

And a grand total of one who’s prepared to get close to him. Small mercies, right?

The smells from the mess tent mix with the smells of hay and horse, brasso and wood polish and turpentine and horse shit — even the soap smells of horse — but it’s not enough to overpower his own sour stench. He’s washed so well even Captain Levi might be impressed, scrubbed until his skin is raw and smarting as it heals; it’s no good, because the smell seems to be coming out of his pores. Could it be something they put into him?

He manages to get his head under the water to rinse the soap from his hair. Then he catches it on the rim of the barrel as he lifts it back up, and it’s such a tiny thing to panic over, he’s hardly going to drown, but water slops into his mouth and up his nose, bitter with soap suds and dirt, and for a split second he feels cold metal against his back, padded leather on his wrists… rubber tubing painful in his throat… He gets his head free, coughing and sucking in breath, and the soap slips out of his grip, out of the barrel and onto the flagstones, and it’s stupid and pathetic, but he has to open his eyes, just to confirm where he is. Which is sitting on a rock in a stupid barrel, fire lit beneath him like he’s being cooked for lunch. It’s a step up from the operating table.

If he closes his eyes, he can see Captain Levi as he appeared in that cell, crouched over him as he clawed his way to sanity. He can’t believe he actually called him a demon. Levi probably wouldn’t have any use for Eren’s soul, but he certainly accomplished the first wish: “Get me out of here.”

Two of the Garrison soldiers watch Eren warily from behind the sandbags. He resists looking back at them, but the feeling of their eyes on him makes the back of his neck itch.

The second wish Eren would have made would be… impossible, even for Captain Levi. Thankfully. Eren has goals that are too important to throw away on a selfish, cowardly whim. He may be weak, and he may have caused more deaths than he’s saved, but he refuses to dump his responsibilities onto someone else.

He glances at the soldiers out of the corner of his eye. One of them, the guy as tall as that fucker Bertholdt but about four times as beefy, notices and takes half a step back, his musket twitching in his grip as if he’s trying to stop himself from lifting and aiming it right here and now. To hell with him. If Eren ever wants him dead, no gun will stop him, and Musclehead here must know that.

He wonders if it’s just a general fear of something inhuman in their midst — and they can’t run away from him, can they, not now — or if stories of “the Survey Corps’ titan” running wild have been “allowed” to spread by Zackley’s lackeys. He should keep his head down and get out of here as quickly as possible. Provoking them will serve no purpose, he knows that… but Eren can’t stop a sneer twisting his mouth as he stands up and leans over to pick up the soap.

He hears footsteps on the wet flagstones. A booted foot kicks the bar of soap away from his hand with the gusto of a kid playing kick-the-can.

“What’s so funny, huh?” It’s Musclehead’s buddy. With his short, stubby legs and round, pasty-pale face, rolls of fat escaping over the collar of his shirt like melted ration bars oozing from their paper wrappers, he couldn’t be more of a contrast to his friend. He’s also got more nerve — Eren’s glare succeeds in nothing more than getting a muscle under his eye to twitch. “Go on,” he purrs as Eren sits back down, “indulge my curiosity.”

“I don’t want a fight,” Eren says. Armin would be so proud.

Fat Boy sneers at him. “I bet you don’t.”

“Menno!” His buddy works up the courage to come closer. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Two of the world’s best titan killers within yelling distance and you’re scared?” The barrel rings out as Menno kicks it. “Grow a pair, Willy.”

“He’s got the right idea,” Eren says. “Fuck off.” He thinks about buildings turned to rubble, crushed and mangled bodies, and tastes bile in his throat. Please fuck off. “I don’t need this.”

Menno’s lips curl, and Eren isn’t as used to this as he thought, because when he meets the guy’s eyes it takes every bit of pride he has not to flinch under the weight of so much loathing. Willy grabs his friend’s arm. “Cut it out. We’ll get into trouble.” Menno shakes him off. His eyes are bloodshot, and Eren can smell alcohol. “Do you really want Captain Levi angry with you?”

“I’m not scared of him. What’s he going to do? Beat me up so I can’t go on the mission?”

Another voice floats over from the sandbags. “Maybe not even that.” Eren tries to look for its owner while not taking his eyes off Menno. “Way I hear it, the good Captain’s not the hero he’s made out to be.”

Menno laughs. “I heard that story! I don’t know if I believe it. But it is convenient, right, that the Survey Corps’ toughest looks like that instead of, you know, like Willy.” He locks eyes with Eren. “What do you think? What’s more likely, Smith finding a superhuman fighter in the Mitras sewers, or him sticking gear harness on some pretty-boy failed actor? Such a gift, he is, making good pictures for the papers while getting us to believe men can actually kill titans instead of just, you know, dying. Man, did they ever over-egg that pudding —”

Eren’s on his feet before he realizes he’s moving. Water sloshes over the sides of the barrel. “Shut your mouth,” he snarls. “How are you so fucking ignorant? Of course all you can do is die, if you don’t dare fight! Of course you pass on lies about Captain Levi — how could a piece-of-shit coward like you even imagine a man who fights as hard as he does? Are you pissing yourself at the idea of going over the wall? I hope so, because you’re going to die in seconds —”

“Do you like that idea, you gobby little turd?” Menno says, and Eren feels the bastard’s spittle on his face as he leans in close. “You do, don’t you? You going to be cheering them on as they tear us apart? Or are you going to join in? I heard what happened to Rod Rei —”

Eren’s forehead smashes into his face.

This is crazy — his toes haven’t reformed yet, his balance is fucked, he’s in a fucking barrel — but as Menno’s nose shatters and pain shudders through Eren’s skull, he has to bite back a joyful howl.

The man staggers back, already lashing out. His head pounding, Eren sways out of the way of his punch — and is hit by something like a hundred kilos of brawn, Menno’s overmuscled buddy not taking any fucking chances. The barrel goes over and Willy uses his full weight to smash Eren’s shoulders into the flagstones, hauls him half out of the barrel and refuses to let him wriggle free as water sloshes into the fire pit and smoke billows up around them. Menno swaggers over and kicks him in the stomach, once, twice, again for good measure, and this is just what Eren needs, dammit. He gets his legs free of the barrel, kicking it at Menno — who hops out of its way and leers.

“You going to turn into a monster now, dog dick?”

Turn into? Eren digs his teeth into Willy’s arm until he tastes blood; flesh comes away in his mouth as the guy wails and desperately tries to free himself. Isn’t that the point? The reason why everybody looks at him with that fucking expression in their eyes? Eren doesn’t turn into a monster.

He scythes out with his legs, knocks Menno off balance and uses the momentum to slam Willy onto his back, takes another chunk out of his arm with his teeth, drives his elbow into his stomach so hard that for a second he imagines he can feel ribs and flagstones —

He doesn’t turn into a monster. He is one.

All the way down.

He drives his head up and back, feels the impact of his skull against his captor’s chin. It hurts, and the reverberating, painful echo of Willy’s head hitting the flagstones hurts even more, but the arms that were gripping Eren so tightly are finally loose and he’s —

— not free, not yet, and he hates this stinking village with its mantrap-filled woods and too many people —

The butt of a musket swishes past his head as he rolls clear. Menno’s foot catches him in the back. Pain slices through Eren’s body, he tastes vomit in his mouth, and he hasn’t actually been stabbed in the kidney, but his nervous system’s not convinced of the fact.

— they all look at him like he’s a rabid animal and he can’t say that’s unfair —

He forces himself onto his back as Menno’s foot comes down again. He’s so tired and sluggish and useless, but he can do this in his sleep — catch the guy’s kicking leg with one hand, get one foot hooked behind his supporting leg, and go. Eren’s free foot sinks into his stomach with a satisfyingly fleshy thud. One good shove back and he unbalances like a pile of ill-stacked dishes.

— they’re too close to the wall and he can’t breathe freely —

Eren kicks Menno in the balls to keep him down and scrambles away from him, so tired his attempts to get to his feet are more wobbly newborn foal than victorious street fighter.

— he doesn’t even know where Armin and Mikasa are, or what they’re doing, dammit, because Levi is as fucking talkative as ever and seems to think “they’re okay” is enough —

He sees a flicker of movement at the very edge of his vision, and is just a little too slow reacting. An arm snakes around his neck, a leg hooks around his, and he feels something jab into his leg, sharper and finer than any stiletto. Panic gives him new energy; he slams his hand down, and his whole world narrows down to the syringe stuck in his thigh, his fingers hooked around the hooped end of its plunger.

“Stupid little boy!” His attacker lets go of his neck in order to peel his fingers away from the syringe, and Eren recognizes his voice — this is the man who was egging on Menno from the safety of the sandbags. “Don’t make this harder —” Eren throws himself back, slamming his new enemy back against the sandbag wall, and blood blooms in the glass tube as he gets the upper hand. He yanks the syringe free. His enemy catches hold of his hair and shoves his head into the smoking remains of the fire, and it hurts, it burns, but fuck him. Nothing short of unconsciousness itself will make Eren let go of this syringe. He spits cinders, smells his own burning hair, feels the muscles of his arm spasm —

“Oi!” He glances up and finds himself looking up the barrel of a pistol. “Freeze!” Why is it pointing at him? There’s no consolation in the way it’s shaking. Other soldiers gather behind its wielder — and how is Eren the problem here? “You heard me! I’ll shoot, you —”

Whatever insult would have come next, it’s cut off by a blur of smooth motion. The pistol goes off as it’s forced up and away from him, ball thudding into the sandbags, and teeth crunch and pop free as the gunman takes Levi’s elbow to the mouth.

Eren stops resisting, turns all the force he was using to hold back the syringe into diverting it; it stabs into his leg again, but this time the angle’s wrong — or just right — because the point bursts through his skin. And something splits open inside him.

I’m going to kill you.

Blood pounds in his head, he can barely hear anything but his own rough breathing as he kicks out and scrabbles for the guy’s neck and every centimeter of him is filled with a kind of mad heat. The guy’s kneecap crunches under his foot. Eren feels weightless, energized. He doesn’t need to think. He doesn’t need to care.

I am going to fucking kill all of you.

As always when he gets this mad, he feels some tiny part of him step back, watching his own actions like his body belongs to a stranger. And then he can feel something else, something not quite part of him, like another stranger is standing just that bit too close behind him and looking over his shoulder, waiting for something, waiting and watching… watching Captain Levi right now, he realizes, greedy and intent as Levi makes himself a fixed point in the gap between the sandbags, daring the other soldiers to break against him.

And break they do.

Levi has the poise of a dancer even when he’s sprawled across a sofa with a teacup dangling from his hand, is all fluid power even when performing a motion as mundane as walking across a room. That his hand-to-hand combat style should look like nothing Eren’s ever seen before should come as no surprise, and yet…

Eren’s heard the stories, of course he has, but… He laughs out loud. He had no idea. Wow.

Beautiful.

His enemy slams Eren’s head against the rim of the fallen barrel, and Eren grinds his foot into the man’s broken knee and digs his fingers further into his throat until he feels something pop. He could never be sorry for an opportunity to watch the Captain in action, but he doesn’t need rescuing, not this time. “I’ll kill you,” he spits out, and hears a pained gurgle in return.

“Eren!”

He recognizes that voice too, he thinks dizzily, then there are more hands on him, trying to pull his prey away — “No!”

“Snap out of it, asshole!”

The slap makes Eren’s ears ring and his brain rattle around in his skull. The red mist recedes just enough to see Jean pulling back his arm to do it again, and he’d better have enjoyed delivering that blow, because Eren’s going to break his stupid fucking face —

Jean catches his eye and… lurches back, out of reach. Just for a second, there’s naked fear in his eyes, and it’s a neat trick, that — it’s like he punched Eren in the face without even touching him.

Eren feels like someone dumped cold water down his back; he never knew his anger could be doused so quickly. Sasha and Connie drag his half-conscious attacker away from him. Eren stares at them blankly. He should be happy to see them.

He scrambles back until he feels his back hit the sandbags.

He’s glad they’re alive, he really is. He just wishes they weren’t here.

Armin darts through the gap in the sandbag wall, dodging past Captain Levi as he tosses one of his last victims aside. He’s all smiles, and it hurts to look at him.

“It’s true,” he laughs. “I didn’t dare believe it. Eren —” He peers at Eren’s face and very deliberately stops in his approach, carefully outside Eren’s personal space. It wouldn’t be far enough away to protect him if Eren changed, but then, neither Armin nor Mikasa have ever worried about things like that. This is purely for Eren’s benefit. “Asking you if you’re all right would be stupid, wouldn’t it?” Armin says quietly, eyes soft and sympathetic. Eren could hug him; he wants him to go far away.

He manages a grin, presses his shoulder blades into the sandbags. “The only thing hurt is my dignity,” he says, and Armin’s eyebrows shoot up.

“Okay.”

Armin fumbles in his jacket, dragging out a crumpled handkerchief. Eren stares at him blankly when he holds it out to him. Jean pokes him with his toe and he tries not to flinch away. “Hey, anger management, you’ve got blood around your mouth.”

Eren snatches the grubby cloth and buries his face in it, anything to avoid looking at either Armin or Jean. Saintly understanding or open disgust. He feels sick to his stomach. Groggy tiredness seeps through his body as the adrenaline ebbs away.

“Back off,” Levi orders, and Armin jumps a little before he realizes it’s not directed at him. “Now.” Eren slumps against the wall and watches the soldiers through the gap. Those with just a little bruised dignity help their injured comrades to their feet. “Get back to work.” Levi is actually being obeyed. Not for long, though, Eren thinks; he can see Rico advancing across the square as unstoppably as a riverboat with its rollers spinning at full speed. He hears her shout Levi’s name; Levi ignores her and turns to Eren.

He can fuck off as well. Eren wonders if he’ll get concern or a lecture, and braces himself —

“You shouldn’t fight naked,” Levi says. “It’s just asking to get bits ripped off.” Eren can’t help his snort of laughter. “I guess that’s not a problem for you.”

Eren winces. “Probably not. That’s not an experiment I want to try though,” he adds quickly. Just in case Levi ever feels like mentioning this to Hange — and isn’t that a horrible thought?

Not horrible enough, it seems. Levi drops the man he’s holding and strides over, calmly ignoring both the confusion in the square behind him and the younger soldiers gathered around Eren, and every last of drop of blood in Eren’s body seems to have gone to his cock. It’s just a natural reaction to the fight, nothing to be ashamed of, but he uses some of his last remaining energy to draw up his knees.

His thigh muscle twitches around the needle still jammed in it. The glass of the syringe is broken, the liquid once in it sticky on his skin. He feels his stomach twist as he goes to pluck it out — and has his hand slapped away.

“You’ll cut yourself, idiot.” Levi drops down into a crouch in front of him, hauling Armin with him as he seizes a handful of his cloak. “Why fight so hard if you’re just going to do his job for him in the end?” Eren stares at his head as he wraps his hand in the thick fabric and works the needle free with a precise, gentle motion. “Tired?”

Eren nods, and he looks at the ground, at the shine on Levi’s boots, the neatly stitched repair work on his shirt, everything and anything except the long knife scar bisecting his collarbone (and how close did that come to slicing his throat right open?), and how starkly the marks of his gear harness stand out on his pale skin, and the movement of his chest as he breathes… Eren hugs his knees against his chest, feels a shock of sensation as his cock is crushed between his thighs. Fuck.

“What’s wrong with you now?” Levi snaps, and how is Eren supposed to answer that?

“Levi! What the hell are you doing?” Rico storms around the sandbag wall. “You’re supposed to be reinforcements, not —” Eren feels her gaze fall on him. He can easily imagine what he looks like through her eyes, all naked and bruised and filthy and huddled against the sandbags, and he feels himself cringe — which is not helping, dammit. “Oh. Is he…?”

Levi stares at her. “You know your men better than me,” he says, “but I think they’d stick their dicks in a rabid dog before they’d bother Eren.”

Armin shows her the syringe, still cradled in his cloak. “And I don’t think they’d be so well prepared.” He pokes Eren’s fallen attacker with his toe, getting a groan in return. Beaten and weaponless, he’s a poor figure, a scrawny man with a weathered face made no prettier by the marks of Eren’s fist. “Who and what are you?”

“I am loyal,” the man growls, “unlike most of you bastards.”

“First Squad MP?” Jean asks.

Their captive sneers. “Don’t lump me in with those traitors.”

Armin crouches down in front of him. “What was in this? A sedative? If you intended to kidnap Eren, how were you expecting to get him out of the camp? Marching past hundreds of soldiers with him slung over your shoulder doesn’t seem like much of a plan to me.”

The man gives him a gore-splattered grin. “My masters only need his spinal column. That’s a bit easier to hide, don’t you th—”

Mikasa can move as quickly as Levi when she wants to. One moment she’s not even inside the sandbag wall, the next her fist is smashing into the captive’s face — and the next she’s struggling in Levi’s arms. “Don’t break his mouth,” he says, “he needs it to talk.” She snarls; the man laughs at her. “Smash up his arms and legs.”

That wipes the grin off his face. “Understood,” Mikasa says, her calm mask back in place so firmly it’s hard to believe how far it slipped.

“Don’t let Mikasa put you off,” Armin says quietly. “Keep talking. After all, you’ve been so talkative up until now. So talkative.”

“Shit.” Rico almost runs out into the square. “Hurry up!” she shouts. “We have to finish moving the carts and horses! Anyone unequipped or out of position, get your asses in gear before I kick them for you!”

“Eren was removed from Medical Branch custody only last night,” Armin says. “The Royalist faction couldn’t insert someone into a secret mission that fast, not on just an off-chance that Captain Levi would bring him here.”

The captive closes his eyes. “I’m a soldier. I belong here more than you do. In a world where that thing was safely contained, I’d get to go over the wall and die alongside my comrades.” Eren hears a familiar whoosh and the guy fucking smiles as the flare bursts in the sky above them, bright and brilliantly white.

Mikasa punches him in the face; Levi doesn’t even try to stop her this time. “Tie him up,” he says.

“We’re leaving him?” she snaps.

“Why the hell would we take him with us?” Levi pulls his harness straps back up over his shoulders and makes a passable attempt at fixing his shirt. He also looks a bit too long at the overturned barrels. “Unless you want to feed him to the titans?”

“It is tempting,” Mikasa says softly, and Levi may not merit a smile, but there’s warmth in her eyes and in her voice. Eren watches them and wonders if he’s imagining the cool affection there as they exchange glances. That’s a hell of an alliance, even if he’s still not entirely sure how it happened. “He hurt Eren, and if his friends overrun Rico’s rearguard he gets away scot-free. And don’t tell me they’re not coming. There’s no way you could get here from Utopia this quickly without using the roads and waystations. You might as well have lit up flares for your pursuers.”

“Would you rather I’d taken him to ground with me in the Capital?”

“Perhaps.”

“Well, I wouldn’t!” Eren snaps. Mikasa looks at him; everyone else looks at her.

“I know,” she says.

“Did you all take your horses to the winches?” Levi asks. Mikasa nods, and Eren finds Levi’s attention back on him. “Rico will have arrangements in place for a fighting retreat. Don’t fuck around trying to be a hero. Get yourself equipped and up that wall. Well? Have you gone deaf now? What are you waiting for?”

Eren hesitates, hovering in a half-crouch, his face burning. Levi clicks his tongue. “Grow up and get up,” he says. “I don’t know what you’ve got to be bashful about — you could club someone to death with that thing.”

Eren does cringe then. Levi saw. Zackley or the Royalists — he doesn't understand the politics but it doesn't matter — whoever's coming, they can have him; he’s never going to be able to move from this spot. Not ever.

“Do you need to be carried?”

Eren shoots to his feet, using the sandbags for balance and trying to tune out Connie’s sniggers. His hand twitches, and he’s desperate to cover himself but he refuses to embarrass himself further. It’s not as if the other guys haven’t seen it all already. Right?

Right?

Levi gives his crotch an insultingly brief glance before heading off to do fuck knows what. Mikasa turns abruptly on her heel, pulling up her scarf. Sasha, on the other hand, stares long enough that Eren starts to wonder how long it is since she’s eaten; he snatches the pants Connie’s waving at him. Jean’s doing a pre-fight check on some maneuver gear — for him, Eren realizes — but he finds time to pull a disgusted face. “Hurry up and put it away. Think of old Shadis naked or something.”

Or the sound of a cannon firing — that does it just as well. Light artillery piece, his brain supplies, four-pounder. Brickwork smashes, he hears screams, and his brain adds images… images that really don’t fit the situation, because the only titan here now is Eren.

A couple of soldiers with MP badges on their jackets slip through the sandbags. “Commander Nile will want to talk to him,” one says as they manhandle Eren’s attacker to his feet. “Your Squad Leader Hange says to secure him.”

Eren yanks his shirt over his head and grinds his teeth as the cannon fires again, joined by another this time. They brought cannon with them to recapture him? Fine, that’s understandable. But this? Using cannon against people?

“How many attackers have we got?” Armin asks.

The MP shrugs, trying for casual and failing. “Enough. They’re Orvud Garrison troops, and they’re saying they want us all to stand down, on Supreme Commander Zackley’s orders. Captain Brzenska says, and I quote, ‘Fuck that, we’re going over the wall.’” He stops at the sandbags. “Does this make us outlaws?”

“You made your oath to the King, didn’t you?” Jean snaps, tossing Eren the gear harness. “You’re already outlaws.”

Scarf still around her face, Mikasa does her usual check, running her hands down Eren’s arms as if she expects to find broken bones. He’s half convinced she thinks Levi beats him when she’s not looking. Then her arms are around him in a hug that’s over so quickly that he could doubt it happened — if his ribs hadn’t creaked under the pressure. “Hurry it up.”

It’s as if they were all waiting for Mikasa’s okay — Sasha hugs him, Jean sort of grabs his shoulders and shakes him, Connie slaps his back, and Eren does his best not to flinch back, fumbling with the harness he’s worn almost every day for three years. He’s not going to hurt anyone, he’s in control… Armin pushes his hands away and starts on the buckles himself. “Guys, you’re blocking the light. Either help me with this or back off.”

They help. The harness feels like a hug, the weight of the gear like an anchor, and he’s never been happier to hear his blades rattle as he moves. A Survey Corps cloak is pressed on him, and a jacket with its pockets already filled, though Armin manages to squash something else into one of them. Eren catches his hand and squeezes it, quick and awkward, gets to see a surprised smile break through the worry on Armin’s face. Then Eren’s friends are surrounding him like an honor guard as they leave the safety of the sandbag wall.

“Guys!”

They all turn to look at him, and he feels his grin freeze awkwardly on his face. Thank you, he wants to say.

Soldiers hurry around them. The sound of musket shot comes from the woods. One of the outermost buildings is on fire, and he hears Hange’s raised voice. “Put it out with dirt or urine — don’t even try water!”

“I can’t believe you all made it,” he says.

“Thanks,” Jean says. He rolls his eyes. “I’m sure I speak for everyone here when I say this: I’m so glad you’ve got so much trust in our skills.”

One of the large houses on the edge of the square, weakened by cannon fire, slides to one side like a weakened soldier dropping to his knees, and the six of them scatter as its ornate frontage drops off in a labored rush of broken carvings and brick dust. Eren hears the cannon fire again, and metal canisters rattle off tiled roofs. Failed grapeshot, he thinks, a split second before he hears the whump of flames catching. They run along the rooftops like water, dripping down the drainpipes and melting the lead as they go.

Someone shouts his name. He’s just turning to look for them when he feels fingers close around his ankle.

The guy’s brigade is a mystery, his jacket badges black with blood, and as Eren drops to his knees next to him he sees the twisted ropes of his guts spilling onto the ground. “Stay calm,” he says, uselessly, because what can Eren do for him now?

There are bruises on the man’s face; for a second, Eren wonders if he was one of the soldiers who ran up against Captain Levi trying to get to Eren, but it really doesn’t matter. He wads up the guy’s jacket and presses it against the wound, just to let the guy have some hope at least. His patient grabs his hand. “Is this the civil war?” he gasps. “Wasn’t this mission supposed to stop it?”

“It will,” Eren tells him. How, he’s not sure, since no one’s thought to tell him.

“I would have liked to see… all those… cattle…” He grins up at Eren through a mouthful of blood. Eren does his best to return it. “And… eat… steak…”

“Wouldn’t we all?” But the grip on his hand has gone limp, the eyes staring into his glassy and empty. Eren untangles his fingers. The cannon fire again. In his titan form he could crunch the fucking things beneath his feet. And their fucking gunners. The worst thing is, this isn’t bad aim — they’re deliberately bombarding the village. Because he’s in here and they don’t want to take any chances. “I’m sorry,” he says. At least the fire canisters have stopped falling. “I’m sorry.”

He stands up. Through a wall’s brand-new hole he sees Mikasa looking for him. If he asks her to, she’ll help him destroy their attackers. Even if he can’t guarantee her safety when he transforms… He steps into the shadow of the building, out of her line of sight.

He sees a foot poking out from beneath the rubble, an embroidered slipper dangling from its toe. “I’m sorry,” he says again, feeling ridiculous. He wants the madness, that anger that allows him to forget how often he’s failed and how many deaths he’s responsible for, but it remains stubbornly extinguished. He feels so small…

Where is it? Where’s the fucking anger when he needs it?

“I can’t believe you did this!” Hange’s voice explodes near his ear. “Well, no, yes, I can. This is like my birthday and both solstices come at once! I don’t suppose you took Milborn’s and Fasser’s notes as well? Okay, okay, I guess not.” Thankfully, it’s not directed at him — Hange’s on the other side of the wall and can’t know Eren’s there. He crouches down and pretends to adjust a harness strap; he’s not sure he can deal with so much enthusiasm right now. “You say it has Eren’s memories? How many? Have you done tests?”

“He,” Levi says. “And who do you think I am? Fucking Moblit?”

“Levi…” Hange sounds sad, somehow. It’s wrong. Eren checks the direction sliders on his gear grips, back and forth, back and forth.

“You talk to him.” Levi’s voice is urgent and intent. “Once we’re over the wall. See what you think.”

"Hey, dickhead!" Jean drops down beside him. "At least wait until I'm out of sight before redoing my setup. It's insulting." Eren blinks, and looks around for Hange and Levi. They’re gone, headed for the enemy or Wall Rose. The air smells greasy; he feels sick. "Which of us broke his head six times because he was too lazy to check his gear harness for damage? I'll give you a clue: not me."

Eren still knows the general gist of this script. "Yeah, because you were polishing up your harness straps like a good little wannabe MP, you vain bastard."

"I was a beautiful sight on parade," Jean agrees amiably as they follow the others up the wall. Eren feels a sudden burst of affection for him; it's probably a by-product of the way his blood pounds, body alternately weightless and crushed as his cables whip him into the air.

*

The narrow top of Wall Rose is awash with troops and supplies; this particular part of it probably didn’t see this much activity even five years ago. Eren’s hyperaware of the eyes following him as him and Jean find their comrades. The wind smashes him in the face, and he can taste smoke in it.

He finds himself looking back toward Wall Sina. Distant mountain peaks make a jagged outline against the star-dotted sky, and he can just make out the glint of a lake and the shining silver ribbon of the Esen, but otherwise the landscape falls away in front of him, black and featureless. Hundreds of thousands of people live it, but they’re invisible. Almost — if he squints, he can see a few clusters of lights in the blackness, and there’s a glow to the east that has to be the streetlamps and furnaces of the Industrial Cities. "Are you ready to go?" Mikasa says, and as he turns to talk to her, Eren sees another, brighter glow to the north, bright and flickering like the Winter Lights. Except the Winter Lights never burn the color of flames…

Klorva District.

Eren steps back over the cannon rails and looks down over the wall’s edge. He’s dimly aware of Mikasa saying something else, her words whipped away by the wind, and of Levi watching him, his face made into a stark white-and-black mask by the moonlight, more unreadable than ever, but they’re background to his fury — there it is — and the scream of frustration he’s holding down with every breath.

He’s too far up to see the village, but he can tell where it is in the darkness easily enough. The woods around it are on fire…

A brief lull in the gale lets him hear the distant boom of cannon fire and, horribly close, the sharper crack of muskets.

There’s nothing beneath his toes. One step and he could throw himself into the fight —

“Eren.” Levi’s voice cracks out like a whip, and Eren wants to shout at him to stop, he knows all the reasons they have to go, and they’re good reasons but he doesn’t need to hear it right now — “Go back if you need to.”

What? Eren looks back over his shoulder. Hange grabs hold of Levi’s arm, and it doesn’t really matter that this blocks Eren’s view because even if he could see Levi’s face he wouldn’t have a fucking clue what he’s thinking. He hears Hange shout at Levi: “You don’t get to make decisions like that!”

“I’ll come with you,” Levi says.

“Or that!”

Eren’s heart is pounding as loud as the cannon fire.

“You’re right,” Levi says. “They are dying because of you. It’s on me, too. I could have taken you into hiding — anyone can disappear in the Underground — but I chose to bring you here. You could say we owe it to them to fight alongside them.”

He’s serious… And right. Eren wants to go over the wall, he wants it so much it hurts, but he has a responsibility —

Too many people have died because of him — and his father. He could live longer than the walls have been up and never pay them back.

“And in a few months, the people we save will probably starve to death anyway,” Levi says, as calmly as if he’s commenting on the weather. He looks away, and Eren follows his gaze, toward out-of-sight Wall Maria. No lights out there, just the glitter of the river and a sky cut into by mountain peaks. “Just out there, that plain cutting through the foothills? That’s the old Stilles Valley cattle farming district. Imagine being a Klorva District sentry and having to look at that every day, watching with your stomach rumbling while herds of beefsteak on legs wander back and forth — just within telescope view, you understand, not close enough to drop down and pick one up for dinner. Then there are vineyards in the hills, all kinds of orchards in the south, so much food and the titans do nothing but shit on it. If this expedition is successful, some of it gets brought back inside Wall Rose and maybe, just maybe, everyone makes it through the winter.” Levi shrugs. “And Erwin and Nile and Dot Pixis get to be the saviors of humanity, if they haven’t killed each other before we get back. This expedition is that important.” Eren stares at him, desperately trying to interpret his expression in the darkness. “But it was planned with neither of us expected to be here — it will run perfectly well without us. Make your choice.”

Eren looks back at the glow of Klorva District. All the time he was fighting and feeling sorry for himself in the camp, he never wondered what could be so important that even Garrison soldiers and MPs would be willing to go over the wall. After all, it’s where humanity should be, who needs a reason beyond that?

Turn his back on people he could help, people he owes? It’s running away. He could be useful on this mission — and Levi certainly could be — but isn’t that just an excuse?

“Levi!” Rico shouts. “If you’re coming, you can slot into the formation with one of the Survey Corps teams — just pick one and try not to scare the horses.” She jumps off the wall, and Eren watches the other soldiers drop off the edge after her, the whirr of their cable reels audible even over the wind. What he wants isn’t important. It never has been.

The wind shreds his ragged howl.

Mikasa touches his arm. “Are we going back?”

“I don’t want to.”

“Good,” Levi says. “Then we have a decision. We’ll ride with Mikasa and Armin.” He looks at Eren, drags something out of his pocket. His father's key, Eren realizes as its chain is dropped over his head. “Now get over it. There was no wrong choice there.”

“You always say that… and then you leave it up to me anyway.”

Levi’s already striding off after the others. “Do you want me to make all your decisions for you?” he snaps. “Next you’ll be asking me to hold the toilet paper while you take a shit.” He stops at the edge, looks back over his shoulder, and his voice rings out much too clearly. “You do use paper?”

He doesn’t bother to wait for an answer. Every soldier still on the wall staring at him, Eren shouts a half-horrified, half-amused “YES!” into the gale and jumps off the wall after him.

Chapter Text

 

02 — The Stars in the Mountains

 

“Titans!” he hears. “Three o’clock! Five of them!”

Eren feels the energy — the fear — crackle through the column. He lets himself be swept up in it as Sasha calls out, passing on the message. Energy and fear and determination — there might be a lot of Pixis’s Trost Garrison troops in the column and most of them will have at least seen titans up close, but they’re only now realizing just how exposed they all are. This is the titans’ territory; there are no walls to hide behind here.

The titans in question are silhouettes posed against the sky, completely still on their hilltop as the riders and supply wagons pass through the valley beneath them.

“Just look at them,” Hange breathes. “I wonder if they get into these groups just to sleep? If not, and they just drop wherever they are when they run out of energy, does that mean that they’ve been roaming together during the day? Is this some kind of family unit?”

Eren checks that Connie isn’t in earshot. He doesn’t think Hange even notices his appalled look. “Just as long as they don’t wake up,” he says.

“Spoilsport.” Hange peers at his face. “So, you were telling me about your first memory?”

He wasn’t. “I don’t remember.”

“How about your last?” Hange insists. “Before the laboratory?”

Hange’s not the only one interested in his reactions; Armin doesn’t say anything, but Eren can feel his eyes on him. “I came to my senses outside the wall. Then I died.”

“You’re not being very cooperative.”

Eren looks down at his fingers. They’re whole now. “Sorry.”

“You need to help me. There’s so much I don’t understand! You will let me have a good look at you when we get to the castle, won’t you?”

“Hey!” Levi throws something toward them; Eren catches a glimpse of a metal canister the size of a grapeshot round but clearly a fraction of its weight before Hange snatches it deftly out of mid-air.

“You’re such a hypocrite. I can’t believe you lectured this boy on not returning to the fight when you’d already done this.”

“I didn’t hold the mission up. He did.” Levi glares at Eren; he gets the message.

“I didn't think anyone could weaponize this stuff. Fascinating.”

Hange’s attention is off him. Eren might be curious about the canister — did Levi get it back in the village, from the Orvud troops? — but he recognizes a diversionary tactic when he sees one, and he takes full advantage of it. He lets his mare pick up pace; Mikasa and Sasha make room for him to slot into position between them.

“Hange means well,” Mikasa says, and almost sounds like she believes it.

“I know.”

After all, what proof does he have that he is who he thinks he is? A few scattered memories that could easily have been carried in his spinal fluid like those of Frieda Reiss… or his father… Eren Jaeger’s short and insignificant life added to the experiences of the First King. If Captain Levi had called him “Uri” or “Grisha” in that cell, would he have reacted just as strongly? It’s an uncomfortable thought.

“But if you don’t want to be examined, don’t think you have to be. I — we’ll all be on your side if you say no, so remember that.” Mikasa looks away. At his other side, Sasha grins like an idiot, her teeth a flash of white in the moonlight. He smiles back. He’s Eren Jaeger to these guys, right? Why doubt them?

Up ahead, the pairs of lanterns attached to the backs of the supply wagons bounce around erratically. A gust of wind flutters his cloak and gives him a sudden chill, and he looks up to see clouds scudding across the sky. Not too many, fortunately — the expedition really needs the moonlight.

The part of the column they’re in closes up as they pass through a narrow gorge, then re-forms completely, spreading out as they begin to climb. Eren’s mare’s hooves crunch and slip on broken-up shale. The hill is steep, but the ones all around it are higher, foothills to a mountain range he hopes they’re not going anywhere near. He’s beginning to see why they left through the Karanese Gate the last time — even in the daylight this terrain would tear apart Commander Erwin’s precious long-range scouting formation.

They’re not trying anything so ambitious now. In the dark, with a combined force who’ve never even drilled together, Rico’s gone for two loose columns flanking the line of supply wagons. Stick with your usual squadmates, follow the wagon lights — as simple as can be.

Eren squints his eyes against the growing wind, watches the lanterns bounce and wonders whether Dot Pixis has stripped himself of his most loyal troops for this operation. Erwin certainly has. They’re leaving themselves wide open and vulnerable if the Royalists start a countercoup or Zackley decides to move against his “friends”… and how fucked up is it that they have to consider things like that?

He tilts his head back until all he can see is sky. The stars are so bright…

“It reminds me of home!” Sasha shouts. “The stars always look brightest in the mountains! Mikasa! You agree with me, right?”

“It is beautiful.” There’s something in Mikasa’s voice that makes Eren snap his head up. There’s a haze in the air, dust thrown up by the wind and troops that have passed before them, but he looks though it, out at the world spread out in front of him as they crest the hill — and forgets to breathe.

The hills sweep straight down, kilometers of rolling meadows broken by dark clusters of trees and breaking like a wave against the massed buildings of Vyhna District. The town is as big as, if not bigger than, Trost. But it’s made tiny by its setting, the cauldron of surrounding hills and mountains and the lake beyond it reflecting everything. There are stars in the earth…

And titans everywhere. Small ones stretched out on the grass beneath the trees, the heads of larger ones poking up among the buildings… Eren thinks he can see the castle they’re heading for, on a rocky crag out in the middle of the lake, but how the hell they’re going to get out there he doesn’t know.

He hears Hange’s voice behind him, carrying easily on the wind. “Oh, relax! You’re as jumpy as a cat with fleas. You never got out here, did you? Ragis is secure enough that people held out in there even after Wall Maria came down and this area was overrun. It’s the perfect base.”

“They might not let us in,” Levi says.

Eren looks over his shoulder in time to see Hange wave an airy hand. “Nonsense. We’re bringing supplies.”

“The first in two and a half years. They’ll be drinking their own piss by now.” Levi notices Eren listening and, much to his surprise, gestures for him to come closer. “If anyone’s still alive.”

“They had their chance,” Hange snaps. “Keith wanted to evacuate them.” The brittle cheerfulness reasserts itself. “I’ll get Rico to send you up to the castle first and you can bat your eyelashes at them. They’ll either be totally charmed or die laughing.”

“Fuck off,” Levi says with no real venom, and Hange laughs in his face.

“I’d be won over! What about you… Eren?”

Every fucking time. Eren shrugs. “I can’t answer that,” he says. “I want to live.” Hange laughs again, and Eren’s grin gets so wide it’s painful.

He sneaks a glance at Levi. Is the air out here clean enough for him, or does it only get sweet outside Maria?

“Don’t let Jean catch you grinning like that!” Armin coaxes his mount closer to Eren’s. “Titans all around us, but you look like you’ve just got yourself a date for the Harvest Dance.”

Eren laughs. “Do you think his opinion of me could go down any further?” It’s not a real question, but the answer to it comes to him in a rush — yes, if he ever comes as close to killing Jean as he has Mikasa and Armin.

“It’s good to hear you laugh,” Armin says.

Eren feels a shudder of panic rush through him, twisting up his guts and making bile rise into his throat. I’m going to hurt you, he thinks wildly. He imagines Mikasa crushed between his fist and a Trost rooftop, Armin smeared across the Reiss cavern’s crystalline floor. If either of them was even slightly less lucky… “You need to back off,” he says, and regrets it instantly.

But it’s true…

“What?”

Everyone needs to,” he says, “but you especially.” He rushes to get the words out, as if speed will make it easier. “I don’t have enough control. You could have died in the cavern, and again in Utopia District. You’re not fast to enough to keep out of my way when I fight.”

The moonlight’s kind; it makes it impossible to see the details of Armin’s expression. “We’re almost at the lake,” he says tightly, letting his horse drop back.

Up ahead, Eren sees dark blocks of buildings against the horizon, silver gleaming in the gaps between them. He can’t be happy about it.

The back of his neck prickles, and he looks around to see both Levi and Mikasa staring at him. It’s an eerie experience; they’re wearing identical expressions, have never looked more like siblings, and Eren feels ganged up on. Levi says something, not bothering to raise his voice, and he can’t expect Eren to hear him at that distance —

— it does sound like it’s got the word “fuck” in there a couple of times —

He lied to Hange. His first memory is of his mother dabbing iodine solution on his and Armin’s scraped-up legs and arms while they both wailed like the little kids they were, all purple-tinted skin and stinging pain and the guilt of knowing it was his fault that Armin was crying.

“We can talk at the castle!” Armin shouts, and Eren grits his teeth.

The world goes dark.

He beats back a sudden spike of panic, concentrating on the movement of his mare, the worn leather reins gripped in his hand and the cold wind against his face. A cloud has moved in front of the moon, that’s all. A lot of clouds — looking up, the patches of visible stars are much smaller. He feels drops of rain in the wind and hopes it’s his imagination.

Deprived of the moonlight, his mare slows to a trot. Eren can’t even see the ground, so he lets her set her own pace and trusts to her better night vision. He’s not the only one doing that. Levi and Armin are just darker blobs against the darkness, but they’re getting closer, not accelerating away. Another dark shape looms up from his right, and he manages not to jump when Mikasa grabs hold of his bridle.

He blinks at her stupidly for far too long. “Torch?” she says, and he fumbles for the pre-prepared torches attached to his saddle. A yellow flare bursts in the sky, instantly ripped apart by the wind.

“Close formation!”

Mikasa gets a match to take, and it’s a tiny, pathetic piece of flame but it’s enough — just the touch of it makes the torches whump into life with a shower of sparks. The smell of burning pitch is acrid in his throat and the sudden brightness makes his eyes sting.

There’s a reason Rico wanted to rely on the moonlight. Eren can finally see the ground beneath his mare’s hooves, the faces of the people he’s riding with, but outside the range of the torchlight the darkness seems even more complete.

“I’m not going to run off,” Eren says, and he’s proud at how calm he sounds. Mikasa shoots him an unreadable look as she takes a torch and loosens her grip on his reins.

“Stay close,” she says. “Something doesn’t feel right.”

If Eren squints, he can see points of brightness flaring up in the gloom as the other groups turn to their torches. Up ahead, the cart lanterns disappear — through the bushes, he realizes, as he follows in their path. Then there’s tightly packed earth and gravel, shot through with lush weeds, beneath his mount’s hooves, and the dark looming shapes of buildings around him. His torchlight glints off broken windows — sagging webs of lead mutins and glass teeth — and is reflected by the glassy eyes of a crouched and immobile titan.

His hand moves automatically, his teeth dig into his skin — but he stops himself in time. That titan is no danger to them. Nor are the others looming between the buildings. Experience still makes his heart thud and the back of his neck itch. They’re too close… if they were to wake up…

Levi’s horse whinnies. Eren notices his already rigid shoulders stiffen further and wonders what he’s thinking — especially when he draws his feet up to the saddle, slinging a clinking canvas satchel over his shoulder.

“Take my horse,” Levi snaps over the crack of his grapples firing. “Don’t stop for anything.” Eren flails for the loose reins as the cables whip him away, then squints after him as the heavens open. Levi is as nervy as Mikasa — and their instincts are always perfect.

Although —

He blinks rain out of his eyes and tugs up his hood. Up ahead of him, Vyhna is suddenly illuminated — by burning buildings.

— they’re also both kind of… heavy handed… in their problem solving.

*

Levi’s aware that what he’s just done might be considered overkill.

He just doesn’t like low visibility.

Not that that should be a problem now. If Hange is right, the chemical compound in these incendiary canisters should be fueled rather than extinguished by the rain. Some of the things the Central Branch had in their stores are amazing. His mouth twists. And so is the speed that pig Zackley got them scavenged and put into circulation among his more loyal divisions. This is a better use for this shit than burning villages inside Wall Rose; he’s glad he found the time to liberate it.

He crouches on a rooftop and watches the advance ranks of the column as they pass below, wondering how many of them are speculating on his mental state. Thanks to Erwin, the events of Levi’s first trip outside the walls are public knowledge. The newspapers didn’t get the most scandalous details, but they sure as hell made the most of what they did get. If he’s wrong, this will be spun as him cracking — leftover paranoia from an old disaster.

Something moves between the buildings, where there should be no soldiers. Levi attaches blades to his gear grips.

He’d rather be wrong.

The first titan plunges out of the side street, mouth lolling open, hands reaching out —

Abnormal, eight-meter class.

Levi takes it down with one cut.

Abnormal, eleven meters; abnormal, fifteen meters; abnormal, six meters.

Sever hamstrings and behead; vertical spin cut; diagonal slice.

He hears cries of alarm from the column as he sails over them in a spray of steaming blood. Some of them must have been assigned to cover their comrades in a situation like this, but they’re so fucking slow to get into the fucking air.

Abnormal, eight meters; abnormal, twelve meters.

He doesn’t entirely blame them. This isn’t —

He cuts the thought off impatiently. It’s totally possible. This whole last couple of months have been a string of terrible things being proven totally possible. This one’s even got precedent.

Some titans can move around at night. How doesn’t matter.

Nothing matters.

This world has a cruel sense of humor. He once thought that if you understood that, you understood everything. Nothing could be an ugly surprise. Naturally, he was wrong.

Think that for once you’re doing the right thing, that for once you’re actually useful? That you can break open the cage and breathe clean air? That you can use your only skills to the fullest without harming a single human being? Well, think again, says the world, the monsters outside the cage are human beings too. How many have you killed? How many are you prepared to kill?

Abnormal, fifteen meters; abnormal, eleven meters; abnormal, three meters…

How many has he killed? Even Erwin stopped keeping track when Levi hit triple figures; “a couple of hundred” was as effective propaganda-wise as a more precise figure. After Hange dropped the bombshell, Levi spent the night with a pencil and paper, trying to work out the exact number. He’s not sure why he even cares. Does it make him less of a mass murderer if he’s killed two hundred and ninety-nine rather than three hundred?

It doesn’t matter. It won’t compromise his effectiveness. He won’t let it.

The world spins around him. His wet hair slaps against his face. There’s water in his eyes and in his mouth, droplets splitting on his blades before they bite deep, every muscle in his arms and shoulders jarring as he hacks away a chunk of steaming flesh almost as big as his entire body. Scalding blood splatters over him, making his exposed skin smart, but he ignores it, because he’s got just the right amount of rebound from the blow… he just needs a little blast of gas to get him up to optimum slashing speed…

Abnormal, twelve meters; abnormal, six meters.

He slices again, and again.

Levi knows exactly what he is, and he’s not about to start crying over it now.

He drops onto a crumbling gable and takes a moment to consider his position as he replaces his blunted blades. The initial threat is dealt with and the few houses still burning illuminate his handiwork — steaming corpses and a clear run to the lake (which the rest of the column is taking, thank fuck for Rico’s pragmatism). But he feels the old stonework tremble beneath his feet and dismisses both the pounding rain and the horses’ hooves on the road as potential causes. It’s not over yet.

*

Eren’s been here before.

He’s riding, eyes forward, while his comrades fight and die around him. And it’s just as excruciating as last time.

“Everyone but the flank defense team and rear guard!” He doesn’t recognize the Garrison soldier passing on the message — the light from the burning buildings turns her face into a jumble of abstract shadows and brightly glowing goggles. “Keep up your speed! When crossing the lake, stay between the backboard lamps of the forward supply wagons or you’ll stray from the causeway!”

Then she’s gone, back along the formation. The relentless drum of rain on his head and shoulders mutes everything — the clatter and splash of hooves and steel wheel rims on cobbles, the crackle of flames, the crack and whirr of gear cables, the instructions shouted between the fighters and their — inevitable — cut-off screams.

Captain Levi took out the first group of titans — the ones lurking among the buildings — on his own, but that brought on a second wave of the bastards from the south. Eren doesn’t know which idea is worse — that this is a deliberate interception, or that they were drawn by the deaths of the others, like wasps.

Either way, this time of night, and these titans’ levels of speed and unpredictability? Somewhere out in the darkness, that big hairy fucker will be laughing its head off. One day Eren’s going to rip that off, tear out the person in its nape, and see if they can still laugh when he’s crushing them between his fingers.

His mare stumbles, hooves slipping in the mud. Eren somehow stays in the saddle as she goes down, and he clings to her neck, spitting out rainwater and howling encouragement, as she struggles back up.

A huge hand swipes out toward him — and falls apart in mid-motion, billowing steam into the air as its fingers and a huge chunk of its palm splash into the mud. Levi is a blur as he uses the titan’s arm as a bridge. The firelight glints off his blades as he lashes out —

Eren’s panicking mount gets her hooves under her and takes off like the frontrunner in a high-stakes race, and he grits his teeth and fixes his gaze on the lake. The wagons are on the causeway, looking like they’re running across the very surface of the water.

He hears a scream off to his right. He doesn’t look.

In the forest, Eren himself was the focus of the pursuit. His stopping to fight would have destroyed Commander Erwin’s plans. (It could have been worth it, but he’ll never know.) Here and now, he’s just another soldier. Hell, officially, he shouldn’t even be here.

A fifteen-meter class crashes into a building to his left, sending masonry flying. The liquid fire crawls over the corpse, speeding up its disintegration.

Eren should be chained down and sedated in a Utopia laboratory now. That he’s not is entirely due to the man fighting in the air above him.

He can’t help it; he looks around. The bulk of their force is behind him, a great tail of riders that is horribly vulnerable to the abnormals that just keep coming, damn them. He spots a scrap of shadow in mid-air. Is Captain Levi the only one left fighting?

He can’t do this by himself… can he?

Fuck this. Fuck it.

Not this again.

Not him.

Eren hasn’t transformed in weeks, but as he jumps from his mare’s back and a titan’s foot comes crashing down toward him, it’s still so easy. Twin arcs of pain in his hand, a sudden burning rush of sensation as his nerves extend and burst through his skin, bone and flesh frothing up around him like overfed yeast, swallowing him whole —

— then he has the titan’s foot in his hand, streamers of steaming meat clinging to it as he rips it free, and he never catches that moment when nerves and flesh join together and he becomes the monster because it’s lost in the howling exhilaration of his rage expanding to fill every centimeter of a body actually fit to serve it. He feels bone crunch beneath his fingers as he digs them deep into the titan’s neck and it’s beautiful.

Petra will find a way to come back and haunt him forever if he lets Captain Levi die. Oluo too, probably.

This time, he has no doubts about his choice. As he tosses the remains of the titan aside he becomes aware of the others turning toward him. Their eyes glitter in the firelight and no way is there anything human left in there — all they care about is getting flesh into their maws. And for that purpose Eren is currently a much larger and more tempting target than any of the riders rushing past their feet. He steps carefully away from the formation and roars out.

Come and get it, bastards.

Let me end you.

*

Levi hears a shriek of fear as yet another one of the rear guard is snatched from mid-air.

He wants to shout at them to retreat, to head for the castle with the others and leave him to handle it. The trouble is, he can’t. There are too many titans and close to two hundred people to protect, forced into a horribly vulnerable position by the buildings and the narrow causeway. People are dying — he can’t be everywhere at once, even if he could somehow make himself faster and stronger it wouldn’t be enough — and he can feel the anger biting into his belly.

This world is as far from fair as it can be. Even the strongest are crushed by it eventually. Levi made his peace with that so many years ago, and yet here he is, itching to scream at something that may be more inevitable and natural than breathing. Like a kid on the verge of a tantrum. Fucking pathetic.

It’s better to save his breath. He may well need it.

He leaves a pile of steaming corpses behind him and moves onto the next knot of titans. As his mind flies out along his trajectory, four, five, six, seven moves ahead of his body, he forces it to clear of everything but mass and speed and geometry and his constant awareness of every single cubic millimeter of his skin and flesh and bone and its position in space. The rush of exhilaration and fury becomes background noise to his mental calculations and the painful sharpness of his senses, just as it should be. This is as natural as breathing.

He feels the texture of broken stonework through his boot soles as he thuds into a still-upright wall and sprints across it, momentum fighting gravity on his behalf, and he allows himself a split second of attention to the vibrations relayed through his gear support plate as his grapple cables are snapped back onto their reels. The motion feels smooth, but three-dimensional maneuver gear has a point, two to five minutes into sustained high-level use, when the cables are hot to touch and every single mechanism is strained to its limit, when things start to catch or buckle — or melt, if you’re really unlucky — and Levi’s gear has got to be getting there now. He leaps clear of the wall a split second before one of the five-meter classes hits it face first, mouth stretched so wide open the skin splits around it. It crunches bricks in its teeth, a mournful expression on its face — and that was much too close.

The titan looks disturbingly like a spoiled child with an unwanted present, and he takes it down just to get that image out of his head.

He’s on his own now. He’s out of spare blades, his gas canisters must be dangerously low, every muscle in his body aches, and his gear triggers are slippery with sweat as well as rainwater. But in a couple more minutes all the carts will be across the causeway. He needs to keep this up for just a couple more minutes —

He dodges a wild swing from one of the larger titans, is already moving to avoid another when it stops dead, freezing in its tracks. They’re all stopping, every one of them, and… listening intently… ?

The noble family known as the Bestes have only one claim to fame, a family ghost who shrieks and howls when one of them will soon die. Kenny being Kenny, he made sure to stand outside their drawing room window with a dying-pig balloon “just to get into the spirit of the thing” the night he slit the throat of the old Count. The balloon’s scream lasted a lot longer than it should have, had layers upon layers of sounds it shouldn’t have, and Levi remembers it vividly now, every single one of the close-shorn hairs on the back of his neck trying to stand up as Eren howls out into the night.

*

Eren is ankle deep in steaming titan entrails when he realizes that he’s happy. His fingerbones, smashed up by his own punches, pop and crackle as they re-form, and he watches them with eager eyes, ready to start again, to rip and tear and punch and kick and bite. Why was he so worried about this? Yes, the last time he did this, things went... bad, but that seems a thousand years ago now. He’s not in control of the powers everyone seems to want so much, but the coordinate howl and the hardening were always just bonuses anyway. This is him.

He’s a weapon, and at times like this, it doesn’t feel such a bad fate.

He snatches up a five-meter class that’s ignoring him in favor of the column. Beady eyed and scrawny, all nose and teeth, it snaps at him as he pops its oversized head from its body. Through the mad euphoria, Eren notices the human arm clutched in its fingers and screams out again.

Every single one, he’ll kill every single fucking one. He has to.

What use is he otherwise?

A ten-meter class lunges for him, jaws wide open; he’s already moving to meet it. He can hear whispers in the dusty, unused corners of his mind, thoughts that are not Eren Jaeger’s, but he doesn’t have to give a fuck about them. His goal on transforming was as simple and solid and overwhelming, and it fills his head now. Fills his body.

Don’t touch them. Die.

He gets some self-control together and lopes clear of the buildings, mud splashing up around his calves as he finds himself in a riverside meadow that would probably be beautiful in the daylight. Or so he thinks, because the further he gets from Levi’s improvised bonfires, the harder it becomes to see, his titan eyes not adjusting for the change in light.

The darkness and pelting rain don’t seem to matter to the other titans. They home in on him unerringly, like Sasha and Connie to barbequed steak, and it’s great that most of them are still after him rather than the column, but his titan body is sluggish, the great mass of muscle and bone not responding as quickly as he’s used to. It’s starting to become a problem.

One of the smaller ones digs its teeth into his calf, takes a chunk of flesh with it as he kicks it away. He hears the whir of gear cables before it goes down for good. The face of his titan isn’t made for squinting, but he tries it anyway as his ally hops off the corpse and into the air. They have short hair, but they’re too big for Captain Levi — too big, and they don’t move right. Neither do the other shapes that come darting toward him — but these aren’t strangers…

Mikasa lands on his shoulder. “You’ve bought enough time!” she shouts. “Come back with us!”

She jumps clear as Eren catches a fifteen-meter class in a chokehold.

He knows the way they all move so well he can identify them even with his failing vision — there’s Sasha darting out of a twelve-meter class’s clutching fingers, there’s Jean swooping in to cut at its nape. Which means those figures down there on horseback are Armin and Connie, of course they are. Dammit. He’s supposed to be protecting them. Why would they do this?

He stamps down on a four-meter class, and his heart — no, both hearts, if a titan’s facsimile of one counts — stop as he sees one of the fighters snatched out of the air. No, no, no —

He’s too far away, he has his hands full, he can’t be everywhere. Levi snaps past his face, unmistakable, but even he’s not going to be fast enough —

*

Eren’s bellow is even more skull rattling close up, and Levi whips in to his target cursing under his breath. Eren was supposed to be in the vanguard of the column. He was supposed to be safe.

Why aren’t you on the island, you awkward —

The captured soldier stares up at him. Levi’s blades catch in the titan’s spine. Pain explodes in his shoulder.

— little —

Levi braces his feet against its head and throws every last drop of his strength against his blades as the wound begins to fuse shut. He rips free a section of vertebrae bigger than his torso, the titan’s torn spinal cord trailing with it. Black dots dance in his vision, and he fancies he can hear his shoulder pop apart, fire juddering through his arm, ribcage, collarbone, teeth —

— shit!

The last hint of a cutting edge is gone, he may as well try beating the fuckers with a pair of sticks, but this one finally goes down. Levi goes with it, curled close and using the steam as cover while Eren howls and tosses one titan into another like he’s playing some kind of knockabout game. It’s not a game Levi can join in at the best of times. Right now, he can’t even lift his arm. Every movement makes pain echo and bounce through the bones of his body like a sound grenade set off in a sewer.

He lies on the titan’s back as its skin puckers and dissolves, his skin stinging in its steam, cautiously feeling under his jacket with his working hand. The lump poking out of the front of his shoulder tells its own story.

He hasn’t got time for this shit.

He grits his teeth so hard his jaw throbs, and snaps the joint back into alignment with one blow. The second the wave of agony passes he can tell he’s screwed it up — every breath sends another tremor of pain rushing through his collarbone and down his arm. It will have to do. He can squeeze his gear triggers — at the moment there is nothing more important.

He peels back one of the titan’s fingers to get at its prey. The poor bastard looks almost alive, eyes open and the rain washing away the blood from his mouth, but his torso’s been caved in from collarbone to sternum. Apologizing to a dead man is a waste of time and breath, but Levi takes a moment to nudge down his eyelids with his fingertips before taking his spare blades and gas canisters.

He gets back up as high as he can — not easy, Eren’s picked a bad place to fight if he expects backup — and finds himself sharing a tree branch with Jean. It creaks under their combined weight, and the kid blanches under Levi’s glare before a titan grabs at the branch and they both dive clear.

Icy rainwater makes its way under Levi’s collar. It was inevitable, really, and in other circumstances he would be happy to put some faith in his squad's skills, but not here, not now. He doesn’t trust even Mikasa to survive among a titan pack for long. All of them — Eren fucking included — can get their asses back to the formation.

The only way he’s getting close to Eren is to use the titans themselves as anchor points. Enough abnormals like to grab at gear cables to make that a shitty option — but this situation is shitty options all around, isn’t it? As he makes his way toward Eren, hacking and slicing, his shoulder a throbbing mess, he considers the safest way to cut Eren out if he won’t come willingly —

The pain and fatigue are no excuse. He’s not paying enough attention. When things go wrong, when Mikasa cries out, a hoarse howl of pain and frustration, Levi takes a long, valuable second to catch up. She’s caught, her leg crushed in a titan’s fist, and he releases his grapple just in time to avoid his “tree’s” wild swipe and finds another anchor and trajectory while falling and knows he’ll be too late —

Sasha hacks at its fingers, Jean catches Mikasa as she falls free — and Eren screams.

Levi feels it in his head for a split second as his blades sheer through the titan’s spine, a prickling rush of sensation that leaves him gasping and nauseated. If Eren’s earlier howl drew the titans, this one drives them crazy. Armin leaps from his horse to help Jean, and this is the first time Levi has ever seen titans completely ignore humans on the ground before.

They head straight for Eren. Shit.

Levi drops down, skidding to a halt in a spray of mud. Mikasa’s semiconscious and her leg is bent at a bad angle, but she’s alive, thank fuck.

“Get her out of here!” He catches Jean’s collar and he may have twisted a little too hard because the kid chokes. “I’m going for Eren. All of you, head to the castle. If there’s one moment when I don’t see those wings on your backs — if you turn around for one fucking second — I’ll have you cleaning that causeway with nothing but boot brushes and your spit.”

They take him at his word — or do him the courtesy of pretending to. Which leaves just Eren.

Levi has already seen him die once, torn to scraps because he was stupid and Levi was slow. The titans fought over his remains like stray dogs over a disemboweled rat. Once is enough for that kind of show, but he’s getting an encore now.

Eren pulls one apart, breaking it at the waist like a kid dismembering a doll, shakes another off his arm. Levi knows how this works, the way they work, but there’s something extra alien and repellent about that desperate, clawing hunger when directed at something their own size, the way they tear and rip at him, shoveling his flesh into their mouths. Eren is getting his own hits in, but he’s slowing down, damn him.

“Keep going!” he snaps, as if Eren can hear him, as if he needs to hear it. Eren doesn’t know how to stop fighting; there’s something missing in his head where other people keep common sense, and as Levi cuts down two of the titans attacking him and gets his grapple into a third he’s actually glad for it. “You called them, so kill them!”

Eren punches Levi’s target in the mouth, his fist exploding out of the back of its head, and Levi lets himself fly out wide to avoid it, wild and fast and just barely in control.

The titan’s broken teeth close around Eren’s forearm as it dies… and the top half of the titan he tore in half screeches and claws its way up his body, teeth sinking into his shoulder, exposed and broken fingerbones grabbing at the back of his neck. Levi twists in mid-air, grapple cracking out, using a reckless amount of gas — and a more than forty-five degree change of direction at his full striking speed is impossible, he’s going to break his back, flexible as his body is it’ll snap like a twig —

It doesn’t matter.

For a horrible moment his back is arched to its limit, the edges of his gear support plates biting into his skin, pain flaring up his spine and every muscle protesting, but he’s taking some of the force in his hips and thighs, and he’s not breaking. He’s not breaking.

Eren howls and tries to free himself. Steam and blood erupt from his neck as the titan gouges its fingers in deep. And Levi puts it down like he’s a rookie on his first mission — if any rookie ever came into a kill so fast and clean — no spin, no evasive maneuvers, no backup plan, just instinct and desperation and tunnel vision, nothing in the world but his prey and the boy it’s so close to crushing.

Nothing in the world —

The first titan comes up from below, just a four-meter class, but so fast as it claps its hands around him. Levi turns its fingers into bloody chunks and leaves a set of blades in its eyes. He’s just taken its head off when the second slaps him out of mid-air.

It happens in an unstoppable rush — the titan’s hand slams him into the rocky riverbank, his maneuver gear completely fails to release as it should — and he feels his bones jar and pop, his clothes and skin alike shredding on the rough stone, shards of his shattered gear forced up into his flesh. His skull meets rock, and the world blanks out in a flash of hot pain.

*

How is this going so wrong? How is he failing so badly?

Mikasa injured… and now this?

Eren’s a soldier now, and capable of fighting back against the titans harder than he ever dared dream. He’s left the helpless child behind him...

Levi’s body is limp and lifeless in the titan's hand as it scoops him up, and Eren chokes, forgetting how to breathe.

He’s a soldier, a legal adult, a weapon, a monster — and a ten-year-old boy watching his mother wilt like a broken daffodil as a titan snaps her back and shoves her into its stinking mouth.

The three-meter class in his grip pops apart at the crotch, and Eren realizes dimly that he's ripped it in two. He didn’t even notice snatching it up. It doesn’t matter. There's nothing in the world but that one fifteen-meter class abnormal and the man it’s just tossed into its mouth whole.

Eren’s agonized, furious scream is swallowed up by the muscle and nerves surrounding him, but as red floods his sight he feels it echoed in his titan form. The shriek of fury he makes as he throws away his control both terrifies and exhilarates him.

I’ll kill you.

I’ll rip off your head.

I’ll tear you open from throat to belly.

Give him back.

*

The stench hits him like a slap to the face. Levi snaps into semiconsciousness, lashing out on pure reflex as the titan’s mouth snaps shut. One empty gear grip cracks against a tooth, jarring his weak arm and jerking out of his hand, but the other has a broken blade still in it, and he manages to plunge it into the titan’s tongue. The flesh comes apart too easily, like slicing up blood pudding. It barely slows him down.

Levi’s scrambled brain is slower to catch up than his body. He sucks in quick panicked breaths and tries to force his jumbled thoughts into some kind of order. He hasn’t got time to drown in his own revulsion.

He’s not dead yet, but it won’t be long now.

He feels like he’s been sliced in half — he can just about feel his legs (and he’s done something to damage the left one again, fantastic) but the pain in his midsection makes even the vicious throbbing in his head seem insignificant. He blinks blood out of his eyes — or eye, one of them doesn’t seem to want to open — and peers down at himself. What looks like a mangled chunk of gas canister is wedged in his side, a parting present from his close encounter with the riverbank.

His mind is still in pieces, and that alarms him more than the state of his body.

There has to be a way out of this. There has to be. There are Survey Corps legends about soldiers who fought their way free of titans’ bellies.

Eren’s the only one Levi has ever met, however, and his situation is… unique.

His fingers, slick with blood and titan drool, lose purchase on the maneuver gear grip, and he’s actually scared, in a way he hasn’t been in at least a decade. His involuntary curse gets him a mouthful of foul gunk, and he coughs and retches as he claws at the meaty walls moving around him, forcing up his damaged arm to help slow himself as the titan tries to swallow. The explosion of pain in his shoulder brings everything into sharp focus.

This is it. This is failure. He’s dead already. His body just hasn’t realized it yet.

Didn’t he want to die outside the walls?

As Levi slides further down the titan’s gullet, the fumes coming up from its belly make his eyes sting and water, his throat and lungs burn, every labored breath putting the taste of putrefying meat in his mouth. Steam scalds his fingers as they slough away both mucous and ribbons of its flesh in a vain attempt to save himself. One last blade rattles tauntingly in his surviving sheath, but to get to it he’ll have to free up a hand — and let himself fall.

He can’t do it.

Even if ending up in the titan’s stomach is inevitable when he loses consciousness, and the searing heat might well cook him alive if he stays where he is, Levi can’t make himself let go. The very thought makes him cling on harder, and some part of him is amazed at his own ridiculousness.

The titan lurches. Rancid gas rushes past him and he feels raindrops on his face as it snaps its jaws.

Eren. It’s fighting Eren.

Levi tries to brace himself with his injured leg, makes a wild swipe for the blade as he drops —

Eren howls.

The world rotates, above suddenly below, and in his dizziness and disorientation it takes too long for even his well-trained internal gyroscope to kick in. The titan’s wildly flapping tongue breaks his fall, and even as the enormity of what that means hits him, huge fingers force their way between the titan’s teeth, and fresh air hits his face.

Chunks of steaming bone and whatever passes for titan brain matter splatter down on Levi as Eren rips the titan’s skull apart. The blessed luxury of cold, clean rainwater beating down on his body reduces his desire to claw his skin off, but he has to fight to stay conscious. Forcing his body into movement sets off crippling shocks of pain; is he so badly damaged?

Face down in mud and blood, Levi sucks in breath and concentrates on inching away from the stricken titan. Eren’s rooting around in its stomach cavity now, pulling out bits of decomposed bodies to peer at. It stinks, and his bellowing is making Levi’s brain rattle; it makes it hard to catalogue his injuries much beyond “fucking broken.”

Trying to move too quickly jolts his shoulder, and he bites into his lip to stay silent. Unlike Eren, who howls like he’s the one getting torn apart. Levi slits open an eye and watches the kid tug out the titan’s spine chunk by chunk.

He’s never heard Eren make a noise like that before. Ever.

The ground starts to shake, and every last drop of instinct and experience Levi possesses is screaming at him to get up high, away from the ground. Other titans are heading their way, lots of them, fast and big. Eren doesn’t have time for the mad-dog act.

“Eren.” The cracked and weak sound of his own voice pisses Levi off. What possible use is he to anyone like this? But Eren’s head snaps around, his wild-eyed gaze seeking him out.

His eyes are completely feral.

And he’s still ignoring the approaching titans. His bulk shelters Levi from the rain as he crouches over him, his eyes glowing in the darkness.

Levi draws his last blade.

Without the gear trigger the tang’s too awkward a shape to get a good grip on. Fuck knows what he’s going to use it on. But he’s not going to get eaten. Again. Even if it’s Eren. Hell, especially if it’s Eren, because the kid will never forgive himself if he eats a squadmate.

Levi’s own feelings on it will be irrelevant after a couple of chews.

He attempts an intimidating stare, but one of his eyes is glued shut by his own blood and his skull feels like it’s disintegrating, so the best he can manage is an angry one-eyed squint. Eren’s gaze is usually as clear and disgustingly emotional in titan form as it is in human. Now though… Is “ravenous” an emotion?

Levi’s intuition is apparently as broken as the rest of him, because it’s still telling him he’s safe. Ridiculous — but he does nothing more than ready the blade as Eren reaches for him.

Eren touches him, his finger bigger than Levi’s entire body and with enough potential power behind it to squash Levi into jelly, and… it’s gentle? Oh, there’s enough pressure to press him down into the mud and set his various injuries screaming, but there’s no violence to it.

Well, fuck.

Levi’s always been darkly amused by the way Eren’s repressed feelings come out when he loses control of his titan. Mikasa and Levi get the brunt of it; Levi doesn’t know what she’s done to deserve Eren’s attempts to swat her like a bug, but he can make an educated guess why Eren’s always trying to grab him. Frustrated teenage hormones are a bastard.

Levi’s ribs creak under Eren’s finger. If Eren’s trying to find his heartbeat, he’ll be getting up close and personal with it in a minute, nothing in the way.

It might be for the best. The ground is quaking, and he wheezes out a warning as the first titan arrives, a three-meter class that clings onto Eren’s arm and clamps its teeth into his shoulder. Eren roars and shakes it off, muscle and tendon unravelling from his bicep, but there are others coming.

“What’s wrong with you?”

Eren snatches Levi up with both hands, ignoring his curses. Levi catches a glimpse of the titans crashing into Eren before his fingers close around him in a shield of bone and tendon.

What the hell is Eren playing at? How is he going to protect himself like this?

They’ll tear him apart. They’ll eat him alive.

“Eren!”

Chapter Text

03 — On the Current

 

“Eren?”

Eren blinks up at a painfully bright sky. That was Captain Levi. He doesn’t sound pissed off, so the training can’t have gone too badly — Eren looks down his body, through the steam, and lets out a big sigh — even if it obviously didn’t end too well.

The sky’s so blue and endless, like it goes up forever, a few clouds suspended in it like sugar dissolving in cold water. Why blue, he wonders idly. Why not green or pink or red? Or yellow, since it’s the sun that gives it color?

“Have you got your brain back?” Levi leans over him. He’s so —

“Pretty," he murmurs, and Levi's eyebrows twitch up a fraction.

“That's a no, then.” He grabs Eren’s collar and hauls him into a sitting position. “Look, you built a house.” Eren looks. The logs in front of him are indeed forming the shape of a house. They both watch as it lists and falls over. “Shame about the shoddy workmanship.”

Eren snorts and watches Levi’s mouth twitch. Just one smile, he thinks. Come on, Captain, you can do it. It won’t break your face.

He stretches luxuriously in the warm sunlight and watches the steam from his decaying titan body billow into the sky. Tomorrow this pretty alpine meadow will probably be crawling with Military Police and he’ll be doing his titan exercises in yet another isolated place. (And he’s amazed at how Moblit keeps finding them — the villages of Wall Rose are practically on top of each other.) He might as well enjoy it while he can.

He notices Mikasa sitting slumped by the skeleton, and has a moment of panic, but she looks unharmed. Just depressed? Sasha plunks herself down next to her, refusing to be scared away by her most deadly glare. Eren throws Levi a suspicious look.

Levi gives the tiniest shrug. “If she doesn’t want me anywhere near you,” he says, “she has to keep doing the job herself. So her aim was off? She needs to get over it and do better next time.”

Eren’s not sure how he feels about that; it’s bad enough to be the subject of experiments, he doesn’t want to be a training tool as well, even if it is for Mikasa. He looks mournfully at his steaming hand and tries to look on the bright side. At least they got him out, right?

“Did I harden?” he asks. Levi blinks. Twice. Eren replays his question in his head and feels heat rush up his neck. His cheeks sting; the steam’s not just coming from his hand.

“Your titan is still flaccid,” Levi says, and that’s definitely a glint of mean amusement in his eyes. “And Hange’s still unsatisfied.”

That’s actually a really terrifying mental image. Eren hauls himself over to the pile of logs. They don’t make the best armchair, but he collapses on them anyway. Then he screws his eyes shut and tries to fill his mind with more pleasant things — scuffling with Jean in the mess hall, food in his belly and his mind clear and full of purpose; finding a quiet spot in the packed huts of the labor camp to snuggle up with Mikasa and Armin and a precious (if weeks-old) newspaper; watching Levi in flight that first time, so fast he was nothing more than a graceful blur, his strikes so powerful and vicious that he practically took the titans’ heads off —

The heat in his face isn’t going away. “My face hurts.”

“You’re not pretty, that’s for sure.” Eren opens his eyes and has to bite back a startled squawk. Levi is way too close. Hasn’t he heard of personal space? “Let me look at your hand.”

Eren obeys without thinking, giving him his hand, and is pleased to see how well his bones are coming along. “Why is it healing like this?” Levi says. “This is how titan-you, not human-you, does it.” They both watch as the bones finish re-forming, bare and vulnerable, startlingly shiny and white — and firmly grasping Levi’s hand. Ah, right…

“Now let go,” Levi sounds like he expects to be obeyed. Instantly.

And, with no muscle or tendon, that might be easier said than done. Eren tries to prize his fingers open with his other hand, and is horribly unsurprised to find them stiff and immobile. A few tendrils of re-forming tendon snake around them. Levi stares at him for a long, terrifying moment, and Eren meets his gaze with wild eyes and braces himself for broken fingers. What he gets is a soft annoyed huff of breath and the Captain flopping down onto the log next to him. "Hurry up and heal."

That prompts a surge of annoyance. Eren’s trying; hell, he’s trying.

“I won’t call Hange over just yet.” Levi leans back on the logs and shuts his eyes, and if Eren thought he was too close before, this is so much worse. Levi props his ankle on his knee, foot brushing Eren’s leg, and Eren just manages to hold back his flinch, hyperaware of his own hunched-up posture, prepared to dissolve in shame if his cock so much as twitches. Of course Levi doesn’t give a fuck that his thigh is pressed up against Eren’s, why would he? If only Eren could be so casual about it.

He can’t get over how cool Levi’s skin is, even with two layers of tough fabric in the way. It’s like leaning against the door of an icehouse.

“Why are you being so nice to me?” Usually at this point, Hange is yelling at him to say when he thinks he can go again — “as soon as possible, okay, Eren? Okay? You ready yet?”

“Is this nice?”

Eren looks across the meadow. Here Hange gestures wildly at Moblit, who’s holding up a meter rule to the dissolving titan; there Sasha grabs Historia’s hand and hauls her down to sit with her and Mikasa, pulling an apple from her coat with the air of a cadet trading smokable herbs in the barracks ablutions block. Connie emerges from the forest waving a pair of dead rabbits, Jean and Armin attempting to tell him off from both sides. Their attack is surprisingly well coordinated, even if Eren remembers a time when Jean would have been helping with the illicit hunting. “It was natural causes!” Connie shouts. “Little bunny heart attacks! If you weren’t staring into each other’s eyes like lovesick cows you would have seen them keel over!”

“We were talking, you lying moron!”

A sudden gust of wind makes the wagons’ canvas flap and Eren’s face burns some more. He grins and feels his healing cheeks protest. “It’s nice.”

“And you’re too easily pleased,” Levi says. “Aim higher.” As if he doesn’t know exactly how high Eren can aim. Eren allows himself a quick, furtive look.

It’s worth the risk. The last time he was this close to Captain Levi and actually conscious, he was being kneed in the mouth. This time he gets the opportunity to take in the details. Like the fine knife scar on his temple, old and white and practically invisible against his pale skin, and the long black lashes fanned against his cheeks. His mouth is relaxed, his lips slightly parted, and Eren gives up trying for subtlety and stares openly. Levi spends most of his time with his lips pressed together in a tight hard line — whoever would have thought the natural shape of his mouth would be quite so, um… lush.

Levi opens one eye a slit, and Eren quickly looks down at their hands.

The re-forming nerves and tendons aren’t trying to attach themselves to Levi’s fingers; Eren’s body knows exactly what shape his hand should be and isn’t going to be diverted, which is oddly reassuring. Noticing his steaming flesh raising angry red welts on Levi’s skin wherever they touch is less so.

“I'm hurting you.” Eren automatically tries to pull away; Levi gives him a hard look and puts their joined hands down on his lap with a firmness that invites no argument. “Um...”

“Do you hear me screaming?”

Yeah, like that proves anything. Trying to imagine anything making Captain Levi scream just gets Eren’s brain going to some strange and uncomfortable places.

The sound of far-off honking draws his attention. Even Hange stops picking at the skeleton to look into the sky as a great army of geese passes overhead in rigid ranks. Just a few adjustments and they could be in long-distance scouting formation.

When Eren was a kid, he used to imagine hitching a lift with the geese as they flew over Shiganshina, heading south, out over titan country. It’s an impossible dream, but the idea still enthralls him.

How far do the geese travel? What wonderful things do they see?

What if a human could turn into a goose? They can turn into titans…

 

Eren.

 

Eren jumps as pain lances through his fingers. He stares at Levi, who frowns back at him. “Eren,” he repeats, his voice rough with pain. “Snap out of it.”

“What are you talking about?” It’s a beautiful afternoon, and the world is hiding its cruelty for once. Why won’t he let Eren enjoy it?

There’s another stab of pain in his hand.

 

Eren. Fight back.

 

When he looks down, it’s to see his index finger drop severed to the grass. His remaining fingers slip in his own blood as he grasps Levi’s hand tight enough to feel the delicate bones pop under his fingers. The edges of his vision are going red.

Like anger.

Or looking through the eyes of a titan.

 

EREN!

 

Levi’s dead, swallowed by a titan. Why is he still shouting at him?

He’s dead.

There’s blood on Eren’s clothes, and everything hurts.

He doesn’t want to wake up.

He wants to fly south with the geese.

 

FIGHT, YOU LONG STREAK OF SHIT!

 

Eren blinks — and opens his eyes into rain and darkness and pain.

He can feel the rain inside himself. His body is open to the air. As he wakes, he feels tearing pain in his belly, in his left calf, identifies the sensation of teeth clamping down on his shoulder, his forearm, vise-like fingers twisted in his guts, his face, tugging at the big muscle of his right thigh…

Again?

His body is shutting down, cooling, turning into a prison to hold him. He’s had nightmares like this, held and crushed and suffocated by his own flesh while titans eat him whole. No, not whole… they have to tear him to pieces first…

Not again. Not again. He howls, tries to move. There are too many bits missing.

Forming thoughts is hard, but he knows he has to move. He has to draw them away from the lake… No one else is going to die because he’s so. Fucking. Useless.

He lurches to his feet, dislodges one or two, tries to bring his fists up but his hands are full — bleeding, three fingers broken off, but clenched tightly together like a child with a trapped bird. And just like the bird pecks at the child’s fingers, Eren feels stabs of pain in his.

“Eren!”

He’s still dreaming, he… has to be. Eren brings his hands up, hardly dares open them. Can’t open them, because there’s a ten-meter class titan hanging from his back, reaching over his shoulder, a three-meter class clinging to his forearm, its tiny button eyes fixed on his hands, and he’s still being taken apart chunk by bloody chunk…

Fuck.

This time the howl is more like a screech as his lower jaw comes away. To hell with them. Eren isn’t done yet. He’s still got his knees and his feet. He can’t kick at full power with so much muscle stripped from his leg, but desperation is the best fuel.

They can’t have him.

Both hearts pounding fit to burst, he plunges into the river, smashing up into one of the cable towers hard enough to crush the titan on his back. The overhead cables get used to scrape off the three-meter class. Tangled up in them, it screeches, and Eren shakes himself free of the others and runs.

His body feels so heavy, his damaged leg crunches beneath him with every stride, but he is not. Done. Yet.

He sprints along the lakeside. He feels like a prey animal, but there are lights moving up at the castle and he has Captain Levi cursing up a storm in his clasped hands. He’s separated from his herd with the predators hard on his heels, but he’s won so much already — he can beat himself up over getting Mikasa hurt later because she's alive, dammit, they all got away, safe from him and from the other titans — and he’s got even more to play for.

Movement in his peripheral vision. He spins, drops, punts his attacker out into the lake with one kick. He’s in that place, hot and red and exhilarating. He kicks and stamps until his leg cracks and his foot’s caked with scalding blood, risks freeing up one hand to rip out a neck. He gets a glimpse of Levi then, cupped in his hand, and as Eren closes his thumb and surviving fingers around him — loosely, so loosely — he’s suddenly terrified. He could have crushed him — he still could. There are a hundred ways Eren could hurt him trying to save him.

But he’s alive. Fuck, he’s alive.

Eren stands on the shore in a mass of steaming titan entrails and tries to work up the courage to touch him. Levi weighs nothing at all in his palm; his hands feel so massive and clumsy as he stretches out a finger to touch his hair, trying to get a look at the wound on his head. Eren must hurt him then, because Levi tilts his head to break the contact, slitting open his eye to look blearily up at him. He doesn’t even blink at the state of Eren’s face, but Eren knows what he must look like, one eye dangling free and useless, his jaw not showing any signs of repairing itself and drool and blood dripping from his lolling tongue. Who’d be happy to see that up close?

He brushes his finger against Levi’s face, so lightly that he can barely feel the touch himself. Levi shudders, but he doesn’t flinch away — even when Eren so carefully unhooks what’s left of his smashed maneuver gear and lets it drop to the titan-guts-strewn ground.

Levi gives him a woozy one-eyed glare. “Put me down,” he says, voice weak but still pretty damn imperious for a guy covered in so much of his own blood. “You can still fight your way back to the castle.”

Eren’s torn between irritation — this is empty posturing, Levi knows Eren better than this — and pride. Levi really thinks Eren’s so strong? Hah. If only.

He sees the treetops sway in a way he’s sure isn’t due to the wind, and forces his body into movement. They’re a good six or seven kilometers from Vyhna and the causeway, getting further away with every stride, but he could try to swim across to the castle —

— and risk drawing the remaining abnormals with him —

— or potentially drown, taking Captain Levi with him, because while Hange’s theory is that titans can float, it’s never been put to the test.

The far end of the lake is dammed, something like twenty or thirty meters to the river — the Esen still, weakened but unhalted in its advance to Wall Maria — below. Eren scrambles down the side of the locks meant to carry boats up and down and feels the bone in his calf snap, fatally weakened by the fight. He can’t heal; his body just doesn’t have any energy left for it.

And he can’t afford to fight until he drops, not out here. He won’t be able to defend either himself or Levi while unconscious and fused to his titan form. He is going to need to keep defending himself, that’s a given. There’s no way he can give them the slip, not in this form.

He can feel the ground shaking under his knees.

The trick has always been to locate the tiny bit of him that is his core, wholly completely Eren, concentrating on that as his consciousness fails so the flesh unravels around it. But he’s not even sure where that is anymore. In some ways, the titan could be considered more “just Eren” than his human brain is.

And this isn’t the time for thoughts like that. He reaches up and rips out the back of his neck.

His neck hurts as the flesh tears. He can feel the tiny human body clutched in his fingers.

— He can feel the huge clumsy titan fingers closing around his body. His face and arms hurt as the flesh tears. —

Then he’s dropping to the ground, all the connections broken, horribly small and weak and surrounded by lumps of his own steaming flesh. His face feels like it’s been flayed. It probably has, going by his forearms, which are a mess of bare bloody muscle and strings of steaming titan tendon. As he gets his body back under his control and tries to stand, the world spins and he lands face first in the mud.

He’s so tired.

He sinks into the mud, tries to stop his eyes closing —

— fails —

“What is it with you,” Levi sounds so far away, “and only doing half a job?” Far away, but as Eren drags himself back to consciousness with willpower alone, he feels an arm around him. He smells blood — fresh and metallic sweet and human — and forces open his eyes to find Levi’s face just centimeters from his own. Levi’s breath is coming quick and fast and his whole body is trembling, he’s not even fully on his hands and knees, but he grits his teeth and hauls Eren another meter or so before pausing, wheezing out a curse, gathering his strength and doing it again.

Eren tries to move, but there’s straw in his head and lead in his limbs.

He feels the titan’s footsteps before he sees it.

It looms into his vision, a huge dark shape surrounded by a halo of bouncing raindrops. Ten-meter class, Eren’s brain supplies uselessly, standard rather than abnormal (or about as “standard” as any titan moving around this late at night can be). He has the wild thought that maybe if they stay still and quiet it will leave; titans have lousy night vision, right?

That’s just wishful thinking, though. He’s seen titans pull the roof off an outbuilding to get to a single human hiding inside; however they find their prey, sight seems to be only part of it, and Eren’s own titan form doesn’t give him any insight into it at all. It could be the heat of the human body, or its smell, or the sound of its heartbeat.

His own heartbeat is probably extremely loud now.

The titan stretches out its hand, casual and unhurried in a way that makes Eren want to rip its head off. It knows they’re not going anywhere. Fucking thing. It makes Eren want to —

His anger drives some energy into his limbs. When Levi heaves at him again, Eren gives him some help — and squeaks out loud as he’s suddenly enveloped in icy water. The Esen — he’d forgotten how close they were to it. The water makes his partially healed arms sting, but even this close to the dam it’s deep and dark, and Levi shoves his head down under the surface, going with him as the titan lunges forward.

Eren opens his eyes as it shoves its hand into the water and gropes for the two of them, the wake it makes tossing them around. It can’t find them, he realizes. Whatever extra sense it uses to detect the presence of humans, something about the cold, murky water is disrupting it.

Haha — suck on that, you bas—

Its hand slaps into the water barely centimeters from Eren’s head. Startled, he lets out a gasp of air — air he can’t afford to lose, because he didn’t have the chance to take much of a breath before Levi tried to drown him — and both of the titan’s hands slam into the water directly above them, grabbing at the source of the bubbles. But the water shifts violently away by the sheer force of its attack, driving Eren deeper. Levi’s fingers close around his arm as they’re caught and pulled by strong currents and Eren’s briefly distracted from his burning lungs by how surprisingly feeble a touch it is from him.

He’s badly injured; Eren’s supposed to be rescuing him. This really isn’t working out as it should.

He needs to breathe. He really needs to breathe.

The current carries them past the titan’s fingers as it rakes up stones and silt from the river bottom — and the titan knows it. Why else would it move down the bank, still groping in the water?

Why isn’t it getting bored, damn it?

Perhaps he can transform. He’s never tried doing it while so completely wiped out — even Hange wasn’t prepared to push him that far yet. Even less-exhausted transformations sometimes result in a mindless titan.

But if he transforms, he’ll be able to breathe.

And kill that fucking thing on the bank.

He brings his hand up.

Levi’s fingers clamp his nose shut. Then he mashes his mouth unceremoniously against Eren’s and, on Eren’s helpless little gasp, does his best to fuse their lips together.

And gives Eren air.

Eren sucks it down greedily. Too greedily, he realizes as Levi rips his mouth away and tries to pull back. The fact that he can only try, that Eren, as tired as he is, can actually grab him and stop him, is weird and oddly scary. They bump up against the bank. Levi’s pulse races under Eren’s fingers. He’s still shaking. How much blood has he lost, Eren wonders suddenly.

The titan, persistent bastard that it is, steps into the water.

Looking up, Eren can see a darker shape protruding out from the bank. With his current run of luck, it’s probably another titan, but he manages a weak kick of his legs and goes to look, drawing a worryingly unresisting Levi up with him.

His head breaks the surface under a small jetty. It isn’t much more than a pile of broken logs halfway through sliding into the river, but it provides a little cover as Eren coughs and retches and tries not to make too much noise as he fills his lungs with glorious air. And the titan might be still groping through the water, but as Eren watches, it starts to wade upstream — away from the jetty, back toward the dam. It almost makes him believe his luck could be changing —

The titan lifts its head up; Eren ducks his head back down. Something wooden and free floating clunks against his skull, and his hope soars. A boat, maybe?

The titan continues its paddle, disturbingly like a child on a lake holiday as it splashes through the water. As Eren breaks the surface again, he realizes how much better he can see it, and that's a fresh worry. The rain’s stopped completely, and the increased visibility is just from the clouds parting a little, allowing moonlight to shine through, but dawn has to be on its way. The moonlight shines on a cluster of crouched and immobile titans on the far bank of the river. The boat is actually only half of one, a small freight barge with its top decks removed — perhaps for maintenance, because he thinks he can see its rollers sitting useless on the bank.

Eren’s so tired, and as if the water wasn’t cold enough, holding Levi up is like cuddling a shuddering block of ice. “Come on,” he whispers. “You’re as hard as old tack. You saved us both.” His voice wavers and he kind of hates himself. “Don’t die.”

Levi’s eyelids flicker. “If I do,” he murmurs, “will you get your ass to safety?” Everything from ass onwards is muffled by Eren’s chest as he crushes Levi against him, biting back a howl of sheer exhilaration. Hard as old tack, seriously. Thank fuck.

“I’m going to get both our asses to safety.” He’s going to carry Levi to the castle on his damn back if he can’t transform — and kill every titan that gets in his way. Levi, of all people, thinks Eren’s strong. Eren is not going to let him be wrong.

He shivers and eyes the dismembered boat. Getting out of the water and away from the fishing titan would be a good start. The barge might be sitting disturbingly low in the water, but if it still floats, there’s hope, right? He can do this.

Getting over to the boat is easy. Getting them both over the side might be harder —

— he thinks, a moment before he’s shoved back down under the water, this time because Captain Levi needs to use him as a ladder. When the weight’s removed, he bobs up just in time to see Levi haul himself one-armed up onto one of the mooring ropes, his breath coming pained and ragged as he hooks his uninjured leg over it. Eren should help him. Instead he watches as Levi inches up the rope, trying to decide if he should be amused or annoyed as he disappears into the boat in an inelegant tumble. So much for needing to carry him on his back —

Levi hangs over the side, offering Eren his good arm. Eren grins and accepts his help to clamber up the side; he’ll go with amused and amazed. And admiring. What was he afraid of? Hard as old tack doesn’t even begin to cover it, does it? A hundred titans couldn’t hope to kill him.

It might be only sheer determination keeping him going, though. When Eren’s feet hit the deck, Levi collapses back against the side, his chest heaving and his eyes squeezed shut.

Eren goes for his field knife, only to find the pocket he’d usually keep it in packed with waterlogged rations. And that is why he should have done his own setup, thanks for nothing, Jean. He sighs and tries to remember if Jean usually carries a knife. Where would he put it?

“Knife?” he whispers. Levi gestures at his jacket. Eren pats him down to find the knife, and the vague guilt he feels at touching him so intimately vanishes in an instant as he finally gets a good idea of his injuries. That piece of metal sticking out of his side like a fin is a real worry — it’s a good fifteen centimeters wide, and while there’s no way it’s penetrating deep all the way across — he’d be dead, strong as he is, he’d be dead — the fact that it’s still wedged in there after all his exertions is proof that at least part of it is. The deep gash in Levi’s scalp is still streaking his face and neck with blood; he even flinches slightly when Eren presses his hand to his ribs. Fuck knows what other damage he’s not seeing. “You’re a mess,” he says.

“You think? I hadn’t fucking noticed.” The words are spoken too softly to carry any bite. Levi curls into himself and starts to shake again. “Have you… got a plan?”

“Not really.” The style of knife Levi carries is more suited to cutting flesh than rope; Eren hacks gamely at one slimy mooring rope with it, trying not to break the blade. Without its rollers, the boat has no means of propulsion, no means of carrying them upstream to the locks and the lake — and the castle. But Eren’s no boatman anyway — the engines would be a mystery to him even if they had fuel and the wire cables stretched above the river were completely intact — so he’ll take what he can get. “I’m trying to buy some time to heal,” he says. “I haven’t thought past that.” The boat moves as the rope snaps and he starts on the next one. The fishing titan reaches the bottom of the dam and turns around, and Eren can see movement on the bank. He fumbles with the knife. “Come on, please —”

The last rope gives way, the barge lists in the water, and for a moment Eren thinks that he’s miscalculated — it’s going to jam against the bank, the current isn’t strong enough… A seven-meter class lopes through the bushes, not yet noticing them, but Eren flicks the knife into a fighting grip — and the boat bumps against the bank one last time and slips free.

Neither of the titans follows it. The current sweeps the barge into the center of the river as it widens. And Eren drops onto his ass on the wet decking.

He thinks he could easily collapse right here on the bare wood and spend the next ten or so hours unconscious and oblivious. But that’s not an option, so he flicks water on the painfully raw — not yet healing — muscles of his face and makes himself crawl over to Levi. His first impulse is to pull out the metal shard, but it seems that he picked up more from his father than he thought, because not only does he know that it’s a bad idea, he knows why. When their clothes dry, he can make some makeshift bandages, but for now he curls up to Levi to share his warmth, and uses his bare hands to press the wound shut around the metal.

Levi is more conscious than Eren thought; he hisses and punches out blindly, and Eren suddenly has a reason to be glad of his weakened state. At full strength, that blow could easily have shattered a quarter of the bones in Eren’s face, instead of “just” knocking him onto his back, pain blooming in his jaw and his eyes watering. Eren freezes as the barge rocks. He can hear water sloshing about down in the hull. There’s moldering cloth under his fingers and the smell of rot all around him. Something crunches under his foot.

Silk rots quicker than wool; the woolen cloak itself is still mostly intact, if smelly, but the embroidered wings once emblazoned across it are now nothing more than a vaguely V-shaped hole, leather visible underneath… Eren lifts one corner of the slimy wool, on his guard for the worst.

Well, at least one other person used this boat to escape being eaten. Shame they never got to leave it. There is pretty much nothing left of them now but a few bits of their tougher clothing, their maneuver gear harness, and of course, their bones. Both the bones and the harness straps are cut off at the knee. Poor bastard.

We’re going to do better, he promises.

Then he goes through their jacket pockets, because sympathy and respect for the dead is all very well, but he’s desperate. They’d want to help their comrades, right? And experienced Survey Corps soldiers carry all sorts of useful things.

“Please have a first aid kit,” he whispers. My soul for dry bandages…

He finds a flat bottle of gear oil, a broken water flask, two packets of field rations so rotten their contents are unidentifiable, and what feels like a tin, carefully wrapped in two layers of oilcloth. Eren unwraps it and thinks that perhaps he’ll have to hand over his soul after all. Their companion in the boat liked to smoke. He has no idea what the herbs in the tin are — they say that inside Sina they grow and smoke tobacco, but no soldier gets paid enough to have much of that in the mix — but they’re dry and fragrant, and there are matches.

*

He’s so cold.

Levi grits his teeth, and feels the impact judder up through his skull as he shivers. The boat moves under him as Eren thumps about. He smells burning gear oil —

Wait, what?

Light stings his good eye as he forces it open. Eren seems to be cupping the light in his hands, face lit up by it, a cross between a cadet enhancing his campfire ghost stories and something golden and triumphant. Something golden and triumphant… with a half-flayed face. Levi’s vision blurs, and he blinks until it clears. “Most of the oil had evaporated,” Eren says. “This won’t last long.”

“This,” Levi sees as Eren places it carefully on the decking, is a dented smoker’s tin, a rough cloth “wick” stuck through a hole stabbed in its lid. Rough, but it’s working. He’s sure he doesn’t let his surprise show on his face, but Eren must have seen something, because he flashes him a quick sharp grin, so fucking proud of himself.

“Can you eat this?” He forces his eye to focus on what Eren’s offering him. Neither the pieces of jerky or the hardtack looks like it’s been improved by their swim. “Unless you’ve got anything else, sir?” Levi wills his hand to stop shaking and reaches out for the biscuit, eyes narrowed at Eren. Who scowls right back at him. “If you’re the kind of soldier who fills their pockets with anything other than field rations, water flask, first aid kit and a tinderbox, then you’re probably the kind who’s totally unprepared and going to die fast anyway. And a total waste of a good horse. Petra said that — or near enough.”

Probably to Oluo, Levi thinks, and probably less politely. “Everyone,” he croaks, “has their own priorities.” The hardtack tastes of river, fish shit and rotting weeds, and the jerky sticks in his throat, but his body needs the fuel.

“Yeah, I know. Armin put this in my pocket.” Eren peels the waxed paper from a sad-looking block of goo. “I haven’t had marzipan in years,” he says quietly. “I used to love it.”

“Those two,” Levi manages, “never gave up on you.” Ever. Mikasa and Armin never believed Eren was dead — even with those few body parts Mikasa was able to rescue rotting in the barracks cool storage, stubbornly failing to regenerate.

Eren stares at the soggy sweet. “Hurt feelings are better than broken bodies,” he says eventually. "I don't anyone else to get hurt because of me." He offers Levi the marzipan, yet another damn person wanting Levi's encouragement for their shitty decisions. When Levi hesitates to take it, his mouth twitches into a crooked smile. “You know Sasha would do murder for this, sir. Me too, if you didn’t need it more.”

No one should give Sasha Braus sugary sweets — she has much too much energy as it is. Unlike Levi right now. He tears off half, and sucks sticky bits of the stuff off his fingers while flopped back against the side of the boat, shivering violently enough to make it shake. Everything hurts. His head feels like it’s packed full of river weed. Burning river weed. But he can still appreciate Eren’s shameless “mmpf” of pleasure as he shoves his own piece of marzipan into his mouth; taking only half was a good choice.

Eren catches his eye and grins. His torn-up face starts to steam gently, and Levi knows how many layers human flesh has — he’s hacked through it often enough — but he’ll always be fascinated by the way Eren’s skin rebuilds itself, bare muscle covered by one delicate film, then another, like water lapping up onto a lakeside beach. The water’s driven by the wind, the re-forming skin by Eren’s will to survive, but they’re both remarkable, things he could never have imagined existing while he was trapped in the Underground.

He’s glad he got to see them.

And he’s getting fucking morbid. He’s not fucking dead yet.

Eren gets his arm through a hole in the decking, trying to fish something out. “I think this tarpaulin’s coating is still good. It’s no good for bandages, but we should be able to wrap ourselves in it.”

Levi glances down at his side. The shard of gas canister isn’t getting any smaller. Unless Eren plans on getting him to a surgeon before he dies of blood loss or infection sets in, there’s no point in leaving it in there. If it’s chopped into a kidney or mashed up Levi’s guts, then he’s already dead — moonlight or daylight, there’ll be no fixing damage like that out here.

Might as well make use of his one fully working hand…

He pulls it out; the noise he makes is humiliating.

“What are you doing?” Eren’s fingers close around his, trying to hold the shard in. Somewhere beneath the fog in his brain, Levi notices how panicked he sounds. Which is so fucking annoying — Eren’s not the one finding out if he’s going to live or die. “Oh, shit.

Hot blood rushes down his side. Levi does his best to hold the wound shut and concentrates on breathing, and fuck, even doing that hurts so much. “Needle… s… jacket pocket.”

“Shit,” Eren says again, but Levi hears the rustle of cloth. With any luck, he’ll find the hipflask as well —

The smell of “Zacharias Special” moonshine hits him in a wave. Who says Levi’s an unprepared soldier? Petra would be proud. His wound burns as Eren pours the foul stuff on it, and Levi digs his teeth into his lip until blood flows — as if he can risk losing any more of that. It feels like he’s got half the river sloshing around in his head, but that could just as easily be caused by concussion as blood loss.

“There’s no way this isn’t getting infected.” Eren props his makeshift lamp as close to Levi as he can without setting him on fire and shoves his fingers into the wound. Brat. “You just lost your right to call me stupid,” he snarls, “sir.”

Fair enough. Levi tries to focus on the flare of light as Eren gets another match to burn, then gets distracted by his determined face. Eren’s fingers are shaking as he sterilizes the needle, but his eyes are steady, golden in the match’s light.

“Make it… neat… ”

Eren’s startled bark of laughter makes Levi’s head throb, but it’s good to hear. “I’ll do my best,” he says, as if that were ever in doubt. He puffs out air through his nose, and his trembling fingers dance over Levi’s ribs.

The needle glints and splits as Levi’s vision wavers. He’s overtaken by another shivering fit, and if his side does end up looking like a child’s sampler, it won’t be entirely Eren’s fault.

Eren winces and rubs at his temple.

Levi revises his expectations. They’ll be doing well if Eren doesn’t stab him in the liver with the first stitch.

“I need to think of something else,” Eren mutters. “This is wrong.”

Levi’s so cold, he doesn’t know how he can even distinguish the icy fear curling in his guts from the rest of his shivering body. Underneath the burning pain in his side, the thudding pressure in his head and the various stabbing and smarting sensations of his lesser injuries, his limbs ache with fatigue, and perhaps he won’t be able to put up any kind of fight now, but the little bastard could at least give him a chance. “I can’t fight,” he croaks, “like this.” Patch me up, you little shit. Close up the fucking hole. “Stitch it… up.”

“If it’s going to get infected, it’s better to —”

“IT WON’T—” The pain inside his skull goes from rhythmic ache to howling agony, his stomach flips, and he feels vomit burn his throat. He swallows and coughs and meets Eren’s gaze. “I don’t get sick,” he lies, and he can hear the weakness in his voice and he hates it. “And this… is a… fuckingorder.”

Eren swears and tugs what’s left of Levi’s shirt away from the wound. Levi should probably be insulted that he gives him the hem to bite on — this is not his first after-battle patch-up — but he clamps his teeth down on it, just to keep it out of the way. Pain shudders out from his shoulder as he awkwardly shrugs off his jacket.

Eren doesn’t mess around when he’s decided to do something — and he’s thorough. Levi closes his eye. The stab of the needle and the tugging of the thread as it’s pulled through his flesh are little pains, insignificant against the backdrop of his broken and protesting body, but he pays close attention to them. He relishes every jab, the quick hot bloom of pain as the needle pops through skin and is forced through tough muscle, the throbbing drag of the thread following it. The rushing of blood in his ears has thankfully faded. He can hear Eren’s fast, panicked breaths as he works. His fingers are firm and startlingly hot.

If you get separated from your comrades outside the walls, you’re dead. It’s the first hard lesson the Survey Corps has to teach, and if you’re lucky, you learn it looking at the empty seats in the mess hall, not standing by your dead horse deep in titan country with the vast sky empty of even a single wisp of colored smoke. Or, indeed, injured and gearless and in a boat drifting downriver… when downriver means Wall Maria and as far from the rest of your expedition as it is possible to get without striking out into the uncharted wilderness Outside.

Levi opens his eyes and looks down at Eren’s bowed head, focusing on his damp tangle of hair and the tattered collar of his jacket and the back of his neck bare and vulnerable between them.

He always thought that when the time came, he’d fight to his last breath, make the fuckers sick as they swallowed him. But he was expecting to be alone at the end. He is not going to take Eren down with him.

He spits out the wad of fabric. “Should’ve left me,” he manages.

Eren snaps his head up so fast he’s barely a centimeter away from butting Levi in the chin. His eyes blaze, and even in the flickering light Levi sees the monster move behind them. He thinks of the stories he grew up with — wolves in men’s skin, demons who offered wishes, the dead rising from their graves by sheer will, blessings and curses and all the things that lurked in the bits of the human brain the Reisses could never touch. Eren snaps the thread with his fingers and sloshes the last of the moonshine on the stitches.

“Shut up.”

*

Captain Levi actually hisses as the alcohol hits his wound, hisses and shudders through his entire body, and for a split second Eren’s glad. Because he doesn’t understand, dammit, and it’s making him crazy.

His head and ribs pounding with the sheer pressure of his rage and frustration, Eren catches Levi’s good eye again. It’s heavy lidded and filled with pain, but still sharp and hard, about as broken and defeated as a new blade. To hell with him. How can he look like that and say Eren should leave him?

“I don’t get it,” Eren says, hating the way his voice sounds. “You want to live, don’t you?”

Levi bares his teeth. “If you do,” he croaks, “you won’t… do that again.” Eren stares at him, and he feels small and helpless and frustrated enough to make an eighteen-meter titan. “Tarp?”

“What? Oh.” The boat sways around him as he rolls out the tarpaulin. He was right about that at least — there are patches of rot, but it’s mostly dry. It won’t stay that way when they get wrapped in it with their wet clothes —

He feels Levi catch hold of the collar of his jacket. He yanks it down over his shoulders with one jerky movement and his shaking fingers twist in Eren’s wet shirt. “Off.”

Eren does exactly as he’s told. He pulls off his boots and unbuckles his gear harness, before helping Captain Levi deal with his, and tells himself that this doesn’t need to be awkward. It doesn’t. This is just huddling for warmth — which he must have done a hundred times in the past five years, when the firewood ran low in the labor camp or a combination of bad weather and minimum kit on training exercises suddenly made everyone in his squad his best friend. He’s woken up with Sasha’s drool in his hair, his face squashed into her cleavage, and Thomas’s morning wood poking him in the back. How awkward can this get?

Levi collapses onto the tarpaulin as if it’s a feather bed, his chest heaving. The slowness with which he peels off his pants is entirely the result of tiredness and pain but looks almost languid in the dim light… and Eren has his own clothes to get out of, he’s not going to watch, he’s not that much of a pervert… hell… Levi fumbles one-handed at the surviving buttons of his shirt, and seems to just accept it as his due when Eren comes to help, tugging the shirt off with shaking hands. The skin of his thigh is all scraped up, he’s covered in cuts and the start of some serious bruising — and he’s beautiful. Marble-statues-at-the-Military-Court beautiful. The baccy tin lantern is almost dead, its flame small and failing, but the last of its light flickers over Levi’s narrow hips and powerful thighs as he sinks back down onto his back. Eren swallows awkwardly, his mouth and throat suddenly dry. Thank fuck for shadows.

Levi slits open his eye. Eren hauls the heavy tarpaulin over them. He puts his hand down to steady himself for just one second, feels smooth skin and heavy muscle under his palm, and snatches his hand away. “Don’t be pathetic.” Levi catches hold of him by the scruff of his neck to drag him down on top of him, and where to put his hands becomes a really secondary concern, because Eren’s had dreams that go like this, frantic removal of clothes and skin pressed together and mingling breath and Levi’s fingers digging into the nape of his neck like he’s ready to end him in a second…

They often involve as much blood — just less rotting-wood smell and tarpaulin dripping rainwater on his ass. Levi hisses almost imperceptibly as Eren shifts his weight, trying to take some of the pressure off Levi’s wounds. He feels Levi’s teeth chattering against his collarbone. His skin’s clammy and icy cold. Never mind Eren’s ruined fantasies — he could die like this —

Levi curls his right leg around Eren’s, gives the slightest sigh as he soaks up his body heat — and Eren discovers the beauty of the planking by his head. Such fascinating patterns…

“One more centimeter,” Levi croaks, “and I cut it off.”

And that would be well deserved, Eren thinks miserably, if not going to happen, because there’s no way in hell he could possibly get any harder. “Sorry,” he mutters, and stares down at Levi’s head, trying to concentrate on the cut on his forehead, the swollen skin around it. Still, humiliation has its uses — his burning skin probably feels like an open fire to Levi right now. It could hopefully make up for the stiff cock nudging him in the belly… his so-flat, so-hard belly, moving so slightly as he breathes… Hell. Levi shifts under him, tilting his head to look up; the lantern dies, and Eren feels his breath tickle his chin. In the darkness, he’s even more conscious of everywhere their skin touches.

“This making you uncomfortable?”

Now that’s unexpected; the woozy softness in Levi’s voice can be dismissed as an effect of pain and cold and blood loss and yet… he actually sounds like he cares about the answer. Eren doesn’t hesitate. “Yes, sir,” he says firmly. “You make a hard and lumpy pillow and my ass is getting cold.”

His reward is a silent huff of breath against his neck, which may be the nearest he’s going to get to making Captain Levi laugh and is it sad he plans to treasure it? “Your sacrifice is appreciated.”

Eren bites back a snort of laughter. “Yeah, I hope so,” he says. He’s shaking, he realizes suddenly. The only consolation is that it’s not with fear. He doesn’t stand a chance of relaxing, but he lets his head droop, stops bracing himself with his arms, and guiltily lets himself enjoy all the little details that prove he’s still alive — the scent of tar from the treated canvas, the roughness of it against his cheek and knees, back and ass, the wet strands of Levi’s hair attaching themselves to his face, and the painful, delicious throb of his cock where it’s trapped between his body and Levi’s. He can feel Levi’s heartbeat vibrate in his own ribs, can hear his labored breathing. The faintest scent of carbolic soap still lingers on all that damp skin, but Eren can smell his flesh under it now and he can’t help his shuddering inhale, breathing him in deep…

Keep still, don’t make this more awkward than it needs to be… He can’t afford to sleep, to risk being woken in the morning by some titan’s jaws closing around him, and so, in a way, his persistent boner is doing them both a favor. Really.

“Relax,” Levi mumbles. “You’re fucking vibrating.”

“Sorry.”

“If you want to rub yourself off on me, just do it. I’m too tired to care.”

“No! That’s not —” Eren stumbles over his words. That kind of thing hadn’t even crossed his mind! Levi makes it sound so petty and dirty… and insignificant… “I —” He sighs. “Never mind.”

But he is relaxing, his muscles loosening, some of the stiffness leaving his back and neck. He’s so tired. Levi shifts under him again, one sharp hipbone poking into his thigh. “This has been,” he breathes, “a fucking shitty night.”

“Yeah.” And yet, it could have been worse. As Eren’s eyes adjust to the dark, he finds himself looking over to where the skeleton lies wrapped in its woolen shroud. He scowls. He’ll have to be sure and look at that armband of theirs again in daylight, because when he lit up the lantern he was too happy at his own success to look properly, but he remembers picking out “41” among the decay, and that can’t be right. The 41st Expedition, if Eren’s obsessive memorizing of Survey Corps missions serves, set out from Trost over a year ago and was just a standard supply drop, only notable for its exceptionally high casualty rate. So what the hell is this soldier doing so far northwest? Eren is painfully aware how far away the Shiganshina road is; how could anyone end up so far off course?

He feels his eyes droop shut. At least there’s no chance of him going to sleep.

*

He wakes with a shock, face down in a pool of water, sunlight hot on his naked ass. And Captain Levi leaning over him. Not underneath him. Thank the heavens.

“Huh. I thought you’d died.” Levi’s fingers dig into his jaw, and he peers at Eren’s face — with both eyes, Eren notices. He’s got his left eye unglued — by ripping out half his eyelashes, it looks like, and the few that are left are spiky with dried blood. That whole side of his face is a mess — where he’s not oozing blood, skin scraped away by the ground, he’s covered from hairline to jaw in bruising, purple already appearing among the red. The eye itself is bloodshot but appears to be functional; the pupils of both eyes dilate in perfect synchronicity.

Eren feels a twinge of pain in his head. Levi lets go of him and drops back against the side of the boat — and the way he angles his body so only the right side hits it looks deliberate.

“As if you can talk!” Eren clambers to his feet. The barge moves beneath him, but who cares about that? “I —”

Thought you were going to die. Did anything I do help at all?

He takes a quick look over the side of the boat. It’s trapped against a bundle of broken crayfish baskets, and he does a quick assessment of their surroundings — abandoned house, farm buildings, woods swallowing up an overgrown orchard —

“No titans,” Levi says. “Not yet.”

He’s got his tattered pants and shirt back on, but he’s just draped his jacket around his shoulders, and the way it sits on his left side gives Eren a headache. Literally. He thinks about getting a look at his stitches in daylight and finding out why Levi’s got his left leg drawn up, hunched protectively around it — and the dull ache turns into a stabbing pain. He notices his own hand gripping the side of the boat with all the intensity he’d usually save for his gear triggers, and he stares at it with dull surprise, his vision blurring.

“Eren?”

“I’m okay,” he says. The pain’s already fading. He looks at Levi thoughtfully. “You can’t walk, can you, Captain?” Levi opens his mouth to protest — and Eren steps forward and sweeps him up in his arms —

— staggers under his weight and dumps him over the side of the boat. Eren hears the crunch of breaking baskets and a squelchy splash. The silence that follows has an almost physical presence, and he imagines it as Levi’s killing intent creeping up over the gunwale like one of the river pirates in Armin’s stories.

“Get over here,” Levi growls, and Eren cautiously sticks his head over the side.

“You’re heavier than you look,” he says. Levi pulls globules of river slime from his hair and glares up at him. Eren squirms under his gaze until sheer force of habit takes over. In Eren’s experience, when a superior officer — expletive-screaming drill instructor or terrified Garrison officer with a loaded cannon or infamous killer with his dignity irreparably dented — looks like he wants to murder you, a salute is always appropriate. And the sharpest one you can manage, because your life really does depend on it. “Sir!” It’s so easy to fall back on; Levi will see right through it. “Sorry, sir!”

Levi huffs out a breath and reaches out with his good arm. “Just shut up and help me. And put some fucking clothes on.”

*

There’s a working water pump in the yard of the farmhouse, and Levi sticks his head under it while Eren gets a fire going in the stove and scavenges a musty but clean sheet from the cupboards upstairs. He can’t see any damage to the house and there’s no sign of the previous inhabitants; it’s as if they just went for a walk one day, leaving food in the larder — unidentifiable now beneath the mold — and clothes in the wardrobe. Perhaps they did. This far from Shiganshina, they should have had good warning and time to escape.

He slumps down on the bed — and spends the next five minutes fighting for breath as dust explodes from the quilt in a thick choking cloud. He stumbles to the window and forces it open, and as he hangs out of it and sucks in air he feels almost betrayed; that bed looked so comfortable.

The air is thick and heavy, stiflingly warm, and opening the window does nothing to move the dust. Eren feels his skin prickle, sweat sticking the dust to his face and his shirt to his back, and looks longingly at the river. Muddy and sluggish it might be, but he could take another dunking in it.

Just as this house hasn’t been disturbed in five years, the last boats to travel on the Esen went upstream and never returned. He wonders if the people of this house had left by then, or if any of them stood where he is now and watched the riverboats pass, packed to the gunwales with scared refugees. When he tries to imagine it, he can’t — any made-up pictures in his head are overwhelmed by real memories of being on the boat himself, watching the riverbank. At least the boats from Strokirch District wouldn’t have had titans following them along the water’s edge.

He watches a group of geese come in to land on the river. The boat Eren was on lost the last of its pursuers within sight of Trost; it was persistent, but the lure of easier prey on land got to it in the end. Just like the others.

If he closes his eyes, he can hear the screams. The smell of the boat was the odor of scared humans, sweat and vomit and shit and wood burning as the riverboat’s rollers were made to run harder than they were ever designed to.

People jumped into the water, tried to cling onto the boat…

Eren rubs at his face, scrubbing off the dust and sweat.

He will never forgive those fucking things. He will never pity them. He won’t rest until the whole world is free of their stink.

Our stink, he corrects himself wryly, and turns back to brave the dust.

The moths have dined well on the clothes in the wardrobe, but he finds some that are mostly intact. Captain Levi might be desperate enough to accept them.

A bee of great size sails through the open window. Eren gets out of its surprisingly dignified way and investigates a picture frame propped on the dressing table. Under the dust is a faded portrait of a middle-aged couple and two young girls, their faces trapped in the stony grimaces of people trying not to move until the photographer says, because he will charge you for every exposed plate. Eren’s mother always called photographic portraits a rip off; how much of your loved ones could you actually see behind the stiffness and best clothes? One of the people in the portrait was a good customer of the travelling medical salesmen; there’s a dizzying array of tonics and powders on the dressing table, patent medicines to cure every ailment, and one glance is all it takes for Eren to dismiss most of them as useless. He does take a half-full bottle of laudanum and a box proclaiming itself “Professor Goodman’s High-Concentrate Eye Wash (patent pending, dilute as necessary, repeated use may prove toxic),” which he suspects — hopes — is plain boric acid. Now all he has to do is persuade Captain Levi to let him check and dress his wounds.

He looks at the portrait again. It’s probably best not to wonder if they made it to Wall Rose, and survived together through the shortages and the forced labor and the “Great Offensive” of ‘46.

Something catches his attention in the dust-streaked mirror. Something impossible.

He strides back over the window, sticks his head back out and squints into the heat haze.

The farm buildings and the river are tucked into the bottom of a steep valley. The mountains that make it are impressive, but he’s blind to them, fixated on something he can just see in a gap between them.

His first thought is, surely we came farther than that, but his second…

They did travel farther. That’s not Wall Rose he’s looking at.

He feels his heart leap in his chest.

Wall Maria

Chapter Text

 

04 — The Goose and the Titan

 

“Don’t play with it! Just snap its neck!”

Eren takes a step back, catches his foot in some unidentifiable but badly placed greenery. His back hits the fence, and the scent of crushed herbs rises around him as he crashes through it. Still, it’s better than the scent of pissed and scared goose.

“Hug it all you like, it’s not going to be your friend!”

Eren wants to shout back that yes, he does know that, thanks; he settles for snarling in Levi’s general direction and trying to reposition his arms without letting his prize go —

The goose takes a chunk out of Eren’s arm, its wing slams into his teeth — and he’s startled just enough —

It flaps free, and Eren lies among the broken remains of the herb garden fence and tries not to laugh as it lands by the parsley and delays straightening its feathers just long enough to hiss and honk at him. He wonders what Menno and Willy would think if they could see him now.

It’s only right and proper, really. He wants to eat, but the goose wants to live — it’s certainly fighting hard enough to deserve it.

He stares up into the sky and watches a swallow as it soars higher and higher on the air currents. From the house comes the screech of metal against stone and the rattling of the grinding wheel as it turns. Captain Levi sits on a bench outside the kitchen door, painstakingly sharpening every blade they found into a lethal edge, the house’s massive thatch roof shading him from the sunlight when it breaks through the clouds. Eren envies him that shade.

The grinding wheel stops. Eren forces himself to his feet; he and the goose consider each other across the herb garden.

His shirt and pants stick to him, the chafing of his harness straps through them a constant reminder that he destroyed another set of gear when changing, yet another thing to fit into the constant pattern of his life — one step forward, two backwards. He unhooks his torso straps and back plates from his belt and discards them in the rosemary, and he can’t help wrinkling his nose as he peels off his shirt. If it fails as a net, the smell alone could knock the goose out.

He pounces. At first it works, its powerful wings and surprisingly vicious beak trapped beneath the fabric. Eren and the bird smash into the parsley bush, and he’s just wrestling it still when —

— he hears a woman’s cut-off scream, feels slippery crunchy warmth between his fingers —

— he loses his grip on the shirt.

“Shit!” He hears it rip and flails wildly. The goose makes a bid for the air — and is punched right out of it.

Eren blinks up at the spear shaft trembling just an arm’s length above him. Tilting his head back shows him the bird pinned to a still-upright fencepost by half a meter of steel blade. Killed instantly. He lets out a breath and rolls out from under the blade. Levi picks his way over the remains of the fence, the farmer’s dress shirt billowing around him and the baggy pants of his best suit barely camouflaging his limp. He wears them like they’re his uniform and gear harness, a second skin. Although, if they were, Eren would have a much better view as Levi steps over him.

Levi glares down at him; Eren’s suddenly very aware of his vulnerable position.

“That was fucking pathetic.”

Eren can’t help his flinch. He’s got no defense — “Could you do any better?” doesn’t really work when yeah, Levi’s done just that. He pushes his sweaty hair out of his eyes and massages his throbbing temples, trying to ignore the queasy guilt in his stomach.

“You should be kinder to your food.”

Eren feels himself grimace. “Yeah.”

Levi gets a good grip on the spear and pulls it free: two meters of heavy wood with a spike on one end, solid crossguards and that long blade on the other. Eren can see the telltale fold patterns in its blade, and he’s willing to bet one or two of the kitchen knives are the same. It’s not uncommon for households this close to Wall Maria to have the odd tool or knife made from repurposed gear blades. Before Maria’s fall, there was a booming trade in “excess” military supplies around the main Garrison towns. A spear made to hunt wild boar, made from a blade designed to kill titans — the goose didn’t stand a chance. “Is that kind?”

“It’s quick,” Levi says, and Eren hears an odd note in his voice. “That’s as good as it gets.”

He puts his hand up to adjust the bandage wrapped around his head. Eren looks at Levi, at the hard line of his mouth and his thoughtful eyes, and, not for the first time, wonders what he’s thinking. “The best would be to not die at all,” Eren says. He realizes how fine the cotton of Levi’s shirt is; pale as Levi is, Eren thinks he can still see the contrast between his skin and the bandages covering too much of it.

It’s amazing how well he’s doing. He started refusing help as soon as he was conscious enough to do so, but that’s always been a bad habit of Mikasa’s too. Healing twice as fast as any normal human means she can get away with it. So can Levi, it seems. It gives Eren crazy ideas.

Levi catches him staring and snorts. He tugs up his shirt, giving Eren a good look at his bandage-wrapped torso. The bandages are very neatly applied, for a man favoring one arm — and very tight. “If it makes you feel better, when we get to the castle, I’ll let Hange poke and prod at me all you both like. Deal?”

“You shouldn’t bind broken ribs,” Eren says. “It screws with your breathing too much.”

“And, fuck knows, we wouldn’t want me to be able to relieve any of the pain, right, Doctor Jaeger?” Levi holds up his hand, cutting Eren off as he starts to speak. “I can handle it. I’ve had worse.” Eren finds Levi’s pale eyes fixed on his face, not even bothering to hide the fact he’s studying every detail. “You were supposed to have no particular talent for anything,” he says, “even first aid.”

Eren can’t breathe; his throat closes up around bile and protests, and he doesn’t want to talk about this… or even think about it. Please. Thankfully, Levi isn’t good at pity. Or horror. His eyes are curious. Eren forces a laugh.

“Ha, I knew you don’t really throw away personnel files.”

Please…

“Yours I skimmed,” Levi says, and Eren breathes, “because I’m not completely fucking stupid. Then I binned it. What use are your old training scores to me?” He crouches down, leaning heavily on the spear, and it’s as if they were never talking about anything else. “Honestly? I don’t care how fast you can run or how little attention you paid in sex ed — if I’m going to fight alongside you, I’d rather know what makes you tick.” His eyes are heavy lidded, his voice soft and breathy, he’s obviously tired and in pain and Eren should be ashamed of himself for being so completely transfixed, but surely it’s only fair that the studying should go both ways? “What way will that overheated and undermanned crew of brain cells make you jump this time? Or the next? What will you kill for? How far can you be pushed?” That “undermanned crew” seems to have evacuated completely, carrying every single coherent thought off with them; the sun’s disappeared completely behind the clouds and the overcast sky behind Levi’s dark head is almost white, making the ashes-and-ice color of his eyes seem vivid in comparison. There was something Eren wanted to ask him, possibly? Something important? “And if I’m going to die on Erwin’s orders, it’s not going to be by drowning in paperwork.”

“Are you?” Levi frowns at him; Eren fumbles for the right words. He might get only the one go at this. “Still expecting to die on Commander Erwin’s orders, I mean.”

Levi blinks. “If you can promise me the chance to, I’ll take it,” he says, “because that means I get to climb out of the shit we’re in right now.”

“You’re holding up okay? Your wounds —” The line of Levi’s mouth tightens, his eyes go cold, just a tiny hardening of his shell but it makes him into a stranger. Almost. Eren remembers this look from the other side of the bars — and just how much did Levi relax and warm up around him without him realizing, that this side of him seems so uncomfortable and alien now?

“Are fine.”

“Good. Then you’re fit to come to Shiganshina with me.”

Eren planned to bring this up in so many, so-much-better, ways. He’s got a long list of reasons they should go straight to Shiganshina, and even more reasons he shouldn’t go back to the castle. He’s sure Levi can be convinced, if he can find the right words. But his brain has lost control of his mouth. “Don’t try to tell me you haven’t thought about it. Wall Maria is right there.”

“Strokirch District is right there,” Levi snaps. “Which makes Shiganshina close to five hundred fucking kilometers away, as the crow flies.”

“And more like seven, if we follow Wall Maria, I know. I did the math. In titan form, I should be able to do it in two, three nights, easy. I can pace myself, and if I follow the wall I won’t get lost and I can rest up on top of it during the day.” Right words. He just needs the right words. “I need to do this. I can do this. You believe that, right, Captain?”

Levi gives him the Look — the odd one, reserved just for Eren, in which Eren can believe he sees genuine curiosity and maybe even some kind of fierce approval mixed in with the usual “do I need to hit it and how hard” calculations. He stands up.

“You don’t know how to pace yourself.”

“Is that supposed to be an answer?” Eren’s braced for an argument — he doesn’t know what to make of this, what, compliance? Never. Dismissal? Is he not even worth an explanation? Levi turns his back on him and, using the spear as support, starts to make his way back to the farmhouse, feathered prize in his hand. Eren starts to his feet. “Wait!”

“See if any of those apples are ripe. They shouldn’t fight back.”

“Captain!” He’s reaching out before he realizes what he’s doing; Levi moves, slipping out of Eren’s grip before his fingers so much as touch his arm. He takes an extra step — and on someone else that would be a stagger.

“Stay alert for titans. We won’t stay this lucky forever.”

As if Eren doesn’t know that.

He doesn’t watch Levi turn away from him again, just picks the feathers and leaves from his scruffy shirt and tugs it back on. Levi didn’t actually say no. Sometimes to win, you need to back off and regroup. And there are a lot of things that need to be done while they “stay lucky.” Levi wants apples? Fine, he’ll get apples.

Levi didn’t say no.

(Even if he does, does that have to be the end of it?)

Earlier, before his humiliation by goose, Eren spread out the tarpaulin on the grass by the riverbank, hoping to get the last bit of damp out of it, and he goes down to it now, shirt stretching beneath the apples collected in it. If he takes the long trip to Shiganshina, the tarp will be useful for carrying food and his scavenged supplies, a titan-sized kitbag. If it rains during the day, he can sleep under it.

If he goes back to the castle, he won’t need it.

He’ll be lucky if he doesn’t end up in a cell again; Rico’s a fool if she lets him mix with the other soldiers. He’s dangerous, and a cause of added fear and stress for men and women who are already working at their limit.

He’s dangerous…

If he closes his eyes, he thinks he can remember Utopia. His body melting into the titan, something alien in his head, the crack and hiss of maneuver gear in the air around him, flares of light and noise, bits of his flesh disintegrating. They’re just fragments, he can’t place them, but they’re enough.

He looks back toward Wall Maria, but even if the trees weren’t in the way, it would be lost now behind haze and cloud. So are the mountaintops around him. The sky is white-grey and heavy, the air is thick and humid. Although, if it weren’t for the heat, he thinks this might be a nice place. The farmhouse is one of those with a hay loft in its massive roof and animal pens at the back, and it was obviously well looked after — every window has an overgrown flowerbox and even after five years, the thatch is still tidy. There’s a chicken coop (empty now) and vegetable gardens (wild now), a little mill, and he thinks he can see beehives among the trees in the orchard. The family in the portrait probably had a good life here.

Sometime in the last five years, a blockage formed in the stream separating the orchard from the farm — the wheel serving the mill is unmoving, the water a chain of brackish pools, the shadows beneath the trees thick with mosquitos and midges. Dragonflies flit through the bug clouds, gem-colored predators snatching an easy meal, and Eren finds himself watching them.

He transformed near his friends. They fought around his feet.

Just the thought of it makes him feel cold to his core. If he’s looking for small mercies, he didn’t actually kill anyone last night. But he got both Mikasa and Levi injured — while they were trying to protect him, and just the thought of that brings shame surging up into his chest, hot and bitter. Good job, Eren. Great. He suspects neither of them is capable of blaming him for it, and doesn’t that just make it worse?

What are Armin, Mikasa and the others doing now, he wonders. He imagines Mikasa terrifying Rico’s medics, frustrated by her broken leg, and Armin trying to keep her from doing something they’ll all regret later. The castle didn’t look very big for nearly two hundred people to crash in; he imagines Jean complaining loudly about the crowding, Sasha and Connie staking out the best rations and sleeping area, Hange on the battlements, ecstatic over the number of titans drawn by all that meat in such a small space.

He’s got no right to be thinking about them.

He made his choice. And the more he remembers about Utopia District and the last minutes before his death, the more he’s convinced that it’s the right one.

The further away from him they are, the safer they’ll be.

He wishes Captain Levi were with them.

He takes a bite out of one of the apples. It’s not ripe, but it is the best thing he’s ever tasted, and he finishes it in three bites and sinks down onto the tarpaulin.

The river glitters in the sunlight. Beyond it, fields of wheat ripple in the breeze, the stalks nodding their big golden heads at him. High above him, a swallow soars higher and higher in a cornflower-blue sky. The world inside the walls is beautiful and precious, a piece of heaven captured from the hell outside. With everything he is, he has to keep it safe —

“Hey,” a familiar voice says, “copper for ‘em?” He turns his head —

— and for a split second, it’s completely unremarkable that Kenny the Ripper should be sitting there leering at him, completely natural that his own mouth should twitch into a fond smile —

Eren blinks into grey light and forest. No wheat fields, no Kenny, no heaven to protect.

He scrambles to his feet, his heart trying to claw its way out of his chest. He can’t breathe. “Shit.” How long was he sitting there, lost in someone else’s memory? No fucking heaven here. He could have been eaten, Levi could have been eaten, while Eren was all peace and love and smiling at Kenny fucking Ackerman. Is the sun lower in the sky? The clouds make it hard to tell. He looks around wildly. How long was he out?

And can he really call it someone else’s memory? What makes it less his than the rest of the fragments floating around in his head?

The three titans watching him have got no answers for him. Eren bares his teeth at them. No questions, either. Perfect.

*

Pride is a hollow thing, a waste of valuable energy, the kind of stupidity that makes a man think he looks like an eagle while getting himself cut down like a dog. And the proudest, thickest piece-of-shit MP trying to die silently with a knife in his belly has nothing on Levi as he crosses the farmyard with his back straighter than he ever deigned to attempt on the parade ground. Eren does him the courtesy of not watching him too closely, Levi refuses to limp — and they both keep up the pretense that he’s fine, just fine, a real fucking eagle.

When he gets into the tiny kitchen, he gives it up. He tosses the goose on the table and the door shudders and creaks under his weight as he slumps back against it. Blood loss makes him heavy and slow, and exhaustion soaks through his body like the laudanum Eren found and Levi refused. Are there any bits of him that don’t hurt? He can’t tell.

He shoves his hand under his borrowed shirt, pressing his fingers into the bandages, and fancies he can feel heat radiating through the cloth from the stitched-up wound. Still, that shouldn’t be a major problem. He can do the math as well as Eren. By himself and on foot, the castle, the rest of the team, and the team’s well-stocked medicine chest are as good as a million kilometers away, but it’s just an easy nighttime jog for Eren in his titan form.

If they go.

“Wall Maria is right there.” Fucking kid with his set jaw and hot, hard eyes, giving him wild ideas. As if the part of Levi that will rip the skin from his knuckles and smash up every bone in his hands because he doesn’t know how to surrender a fight needs any damn encouragement.

Unprompted, his mind throws up an image of Eren on his back among the parsley, face made pink and shiny by the exertion, feathers and bits of greenery caught in disheveled hair, glistening skin smeared with mud and blood and crushed herbs, his twisted gear straps tugging the fabric of his pants tight across his crotch and all that sweat molding it just that bit fucking closer… both the warm color of his skin and the outline of his half-hard cock eye-catchingly visible through the grimy, damp fabric. Kid badly needs a wash — preferably an ice-cold shower.

“You believe that, right, Captain?” You believe in me? Levi’s sigh comes out heavy and honest in the empty kitchen. He does, he really does, and therein lies the fucking problem.

He should have shut Eren down right there and then. Why the hell didn’t he?

He breathes in deep and the pain comes like a punch to the chest, like his ribs are breaking all over again. He sinks down onto one of the rickety kitchen chairs and blinks until his vision clears. The goose isn’t going to pluck and gut itself.

Even dead, it fights back. The feathers are surprisingly difficult to pull out, and by the time he’s made a significant bald patch Levi is breathing hard and sweating as badly as Eren.

He would never claim to be particularly good at long-term plans. This one never went further than timing his lab break-in so that he could remove himself from the heat completely afterwards… and let Erwin wash his hands of him if he needed to. Coming out of that cell with the real Eren, complete and aware and alive, had been something Levi barely allowed himself to consider as a possibility, so why would he think through all the problems of putting the kid in the midst of two hundred scared and edgy soldiers? And after what happened before Eren’s death, there were so many potential problems… are so many problems, all waiting for when they reach the castle.

The cleaver feels as heavy as a doorstop in his hand as he hacks at the goose. The damn thing stinks like a sewer. Nature is disgusting. Amazing, sometimes — birds like this are so perfectly made for what they do — but Levi can’t appreciate it right now. He puffs at the feathers trying to stick to his face. Animals and humans aren’t too different when you get down to the slippery bits, and he can still summon up a flicker of grim wonder for that thought, even wrist deep in goose entrails. Tubes and membrane and unexpected spurts of liquid, food in various stages of digestion — if Levi were opened up and his guts yanked out of his body, he could put a bet on them looking — and smelling — just like this.

If he goes along with Eren’s plan, he might find himself getting a good close look.

It’s reckless as hell. Levi shouldn’t even be considering it.

He washes the carcass, boils some water and washes it again, finds a stockpot for it and takes a scrubbing brush to that too, because fine, he can wipe off the dust, but who knows how many mice have pissed in it over the years?

How can a pot be so heavy?

He struggles for breath, wipes away the sweat that drips into the pot. Then he wraps what’s left of the soap back up in its wax paper and slips it into his pocket, because he’s not going to risk losing that.

“When we retake Shiganshina we can —” “Until Shiganshina’s back in our hands we have to —” “If we repair the main Shiganshina road we will —” It always comes back to Shiganshina. It’s The Goal, the focus of all post-Maria Survey Corps operations even before Eren appeared with his little key and his big promises. It was a dump even before the titans got to it — if it proves to be so different from all the other smashed-up ghost towns Levi’s ridden through in the last five years, he’ll eat his dress boots sautéed in butter and let Hange record the resulting bowel movements for science. And yet…. for the majority of his time in the Survey Corps, he’s had his back to Mitras and his face to Shiganshina. Is it so strange that he’s tempted?

The goose is in the pot and on the stovetop when he feels it, a prickle down his spine that might just be a reaction to the air pressure changing. Somewhere in the distance, he hears thunder. The water in the pot ripples gently.

Levi carefully — quietly — puts the lid on the pot.

By the door is a neat pile of everything Eren scavenged from the house, and even now, knowing he’s preparing for an expedition, Levi is grudgingly impressed by his thoroughness. He snags a roll of wire from the pile and retreats to the corner of the room with the cleaver and the kitchen’s grimy broomstick, all his senses painfully alert. He can’t hear anything out of place. Just another roll of faraway thunder.

The floorboards vibrate beneath his feet. He drops into a crouch in the shadow of a cupboard, his battered body protesting. The only part of the house not made of wood is the cellar; all around him are easily breakable walls.

As if that thought summoned it, he hears a sound from behind the wall nearest him, something moving about in the abandoned animal pens. Something heavy and bipedal —

— but not heavy enough to account for the vibrations —

He catches movement reflected in the pot’s enamel glaze; something big blots out the light from the windows. Levi folds himself up tighter into the corner, gritting his teeth through the pain that lashes through his head and the nausea that follows as his ribs and side echo it. He works quickly, cutting the broom’s bundle of sticks away, his fingers slipping on the wire as he winds it tight, binding the cleaver to the broom handle.

He’s not helpless. He can work this out.

He’s more worried about Eren. He can’t hear a fight — either Eren’s out of sight of the house and not paying attention, or he… didn’t pay attention.

Not acceptable.

Or possible. Eren’s sharper than that.

He needs to get out of this house. Now.

The wall’s wood panels bounce as something bangs up against them. The reflection in the glaze of the pot shifts. Levi uncoils himself from his crouch, staying flat against the wall, and considers the distance to the boar spear propped against the kitchen table.

Right, bastards, who’s coming first?

He takes a deep, deliberate, noisy breath —

— and dives forward as the wall behind him shatters. Dives, snatches up the boar spear and spins, a weapon in each hand. Their combined weight provides some extra momentum, picking up the slack from his weakened body. He needs it.

The world grinds into slow motion. The titan is larger than he expected — the two blades shear through its neck with a jolt that sends angry pain juddering through his body, but the angle is all wrong. Its head bounces across the floor, and the rest of the fucking thing lunges for him, arms flailing, bloated belly wobbling. And the bigger titan in the farmyard shoves its hand through the door.

The doorframe splinters, the wall itself breaking apart around the massive arm. Levi yanks his blades free from where they’ve got wedged in the wood of the cupboard and lurches away from its groping hand, performing an awkward drop-and-scramble maneuver past the beheaded titan and onto the stairs. The only thing he can hear is his pulse in his ears, as if that distant thunder has found its way into his head, along with sheet lightning pain.

He did calculate just how far his injuries would reduce his effectiveness in a fight. Honestly, he was expecting this.

Fuck.

His knee gives way under him. He keeps hold of his weapons as he goes down, but the sharp edges of the steps slam into his thigh — a minor hurt, but echoed by the major ones. White dots burst in front of his eyes. He can’t lift his head up. He’s sweating and shaking. He can’t suck in enough breath.

This doesn’t feel like his body.

It doesn’t matter.

He grits his teeth and gets his feet back underneath him, gets them moving, every step up accompanied by a sucked-in breath. Because what else is he going to do? Lie here and wait for the smaller titan to get to him? It’s trying, bumping up against the end of the bannister. It might even get onto the stairs before its head — and mouth — grow back. He hears furniture breaking as the bigger one continues to grope around in the kitchen, and has a sudden mental image of it knocking over the pot and destroying their precious dinner.

Both of those fuckers are going down if it fucking kills him.

The stairs shake under him. Levi risks a glance behind him, and sees the titan squeezing its bulk between the supporting frame and the wall, the wooden steps creaking alarmingly beneath its weight. It should be ridiculous, like a chicken blundering around after an encounter with the farmer’s axe, but it moves with clumsy purpose. It has no eyes to see him, no nose to smell him, no ears to listen… so why does he get the impression it knows exactly where he is? How does that work?

And now he’s starting to think like Hange.

He spares some breath to snort.

Or Eren.

The bannister splinters, the step beneath his feet bounces, and the titan comes up the stairs in a rush, hands down like a child, a speeded-up shamble of fat torso and ungainly limbs that’s on him in the gap between one breath and the next.

His blades stick in its flesh as it snatches him up in its arms.

He hears his broken ribs crunch together. He tastes vomit in his mouth. The titan hugs him closer, pressing him into its steaming neck, not seeming to realize it’s missing a mouth to eat him with. And Levi adjusts his grip and stabs at its nape until his hands are slippery with its blood… and it’s not enough, he needs to cut faster than it heals —

It drops.

He goes down underneath it, the weight of it driving every scrap of breath from his body. It stinks. It’s as hot as the stove. And he can’t get the fucking thing off him. He has a maddening moment where he’s shoving at the corpse with arms like sticks and elastic, his head pounding, his wound burning, and when he’s finally free, he lies there wheezing like an overworked lumper with a pipe addiction or a slum rat with black mold in his lungs.

He gets his eyes to focus on the ceiling.

Get up. Get up, you useless streak of shit.

He staggers to his feet and snatches up the boar spear. Its steel-capped butt point makes short work of the planking above him; dust and hay descend in a suffocating cloud. Levi drags his shirt up over his nose and mouth and tucks the spears awkwardly under his weaker arm. Then it’s up through into the choking air of the hay loft, up into the beams, to hack through the thatch into daylight. Every movement hurts, is so painfully fucking slow, but he’s moving, he keeps moving…

He has to know what’s happening outside. And he has to get some space around him. Six years — is that all the time it took for him to get spoiled, to become uncomfortable fighting in enclosed spaces after a quarter of a century surrounded by walls?

The overcast sky and hot air are a relief. What isn’t is the size of the titan bent over in front of the farmhouse, rooting around inside the broken wall. It’s at least fifteen meters, and there’s a seven-meter class with it, clinging to its leg. Levi crouches on the edge of the roof, sucking in breath and running through a few quick calculations in his head.

His body has never let him down, never. Whatever he needs to do, he finds a way to do it. And even with a crocked body and no maneuver gear, this is Levi’s element. Like some flea-bitten cat perched on the roof of the barracks privy block, watching the miserable humans passing beneath it. Broken leg, inability to lick its own ass without rolling over, but it’s up out of reach and it can see everything. King of the whole world —

Wait. Is that Eren?

The kid is just sitting on the riverbank, surrounded by… apple cores?

And titans.

Levi goes still, breath trapped in his chest. Why isn’t Eren moving? Is he fucking asleep? He looks so tiny from this distance, tiny and helpless, but the titans — two of them, seven-meter class — are making no move to attack him. They hang back like a pair of gutter punks studying a slumming-it noble. How much money has he got on him? Can he use that sword on his hip? Does he have a pistol to back it up?

Seconds tick away, and Levi finds himself reluctant to move, as if a sound from him could break the fragile standoff. He watches another titan appear on the other side of the river. Staying still is not an option.

He looks down at the titan below him. With maneuver gear this would be so easy. Without it…

It’s a big bastard. Will the blades even reach its spine?

It lifts its head — and looks toward Eren. Levi jumps.

Gravity takes him, lends extra force to the swing of his blades. For a moment, he’s free, weightless — then he feels every last bit of his weight and acceleration in his wounded body as his feet hit the titan’s shoulder blade and his mismatched weapons punch deep into its nape.

It rears up out of its crouch, reaching back for the irritant it can feel on its back. And the broomstick handle comes away in Levi’s hand, the cleaver lost somewhere in the titan’s steaming flesh. He doesn’t hesitate — or think, dammit — just tosses the now-useless stick away and shoves his hand into the closing cut, biting his lip against the scalding heat as his fingers close awkwardly around the cleaver’s wire-wrapped handle. He has to tear it free with brute strength, and he doesn’t know which hurts more, his burning skin or his shoulder joint popping apart again, but who fucking cares? The chunk of flesh and bone comes loose, the big titan begins its slow collapse beneath him, and he hasn’t been beaten.

The world doesn’t have any pity for injuries or aging. The predators don’t hang back when their prey slows down.

The cleaver drops from Levi’s hand, his left arm useless, and he faces the seven-meter class feeling like a free-floating mass of pain and fury. If he were a different kind of person, he might howl at it like a rabid animal. Instead, he launches himself off the dead titan with his fingers clamped tight around the boar spear and his teeth gritted so hard it makes his temples throb.

Levi hasn’t slowed down, and he doesn’t intend to.

Comeonyoufuckingpieceofshit.

This one’s an abnormal, its eyes glittering with something sharp and predatory and almost human. And it’s fast. Levi’s got no plans, no thoughts in his head beyond “hack it to bits”; he’s acting on instinct, all injured animal. An injured animal with a pup in the den. He hears Eren howl, finally transformed and fighting, and bares his teeth at his enemy. Some pup.

Hack. Slash. Drop beneath its punch. Slice at its hamstrings.

Every movement is agony. Every breath feels like his lungs are disintegrating around it.

The titan’s arm drops, loose and useless; he got a lucky cut.

Strength is seeping from his good arm. His fingers are going numb around the spear shaft.

He needs to get around to its back, but it’s not letting him.

Its hand slaps out. He slashes at it — and feels empty space beneath his foot as he hops back.

The true measure of how fit someone is to fight is in how fast they react to surprises. Levi doesn’t do well. He tumbles down the stairs to the cellar door, forgoing any attempt to stop himself in favor of getting the spear up as the titan’s hand comes down, finger stubs billowing steam —

It impales its palm on the spear, crossguards designed to halt a crazed wild boar raising blood and steam as they press into its skin. Behind him, the spear’s rear point slams into the cellar door, the blow it’s stopping so powerful it punches straight through the aged wood. The titan screams and shoves.

The door gives way completely. Levi feels splinters stab at his skin as he’s thrust through it, clinging to the spear and using every millimeter of his surviving strength to get its point into the ground.

The cellar is windowless and dark, and he can smell damp and rotten vegetables, can feel the slushy wetness of them through his shirt as he’s driven into the ground —

The boar spear’s rear point finally catches, halting the titan for a moment before it presses down harder. The point scrapes through the packed-earth floor. The stumps of the titan’s fingers glow in the gloom like clumps of dying embers; Levi hears a faint crackle and hiss as its flesh re-forms and tries to calculate the time he has left. It’s too late to be trying to think up a plan B, but ideas churn through his head.

He hears the titan tugging at the stones of the cellar wall with its other hand, because he’s always thought being buried alive is one of the few deaths worse than being eaten and the world really has it out for him today. He won’t be the first animal to die down here — he can smell rotten flesh now, unmistakable. He hears the scurry of tiny feet off in the darkness.

His head is woozy and useless. He can’t think straight.

The titan moans.

“Caap —” He can’t think straight, but his mind is eager enough to find words in random nonsense. “— tenserr.”

Bricks pop out around the door. Levi hears the beams creak above his head. “I’ll talk to you all you fucking like if you stop trying to kill me.” Which of course it won’t do, because it’s all a fantasy of his scrambled brains —

The pressure lifts off the boar spear. “Serr.”

The blade pops free as it pulls its hand back.

“Shit.”

And the damn thing grabs for him again.

The bones of its half-formed fingers clack together in front of his face. Then it’s gone, and he has daylight on his skin. Through the smashed door he sees Eren haul it back, fingers hooked into its eye sockets. It’s still reaching out for him. “Leaf —” Shit, it really sounds like it’s trying to talk. Levi’s suddenly cold. “— eyeserr.”

It spoke… the titan spoke. He remembers reading those words in Ilse’s scribbled notes, digging his toes into the insoles of his boots as if it would somehow stop the ground crumbling beneath his feet. It’s impossible… it produced words that have meaning…

“Hel —”

“Wait!”

Eren rips out its nape.

Levi’s first attempt to stand up sets his head spinning. As his ass hits the dirt floor, he sets his hand down on something cold and metallic and familiar. He wraps his fingers around the musket barrel. It’s got strands of long red hair caught around it.

He forces himself to look.

The rats and insects have done their work, but the cellar must have been free of damp until very recently, because there is a surprising amount left of the four corpses in front of him. Their skin resembles rotting paper pulled too tight across their bones, their clothes have mold growing on them but are mostly intact — they’re still clearly people, a man and three women. Not that he can recognize any faces from the portraits in the house. Even without vermin and putrefaction, a close-range musket shot to the head makes identification hard. Powder burns are a bastard.

The girl with the red hair must have taken the last shot. Levi gently pulls the gun from her hand and levers himself to his feet. His gaze falls on the still-colorful embroidery on one of the other women’s skirts; the fabric is tangled up around what looks like a leg brace. He feels so fucking tired.

Eren peers at him through the door. The adrenaline has drained away too quickly, but Levi gets his feet under him and limps out to daylight. He’s not sure if Eren’s seen the bodies or not, but Levi’s not going to point them out to him. Let him keep thinking they got away.

The heat hits him like a prizefighter as he steps out of the cellar. The world spins. His good leg turns to jelly, dumping him on the ground, and he comes humiliatingly close to losing the contents of his stomach. And Eren picks him up, trying so hard to be gentle he scoops up part of the farmyard with him.

Bits of half-dried mud sail through the air as Eren brings him up to eye level, and sitting in Eren’s palm is about as good a plan for cooling down as going back into the kitchen and hopping up onto the stovetop, but Levi can’t work up the energy to do anything about it. His head throbs, his leg and shoulder and ribs throb, the stitched-up wound beneath his ribs burns like someone’s grinding a torch into it. He feels like he stopped breathing a while ago.

Passing out now will serve no purpose except to alarm Eren.

Eren makes a concerned noise. Levi thinks about the family in the root cellar, and the titan he is almost sure was trying to say his name.

He feels a drop of water on his forehead. And another.

“We should block up that door,” he says.

The clouds open.

Eren goes to shield him from the rain with his other hand; Levi shoves it away, every part of his body protesting the exertion. He lets the cold water work its magic on his scalded hand and tilts his face up into the torrent. Then he has a sudden amazing thought and digs the block of soap out of his pocket.

The rain makes his skin sting, and when he lifts his arm to rub the block against his hair, hot pain rushes down through his muscles like the rain pouring through the hole he made in the thatch. But he can handle it, he can cope.

Like he said to Eren, he’s had worse.

He blinks suds from his eyes and scrubs at his face. The soap feels like it’s taking off the top layer of his skin, but that might be what it takes to get rid of this level of dirt.

His gold standard for true heaven belongs to the showers at Trost Garrison HQ, but this comes close. It may even be better. No need to worry here about arsenic-contaminated pipes or water tanks with dead rodents dissolving in them — the rain is cold and clean and fresh and perfect, and it beats down on his neck and back and shoulders like that one Karanese bathhouse masseur with his bareknuckle dreams and barely hidden sadism, turning to billowing clouds of steam when it hits Eren’s palm. His borrowed clothes are already disgusting — ground-in mud and dust and titan drool, dried blood and feathers and hay and the odd fleck of goose guts. Levi scrubs at his soaked-through shirt, tugs it off awkwardly one-handed and takes the gritty block of soap directly to his skin. He does the same with his pants, relishing the scrape of the soap, and maybe his waterlogged bandages slide out of place and scrubbing his skin sets pain shuddering out from his bruises and blood oozing from his cuts and grazes, but he doesn’t care. He sees glowing green eyes watching him through the steam, and he doesn’t care about that either.

Let Eren stare all he wants. He’s not going to see the scales or devil tail popular rumor insists Levi has — and Levi will be baffled for the rest of his life at how far that story spread. Surely he’s been naked with enough damn people that someone could have put a stop to it. Unless they think he detaches it for sex or something equally fucking asinine. Hangs it up behind the door with his coat, perhaps?

His head throbs, pure red agony beating at his eyeballs and running hot wires down the muscles of his neck. He drops back against Eren’s palm, propped up by his good arm so he can pretend he’s not actually swooning like some soft noble, turns his face up to the rain, and while he waits for the dizziness and nausea to pass, concentrates on the water, lets it overwhelm him like a life-or-death fight or the best kind of fuck. As the pain eases, he tastes ozone and sulfur in the steam around him. The rain is still beating against his chest and trickling down around his balls and pooling beneath him, but he’s suddenly hyperaware of the skin against his back and ass and the backs of his calves, temperature just on the good side of scalding, texture just on the so-good side of rough…

There’s a school of thought, to which Erwin belongs, that sees Eren’s titan form as more a suit of armor for Eren to wear than an actual part of his body. Levi has never bought into that view. Just as his own abilities are built deep into the fabric of him — super-dense bone and muscle and super-springy joints and overdeveloped nerve endings, and he may never know how differently his nervous system and brain are put together (but Hange has promised to dissect it when he dies) — rather than a useful bonus created by training and Kenny’s fists, so Levi can’t see the titan as anything other than just Eren. This is Eren’s body. Eren’s palm against his back and ass, Eren’s eyes in the steam, wild and kind of scared, and Eren’s fingers curled into claws, so close to closing around Levi and so tense his whole hand is vibrating.

Levi used him as a heat source in the boat — this is no different.

No different at all.

He wrestles his wet pants back on as best he can one-handed, as graceful and dignified as a bear with the shits. “Right, show’s over. Put me down.”

Eren has problems enough; he doesn’t need Levi to add to them.

“You fix that door. I’ll check on the goose.”

*

It takes another couple of hours to cook to his satisfaction, and Levi spends most of that time sitting among the remains of the kitchen wall, his shaking, sweaty body with its nausea and various pains protected from the rain by the overhang of the roof, glowering at Eren as he putters about in his titan form. Bringing up boulders from the river to block up the cellar door, collecting more apples by the simple method of uprooting a tree and shaking it — he’s very industrious.

Levi slouches in the smashed-up doorway with his pot of finally cooked goose cradled in his good arm and watches him, fascinated despite himself as Eren rescues their supplies from among the broken wood of the kitchen wall, his massive fingers impressively controlled as he arranges them in the tarp. He doesn’t damage a single thing; Levi checks. Looks like Hange’s experiments were good for something at least.

“This is a crazy idea,” he says, “but wouldn’t that be easier if you got out of the titan?”

Eren picks up a stick and scrawls in the dirt. DON’T KNOW HOW.

“Bullshit. Come on, brat, dinner’s ready. Get out of there. Now.”

Eren takes his stick and underlines DON’T KNOW. His toothy titan face has a limited range of expressions. It makes perfect sense to Levi that pure fucking cheek is one of them.

“This is stupid.”

Eren shakes his head. PROTECT, he writes, and draws a big arrow toward Levi himself — just in case Levi hasn’t got the message. It’s unnecessarily deep.

“If you don’t eat and rest you’ll be no fucking use to me,” Levi says. He doesn’t really expect it to work. Once Eren gets an idea in his head, nothing short of a high-explosive shell will budge it. He should be more annoyed by that.

Protecting him is clearly not the only idea Eren has, either — his collection just keeps growing. Levi recognizes the battered smokes tin Eren used as a lantern, its enamel paint still bright under the rust and soot. His foot is resting against a water flask and a scrap of rotten fabric that could easily be an Expedition armband. Did they come out of the boat too?

“Forty-first?”

He crouches down — too quickly, because it makes his head spin and sweat bead on his forehead — and drops his pot so he can rummage around in Eren’s salvage. The 41st Expedition. He’s heard a hundred variations on the story, but strip away the wild elaborations of madness and curses and ghosts and what’s left is very simple. A small team, just forty strong, rode out of Trost and just… disappeared. Not even their horses returned to Wall Rose.

Levi remembers the aftermath. It was the only time he’s ever seen Erwin drink to excess. Until recently, it was the only time he ever felt cut completely out of the loop.

He picks up a water-damaged leather satchel and tips out a folded-up map, its ink run until it’s unreadable, and a pair of flare cartridges. They’re probably useless now; there’s no chance their powder is still dry. He traces his finger around the base of one, scraping rust off the ring indicating the flare’s color. Levi doesn’t think he’s ever been issued white cartridges. In fact, he’s seen them used just once. Last night.

It makes Levi wish he’d taken more interest in the skeleton. Were its legs taken off by a titan’s teeth or the slash of a Sina steel blade?

He looks up at Eren thoughtfully, and the kid must completely misinterpret his intention, because his hand slams into the dirt next to him, palm up, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world to offer someone a seat in his hand.

Before Utopia and his resurrection, it might have been, but now… This is the guy who spent his time among other soldiers watching them as if they would attack him or he them. This is the guy who nearly wore a fucking hole in a sandbag wall trying to get as far away as possible from his friends and comrades. He hasn’t hesitated to touch Levi whenever needed, in human and titan form alike, and if Eren’s even aware of that Levi doesn’t know or care, because he has no intention of making him stop. He hooks the cleaver to his belt and climbs aboard.

This time Eren doesn’t try to use his other hand as an umbrella, and Levi’s grateful for that at least — the rain’s eased off to just a drizzle anyway, and it feels good on his overheated, aching skin. “I need to talk to you.”

Eren taps the pot with his finger.

Levi pulls off a drumstick and holds it up. “If you want some of this, you need to come out of the titan.” Eren puffs air through his nostrils and glares at him. Then he taps the pot again and points at Levi. “Okay, fine.” He takes a bite — gingerly, very gingerly, because throwing it back up would only worry Eren.

Who is watching him eat like it’s the most fascinating thing in the world.

The inside of Eren’s head must be a strange, strange place.

“How much do you remember?” Levi says. “Before —” He waves the drumstick, realizes what he’s doing, and tears off a mouthful of it. Let Eren finish off the sentence as he likes. Before we lost you. Before you died… Eren stares at him, and Levi’s seen those big eyes of his like that before — when he heard the death toll in Stohess, every time he looked Levi’s way after the 57th Expedition… It’s a surreal experience, to see that familiar expression written so fucking large. The mouth of Eren’s titan form isn’t made for speech and that’s frustrating, to say the least, because Levi never actually bought “he’s just unreliable and lost control again” as an explanation for Eren’s actions that day, and it looks like he was right.

Whatever happened, Eren blames himself. Of course he does.

“Let me tell you what I saw,” Levi says. “We were finishing up with Rod, so I don’t know what came first, you staggering around like a drunken tramp or the local Garrison troops trying to take you down. Want to give me a clue? One finger for ‘my brain broke,’ two for ‘they started it’?” He feels a shudder run through the hand holding him. Eren’s eyes are temporarily obscured by his translucent third eyelids flicking back and forth. “Or three for both? You can still count up to three in that form, can’t you? And if we’re doing numbers here, do you want me to tell you how many people died? The Garrison captain there made fucking sure to tell me afterwards. He holds me personally responsible for every squashed civilian and swatted soldier. Which isn’t unfair, I think. Mikasa and I both failed to stop you.” Eren looks away; Levi reaches out and tugs on a lock of his hair like a bell pull. “Too busy performing a special maneuver best described as a total fucking balls-up.” Or Mikasa thought Levi was going for a kill rather than a cut-out, and dealt with the situation accordingly. Even Kenny never came as close to ending him. “No one came out of that fight looking good.” Or even competent — the whole affair took a great steaming dump on the Survey Corps’ already shaky public image. “And you provided the titans outside Wall Rose with lunch. You didn’t fight them. Not your usual M.O., is it?” Eren’s watching him again, desperate and hungry.

Even when he’s fifteen meters tall with teeth like tombstones, he’s still a shell-shocked rookie. Levi can never forget that. He drops the remains of the drumstick back into the pan and presses his palm to his shoulder. The pain comes immediate and bitter.

“Lend me your fingers,” he says. Eren looks at him. “I jarred my shoulder out again. Help me pop it into the right place and I save you some goose.”

Eren’s touch is light, hesitant. The dinner-plate-sized pads of his thumb and forefinger brush against Levi’s collarbone, ghosting over his shoulder so gently it barely sets off a twinge of pain.

Does he think Levi should be scared of him? Yes, Eren could break Levi’s arm. And Levi could put Eren’s eyes out. And only one of them would hesitate.

“Hey, I’m not made of glass.”

*

Eren’s startled into laughter that filters out through his titan as a snuffling snort, his frozen terror broken.

Of course he’s not. He’s the single toughest man Eren’s ever likely to meet, totally unstoppable, proof humans can go toe-to-toe with monsters.

He nips Levi’s elbow between his thumb and forefinger, careful, so careful, and gently raises it. Levi watches him out of narrowed eyes. “Tighter. It’s fuck-all use if I can pull out.” Eren does as he’s told, increasing the pressure until Levi hisses and holds up his free hand. Eren looks down at him, tiny and pinned between his fingers, and marvels.

When he was a kid, he used to catch dragonflies down by the river. Eventually, he got so he could hold them without damaging their shiny bodies or beautiful, delicate wings, but it took practice; he hasn’t got a chance to practice here. Levi saw him in Utopia District, Eren thinks wildly, he remembers what Eren did there better than Eren himself does, so how can he be so casual about this?

He feels so light and insubstantial, like a wisp of smoke caught between Eren’s fingertips. The purple shadows beneath his eyes are deeper than ever, his skin shiny with sweat and ashy pale where it’s not bruised or scraped right off. He looks shaky and ill. But he killed a fifteen-meter class without maneuver gear, and, fuck, just the thought of that gives Eren a giddy rush of adrenaline. Levi probably doesn’t even think it’s a big deal.

You’re amazing, is what he wants to tell him.

Not being able to talk in his titan form is a real plus sometimes.

Eren holds Levi’s arm still while his Captain screws his eyes shut, digs his teeth into his bottom lip and sways in his palm like a drunken dancer. He pulls against Eren’s grip and twists his body to shift the angle of his shoulder, every movement precise but surprisingly — disturbingly — sinuous.

He’s taking his time about it — but, then, he’s really doing it from the wrong end. It would go so much easier if Eren were free of his titan and could take control. He’s done this — no, he’s watched his father do this — so many times.

Levi’s damp bangs are plastered to his forehead; Eren feels a barely noticeable shiver run through him as the bone slips back into its socket, and watches a droplet of water detach itself from his hair and go racing down his cheek. Muscles tense up in his neck — and Eren can’t take his eyes off them.

Levi slits open one eye and squints up at him. “It’s back in all right,” he says, and then, a good half a minute later, “so you can let go now.”

Eren does that, but he finds himself touching a fingertip to Levi’s throat. It’s no good, he can’t feel enough detail. He needs to make a titan form with more nerve endings — the extra pain in fights would be more than worth it.

Levi curls his injured arm against his body protectively, but at least he’s moving it now.

Eren hears himself make a noise like an injured cow. He feels… weird.

It’s familiar enough — steam caught in his head, the sensation of being himself but not, being convinced that there’s another version of him overlaid on top or maybe squeezed into the same gap in the world. It happens sometimes when he fights. Sometimes. Often…

“Hey, Eren. Focus.”

He looks down at Levi with what feel like two pairs of eyes and wonders if this is what happened to Reiner. Is that where he’s heading? Split in two because he can’t take the shame of what he’s done?

“Don’t make me regret this before I’ve even said it.” Levi shoves his finger away and stares up at him. “Since I’m the dead weight here, you get to decide which direction we head in tonight. But, if you’ve still got your heart set on Wall Maria, I have two conditions for you. One, we stay together. Two, if we get the chance to let the main team know we’re alive, we take it. Understood?”

Eren nods, both his hearts thudding wildly. He might wish Levi were somewhere safe and well away from him, but he’s not going to abandon him in the middle of titan country. The very thought makes him sick to his stomach — sick and shaky and wanting to wrap Levi up tight in a cage of his fingers… which wouldn’t be appreciated — but it passes, and the fear mixes with a spike of feverish elation.

“Think about it carefully, but it’s your choice.”

 

“…your… choice…”

 

Eren blinks.

He tastes smoke in the icy air. He can hear distant gunfire and screams, muffled by the snow falling thick and silent around him. His fingers clench tightly around the man in his hand — tight enough to make him hiss in pain, breath puffing out to join the steam rising from Eren’s skin. There’s blood around the man’s nose and mouth, snowflakes and ash caught in his long eyelashes and on the dark bristle of his buzzed hair and in the grimy fur collar of his once-white winter coat. He struggles weakly against Eren’s grip, and yes, he’s bigger than Levi, taller and broader and heavier, but the eyes glaring up at him from that handsome, unfamiliar face are ice-grey shards of glass, sharp and hard and painfully familiar. “You… made… your choice,” the man wheezes. “This… is mine.”

Eren feels the betrayal as something shocking and sharp beneath his breastbone, a stiletto sliding home. This man… Amos… is his. How can he disobey Eren so easily?

How can he condemn him?

Amos’s bones crunch as Eren tightens his fingers —

— and Levi looks up at him from where he’s gently cradled in Eren’s open palm. “This is new,” he says.

“What is?” Eren croaks. Then he realizes. He’s looking at Levi through his human eyes.

He’s closed the other set of eyes so his brain doesn’t have to deal with the conflicting information, but they wouldn’t see much, because he’s bent over so his forehead is almost touching the ground. He can still feel the great mass of his titan body, he’s still connected, thick nerve tissue grown thick around and inside him, but his little core of (mostly) human flesh is upright and partially exposed by the peeled-open muscle of his neck.

“Useful trick,” Levi says. The hand he’s sitting on is positioned close enough to Eren’s head for him to grab hold of one pointed ear and swing himself across. He pushes through Eren’s hair like it’s waist-high vegetation, what looks like half the goose clutched in one hand.

“I… don’t know how I did it.” Or how he’s going to close the titan flesh back around himself.

His head throbs, his lungs ache, his heart is jumping like he’s a rabbit in a trap. Levi pauses in his careful approach. “Huh.”

“What?”

Eren feels wetness on his mouth, and is vaguely surprised to taste coppery blood when he licks his lips. He’s even more surprised when Levi dumps the goose onto his neck. Levi takes hold of the frayed hem of his shirt and rips off a chunk, scrunches the fabric into a ball and scrubs unceremoniously at Eren’s mouth and upper lip. “You’re pushing yourself too hard,” he says, like he’s got room to talk. Up close, he looks even more tired and ill. Eren notices a bright blotch of color on his unscraped-up cheekbone. His hand trembles as he wipes the blood from Eren’s nose. “This is too much for you.” He goes for the cleaver. Eren wrenches at the nerves and tendons surrounding his arms. No, this is —

One arm comes free, trailing broken nerve endings; Levi doesn’t try to stop Eren from grabbing his wrist. Or try to shut him up as the words pour out of his mouth. “If you cut me out I might not be able to transform again or I might go to sleep and we’ve still got hours until nightfall and are you sure you can defend us both if the titans come again?” Levi stares at him, unblinking. “Please.” Eren tries a grin. “I’ve had worse. I can handle it.”

Levi’s mouth twitches. “I should cut you out just for that,” he says, shaking off Eren’s hand.

“Ymir stayed in her titan form for sixty years,” Eren says.

“Trying to shower me in horseshit doesn’t help your argument. The story you told us, she was a mindless titan for sixty years. Not the same, is it?” Levi brings the rag back up to Eren’s face, more gentle this time. “Fuck,” he breathes. “Just look at us both.” Eren grins at him helplessly, feeling the thick net of titan tissue tug at his cheeks and the bone beneath. Levi runs his fingers over one of the thick cables of nerves. Never pressing hard enough to burn himself, he follows it to where it splits up and burrows into Eren’s flesh — and Eren hisses and flinches back, feeling both his human and titan toes curl. “These things hurt?”

Not exactly…

Eren manages to shake his head. Levi shoves the remains of the goose into his freed-up hand.

“I need to rest. Eat that, don’t overexert yourself, and wake me up in couple of hours. Or if you feel that shitty-ass biology of yours playing any more new tricks.”

Eren gets as far as opening his mouth but, really, what is he going to say? His brain is in pieces? Levi already knows that. “You probably look worse than me,” he says. Levi gives him a flat, deadly look that’s not softened at all by his red-rimmed, pain-glazed eyes.

“Wanna bet?”

*

In the end, Eren lets him sleep longer than a couple of hours, curled up on a sheet in the hay loft — as high up as he can get without being out in the rain, Eren notes. Is that what makes him secure enough to sleep out here, or is he just so exhausted?

The sky lights up briefly to the east. Eren counts one, two, before the crackle of thunder catches up. He bends to tie the tarp up around his precious supplies as the drizzle turns back into a downpour and the wind picks up. The light is failing, the world darkening, and the heavy clouds are speeding up the arrival of dusk but it’s not here yet. He spent the last hours of afternoon light watching the hills for movement, and he doesn’t dare let his guard down. Bad enough that he did before.

The raindrops bounce off the thatch and raise a sound like a dozen competing drummers in the woods around him as they beat through the leaves. The pounding water vaporizes on Eren’s skin, and he’s hyperaware of the steam rising from him as his eyes scour every gap in the trees. It has to be as good as a flare to the smarter abnormals.

Speaking of which…

The two titans are visible just for a moment as they scuttle out from under the trees and onto the grassy hillside before disappearing back into the forest. Eren hunkers down, ready to fight — so, so ready to fight — but they ignore him. What the hell?

Titans like shifter flesh. Eren should be drawing them to him like flies to a corpse.

Another of the small abnormals splashes across the hillside, its feet and knuckles churning up water and mud and tearing up the long grass as they pound through it. It’s in kind of a hurry. He has the sudden mad urge to stand up and roar for its attention.

Yet another follows it. Eren tracks it with his eyes. They’re not just in a hurry, they’re purposeful. He wonders where they’re heading. Wherever it is, it’s off to the south, not toward Wall Rose and the castle in the lake.

A sound reaches him, carried on the wet air from somewhere deep in the trees — a crash, cracking and splintering of wood. Something really big is moving through the woods.

He can’t whisper for Levi to get up without opening up the neck of his titan — and it took him long enough to get it to close around him — so he dribbles a couple of drops of water on him from his fingertips. He’ll apologize later.

Levi doesn’t move. Is he really such a deep sleeper?

Eren reaches out to touch him —

— and it ambles out onto the hillside, smaller titans following in its wake like really ugly ducklings with their mother. This is a titan bigger than any he’s ever seen, with pointed ears, grossly extended arms and… fur, fur all over it, dark and slick like an otter’s.

Eren never actually encountered Ymir’s “ape,” whatever the hell that’s supposed to be, but the Utgard survivors who didn’t turn out to be lying, betraying mass murderers managed to describe it to him pretty well. He shrinks down further behind the house, noting the positions of the other titans. Deep inside himself, he can feel his heart pounding, his breath catching in his lungs and heat rushing through his head. This is the nearest thing to a demon the world possesses.

Eren’s anger has always been an overwhelming thing, too big for him to even understand fully. Trying to focus it on the Colossal and Armored Titans no longer works; those convenient symbols of everything wrong in the world, everything Eren wants to rip apart, turned out to be two truly pitiable teenage boys — foot soldiers, not masterminds. He can still hate them for their betrayal, and he will kill them when he gets the chance — he has to — but their deaths won’t put the world to rights. Their deaths won’t be satisfying.

He narrows his eyes at this “beast” titan. This thing, on the other hand…

This thing transforms humans into titans. Commands titans. Makes Bertholdt and Reiner wet themselves in excitement. What kind of person is wrapped up inside it?

When he tears them out of its neck, then he’ll find out.

The thatch crunches beneath his fingers. He can feel the anger inside him like an overflowing lake, and he could dive into it, take the grief that just keeps being added to, the blood lust and the grinding fear that are not entirely his, the years of desperate helplessness that very much are, and fight.

If this isn’t what he’s made for, then what is?

He can save so many lives with just a squeeze of his hand around the person in this creature’s neck.

The rain seems to be imitating grapeshot, ball bearings driven down with force, the sound of it almost drowning out the blood pounding in his ears. Lightning flashes, the thunder crashes, and Eren finds himself rising. There’s lightning in his blood, crackling through his muscles, and he thinks that if he doesn’t concentrate, doesn’t hold his anger in, his flesh will come apart around him. Somewhere, deep inside, he tastes blood in his mouth, and he feels the stranger in his head stir.

He will never have a better chance to pay for his existence in this world.

Something stops him.

Levi still hasn’t moved. Head full of violence and vision starting to bleeding red, Eren reaches through the roof and nudges him with his finger. Wake up. Fight with me. Watch me bleed and kill. Levi makes a barely conscious noise of protest — and stays curled up on the hay. His chest is moving, his skin is slick with sweat and warm to the touch —

His skin is warm.

It takes a moment for that to sink in. Levi’s skin feels warm to Eren, wrapped up in his titan flesh. His mad rush of thoughts hits a sudden block. The titans seem suddenly unimportant. How long has Levi been like this?

Eren catches movement in the corner of his eye, a five-meter class darting from behind the little mill. It jumps at him, he grabs it by the neck and squeezes — not now, fuck — and it shrieks out.

Rain amplifies sound. High on the hillside, the Beast Titan stops moving. Eren shuts up his attacker with a twist of his fingers — closing the gate after the horse bolted, his specialty.

The other titans gather around their master. Its silhouette remains motionless; Eren feels like he’s being examined. “Now,” it says, and he can’t help it, he freezes, “who are you?” Ymir can talk in her titan form, this shouldn’t unnerve him this much… He needs to make it stop.

There’s no pretending to be a mindless titan; he’s clearly been marked as a shifter. Eren points to his jaw and makes a helpless noise. With his other hand, he scoops Levi up as gently as he can when his body is still primed for battle. The fear is just fuel; he feels like his brain is fizzing.

It chuckles — the bastard chuckles like an indulgent uncle. “Let’s have a closer look at you, shall we?” Its hand moves — and the smaller titans explode into movement like a pack of hounds set loose by their master. “Fetch.”

If Eren could talk, he would be hurling insults. As it is, all he can do is screech and howl as he does what he does best. Titans the size of those attacking him are nothing, barely a danger. He removes a head with one kick, slams one titan into another — and they’re not what he wants.

Fetch me yourself, you fucking —

He cups Levi’s limp form against his chest, protecting him as best he can as he kicks and punches. The Beast Titan studies him, that smug, sick bastard.

— come over here and DIE!

His roar becomes an uncomfortable, discordant thing he can feel thrumming through every bone in his body, and he can tell it’s different even before the titans back away from him, all four survivors moving as one.

They rush toward the Ape —

— and stop dead in their tracks, twitching and shaking, as it holds up one hand.

“You… have my full attention,” it says.

Eren feels a weak flicker of movement in his hand. He sees other titans emerging from the wall of trees. He needs to get Levi out of their reach, somewhere safe where Eren can check his wounds and find out exactly what’s happening to him.

Word is, this titan climbs. Wall Maria won’t be much of a refuge if it gets to follow him.

Eren raises his hand, feeling like a fraud. Work for me, he prays silently.

For once, let the power come when he wants it.

He roars out —

DIE

— and, as the titans turn on the Ape, he plunges into the woods and runs.

Its soft laughter follows him.

Chapter Text

05 — The Light on the Wall

 

On the tallest tower of the high keep, Armin watches the dawn come.

Or attempts to. He can’t see that much as the world around him shifts from darker grey to lighter. The sky and the mountains are one grey block. The water around the castle merges with mist as thick as cotton wool, real clouds dropped from the sky to smother everything. Armin has a flare pistol tucked into his belt and a spyglass in his hand, and one is as useful as the other. How is he supposed to keep watch when he can barely see the riders coming back across the causeway?

From somewhere inside the fog come the bellowing and mooing of confused and upset cattle and the shouts of the soldiers engaged in corralling them, the sounds turned around by the damp air until they sound like they’re coming from every direction. Armin sighs and continues his quest for a good viewpoint that doesn’t have him leaning up against the crumbling battlements.

The mission is not going as well as originally expected. The odd thing to go in their favor — they found sheep and a herd of cattle grazing in the foothills, so they haven’t had to travel far from the castle yet — has been balanced out by the things that haven’t. The weather makes working at night incredibly difficult, and few of the soldiers have any experience rounding up cattle — especially cattle that are borderline wild, only the older members of the herd remembering humans. There have been accidents — a horse and rider caught by a landslide, another soldier thrown by his horse and trampled by the cattle, another taken by a titan still active long after nightfall — and they had to spend the last hours of yesterday re-rounding up their captives after one of the titans gathering on the lakeside during the day knocked over a fence. The plan was for a week at Ragis before a third of their number drove the cattle to Klorva District (and how will that work now, with the town abandoned to the sick and dying? Trost’s gates are sealed, and both it and Nedlay are too far to reach in one night) while the rest moved on to a fresh base further south among the orchards and vineyards of the “Fruit Bowl.” That plan is now looking over-optimistic.

The fog turns to rain — just drizzle, but it makes a sound like a child with a kettledrum on the few moss-free sections of the tower’s lead roof and stirs the surfaces of the puddles around him. Armin tugs his hood up and watches the activity on the causeway. He’s wet and cold, he’s worried about so many things, but if he let himself, he could like this. They’re between Wall Rose and Wall Maria, not actually out in the world, but they’re surviving among the titans.

See, Eren, we can do this.

The thought passes through his head before he can stop it. He screws his eyes shut and makes himself breathe as his chest tightens. Eren’s not dead, Armin knows it. He’s probably out there right now, trying to find a way back to them…

He wishes he could believe that. Eren came back to them on his own just once, in Trost, and Armin suspects even that was an accident. (After all, how could he get lost or captured in a Wall Town?) Every other time, someone had to chase after him — Mikasa and Captain Levi; the whole combined forces of Southern Wall Rose; Team Levi Mark Two (plus two scared MPs); Captain Levi again. Perhaps it’s Eren’s turn now, but Armin remembers his face when he saw Armin and Jean in the sandbag enclosure — and his voice when he told Armin to back off. Yeah, he has no faith in Eren making his own way back any time soon.

He supposes he can understand. He just doesn’t agree. At all.

“You’re too slow to keep out of my way when I fight.” Two days later, it still stings — as it was probably supposed to. Eren’s scared. And Armin doesn’t know whether he wants to hug him or try to land a few low blows of his own. He hunches down into his waterproof.

“We have to find you first,” he says to the cloud-smothered mountains —

— and jumps slightly as he hears movement behind him.

Even Mikasa can’t be stealthy with her leg in a cast. Armin doesn’t want to lecture her, he really doesn’t, but —

“You should be —”

She pushes past him. “I can’t do much until my leg heals.”

“That’s right.” He’s glad she acknowledges it. Of course, what she plans to do when she’s healed up can still worry him. Mikasa takes the spyglass from him, and Jean lounges in the doorway behind her and watches as she grabs a handful of Armin’s raincoat and shoves him firmly in his direction.

“So let me do what I can.”

“Yeah, she can watch the mountains and brood just as well as you can,” Jean says. “Oh, wait, I forgot — when it’s you it’s not ‘brooding’, it’s ‘thinking,’ right? Or ‘planning,’ which is even worse for the rest of us.” Armin opens his mouth to protest, sees Jean’s fond grin, and closes it again. Jean is still talking as he ushers him down the stairs. “They’re serving up breakfast — or should I call it supper? Whatever Sasha seems to think, beef stew is not breakfast food.”

“Perhaps not, but are you really going to complain about it?” Armin asks. He’s used to thinking of meat as a flavoring rather than an ingredient — actual chunks of steak in stew are an amazing luxurious novelty.

“I never liked beef much anyway. Thinking about it, child me had great taste. I didn’t have to meet any cattle to know that even their meat was vicious and untrustworthy.” Jean ignores Armin’s baffled look and marches out into the great hall.

“What —”

“Oi, Survey Corps boy!” one of the Garrison soldiers shouts. “How exactly do them udders feel close up? They feel good against your face?”

The men around him burst out laughing, and Jean’s face goes scarlet. “Don’t ask,” he says between gritted teeth, and he picks his way through the crowded hall to the cooks and their serving dishes with his back set straight with exaggerated dignity.

“I’ll get the story from Connie,” Armin says when they’ve retreated to their squad’s little territory, a patch of bedrolls cordoned off from the rest of the hall by an unsteady wall of saddlebags. They picked their spot well — two days of rain and the bedrolls aren’t even damp.

“He wasn’t there,” Jean says triumphantly, and Armin realizes that he hasn’t seen Connie and Sasha since coming down from the roof. Over in his corner, Jean’s new friend dangles a glove in front of his face and pretends to kiss it.

“On the one hand, whatever happened, you’re not going to live it down soon. On the other… at least they’re not telling ghost stories?”

Jean huffs and scowls. “Jean Kirchstein, morale-raiser — that’s me. I preferred the ghost stories.”

Armin didn’t. The talk of curses and ghosts were inevitable, of course, when the first thing they had to do when they got into the castle was to deal with the remains of its former inhabitants. But it’s frustrating; all of their bad luck so far, with the possible exception of the abnormal attack on the first night — which has thankfully not been repeated — can be traced back to the bad weather, and they don’t have any idea how the last Ragis folk died, so why make up stories that can only lower morale?

Far better that they laugh at Jean; he can take it.

He spots Sasha and Connie coming through the main doors and something relaxes a little inside him. Sasha waves at him.

“I’m so tired!” she shouts. “I could sleep for days!” She shakes out her waterproof, prompting curses and movement from the soldiers around her; Armin’s never seen anyone clear a path through the hall so easily.

“Where were you two?”

“Seeing how far we could track Eren,” Connie says, as if it should be obvious.

“It’s no good,” Sasha says, plunking herself down next to Armin, muddy waterproof and all. “The rain’s too heavy. All it’s left us are some branches that could have been broken by any titan and some footprint-shaped puddles that are deeper than other footprint-shaped puddles.” She snatches the bowl and spoon from his unresisting fingers and starts to shovel the stew into her mouth. “And even they run out at the bottom of the dam,” she manages between chews. “I wish we had some better signs — blood, or hair, or —”

“Sasha.”

Sasha looks at Jean, then at Armin. “What?”

Jean’s got a fantastically mobile face; Armin’s memorized what feels like hundreds of his facial expressions, and he still keeps surprising him with new ones. The one he’s got on his face right now is a beauty.

“Thanks for trying,” Armin says.

“Don’t make this weird,” Connie says. “We just had to give it a go, right?” He rubs his head — then straightens up and leers at Jean. “Sooooo, talking of weird, I just got told the best story. Mooooo.

Jean shoots to his feet as if he’s been bitten. “You would think it’s funny, farmboy. I bet you learned to ride on a cow.” He rolls his eyes at Connie’s snigger, and leans over to catch Armin’s arm. “Can I talk to you? In private.”

“Private” means outside, apparently, on the steps winding down around the crag to the lower bailey.

“Eren’s not dead,” Jean says carefully.

“Of course he’s not.” Armin concentrates on keeping his footing on the wet steps. “We’d know if he were eaten in the fight. If there were a traumatized new shifter out there, with the number of people riding around this district over the last two nights, we would have found them by now.”

Jean stares at him. “That’s cold,” he says, and Armin doesn’t know quite how to respond to that. It’s close to the same logic that he presented to Captain Levi last time, when no one else would listen, in the desperate gamble that there was even a hint of a warm spot for Eren hidden away in the man. It’s a sign of how impeccable it is that he got to watch the Captain’s eyes light up, dull to flashing — not the cold fish he liked to pretend to be, not at all — and finally understood just how Eren, who’s all warm spot, could be so passionately invested in his good opinion. It’s not cold at all. It’s hopeful.

“Is that what you got me out here for?” he says, harder than intended. A group of wet and hungry soldiers rush past on their way up to the keep. Jean pulls him closer against the rock, taking a dump of rainwater down the collar without complaint.

“I’ve been thinking —” Armin feels his mouth twitch; Jean grimaces and knocks into him with his shoulder. “Laugh it up, asshole,” he says. “You’re as bad as Connie.”

Armin does smile then, despite himself. “Ouch.”

“I have many deep and intellectual thoughts.”

“I know. You’re a philosopher.”

“I’m glad you get it.” Jean flashes him a grin, for a moment there summoning up a heart-stopping echo of the brittle, cocksure boy Armin remembers from Training, then sobers up. “I’ve been thinking — if I was Eren and a fifteen-meter-tall murder giant, what would I do? Mikasa’s injured — because of Eren, let’s face it — and Connie swears he saw Captain Levi eaten… ”

“Do you think Eren will see that as his fault too?”

Jean slumps against the cliff and turns his face up into the rain. “This is Eren,” he says. “Everything is his fault, even when it’s not. Only this time, it kind of is.”

“We have no idea how many extra people would have died if he hadn’t transformed. The whole expedition could have been destroyed —”

“I’m not blaming him! I’m just bitching —” He stops, realizes what he’s said and sighs. “I still can’t believe it,” he murmurs. “I thought that guy was unkillable.”

Nobody is unkillable, Armin could say, but he keeps it to himself. Jean knows that well enough already. He joins him in a moment’s silence, the rain pattering down around them. Laughter rings out from down by the causeway. Somewhere high above them, up among the castle turrets, a lone bird is singing, undeterred by the rain. Captain Levi was a remarkable man, and Armin was lured into total confidence in him as much as Jean was. But nobody is unkillable. Everyone dies.

“I’m trying to imagine you trying to imagine yourself as Eren,” he says. “Did you manage it?”

“Well, I don’t know what it’s like to be a suicidal bastard, or so big headed, but being scared to lose any more people I care about?” Jean shoots him a crooked smile. “Yeah, I can manage that. If he’s not wandering lost in the mountains, he’ll be on his way to Shiganshina. He doesn’t actually need us to close up the hole or check out the basement — he can do it all on his own without risking anyone else.” Armin doesn’t know what expression he’s got on his face, but Jean puts up his hands as if to ward him off. “I’m just trying to get inside Eren’s thick head. Tell me I’m wrong if you want.”

“I don’t think you’re wrong.” He just wishes he were. “It’s the conclusion I came too.”

Jean stares at Armin with narrowed eyes, and if he’s trying to work out what he’s thinking he should just stop, because Armin’s been working on his poker face, he really has, and — “Shows you who his favorite is,” Jean says eventually, his tone casual and his eyes never leaving Armin’s face. “He didn’t tell me to stay out of his way or I’d get killed. I’m hurt.”

And you never stop surprising me, Armin thinks. He forcibly ungrits his teeth. “I think he meant it for everyone,” he says tightly, and starts off down the stairs.

“Ah, he does care!” Jean follows him. “Seriously, though — he’s an idiot, with the social skills of a rabid badger, but… I saw him in Utopia, you saw him in Utopia.”

“Yes, I did! And that’s why we need to figure out what went wrong there! How are we supposed to do that without Eren? What if he loses control again while he’s out there by… himself… ” Armin stops and stares — then starts running, taking the steps two at a time and praying he doesn’t slip.

The buildings huddled around the base of the crag are in no better condition than the keep on top, but they’ve been pressed into use as stables and storehouses for everything that even a titan smart enough to get across the causeway and over the lower wall wouldn’t be interested in… including the messenger pigeons that are their only way to keep Pixis and Commander Erwin informed on their progress. Armin isn’t sure what exactly he caught sight of in the doorway to the tumbledown building that’s the pigeons’ home for the week, they were visible only for a second, but it really looked like two soldiers grappling together…

“Armin!” He hears Jean splashing down the stairs after him. “What the hell?”

If the people he saw are lovers using the pigeon coop for an assignation, he’ll be so embarrassed.

And so relieved.

He dodges past a group of soldiers coming out of the stables. What is he going to do if they’re not lovers, if one man was trying to kill the other? He hasn’t got a weapon on him, he’s no good at hand-to-hand fighting — so what is he going to do? Try to talk to them until Jean catches up?

He feels the breath catch in his chest and that old familiar frustration rise inside him.

The flare pistol digs into his back. He tugs it free as he rushes up to the open doorway.

And a man charges out.

In the split second before he crashes into Armin and bowls him aside, Armin notes blond and grey stubble and wild eyes, bruises and scratches on his face and Garrison badge on his raincoat, dark liquid smeared across its front. The other man is on the floor, blood splattered around him —

“Stop!”

The fleeing man sees Jean and veers away.

And Armin shoots him with the flare gun.

Or he tries to. It’s not as accurate as a pistol. The flare bursts against the man’s arm, flames rushing across his raincoat. “Stop him!” he shouts as the escapee stumbles, discards his coat and runs. Jean doesn’t hesitate, just charges off after him, and Armin thanks him under his breath as he turns his attention to the man in the building, tearing off his own coat and bundling it up. He could be too late. “Someone help me! Get a medic!”

The man’s chest is still moving, his fingers pressed into his neck. Armin wraps his coat around the wound and helps with the pressure.

There’s so much blood, streaked across the floor, pooling under his knees. He wheezes and gasps over his patient, feels tears prickle at his eyes. Some cold part of his brain starts a countdown. “There’s an injured man here!” he shouts. The pigeons flutter wildly in their cages, and he’s no expert but he’s never heard the birds make noises like that before. “Please!” There are bits of broken glass on the floor, like the remains of a medicine bottle.

His brain is whirling. A fellow soldier is dying under his hands and all he can think of is three evenings ago, at the camp, and the white flare that began the Orvud Garrison assault. He wants to ask this man so many questions — did you know that guy, how did you catch him poisoning the messenger pigeons, was it accident or a falling out of conspirators? — but he'll never get the chance now...

He’s dimly aware of people moving around him, gently unlocking his grip and moving him out of the way. Jean’s there, helping him wipe the blood off his hands. “I lost him, sorry.”

“So did I,” Armin hears himself say.

Eren’s would-be kidnapper had an accomplice, of course he did. And they weren’t there among the soldiers waiting for Eren; he was just a sudden opportunity or possibly even a unwelcome problem to be dealt with. Armin always thought the kidnapping attempt was rushed and clumsy.

So why were they inserted into the mission?

One of the medics shakes her head. The pigeons have all fallen quiet. Silent…

“I am loyal,” the traitor said. “I’m a soldier.”

“In a world where that thing was safely contained, I’d get to go over the wall and die alongside my comrades.”

Armin rubs at his stinging eyes. It takes him two attempts to talk around the lump in his throat. “I think we’ve got a problem.”

***

The titan moves like a guard dog. Eren slips back into the trees as it pauses on the other side of the river, so alert it should be vibrating and so eager it should have a tail to wag. It swings open a jaw like a largemouth bass, tasting the air, and Eren hunches down low, as if the undergrowth is any shield for him in this form. He gets hold of a low-handing branch and gently pulls it down in front of him, wet bracken and dead wood crunching beneath his knees.

Fifteen meters tall and if the other titan is a dog, he’s a rabbit hiding from it. Only he has less chance of blending in with his surroundings.

He’s doing exactly what he planned. He’s not here to fight. But with every one of these bastards he has to avoid, he gets hotter, dizzier, more humiliated. The forest and foothills around Strokirch District are full of the Ape’s patrolling guard dogs, mad-eyed abnormals who move like a cross between soldiers and wolves. They’re searching for Eren himself, they must be — and he wants to fight every single fucking one of them.

Another titan moves in the forest behind the Beast’s dog, and it takes Eren all his self-control not let the branch snap back as they stomp off together, leaving him finally free to move.

He curses the titans and the wet forest and Levi’s wounds and his own weakness and the Ape for existing and then himself all over again. He curses the people who closed the gates behind them as they left their town but took all the food and medical supplies. He curses the animals who refuse to trigger his traps, the brambles that are bare of berries, the “egg mushrooms” he picked before realizing they were actually poisonous jack o’lanterns. A tree dumps water on him as he pushes past it and he curses that too as the steam billows from his skin. He seethes, he fumes — and he drops to his knees by the river, because he’s out here for a reason, and it’s not to pick fights with the forest, however irritating it might be.

The weighted line he set the evening before is still there. The hooks spin on the line as he pulls it up, bait untouched… just like the ones he tried in the town. He discards the bait and rolls up and stows the line as carefully as he can with titan-sized fingers. Eren isn’t the most expert fisherman, but he’s never known night lines be so unsuccessful. Are the fish of the Esen so cautious?

Fortunately his traps on land yielded two rabbits, and his patched-together kitbag — almost as big as Eren’s human form but hopefully not too big to be carried by it — now also holds stinging nettles and a big fat cauliflower fungus — no mistaking that thing for anything else — beside the few precious bits of dry firewood. He’ll eat, if not well.

So will Levi, if he can get him conscious long enough.

He hears a crash from behind him — something doing what he wanted to to the crowding, smothering trees. Eren crouches on the riverbank for a long time, staring into the forest, waiting, ready for whatever it is to show itself.

It doesn’t. Eren stands, every sense on high alert. He can’t hear anything but water dripping and leaves rustling, can’t see anything in the dark forest but a wall of trees: oak and ash and birch and pine, living trees, fallen trees, moss-covered stumps of trees half hidden by ferns, tree roots bursting up through the ground and twisted about with briars.

According to Sasha, there’s no forest inside the walls untouched by humans. Everywhere gets used, managed, even the old forest surrounding the training barracks, wild and forbidding as it seemed to the city and farm kids. The woods in the stories passed around the campfire are always deep and dark and ready to swallow a human whole; the woods in reality are penetrated daily by hunters and woodsmen, foragers and herders, miners and charcoal burners. As he picks his way awkwardly between the few gaps big enough for his titan form, Eren wonders what she’d think of this. Is this really just five years of no humans to clear away deadfall and graze their animals on the undergrowth?

He’s aiming for Wall Maria, but the trees are taller than him here and he can’t see it. And he knows how easy it is to get turned around in the woods. Once, out on a training march, he got separated from his team for half an hour until he was recovered by a sweaty and cursing Shadis. In all his life, that was the furthest he’s ever been from other human beings. Even in the cells, there were guards at the door.

He remembers how lonely and vulnerable he felt then. He’s not much better now.

He’s pushing too hard, and his body is pushing back. He’s weaker now than when he ran from the Ape, when he climbed Wall Maria and clawed his way free of his titan, kneeling and immobile on the overgrown parade ground of Strokirch Garrison HQ. There was blood in his mouth as he kept himself moving, blood trickling from his nose and eyes and ears as he dragged both Levi and his own uncooperating body into the dust-choked infirmary. He’s barely slept since, barely eaten, and he can feel his own weakness bleeding out into his titan now.

It’s humiliating. He ran and hid, and he’s still hiding now.

The hair on the back of his neck — both necks — stands on end; Eren turns quickly, his heart in his mouth, so sure he’ll find something standing behind him.

Maybe when he gets out of this forest, he’ll manage to be amused by his jumpiness, but it’s not happening now. He puts out a hand to shove aside a branch —

— and finds himself touching wire.

It’s brown with rust but still sharp in places, strung through the trees at maneuver gear height. Eren runs his fingers along it and looks for the other traps.

Which is how he finds the watchtower.

He could have walked right past so easily and not seen it, it’s so covered in greenery. Eren scrapes off moss and clinging ivy from the rotting, listing structure, and is only mildly surprised to find a pair of mortars mounted on it. A watchtower in the middle of a forest, miles from anywhere or anything, why wouldn’t it have almost two hundred kilos of artillery perched on top of it, aimed into the trees?

More rotten wood crunches beneath his feet, not fallen branches but long logs, shaped and sharpened. They’re everywhere, some still upright and fixed so solidly into the ground that a casual push from his titan body won’t move them, others broken and splintered and half buried by the undergrowth. Eren imagines them intact, a strong stockade disappearing off into the woods at either side of him, the watchtower inside it. So where he’s standing now would have been inside the fence, back before it was demolished? But that doesn’t make sense at all, because he’s spent the night wandering in these woods and not seen any other parts of the stockade. Was it such a long fence? And why would Strokirch District need defending from the rest of Western Wall Maria?

Not that it matters now. Whatever the fence was for, the titans destroyed it.

Eren orients himself by using two of the strongest-looking trees to hoist himself up and stick his head out above the canopy. Even with low clouds concealing parts of it, as landmarks go, Wall Maria is unmissable.

The trees really can’t support his weight; he hears the crackling of splintering wood and jumps down before they break under him. And drops straight into a fighting stance.

The little titan — three-meter class, no more — clings to the watchtower, putting the lattice of wood between itself and Eren. Even for a titan, it’s grotesque — long bony fingers, bugged-out eyes and slimy, shiny skin that looks like it’s melting and re-forming at the same time. Eren stares at it, unmoving, and it looks back impassively with its big watery eyes. The flesh of its cheek slips away, giving him a glimpse of its needle-like teeth before the steam pours out of the wound, which is already starting to rot as it heals.

That was a person once. The thought slips into his mind, pointless and unwanted, as he turns his back on it and lopes off through the woods.

*

Strokirch District is locked up tight, its gates lowered and secured, Wall Maria tall and unbroken around it. Eren finds the “rib” of the wall he climbed when he first got here, two nights before, tired and desperate and pathetically grateful for his new power as crystal formed around his fingertips… but not so desperate he’d put holes in the main body of the wall to climb it. Because he remembers — will never forget — what happened when Annie did that. Now he’s careful to distribute his weight as evenly as possible as he clambers up and over to relative safety, fingers and toes searching out the holes.

Sometimes he has nightmares about what might have happened next, if Mikasa hadn't been there to notice the crack.

His awareness of the sheer scale and weight of the walls around him is like an actual physical sensation as he drops down into the town, pressing down on his shoulders, closing up his throat. He chokes, drops to his knees — and the world splits into two, every sense doubled and dizzying as his neck opens and flesh peels away around him.

As a little kid, he always feared and hated the walls. There’s no satisfaction at all in the world proving him right.

Eren tears free of nerves and tendons, making himself small again. His human limbs are leaden and clumsy as he crawls free of the steaming titan. The air is clean and fresh and the rain cold and reviving, but his lungs burn and pain pounds through his head as he forces himself to stand, staggers toward the oversized kitbag. He’s packed it too full, he’s never going to be able to drag that —

He stops.

The sun is bright on his face. Strokirch District has always been a quieter place than his adopted hometown of Shiganshina, but today the streets are filled with people — half of whom seem to want to shake his hand. He feels a squirming weight on his back, the other hero of the hour getting restless. His son is really too old for piggyback rides, but today he deserves it.

A small hand is shoved in front of his face, waving a marzipan horse. “Why did you pick this one? It’s the ugliest one. You couldn’t ride outside the walls on a horse like this — look at its neck.”

The horse isn’t very well molded, it’s true — it has oversized ears and its neck is as long as its body. That’s why he chose it. “Its parents and grandparents were desperate to get to the juiciest young leaves on the tops of trees, so they stretched out their necks, and stretched out their necks — and were trapped that way. And their foals were born just like them.”

There’s silence from behind him as the story is digested. “Horses don’t eat leaves.”

He laughs. “They can, if they want. These ones like leaves a lot.”

The horse disappears, comes back — minus its head and neck. “I fixed it,” Eren says, around a mouthful of marzipan, and he feels his heart swell —

— and Eren stands in the middle of the street, stock still as the rain runs down his neck and soaks through his clothes. He remembers that day… if not as sharply as his father seemed to. His stomach turns — then he’s on his knees, retching as if he’s actually got something to throw up.

He remembers seeing his own titan form, its hand reaching toward him —

Eren swears and lurches to his feet. The Ape is clearly planning something. Levi is sick and needs his help. He doesn’t have time to think about this now.

He’ll never have time to think about it.

He slings the rope of the kitbag over his shoulder and trudges off through the rain-soaked streets as fast as his tired body will allow him. He does have some of his own memories of Strokirch District, and he hates that they seem to be more fragmented and less vividly colored than his father’s — crushing disappointment at the town being just a smaller version of Shiganshina, pride that he could do something none of the adults could, and a little girl, ash white and fragile, who seemed to Eren to be more ghost than person, sticking her tongue out at him while blood moved through the tube connecting them and Eren’s father lectured a couple of horrified Garrison doctors on its different types.

“You can give anyone your blood,” his father said to him. “Why should I want to?” was his child self’s reply. And his child self was baffled by his father’s laughter. Of course he didn’t want to give everyone his blood. What if they didn’t deserve it?

Eren doesn’t remember the little girl’s name, but he does remember telling her pompously not to waste it. Now he hopes she’s had a chance to do just that — just as long as both she and it didn’t end up in a titan’s stomach.

He doubts more-vivid memories of the town in better days would make it any less strange and uncomfortable now. Sometime in the past five years, a fire turned a whole section of buildings into blackened skeletal shapes, stopped only by gaps made of collapsed houses on two sides and streets on the other two. It’s all wrapped in plant life now, lush tangled barricades of ivy and brambles, trembling delicate fans of ferns and butterfly bushes with their heavy purple heads nodding in the rain. Muddy water fills the potholes and old wheel ruts, making a river system in miniature among the packed-earth streets’ new covering of rain-crushed grass and clover and foot-clutching fireweed.

As Eren splashes through it, dragging his bag of precious supplies, he feels the hairs on the back of his neck tickle. He can’t shake the idea that he’s got eyes on him, hostile ones, that every grime-streaked window, every open doorway and shadowed, bramble-choked side street hides someone — or something — watching him from the dark. Animals, perhaps, sheltering from the rain in the abandoned buildings, or more ghosts than any district so untouched by the titans should have.

Strokirch is deserted but not surrendered, a miraculous refuge, a safe place for Eren to tend Levi’s wounds and lick at his own, secure behind unmarked walls. When he first set eyes on the closed gates and realized what it meant, he’d become so unused to good fortune he struggled to believe it. So why, two nights later, does he still not feel safe here?

Even the Garrison complex feels strange. Eren is used to buildings like this — the windowless solidity of the artillery magazine, the stark simplicity of the storerooms, barracks and ablution blocks, the headquarters building with its tall, elegant windows, all set neatly around a small parade ground — but, stripped of the bustle and industry, of all the human beings packed into such close quarters and expected to exist like the cogs of a clock, they’re a body completely drained of its blood. Nature’s started to recolonize here, too, sending long fingers of greenery over the previously smart buildings and turning the parade ground back into a meadow.

He hears Levi before he gets to the infirmary block, his raised voice a flicker of life among all the dripping, empty buildings, and forces his tired body to move faster. For a moment, he lets himself imagine that the infection has cleared itself up, the fever burnt away, and Levi has woken up, clear headed and healthy and pissed as hell at finding himself tied to a bed.

The hope evaporates as he pushes through the infirmary doors.

Levi’s fighting, struggling enough to make the bedframe scrape against the tile floor, but there’s nothing clear headed about him. He’s flushed red, sweat slick on his skin and darkening the sheets twisted up around him. His breath is ragged and rapid.

Eren dumps his supplies on the floor, everything — firewood and honey, mushrooms and pine needles and hard-won rabbit — seeming suddenly inessential.

Levi was like this for most of yesterday, his extreme fever joined by a racing pulse and delirious rambling. The fever did seem to lessen before Eren ventured out, down from a frankly terrifying peak that had him frantically checking Levi’s head wound as if he could possibly tell from outside his skull if his brain were drowning in his own blood inside it. He would never have left him like this…

He gets the dying fire stoked up and shoves the kettle onto its hook, gets his knife out and hacks up another sheet for bandages. He mixes up some of the boric acid “Eye Wash” with the boiled water, sterilizes his knife… tries not to panic…

“What —”

Levi shifts on the bed, and Eren tells himself that the delirium, both mumbling incoherence and violent raving, is less scary than total unconsciousness would be.

“What are you… hiding… from me?”

He’s not convinced.

Levi surges upright as far as he can, eyes wide open and face distorted with anger. “When have I ever been fucking impartial, you sanctimonious fucking asshole? And has it ever fucking mattered? Are you going to look me in the eye now and tell me they don’t have a single piece of his corpse? You ordered Hange to ‘let them be.’ You going to try that with me?”

The iron bedstead shakes and clinks as he collapses back down, chest heaving. Eren approaches with caution. Trying Levi down was a precaution against him hurting himself or Eren — again, because he got in a lucky headbutt yesterday evening — but even weakened by the fever, he’s managed to bend the bedframe and tug the cotton ties so tightly he’s torn the skin on his wrists. “Orders for show…” he murmurs, his voice painfully bleak, “fucking politics… those pigs can kiss my ass, get their tongues right into the crack… I need a better reason than politics… give me a better reason… make me abandon you and I’ll never fucking forgive you… ” His eyes, heavy lidded and glazed, find Eren, but is he actually seeing him? “Eight out of ten Survey Corps dead end up titan vomit rather than ashes,” he says, loud and clear now like he’s briefing a team. “Sometimes you just can’t retrieve the bodies. But that’s outside the walls. I don’t care what those fuckers are doing with Eren’s corpse. They could be trying to cure every disease known to man. I don’t fucking care.

If Eren had any shame, he would gag him, or plug up his own ears, because between the rambled philosophical asides and disjointed lectures on knife handling and the harsh quickfire rattle of what he thinks is Sina thieves’ cant come moments like this, when Levi’s voice is raw and open and Eren leans forward helplessly to listen. He feels like a voyeur and a creep as low as Spyhole Charlie, king of the Training camp privy block. He wishes Levi would shut up. He wishes Levi would stick to the philosophy.

They can’t keep him… I won’t leave them a single bone to fuck themselves with…”

He memorizes every snippet he’s given.

Levi flips an internal page; the script changes. “It smells like someone shat themselves to death in here.” His fists clench. Eren watches the muscles in his forearms tighten and the iron bars he’s tied to give way just a little more. “I’m suffocating.”

“Captain?”

“Hey,” Levi says, just the softest puff of breath. There’s something lurking in his glassy eyes — something wary and feral and vulnerable enough to make the hairs on the back of Eren’s neck stand on end. Where does he think he is? Who does he think Eren is?

“I need to change your bandages.” Eren watches Levi warily as he puts the bowl of antiseptic on the dressing trolley with the rest of his mismatched supplies. If the sound of the trolley wheels rattling across the tiled floor sends a jolt of adrenaline up his spine, so does the way Levi kicks the blanket off his feet and slumps back, his breathing shallow and labored, his eyes shut and his legs sprawling wide, the baggy pants of the pajamas Eren “requisitioned” for him sliding down over his hipbones. Eren’s tense as he leans over Levi —

— which is how he isn’t taken completely by surprise as Levi snaps his legs up around him. He throws his shoulders back, grabs at Levi’s thigh as it crashes into his neck with bruising force, tries to get his other arm free before Levi gets his legs locked into position —

Levi can’t get a perfect chokehold on him with his hands tied, Eren knows that, but it doesn’t stop the rush of panic as his face is mashed into his bicep and his shoulder driven up into his neck. Levi’s thigh muscles are like steel cable, and any other time Eren might really appreciate that, but where the hell is he finding this strength and why isn’t he fucking using it to fight off the infection?

“Sorry!” he gasps as he gets his foot into Levi’s armpit and tries to lever himself free, his vision already greying out at the edges. “Sorry!” as he jabs his elbow into Levi’s wound. “Sorrysorrysorry,” as Levi’s eyes fly open, his chin goes back, his lips part. He doesn’t make a single sound as both the strength and what is currently passing for consciousness leaves him in a rush and Eren says “Sorry” again as he unhooks Levi’s suddenly loose legs from around his neck. And he’s sorry that his cock’s straining at his pants, sorry that he couldn’t help breathing in deep, sorry that he’s probably going to remember this longer than he should.

He takes his chance to check Levi’s shoulder, in case all his thrashing has popped it out again or even loosened the cloth Eren used to strap it up. It hasn’t. The gash on his head is healing well, the bump under it greatly reduced. He grits his teeth before starting to unwind the bandages around Levi’s torso.

In some ways, it’s good that Levi is away somewhere in his own head. He’d hate that any part of him smelled like this.

When Eren got Levi here the evening before last, dragging him into the dusty, silent room as Eren’s own limbs shook with fatigue and blood poured from his nose, he had no idea the size of the battle he was taking on. He cut away Levi’s bandages to find puffed-up, angry-looking flesh, gunk oozing between the stitches and, worst of all, proof that it was all his fault in the tiny scrap of fabric he found embedded in him when he reopened the wound to clean it out. Because Eren fucked up when originally stitching him up — he should never have let Levi push him into it in those conditions — and now they both have to deal with it.

He uses the antiseptic to clean away as much of the new putrefaction as he can, then takes his knife to the dead flesh with a growing sense of despair. It’s possible he could hack away half of Levi’s torso and not get rid of the infection. If it’s gotten into his blood, everything he’s doing to the wound is as pointless as scrubbing the privy seat while the tank is overflowing.

Eren could scream, just howl uselessly into the night like a trapped animal.

He brought Levi here to the infirmary in the expectation that there would be medical supplies. The Garrison doctors couldn’t have taken everything with them when they evacuated, right? He was so wrong. All he found was a scattering of random equipment, no scalpels or saws, no syringes, and, most importantly, no drugs. Yesterday afternoon, barely conscious and driven by an urge he didn’t fully understand, Eren stumbled through the barracks and the streets around them, and he now has a fine collection of mold samples… and whatever he’s supposed to accomplish with them, he does know they’re not growing fast enough to be any use to Levi.

Apart from the mold, all he’s got is what he scavenged back at the farmhouse, and even his father couldn’t do much with that. If he could, Eren would let him — he’d watch his father’s death play out behind his eyes a hundred times if Eren taking in all his memories and knowledge would save Levi’s life.

But he can’t, it won’t. Whatever he does, it’s not enough.

Pain pounds against the inside of his skull. He tastes the sharp metallic tang of blood in his throat, and he sways forward, groping for his nose, watching as if from a great, dizzy distance as his blood drips onto Levi’s skin and into his wound. He scrunches up a cloth and scrubs at his face. He needs to eat and sleep himself, it’s non-negotiable.

It’s also impossible. He hasn’t got the time.

His hands shake as he ties the new dressing. The sheer heat of Levi’s skin beneath his fingers remains a new and horribly alien sensation to him and Eren slops water on his feet as he snatches up the cloth from the washbowl and starts to run it over him. Chest, neck, face. His mind is whirling and there’s something hot and terrified and many legged trying to claw its way up into his throat.

It’s not enough.

“I don’t know what to do,” he says, the words tumbling out of his mouth. He touches Levi’s face, follows the cloth with his fingers, smooths the beads of water across his skin as they disappear too fast. Levi mumbles something into the cloth as it passes over his lips, and Eren just wants to tell him to stop playing games. You’re supposed to be the strongest of us. Don’t leave me. Stop dying. He mashes his own face into the side of Levi’s as if that will stop the words coming, somehow keep his weakness inside instead of gasped into Levi’s temple. “Please. I don’t know —”

Levi moves then, just a centimeter or so. Away from Eren.

“I’m sorry,” he breathes, and Eren’s heart misses a beat. “I… couldn’t… protect you.”

Eren tries to smile and feels like he’ll choke on it, the creature in his throat gone heavy and cold. He lays the wet cloth across Levi’s forehead and watches him lift his face into it, just a glint of silvery irises between his interlaced lashes. “Are you even talking to me right now?” How many people might Levi want to say that to? None that are alive to hear it, that’s for sure. Thick strands of his dark hair are caught beneath the cloth; Eren frees them with his fingertips and finds himself smoothing the damp fall of Levi’s hair up away from his face and the shaved sides of his head. “I could tell you the same. Nothing I try works. You just keep getting worse and I —”

“— it makes me sure I’m human,” Levi tells him, “as if I need reminding of that…” He tugs on his bindings, and one of the metal bars bends just enough to slip out of the frame. Eren catches it, pulls it free of the cotton; Levi isn’t making any attempt to attack him with his newly freed hand, so he takes a chance, takes his knife to the other strip of cloth… and his heart stops as he feels Levi’s breath on his ear. But it isn’t followed by the feel of Levi’s teeth, just another mumbled mess of a sentence, and Eren’s heart lurches back into motion. He wonders if he should’ve gagged him instead, but it’s too late now — Eren listened, he knows, he’s never going to forget.

Captain Levi is an unstoppable force, the embodiment of humanity’s potential strength and will, intimidating and unfaltering and magnificent… the sudden aching sympathy Eren feels for him is so uncomfortable and wrong. So is the desperate, pounding-pulse sense of recognition, worse even than when Levi described the air outside the walls, his eyes hot and the tiniest flicker of wonder slipping into his matter-of-fact voice. It’s a seductive, terrifying feeling — arrogant as hell. Who is he to decide he has anything in common with Levi?

He cuts the ties from Levi’s wrists, helps him to drink some water.

Is it some kind of consolation that he would likely take Eren’s pity as seriously as he does his lust? If it is, it stings.

“Even a rat can claw through a wall,” Levi says, “if you give him enough time.” As muttered asides from delirious men go, it’s pretty solid advice — if not very usable right at this moment. “But we left them.” His fingers close around Eren’s wrist. “They all died.” And he’s probably no longer talking about rats.

The rain and clouds flatten and diffuse what little light they let through. If the sun is rising in the sky, Eren has no evidence of it. Noon passes without him knowing, the world outside the windows gets darker, and he sits on a hard metal chair by Levi’s bedside, unsleeping and anxious. He gets him to drink again; runs the damp cloth over his face and neck and chest and stomach as his temperature soars and he drops into deep unconsciousness; changes his dressings; worries; watches…

…drops off to sleep.

Eren snaps awake with Levi’s thigh against his cheek and the smell of the laboratory cell in his nostrils.

For weeks, months, after the fall of Wall Maria, he woke up sure that he was in his own bed, that his mother was preparing breakfast and their neighbors were gossiping between themselves outside the house as they queued for his father’s morning surgery. The reality was always quick to assert itself — the moldy blanket and stone floor of the refugee holding area in Trost or the prickly, lice-infested straw mattress he got at the labor camp, an empty belly or gruel to look forward to, the sounds of human misery to wake him — but not quick enough, and he found himself suffering Shiganshina’s ruin, his mother’s death and his father’s abandonment as new, painful wounds every morning.

This is the same cruel trick of his brain — but this time it makes him believe he’s still in the cell, tubes in his arms and belly and throat, cuffs on his wrists and ankles, metal table at his back, masked figures leaning over him, opening his guts to the cold air —

Reality asserts itself, but not quickly enough.

He takes a deep breath and straightens his back, trying to slow his heartbeat.

Gloom gathers in the corners of the big room. The rain patters against its tall windows. Eren’s not in the cell.

And rescuing him from it didn’t do Levi much good in the end, did it?

Almost against his will, Eren finds his eyes being drawn back to the twisted scrawl of red lines and blotches spilling out from beneath the dressing, bruise-dark and horrible against Levi’s ash-white skin. He has cleansed and debrided and cleansed and dressed and done it all over again, and he can still smell the decay.

He resterilizes his knife, prepares some more antiseptic. This time Levi doesn’t fight Eren as he unwraps his wound. He lies there unconscious and burning hot to touch, his only movement the heaving of his chest as his lungs struggle to take in air.

When Eren’s father was trying to explain “blood rot” to his eight-year-old son, he told him a story of soldiers with cannon trying to take out titans inside a town and destroying the buildings in the process. The buildings here are Levi’s flesh and internal organs, the cannon his own immune system, and the pus Eren cleans from Levi’s wound is the least of their problems now. If his lungs are failing, what’s happening to the rest of his body?

Levi is going to die in front of him all over again, he realizes, and this time there is nothing he can do.

No amount of anger can fix this, no amount of wanting.

He moves the cloth gently, and he’s done it so often, it’s become so automatic, that he almost misses something very important.

The wound is a long one, only deep in the middle. The shallowest part of it is the length that slashes up over his ribs, which, apart from a few cracks, did exactly what they’re meant to and protected his delicate heart and lungs. That section of the wound has no new decay. That section of the wound is pink and clean. That section of the wound is… starting to heal? Eren stares at it and tries frantically to remember if he did anything different with that bit.

His head gives a warning throb — and he remembers blood dripping from his nose.

Perhaps in other circumstances he might think about this more, might dismiss it as a coincidence or eject one of the mold cultures from its petri dish so he can test the idea out. As it is, he’s desperate enough to bite his hand, driving his teeth in deep like he’s summoning up the rest of his body. He lets the blood drip onto the wound, bites down again and again as his hand heals and the flow stops. He finds himself shaking. And this is stupid, he’s probably mistaken, why would this work, why would this body of his be good for something other than fighting —

In the tales his mother told, a brave child could trade kindness for a witch’s favor — an unexpected gift for an unexpected gift, like for like. In old Grandpa Arlert’s books, the trades were different: aristocrats gave all their wealth for one perfect jewel and desperate men pulled teeth from their own mouths to exchange for curses.

His mother chose to die so that Eren and Mikasa could escape. Ymir swapped her freedom for Historia’s safety. Like for like, just like in the stories. Eren would give his life here and now, without hesitating, if there were someone to take it, some way to make the trade.

Steam rises from his bloody hand. Levi’s abraded wrists have left red smudges on the sheets.

Like for like…

It doesn’t quite work, Eren decides as he gathers up what he needs. A bit of his blood doesn’t seem like a big enough sacrifice to save a man’s life. But the real world doesn’t work as cleanly and logically as a story. It’s something to try. It could be enough. And at least he has the means to do it — the transfusion tube and box of fine silver cannulae were not something the evacuating doctors felt the need to take with them, and for a moment Eren holds them in his hands and wonders if this is the equipment his father left them. Did they ever use it again?

If they didn’t, he can tell why. It isn’t easy. His first attempt, it takes him so long to prepare the tube and find veins on both of them — and then his blood clots in less than a minute, blocking the tube before he’s given even a teaspoon. He’d have more success opening a wrist and trying to pour the blood out.

He considers his wrists as he cleans and resterilizes the tube. Should he try an artery? The flow would be stronger, he could get more blood out before it clots. It’s not like he’s in any danger of bleeding to death —

He might not be, but his fingers are shaking as he tries it again, and he must hit a nerve or something because startling pain jolts up his arm. He yanks the cannula free and finds himself hesitating before he goes for another attempt. He can see the arteries in his wrist, faint purple lines beneath his skin — but they look so small. Too small for this, but they’re the only ones he can see, what’s he supposed to do, jab away at his arm for the larger ones he knows are in there somewhere?

The gutter above the windows must be damaged, because he can hear a drip, heavy and regular like the tick of a clock.

He can’t breathe, he can’t think. He presses his fingers against his wrist, trying to find the pulse. He can do this.

The knowledge he needs is there in his head, just out of reach.

(It’s like peering through a crack in a wall.)

He knows how to do this, he does. If he can just make himself remember —

(If he can just make the crack bigger, break through the wall —)

There.

His hands feel like they move on their own, he’s so completely sure of what he’s doing. Levi’s cephalic vein is easy to find and insert a cannula into, and this time he slides the other into his own radial artery with just as much ease, relishing the sharp burn of it. And he has even more control of his body than he thought — he can keep the artery open and force his blood to hold off clotting at the same time he lets his skin heal around the cannula to hold it in place, and he does both as he settles down himself on the edge of the bed.

His head hurts.

He feels like he’s done something irreversible.

“Eren?”

He stops breathing.

“We need to move,” Levi croaks out. “Titans incoming. Big bastards.”

“The biggest bastard,” Eren says, but Levi seems to have drifted back into unconsciousness. Even like this, stubble darkening his chin and jaw, skin flushed and sweaty, hair tangled and sticking to his face, he’s breathtaking. Eren brushes his hair back and stares, feeling ridiculous and self-conscious, suddenly hyperaware of the beating of his heart, the pulsing of his blood, all of the life in him bearing down on a tiny silver reed inserted into his wrist. “And that warning is kinda late,” he adds softly. Don’t die. Please don’t die.

*

How long will it take, he wonders. How long before he knows if he’s killed Levi or saved him?

Woozy headed and scared is a bad combination, but Eren cleans and packs away the equipment without losing anything, then slumps back down on the bed. It won’t take long for his body to replenish the blood he’s given, but until then, he’s going to be useless.

His head feels like his brain is liquid, too much of it for his skull to contain, and he lifts his hand to his ear, half expecting to find it leaking. His breathing is fast, his heartbeat faster. He feels cold.

Was it enough?

Levi’s breathing sounds better, but that could just be Eren’s wishful thinking. His skin feels cooler, but so could that. Eyes burning and panic tightening his throat, he unwinds Levi’s bandages, hardly daring to hope. The cotton packing is stiff with blood, but beneath it his flesh is pink and clear of pus or decay.

It seems Eren’s blood does have some level of high-level antibacterial effect… and that could be just the start of it. Hange will be fascinated; this might not be the last time he has to give up his blood.

Eren repacks the wound and replaces the dressing, as carefully as he can with his shaking hands. If it’s still clear tomorrow, he’ll stitch it back up.

Tomorrow…

He’s alive.

He’s going to live.

The first sob comes as a shock, an unfair sneak attack, overwhelming Eren before he can stop it, half strangled and gasped around the lump in his throat. Then he’s crying — burning eyes, streaks of hot tears on his face, great hacking breaths… and a dawning feeling of shame. He’s ridiculous. Levi’s alive — he’s going to be fine and Eren didn’t cry even when he thought he was dying so what the hell is wrong with him?

He was so fucking scared, and that makes him so angry.

Why is he still crying? There are things he needs to do, dammit.

Why —

He feels cool fingers on the back of his neck.

Levi’s shivering, he realizes, a moment before he’s gripped by the scruff like a kitten. There’s no power in Levi’s fingers, but Eren lets him guide him, clambers up onto the bed with embarrassing eagerness, and if he needed proof that Levi’s barely conscious, the way he lets Eren cover his bare shoulder in tears and snot would do it. He lets Eren cling to him, his trembling fingers tracing circles around the bumps of Eren’s spine as he shudders and sobs.

“Fuck… ing noisy… ”

Eren snorts into his shoulder, starts laughing through the tears. “Yeah, yeah, I know.”

Well, he seems to have Levi’s permission to curl up close — being an outsized hot water bottle clearly has its uses. Good thing, really, because Eren doesn’t think he could let go right now.

*

He wakes with a bump — literally, his back hitting the floor and his heart racing as he blinks up into the dark room.

Somewhere outside, someone screams in pain or fear.

Eren gets his uncooperative body moving and bolts to the window, flinging it open as if he could somehow leap out and go to their aid. But rain amplifies sound and damp air distorts it, it could be coming from anywhere, from out in the deserted streets or from beyond the walls. Most likely the second, because that’s not someone, it’s something. No human ever sounded like that.

The screech trails off until it’s just a ghost of the sound that woke him.

Eren squints out into the dark night. The rain is cold on his face, clearing the last wisps of sleep from his brain. He thinks about the Ape’s titans, on his trail like hunting dogs. Was that what it was?

Whatever it was, it sounded like it was being killed.

The candle’s blown out, and Eren takes the time to relight it. Levi hasn’t woken up, but his skin is cool, his breathing strong and his pulse steady. Just the sight of him makes giddy triumph shoot through Eren. He won this one.

Take that, shitty world.

He lets his fingers linger beneath Levi’s jaw, pressed against the smooth throb of the artery; his own blood is in there, Levi’s body isn’t rejecting it. Amazing.

And now he’s just procrastinating, reluctant to go outside into the dark, empty town.

He could just curl back up in bed. Hell, he certainly needs the rest, and he’s not above stealing another couple of hours cuddled up to Levi — and it is stealing, because Eren suspects a conscious and fever-free Levi would cut off both his arms before voluntarily hugging another human being — but he won’t be able to go back to sleep until he’s at least investigated that noise.

The first thing he notices when he steps out of the infirmary building is that the rain has stopped. The air is fresh and sweet, and far up above him, he can see splits in the clouds, stars glittering in the gaps. He identifies the bright spot of the North Star, the Great Serpentcurled beneath it as if ready to catch it if it falls.

He thinks the light on the wall is a star too, for a moment.

If the shape of a Wall Town can be best described as a semicircle, the Garrison fort is nestled in one of Strokirch District’s corners, just a few precautionary meters between its powder magazine and the main body of Wall Maria. The ammunition lift is still intact, and Eren leaps in, fumbling with the chains in the dark and trying not to think how much quicker and quieter and easier this would be with his maneuver gear. The point of light is gone now anyway, it was probably just his imagination.

He climbs out onto the top of the wall. The massive shapes of the mountains around him, like crouching giants twenty or thirty or forty times bigger than the Colossal Titan, make Wall Maria seem small here, small and fragile and —

— he feels strange.

Eren finds himself on his knees, palms against the solid stone, and imagines that he can feel the shifters deep within it, their heartbeats as slow and unstoppable as the yearly advance and retreat of a glacier. They’re asleep, barely even alive, but he’s struck by the notion that they know he’s here, and their anger lingers in the rock they were forced to wrap around themselves, creeping up through it like grasping fingers. His breath catches in his chest.

They hate him. They want him to wake them up.

He sees light in his peripheral vision, is already wondering whose memories he’s going to get now as he looks up.

“Mom?” Carla?

She’s there for just a split second, lit up by the lamp in her hand, then gone as if she never existed… which she never did, not here, not now. Eren clambers to his feet and charges across the wall top, heedless of the debris scattered over it. She wasn’t real. She was either a hallucination or a ghost.

He still searches for her for what feels like an hour.

The rain returns. The scream doesn’t.

*

Levi claws his way to consciousness, a rush of information flooding his foggy, struggling brain. The air he’s breathing is as thick as water and laundry-day fragrant, hot enough to make sweat prickle on his skin. Everything hurts. Everything. Brain, skull, face, throat, shoulder, lungs, ribs, side, forearm, knee… even his eyes sting where grey daylight makes its way through his eyelids. He becomes aware of a metal-sprung mattress beneath him, the clink of an iron bedframe, cotton and wool against his skin, blood and sweat and antiseptics and soap in his nostrils, a sense of space around and above him. This is definitely not the hayloft.

He hears the slosh of water, a cut-off snatch of discordant whistling, and movement — about five meters away, he decides, pathetically relieved at this little sign that his brain is actually waking up, within standard human weight range, bipedal.

Eren?

He forces his eyes open, blinking away the sticky remains of sleep. His head throbs. Between Levi and the cracked, peeling paint of the ceiling, white sheets and various items of clothing hang limply from lines strung across the room. If he shifts his head, he can see empty beds, their mattresses bare but their frames shining rust free, and tall windows, panes so clean he can see every bead of rainwater through them. If he raises it, he can see the source of the heat, a roaring fire with a kettle hanging above it, and Eren himself, possibly naked except for the blanket tied awkwardly around his waist.

Levi blinks some more. He’d rub his eyes, but even lifting his head is a chore. Every attempt at greater movement sends pain shooting through him and the dizziness reminds him vividly of his first attempt at a mid-air spin. It’s much less hassle just to stay still, and Eren is a convenient thing to focus on, a not-unappealing sight with his arms elbow deep in a tub of laundry, the muscles moving in his sturdy back as he scrubs. His hair sticks to his neck and ears, curling in the damp heat. The tense line of his shoulders makes a total lie of that attempt at a carefree whistle; he lifts one soapy hand to rub his neck, digging his fingers in hard, leaving water and disintegrating flecks of foam everywhere he touches.

Eren has an air of solidity to him when he’s conscious and in movement, as if his body even in this form remembers being fifteen meters tall with the punching power of a cannonball, and Levi watches him stretch, turning his expert eye on the flex of lean muscle. He needs to eat more, and he needs to work on his arms — he’s not badly shaped for his age, nothing gangly or scrawny, nothing disproportionate (well, almost nothing, but if Eren can still keep that fucking thing free of his gear straps, it’s not oversized), but his recent lack of exercise drill will show there first. Continued use of maneuver gear will keep his lower body and torso strong… Levi finds himself watching the foam disappearing into the channel of Eren’s spine, his eyes lingering on the lines of his neck and back as he leans back over the tub. There are freckles on his shoulder blades — such odd, unessential things for Eren’s body to expend energy regenerating, but there they are, dotted across the back of his neck and across the breadth of his shoulders —

Pain jolts through Levi’s side, alerting him to his body’s involuntary movement at the same moment it stops it dead, and he can’t even manage an annoyed click of his tongue without hurting.

Ridiculous. Unless his injuries made him develop arms twice as long as his body, he couldn’t touch Eren from here anyway.

And he shouldn’t disturb Eren while he’s washing. It’s a good strong vigorous technique he’s got; he may never get the sheets and clothes dry like this, and he may scrub holes in the fabric before he gets the dirt out, but he’s really putting his back into it. If he jerks off even half as hard it’s a wonder he has a cock left.

Levi hears the sound of something tearing and the dull ring of Eren’s hand hitting the side of the metal tub. The whole thing rocks, half a tubful of dirty, soapy water sloshing onto the floor and into the fireplace, and Eren curses wildly as he steadies it.

“If you —” Levi’s voice is a cracked whisper, and as Eren spins around, surrounded by smoke and steam and clutching at his blanket as it slips off his hips, he tries to get some moisture in his mouth and power from his throat. “Get too much dampness in the air, your sheets will smell sour when — if — they dry.” Better.

Eren makes a choked sound and charges across the room, and pain shoots through Levi’s body as he braces himself —

It seems Eren has sense enough not to hug him, but it feels a fucking close run thing. He drops his ass to the bed and leans over Levi, all bare skin, sweat and laundry soap, and doesn’t ask before going to take his pulse. Levi doesn’t try to stop him. He’s not sure how he’s gone from filthy, burning up and hallucinating in the hayloft to clean, fever free, lucid and… here, wherever here is, but he knows it must be Eren’s doing. Let him have his moment. “Where are we?”

“Garrison HQ in Strokirch District,” Eren says, shooting Levi one of those quick, sun-from-behind-a-cloud grins. “Believe it or not, it’s titan free. I never thought I’d be so happy to get behind gates.” Really? He doesn’t sound so sure about that. Levi feels water and foam make a trail down his neck as Eren’s fingers linger, two spots of startling heat pressed to his pulse point; he shifts deliberately away and Eren snatches his hand back, ears going pink. “Just — stay right there and don’t die. I’ll get you food.”

Eren catches his foot in the blanket as he stands up, swears like a boatman as he flashes his ass, and snatches a shirt and pair of pants from the line. Levi closes his eyes and listens to him bang about. He’s got so many different sources of pain that his usual methods for pushing past it are proving fucking useless. He eases himself onto his elbows, slides up the bed until his shoulders nudge up against the metal frame and he can inch his way into a sitting position.

“Your wound was infected,” Eren says, “but I think I fixed it. It’s just packed for now — I’ll stitch it back up later today if it stays healthy.”

Levi opens his eyes to find himself presented with a tin plate, laden with some kind of green mulch and a few slices of meat. “Spit-roasted rabbit and stewed nettle,” Eren declares, and hovers by Levi’s bedside like one of those weird jumpy waiters at the fancy dinners Erwin sometimes wheeled him out for, a glass of water in his hand. “I tried fishing, but I didn’t get a single bite.” Levi gets his good arm moving; Eren realizes what he’s reaching for before he gets to it and quickly hands him the glass. “I think the river’s dead.”

Levi gulps down the water and tries not to imagine it running out of the hole in his side. Eren left his wound unstitched; his body is opened up and vulnerable. The thought makes him feel like invisible roaches are running across his skin.

His guts hurt.

“I need a shit.”

Eren disappears from his sight — and reappears with something that stops Levi dead in his slow, painful move to get out of the bed. Something that is shiny porcelain and decorated with tiny painted flowers. And glazed. Levi stares at it.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” he says, and it’s an honest question. “I’m not shitting in a fucking pot. And I’m not making you deal with it.”

Irritation gives him energy. He swings his legs out from beneath the covers — and has barely put his weight on his feet before the pain ricochets through him and the room spins.

His ass hits the bed. Eren’s beside him, telling him to breathe deeply — as if Levi didn’t know to do that, fuck — fingers on his neck as he bends his back, head between his knees. Levi bats Eren’s hand away, but keeps his head down until the dizziness passes and he can take his nausea and frustration and turn both into something more useful. He should have been prepared for this; it doesn’t make it any less infuriating.

He hauls his boots on — at least that he can do without lifting his head.

“You nearly died,” Eren says quietly, and there’s some quality packed-down anger behind those three little words. Where it’s directed, Levi isn’t going to bother wondering, but if it’s at him, it’s justified.

Between the farmhouse and here, Eren must have seen Levi even weaker than this. It doesn’t mean he has to like it, but he does have to accept it.

He lifts his head, catches hold of Eren’s arm. “Make yourself useful.”

Whatever else Eren has to say, he bites it back. He lets Levi hook his good arm around his neck and, carefully avoiding Levi’s packed wound or broken ribs, slips his own arm around him, as hesitant and awkward as a virgin on his first trip to a brothel. And they’re both as clumsy as one for the first few steps, until they get their bodies moving together. Every movement sets off a chain reaction of pain. The world spins around him. His time in bed has left his sprained knee stiffened, painful and useless. But Eren makes a surprisingly good support, enough that Levi can tolerate hanging off him as they make their way across the room. His damp clothes steam slightly; Levi breathes in soap and fresh sweat and does his best to ignore the uncomfortable heat of Eren’s body.

“So,” he says, “I had a fever. Bad?”

All he gets is a curt nod. Eren looks everywhere but at him. The kid’s ears are pink; just how much shit did Levi spew while burning up? He has no precious secrets to give away, but the question still leaves him feeling itchy and exposed, like a man starting a bar brawl stark naked.

Eren knows that feeling, he realizes with sudden amusement.

What’s the best way to deal with this? Tackle it head on and interrogate Eren on exactly what he said? Gather retaliatory blackmail material, just for safety’s sake? Shrug it off? While Levi can imagine a few — no, a lot of things he could have said to lower Eren’s opinion of him, how much does he actually care? Eren can think whatever he likes; Levi doesn’t get to control what goes on inside his head. He doesn’t want to.

Eren maneuvers them through a door, down a dark, cold corridor. The heat radiating from his flesh is suddenly a delight rather than an inconvenience. Levi presses close and soaks it up.

“You know about Hange’s weekend orgies, then?” He feels Eren start. “Erwin’s fondness for silk and lace against his balls?” The sheer panic on his face is beautiful. “Rico’s past as a master cat burglar? My wife and seven kids?” No, not panic, horror. They stop moving. The door slams shut behind them and Levi should probably take more interest in the overgrown buildings around him, especially the bramble-smothered privy blocks that must be their destination. “Moblit’s affair with old Pixis?” Eren stares at Levi, and he gets to see realization slip through his wide, haunted eyes.

“Shit!” The word bursts out of Eren’s mouth along with quick, startled laughter. “I almost believed you, you —” He flashes a grin, fixes Levi with sparkling eyes. “Sir,” he finishes, and makes it sound like every word it could be a substitute for. Nice trick.

Levi looks at him thoughtfully. Well, this isn’t Eren’s “I’ll fucking kill you” face, but it’s not bad. Not bad at all. He’s become too used to an Eren who is stretched thin, all his edges ground off; he let himself forget how brightly he can glow.

“What are you talking about?” he asks flatly, and watches Eren’s confidence flicker. “You don’t believe Hange has orgies?” The grin comes back, brighter than ever, before Eren gets his face under control, goes solemn and intense as they pick their way between the buildings.

“And it must be so hard for Pixis and Moblit,” he says, “serving in different branches. I guess Moblit is just that passionate about exploration.”

Some of the weeds bursting up around the cobblestones are almost thigh high. Levi brushes against them and feels the water seep through his pajama pants.

“The Garrison frowns on officers fucking their subordinates.” Eren shoots him a sideways glance, opens his mouth — “No, it stops there, before we invent a whole history for them. I don’t really know where Moblit is sticking his dick and I don’t want to.” Eren doesn’t quite smirk at Levi, he probably values his teeth too much, but it’s a close thing, and why shouldn’t he? He won. Levi swaps supports — Eren for the wall of the outhouse — and snatches the paper he’s offered. “Erwin does wear women’s underwear, though,” he says, and hears Eren choke as he shuts the door between them.

That’s a lie too — probably. He briefly considers telling Eren that, if he doesn’t work it out for himself. But no, fuck Erwin. Eren has real cause to be mad with him; next time they come face to face, better Eren’s wondering about Erwin’s underwear than trying to kill him. “There were a few ways Erwin could have stopped me, if he actually wanted you to stay in that cell. You do know that, right?”

“I remember you telling me that,” Eren mumbles. “But if he actually wanted me out of it, why did he let you think you were coming to get my corpse, or that you were defying him to do it? Are you going to tell me it’s all politics and I wouldn’t understand?”

Levi looks around himself and wonders if he should just tell Eren to run and get some matches. He could stay in here while it burns. “Plausible deniability,” he says. “Erwin’s old attack dog slips his fucking leash, just as everyone always expected he would. They don’t even have to be surprised at why, because everyone knows one monster calls to another.” Not one order given, but Erwin gets to remove his soldier from Medical Branch custody without losing a single alliance. All because Levi is predictable as fuck. “And just a tip, Eren — using my fever talk against me is fucking rude.”

“Sorry.”

The floorboards are green and fuzzy beneath his boots, the seat not much better when he gingerly takes the lid off.

“Do I call to you?” Eren sounds amused at that, at least.

There is rain dripping in through holes in the roof, the remains of an abandoned wasp nest up in the rafters, a dozen holes in the wall that look like they were left by musket balls. One small mercy is that it only smells of damp and mold — anything else will have turned to compost years ago.

“Yes, and you’re really fucking loud.”

It’s still foul. Thankfully, he’s not going to be in here for long.

Or so he thinks.

Time ticks by. His gut continues to hurt, probably just to show solidarity with the rest of him.

He should have eaten the nettles.

A fresh wave of wooziness sweeps over him and he leans his head back and watches a spider scuttle across the ceiling. Water beads up on a particularly big growth of mold. Levi stares at it and feels his desire for a good stiff scrubbing brush and a large bucket of bleach morph into an almost physical ache. To distract himself, he turns his attention to the pamphlet Eren gave him to use as paper — a little optimistically, as it turns out. The cover is familiar — a woman brandishing a pistol and a sword while falling out of her low-cut gown, a man looming behind her, glowering away in the gap between his floppy hat and mask and high-collared cloak, a background filled with bats and jewelry and dark turrets and rearing horses. Levi hasn’t seen one of these in years, but he knows the “novel” edition — collecting all one hundred and sixteen two-coppers-a-time episodes in a hardback book of weapon-grade weight — had a permanent place in Oluo’s kitbag. Bess of the Black Brotherhood, or, The Demonic Maiden, the most popular copper dreadful ever, in which a young Underground pickpocket gets the chance to take the place of a murdered heiress Up Above and deals with murderers, occultists, scheming nobles and stuffy policemen with a combination of guile, violence and her voracious sexual appetite.

“Hey, Eren, you ever read this?” Of course he has, he’s a teenage boy.

“I didn’t like it.”

“Oh?”

“She’s set up to fail,” Eren says. “There are a hundred chapters of her thinking her way out of trouble and doing whatever the hell she wants, but in the end she has to be taught her place, and the people reading it with her. Don’t get above yourself, be happy with what you’ve got, keep your head down. The world passes on that message enough.”

“Are you telling me that you didn’t get to the end and immediately start working out how you’d escape and fight back if you were Bess? I’m disappointed.” Levi tears out some pages for use — prepared if no longer optimistic. He remembers teaching Isabel to read with issues 33, 67 and 99, the print coming off on her fingers as she ran her fingers over the words, finding the filthiest bits to read out loud to Farlan, and Farlan — who Levi knew damn well had done things naked with other human beings that would make Bess’s creator’s hair go white — hunching over his accounts, the back of his neck glowing red.

There’s silence from the other side of the door. “Did you?” Eren asks eventually, not answering his question. Levi wonders how long he spent raging at the ending and trying to work out a better one before the moral of the story truly sunk in.

“I had no choice,” Levi says. Then, surprising himself, “I learned to read with these stories. Kenny used to keep me busy picking apart her choices and tactics while he filled his gut with cheap ale.”

“Kenny? Uri’s Kenny?” Well, that’s unexpected. That’s where Eren’s mind goes first when he hears Kenny’s name? Not “Kenny the Ripper” or “that asshole who killed Historia’s mother, kidnapped us and cut me up”? Levi tries to imagine Kenny shooting his mouth off about Uri Reiss in any other context than him bleeding from every fucking orifice and deciding to play confession time with someone who really didn’t need to hear it.

He fails. “How do you know about them?”

Eren goes quiet. The door shakes as he slumps back against it — hard enough that Levi is surprised he doesn’t come straight through. He hauls up his pants and struggles to his feet with the help of the mold-streaked wall. “Eren?” The door refuses to budge when he shoves it. “I’m guessing this isn’t you trying to trap me in here until I take a shit?” He can hear Eren’s ragged breathing. He needs to get out there. “If it is, forget it. Right now your average titan’s got more chance of shitting than I do.”

The outhouse isn’t much more than a shed, its walls not much more than planks nailed together; Levi finds a loose board and puts his shoulder to it. And bounces back, pain rushing down his arm and shuddering through his ribs. Wrong shoulder. Fuck. He’s dimly aware of his knees failing on him. He doesn’t pass out, but it’s a damn close run thing, and he curls up on the floor and sucks in breath until the pain retreats a little and his brain unfogs.

Those holes in the wall really are the right size for service-issue musket balls. He reaches out and touches one, noticing the curl of wood around it. A musket ball through the wall is one cure for constipation — nothing like fear to loosen a blocked —

Something moves outside.

Levi hears the rustle of grass and leaves as it scurries away. He kicks the plank free from his place on the floor. “Ere —” The shout dies in his mouth.

Now, Levi may not have been paying his usual close attention to his surroundings on his way over to the outhouse, but he’s sure he wouldn’t have missed that massive hairy fucker of a titan sitting up on the wall.

He wriggles painfully through the gap he’s made, uses the overgrown weeds and grass as cover as he gathers his strength, and scrambles around the building.

The titan drops down into the town, a smaller one clinging to it like a child grown too big for piggyback rides. Levi finds Eren propped up against the door, staring at the infirmary with empty eyes. The shaking ground and the pain in his body act like spurs to the sides of a panicking horse — he lifts Eren bodily and drags them both into the bushes between the outhouses.

The brambles rip into his skin, the honeyed scent of crushed flowers rises around him — but Eren’s body is between him and the muddy ground and Levi slumps down on top of him, holding him in place with his knees as Eren snaps out of whatever braindead fucking moment he was having. Eren stares up at him, watching Levi shake and bleed and clutch at his side with the strangest expression on his face.

“Another of our flak-vested Aphrodites. Always to the rescue.” He lifts his hand to Levi’s face, and both the movement, so comfortable and casually possessive, and his voice, unfamiliar accent and just a touch of mockery, are as uncomfortably alien as the words. This isn’t Eren. “Do you ever resent Ackerman and myself, for failing to make your kind completely perfect?”

Levi blinks down at him. “I manage with what I’ve got,” he says — and claps a firm hand over the stranger’s mouth as he hears giant-sized footfalls in the parade ground. “You could be interesting,” he whispers, “but I prefer Eren.” He takes hold of the hand caressing his face and nips the flesh between thumb and forefinger, digging in until he feels bone and “Eren” jerks underneath him, crying out into his palm. “And I want him back.”

He’s already thinking what to try next when Eren grabs for the hand over his mouth with a muffled snarl, his eyes blazing with fury and confusion. Levi allows himself to relax a little. That’s all Eren. He notices the rock digging into his inner thigh. And so is that.

Eren’s suddenly still and quiet under him. The tiny section of world around them goes darker. Levi doesn’t need to look to know why, but he does anyway, pain snapping through his ribs and shoulder and pounding in his head as he moves it. Useless, useless fucking body. The strip of sky beyond the brambles is blotted out by the head and shoulders of a titan — not looking down yet, thank fuck, but what can he do if it does? He has no strength, no weapons — and this titan is different from any Levi’s seen before. Square and solid, thick slabs of muscle covered in plates of crystal armor… shifter, he thinks, and gets confirmation of that as Eren bares his teeth and snaps his hand up to his mouth. Levi braces himself —

And nothing happens. The titan moves away, toward the infirmary, drawn by the hairy titan’s gesture, and Eren bites into his hand again and again until Levi stops him. “Don’t.”

Eren swears under his breath. He scrubs the blood from his mouth with his sleeve and refuses to meet Levi’s eyes. Levi considers his options, then starts to pat him down. True wishful thinking, because Eren’s damp clothes are molded to every line of his body, he’s got nothing under there but flesh and his key, no way he’s carrying a tinderbox or — “Matches?”

Eren shakes his head and gestures toward the infirmary. Where the two titans are standing. The Beast Titan touches the chimneypots with long leathery fingers, then crouches down and attempts to peer into windows still partially steamed up from Eren’s inadvertent dousing of the fire. “Check inside,” it says — and Levi finds his muscles tightening, straight to animal fight or flight. Not that he can do either right now.

The other titan bends its neck like it’s offering a bow to a superior. The armor crumbles and the flesh pulls apart, and a man climbs out of it in a billowing cloud of steam. And Levi’s seen that face before, just once, among a gang of slack-jawed new recruits gathering around Eren…

Levi looks down at Eren and sees that he’s right. “Reiner?” he mouths, and Eren manages a jerky nod. He’s vibrating with tension and frustrated anger. If his teeth were clenched any tighter they’d crack.

Reiner produces a pistol from his coat and pushes through the doors Levi and Eren exited such a short time before.

It shouldn’t take him long to see the building is being used. They may have a little extra time if he searches it for them before informing his boss.

The Beast Titan stands up and looks around himself with interest. Levi gets his fingers hooked under the cord of Eren’s key and pulls it free of his shirt with as little sound and movement as he can manage.

He calculates the distance between the privies and the powder magazine. If the powder inside it is unspoiled, if Eren’s key can be used to make a spark… too many ifs, even before he gets into the logistics of luring two or more intelligent titans close enough to the magazine to take serious damage without being blown up alongside them…

The Beast Titan steps out onto the parade ground, kicking its way through the meter-high grass like a child let loose among autumn leaves. Two rabbits shoot out from under the cover of the grass like a pair of furry cannonballs and the titan watches them impassively as they disappear into the bushes.

It moves toward the outhouses.

“Nothing there!” Reiner shouts from the infirmary doors. “He hasn’t been here. Hell, from the dust I think I’m the first person to come in here since the townspeople left.” He squirms under the titan’s calm gaze, throws his arm out in a gesture that takes in the Garrison buildings, the town, the whole District. “Look at this place. Nobody’s been here in years. The clouds are hanging low today. Perhaps the smoke was —”

“Perhaps I was mistaken?” the Beast rumbles.

Eren shakes under Levi’s hands, his eyes wild and baffled and furious; if he were a shell, he would have exploded by now. “What is he fucking doing?” he hisses. “Why?”

“These hills and woods, this whole section of the wall — people see things —”

The Beast Titan laughs. “Perhaps I should leave you here to make sure.”

Reiner blanches. “If you want to,” he says stiffly.

“And risk putting you into a position where you might have to compromise yourself?” The titan wraps its long fingers around him, lifts him into the air. “No, I won’t leave you here with the ghosts. Be grateful.” It lopes toward the wall with Reiner in its hand. And Eren surges up into a sitting position, tearing at his hand like a dog with a piece of tough old meat.

“Why won’t this work? Shit!” He shoves Levi off him and clambers to his feet, oblivious to the rustling and cracking of the brambles as they catch at him and he tears them away — and falls flat on his face among the bushes as Levi hooks his legs around him. Halfway up the wall, the Beast Titan pauses in its climb and hangs there, looking down.

Levi collapses on top of Eren as he twists around, and lets his weight do what the remains of his strength can’t. He half suspects it’s his weak, shaking body and his pained breathing in Eren’s ear that brings the kid back to his senses — but he’ll take it. Eren stops struggling; his fingers brush over Levi’s neck. He’s so warm… “Is it coming back?” Levi snaps.

The damp tufts and waves of his hair tickle Levi’s face as Eren shakes his head. “No.” He sighs. “That was Ymir’s ‘Ape.’ And that is the second time I’ve chickened out of fighting him and this time I didn’t even have a good excuse.”

Levi finds the strength to lift his head. “Your excuse the first time being me?” he says coolly, and feels Eren flinch. “Glad to know my unconscious ass was good for something.” Eren stares at him, and at this distance, he’s reduced down to not much more than the warmth and solidity of his body, a pair of eyes the color of a pine forest in summer and unkempt eyebrows like half-bald caterpillars. “You don’t need an excuse not to chase after a guy who can kick your ass. It’s called not being a dumb shit. Prepare yourself first if you have to. Make sure you can kill the fucker.”

When Eren laughs, Levi feels it rather than hears it — a shudder running through his body, a puff of hot breath in his face, Eren’s nose bumping up against his —

Water drips down his neck. Levi levers himself up onto his knees, the movement fast and sharp enough to set pain juddering through his battered body. He doesn’t bother trying to stop himself hunching over, a protective arm around his wound and broken ribs. Eren props himself up on his elbows and watches him.

“Want to see where they’re going?”

No “you need to rest” or “stay here while I go to look” — just the fact that Eren doesn’t try either is surprisingly good medicine. Levi lets Eren help him to his feet. “Why not?”

Well, the titan might be still hanging from the wall on the other side, waiting for them to reveal themselves — that’s why not. Levi does go over all the potential variations on that thought as he sits in the ammunition lift, forty meters in the air with no maneuver gear. But the wall top proves to be empty — and when they peer over the edge, on hands and knees to avoid silhouetting themselves against the sky, so is the sweep of the wall as far as they can see.

“Where did they go?” Eren says, and Levi reaches out to grab a handful of his shirt as he leans out over the edge. “I can’t see them.”

His stiff leg stuck out awkwardly in front of him, Levi sits on the rain-slick rock, surrounded by towering mountains and drifting banks of cloud, and breathes in deep enough to make his ribs crack and his head go woozy. He scans the wood-covered hills less intently than Eren — and narrows his eyes as he sees something down by the river. Visibility is bad, they’re a long way away, but —

“They’re digging,” he says.

“What?”

“Can’t you see them?” Levi snaps. “Look at the riverbanks.”

“I can see… some moving dots. Digging? Really? Why has he got them doing that?”

“How the hell should I know?” Levi stops fighting the fatigue, props himself up against Eren and mentally dares him to say something about it. Eren doesn’t. He just makes the smallest cut-off sigh and leans into Levi as if he’s the one needing support.

“I wish I had your eyesight,” he says quietly. “And I wish I knew what game Reiner thinks he’s playing.”

Chapter Text

 

06 — Outside the Cage

 

 

“I guess there aren’t many opportunities to practice your lockpick skills in the Survey Corps,” Eren says. “Do you need any help?” Levi spares a moment to look up from his lockpicking — attempted lockpicking — and he might be shaky and pale, but the glare he gives Eren is withering.

“You’d be surprised,” he says. Eren hears a click; Levi’s expression doesn’t change but Eren can almost feel his smugness as he gets slowly to his feet. “Go ahead.”

The only door on the second floor of the headquarters building to be locked. What are the odds against these being the rooms they’re looking for? The offices downstairs are bare of all paperwork, all information, even the maps stripped from their walls. Will the Garrison captain’s private quarters be any different?

The door opens a couple of centimeters and bangs up against something behind it. Levi joins Eren in putting his shoulder to it; the “something” scrapes across the floor. As they brute-force their way into the room, Eren sees that it’s an old oak chest, covered in dust.

Everything is covered in dust. Dust caked on the cobwebs draped from the wall sconces, dust clustered in the corners of the ceiling, dust beneath his feet recording the pattern of his boot tread, dust streaked on the glass of the windows and floating in the weak light struggling through them. That’s his first impression. His second is of painful tidiness, of furniture carefully arranged at right angles to each other, pen and ink and papers laid out on the folded-out flap of the writing table with a precision that would take a normal person hard work and probably a ruler. Even the room itself is perfectly square, if you don’t count the big bay window. The dining table is square, the two armchairs by the fireplace high-backed and uninviting. There doesn’t seem to be one single personal effect in the room. Eren would say it has no personality except that, in its way, it has tons.

It’s like its old owner was trying to keep everything messy and dirty and organic very firmly on the other side of that door. Hange would spontaneously combust on setting one foot in here. Its old owner would probably do the same if he saw the state of it now.

Eren coughs and pulls his shirt up over his nose. The papers stacked so neatly on the writing table crinkle like dead leaves as Levi picks them up. “Right door,” Levi says. “This is definitely the captain’s suite. And he had more boring paperwork than I do. Claude Chlebek,” he reads. “Think I once met him.”

“Could you look for a—” Eren begins. Levi shoves a folded-up map into his hands. “Yeah, that.”

“What are you hoping to see on it?” Levi asks as Eren spreads the map out on the dusty dining table.

“I don’t know.” Something. Some reason for a palisade wall and watchtower in the woods on one side of the river, or the titans digging on the other. “The Beast is here for something. What is it?”

He finds Klorva District on the map and traces the route of the Esen west to Wall Maria, his finger pausing over Castle Ragis for only a moment. “The titans come from the South,” he says. “All their activity is in the South.” There’s nothing marked where the watchtower was, but what did he expect? A skull and crossbones and a “secret Garrison defenses” label? “Why is he here?”

Levi leans his elbows on the table and studies the map with him. “And why is your old squadmate hanging with him?”

Eren snorts at that. “Is that a mystery?” he snarls. “They’re both shifters and enemies of humanity — it’s a meeting of minds.” The map paper crinkles under his fingers. “A beautiful friendship based on wiping us” — you, them — “all out.”

Levi studies Eren. “Very beautiful,” he says. “Do you think Hairy Palms knew he was being lied to, or just suspected?” He straightens up, awkwardly makes his way over to the bay window. “Either way, they could come back. We can’t afford to stay in the infirmary.” Because they have no way to defend themselves. He doesn’t need to say it.

Eren feels like he’s being slowly strangled. He glares at the map as if he can make it change by sheer force of will. Levi crumples up a sheet of paper and uses it to flick the dead flies from the windowsill. “Huh. Strange.”

“What is?”

“The windows are nailed shut.”

Eren watches Levi as he yanks the nails out with his bare fingers, slides open the windows with unnecessary force, and sticks his head out into the rain.

Levi must have been through training, the same as everyone else. Did he ever hang from a cliff, a grapple half-anchored, finding himself watching the person hanging just above him sway in the wind and knowing they were going to fall but not when? Whatever Levi thinks of him right now, Eren’s braced to hear it, sick to his stomach but ready to take it. Every minute Levi puts it off, acts like everything’s normal, is another swing of the rope.

He finds Levi frowning at him. “Problem?”

“Yes! Yes, we have a problem.” The dust is thick in his nose and gritty in his mouth; Eren feels his throat close up. “I can’t shift,” he manages. I’m useless.

“I noticed,” Levi says, and Eren’s not ready, not at all. Even those noncommittal words hit him like a punch to the kidneys.

He smooths out the map. “If I could shift, we wouldn’t have to worry about them coming back, and I could be out there right now finding out what they’re doing. Instead, we’re trapped.” Levi looks at Eren, rainwater running down his neck, his eyes cold and unreadable. “I’m sorry,” Eren says. “This isn’t what I wanted.”

“It never is.” Levi lifts his hand, covered in dust, and clicks his tongue. “I hope you didn’t use up all the soap on the infirmary —” he glances at Eren and raises his eyebrows “— and me.”

Eren feels the heat rush to his face, but Levi’s already moving, heading toward the bedroom door, using the furniture for support. Eren could stay here, looking at the map as if it’ll change and give him some information, or going through the rest of the Garrison captain’s paperwork. He follows Levi.

The bedroom is as tidy as the living room, and as sparsely furnished — a wardrobe, a chest, a four-poster bed with dust-caked hangings. It’s dominated by another huge bay window, this one with a deep U of seats built into it. Among the throws and cushions heaped on them in a chaotic mess, Eren sees fur and a glint of metallic embroidery —a startling contrast to the plain woolen blankets and sharply turned sheets on the bed. The windows are nailed shut in here too, he notices.

Levi looks in the wardrobe. Eren watches him checking the cuffs on the shirts hanging there and manages a flicker of amusement. He’s light-headed, crazy, but he has a sudden idea, startlingly vivid, of what this could be like without the worries chewing at his insides… no war, no danger, just him and Levi exploring an abandoned place together…

“Neat desk, looks after his stuff — you like this guy already, don’t you?”

Levi just raises an eyebrow at him and moves on to the last door — to the bathroom, Eren guesses as he pads across the room to join him.

They both stand in the doorway and stare. “I’d marry him tomorrow,” Levi says.

Eren’s always been vaguely aware that indoor bathrooms exist, that just as running water plumbed directly into their kitchen would be seen as the height of luxury by some people, a copper bathtub in front of the parlor fire or a row of showers spluttering out lukewarm water and shared with twenty other soldiers would be slumming it to others. He still looks at the expanse of tiles and enameled metal in front of him and boggles a little. Both Eren and Levi could fit into that tub — and stretch out. The towels hanging by the fireplace are grimy to the point that wiping yourself with them would put the dirt back on, but they’re big and fluffy and Eren can imagine that being wrapped up in one would be a delight. He picks up one of the bottles by the basin, wipes the dust off it, pulls off its rubber top — and recoils. Its contents don’t smell bad — pine resin and spice — but it’s strong enough to clear his nose and make the start of a headache throb behind his stinging eyes.

Levi’s boots ring against the enameled cast iron as he climbs into the tub. For a frozen, horrified moment, Eren looks at the contraption rearing up over the bath and sees a spine and ribcage draped in moldy fabric. Levi flicks the shower curtain away to reveal a mass of pipes and taps and nozzles. “Not bad.”

“What if they do come back?” Eren says. “What do we do?” He swallows, remembers being at the bottom of that well with the taste of his own blood in his mouth and his hands torn up and Hange and Levi looking down at him from the little patch of sky so far out of his reach.

Levi taps one of the pipes with his finger, tries a tap, clicks his tongue at the dribble of water that comes out and tries another. Eren feels himself take a deep breath, his clamped-down panic swept away by hot, hot anger. Look at me. Fucking look—

Fragments of plaster rain down on his head, water screeches in the pipes — and the shower shakes as every nozzle bursts into life. Levi’s reflexes get him out of the way as the main showerhead dumps a deluge of water where he was standing just a split second before. Tiers of needle-like jets from either side shoot at him. He drops to his knees to avoid them, reaches for the last tap he turned — and the adjustable nozzles splutter and fire.

Levi is a cat of a man, quick and bendy, but he’s only got two hands. He shoves his back up against the fiercest jet, tries to block others with bits of his body — ass cheek, thigh, knee, free hand, both feet — as best he can as he spins the knobs, getting wetter and wetter and angrier and angrier as he fails to turn the thing off — and Eren can’t help himself. The laugh explodes out of him.

Levi glares at him, hands clamped over the dribbling, spitting nozzles — and he’s still the scariest man Eren knows, but he’s got the look of a half-drowned, incredibly pissed kitten right now, and… fuck. Eren’s ribs hurt; horrified, he tries to swallow his laughter but it just keeps coming. “I— I—” He chokes on his apology, tries again. Hell. “—ry!”

“Hey, Eren.”

The jet of water hits him right in the mouth.

Cold water. Really, really cold.

He splutters, gets his hands up to protect himself — just in time to catch the rock-solid bar of soap lobbed straight at his nose. Levi gets the correct faucet turned, and as the water cuts off he slumps back against among the shower’s cagelike collection of pipes, chest heaving and eyes slitted and mouth twitching. He pointedly readjusts the nozzle he used to get Eren, and Eren feels his own mouth stretch into a helpless grin so wide it makes his cheeks ache.

There’s warmth in his chest, so much he feels like he could burst. His heart is beating double-speed. “Is the soap a hint?”

“The rooms aren’t going to clean themselves.” Levi lets himself sink down into the tub, closing his eyes and wrapping his good arm around himself. “Just don’t transform to pick up the scrubbing brush,” he says, “or we’ll have to find somewhere else to sleep tonight.”

*

Sleep is hard, even in the four-poster bed. Eren can feel every lump and loose spring the mattress has to offer — every time he rolls over and tries to get comfortable in a new position, something new digs into him, and his brain is working in much the same way. Every time he thinks he’s got it empty and calm, one of his many worries charges up to the surface: What are the Ape and Reiner up to? Are Armin and Mikasa and the others safe at Ragis? What’s happening inside Wall Rose? What’s happening to Eren’s body? His head? He’d try to divert himself with something positive, but his main option for that comes with its own risks.

Eren groans, rubs his eyes and stares up into the gloom of the canopy above him. He’s got the curtains open, the cold on his face a perfectly fine trade-off for not sleeping in what feels like a dark, airless tomb.

Never sleeping again isn’t an option, however much time he wasted asleep in that cell…

And once he’s let his thoughts go there, he’s wide awake, ice cold and sweating. He’s completely, terrifyingly helpless when he’s asleep — another good reason to prop open his eyes with matchsticks and never close them again. No one else gets to do anything to him that he doesn’t choose or want. Eren’s made a promise to himself and he won’t let it be broken.

Not that anyone is going to whip him back off to the doctors while Levi is on watch.

Eren turns his head on the pillow, looks over to the window.

Levi is stretched elegantly over the seats, the fur throw — beaten like Levi was trying to kill the bear all over again before he let its skin anywhere near him — wrapped around his shoulders and slung over his legs. Eren studies his profile against the dim moonlight glow of the window and can’t help himself; his mind throws up things that he hasn’t tried hard enough to forget, the “positive thoughts” that are too dangerous to think…

The fact that Eren washed him down while he was unconscious doesn’t seem to have fazed Levi at all. Perhaps he’d feel differently if he knew just how detailed a record of it Eren’s brain made.

Eren feels the blood rush to his face — and to his cock.

Levi was burning up, his bruises multicolored and his scraped-up skin scabbing over. Eren used a scrubbing brush wherever he could. The bed bath should have been a businesslike thing — not quick, nothing but completely thorough is good enough for Levi, but dispassionate, sexless, efficient… and easily put out of his mind afterward. Instead Eren feels like he knows Levi’s body as well as his own now — better even, in some ways. After all, he might be familiar with the shape of his own belly button or the weight of his own balls in his hand, but he’s never seen the seam behind them, or the vulnerable pink of his asshole — if his even looks like that, and hell, he tried so hard not to look and he’s tried so hard not to wonder what it would be like to run his tongue along one and dip it into the other and taste, and even soft Levi’s cock looked just as delicious—

Eren squirms. He really is lower than shit. He could barely keep his mind focused even when he reapplied Levi’s stitches. And Levi just doesn’t seem to fucking care, as if Eren’s red face and shaking fingers and humiliatingly obvious boner were as easy to ignore as the pain of the needle.

Would it be better if he had the grace to be embarrassed like a normal person? Or would Eren feel even more like a pervert? Levi deserves Eren’s respect, his admiration…

…and he still has it, every bit of it. The gnawing desire to lick his scars somehow hasn’t touched that, any more than seeing him helpless and raving did — or his mistake with the shower and his surprisingly good-natured reaction to Eren’s laughter.

I’d kiss your feet, too, Eren thinks hotly — and feels his cock throb. He swears under his breath. He’s a pervert, he’s such a pervert…

Levi moves his head, and Eren realizes he must be looking his way about a split second before Levi speaks. “Come over here.”

Maybe Eren did fall asleep—

“Bring a blanket.”

— or maybe not. In his experience, the Levi who shows up in his dreams is not too concerned with Eren’s comfort.

Eren hurriedly gathers up his bedding. The shock of putting his bare feet down on cold floorboards does a fine job of wilting his cock, and he’s glad for it as he stands in front of Levi, pillow and blankets clutched to his chest. “What part of “we’ll take turns sleeping” do you not understand?” Levi says. “Do I have to knock you out?”

What can Eren say to that? His body is willing, but his brain won’t. stop. fucking. working? He goes to apologize and finds the words mangled and swallowed by a massive yawn.

Levi swings his legs down from the window seat. “Get in.”

Eren looks at him, uncertain. He’s occupying just one end of the U of seats — there’s room for Eren to sit, or even lie down, if he curls up and doesn’t mind either his feet or his head in Levi’s lap.

Levi frees one hand from his bearskin cocoon and slaps it down so hard he gets a noise like a muffled gunshot from the seat’s worn velvet and lumpy padding. “I’m cold,” he says calmly, “and you’re hot.” Eren stares at him, heat creeping up his neck. Levi makes a little sound of annoyance. “What I’m saying is get down here and make yourself comfortable — and let me leech your body heat.”

The seat opposite him is not going to be an option, is it? And taking it would likely get Levi’s feet put up on his lap… Eren slides past Levi and gets settled down next to him with his pillow and blankets. The curve of the seat isn’t wide enough for him to stretch his legs out fully, even sitting up, but he does his best to get comfortable. Levi stretches, shivers, slings his feet back up on the seats and readjusts his fur cover — leaving Eren thoroughly trapped.

He finds he doesn’t mind. He can’t wrap himself around Levi like he did last night, but leaning up against him — and that’s okay, if Levi wants Eren’s body heat, that much at least must be okay — feels better than it should, and the same big panes of glass that make by the window so cold give an amazing view — there’s white fog gathering in the parade ground and around the indistinct blocks of the surrounding buildings, but above the dark line of Wall Maria, the sky is clear and vast…

He looks up at the stars, listens to Levi’s breathing and lets his own fall into time…

Something moves in the sky.

Eren sits up sharply; Levi is already in motion, throwing open the window and leaning out as a star falls.

It’s just a pinprick of light, it blinks out in a second, but Eren feels his blood pounding in his ears. He joins Levi at the window; the sky could have titans hiding in it and it wouldn’t get scrutinized half as hard. What was that?

Levi’s fingers grab his jaw and force it upwards. “There,” he hisses, as a light blooms and streaks overhead like a cannonball, as if Eren is blind or inattentive enough to miss that.

The streak of light is followed by another. And another. Eren’s breath comes out in clouds. He feels Levi shivering next to him. Neither of them makes a move to close the window. “Another one!” Eren shouts, pointing. This light moves more slowly, gets bigger — then shatters, becomes a dozen, twenty, thirty bright spots glittering and disintegrating, trailing radiant stripes. Eren stops breathing, eyes locked on the last sparks until they disappear.

He glances at Levi. It’s too dark to see the details of his expression, beyond a general impression of raised eyebrows and wide open eyes. Perhaps his lips are parted, perhaps it’s just Eren’s imagination painting in what he wants to see, but he finds himself grinning at Levi when he looks back at him. “It’s not over,” Levi says, and Eren hurriedly turns his attention back to the sky and another dot of light.

“Have you ever seen anything like this before?” he asks, startled by how rough his voice sounds. For a long moment, Levi doesn’t respond, and Eren’s torn between watching the shooting stars and looking at him.

“I saw one that got to the ground,” Levi says eventually. “Hange got to study it. They’re made of—”

Metal,” Eren interrupts, unable to help himself. “Isn’t it amazing?”

“Yeah.” How can such a flat, one-word answer ask so many questions?

“Armin’s grandfather had forbidden books.” The sky seems to be still. Levi settles back into his seat. The fur shimmers as he shivers; he doesn’t protest when Eren creeps under it with him. Or when he keeps talking. “We did try to go out stargazing. Armin said we’d see more away from the town, but we only got past the gate guards twice — the first time Armin stepped in a stream and got a cold, and the second my mom found out and grounded Mikasa and me for a month.”

“That happen a lot?”

“No! She was usually more inventive with her punishments.” Frost is starting to form around the edges of the window panes. Something twinkles up near the North Star for the span of a blink. “I hope Armin saw all that.” The fur tickles his nose. Levi’s fully dressed, ready to fight or run, and the battered wool of his coat is rough against Eren’s skin. “I hope he’s all right,” he murmurs. “Mikasa, Jean, Sasha, Connie, Hange… I hope they’re all all right.”

“Life inside Wall Rose is shitty — and likely to get shittier,” Levi says. “Right now, being out here herding cattle is better for your health.” Eren nods, eagerly taking the comfort. “But were you thinking that when you left them?”

What the—

Eren didn’t have a choice. There were a hundred good reasons to run at the lake, another hundred why he came here rather than trying to get back to Ragis. Saying he “left” makes it sound like he was running away—

He starts to protest, stumbling over his words. He’s angry, he’s suddenly so fucking angry. And ashamed, for some reason he doesn’t understand and isn’t eager to.

“If you didn’t have my sickly ass to take care of, you would have been in Shiganshina by now,” Levi says, lazily, as if it doesn’t matter in the slightest, as if this is just small talk, as if he does small talk, as if he can’t feel Eren tensing up beside him. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling you that you made the wrong choice. Just don’t try telling me it wasn’t a choice.”

Eren feels his throat close up, his blood pounding in his ears.

“Do you keep them close and watch them die in front of you?” Levi adds, and if he’s going to make this of all things into some philosophical fucking mind game, Eren isn’t playing. “Or do you shove them away and spend your whole time wondering how they’ll die?”

“Not the whole time,” Eren says, trying to keep his voice casual. Failing… “They’re safer away from me.”

He hears a soft, scoffing huff from Levi.

“Don’t mock me,” Eren snarls. “What the fuck do you know about it?”

He’s regretting the words before they’ve even fully left his mouth, wants to take them back, but it’s too late. Eren can’t see Levi’s expression well in the dark, but his voice is a low, frosty purr. “What do I know?” He shifts in the seat; their breath clouds and mixes in the air between them. “Let me give you some fucking numbers. We’ll start with five and seven — five for my first squad, dead on my first mission, seven for those I couldn’t bring back over the next nine. I learned my lesson well: never let anyone out of my sight, never leave anyone behind.”

Eren can see where this is going; he thinks of Petra, Oluo, Eld, and Gunter, broken, slashed and crushed, and tastes bile in his throat. “If I could go back in time and do it diff—”

Levi’s hand clamps over his mouth. “Two hundred and forty-six thousand six hundred and three — the number of people we led out to the titans. One hundred fifteen — the number of Survey Corps riders sent with them, because Erwin refused to take his whole force. He didn’t choose who went personally, either — he had us draw lots. You know why?” Eren shakes his head, his heart pounding. “Twenty-eight — that’s how many rode back.” Levi’s fingers tighten on his face. “Eighteen — that’s how many died fighting alongside me because I was too much of a selfish dumbfuck to withdraw when the order came. Zero — that’s how many people I saved.”

Eren brings his hand up, gently loops his fingers around Levi’s wrist; however steady Levi’s voice, his pulse is racing. “And back to four again — the last dregs of the survivors. The ones who can’t die.” His voice drops, he lets go of Eren’s face. “I don’t know… I’ve never been able to work it out…where’s the line between self-sacrifice and selfishness? If the whole world is queueing up to shit in the one dish, does drowning yourself trying — and failing — to clean it out alone make you a brave hero dying for your beliefs… or a selfish idiot decomposing in a lake of other people’s stink?”

Eren tightens his fingers on Levi’s wrist. Perhaps he should be stung, rebuked, but he’s never really considered the Survey Corps’ role in the Wall Maria Reclamation Mission before. His head spins, he feels sick… Levi’s asking him a question, but all he can think of is Levi fighting alone, unable to make himself withdraw… Eren knows him as practical and ruthless, but the image in his head is so clear and right… “I don’t know,” he whispers. Levi lived through that, lives with that…

“What a fucking surprise.”

…and he’s chosen to tell Eren about it…

“I—” Levi moves his arm; Eren shifts his grip, holding on tight to his hand. “Is it the self-sacrifice you object to,” he manages, forcing the words past the lump in his throat, “or the failing?” The shape of the world might have changed around him, become more complex than he was ever prepared for, and he’s done so much damage… he knows how he feels, but he’s got no room to lecture on this, none at all… “Sometimes the line is really obvious, though, right?” He can feel Levi’s breath on his face; every inch of him aches to move in closer. He’s shit — he really is shit. “Putting someone’s life at risk just because you want to keep them close — that’s just plain selfishness, isn’t it?”

“We’re not talking kidnapping and chains here, are we?” Levi murmurs. “Do they want to be close to you?”

“I don’t—”

Eren feels Levi’s fingers run over the back of his neck and grip tight. He shivers — and he’s insane, he is, even if he trusts Levi, that’s his weak spot between the fingers of a man who is physically and mentally capable of ripping it out of his body, he should at least be uncomfortable, not arching his neck like he…

…likes it.

Levi shakes him. “Just a hint — if we’re talking about Mikasa and Armin, they fucking do and you know it. Shit, it’s cold.” He shoves Eren’s head against his shoulder and yanks the fur up to his neck. “Now sleep. Fuck.”

*

High above the wall, another star moves. Eren’s putting out heat like a bonfire, but he’s stiff-backed and awkward as he leans against Levi’s side.

“I’m not just talking about Mikasa and Armin,” he murmurs, and yawns against Levi’s neck. Levi feels Eren’s breathing slowly even out and his muscles relax.

“I know.” And that certainly makes Levi’s life easier, because he doesn’t intend to let Eren out of his sight.

Even if that comes with its own challenges.

For a moment there, he thought Eren would try to kiss him…

Eren shifts, curling closer. His hair tickles Levi’s jaw, his chin digs into the dip beneath Levi’s collarbone, and perhaps it isn’t his full weight bearing down hard on Levi’s healing shoulder and side, but Levi’s in no mood to judge it correctly. Shit, that hurts. He feels his ribs protest as he moves, trying to adjust Eren’s position.

Even asleep, Eren doesn’t move well on someone else’s instructions. His head slips forward, off Levi’s shoulder, and Levi uses his grip on his neck to slow his fall enough that Eren’s only response to his cheek hitting Levi’s thigh is a little noise of protest. He rubs his face against it like it’s the best possible pillow, and Levi prepares for a long night.

Even without his head in Levi’s lap and his weight on Levi’s bad knee, Eren’s presence would be overwhelming. He’s a solid, immovable point of heat and life in the icy room. His breath is loud, just out of time with the soft thrum of his heartbeat, and scalding hot even through the thick cotton of Levi’s pants. He let go of Levi’s wrist, but it still aches from the tightness of his grip.

If it’s bruised, Levi won’t be fucking impressed. Even if it’ll be his own fucking fault… what the hell did he think he’d accomplish, telling Eren about that mission? Only pigs and cattle pretend it never happened, insulting everyone who died for them in the process, but…

Levi drops his head back against the seat back with a thunk. He’s not convinced Eren understood half of what Levi was trying to tell him — hell, he heard the words coming out of his mouth and could barely follow himself.

He scowls and lets his gaze drift up from Wall Maria, to where more shooting stars glitter in the sky.

Metal, Eren said, and a lump of metal falling from the sky is a wonder, but the fallen star Hange showed Levi was even weirder. It had a blackened and cracked ceramic shell, like an egg made from blast furnace tiles, and what could almost be the twisted, melted remains of wings — if wings could have metal bones and feathers of crumpled golden mirrors. Levi isn’t particularly superstitious, he treasures every reminder of how big and strange this world is, but he watched Hange and Moblit pick at the “star” with every hair on the back of his neck standing on end. Just thinking about it now makes the feeling come back, a prickle of not-quite-fear, primal and irritating.

His fingers spread wide against the base of Eren’s skull, palm over his nape, as if that’s all it takes to protect him.

Eren’s cheek is burning hot against Levi’s thigh. His breathing is seriously irritating — and gets even more so when he rolls over, twisting until his knees are in the air, his ass hanging half off the edge of the seats and his face a few centimeters from Levi’s crotch. It’s like warming his balls in the updraft from an open fire; Levi lets his toes curl and spreads his legs to give his cock some room as it swells. It’s been almost a month since he last had sex; he was starting to forget the fucking thing was good for anything but pissing…

…and if he woke Eren up and told him to suck him off, he knows Eren would do it.

Whether he’d be any good at it is another matter. Levi has zero patience for fumbling inexperience when he wants to get off, and while he doesn’t know everything about Eren’s off-duty life pre-Survey Corps, he suspects giving and receiving orgasms have never featured much. Which is a fucking shame, he thinks idly, surprising himself. If anyone deserves the human contact and stress release of a fucking good fuck — or hell, even a behind-the-barracks blowjob — it’s Eren.

His hair is thick and soft, and Levi can feel the heat from his scalp in his fingertips.

Were Eren’s squadmates all blind? Or just stupid?

Still, better no sex at all than getting hurt or misused by some pig. And Levi’s not going to risk being that pig — not for the sake of scratching an idle itch. He is not a suitable fuck for a virgin.

Eren’s palm presses against the inside of Levi’s thigh, a surprising amount of force behind it. He breathes in deep, with both nose and mouth, like he’s trying to fill his lungs with Levi’s scent. Levi feels him shudder and finds himself echoing it.

He carefully moves Eren’s head away from his crotch.

Sexual frustration is a new experience for him, but one night of it is not going to kill him.

*

Somewhere beyond the freezing mist, the sun is rising, and Eren stands on top of Wall Maria surrounded by golden clouds.

To the west, all he can see are the vague outlines of mountaintops through the fog. If he stood here on a clear day, would he see anything more? What if he climbed to the top of one of those mountains? Could he look down on the Outside, all spread out in front of him like a map with none of its features named?

The frost crunches beneath his feet as he walks to the edge of the wall. He can feel his breath catch in his throat as he looks down into the fog and gloom, and as he stretches out his arm, half-expecting the air beyond the cage to feel different against his skin. One footstep further and he could be in a world that has never been enclosed…

Eren snorts. At least he’d fall to his death as a free man.

There’s movement below him, whirling black specks in the fog. Like ghosts becoming real creatures of bone and feathers, the crows seem to materialize in the air around him, an unruly mob of beating oil-black wings and mocking caws, before disappearing back into the fog, with only muffled cackling to prove they were ever there.

They find him ridiculous. They should.

Mina claimed it was possible to read a person’s whole life in their hands, past and future, and to her the base of the thumb was the “Mount of Love.” To Eren, it’s the most natural place to sink his teeth into when he needs pain and blood. He finds himself stroking it now, a worried motion that he stops as soon as he realizes he’s doing it.

Eren’s had food, he’s had sleep, he’s not facing a former friend — there is no earthly reason his body should refuse to transform this morning. He’s got no cause to worry. He can do it. He can.

He turns to Levi. “Visibility’s bad,” he says. Of course, that could be to their advantage.

Levi’s only response is a silent glare. And Eren hasn’t had much more than that from him all morning — just a curt “Wake me up at dawn, we’re going fishing” before he retreated to the bed for his turn to sleep.

Eren can think of half a dozen reasons for Levi to be pissed — hunger, pain, cold, lack of sleep, clothes not clean enough, only cold water to wash in. His current foul mood doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Eren…

…yeah, right. What are the chances of that?

Levi slings the bag over his shoulder and stalks over. “How much do you weigh now?” he says, catching hold of Eren’s hips. Then he lifts, without a flicker of strain or effort, as if Eren’s made of straw and air. Three years of training kick in as Eren’s feet leave the ground and he keeps his balance, steaming with embarrassment but hanging from Levi’s hands as easily as he would his gear harness. “Hm.” Levi drops him. “You need to eat more.”

Eren’s stomach chooses that moment to rumble. “Here’s hoping we bring back food then,” he says, as brightly as he can manage. He braces himself, lifts his hand to his mouth. “Please stand back, sir.” I can do this. I—

Levi catches his wrist in a bruising grip. “Wait until we’re over the wall.”

“I make too much light and smoke,” Eren says. He’s not even going to think about the other implications of Levi’s order. Surely Levi isn’t that crazy? “The walls can’t hide it all from the Beast if he’s looking this way.”

“True, but you don’t need to stand on top of the wall waving your dick at him.” Levi takes a step forward, joining Eren on the edge.

He is that crazy.

“What if I can’t do it?” Eren asks desperately, horrified by the way his voice cracks.

“You’ll do it,” Levi says, and his eyes are shot through with sunlight, bleached of color, steady and hard as he meets — meets and captures and holds — Eren’s gaze, “because I’m telling you to.”

He steps off the wall—

—still holding Eren’s wrist.

There’s a moment when Eren could throw himself back, perhaps grab hold of something, haul Levi back up, but it passes in a rush of panic… and exhilaration.

He spits out the chunk of flesh bitten from his hand and howls, electric pain jolting through him, his body responding — and Levi lets go of his wrist before he’s swallowed up by twisting coils of steaming muscle. His eyes are still sunlight bright as he falls.

Eren snatches him up less than a meter above the forest canopy, and the branches rip at his partially formed body as he smashes through them, Levi clutched close to his chest. He feels his leg bones crunch together as he lands, awkward but whole.

Levi’s expression doesn’t change as Eren roars in his face. Or when Eren decides he can’t get his feelings across without swear words and drops his titan’s head, letting the skin of its neck peel back. “What the fuck was that? What if I couldn’t fucking do it? You couldn’t know I could do it!” What kind of trust does Levi have in him? It’s horrifying.

And thrilling.

“Yet you did it.” Levi adjusts his clothes as Eren opens his fingers. He unhooks something from his pack and holds it up — a big old-fashioned grappling hook, trailing rope. “My backup plan,” he says. “So unclench — and take a look around you.”

“Why would I want to… oh.”

Outside. He’s outside Wall Maria.

Eren’s head whips around, tugging painfully on the nerves connecting him to his titan. He’s dreamed of this for most of his life…

He’s crouched in tangled briars, the steam from his healing legs mixing with the drifting fog around him. The forest is dark, the trees draped with frost and crowded tightly together. Eren stands up, awkwardly straightening his titan’s legs while not lifting its head or closing its neck. The gloom is because he’s standing in the shadow of Wall Maria, he realizes — the sky and the hilltops around him are hidden by mist, but it’s all golden bright and almost dreamlike and Eren’s heart aches in his chest.

Eren feels Levi’s weight shift on his palm. Then he’s landing on Eren’s shoulder, perhaps a little heavier than he would while using maneuver gear but just as confident.

“Breathe it in,” Levi says quietly.

“I was expecting…” Eren doesn’t know what he was expecting. Not this.

Levi’s eyes are locked on his face; he could close up the flesh of his titan around himself to hide from them, but he’s breathing free air, Outside air, clean and sharp with the tang of frost and pine. Some of the deciduous trees are changing color, splashes of red and gold showing through the fog.

“It doesn’t look any different,” he says. The forest is wilder, perhaps, than that inside the wall, unused by humans for a century or maybe more, unyielding and unfriendly, but it’s gathered around the same river that runs beneath the wall, clinging to the sides of a mountain range that rises as high in the northern Districts of Wall Sina as it does out here in the unmapped world. “It doesn’t smell different. It’s still foggy.” But both his human and titan bodies feel like they’re charged with lightning. He could howl at the sky, start running and never stop — and he’d never have to stop. There’s nothing in his way… “So why does it feel so different?”

Levi blinks, turns away, and Eren stops looking at the mountains, the forest, everything but him.

Levi smiled.

No mistake — it was fleeting and crooked but so real and Eren needs to see it again…

Levi bats away Eren’s titan fingers as easily as he would his human ones. “We haven’t got time for you to stand and fucking gawp.”

Right. Fishing. Eren closes his titan’s neck around himself, feels his perception of the world shift. He straightens up, trusting Levi to take care of himself on his shoulder, and feels a light tug on his hair as Levi does just that.

He pushes through the woods, following the riverbank as closely as he can. The Esen upstream is dead, but out here it’s fed by smaller rivers coming down from the mountains. Eren might not like the idea of eating anything from the main river, but these are another matter. He crouches over one, fast-moving and sparkling and, more importantly, small enough that the fact they haven’t brought tackle or line isn’t a problem.

It splits in half to go around a tiny rock of an island barely big enough to hold two sweet chestnuts, the branches twisted together like lovers’ arms. At one side of the lovers the river is a wide rock-churned white mass, at the other narrow and deep and deceptively calm with its sparkling, glass-like surface. Eren cups his hands together and dips them into the icy water. The water level rises as he crouches there, listening to the birds sing in the frost-coated trees, and he feels the strength of the current pushing at him, the pebbled riverbed shifting against his fingertips and the fish tickling as they butt up against the dam of his palms. Levi shifts on his shoulder, making himself comfortable, and if he presses close to Eren’s neck it’s probably just to take advantage of his heat but it feels shamefully good to Eren. He idly pretends he’s being hugged and stays there motionless while the mist is burned away to scraps wrapped around the thickest clumps of trees, until his hands are cold and numb and the water slops over the banks. Then he scoops up what he can.

The water drains away between his fingers, leaving behind strands of riverweed plastered against his steaming flesh and a variety of panicking fish. Their scales glint in the sunlight, mercury and rainbows flicking and flashing across his palms as they try to follow the water to freedom, and Eren feels movement on his shoulder, Levi light as a bird as he descends Eren’s arm, jumping between muscles with the ease of someone running down stairs. Eren takes a moment to watch him, as fascinated as ever by his sure-footed grace. Levi’s breath puffs out like steam; he catches and dispatches the fish with the efficiency he brings to everything he does, but Eren hears a muttered “disgusting.”

He lets his laugh out through his titan, and Levi shoots him an offended look that’s only partially serious.

“Laugh away, asshole,” he grumps. “You’re not the one who’ll be stuck cleaning and gutting these.”

Eren takes his life in his hands and flicks him with water.

“Oh?” Levi catches hold of his index finger with both hands, and Eren might not have as many nerve endings in this form but that really fucking hurts. “You trying to pick on me, brat?” he says, his voice lighter than Eren’s ever heard it. So Eren bumps him on the shoulder with his middle finger — or tries to, because he ends up clumsily stroking his ear and neck first — and watches Levi’s eyes narrow and gleam and the corners of his mouth come thrillingly close to turning up. His hair is tangled across his forehead, his chin dark with stubble, his borrowed coat frayed at the collar, and his eyes might be bright but they’re also ringed with purple shadows — and Eren drinks him in with his eyes. His titan’s mouth isn’t made for smiling, but he tries it anyway. Never stop looking at me like that, never stop…

Levi pats his finger, smearing blood and fish scales on it. “Find me a clearing. I’ll be chef today.”

*

Well, it isn’t the kitchen of a Mitras restaurant, with fancy ranges and greenhouse-grown spices and a gang of underlings to deal with the unpleasant prep, but Levi makes the clearing by the river work for him. He builds fire pits, cleans and guts and salts the fish, then sets them up to smoke.

Unsurprisingly, Eren’s better at foraging than he is — Levi’s unorthodox entry into the military means he never did the kind of “training exercise” that seems to be five percent training and ninety-five percent sending the trainees off to fend for themselves in the woods when the camp food supplies start running low — so Eren’s the one off scrabbling around in the undergrowth. In full fifteen-meter class titan form. The acorns and berries won’t know what hit them.

That fucking kid is a one-off creation.

Levi dumps bracken on the fires and watches the smoke billow up, mixing with the last of the floating fog. Eren’s out of sight, but Levi can still hear the sounds of his passage through the forest.

He’s never claimed to be selfless. Yes, he’s fucking pleased he got to be there for Eren’s first taste of the air outside the walls, and yes, he’s not unhappy that he was the only one, and no, he doesn’t feel the slightest flicker of guilt over it.

His side throbs. He can see at least four possible seats — a moss-covered stump, two roots grown up out of the ground, a rock on the riverbank — and the only thing stopping Levi from dropping his ass down on one of them and resting his aching body while the fish smokes is his own stubbornness. He’s healing well — unnervingly well, if he’s honest, and unnervingly fast — but it isn’t good enough. His energy has been leeched away by walking and climbing and a little bit of light lifting — how fucking pathetic is that? His body makes him painfully aware of how off his game he is with every movement he makes. If a titan came…

Although, as the time ticks on, he’s starting to think he might be more at risk from bears than titans.

He shouldn’t be so surprised; outside Wall Maria anything, everything, is possible. Still, three hours without a sniff of a titan — Erwin would kill for that kind of contact rate. It was common, apparently, in the early days of the Survey Corps, which Levi thinks makes some kind of sense of their survival rate before maneuver gear was invented and when one single abnormal could decimate a column with hardly any opposition.

Some of the spears are angled wrong, not catching the smoke. Levi adjusts them, and tries to imagine going on expeditions where a titan encounter was an uncommon horror rather than part of a relentless, grinding routine. The situation has changed a lot in the last seventy years, and he’s not sure which is the more uncomfortable thought — that the titans are gathering… or what might have drawn them. He tips the discarded pile of guts and scales into the water and watches the shapes of other fish whip about beneath the surface, tucking into their surprise meal.

Levi would be the first to admit that growing up in the Underground didn’t give him the best knowledge of the natural world, but some of its rules he knew long before he got to see a tree. The fittest survive longest. Everything comes back to either feeding or fucking.

Carnivores go where the easy meat is.

He stops moving, stills his breathing, listens to the forest. The birds sing and the water bounces over and between rocks, and he dismisses both as natural. The rustling leaves and creaking branches among the trees behind him would be natural too — if there were any wind to stir them.

Eren’s a good four hundred meters away to the north. Levi crouches down and places his palms against the ground, feeling the vibrations. Even so far away, Eren’s footfalls are powerful enough to all but mask those of the new titan — it must be significantly smaller than him.

If he shouts for Eren now, he’ll draw the other titan straight to him. If he tries to hide, he risks it destroying his makeshift smokehouse while looking for him.

The noise stops, the vibrations still. Levi stands up, cleans the mud off his hands in the river, and starts making his way — quiet, unhurried — along the bank in Eren’s direction.

Big glassy eyes watch him from the trees.

“If you’re going to start talking to me, I wouldn’t leave it too long.”

What would he do if it did? Get Eren to disable it while the three of them have a nice chat about the fucking weather? No, better that the titan back at the farmhouse was an especially strange abnormal. It’s bad enough that Levi knows they’re human; he doesn’t need a reminder of it at every kill.

“Hey! Eren!” He doesn’t raise his voice too much — no need to risk startling the titan into movement. If Eren’s not listening intently for any sign of trouble, Levi will eat his cloak, cutting it up into squares and pretending it won’t get shat out in exactly the same shapes. “Get your ass back here!”

The titan’s hand slaps out. Levi ducks down, slipping beneath a tree root. The titan plows its fingers through the earth, uprooting the tree. Levi springs clear, the splintering crash filling his ears as he scrambles up onto the side of another tree. The ground was shaking when his feet left it — he only has to keep this up for a minute or two—

He catches hold of a branch, swings himself up onto it with his blood singing in his ears and his wounds protesting this rough treatment with shuddering pain. The titan is only a five-meter class, and its round belly and spindly arms make it seem unlikely to be a climber. If Levi can get high enough—

The titan isn’t a climber.

However, it is a fast learner. Levi looks down from his perch to see it putting its shoulder to the tree trunk. He feels it sway alarmingly, the angry cracks vibrating up through the wood as it gives way, and Levi leaps for another tree as it falls, hundreds of years of old wood smashing and mutilating everything in its path.

“You going to tear down this whole fucking wood to get to me?” he says, hauling himself into a stable position. Down below, the titan fixes its huge mournful eyes on him. Splinters from the tree stick out of its shoulder and steam rises in the air as it lifts its arm, stretching out its fingers toward Levi as if it could reach him by pure force of will.

Eren hits it in a whirl of feet and hands and teeth.

It’s over in seconds. Levi watches through the billowing steam as Eren takes the last twitching lump of flesh and grinds it into paste beneath his heel.

Eren turns his face up to him, disintegrating titan guts caked around his mouth. His eyes glow, gold-green and alien, his fierce intelligence burning beneath a titan’s single-minded focus, and Levi finds himself staring, transfixed and unmoving on his branch. His chest is tight, his mouth dry… The blood still pounding in his ears, he grants Eren a stiff nod.

Eren wipes the steaming gore from his mouth, rubbing at his teeth with his fingers. His eyes remain fixed on Levi as he lifts his hand up to him, intent obvious.

“The river’s right there,” Levi snaps. He can feel the heat radiating off Eren’s skin as he stops, fingers curled around Levi but not quite touching. “Wash your hands before you fucking touch me.”

Eren snorts but does as he’s told. Levi makes his own way down to the ground, his body still humming with adrenaline.

Eren is a real one-off creation, in every possible fucking way.

And one day, with enough alcohol inside him, Levi might tell Hange just how close he came to popping a boner over a fucking titan. After all, he’s only ninety percent certain a human being can’t be killed by their own laughter.

*

Eren leans back in his chair and stretches, curling his toes in his boots and soaking up the warmth from the kitchen range. He looks at his plate, debating whether or not he could eat more.

There’s still room in his belly, dammit.

He nudges another baked apple onto his plate, watching as it oozes honey and bits of blackberry. How can something so simple give him so much pleasure?

Eren’s long had a theory that on some level, his bodily functions have the ability to just shrug and give up. Can’t sleep? Never mind; after a couple of days his body will stop bugging him about being tired. Nothing to eat? Same deal. If he ignores his hunger long enough, it’ll just… go away.

Until someone makes it their business to feed him.

Which seemed to have been Levi’s main plan for the day. For breakfast, they feasted on clay-baked perch and handfuls of walnuts and blackberries, and Eren thought that was luxury enough. But then they got their bags of food — fish and game and plants and fruit — back to Strokirch Garrison HQ, and Levi had him figuring how best to disperse the smoke from the kitchen range so it’s less obvious than a plume heading straight up out of the chimney because Levi “wanted to fucking cook”…

Between them they’ve polished off half a stockpot of watercress and mushroom soup, the majority of a whole — almost as long as Eren’s arm — brown trout baked and served with lemony wood sorrel, half a “loaf” of crumbly-as-hell but delicious acorn bread, several sticks of roasted cattail root, and a panful of scored and roasted sweet chestnuts.

The apple melts in his mouth, hot and sweet. Eren makes an embarrassing noise of pure bliss and tries to cover it up by chewing noisily. Levi picks the shell off a chestnut and watches him with what Eren thinks — hopes — is amusement.

“Sorry,” Eren manages. He speaks between bites. “Living off the land in training never tasted this good. How did you get so good at this? No offense, sir, but—”

Levi finishes it for him. “—but I grew up on a trash heap? In my building,” he says, “there was an old woman who could do fucking amazing things with a chicken’s dying fart and a week-old loaf of government-issue bread. Erwin’s had me fed in noble houses all over the Capitol, but if someone asked me to name Sina’s best chef, I’d still point to Madam Liat.” Levi pops the chestnut in his mouth and gives a loose, one-shouldered shrug. “Making quality ingredients like this taste good is a piece of piss, but when you’re trying to make actual shit taste like rainbows, you ‘get so good’ fucking quickly.” He raises his cup like he’s offering a salute. “Or you give up and resign yourself to the fact the sewer rats are eating better than you.”

Eren watches him take a sip of his “tea” and can’t help his grin as Levi shudders ever so slightly, his face never changing expression. Levi catches his eye. “Even old Liat couldn’t brew up pine needles and make them taste like real tea,” Levi says.

It’s Eren’s turn to shrug. “I like it.”

“Disgusting,” Levi murmurs — and that’s a really unfair tone of voice, soft and teasing and just the right pitch to make the hair on the back of Eren’s neck stand on end. He can feel it in his chest and his stomach and his cock—

Levi eases himself to his feet and starts clearing the table, packing up the edible leftovers and putting them in the larder with the rest of their bounty — bags of apples and nuts, bowls of cattails seeping in water, smoked fish, bunches of herbs hanging from the ceiling. He moves stiffly; Eren’s honestly amazed he’s still on his feet at all.

“I’ll wash the dishes,” Eren says. “Why don’t you go upstairs and—” Take a rest. “—keep watch.”

Levi’s eyes gleam. “Well caught,” he says calmly. “I’ll do that. And you should mop that floor, too.” Eren follows the line of his gaze and sees muddy footprints leading past the kitchen door. “Everything you’ve told me about your mom, I can’t believe she didn’t teach you to wipe your feet,” Levi adds, and Eren wants to protest — it wasn’t him, of course he knows how to wipe his feet… but it had to be him, didn’t it? Who else is there?

Anyway, mopping the floor doesn’t interfere with his main task, which is boiling buckets and buckets of water. A trip up to the bathroom while Levi was cooking confirmed that the hot-water circulation side of the building’s plumbing is broken somehow. The way he understands it, the kitchen range should be sending hot water up to the tank in the attic, and the icy water spurting from the shower proves that it very much is not. So Eren will have to do this the old-fashioned way. At least he doesn’t have to haul the buckets up the stairs one by one — there are dumbwaiter shafts outside the scullery, and one of them goes to the captain’s suite. The Plan is in motion.

Levi is sitting on the window seats, but instead of taking it easy he’s got Captain Chlebek’s shaving kit open on the seat beside him. He draws the razor blade back and forth against the strap and barely seems to show any interest as Eren goes back and forth from the bathroom with his buckets. However, Eren’s aware of being watched. By the time he’s poured some of the scented oil into the steaming water, Levi’s curiosity has drawn him into the doorway, and he leans against the doorframe as Eren puts an ewer of clean water and a hand towel on the little stand next to the tub and fits the carved oak tray into place across it. He lays out mirror, comb, flannel, and soap on the tray. Then he gestures and barely holds back his tada!

And he’s suddenly glad he didn’t light any candles as Levi looks at the bath with narrowed eyes. True, he might have gone a little far, and if Levi asks why, he’ll have to tell him it’s because he looks like he needs a little luxury and Eren suspects that conversation won’t go well at all—

“Where’s my brandy and newspaper?” Levi says, and starts unbuttoning his shirt.

Eren feels his face break into a grin. “I’ll just take a run over to Klorva District. Anything else?”

“Fuck Klorva District.” Levi neatly folds his clothes as he removes them. “I want my news direct from the Capitol.” Eren tries not to watch as he lifts his arms lazily above his head and stretches, slowly, muscle by muscle, until the whole of his body is pulled taut as a drawn bow. He shakes himself like a cat and steps into the bath. “And my booze stolen from the cellar of the richest pig in Mitras.”

Levi sinks down into the tub with a sigh. Eren tears his gaze away and starts on his own wash. Soaping himself down from a bucket is slightly less luxurious than stretching out in the big tub, but the water is hot and getting clean feels fantastic.

He’s used to bathing with other people, but today he’s hyperaware of his nakedness. Which is ridiculous. As if Levi even notices or cares…

“Hey, Eren.” Levi doesn’t raise his voice, but Eren jumps anyway. He drops the soap and has an undignified moment scrambling for it. “Pass the shaving kit.”

Eren does more than that: he sets it on the bath tray and fetches over a bowl of fresh water he put aside for just this reason. And he does it all without looking at Levi once. Even a glance is a temptation to stare, so he won’t take the risk—

“I have a question for you,” Levi says. Eren hears a metallic slither as Levi opens the razor — and he’s still not looking… “What’s a ‘flak vest’?”

Eren puts the bowl down on the tray. “Personal armor,” he says.

“And an ‘Aphrodite’?”

“The goddess of beauty and love—” His voice catches. The knowledge floats on the surface of his mind like a fallen leaf in a puddle, no connections to anything else, no clues to where it came from. He knows the name, he knows that she hasn’t been worshipped in hundreds of generations… but how does he know it? Who named her, who worshipped her… all these things are a mystery to him.

He looks at Levi, finds him staring at him intently. Eren can call up a picture of a ‘flak vest’ in his head, but he can’t tell Levi anything more about it than he already has. “I… don’t know where that came from,” he says. Then he thinks of something. “Why did you ask me that? Where did that come from?”

“I’m just making conversation,” Levi says. He examines the razor. “I can’t keep my mouth shut for more than five minutes at a time, you know that.” The sarcasm should be reassuring, but Eren’s not in the mood to appreciate it. Or the considering look Levi gives him, shrewd and hard and not entirely friendly. His brain is enough of a mess, he doesn’t need it fucking with.

Levi’s gaze flicks over his chest, and fuck goddesses and fuck body armor. All thoughts of everything rush out of Eren’s head. His skin feels too small for his body. Levi glances down at his crotch — and Eren’s cock reacts to the sudden attention. “I’ll get dressed.” He flees to the bedroom, where he takes several deep breaths and thinks of titans and dead bodies and unpleasant things. He drags on some pants.

His head is reeling.

He didn’t imagine that, did he? Levi looked at him — like, really looked, heat in his eyes.

And Eren ran.

Nice job.

The thought is cold, sneering. Eren drops down onto the bed, his head pounding as he pulls his shirt over his head—

 

— and he’s worn out, sated, sweat beaded on his skin in the stifling heat of the tent. Since his… alteration he’s struggled to get cool at the best of times, but this was definitely not a way to do it. He stretches his aching muscles and considers AM-05’s naked back where he sits cross-legged on the bedroll. His silence, his lack of sweat or heavy breathing, the calm precision with which he takes apart and cleans his weapons — all of it could be taken as an insult.

There’s one single scar on his back, fresh and ugly, where he took a bullet for his master. Charles reaches out, runs his finger around it… watches him shudder —

 

— and the girl kisses his neck, sweetly eager. Her father is a fool if he think this will gain him anything, but who is Johann to deny him hope or little Gwen her first time? A Reiss has responsibilities, after all…

Her flesh is soft and cool under the thin cotton of her chemise. The mattress creaks beneath them —

 

— he laughs as Kenny poses dramatically, bedsheet draped around his naked body like the robes of a king —

 

— and writhes as Tomas kisses up the inside of his — no, her — thigh —

 

— and shudders as Carla bites teasingly at his collarbone —

 

— and leans in the bathroom doorway, appraising gaze fixed on Levi. For a moment, Eren’s veins are filled with icewater calm. His eyes sweep over Levi’s back. Small for one of his kind, scarred up and no longer at his physical peak, but still delicious…

 

Blood blooms through the lathered soap on Levi’s chin. Eren rushes to his side as he tosses the razor onto the tray, passing him a clean flannel to dab at the cut.

Concern fizzes in his head. What the fucking hell was that? That wasn’t him. Eren never felt so clear-headed and cold in his life. The heat pounding through his body now is a relief.

Levi massages his shoulder. Eren sees a flash of pain in his eyes before he closes them. And in an odd sort of way, that feels like a privilege. “It’s hard to keep the skin taut,” he says quietly.

“Let me do it?”

“Do you even shave?”

Now that’s just insulting. “At least twice a week!” Eren plucks the blood-stained razor from the tray and wipes it down. “And I can play barber — I helped Reiner when—” His teeth click together. When Reiner “sprained his wrist” out on maneuvers, and wow, wasn’t that a massive crock of shit? Everyone thought he was so lucky to get away with such a minor injury when that fall should have killed him. The lying bastard. “I’m such a gullible moron.”

Levi’s eyelids twitch, and for a moment his eyes glint behind his laced-together lashes. He slides slowly down to rest his head on the rim of the tub, lifting his jaw, baring his throat. “You know what’ll happen if you cut my ear off.”

Eren sinks to his knees. His finds Levi’s stubble surprisingly rough under his fingers as he smooths the lather more evenly across his chin. “You’ll return the favor?” he murmurs.

“At least yours will grow back.”

Eren doesn’t know what he expects — his hand to shake, maybe, or Levi to tense up at the wrong time, because he doesn’t seem like the kind of man who would like someone holding a blade to his skin — but it goes smoothly. He makes a nice neat line of the end of Levi’s sideburn — and his hair is growing out too, velvety and springy beneath Eren’s fingertips — presses his fingers against Levi’s cheekbone to hold the skin still for the first downward sweep of the blade, and Levi doesn’t move a millimeter. His breathing is completely even, his eyes loosely shut. The only tension is in his tightly pressed together lips as Eren eases his head slightly further back.

He can smell the shaving oil on Levi’s skin. The steam from the bathwater makes his eyes water.

He can’t help glancing down as he wipes the blade, his gaze flicking quickly over the smooth lines of Levi’s body. The wound beneath his ribs is unwrapped but safely above the waterline, the black spikes of the stitches glaringly ugly and seeming hardly necessary to hold together the clean, pink, closed line of it. Levi shifts position, taking his opportunity while the blade is away from his face, and as the soapy water sloshes around him, Eren sees the sharp lines across his abs and around his knees where the too-hot water has made his pale skin flush red. The water isn’t touching his shoulders and collarbone, but color is spreading there, too. His nipples are tiny and pink and stiff…

Eren takes a deep breath, glad most of his body is hidden behind the side of the tub, and returns to his work, grateful for the trickiness of shaving someone else’s top lip. If there’s one thing Eren knows how to do, it’s to concentrate his whole self on a difficult task.

Levi doesn’t give a fuck if he gets hard. But if he nicks him, it’ll be a whole different story.

The thought shouldn’t make him harder.

*

Eren’s fingers linger on his neck, finding the lines of stubble growth. Levi is warm, the heat from the water soaked up by his tired, aching body like he’s a man gulping down fine wine after a month of drinking sewer water — and fuck knows, he could get drunk on this heat just as easily. The pads of Eren’s fingers are points of fire against his throat. Eren carefully slides the blade up to his chin, small delicate strokes that seem so out of place with the size and solidity and blazing heat of the body Levi can feel leaning over him… bumping up against him, the existence of that shirt a fucking annoyance but one hundred percent a good, important thing…

Levi smells the oil as Eren opens the bottle, barely has time to prepare himself before Eren’s hands are all over his cheeks and mouth and chin and neck and he’s choking off his gasp before it even gets into his throat. Hot, so much heat…

His cock’s hard enough to hammer in nails.

Eren’s thumb brushes over his parted lips.

Fuck using it as a hammer — he could break the wood itself with it, ram it straight through with no injury but splinters—

“Second pass?” Eren asks. Just two fucking words and his voice catches on them… shit…

Levi gets a small flicker of satisfaction that his doesn’t. “Why not?”

He settles further down in the tub, hot flannel against his face, and listens to the whisk of the brush as Eren makes more lather. For a while, he can keep his eyes shut, let himself enjoy the sensations of the brush’s bristles against his chin, Eren’s breath against his forehead, the cool touch of the blade, Eren’s fingertips, the heat of Eren as he leans over him, the fabric of his shirt sticking to Levi’s shoulder. He smells of soap and fresh sweat, startlingly powerful musk cut with the chemical sharpness of burned out matches. His breath is rough, but the motions of the blade remain quick and sure. If he’s noticed Levi’s cock curving up out of the water — and he has, it’s no boast that he’d have to be seriously fucking unobservant not to — he’s not letting it be a distraction.

Levi watches Eren through his eyelashes, takes in the wet hair plastered against his forehead and cheekbones and dripping water down the golden line of his throat, the damp shirt clinging to his chest, the look of complete concentration on his face. Flushed skin, pupils so wide and black in his eyes they swallow up the green… Eren moistens his lips, an awkward bite-and-lick maneuver that shows Levi the tip of his tongue. Levi looks at his mouth and doesn’t think about feeding him his cock as the blade slides down over his throat — close, so close — and Eren’s fingers wind into his hair as if to hold his head in place — tight, so tight. His scalp stings and his cock throbs as his head is held back just a fraction longer than it needs to be, Eren letting his fingers linger.

He doesn’t put down the razor as quickly as he could, either.

His shirt gapes open — and Levi is tempted to hook his fingers in there and tug, to see if the fabric really is as flimsy as it looks.

Levi can be nice. He doesn’t have to take Eren apart. In fact, Eren doesn’t have to do a thing — he can just milk out Levi’s jizz between the lean muscle and scalding-hot flesh of his thighs or let Levi choke himself to orgasm and unconsciousness on his long, fat cock—

Levi realizes he hasn’t blinked in over a minute. Eren looks at him as if he fully expects Levi to go for his jugular — but also as if he’s willing to return the favor, his eyes blazing wild and hot, the line between tamped-down violence and held-back lust impossibly blurred. He bites his lip again — and Levi is tempted to tell him to get that mouth to better use… no, fuck words, a good grip on his hair and a firm shove of his head down to Levi’s cock should be enough. There’s no way Eren will tell him no—

Which is why Levi will do no such thing.

“I do respect you,” Eren blurts out, and isn’t that a boner-killer? “I haven’t jerked off since I’ve been in the Survey Corps,” he adds fiercely. And takes what he probably thinks is a sneaky look at Levi’s cock, Mother Sina help them both…

“Why do I need to know that?” And how are those two sentences supposed to fit together? Levi looks at him, and can’t help where his mind goes. “How have your balls not exploded?” he says eventually.

Eren’s face is painfully red. He screws his eyes shut and shakes his head and exchanges the razor for the oil bottle… as if he intends to try to continue, as if he thinks he’s going to get to get his hands back on Levi without following through… Levi reaches out and firmly takes it off him. “I can handle the rest,” he says. And he definitely intends to. That oil will be good for more than just his chin. “Go and jerk off. I’m going to.” Eren takes a deep breath. He looks like he’s going to explode. “Think of it as an order if you like.” He doesn’t move — and this is fucking ridiculous. “Should I make you do it here?” Levi snaps, and regrets it instantly, because yes, Eren jerks back as if he’s been slapped, his face even redder, but his eyes…

If he didn’t just come in his pants, it was a close thing.

Eren scrambles to his feet, leaving the room with a towel clutched to his crotch; Levi leans back against the edge of the bath and groans, not sure if he feels turned on or guilty or both. His hand goes to his cock, every tug precise and efficient.

Those eyes…

He lets his mind drift, just for a moment, lets it construct an image — Eren’s cock in his hand, Eren twitching and shaking, trying not to make a noise, trying to hold on to his idea of dignity while his eyes blaze wild and desperate and his fingers and toes dig into the rug, the payoff from months of self-inflicted deprivation bearing down on him in an unstoppable, clawing rush…

…or perhaps he’s a clinger, no shame in him at all as he gets his arms and legs wrapped around Levi’s back and thighs and ruts fiercely into his hand and against his belly, making noise enough to wake the dead… his pre-come slick on Levi’s abs, his fingers digging bruises into Levi’s neck and ass as he drags him in even closer…

Levi snorts and speeds up his hand — and banishes both images, because he’s never tormented himself with thoughts of someone he can’t have while jerking off and he’s not about to start now.

*

Eren slumps down at the captain’s writing desk, rerunning the last few minutes in his mind as if he can somehow will them from existence.

What the hell is wrong with him?

He practically told Levi that he’d been his jerk-off fantasy until entering the Survey Corps… There might come a time when Eren can look him in the eye again, but he can’t imagine it right now…

He leafs through the papers on the table, trying to ignore his aching cock.

What does he want? He wants to touch Levi. He wants to taste him — skin, sweat, saliva, jizz, blood. He wants to dig in his teeth and leave some marks of his own, wrap himself around him until even air can’t get between them. He wants to put his fingers and his tongue wherever Levi will let him… And his cock, fuck it, even if he doesn’t like to think of himself as that kind of filth, okay with hurting someone to get off… He wants…

He groans, drops his forehead to the table and his hand beneath it, palms his cock through his pants… and that isn’t going to help, dammit…

There are two solid doors and a room between them, he shouldn’t still be able to smell him. Eren lifts his hand to his nose, breathes in the scents of the shaving soap and oil lingering on his fingers. It shouldn’t feel so much like if Eren opens his eyes, Levi will be there…

Instead, he opens his eyes to finds the map of Wall Maria’s Western Districts sticking to his face. Fat lot of use that it is… He goes to crumple it up — and his eyes fall on the corner of something sticking out from under the other papers.

At first, it looks like a second copy of the same map. Eren pulls it free and puts the two maps next to each other so he can see the differences, and they are there. For a start, this new map has an extra village marked on it, and shows the Esen as far less winding. It’s not too strange — the Esen is Strokirch and Western Wall Maria’s main connection to Klorva District and Wall Rose, so rerouting it to make it shorter and straighter would make life easier for the riverboat crews. Eren thinks the government did something similar to the river just outside Shiganshina years before he was born. He flicks through the notes pinned to the map: Madam Amsel claims not to have received her compensation; see complaints from former Bole residents re. government agents; six cows dead on Old Kahler’s land in less than a month, no obvious CoD; young Anika from the Brand farm ill, Dr. Fasser baffled… Both maps seem as crinkled and aged as each other, but the one he was looking at before has a date in its bottom corner, printed in the same neat hand as the notes: August 12, 844.

Eren blinks, runs his hands over the maps and stares.

The one with the winding Esen is the newer map?

He’s not sure what this means, but he needs to show Levi. He gathers up the papers, marches through the bedroom to the open bathroom door — this is more important than his embarrassment—

He halts in the doorway, his body refusing to move any further.

Levi’s hands are hidden behind the walls of the tub, as is whatever he’s doing with them, but Eren takes in the way his shoulders press against its rolled rim, his neck arched and his black lashes fanned out against his cheeks, the way every muscle Eren can see — even in the leg slung casually over the edge of the tub — tenses up, the way Levi’s brows come down and his lips press tightly together, the way they part as he shudders, the only sound the splash of water and the squeak of his toes against the rim of the tub as they press and curl. Not a single moan or gasp as his body relaxes, shudders again…

Levi takes a deep breath, clicks his tongue and reaches for a cloth — and glances over at Eren as he wipes himself down.

“What do you want?”

Eren holds up the maps. “You should see these,” he says. And we’ll both pretend I didn’t see anything in here. Not easy, when he can feel the skin of his face and neck burning, his cock straining against the fabric of his pants. His gaze strays to Levi’s leg. Levi rolls his eyes and stands up, water streaming off his body. He tips the bucket of clean water over his head — and Eren feels something inside his brain stretch and break.

He finds himself taking a step back. The maps flutter to the floor.

Eren’s seen Levi naked before. He’s even seen him naked with droplets of water glistening on his collarbone and creeping down into the dip of his belly button and gathering at the tip of his cock. Hell, he’s even touched him. This shouldn’t be so weird—

Not fair, he thinks wildly, as Levi scrapes his wet hair back out of his eyes with a quick impatient gesture. Eren wordlessly passes him a towel. His mouth is fucking watering; he swallows awkwardly and snatches up the bucket to stow it away.

Levi wraps the towel around his hips and stalks over to the dropped maps with barely a hint of a limp. Somewhere inside his dizzy, overheated brain, Eren notices and is delighted. He’s healing so quickly… His cuts and grazes are already gone, his bruises yellow and fading — soon the stitched-up wound on his side will be just another in the scattering of old scars decorating his pale, taut skin.

“What is this?” Levi is no wider across the shoulders than Eren, but the combination of his height and narrow waist makes his back into a dramatic triangle. The muscles in it flex as he bends to pick up the maps, and Eren clenches his fists and doesn’t touch.

He wants to bite down on that skin, hard enough to taste Levi’s blood in his mouth…

He digs his fingernails into his palms; the sharp sting of pain does nothing to restore his sense.

*

Levi readjusts the towel, his post-orgasm mood already darkening. Eren’s timing could have been worse — at least he got to get off — but whatever this is, it had better be good.

“Why two maps?” He straightens up —

Eren’s staring at him.

The expression Levi’s mentally categorized as “Eren’s monster showing” is impressive enough seen through steel bars. This close, running hungrily up Levi’s bare legs and lingering on his tensed-up abs, it’s practically assault.

Not bad…

“You finished?” Levi snaps. Eren jerks his head up. And Levi got off less than five minutes ago, however unsatisfactorily, but his cock’s half-hard beneath his towel in the time it takes to meet Eren’s gaze. Fuck…

Levi counters his heat with a flinty-eyed glare.

Eren looks away. Levi watches him clench his fists and his jaw before looking back.

One word… just one word, one move… The choice is all Eren’s… If Eren’s ready for this, if he can back up all these heated looks with action, Levi will give him anything, everything he wants. Hard.

“They moved the river.”

Levi blinks. It occurs to him that if he were a different type of man, he’d be bent over laughing right about now. It sure as hell doesn’t look like he’ll get to bend over for anything else.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Look at the maps,” Eren says fiercely. He snatches them from Levi and drops to his knees to spread them out on the bedroom floor. “See this?” His finger stabs at one map, then another. “And this?” Levi crouches next to him, fascinated despite himself. “This is an arm of the Esen on this map, rejoining the main branch just before the town, but it’s marked as the river itself on this one, and the larger branch is gone altogether. When I was out in the woods, there was a watchtower here, right next to where the river is now, but it would have been out in the middle of nowhere before, and here’s where the titans are digging, right?”

“And here,” Levi says, pointing out the spot. “Let me guess, you’ve got ideas about what they’re after?”

“Some,” Eren says. His thick brows come together; his eyes are bright and hard. “Not enough. Sacrificing a village to add kilometers onto the path of the Esen — what does anyone gain from that?” He runs his finger over the original line of the Esen. “And why would the Ape go to all this trouble to put the river back? If that’s what they’re even doing…? Are they even digging in the right place for that? What are they looking for?”

“Something worth a lot to them,” Levi says quietly as they study the map. His mind goes to the ammunition store again — how many bombs can they make with the powder left in there? “I don’t know about you, but I dislike the idea of them getting it.” Eren flashes one of his sharp, fast grins at him. “What?”

“Exactly what I was thinking! First we need to find out what ‘it’ is.” He frowns again, and Levi suddenly knows exactly what he’s going to say next. “I’ve got a few hours of daylight left, I can—”

No.” The word comes out harder than intended, but it halts Eren’s momentum as efficiently as a grab at his gear cables. “Go tomorrow. I’ll come with you.”

“I’ve already wasted time—”

“You needed to rest and eat,” Levi says, “or you would’ve been all talk and no transformation. Again.” Eren flinches. “Today’s titan wasn’t as strong as you can make. I’m not a shifter, so what do I fucking know, but more food and sleep wouldn’t go to waste.”

“It could!” Eren snaps. “What if they’re close to success? What if I’ve only got tonight to stop them? What use is ‘resting,’ then?”

“I’m not taking you out there with no preparation and just your fists to fight with. You need some kind of edge, a backup—”

“And I’m not taking you out there at all!”

Levi feels his face freeze, hardening into the mask that’s had so much use over the years.

Eren’s face is flushed, his eyes unnaturally bright. “I can’t… if I lost… if you don’t think I can protect myself, how do you expect me to protect you?” he demands, with the air of a card sharp producing a winning hand.

Levi just looks at him, eyes cold. It’s not as if this is a shock — he is currently weak, excess baggage, it’s a fact. It’s also a fact that he’s more than just his gear skills. I need to be there to watch your back even if I can’t protect it — is what he thinks.

“They’ll eat you alive,” is what he says, and he knows it’s a mistake even before Eren’s chin snaps up and his eyes blaze like lanterns. The anger retreats, just for a moment, just enough for him to show the hurt on his face; Levi bites down a flicker of vicious satisfaction at the sight and hates himself, just a little. Eren snatches up the maps and folds them up with quick, sharp movements, grabs his boots, hauls them on as he makes for the door. Levi catches his arm; Eren actually snarls at him as he tries to free himself.

“Eren, I’m serious.” If he has to pin Eren down to make him fucking listen —

The expression on Eren’s face is confused. Then furious, devastated. “I’m not going to the fucking river! You really think that’s how I work? I would never go behind your back to do anything. Even if you were getting in my way.”

Which Levi is doing now, clearly. He’s also gritting his teeth too tightly; pain throbs in his jaw and up through his palate. He wants to break something.

“Aren’t you going to tell me I’m wrong?” Eren snarls. “That you trust me? You trust me so much you think I’m a liar and you always have a ‘backup plan’ for when I fuck up. Right, Captain? You tell me you’ll put your life in my hands, but there’s always a fucking grapple hook.” Eren stumbles on the last words, disorientated and dizzy, as if he can’t believe what’s just come out of his mouth.

He’s not the only one.

Eren’s easy to hurt — Levi does it unintentionally often enough. If he opens his mouth now, it would be so easy to do it intentionally, so easy to take every last bit of his pain and tiredness, every one of the useless piece-of-shit emotions refusing to stay clamped down as they should, and turn them on Eren.

And he has no fucking right. So he grinds his teeth and lets Eren shake himself free of his grip.

Eren takes a deep breath. “I think I forgot to close the larder door,” he says with some dignity. “Animals could get in.”

Levi manages a ‘get out’ gesture at the door. Then he thinks of something and pushes past Eren to rummage in the desk. He’s sure he saw a—

Yeah, there it is…

A cold draft curls through the room as Eren pulls the suite door open.

“Hey, Eren.”

Eren glances back — and scowls as he sees what Levi is holding out to him.

Maybe it isn’t how Eren works, but Levi would be going to the river right now, if that was what he really thought was needed. Or what he really wanted, because now he can claim breaking into the Medical Branch labs was for the greater good… at the time, it felt a lot more selfish…

“Don’t tell me you won’t use it,” Levi says. Eren snatches the spyglass with his face blazing. He can’t seem to stop himself taking a good long look at Levi’s half-naked body before charging out of the door.

Fucking teenage hormones. Amazing.

Annoying.

Levi dries himself down carefully, starts to get dressed.

He barely got to say more than two sentences together in that… exchange, so how the fuck does he feel so raw and exposed?

The door’s shut, but he can still feel a draft.

He looks around for the source.

Eren left the dumbwaiter hatch open. Levi tugs on a shirt and goes over to shut it. His own personal lift for his food… like the fur throw and embroidered cushions, it doesn’t seem to be old Claude’s style. Levi met him just once, before Maria’s fall, at one of Lord Vash’s interminable fucking parties. A tall, rawboned man with an immaculate uniform and the air of a hunted animal. Strokirch might have been a dead-end assignment, but Levi got the impression Claude was unhappy to be away from it.

It’s not just the hatch doors letting in the draft; the box itself is too high, leaving a gap beneath it for the wind to howl up from the shaft. Levi spins the wheel, intending to bring it down. Some idiot wired it up wrong, because the box shoots upward like a signal rocket. A long way up… Levi turns the wheel the other way and studies the dumbwaiter with narrowed eyes.

If this thing is just to connect the kitchens with this office, why would they build it to go to the next floor up? And he’s been to the next floor up in search of the hot-water tank and not only is there nothing up there but windowless storerooms, he doesn’t remember seeing any dumbwaiter hatch.

He sighs. He’s dead on his feet, and his ribs and stitched-up wound are a dull ache in his side. The most useful thing he could do now would be to take some rest, not go blundering around dusty, rat-infested attics in search of fuck knows what on a curiosity-driven whim…

Eren’s definitely rubbing off on him in some weird ways, he thinks as he hauls on some more clothes and heads for the door.

*

Eren is halfway around the parade ground before the boiling haze in his head starts to clear. He stops, rubs his eyes, and sucks the cool air into his lungs until he can think straight.

He definitely wants to erase the last few minutes of his life.

Needy, stupid

ARGH!” He yells at the sky, he kicks at the outhouse door, he almost lobs the spyglass into the grass before he catches himself. He needs that… and fuck, he hates that he’s so obvious, that Levi knew he’d need it. And he hates that fucking flat expression Levi gets, that he can just close everything of himself away from Eren whenever he wants. And he hates his own stupidity — of course Levi doesn’t trust him completely, after everything he’s done, after Utopia, and hell, if Levi knew how messed up his head was he’d trust him even less…

And he hates that he still couldn’t keep his eyes off Levi.

And that the angrier he got, the more he wanted to claw at him like some rabid animal—

Shit.

Eren’s thoughts are still whirling as he climbs out of the ammunition lift onto the top of the wall. There’s a breeze now, clutching at his clothes and hair, clouds moving high above him in the afternoon sky. Now that he knows how the walls were made, the way they work in rough country like this — cutting straight across river gorges and climbing over hills without losing a single meter of their height — no longer seems so amazing. Mountains rise all around Strokirch District, but the town is built on a pair of hillsides itself and the walls surrounding it have some serious height in places. He drops down on his ass at the edge and looks out over the hills and forest.

And the hairs on the back of his neck slowly stand up as he realizes where he’s sitting. This is pretty much the exact spot where the woman with the lantern stood the night before last. Eren doesn’t believe in ghosts, so that leaves her as something conjured up by his mind — a hallucination or a memory. He’s got a lot of memories, if mostly those of different people, enough that he doesn’t feel like his brain is big enough to hold them all and they’re spread out through his body, piled in his spinal column and all along the paths of his nerves like winter provisions in storage — locked storage, because he sure as hell can’t get to most of them. Did he see her there, in another li—

No. These are not Eren’s past lives, they’re the lives of completely separate human beings, linked only by being host, however briefly, to the First King and his powers. In a very real sense, they were stolen: first the First King took their free will, then Eren’s father — an outsider, no Reiss — took this record of their lives away from their family. Eren has no right to think of them as his.

He rubs his eyes, lifts his face into the wind. He didn’t come up here to brood, and the spyglass lets him look out at the world with something like the sharpness of Levi’s eyes. Even if it’s hard to imagine how the hell Levi even saw the titans by the river with his bare eyes. Through the telescope lenses with their 20x magnification, the titans look like insects, ants clustered around the entrance to their hill — only in this case, there’s wooden scaffolding over the holes in the ground and what he thinks is water pouring from them.

He can’t see enough, dammit…

He puffs out a breath and tries to push down the wave of frustration.

Levi does trust him. Eren knows he does.

Levi hates having to put his fate into the hands of someone else. Eren knows that, too. But it doesn’t change what he wants.

He wants complete trust. He wants Levi to put himself in Eren’s hands as easily as Eren would put himself in his, and he wants it to be automatic, Levi’s first option instead of his last… just the way they are with each other…

And he wants to be down there now, dammit.

He lets his eyes follow the glittering line of the river through the hills and the dense forest, counting the cable towers. Did the government really reroute it?

Far below him, something moves. His heart misses a beat as he realizes what it is.

Rappelling down Wall Maria, no gear but rope wound around his body, is hair-raising, exhilarating. Painful. He shakes off the rope as his feet hit the ground and feels like he could do anything… and tries to hold onto that feeling when he finds himself walking like a stockman, ass and inner thigh steaming as he heals. Funny how he forgot about that part from when he did this back in training…

The creature that tempted him down from the wall takes one look at him and lowers its head back to the stream.

It’s enormous in comparison to the horses Eren’s used to, maybe eighteen hands high with a ribcage like a water barrel and ruffs of mud-caked hair around hooves the size of soup dishes, and it sure as hell isn’t a Survey Corps animal. Eren casts his mind back to the start of the expedition and the soldiers gathered at Wall Rose. Pixis’s Southern Garrison troops were using a mixed bag of horses, including some heavy breeds. Eren knows the Military Police like tall, imposing horses for crowd control, but he doesn’t remember seeing anyone from either division with a mount this big.

He approaches the horse cautiously, gets a flat, considering look for his trouble. “Kick me if you want,” Eren says, “I’ll just heal from it.” The horse snorts at him, but deigns to let Eren get close enough to look at its saddle and bridle. They’re not military issue.

The relief hits Eren like a brick. But then so does the curiosity.

“Where the hell did you come from?” He fixes the askew saddle and checks under the girth for sores. The horse lets him, barely even threatening to kick. Progress… even if it does look like it has every right to be wary. It’s as filthy as if it’s been wading through belly-high mud, twigs and leaves and thorns caught in its mane and tail, dried blood streaked across its coat from the many tiny cuts it’s picked up, only a forearm’s length of rein left dangling from its battered and dirty bridle. One of the saddle’s stirrups has been torn clean away. “And what happened to your rider?” As if he can’t guess…

The horse snaps at his hand as he goes to pat its nose. As Eren jerks away, he hears movement in the trees behind him. He rounds on the titan with a snarl. Four meters high, it watches Eren with a stretched-out grin and glassy eyes — and he makes no attempt to transform.

He’s so tired.

And so completely fucking sick of these bastards.

“Five minutes!” he shouts. “You can’t even leave me alone for five fucking minutes! Just go and DIE ALREADY!

And the titan does just that.

Still blank-eyed, still smiling, it reaches back and crushes the back of its neck between its own fingers. Eren watches it start to disintegrate with his heart pounding in his mouth, and he feels like he’s back to stepping off the wall with just an old rope and his own strength between him and gravity. His teeth click together as he clenches his jaw and lets his mouth stretch into what probably looks like a poor imitation of the titan’s rictus grin.

They’ll “eat me alive,” will they, Captain?

Levi’s never seen him do this, he thinks wildly. What would he say if he did? What would he look like?

The horse nuzzles the back of his head and snorts its warm breath through his hair. “Oh, now you like me?” And it does, enough to let him swing himself up onto its back. He leans forward and hooks his fingers into its bridle—

— and pauses, suddenly maddeningly uncertain. If he does this, he makes a liar of himself.

And the worst thing is, he thinks Levi will accept it. For all his toughness, everyone’s right to make their own choices — even ones he doesn’t like — seems to be a massive deal to him. Eren admires the idea, he does. Even if some people’s choices are just plain wrong.

He nudges the horse into movement with his knees.

He’ll beat himself up about it later.

*

Levi reorients himself. His sense of direction is flawless; every movement he’s made since leaving the office forms the bare bones of a map in his head. The dumbwaiter shaft should be six paces in front of him.

So why has he reached a dead end?

He stands in the gloomy corridor and glares at the stone wall in front of him. It’s uncompromisingly solid, and if he didn’t know better he’d think it was an external wall. He throws up an image of the HQ in his head — Claude’s suite is definitely not in the roof. So there’s something beyond this wall.

Whatever it is doesn’t seem to want to make itself known to him. Levi spends too long examining the wall, tapping bricks like he’s been transported into one of Bess’s adventures — one of the boring ones where she’s not killing or fucking someone. He goes back down to the suite and starts on the walls in the office.

He imagines what Kenny would say if he could see him now, the howls of laughter between asking Levi if he needs another drink or if he’s had too many already.

There are a million and one things Levi doesn’t know in this world — why does this one small mystery irritate him so much? Fuck. He slams his fist against the wall.

Eren…

Levi brushes the plaster dust from his knuckles and looks at the damage he’s done. If he were half as good with words as he is with his fists, he would have Eren’s help with this —

He sniffs.

Huh. He caught a whiff of this smell the night before. It’s brief and barely there but, like shit or rotten flesh, even the smallest hint of damp is hard to ignore. He follows his nose into the bedroom before the smell is gone again, right over to the paneled wall beside the wardrobe. When he runs his fingers over the panels, he feels a dip to press, and hell yes, a creepy old building and a secret passage? Levi’s five-year old self was already capable of killing a man, but he would have damn near pissed himself at this.

It does stink of damp and mold in the passageway though — and there are cobwebs draped across the narrow space like falls of decaying cloth. Levi makes his way up toward the dim light at the top of the stairs. The room he steps out into is not at all what he was expecting. Instead of a gloomy cell, it’s a light, airy attic with a high wood-vaulted ceiling and small but numerous windows. A richly embroidered curtain hangs across the room, cutting the space in two, and the part Levi stands in has a small fireplace, a comfortable armchair, a set of large glass-fronted cabinets and bookcases and, yes, there’s the dumbwaiter hatch.

The smell is overwhelming up here. The curtain has mold growing on it, the fireplace has what looks like half a bird’s nest in it, and the armchair is sagging, fighting a losing battle against both rot and whatever scavenging birds and rodents have been harvesting its stuffing, leaving their shit encrusted on its broad back and decaying cushions. The cabinets, on the other hand, have held up well, as he discovers after picking the lock on one of the bookcases and brute-forcing the damp-swollen door open. The books are musty but intact. No titles, he notices as he pulls one free. One of the shelves holds trays of rocks with labels in Claude’s tidy handwriting. Another holds a skull inside a glass case. Levi flicks through the pages of the book he’s holding and is transfixed by its colored plates, neat watercolor-and-ink sketches of outlandish, gaudily plumaged birds that make him wonder which was bigger, the artist’s imagination or his supply of wormwood liquor.

Eren will love this.

Levi runs his fingers over one illustration. He remembers encountering a peacock for the first time in the garden of one of Erwin’s patrons — if such a pointless, beautiful thing can exist in nature, then so can birds with oversized beaks like brightly-colored axeheads or wrinkly purple skin on their bald heads and dangling beneath their beaks like loose, empty ballsacks.

He hears a flutter of wings behind the curtain. Somewhere back there, something is dripping, and the smell gets stronger as Levi pulls back the curtain.

The crows screech at him as he shoos them away from the body — or what’s left of it. It’s beneath a large hole in the roof, and the birds and the elements have done their work well. A gust of wind scatters raindrops over Levi as he crouches down next to the bones, eyeing the length of the leg bones. Too short to be Claude Chlebek, he decides eventually.

He tucks the illustrated book into his jacket. His toe knocks up against a spare gear blade, wedged beneath the bones — just the thing to have hacked that hole above him.

They call it “sky burial” in the northern districts — a practical thing in the high mountains in winter, when the ground is frozen and the firewood scarce, but also an ending for the eccentric and the would-be spiritual all year around. Perhaps cremation is more hygienic and burial in the ground just as good at “giving back to nature,” but being eaten by animals and birds just appeals to some people.

Especially those who want as little trace of themselves left as possible. The birds have even taken the skeleton’s clothes for nesting material, some of the bones themselves have been carried away — and the corpse still looks disturbingly comfortable, somehow. Like the person it once was just lay down and went to sleep. After hacking open the roof so the birds could feed on their body…

Levi stands up, suddenly cold.

All around him the walls are lined with more cabinets, their doors swollen and splintering, and stuffed animals staring at him through mold-streaked glass. One of the deeper cupboards hangs open, a pile of waxed-canvas kitbags shoved into it, and Levi feels his heart rate pick up as he goes to investigate. The shape could be an illusion, boxes jutting out in just the right way to make him think of…

…maneuver gear.

He tears the bags open. Spare gas canisters roll out against his feet. He can’t breathe. Everything is there, from the neatly rolled-up harness straps to the full blade boxes. He picks up one of the grips; the trigger moves easily under his fingers.

Levi tries to be pessimistic — there’s no reason for it to be in working order — but it’s hard as he lays out the separate sections on one of the canvas bags. It was wrapped up well, Sina steel doesn’t rust or degrade… there’s hope…

There’s also a musket in the bags, rolled up in sacking, and a tin of carefully measured and paper-wrapped ball and powder cartridges, miraculously dry. And a box of… human finger bones and a journal. His benefactor is a creepy fucker, Levi thinks as he tucks it in his coat.

He’s good. He’s cautious. He takes the gear apart piece by piece and cleans and oils it, checking for damage. Nothing short of broken wires or rust is going to stop him strapping it on, but he goes through the motions anyway.

Water drips through the roof. The crows sit on the skeleton and watch him like he’s the best entertainment they’ve had in years.

*

Eren and the horse run into two more titans on the road. They’re easily dealt with, he doesn’t even need to change form to kill them — and somewhere beneath the heat and knives and blood in his head he finds a flicker of guilt. If he were in total control of this power, he could clear out the titans from inside Wall Maria without anyone else getting hurt…

But then, the Reisses had been in control of it, and they never used it. Just the thought makes Eren’s head hurt and bile rise in his throat. He’s seen flickers of the world as they saw it, and their memories are like illustrations from a storybook — elegant, brave nobles and bustling, clever merchants and fat-cheeked, happy peasants, everything beautiful and colorful and everyone exactly in their place. It makes him fucking sick.

Even children’s stories usually acknowledge the world’s darker bits. The villagers may never go hungry, every knight may be brave and just, but wolves lurk in the woods and bitter old men make elaborate clocks from human bones.

Eren’s snapped back into the real world by a branch coming in at head height. He leans closer to the horse’s neck. If this were a Survey Corps horse, he could command it with just his knees. As it is, the horse seems to have a better idea of where it’s going than Eren does. He knows these woods, but as a titan. To a human on horseback, the trees seem impossibly large, tangled into a many-layered web of branches and briars. While in his titan form he would have forced his way through, in his human form he has no choice but to follow the road.

On the other hand, this close to the ground, he notices the junction.

He almost rides right past it, the bridleway is so overgrown, not having been used in at least five years. Or so he thinks at first, but as the horse picks its way along the weed-choked path, he sees things to change his mind. In theory, the half-rotten scrap of green wool on the branch that catches at Eren’s coat could have been torn from a soldier’s cloak before the fall of Wall Maria. The makeshift shelter of lashed-together branches that has Eren stopping to investigate it could have been made by a forager back when these woods were safe for humans. Something glints among the loam, an old gear grapple snapped from its cable, and perhaps that’s old, too—

—or perhaps he’s following in the footsteps of the 41st again.

There’s nothing to prove it, but some part of Eren likes the thought.

The path ends abruptly in loose soil and a sheer drop to the quick flowing water. The river is wide here — possibly even as wide as it gets — but it clearly wasn’t always, because Eren can see the remains of a bridge way out in the center of the river, its solid abutments recycled as the bases for cable towers. The river that bridge was built to cross had to be a quarter the width of this one, or less.

And the old bridge isn’t the only sign of something devastating having happened in this valley. The far riverbank looks like it’s had half a mountain of rubble dumped on it, the result of some kind of landslide seasons ago. That’s where the titans are working, in the shadow of great vertiginous cliffs of crumbling shale. The scaffolding structures move, and Eren realizes that he’s looking at water pumps of some kind. It’s disorienting, but the sheer scale of his surprise makes him uncomfortable all on its own. Whether he’s a shifter or some strange new type of titan, the Ape is clearly intelligent — there’s no reason he shouldn’t know how to build things like this. Regular titans might be just relentless driving hunger on clumsy legs, but the Ape is a game-changed.

He slips from the saddle and makes his way along the bank on foot, the spyglass clutched in his hand. Across from him, a four-meter class sifts through rock and dirt like it’s panning for gold. It finds something that glints in the dull light as it cleans it and puts it to one side, and Eren’s so busy watching it he comes close to stepping over the edge of the bank. As he pulls his foot back, clumps of grass and crumbled earth go tumbling down to the water below and catch in the surface like breadcrumbs left behind in jelly by a pre-used knife. The gloop in the water shifts, letting Eren see the decaying bodies in it, and he realizes what it is. Some titan threw up over the bank; nothing mysterious about that.

A smaller titan goes to pick up the four-meter class’s bounty. The first titan flicks out its arm, sending the thief flying out into the river.

Eren feels something shift inside his head, someone else’s emotions leaking into his. There is no room for this place inside his Walls. It’s an abomination, an outrage… a sin.

He hears voices off to his right. They’re muffled by the trees, but he picks up words — pump, flooded, problem — as he makes his way toward them as quickly and quietly as he can while his mind and body are boiling. He knows at least one of those voices so, so well…

The titan in the river screams.

A column of steam rises into the sky. Eren jams the spyglass up against his eye and tries to get a decent look at the titan through the water frothing up around it as it flails. Two of the titans on the bank clamber to their feet and wade into the river. Eren can’t see enough, but he thinks the one in the river seems smaller… its scream seems suddenly very human… His view is cut off by one of the other titans and he tosses the glass aside, ready to plunge into the river himself. He has to stop this, he has to—

The screams are cut off. From this distance the two titans look like dogs fighting over a scrap of meat.

Eren can’t breathe. He can’t think.

He catches movement in the corner of his eye. Bertholdt balances on a boulder and looks over at the fighting titans with a troubled expression on his face… as if he ever manages any other expression.

“Again?” he says—

—to Eren?

No, in Eren’s direction…

The branches snap and the undergrowth rustles behind Eren, and he spins on his heel, losing his footing, falling on his ass rather in the river as the abnormal looms over him.

You can’t see me,” he snaps.

It’s on all fours like an animal, but it tilts its head and looks at him — really looks, like a farmer assessing a calf.

I can,” it says.

*

There’s rain in the air when Levi climbs out onto the roof, gear harness strapped on tight. He lets it run down his face, barely aware of it dripping down the collar of his coat and making the roof tiles gleaming and slick around him. Because he’s not sure what it feels like to lose a limb, to get on with life after losing it, finding ways around the loss until it’s just an inconvenience, nothing more, never thought of again, no, sir — but he thinks the last couple of days have given him an pale idea of it…

He breathes out as his grapples fire, sucks in air from the whistling wind as he’s whipped up into the air — higher and higher, above the rooftops, as high as his arc can carry him and past it, a blast of gas to take him higher and higher until there’s nothing but open space and rainwater around him and even Wall Maria is beneath him.

The town looks so different from up here.

He lets himself drop, wind catching at his clothes and tangling his wet hair in his eyes, puts the brakes on with both grapples and lets his cables bounce him back up into the air. He closes his eyes, feeling the vibrations of his cables retracting, the push of the gas release like a punch to the back. He slides his thumbs over the directional sliders on his trigger grips and feels answering movement from the grapple canister at his hips. He has his limbs back.

He lets his back arch and breathes in raindrops. His blades rattle in their sheaths.

He has his claws and teeth back, too.

Higher…

The sky’s gloomy, the mountains smothered in clouds.

And higher…

The support for the ammunition winch has a rope wrapped around it.

And higher…

Columns of steam rise from around the river. Dozens of them…

Eren?

Chapter Text

 

 

07 – The Face of Another

 

 

 

The sky is the color of three-day-old bruises. Out on the lake, rafts float and burn. When the fire has eaten up the bodies, the water will swallow up the fire. Mikasa thinks it seems efficient, a way of neither cremating their dead at the castle nor waiting until nightfall to do it on the bank and potentially losing the dry weather, but Hange and Rico fought long and hard over the idea that morning.

She turns her eyes from the rafts and their long plumes of smoke and concentrates on the slippery rocks beneath her feet. The cast on her leg is annoying, hampering her sure-footedness. She’s not even sure it’s still necessary; the pain is barely there anymore.

Mikasa’s good at cutting, accurate and decisive — she could take one of her blades to the plaster. Or get Sasha to do it. She can be trusted not to cut off Mikasa’s foot.

If not to skip out on a funeral, apparently.

Mikasa clambers over a pile of boulders as tall as Armin and finds herself on a narrow ledge, sheer cliff-face rising to the castle turrets high above and falling to the lake far below. Sasha’s fishing line bobs in the water. She leans back against the rock, eyes heavy-lidded as she watches the sky.

“Rain’s coming,” she says.

Sasha’s instincts are uncanny — in a week out here, she’s not been wrong about the weather once — but Mikasa suspects even Jean could look at those clouds and predict a thunderstorm.

And another night trapped in the castle. She sighs and picks her way along the ledge. Sasha sits up sharply as her line tightens; she hauls the fish in with quick, practiced movements. “Now, I know what you’re thinking,” she says, not meeting Mikasa’s eyes. “I’m picking fish over beef? Carp over steak and liver and ribs and tongue? Well, I’m not. It’s Connie’s birthday and I have that bottle of beer and stale gingerbread I won at cards and a promise from Katya that she’ll show me how to make fish in beer, just like his mom made.”

She flicks the small carp into her basket, to flip and flop around among its dead relatives.

“Connie’s birthday was five months ago,” Mikasa says.

“Oh, no, really?” Sasha doesn’t even bother to try to sound convincing. “Well, it would be a shame to waste this fish!”

And Connie has had nightmares every day they’ve been there; Sasha’s not the only one to notice, even if she’s the only one to think food will give him some comfort. Still, it’s a nice idea. If not worth being alone by the water during the day…

Mikasa frowns down at the dark, wave-shot surface of the lake. There are titans down there, in the water — the ones who didn’t float, who started to walk to the castle across the lake floor, only to find the sheer depth of the water and its exceptional murkiness proof against sunlight and energy. Mikasa has spent a lot of time on watch this last week; she may not know the exact number of titans sleeping on the lakebed, but she’s seen enough disappear into the water to make her uncomfortable. How much would the water clarity have to improve for the sun to wake them? She doesn’t know — and that makes her uncomfortable, too.

Her nerves prickle. Sasha’s watching her.

“You came to look for me,” she says, as if it means anything. Mikasa could tell her that she also knows the exact location on the crag of Armin, Jean, Connie, even Hange and Moblit. Knowing where they are doesn’t mean she can keep each and every one of them safe, but it gives her a fighting chance.

She is not going to lose anyone else.

She pulls her scarf up over her nose as the wind changes. Out on the lake, the last of the cremation rafts tips over and disappears beneath the water.

Mikasa and Levi were not affectionate — she suspects he had even less ability to be so than her — but they understood each other. She knows how the world works, how it refuses to let her keep family, but still, she misses that understanding. And him, much as it would have pained her to admit it just a couple of months ago.

Eren, of course, she misses desperately, but he’s not lost, just temporarily out of reach. She’s sure of it.

Looking toward the dam, she catches a flicker of lightning on the distant horizon and starts counting, straining her ears for the thunderclap. Two whole minutes pass, she barely hears it —

The lightning flash that follows is no flicker: it joins the sky to the mountains, leaves an afterimage on her retinas as its accompanying thunder rolls through the clouds, impossibly loud, bafflingly near.

Are there two storms, thirty kilometers apart?

Or was that light and noise something much less natural…

The clouds open. Sasha squeaks and jumps to her feet. Mikasa hears her cursing as she gathers up her tackle and her fish in the sudden downpour.

Her own eyes are fixed on the west, trying not to smile, trying not to hope…

Eren is not the only shifter in the world. It doesn’t have to be him. It might not be him. It—

Sasha grabs her arm. “We need to be inside!”

No. They need to be riding west.

“Mikasa! Please?” The word is soft, Sasha’s voice vulnerable, and Mikasa lets herself be swayed. The two of them clamber across the rocks as the rain gets heavier and the sky darker.

Armin would never forgive her if she didn’t at least tell him she was going.

 

***

 

The man has a vaguely rakish look with his straw hat and cravat. Though his nose seems to be slipping… Frieda reaches out and adjusts the carrot, returning the snowman’s coal-dot smile.

She hears a giggle behind her, light footsteps crunching the snow, and ducks out of the way of Historia’s snowball.

Well, Frieda did teach her how to make and throw them; she’s proud of how fast she picked it up — and how fast she starts running when Frieda gathers up a handful of snow.

It falls from her hand as she hears the jingle of bells. Snow-muffled hoofbeats, the hiss of sleigh runners…

“Hide,” she snaps. Historia doesn’t question her, just ducks down behind the snowman as the sleigh passes, its occupants drunk and hollering and barely in control of the horses. Frieda waves at them. They do a sharp turn, runners throwing up a spray of snow, and it takes some effort to keep a smile on her face as she recognizes them. Eryk and Albert. Entertaining them while their father does business with her father has fallen to Frieda far too much this past week.

“Go away,” she says. Fortunately the nobles have never been as completely immune to the First King’s power as some of them like to think, and she puts a little of it behind her next words. “Go back to the house and sober up.”

As a child Frieda didn’t even like to play with dolls; she found their painted smiles and glass eyes creepy. The Wolter brothers have something doll-like about them now as they react to her suggestion, sitting up straight and straightening their rich clothes. They drive away with a new control. The smell of schnapps spilt on fur lingers in the cold air.

“Big Sis?” Historia touches her hand, little fingers icy cold against her skin.

“Didn’t I tell you to keep your mittens on?” But Frieda’s always found it hard to be stern with Historia, and she finds herself smiling as she gathers the squirming, giggling girl up into her arms. “Your fingers will drop off if they get too cold.”

“Really?” Historia stares at her with wide eyes, and Frieda will never understand how something so terrible — her father’s betrayal of her mother, his diluting of the genes their family hold in trust — could produce someone so perfect. Florian was never this adorable.

Genetics are complicated. Perhaps Historia is dangerous. Even if she isn’t immune to Frieda’s power, her children could be, and that immunity cannot be passed into the general population if their little world is to go on existing. But the Other inside Frieda is still and acquiescent, seemingly unbothered by Historia’s existence, and Frieda has never been more grateful for anything in her life.

“Really,” she says. “But they’ll go green and squishy first.”

“That man’s hands aren’t green and squishy.”

Man? Historia points; Frieda turns to look with a scowl. All she wants is to teach her little sister to build snowmen. How hard could it be for everyone to just leave her alone long enough to do it? But she finds herself giving this one an appreciative once-over, something niggling at her mind as she does so. Excellent bone structure under the cuts and bruises, soft lips drawn into a hard line, eyes as pale and watchful as a wolf’s… she knows this face, but she doesn’t know how… comparing it to others in her inherited memories make her think Ackerman but he’s not trying to kill her…

…the sudden panicked rush of concern and guilt comes out of nowhere but it’s completely overwhelming — he’ll die, she’s let him down—

Those are not Frieda’s own emotions. She brings them under control and watches the man with narrowed eyes. “What is this?”

Historia’s right — his clothes are totally insufficient for the weather. Frieda’s not exactly unhappy with his bared throat or the snugness of his shirt’s cheap cotton around his biceps, but just looking at him is making her feel cold. Flakes of snow dot his ink-black hair and glitter on his collarbone and on the pale line of his neck, stubbornly failing to melt. “You swore you’d never go behind my back to do anything,” he says.

The question is, is he a hallucination? Or is all of this a dream?

She’s never fought another titan shifter, in a hundred years none of her past lives have… but now she can remember just that, snippets of battles won and lost…

…mostly lost…

The foreign emotions well up again, and a sudden thought drops into her head — if she loses here, he’ll never know what happened to her…

“How much of this is real?” Beneath her heavy clothes, Frieda can feel her skin stinging.

Every inch of her body hurts.

The snow is thick in the air around her. She’s suddenly struggling to breathe. Historia slips from her arms.

“If you don’t know that,” Wolf-Eyes says, and she hurts, dammit, and she can’t feel her legs and he’s just a figment of her imagination, he has no right to look at her like that — “we’re both fucked.”

Frieda got full control of the First’s strength faster than anyone who’s ever held it. She has complete confidence in her skill…

…and still she lost. She remembers losing… twice… another titan in the sacred cavern, broken teeth digging into her neck… out in the woods, howling superheated wind stripping the flesh from her bones…

…she can hear thunder and pounding rain, can smell wet rock and something like drenched bonfires…

She finds herself on her knees in the snow, wrist deep in it and not feeling the slightest bit of cold. Everything is pain.

“Eren?”

She can’t see.

“He’s still out of it. You did a real number on him.”

She can’t feel her legs or her arms, can’t move her jaw… if it’s even still there. Her breath whistles out of her throat as she tries to breathe. There’s cold, wet stone beneath what’s left of her face. She knows the voices — knows them, hates them. Trying to connect names and faces to them brings bile up into her shredded throat and makes her want to howl.

“I panicked. The Mule is going to be angry with me too when he finishes healing. And, Reiner, he’s going to wonder why we haven’t sent for Zeke.”

“I know.”

If she concentrates, Frieda can feel the wave of sparks, cells forced into replication, energy flowing as her flesh slowly rebuilds itself. That energy can be shifted around by sheer will… she concentrates it on her head, gives priority to an eye.

“And there’s something you need to see. Bring Eren.”

She’s picked up like a sack of potatoes, and all the things she’s been ignoring about this body are suddenly thrown into sharp relief. No legs, only one arm, caved-in ribs and jaw and throat… but also solid muscle, flat chest, the not-insignificant weight and bulk of penis and testicles between its legs comfortable and natural… She remembers blinking awake in the crystal cavern, every inch of the body she’d spent fifteen years in suddenly unfamiliar and wrong, fighting to find the part of her mind that was her beneath the overwhelming weight of the memories of those who’d come before her…

The past leaks into the present. It never stops. And this is perfectly normal, even if the timing is inconvenient. Uri, who never looked twice at a woman in his life, could wake up in the morning convinced that his beloved wife was due to deliver their fifth child; Johann could suddenly find his desire for parties and art turned towards survival and revenge; Frieda could briefly believe that she was a bedridden “old” man with a dozen nurses at his beck and call. This is normal.

Normal, but it feels like vertigo, vomit in her throat and hissing in her ears, and it’s not her throat and not her ears and she’s angry, so so angry, she’s never been so fucking angry.

Eren. Her, their, his name is Eren. And these bastards need to fucking die.

Vision flickers back — and it doesn’t do anything to ease the sick dizziness flooding through her… him. All that can be seen through her own steam is the ass and legs of her captor, black mud and blasted, burnt tree trunks swaying in and out of her — his — vision as he strides along through the rain. An attempt to move her — his — head gets him a glimpse of water and old bridge supports and more burnt trees. What happened here?

His other enemy is still just a voice somewhere ahead of them. “My steam blast cleared the last of the rockfall. We were lucky, it could’ve brought the rest of the cliffside down onto the entrance, but instead —”

Metal steps go down into the earth, smooth rock rising as walls around them. They don’t need a light; as they pass beyond the reach of daylight, the glow of living titan crystal takes over. Everything is confusing, he’s struggling to keep his own name fixed in his head, Frieda’s memories will only confuse things more, he needs to ignore them… he’s got a memory of his own linked to this light, painful and panic-inducing as it is, he doesn’t need hers… But, beneath the fear and shame, he has a sharp flash of startled, horrified recognition.

This isn’t the First King’s cavern. This place was built by human hands, a long time ago. It was also a festering welt on his world, Eren’s suddenly convinced of that… and, a split second later, he’s just as convinced that it was a necessary evil, on par with the Survey Corps…

…Frieda came all the way out here to the armpit of human territory to shut it down herself…

He shakes his aching head and considers vomiting down his ca— Reiner’s back. Fuck knows he deserves it, but it seems like an insult to the food in his stomach… and the man who prepared it…

Levi. If Eren dies here, Levi will never know what happened to him. If he dies here, Levi is left trapped and alone in Strokirch District…

He experiments with moving the focus of his body’s healing to his throat and jaw, only a moment’s hesitation as he chooses between his teeth and his voicebox as a main priority. The staircase is bolted to the wall of a shaft wide enough that a skinny ten-meter class could get down it. Anything bigger would get stuck fast, trapped and helpless and crushed. Whatever move he makes next, it won’t involve wrapping his titan form around this broken body, even if he aches to do just that.

“The pumps are handling the water now?” The edge of discomfort in Reiner’s voice gets Eren’s full attention. As he steps off the stairs, there are puddles beneath his feet, reflecting the light, painfully bright to the new nerves of Eren’s eye.

“They’re not needed. Wherever the big leak was, the rock shifting must have sealed it.”

Reiner makes a noncommittal sound. Eren wonders if their kind can drown. He’s no more eager to try it than Reiner.

Reiner dumps him on the floor like a child disposing of a suddenly unwanted ragdoll. The choice to keep playing dead isn’t much of a choice — Eren doesn’t know where to start cataloguing his injuries. He’s not sure he could move if he wanted to, not yet, and the thought is terrifying.

The floor’s slick with water. His first proper breath as his throat heals brings the taste of thick, sour air. He can see a little without moving his head — pitted and broken tiles on the floor, falling-apart wooden crates, what looks like a hospital cart on its side, instruments and broken jars scattered around it… His blood is suddenly pounding in his ears. Bertholdt steps into view, bending down where rusted-up metal mesh stretches across the entrance to a shadowed corridor.

He straightens up and walks back over, shaking a small piece of card that seems to be… changing color? Reiner hauls Eren into a sitting position, and Eren gets a quick glimpse of a long, high hallway, a dungeon for a long-gone castle, out-of-place metal balconies and catwalks and more metal mesh disappearing into the great swathe of titan crystal encasing one end of the hall, before Reiner shoves his head down, fingers gripping his neck like they’d like to snap it. “Well,” Eren hears him say, “how bad is it?”

“You took all your shots this morning, didn’t you?”

Reiner’s fingers tighten. Eren is suddenly hyperaware of his thundering pulse. How can Reiner not notice it? “Get over here and hold him steady for me.”

One set of restraining hands are exchanged for another. “I’d apologize,” Bertholdt says, and Eren stops breathing, “but you wouldn’t believe or accept it anyway. Stay still and this won’t hurt as much.”

The flesh on his back can’t be as badly damaged as his front, because he can feel the jab of the needle. He jerks as red pain flashes through him, rushing all the way down to the toes he doesn’t even fucking have right now. “You hit a nerve,” Bertholdt says.

“Does it matter?” But Reiner moves and the pain changes, reduces to a throbbing ache in Eren’s spine. “I was hoping that getting down here would make Zeke’s plans clear. What does he want, Bertholdt? Every option I can think of is worse than the one before it. This shit belongs to them.”

Eren’s face is going numb, he feels like his brain matter is burning, spinal cord too, all of it sparking as his healing automatically diverts — and he’s barely aware of Reiner talking to him through the cold rush of panic. “Hey, Eren, are you listening? Since there’s no way in hell you being here now is a coincidence, you clearly know more than us. Should I try to beat it out of you?” He’s even less aware of fingers tugging on the few remaining strands of his hair, dragging his face up. “This is so weird,” Reiner says, almost conversationally. “Guess we found a way to shut you up for once.” Eren attempts a glare. “Did you know your eye is blue?”

That gets Eren’s full attention. He feels his guts twist.

He has the sudden desperate need to pluck it from his skull.

He’ll do it later, he promises himself. If — when — he escapes.

Eren once considered Reiner to be the hottest guy he knew — now, his vision blurred with pain and Reiner’s expression twisting into something ugly, all he can think is that his past self was so blind. “I can hardly believe it,” Reiner says. “Every minute I’ve known you, you’ve had that demon inside you… You made this world,” he hisses, “made us — and you dared to judge us? You’re still judging us?”

“You’re wasting your breath,” Bertholdt says quietly. “Look at him, Reiner — you really think he knows what you’re talking about?”

Reiner swears and moves out of Eren’s field of vision; the flesh of Eren’s back spasms around the needle as Reiner fiddles with it. He closes his eye, and perhaps it’s his body’s damaged nerve endings misfiring, but it feels like there are three people gathered around him, not two. “It doesn’t matter,” Reiner says. “It’d be good for that bastard to know that we’re going to share out his power among as many of our people that can take it, but it doesn’t change anything if he can’t.”

Somewhere beyond the sudden rush of rage, Eren can hear Bertholdt talking to him. “We’ll keep you away from our Chief as long as possible,” he says as Eren forces the muscles of his back into movement. He straightens his neck, feels the needle shift but not dislodge completely, imagines himself kept down here — not even in the dark but, just like the lab, in light powerful enough to get beneath his closed eyelids like crawling insects — kept helpless while they harvest his spinal fluid. He’ll replenish it as it’s removed — how much they can collect depends entirely on how long they can keep him helpless and he’s betting they have a whole lot of ideas how to do that. “This power you have could change the world,” Bertholdt says, as certain and urgent as Eren’s ever heard him. “It’s not fair that it’s in the hands of just two men. And our people need it more than yours do.”

Some part of Eren finds enough impartiality to vaguely agree with the first half of that, but it’s swept away by the sheer injustice of the second. If he could give Armin and the others the ability to command the titans without turning them into monsters like him, he’d do it in a hot second. The whole world would be free to them. Unlike a world where the titans are weapons wielded by their enemies…

He struggles against Bertholdt’s arms. It’s what they expect from him. It’s a diversion while he gets his voice back and works out what the hell he can do next. It’s also a serious attempt to get his arm free, because if there’s any chance its bared bone and scraps of scorched muscle can deliver a punch hard enough to smash in Bertholdt’s face, he’s going to try it. “Need?” Eren will show him who fucking needs it. “His people” are trapped, penned like animals at the slaughterhouse, while Bertholdt’s pick them off at their leisure.

And he really doesn’t know how to get himself out of this. If he doesn’t get some distance between himself and these two treacherous shits, he’ll have literally just seconds to shout out before one of them crushes his windpipe. Are there even titans up there for him to call? Will they hear him from all the way down here?

Their memories will teach you…

What happened when he woke was just a few moments’ confusion caused by his injuries and carrying around other people’s memories. Perfectly normal. And he’s fine now. In complete charge of his own head… He has no reason to be scared as he tries to call up Frieda’s memories and knowledge… no reason at all…

His brain feels like it’s crushing up against the inside of his skull. Reiner messes with the needle some more, then he’s back in Eren’s sight, showing Bertholdt two vials — two full vials. They’re not marked in any way, no spindly handwriting declaring their contents “strongest” or “armored,” but the déjà vu is devastating.

“The Passing of Flesh is a solemn celebration of the circle of life and death,” Reiner says quietly, all the anger seemingly drained out of him. “This is an abomination.”

Eren uses Bertholdt’s sudden distraction to punch him; the bones of his elbow jar as the blow lands. He finds himself slammed to the floor, kicked in the head before the booted foot responsible presses against his temple, holding him down with humiliating ease. The foot is attached to Reiner, Eren realizes through the dizziness and pain. Bertholdt’s taking one of the vials from him…

Bertholdt heads for the stairs.

Of course, he’ll need so much more space than this for his titan.

Fuck.

Helpless and fuming, Eren listens to the clank of Bertholdt’s boots on the stairs get fainter and fainter. Now that he’s willing to lose himself in someone else’s memories, they refuse to come. Frieda remains banished. He’s alone in his head, helpless, pathetic,

 

an intemperate animal of a youth

 

and Levi should have left him in his cell. This is a disaster

 

even if the world has weathered much worse

 

and he can’t just lie here and take it. He refuses to. He —

He pours all his strength into his back, digs his elbow into the tiled floor, and jerks his head up. Reiner’s taken by surprise. Knocked off balance, he staggers back just one step, swears, reaches for Eren —

Eren stabs the needle straight through Reiner’s eye and into his brain.

It won’t kill him. It might not even slow him down. But the sound he makes as he lurches away warms Eren’s heart.

He wriggles away himself, putting some distance between them before he screams out,

 

the words meaning little in themselves but packed full of sheer unstoppable will, thunder in the air, microorganisms communicating with microorganisms

 

“SAVE ME!”

 

don't obey them kill them obey me kill them protect me

 

“Fuck.” Reiner tugs the needle free and launches himself at Eren, who tries to pull away as Reiner’s fingers close on his throat. Flesh tears. Cartilage crunches.

And the first titan comes down the shaft.

It doesn’t even flail, just drops straight down, its wide, happy smile not faltering as it hits the floor feet first. It flops onto its front, shattered legs steaming as it crawls toward them. Fast.

Very fast.

Reiner swears again and retreats towards the gleaming crystal wall, dragging Eren with him.

Another titan crashes down the shaft. And another. They’re all small, three- and four-meter class — in their titan forms, both Reiner and Eren would find them beneath their notice, but they don’t have that luxury now. The first titan pauses in its headlong rush. Eren feels Reiner tense up as they watch it get its healed legs beneath it and stand, enormous in the confined space.

Reiner throws him at it.

And it catches him.

It clutches Eren awkwardly, like a child holding a kitten for the first time, and in some ways it’s good that he barely has any skin left, because what he has feels like it’s crawling off his body. For a moment, before the titans get to him, Reiner meets Eren’s gaze, his expression awkwardly caught between horror and awe.

He has the other vial in his hand… He pops it open.

Eren’s rescuer turns and lopes for the shaft, the other titans clearing a path for it, and he can see Reiner still over its shoulder, backed against the wall, vial to his mouth, Eren’s spinal fluid splattering on his chin as he’s grabbed, pulled apart. It looks like water, Eren thinks dizzily, clean and pure like well water. His rescuer splashes through muddy, oil-colored puddles pitted by raindrops, and his labored breaths bring him the taste of fresh air. Fresh air and freedom — delivered to him by a titan. Unbelievable.

The staircase creaks and bends beneath the titan’s feet, and it holds him close and climbs as more of its kind throw themselves down the shaft. Lightning flashes down with them.

The rock shakes, the bolts jolting out of the wall and the staircase swinging loose. Steam billows up the shaft, ahead of an arm that reaches up, keeps reaching…

*

Levi’s cables sing — hum, crack, hiss, pull tight, snap back, fire… He zips above the river like an oversized dragonfly, using the luxury of open space bordered by perfect anchor points to build up speed until his eyes are forced into slits against the wind and rain and the breath is whipped away from his lungs and the world is little more than a blur around him. He’s moving so fast that he’s operating on something close to instinct, the decoding of sensory information and gear calculations alike trusted to his subconscious; he’s on top of the two titans wading in the water before his conscious mind catches up, but he doesn’t need to think to kill them.

Which is fortunate, because fuck knows his mind is fully occupied.

Could he have stopped Eren coming out here?

He could’ve kept him in the suite somehow — sat on him, tied him up, knocked him out… broken one of his own few rules to live by, made Eren hate him… Fuck. He’d make the same choice again, he knows he would, but if Eren dies because of that choice…

He won’t. His certainty on that surprises Levi, fierce and steady and warming in his gut. After Utopia, he did his best to pack away his grief and guilt instead of weathering it honestly, but he can still remember the taste of it, Eren torn to shreds of flesh and bone and not regenerating however much Mikasa insisted he would, soon, give him time, and the world shrinking around all of them as they realized he really wouldn’t. And while they were doing that, while Levi was giving up on him, Eren was being regrown in some shitty lab, very much alive.

Eren won’t die. He’s like a fucking cat — one that never got the memo on having only nine lives — and somewhere beneath those plumes of steam, he’s fighting. He’s always fighting…

Levi’s scalp prickles. For one brief, exhilarating moment, light sparks between his swords, the air thick with crackling energy. For another moment, the world is filled with sound and light. Then the second-biggest titan he’s ever encountered stands among the steam, the tallest trees barely reaching its hips.

He’s heard the stories, read the reports, but he’s never seen it in the flesh.

The Colossal Titan…

Finally.

He’s not here for revenge; it’s just another titan and he’ll slice through as many as he has to to find Eren… His lips curl back as he checks the edge on his blades —

And, as his ears finally stop ringing, he hears a human voice.

The shout is made faint and muffled and unrecognizable by distance or obstructions but it delivers a shot of fingers-stuck-straight-in-his-brain vertigo and fuck, he recognizes that.

The steam lingers, mixing with the tang of smoke in the air as he slips between the trees. Beyond the massive columns of the Colossal Titan’s legs, Levi can see a scorched landscape — for half a kilometer, the river runs beneath slumped cliffs and through an almost perfect circle of blasted and burnt trees, the skeletal shapes of re-forming titans in clusters inside it. As far as he can tell, Eren isn’t one of them — there are no human shapes at all among the steaming, writhing coils of flesh.

Where is he? That was definitely Eren… Another shout would give Levi the chance to triangulate and work out his location, but it’s not coming and Levi’s brain insists on going through all the possible reasons for that.

Fuck it. Back to Plan A.

Titans move through the undergrowth beneath him. Some of the more-whole titans in the clearing start to crawl across the ground. And Levi slingshots himself as high as he can before his grapples crack out toward the colossus. One of the disadvantages of this kind of size — information takes longer to pass from nerve endings to brain. He sees the very moment it feels the bite of his grapples in its skin — much too late. It doesn’t see him, doesn’t get the chance to as he whirls past — through — its eyes, bone splinters and blood splatter and eyeball jelly caught in a gory orbit around him by his momentum.

“Bertholdt, right?” Levi hangs from the edge of its ear to purr into it, and wonders if the long dribble of shit inside it will even hear him over the sound of its roar. Even if he can, just how do you beat information out of a sixty-meter-class titan shifter? “Where the fuck is Eren?”

He heard him; scalding steam blasts out of its pores in every direction.

Levi’s ready. One carefully rationed burst of air throws him back over the river, and he watches the titan blindly sweeping its huge arms through the air as he lets himself drop. A gust of wind forces him to course-correct to land in the water; as he bobs back to the surface, he sees the steam streaming out behind the Colossal Titan like a cloak. Raindrops like buckshot pellets bounce off his face and pockmark the surface of the river. He can work with this.

He won’t waste his blades or time on its limbs. Instead, he goes straight for its throat. Cutting right through from the front might be impossible — even if Mikasa were here and they could work on it in tandem, it’s a lot of flesh. Levi would expect Bertholdt to know that.

Of course, he also expects him to be so scared that what he knows or doesn’t hardly matters…

His main weapon is being cooled by the rain and dispersed on the wind. Every time he reacts too slowly to the bite of Levi’s grapples… every time he fails to catch him… every time the blades slice in deeper and harder than they should ever be able to… he panics and the titan moves… just that little bit more every time…

An enemy who’s trying to get out of the way has already lost. The steam streams around its cut-up face, out of its wounds, its eyes, its mouth, billows out in front of it — and it’s moved enough.

Its nape is to the wind.

Levi replaces his blades and strikes, back and forth and back again, deep into scalding-hot flesh, a whirl of razor-sharp metal and as much speed and power as he can force out of his body and gear. For a split second, he’s got the titan’s rider exposed in front of him, terrified eyes peering up at him from a face that’s a tangled mass of titan nerves and tendon, but he’s misjudged, it’s too big, the little fucker buried too deep, and Levi is just fast enough to keep the cut open but it’s healing just as fast. He can’t get deep enough to hack him out. The water’s evaporating from his skin and clothes and hair in the burning heat, and the frustration adds extra violence to his cuts.

No. Levi can take him, has to take him. He knows where Eren is.

The Colossal Titan jerks. As Levi swings wide to dodge a swipe of its hand, he finds himself glancing down — at the burnt forest and the foundations of long-gone buildings showing among the mud… and the titans clustered around the colossus’s feet. They tear at the exposed muscles of its feet and lower leg. It roars and kicks and stamps, and Levi scans the ground from his vantage point, his murderous frustration rising. This is Eren’s doing — where the hell is he? Levi can force his brain to process every last detail his eyes pick up, until he can see the venation and insect damage on the leaves floating in the river, the compression cracks in the dislodged rock, every individual raindrop splashing into the mud, but he can’t see through stone or under water or inside the bellies of titans… Where is he?

He blinks rain out of his eyes and focuses on another group of titans moving among the remains of the broken cliff, purposeful and apparently heedless of the Colossal Titan’s tasty, tasty legs. He’s about to investigate when the lightning strikes again.

It hits right in the middle of them, seems to plunge down into the ground and shake the rock apart. But as the lightning dissolves, the ground continues to crumble, the boulders are pushed aside by giant deformed fingers that claw at the rock and flick away the titans rushing at them — and as the whole riverbank starts to sink in on itself, one small titan scrambles away, a human corpse clutched to its chest —

Levi takes in the truncated arm and legs, the crisped and scorched shreds of skin, the glistening and bloody flesh and muscle, the white bone bared on his forearm, his chest, his head, his face. One eye is an oozing, empty socket, but the other… blinks…

Levi stops breathing, stops thinking.

Beneath his grapples, the Colossal Titan’s eyes finish healing.

*

The titan stumbles over the breaking earth. The boy sucks in air and tries to stay conscious through the jolting of his body and the sharpness of the rain against his exposed flesh. He’s so close to getting away, so damn close. He’s hazy on where he’s going — this doesn’t look like the family estate, too many mountains… too many titans…

Too fucking many titans. The one in front of him looks like it’s stepped straight out of the nearest Wall, and if he wasn’t already half-convinced this is a nightmare or fever dream, the fact it’s apparently joined forces with one of Ackerman’s “children” is the clincher —

Looking down at him, the soldier swings wide and easy on their maneuver gear cable, perfectly in harmony with the buffeting wind. Even such a simple movement has a grace and precision no one else can match and, for one moment, he’s enthralled despite himself —

— then he remembers who he is, and where. And he’s still transfixed.

Levi’s looking his way; he thinks their eyes meet, and even if the distance is too great for Eren to read anything in Levi’s gaze, the reverse won’t be true, will it?

The Colossal Titan’s teeth snap together between them.

A whole heartbeat passes. Too long. “Spit him out!” Eren’s voice is little more than a squeak, he can’t concentrate his will behind it… Fucknopleaseno.

The titan bends its back, reaches out —

The ground beneath him collapses in on itself like a used feedsack. He’s falling, he’s going to be buried alive, he doesn’t stand a chance of making a useful titan but he brings his hand to his mouth because he needs to try, he needs to live, he needs to rip Bertholdt’s esophagus open from throat to stomach —

The impact feels like he’s run into a boulder and for one confused, desperate second, Eren thinks he’s done just that. “Hold tight,” Levi snarls in his ear, and his brain catches up with the crack and hiss of maneuver gear, the pressure of acceleration on his damaged body — the steely muscles of the arm hooked around his waist —

Levi’s body is tense, vibrating like the string of a drawn bow. His breath is ragged. His hair and skin and clothes are slippery with scalding blood. But he’s alive — and Eren doesn’t bother questioning how. He knows. As Levi smashes a path through the titans still coming to the clearing, not even trying to get the height to avoid them or replace his blunted and broken blades, Eren hangs from his neck with his one arm and watches Bertholdt’s titan finish its slow collapse. The whole world seems to shudder as it hits the ground, the hole in the back of its neck gaping and obscene. Behind it, the collapse of the cavern is complete, the river pouring into the new basin. He sees no sign of Reiner.

He should be happy about that, right?

The healing energy sparks in his shoulder. Levi doesn’t flinch when a second arm snakes around him, bone and muscle forming against his bare neck as Eren clings tight.

The beating rain washes Bertholdt’s blood from him much too easily.

*

Pursuit is still possible. Shifters are hardy — Levi has the prime example of that right in fucking front of him — the Beast isn’t accounted for, and the walled town is an obvious place to look for them… it’s been here before, after all, to this very building…

He makes sure the secret door is wedged shut and pulls the curtains tight at every window, shutting out the darkness and rain, shutting the warmth and light in. The fire burning in the grate behind him is an unnecessary risk — Eren doesn’t need to be comfortable to heal — but Levi can’t bring himself to care.

He pours out some warmed water from the kettle. Crouching down in front of Eren, he helps him pick the burned scraps of his shirt and what seems like half a bush’s worth of twigs, leaves, and thorns out of his steaming, bubbling flesh. He can feel the anger thick and hot in his throat and chest, fucking impossible to banish as he cleans away the mud and congealing blood.

Let the Beast come. Let all of them come.

He’ll hack them to fucking pieces.

“How are you feeling?” he asks. Eren shivers. Levi gathers up the bearskin throw. He wraps a sheet around Eren’s shoulders before draping it over him, and that gets him a snort of almost-laughter.

“Would be… a bastard… to clean, right?” Eren croaks. Which is true, Levi won’t deny it.

“The sheet is cleaner right now,” he says. Ninety-eight percent clear of dust, ground-in dirt, and insects, which he wishes he could confidently say about the bearskin.

Or himself. The rain cooled his scalded skin and left him superficially not-filthy, but Levi can feel how much of an illusion it is — the sweat and blood and viscera and mud and river water are still clinging to his clothes and sunk deep into his pores. He needs to strip off and scrub himself until his skin is raw. Rawer.

He risks unfastening his harness; in the half a minute it takes him to discard his sodden coat and pull the straps and plates back into place, the tension coils up in him until his spine aches with it. Claude’s bird book is soaked through, the leather and cardboard cover squelching between his fingers as he picks it up. When Levi peels the pages apart, blooms of color are spreading through the paper, the bizarre and beautiful illustrations smudged and leaking.

“I’m sorry,” Eren says, sounding out each word carefully with his only partially healed mouth, “for going behind your back.”

Levi props the book in front of the fire; it’s ruined, but there’s still a sliver of hope. “That’s all you’re sorry for?” he asks carefully, like he’s approaching one of those birds in the wild and expecting it to fly off.

“I’m sorry I let Bertholdt get the drop on me.” Levi looks over his shoulder; Eren’s head is up, his one — currently blue and what the fuck is that about — eye fixed on Levi. “You’re not mad at me,” he says fiercely… wonderingly. “How are you not… mad at me?”

Levi props his ass on the edge of the fireplace screen and studies Eren for a moment. As he watches, the broken fragments of Eren’s cheekbone shift around like jigsaw pieces trying to find their place, popping and crunching as they join together. Thin tendrils of flesh and muscle spread across the bare, charred bone of his jaw. Steam trickles from the hole where his nose should be. When Eren’s in his titan form it’s easy to see him as humanity’s great hope — humanity’s rage made muscular flesh. Like this, he should be pitiful, stripped of his strength and power, and yet…

“That is a stupid fucking question,” he says eventually, and stands up. After a moment’s thought, he loads the musket and lays it down next to Eren. “I’m going down to the kitchen. Any titans climb in through that window while I’m gone, shoot them. Or get them to kill each other.”

“You saw that?” Eren sounds smug; Levi can’t really blame him.

“Not too shabby a power,” he says, pausing in the doorway. “It impressed the Colossal Titan — hard to fight with your ankles chewed up.”

“He tried to take it,” Eren says quietly. “They both did.” Before Levi can ask, he awkwardly lifts his arm to gesture at his back. “Spinal fluid. I don’t know what it tasted like or if it worked. I guess we’ll never know now… Reiner and Bertholdt are both dead,” he adds as if he’s trying the idea out, confused by his own mixed feelings.

He’s also counting his winnings while the cards are still moving and the Lady probably shoved down the dealer’s pants.

“We didn’t get to kick the bodies,” Levi says. He lifts his hand from the doorknob and sees the shape of his fingers gouged into the metal. “Don’t bet on it being over.” And if Reiner and Bertholdt aren’t dead, he’ll make them wish they were.

Somehow. As he makes his way painfully down to the kitchen he’s aware of every gram of pressure put on his harness by the weight of the gear and scabbards. The fury and adrenaline that propelled him through almost two meters of titan muscle and bone — and through the human embedded in them — are still coursing through his body, but no longer providing fuel. He’s exhausted. Every muscle in his body aches. Breathing is painful and he thinks he might have torn a stitch. And if the enemy comes to him tonight he’ll fight and fight hard, because what else can he do?

The outside door swings loose on its hinges, the wind banging it back and forth and forcing swirls of rain into the corridor. Levi catches it and is about to tug it shut when something makes him pause. Something captured right at the very edge of his stretched-out senses and classified in the depths of his hindbrain as “not right.”

He steps out into the storm and listens. The wind wails and shrieks through the town’s maze of streets, and the rain beats down relentlessly, its drumming a different sound on each and every surface. He can hear the rhythmic clatter of some distant window swinging loose, varied drips and splashes as the water finds its way down the buildings around him. But there’s nothing out of place. Thunder rolls above him, and when the lightning flashes, his eyes go automatically to the wall.

Nothing there. No climbing titans. No cracks.

No danger.

*

Eren digs his fingers into his re-forming leg for a useful jab of extra pain. He can’t afford to let his mind drift, and he certainly can’t afford to sleep. If he does, who will he dream as? Who will wake up? Will it even be Eren’s body they wake into?

While he thought he was Frieda, his eye healed blue like hers. Now the memories crowd his brain, a clamor of lives gone, and when he tries to think of his own face he gets countless memories of looking at himself in the mirror, countless different bodies in countless different rooms — countless different faces, and he finds he hasn’t a clue which is his now. He watches his new legs with suspicion. He thinks they’re the right length, the right amount of muscle making up his calves and thighs, but how would he know at this point? His other eye has finally healed, but it could have polka dots and blue eyelashes for all he knows.

He breathes deep enough to make himself dizzy and pulls his knees up to his chest. If he can just focus on rebuilding — thighs, calves, ankles — focus hard enough that his concentration doesn’t waver and his mind isn’t allowed to… wander…

The door opens. Levi comes in bearing food and soaked to the skin and he’s not sure which is more interesting to him right now.

He shuts the door with a nudge of one blade scabbard. Eren shuts his eyes and listens to the clink and jangle of his gear, the clank of kettle and pans and the scratch-scrape of the poker in the hearth. The way his mind lovingly goes over every detail of dripping hair and damp skin and transparent fabric plastered against muscle is definitely all him, at least. Did Uri ever pant over Kenny like a hungry dog held back from a bowl of meat? Eren really doubts it.

His nose must be re-forming, because he can smell something mouthwatering, savory and familiar. The remains of the soup… He has his eyes open and his hands out to snatch the bowl before Levi gets fully crouched down in front of him.

“If you drown yourself on it, I’m not giving you mouth-to-mouth,” Levi says as Eren pours the soup into his mouth. He burns his tongue, but it tastes so good — and is exactly what he needs. The sparks prickle through him in a wave —

 

— he’s getting used to the beer, his body burning away the alcohol, his taste buds beginning to appreciate it as the perfect accompaniment to the piles of cured meats, potatoes, pickles and toasted cheese he and his drinking companions have devoured. Every mouthful was delicious. Carla smiled at him when he ordered more. He thinks that a man could live well inside these walls —

 

— and Eren chokes, forcing the last mouthfuls down. He approaches the acorn bread more carefully. Levi’s eyes go narrow and watchful.

“Problem?”

“It’s still delicious.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

 

— the deer’s flesh steams in the cool air as AM-05 tugs back its hide. They’re down to their last ration packs, this is logical, but something in him rebels at just the smell of it, sharp and sour. No one has dared to eat even the fruit from the trees, they need to do controlled tests on carefully chosen subjects, not… AM-05 licks the blood from his blade and looks up at him over it, pale eyes almost amused —

 

“Eren?”

 

— Captain Levi made this tea for him with his own hands, he can’t let it go cold. But the thought of putting anything in his stomach makes it twist up even further. There’s no making this right, no way to apologize, they’re all dead because of him —

 

“Eren.”

Levi’s fingers are cold and strong as they dig into his palms, the pain sharp and focusing. He finds himself hyperventilating and forces himself into some sort of calm.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Just the question is enough to get the panic racing in again. How to explain?

He’s not sure who he is anymore. He doesn’t know if he can put himself back together. What happens if he can’t? What’s left? How can he fight like this? Reiner accused him of creating this world and all its problems, and Eren can’t be sure he was wrong…

“Breathe,” Levi says, and Eren feels his palm against the back of his neck, surprisingly gentle against his healing skin. He lets his head drop, rests his forehead against Levi’s shoulder.

“I’m fine.”

“And a shitty liar.”

The room is too hot. Eren shrugs the bearskin off his shoulders, finds himself pressing his face into the damp cotton of Levi’s shirt, the curve of his neck. His skin is cool and silk-soft against Eren’s burning, steaming flesh and Eren can feel his pulse, steady and strong —

 

— the machines beep and flash, a different heartbeat for every medi-tank. He does his best not to show his surprise as AM-05 tugs his T-shirt over his head and steps close enough to murmur in his ear. “This is the deal. Tool, weapon, toy — I can be whatever you want.” If he stares, is it any surprise? Ackerman’s craftsmanship ran to aesthetics as well as function; the boy is flawless, inhumanly so. His blood rises. A man of his intellect reduced to the level of a hormonal teenager — it’s maddening. “If you’d prefer this pitch from a girl, I can fetch AM-01, but we thought you seemed to like me best—” And he does, God help him, he really does —

 

— Eren sucks in air, breathes Levi in. The soap smell is overwhelming — at the very least, he’s managed a patrol-style wash, face and neck and hands and a precise series of undone buckles and careful contortions to get to pits and crotch and ass with as little disturbance of clothes and gear harness as possible — but the chemical scent of titan steam lingers on him, and Eren thinks he can still smell Bertholdt’s blood.

What soldier wouldn’t take down the Colossal Titan if they could? Levi suffered because of Bertholdt, the same as everyone else — he didn’t need to see Eren hurt to want to kill him, even the idea that Levi did it because of him is so arrogant…

It was amazing, though. Horrible. Satisfying.

Breathtaking.

 

— he’s trembling, tense, blood in his mouth and thundering in his ears as he watches the man beyond the bars, the ink and fantasy of jizz-stained newspaper clippings swapped out for menacing flesh and bone. Captain Levi wraps his fingers around one of the bars; his eyes gleam, unnervingly bleached of color by the torchlight. But the monster’s out, not going back inside its box, and it thickens his breath in his chest, makes his mouth water and his cock stiffen, relishes being exposed, seen, recognized. The manacles feel like paper he could tear right through —

 

— his mouth is watering now. All he can think about is the smooth cool skin so close to his tongue and teeth —

*

Levi’s skin prickles with sweat. Eren’s face feels like burning coals pressed against his neck.

He must be in agony but he’s shown barely any sign of it. Not one single complaint has left his mouth — about anything… and there’s something wrong here beyond Eren’s injuries, something making Eren’s body tense and his breath come sharp and shallow as he surrounds them both in steam —

Eren’s mouth moves against his neck; just for a split second, he feels tongue against his skin. Tasting him.

Levi gets his fingers in Eren’s new hair and yanks — but he’s already jerking away, throwing himself back, scrambling away on his ass… his stiff cock slapping against his thigh with every movement, dark with blood and looking almost too heavy to get fully upright…

That was what he was stressed about? Really?

Eren’s back hits the wall. He draws his knees up to his chest and hunches down until his face is hidden behind his arms.

Levi turns his attention back to the stove and the kettle. “You’ve got enough energy to waste on that? Put it down, you might heal faster.”

He takes a glance at Eren as he huddles by the wall, almost lost behind the steam. It occurs to him that at some point he should have been revolted — he’s seen week-old corpses in better condition than Eren when he brought him back here. And yet… he’s alive. He’s not completely indestructible or unstoppable, nothing — nobody — in this world is, but fuck he comes closer to it than any person close to Levi has any right to.

He fills two mugs with the pine-needle tea and pads across to Eren.

“Stop.”

Levi stops. He can feel Eren’s gaze on him through the steam, hot and desperate. “Don’t come near me.”

“I’ve seen both your dick and your guts already,” Levi points out, “and I’m in no hurry to touch either.”

“No, you don’t get it. You need to stay away from me.” He hears Eren take a deep breath. “I — I want… to eat you,” Eren says, and the monster shines out of his mismatched eyes, looking as if it wants to tear Levi apart and hump his remains. And Levi’s head is more fucked than Eren’s because he looks back at that monster and feels his breath hitch in his chest — and his cock twitch in his pants.

Okay then. “Is that ‘eat’ as in ‘I want to choke on your cock,’” he says, “or ‘eat’ as in ‘I want to sink my teeth into you and chew’?”

Eren stares at him. The monster stares at him.

Eren ducks his head behind his arms again. He can’t get any further into that corner but fuck, is he giving it a good try. “Both,” he manages, and his voice is choked up with misery and rough with… something else. On someone else, somewhere else, Levi would read it solely as lust — if the kind that offers broken mattress springs and a bruised asshole and squirting jizz out with your shit for days — and that would be only half as interesting.

He takes a sip of his tea. He makes a thoughtful noise. Eren peers at him over his arms, eyes narrowed and wary — and still making Levi think of claws and dark woods. Fingerprint bruises and toothmarks and Eren’s blood-flecked spit drying on his sore, overtouched cock. Sweat and spit and jizz and blood and the sheets becoming like cardboard as they dry… Levi feels a muscle under his eye twitch.

“So,” he says, “if this is the confession you’re willing to throw up as a diversion, how bad is the thing you’re still hiding?”

“What?” Eren starts, jerks his head up — and Levi finally gets more than a glimpse of his face.

Shit.

Well, that’s a different look on him.

“Don’t look at me! Fuck.” Eren bends his head, tears at his hair, its gold and bronze highlights joined by thick streaks of blond and inky black. “I’ll fix it. I’ll —”

Levi reaches out, gets hold of Eren’s hair and his jaw, and gently — firmly — lifts his chin. Eren looks at him with one eye that’s the right shape but blue, and one that’s narrow and golden-brown. His face is rounded, his chin a sharp point, his nose small and snubbed, his skin patches of different shades. “How bad is it?” he says quietly.

“Useful trick, but personally, I prefer your old face. This isn’t intentional, is it?”

“Not by me,” Eren says. He closes his eyes and draws down his — skinny, too-skinny — brows into a frown. “I have so many memories,” he mumbles, “and they’re all mine. It’s not like I don’t know who I am! I just… there are so many faces in my head and I can’t pick out which I should… argh.”

He flinches as Levi touches his face, brushing his thumb over his cheekbone.

“Remember when the Beast Titan came here? You zoned out then, and spoke to me like you were a completely different person.” Eren starts. His eyes flash open — and their color might be all wrong, but the expression in them is perfect.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he snarls. “Oh, fuck… Aphrodite and the flak vest? You looked at me like I could be an enemy… like I was hiding something…”

Levi gives him his flattest look. Eren rubs the heels of his hands against his eyes.

“Okay. Point taken.” He takes another deep breath and looks Levi straight in the eye. “The First King’s powers come with the memories of everyone who’s held them. They’ve been… leaking. A lot. That’s it. I know who I am,” he says, and his voice breaks on the lie. He puts his fingertips to his forehead, digging his nails into the new skin. Levi doesn’t stop him.

He doesn’t stop him as he gouges bloody lines down his face. Or when he punches himself in the face, bone crunching under his fist. Or when he shoves his fingernails into his eyes.

Eren knows what he’s doing, Levi doesn’t. And he’s never felt more helpless as he watches the blood and the steam flow.

“Your lips are right,” he says, “but your mouth needs to be six millimeters wider. You need a forty-five-degree angle for your nose — it should be straight with just an extra three- or four-degree slope on the last two centimeters. Your left eye is the right shape, but its eyelashes should be paler, thicker and closer together, like broom bristles. For the color of its iris… think of a mixed-foliage forest canopy with the afternoon sun behind it… I’m not helping, am I?”

“You’re really… definite,” Eren gasps. His pulse stutters under Levi’s thumb as Levi rests his hand against the curve of his neck.

“Photographic memory,” Levi says.

“Oh.”

“And I’ve looked closely.”

Eren’s pulse jumps, and Levi’s oddly pleased by that.

“As faces go, it’s one I’d be okay to rub my balls on.”

Eren splutters out a laugh. His expression is impossible to tell beneath the steam. “Thanks.”

“Compliments won’t get us anywhere.” Eren’s pulse isn’t going to stop in the less than a minute it takes to retrieve Claude’s book, but it’s an effort for Levi to move his hand. “Fix your eyes first. You should see this.”

Eren reaches out blindly for him as he sits back down, fingers finding the damp paper. “What is it?”

“Fix your eyes,” Levi repeats. And if Eren’s dying of curiosity here, all the better. “There are dozens of books like it upstairs. At least some of them are about Outside.” Eren’s head shoots up. Levi sees a glint of green through the steam. There he is. “Most of these collectors have a cabinet for their curiosities — old Claude here had an entire room. Skulls, rocks, those little snails in rocks — Claude had it all.” Some of Erwin’s allies would wet themselves at the sight of that collection. Strange people, all of them, not one of them below merchant class, prosperous and respectable — and willing to risk it all for an illegal hobby and tiny contextless fragments of a bigger, more-mysterious world.

He gets the impression Eren would understand them well. Armin surely would. Levi could imagine Eren seeing the collectors as cattle getting distracted by the shiny rocks in their pasture when they should be leaping the fence. If Armin got a look at those bookcases and cabinets, they wouldn’t get him out of there before his thirtieth birthday.

Eren holds the book like it’s precious, gently moving the pages to peer at the smudged illustrations, and if he doesn’t feel like himself now, Levi’s got no more ideas.

His mind throws up things he doesn’t need to dwell on, not now — the things in the rooms in the laboratory Levi didn’t let Eren see as he set them alight on their way out, the formaldehyde they floated in making a useful accelerant; the doctors babbling about “limits to cell replication” as they begged for their lives; the jolt as he realized this “flawed replica” of theirs knew him, what that meant, the tightness in his chest and the sense of the whole world expanding around him…

He wonders if Hange was ever converted to the idea that Eren is actually Eren. Was he convincing enough? Was Eren convincing enough?

Can Eren even convince himself?

“Is that where you found the gear?” Eren says, his jaw clicking as he speaks, as it changes shape. He runs his fingers through his hair and the blond and black strands come out in chunks. “Upstairs?”

“Heal up and I’ll show you.”

“It was good to see you with it,” Eren says. “And not just because I needed rescuing.” He looks down at his hands, turning them over. The shape of his face has changed — mouth, nose, eyes — but not his skin.

“If you need a skin color reference…” Levi pulls his collar away from his neck and shoves Eren’s hand against it. “You got your hands on me often enough — dig up one of those memories.”

Eren’s touch is hot; Levi can feel every bump of his fingers and palm. Then his skin belches steam and he’s burning. Levi could pull back, but he’s transfixed on what’s revealed as the steam disperses, the transformation running up Eren’s arm like a wave blown across the water by the wind or paint running across paper. Golden paint, here — tan skin and honey-colored freckles and soft sun-bleached hair on his forearms — and heat coming off him until Levi thinks he could suffocate in it.

“You always look like the gear is part of you,” Eren murmurs.

Levi’s neck stings, the pain sharp and hot, and he’s a massive hypocrite, because he has no real reason to put his hands on Eren now beyond fascination and whim, but he splays his fingers over his beating heart, follows the gold down as it runs over his pecs and abs and belly, presses his palms against his prickly treasure trail and the short fluffy hair on his thighs. The line of the transformation is fire-hot, would actually burn Levi’s fingers, but the heat it leaves behind seeps into Levi’s skin —

“If you want any changes,” Eren manages, “tell me now.”

Levi looks at him. Objectively, he’s not bad-looking, give him a few years and he might even force a second look from Levi if he passes him in the street. But there’s nothing objective about the way Levi’s eyes eat him up now. Right now, his thick brows and stubborn chin and wide mobile mouth, his solid shoulders and big dark nipples and dick still hard and dribbling pre-come — all of it is alarmingly perfect.

“You’ll do.”

Eren laughs. His relief and glee is catching; Levi finds a corner of his mouth twitching up, and for a moment, he doesn’t resist it. He smooths his hands up over Eren’s shoulders, still chasing the heat — the fire — inside him, palms flat against velvety skin. Eren’s throat moves beneath his fingers, and he leans into the touch without the slightest hint of self-consciousness, eyes gleaming in the firelight. Fucking beautiful eyes, monster shifting behind them —

Levi sees the exact moment it moves to take control right there in those eyes. Eren pounces, and Levi is wrapped in his heat, Eren’s arms tight around his waist and shoulders and Eren’s mouth slamming into his so hard his lip splits between their teeth.

His fingers tangle in Eren’s hair, grip the back of his neck hard enough to make him shudder. He intends to free himself — who has fucking time for kisses? — but he finds himself pressing closer, opening his mouth to Eren’s heat, allowing himself one swallow to take in his hot breath and the burning press of his tongue and the desperate, helpless noises he makes as the blunt, heavy head of his cock grinds into Levi’s belly and he comes with Levi’s shirt twisted around it, fingernails tearing into both the shirt and the skin beneath —

He draws blood, shakes, spurts so violently Levi feels the impact of it. Levi gets his fingers in Eren’s mouth and shoves him away, suddenly painfully aware of his own body — the stinging stripes left by Eren’s nails and the maddening brush of damp cotton against his pebbled nipples and the hot line of his fly embossing itself onto his caged-up cock, all his nerve endings on high alert and enough coiled-up want inside him to take on a whole squad and still come out frustrated and murderous.

Here it is: the number-one reason not to fuck around with rookies. Nothing sums up the little discouragements and unfairnesses of life quite like the combination of a cock hard enough to break bricks and the jizz of the guy who caused it already seeping through your clothes. Eren’s a fast firer… of course he is. Well, fuck that — Levi has plans for him, if he thinks he can go sated and sleepy now he’s shot his wad then he has another fucking thi—

Eren jumps on him.

There’s one moment when it could’ve gone differently, with Eren’s legs hooked around Levi’s and his arm across his neck and his still-hard cock a massive distraction. It passes. Levi flips them, and the little oof Eren makes against Levi’s fingers as his back hits the floor goes straight to Levi’s cock. So does the press of his thigh against Levi’s balls as he straddles it. And the shiver of his abdominal muscles as Levi flattens his palm against them, spreading his fingers among thick, slippery come. The tip of his little finger brushes against Eren’s cock… he runs it from head to root, that barest touch enough to tighten his balls and dry out his mouth. Eren came like a firehose… and is still hard as a rock. No jerking off clearly has its benefits.

This is the point where Levi should get up, take himself off to deal with his dick, and leave Eren to fix his. This was a slip-up, easily forgotten —

He licks his lips, cut stinging, tastebuds flaring. The chemical-animal tang of Eren’s spit mingles with the familiar flavor of his own blood. He can hear his own pulse throbbing in his ears as he examines his jizz-coated fingers and flicks out his tongue to take a taste.

Eren bucks his hips, grabs at the hand over his mouth. His eyes burn.

*

Eren hears a noise like a dying animal and realizes that it’s coming from his own throat. Levi leans over him, eyes gleaming, methodically sucking the come off his fingers, somehow as casual as if this is the most normal thing in the world and he’s not studying Eren’s every reaction. Eren feels like he’s on show, completely exposed, and he doesn’t even care.

Let Levi look. Eren’s going to look right back, because his handprint is still stark against Levi’s pale skin, his come molding Levi’s shirt to every bump and dip of his abs… Levi’s mouth is pink and swollen and smeared with his own blood, sweat glistens on his forehead and neck, his cock tents his pants — and Eren did that. He. Did. That. He got to kiss Levi — for like ten seconds until he came on his clothes, but still —

He reaches out, digs his fingers into Levi’s thighs, bites and licks at the fingers over his mouth, in his mouth, doesn’t bother holding back his moan. He wants to clamp his teeth down hard, leave marks for Levi to wear around his fingers like he wears the scars on his knuckles and the harness calluses on his thighs. He wants to lick that smeared blood from Levi’s lips, press kisses where his nails tore skin. He’s only just come, but he’s coiled tight, ready to burst. This is agony. He’ll do anything —

Levi lifts his hand from Eren’s mouth. “If the enemy came now,” he says, “could you make a titan?” Eren blinks, trying to make the words line up together in his fogged-up brain. Why is he talking? “Honest answer.”

Levi watches him as he makes up his mind. Eren wants to say yes, of course… rely on me… The fear of fucking up stills his tongue — then is washed away by the memory of reaching out for Levi as they both fell.

“If you need me to,” he says, and the certainty of that makes his head spin. He’s burning up, his balls aching, the last time he felt this perfectly, completely free and confident and alive was his first 3DMG flight without guide cables and maybe that time he ended up overshooting his mark and eating tree, but that feeling, that surety in himself and what he can be, yeah, he treasured that then and he does now. He can do anything, if Levi needs him to.

He catches Levi’s hand, pressing hard, embarrassingly fervent kisses on his fingers, his palm, his wrist. “Didn’t I already prove that once today?”

Levi pulls his hand free and stands up, straightening his gear and harness.

Wait, what? Eren scrambles to his feet. What did he do wrong? He thought Levi liked a smart mouth on him? Does Levi think he lied, gave him the answer he wanted to hear —

Levi’s emergency gear release clicks beneath his fingers. Blade scabbards and gas canisters hit the floor with a clatter, the operating cylinder and trigger grips are placed more carefully on top of them, and Levi stalks off toward the bed without a single backward look at Eren.

— oh, fuck.

Eren doesn’t hesitate, just lunges for Levi and pulls him back into a bear hug. He allows himself a moment to just stand there, his chest plastered against Levi’s back, arms tight around him. “Thank you,” he murmurs into Levi’s hair. Thank you for trusting me… And for… The four-poster’s curtains are pulled right back, and Levi being the last to use it means even the blanket has military corners sharp enough to cut flesh, and Eren knows how uncomfortable the mattress is… but he thinks that it could have silk drapes and perfumed sheets and a mattress like sleeping on air and it wouldn’t be any more inviting — or threatening, in the best possible way.

He tightens his grip, enjoying the shift of damp fabric and iron-hard muscle beneath his hands. The straps stretched tight over Levi’s rounded ass snag on the skin of Eren’s ballsack as he risks movement and a slow grind of his cock against Levi’s spine. The gap between the harness’s lower backplates is too small, the metal shockingly cold against Eren’s cock, but he could come like this, if Levi let him, with his nose against Levi’s neck and one palm pressed flat against the bumps of those magnificent abs. The other brushes over a stiff nipple, he groans out loud, and Levi catches his hand and firmly moves it — right to his crotch, to the sharp cold lines of an opened zipper and the stiff cock jutting up out of it. “You owe me at least one nut,” he says calmly. “Fix that. Now.”

Eren wraps his fingers around it with what he’s aware is a stupid smile on his face and thankyouthankyouthankyou running in circles in his head. One swipe of his thumb over the silky-soft head and he’s got slickness to work with, two lets him chase pre-come down the vein underneath, three and Levi is jerking his hips. Eren rests his cheek against Levi’s smooth, soft hair and watches him fuck into his hand, tightening his grip with every twitch of his own cock. This should be easy — he hasn’t managed to jerk off to completion for months but it’s not something you can forget how to do — and yet. It feels so different to do it to someone else, intimate and dirty, and Levi isn’t holding back. He’s completely silent apart from his ragged breathing, but he leans his head back against Eren’s shoulder and bucks up into his hand with rough, regular thrusts — and Eren thinks he might actually burn up to scraps like a cremated corpse as he stops himself grinding against him —

— or burst, even, nothing left of him but disembodied lust and a fountain of backed-up come… yeah, that image works to cool him down… a little.

Levi tackles his harness buckles with quick, practiced movements. Eren bites at his ear, the back of his neck, gets the taste of him in his mouth, finds the cock in his hand even slicker as he gets bolder, gets his free hand inside Levi’s shirt and hell, how does all that muscle feel so completely different to touch when he’s awake and in motion? A sinuous ripple of tightening and relaxing muscles runs up and down Levi’s abs with every jerk of his hips, quicker and stronger as he winds himself up tighter and tighter — and he’s doing all the work, Eren should do more…

He lets go of Levi’s cock.

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Levi snarls. The harness might save Eren’s life, or at least his balls, because he’s trying to slip it off Levi’s shoulders when Levi rounds on him, and he hasn’t got this tangled up in straps since his first year in training.

Levi’s sense of the ridiculous seems to win out over his anger as he untangles them and discards both the harness and his boots. His heavy-lidded eyes are glinting with amusement as he takes a step back from Eren, popping the buttons of his shirt. There’s no tease to it as he peels off his come-soaked shirt and steps out of his pants, but Eren burns every second into his brain. If anyone ever eats his spine, they better hope they like men, because this memory will be playing like a fucking stuck music box…

“I am going to get off tonight,” Levi says, tossing his clothes at Eren. He fumbles them, then realizes that he’s nearer the dresser. As he neatly folds the pants and does his best with the shirt, he hears the old bedsprings creak and forgets how to breathe. When he turns around, he forgets how to think. Levi sprawls, bleached-bone-white skin against clean white sheets, thighs spread and his own hands leisurely stroking his cock and teasing at his balls, and watches Eren with hot, predatory eyes.

Eren’s stopped thinking; he doesn’t care about anything but what he wants. And what he wants is to touch.

*

Eren makes it across the room and onto the bed in just two strides. The springs boing under his knees as he half collapses on top of Levi, and Levi is still not used to the sheer heat of his hands. And it feels like he’s sprouted extra ones in the last few minutes, branding-iron-hot fingers to pluck at Levi’s nipples and stroke over his pecs and ribs and press at his scars, to grope at his hipbones and balls and asscheeks… to miss something really fucking important…

“My dick is down there.” Waiting for him to get his mouth around it…

Eren licks a wet stripe across his neck. Sucks at the mark of his own hand scorched onto Levi’s skin…

Spit pools in his collarbone and pain jabs straight through him, neck to cock to toes, dragging a gasp from his throat and a helpless jerk from his hips. And Eren makes a desperate noise against his skin, half groan, half growl, loud enough to vibrate in Levi’s bones as he grinds his long, thick, hot cock against Levi’s leg. Pre-come hot enough to sting makes a slow, tormenting trail down his inner thigh. The wide head of Eren’s cock catches on his balls before jamming up painfully hard against his taint. Every noise Eren makes — animal desperation shot through with blissful, appreciative amazement — coils tension in Levi’s balls and guts and spine, makes him dig his fingers into the tight, pert handfuls of Eren’s ass and roll his hips as if he can get anything more than a tantalizing, unsatisfying rub of his cock against Eren’s belly. Eren’s cock slides under — between — his ass cheeks, and Levi feels every nerve in his body draw bow-tight.

He’s not that much of a fucking idiot, but for a split second there he feels his balls squeeze around the jizz in them and teeters on the edge as the idea flares bright and sharp — to just lift his legs and spread his cheeks and be stretched… torn… wide as he takes every scorching centimeter raw —

He breathes a heartfelt fuck into Eren’s skin.

And, because he’s not that much of a fucking idiot, readjusts their position. Gets Eren’s cock against his belly, his own tucked in beneath Eren’s balls… “You should know,” he says, “I don’t have a lot of patience. Now, pay attention, because this is one wrestling move you don’t know.”

His thighs slam in and his arms yank down, and his cock slides. So does Eren’s, trapped between their bodies, and Levi hears a startled, delighted oh as he gets his feet braced against the mattress and thrusts up between Eren’s thighs, hard becoming brutal, his entire body shaking because fuck this, he’s been teased to hell, he needs to come, he needs —

Eren tightens his thigh muscles, mumbles mutilated curses into Levi’s sweat-damp hair, and throws himself into movement, matching his rhythm, matching his violence. They slam down into the mattress together, over and over again, Levi’s labored breaths drowned out by Eren’s rough cries, the pain shuddering through his aching wounded body mixing with his juddering heartbeat and the echo of Eren’s pulse in the muscles squeezing his cock harder and harder and Eren’s heat sinking into him and the tension curling tighter and tighter and tighter and tighter… He can feel it in his scalp, in every nerve ending —

“Hey, Eren,” he croaks. “There’s no grapple hook here.” And he digs his teeth into the curve of Eren’s neck, feels him stiffen, jerk… Scalding jizz stripes his belly and chest and jaw and splatters on his face, but Levi’s already gone.

Carefully cultivated habit gets his hands thrown out safely away from Eren, digging into the mattress, tearing fabric instead of pressing in bruises as the wave breaks over him. His hips come full off the bed, lifting Eren’s full weight with every shuddering, clawing pulse —

He keeps hold of consciousness, just. Somewhere he’s aware of broken mattress springs jabbing into his back, Eren’s breath hot on his face… Slitting his eyes open, he finds Eren’s face centimeters away from his, his eyes heavy-lidded and glowing. Steam rises from his neck…

“You bastard. What the hell was that? I could have transformed!” Eren groans, drops his head to Levi’s shoulder; Levi stretches until his joints pop, luxuriating in the slow seep of afterglow through his veins and the smell of sex and fresh sweat. Jizz slides down his face as he calculates the distance to the bathroom door. Eren’s hot and heavy on top of him; he strokes Eren’s back and ass and finds the slickness of his own come under his fingers. “You could have died…”

“No chance,” Levi says. “You wouldn’t have allowed it.”

Eren surges up onto his hands and knees. For a moment, he leans over Levi, studying his face. Levi listens to the crackle of wood in the fire and the rain against the window and lets himself watch the firelight reflect in Eren’s eyes. The emotions he can see shifting behind it bother him; fuck, is Eren pissing against the wrong fucking lamppost, looking at him like that.

He opens his mouth to speak.

Eren kisses him, quick and desperate, too much spit, too much teeth. “I’ll get some water and a washcloth,” he says quickly, vaulting off the bed. He’s hard again… Levi’s almost impressed. “And you’ll want to change the sheets, right? I’ll just —”

Two thoughts go through Levi’s head as he sits up and watches Eren disappear into the bathroom. One — this was a massive mistake.

He presses at his scorched neck, feels his cock twitch.

Two — it wasn’t enough.

Not nearly enough.

What the fuck is he doing?

*

 

Chapter Text

 

08 – The View through the Bars

 

 

When Jean joined up, he had very definite ideas about how his time in the military would go. For a start, his role in any squad he ended up in would be the Ace — not that he’d need his maneuver gear skills in the MPs, but everyone would admire and defer to him anyway, obviously. ‘Leader,’ maybe. ‘Cool Guy.’ ‘The one who’s good with people’ both sucks as a title and was never considered as a possibility — after all, Jean’s need to have his opinion known is way stronger than his need to be liked. And yet…

“Do something,” Sasha hisses. “Stop them. Talk to them!”

How did this end up being his life? True, the squad at its biggest contained two cold-eyed hard-asses, three loud-mouthed idiots, and Historia when she’d given up being nice. But while Jean never exactly classed Armin as a people person, he always had him down as better at it than the others. He mostly thought before speaking, for a start…

…and that’s the problem here, isn’t it? Armin’s obviously thought a lot about what he’s saying right now. And so has Mikasa…

“You always encourage him. The outside world, the Survey Corps… you can’t protect him, you can barely protect yourself, but you put all these ideas in his head and go charging off together like you don’t care if you die.”

“And you’re the opposite,” Armin snaps back. “You can’t keep him locked away in a box, wrapped in cotton wool so he won’t get broken. That’s not Eren.”

“I know that. I know.”

Jean would probably take being swallowed by a titan over witnessing this. Maybe. If it was kind enough to bite his head off first. At the other end of the corridor, the MP on guard outside the stores shifts her feet, clearly sharing his discomfort. And she’s not going to have to deal with them both afterward.

Mikasa tugs her scarf up, taking a deep breath. Her composure being shoved firmly back into place is something amazing to watch. “Before,” she says in a small voice, “we played at being good soldiers while Eren was locked away and tortured. I refuse to do that again.” Armin looks like he’s been hit.

“You can’t beat yourself up over that,” Jean says quickly. “We ran out of things to try.”

“We shouldn’t have,” Armin replies. When he looks at Jean, his big eyes are bleak and, dammit, Jean is usually able to do something about that. “I should’ve thought of something.”

The MP coughs. “Hey, guys, you’re really not supposed to be down here. If you’re not going to try to fight me to get at the supplies, you can take this somewhere else, right?”

Mikasa looks at her. Jean steps between them. “No,” he says, as if she couldn’t just pick him up and move him aside — which, yeah, he’s grown up, he has whole new tastes and torches to carry, but that’s still awesomely hot to him, it really is. “Okay, so, stealing supplies and heading out there on your own, I see why you’d think that was a good idea — it’s not, by the way, so don’t be mad with Sasha for telling us — but beating up one of your comrades to do it? You think Eren would approve of that?” Depending on the comrade, the answer to that could be ‘hell, yes’, but Jean’s just going to brush on right past that and hope that Mikasa doesn’t call him on it —

“If you three help me, she doesn’t have to get hurt.”

The MP lifts her whistle to her lips and pulls out her pistol. “Okay! Game’s over, guys. Do you think I’m down here for my health? Captain Rico wants these thefts to stop, and she’s authorized me to use deadly force. Get lost.”

“‘These thefts’?” Keep talking, Jean tells himself, make sure this doesn’t turn into a stand-off…

“Sure. You’d think we’re all in this together, people would be thinking about surviving, not collecting things to sell when we get back — hell, we might not get back, right? But no.” She pulls a face. “I can understand someone stealing food, cloaks, matches — hell, even powder and musket balls — but explosive shells? How are they even expecting to get them back to Wall Rose without being noticed or getting themselves blown sky high?”

Jean shakes his head, commiserating with her over the weirdness of people. He catches Armin’s eye; wordlessly, they grab an arm each and steer Mikasa away from the stores. And she lets them, which means she’s thinking the same thing they are.

Or maybe not, and she’s lulling them into a false sense of security, intending to come back to the stores later, but honestly, right now Jean’ll take it.

“We’ll just be going now,” he hears Sasha tell the MP. “Sorry for bothering you.”

Someone’s stealing explosives.

Someone went to the trouble of stopping the expedition from reporting back to Commander Erwin and Pixis via pigeon — but let half their number set off back to Wall Rose last night with the cattle, untroubled by any more acts of sabotage.

Jean’s not going to claim it suddenly all makes perfect sense, but he’s got some horrible suspicions.

“How long would it take the Commander to put an expedition together?” he asks. “Including the time it takes for our guys to get to him and give their report, if he did decide to come and reinforce us, how long would it take?” Armin looks at him solemnly. “And don’t you dare say ‘too long’.”

 

***

 

Eren puts another log on the fire and paces back over to the window, pulling back one curtain to peer at the rain-streaked window and the darkness beyond it, just as impenetrable as the last time he looked — five minutes ago. He drops the curtain and paces back over to the bed.

He should sit down and rest, but his body is shot through with crackling energy. He wants to transform, he wants to run, he wants to fight. He wants to shout and laugh. He wants to wake Levi up, haul him up into his arms, kiss him and taste him and everything, anything.

He feels like he did standing outside Wall Maria – nothing is different, not really, and yet… Eren hugs his arms around himself and doesn’t even try to subdue his grin.

He had no idea. Shit.

Levi decided Eren was taking the first watch without asking him, but Eren couldn’t have slept anyway. Hell, if Levi hadn’t been so quick to curl up and go to sleep, Eren would have been tempted to try for a repeat performance right there and then. He looks down at him now and aches from wanting to touch him. Would it be welcome? He’s not sure. There’s no invitation in the way Levi’s lying, half buried in the blankets, shoulders hunched forward and knees drawn up like he’s fitting into a much smaller space than the wide mattress allows him.

He’s shown no signs that Eren’s restless movements around the room disturb him, perhaps Eren has the same noisy-but-not-a-threat status as the rain and wind smashing against the window and the crackling of the fire in the hearth — but he’s not going to put it to the test. He stops himself from bounding up onto the bed and settles himself down more carefully, drawing his legs up under him, managing to hold back a mattress-shaking shudder as he adjusts his dick in his shorts and gives in to the temptation to tug it.

There are a hundred and one things he should be thinking about, worrying about, and his brain refuses to settle on anything outside this room… no, on anything outside this bed with the dim, warm light of the fire flickering and dancing around the cave of its partially drawn curtains. The firelight softens the finely cut curves and lines of Levi’s face, turns his long eyelashes into dark smudges against his cheeks and his hair into shadows striped across his forehead and pooled on the pillow, and Eren sits there with his hand on his cock and stares. He already knows every square millimeter of that face, but he’s never seen it so peaceful and relaxed. Seeing Levi like this, the fact that he is somehow closer in age to Commander Erwin than to Eren himself becomes something strange and marvelous.

That he somehow shares Eren’s feelings is even more strange and marvelous.

In the fireplace, a log jumps and cracks and hisses, the flames flare and rise —

 

— and he can hear the fire all around him, feel the heat of it. Sweat prickles his skin beneath the thick material of his hazmat suit, and he can hear his respirator struggling as his breathing becomes labored. The vials clink together as he loads them into their crate. Scraps of sound — screaming, gunfire, the General’s daughter’s inhuman howls — reach him through the maze of corridors.

He failed, and they’ll kill him for it. Kill him like they did Ackerman, end his work and the work of everyone who came before him… It’s unacceptable. He won’t allow it.

If he dies today, it’ll be as the creator — no, god — of a new world —

— he feels cool breath against his palm, and the noise and fear drop away like a cloak shrugged from his shoulders. Eren blinks, finds himself in the curtain-shrouded bed, leaning forward, reaching out, his hand barely a centimeter from Levi’s face. For a split second he’s back in the memory, frustrated that the heavy hazmat suit prevents him from touching, from promising vengeance in his own voice. AM-05 isn’t dying, his kind don’t die that easily —

Fuck.

 

Levi’s as still as a corpse, but there’s color to his lips and his quiet, regular breaths are soft against Eren’s palm. And Eren pushes away the fear and anger and grief that, for once, don’t belong to him and concentrates on matching Levi’s breathing.

He is scared, though, and boiling mad, because Levi is Levi, not this AM-05 or Amos or whatever the fuck his name is. How fucking dare this past life of his make him think otherwise even for a single fucking second? This fierce, desperate heat beating against Eren’s ribcage like it wants to break free of it — it’s all for Levi and all Eren’s and he clings to it, wraps the rest of himself around it like a core.

He moves his hand, so close to touching Levi’s cheek, his hair. Levi’s eyelids twitch; Eren catches the glint of his eyes through his lashes and stops breathing. “Have you any idea,” Levi murmurs, “how much heat your skin gives off?” He tilts his head, lifts it just enough that Eren’s palm brushes against his forehead and his fingers sink into his hair. Eren luxuriates in the feel of it, soft, fine threads tangled around his knuckles as he rubs his fingertips against Levi’s scalp — like he’s petting one of the training camp cats, and for a moment there Levi himself adds to that impression. The slow roll and lift of his hips beneath the covers as he straightens his legs, the arch of his neck and back, the little unselfconscious “hmm” of satisfaction… Eren didn’t think his cock could get any harder, or the painful heat in his chest swell any further, but there they both go. He aches. And he finds himself leaning forward.

And as he does, Levi reaches up to touch his face —

And very firmly shoves it away from him.

“You must be a nightmare in the summer,” he says, sitting up, shaking off Eren’s hand.

He stretches his arms out lazily and studies Eren through messy bangs. Eren slides his other hand from his shorts as subtly as he’s able — and drops a pillow into his lap for good measure. “If I am, nobody ever told me,” he says, watching the sheets fall away from Levi’s body as he swings his legs out from under them and stands up, muscles dramatically shadowed and skin painted the color of honey by the firelight — and how does this still make Eren’s mouth dry and his balls throb? “I’m glad I’m not a nightmare now,” he manages, and he is not going to look down to see if his cock’s showing through the pillow.

A match flares as Levi lights another candle. “You keep believing that.”

“You trusted me to watch you while you slept—” Levi raises an eyebrow; Eren shrugs and grins. “Watch over you while you slept,” he corrects, and catches himself staring at the hollow of Levi’s throat and the scar curling over his collarbone. He licks his dry lips and forces his eyes back up to Levi’s face.

He’s probably imagining the quirk of Levi’s lips, but it makes the heat press harder against his ribs. “No,” Levi says, “I think you got it right the first time.” His gaze flicks down, over Eren’s chest, and the heat expands, steals Eren’s breath, spreads out along his nerves like they’re overheating gear cables. “And now it’s my turn. I’d tell you to stay awake until I’m washed, dressed and equipped, but…”

“I can’t sleep,” Eren says. “No chance. You’d have to knock me out and I don’t think you really want to do that?” Levi gives him a steady look, and he’s suddenly very aware of his throat and the position of his carotids. And that hot ache doesn’t flicker or falter. “I think this has been the best day of my life,” he says quietly. “I mean, there were a couple of hours there that were complete shit, but… overall. That’s fucked up, isn’t it?”

Levi doesn’t reply at first. It takes all Eren’s self-control to hold back the extra words that want to tumble from his mouth: not just because of you… not just because of the sex… though it was amazing, you’re amazing, just getting to be in your company is amazing… even when you’re fully dressed and not rubbing your dick on me… which you’re totally welcome to do any time you like… right now, even…

“Going outside the walls for the first time was the same for me,” Levi says. “Not a bad day at all.” He scratches his ass, shrugs and turns away, stretching the muscles of his back and arms as he heads for the bathroom. “Shame the next day was one of the fucking worst, right? Guess you can’t win them all.”

“Captain!” Eren gropes for the right words as Levi pins him with his curious gaze. “I’d like to hear about that. The not-bad day, that is, though if you want to talk about the worst, I’m—”

“Not tonight.”

Which isn’t ‘not ever,’ Eren realizes as Levi makes his escape into the bathroom with his candle, and it’s a small thing to be so happy about. He flops forward face first into the sheets. They smell of Levi, of course they do, and he breathes in deep and tries not to grind his cock into the pillow. He hears the squealing pipes of the shower and wonders if Levi forgot that there was no hot water. If he did, he’s going with it, because there’s no cursing, just the sound of roaring water.

Icy water… He knows Levi feels the cold. Will his skin have goosebumps now? Will he be gasping, breathing hard? As he soaps himself down, water streaming over his body…

Eren could warm him up. Spread himself out over him like he did in the boat, skin to cool silky skin, his cock trapped against solid muscle instead of soft fabric… He groans into the mattress, rolls his hips, feels the muscles in his thighs tighten as his cock catches on the pillow’s creased cotton. The pillow’s hard, its feathers compacted and prickly rather than fluffy and bouncy, but that makes it all the better to press his cock against, press his cock into. His breath catches in his chest. He grinds down, reaches under himself to bunch the pillow up before grinding again.

What happens now? What does Levi want from him? What does he expect him to do? Eren’s got a horrible feeling that the answer to that last one is ‘pretend nothing happened, go back to just looking.’ As if ‘just looking’ hadn’t been agonizing enough before he was allowed a taste. And what a taste…

It’s all a whirl in his head when he tries to relive it, a dizzying rush of feelings and images and sensations, the odd moment bursting bright and clear and sharp and hot — the point of one tiny, stiff nipple under Eren’s palm, uneven breath against his collarbone, the silk-over-steel feel of Levi’s cock in Eren’s hand, the uneven texture of a scar under his tongue, the calluses on Levi’s fingers and palms startlingly rough against Eren’s ass cheeks as he tugged him in closer... Eren’s ridiculous, he’s crazy, he’s wanted Levi since before he even understood what that wanting was, there’s no way Levi should have been able to live up to that — but he did, he’s better, there’s no one in the world even slightly like him and he wants Eren.

Eren presses his face into the sheets and lets them muffle his groan as he moves his hips. The mattress creaks and pings under him as he drives his cock into the pillow and tries to keep his imagination from painting in Levi’s thighs, his mouth —

He’s not going to let Levi turn his back on him. He’ll work this out. If there’s some kind of code, rules and etiquette Eren doesn’t know, he’ll learn them.

He’ll roll over for Levi if that’s what Levi wants, he won’t hesitate.

If he had any balls at all he’d go in there and get in the shower with him. He could lick off the water…

…which has stopped running. How long ago did it stop running?

He freezes.

“Don’t let me stop you,” Levi says, his voice soft — and very close.

Eren slowly lifts his face from the sheets.

He could be embarrassed — he feels heat prickling across his cheeks and down his neck — but no, after what they did, he refuses to be. Fuck that. He knows how Levi’s sweat tastes, how Levi’s blood tastes, how firm his flesh feels between Eren’s teeth. He’s licked inside Levi’s mouth, squeezed his thighs around Levi’s cock, felt Levi’s closed-trimmed pubes chafe his balls, come against Levi’s abs. Levi doesn’t make any noise louder than a gasp. Levi shudders so hard when he comes his whole body lifts off the bed — even with Eren’s full weight on top of him. Levi bites.

Levi has no use for embarrassment. So Eren won’t give him any.

He meets Levi’s gaze with his face hot and anger flaring up inside him, braces his hands against the edge of the mattress and slides forward, slowly grinds his cock into the pillow as he lifts his shoulders and arches his back. Levi lets him push into his personal space, doesn’t step back as Eren gets awkwardly to his knees, gets his fingers twisted into the towel around Levi’s waist, brushes his knuckles against the hard cock beneath it. He leans forward, down —

Levi catches hold of his hand.

He doesn’t even dislodge the towel as he unhooks Eren’s grip and moves his hand firmly away from his crotch.

And Eren feels like he did the fourth time his forehead hit the hard packed earth beneath the training cables.

*

“Fuck. You.” Eren wrenches his hand free with so much force he nearly tumbles off the edge of the bed. The old mattress springs ping in protest beneath him as he throws himself back against the pillows. His head knocks into the headboard, but he barely seems to feel it. “If you’re done with me, say so,” he snarls. “If you aren’t, tell me what the fuck I’m doing wrong.”

Nothing, is the answer to that — and that’s the problem. Even the way he does angry and frustrated goes directly to Levi’s cock: bared teeth and bright eyes, heaving chest and sprawled-open legs and his own cock on display, the dark flushed color of it eye-catchingly visible through the stretched-to-its-limits white cotton of his shorts. Eren’s teeth clack together, he drops his head back, tugging at the shorts’ center seam in an attempt to give himself more room, and Levi looks at the arch of his neck and the flush spreading down his shoulders and tries to convince himself to do the right thing.

A sneer and a lie would be kinder to Eren, in the long run.

“You’re not the one doing it wrong,” he says.

Eren watches him with firelight in his eyes, pupils widening just a millimeter as Levi spreads his fingers against his own neck, over the scorched print of Eren’s larger hand. Beads of sweat are forming on Eren’s forehead, and Levi can smell him, the chemical-biological tang of that sweat and the pre-come making a transparent patch on the front of his shorts. The mental filters that keep Levi from being overwhelmed by the input of his own senses feel paper thin, and his skin is alight with firing nerve endings as he slides his hand down, over collarbone and left pectoral and ribs, skimming the dip of his waist, tracing his iliac furrow down until he finds damp towel beneath his fingertips. Eren doesn’t take his eyes off him. Horny dumbass. “You like all this, right? You think it’s impressive?” He can hear Eren’s quick shallow breaths and the thrum of his heartbeat, faster than the rat-a-tat of the rain on the window. “One mistake in the field and it gets turned into rotting titan hork. And then all that’s left of me in this fucking world is the choices I made — good and bad.”

Eren scowls. “And I’m one of the bad choices.”

He shifts uncomfortably, tugs at the shorts’ seam again — then swears and pulls the whole lot down, tucks the waistband under his balls as his cock slaps up against his abs. His face is glowing red, cheeks and ears and neck, like he mistook a painter’s vermillion pigment for a lady’s powder blush, but he doesn’t try to hide his sigh of relief — or his shudder of pleasure as he grips his cock and starts to stroke it. With both hands. Because Levi isn’t wound tight enough already.

His spine is so rigid he feels it’ll shatter if he tries to move. He can feel every fiber of the towel against his cock. And it’s just an illusion of the firelight, it can’t be anything else, but Eren’s eyes look like they’re glowing. “You did tell me not to stop, sir,” he says, as if Levi is going to protest — as if Levi has the common sense and self-preservation and sheer goodness to even look away. He’s never claimed to be a good man — just not a hypocrite. Or a fool.

Just who exactly is the horny dumbass here?

Honestly, he should have realized just how badly Eren had him compromised before he found himself lying there in the aching afterglow trying to work out how best to spare Eren’s feelings. And wondering why he shouldn’t add Eren to his list of available ‘sparring partners’ — no one in the Survey Corps gives a shit who’s fucking who as long as no one gets hurt, Eren’s got the potential to be good at this, he’ll be conveniently within reach whenever Levi needs him… Fucking idiot, ruled by his dick. Even if his weakness is fierce eyes rather than a pretty face, he’s become that kind of fool.

And the cold shower did fuck-all to help.

“A very —” Levi says, and steps up onto the bed. “—bad—”

Eren starts, whatever words he was planning to throw out next swallowed in favor of a shuddering groan as he stripes come across his own chest, his eyes never leaving Levi’s face.

“—choice.” When Levi’s knees hit the mattress, one on either side of Eren’s ribcage, Eren shakes like he’s coming again. “We’re both rammed fucking full of them, aren’t we?” Eren’s sudden grin is blinding, but his eyes stay as intense, as hungry, as ever — the effect is startling. So is the heat of his hands on Levi’s thighs, fingers slick with jizz and bruisingly hard.

There’s no hesitation in him. Not one bit. Eren mouths at Levi’s cock through the towel, groans out loud as Levi gets his fingers in his hair and yanks him closer. He pulls at the towel and before it’s even dropped to the bed he’s pressing wet open-mouthed kisses to Levi’s thighs, his balls, the underside of his cock. And there’s a not completely unfamiliar feeling hanging cold and heavy in the pit of Levi’s stomach as his cock leaves a glistening line of pre-come on Eren’s cheek and his fingers twist in Eren’s hair.

It belongs with grief and anger and watching human flesh be torn between titan teeth. Feeling it now is a fucking insult — to Eren, to everyone he’s ever watched die…

Eren’s hands pause in their eager survey of his thighs and ass. He rubs his face against Levi’s cock and frowns up at him. As if he’s noticed Levi’s sudden tenseness and he’s not sure whether to ask if he’s okay… because if he’s not, that’s the end of this. Levi huffs out a breath of bitter amusement. He presses the head of his cock against Eren’s lips; Eren takes the hint with enthusiasm, like a starving man offered food—

—and that’s not the fucking place Levi wants his mind to go with Eren’s teeth not tucked away safely and his mouth uncomfortably hot to the most tender parts of Levi’s dick and every hard wet tug of it making Levi suddenly, exhilaratingly, aware of the strength of his skin and its attachment to the flesh below. Eren tries to swallow him down completely, chokes — and doesn’t even slow down, brute-forcing his way past his gag reflex. One of his hands gropes for Levi’s balls and squeezes roughly enough to make him hiss. His face is beet red, his eyes watering, his chest heaves desperately between Levi’s knees as he fights to breathe…

It’s so obviously Eren’s first time trying this; by all fucking rights Levi should be drooping like a drunkard at the reminder. He isn’t. He really isn’t. And the regret is bitter cold in his guts.

“You’re shit at this,” he says.

Eren’s eyes snap open. He puffs air through his nose and glares up at Levi with the monster looking out from behind the tears, his fingers digging hard into the tensed-up muscles of Levi’s ass. Hard enough to bruise, hard enough that his nails, short as they are, break the skin — hard enough that Levi has a sudden image in his head of Eren ripping apart the abnormal at the river. Even when he’s in human form, Eren’s teeth are unusually sharp… The thought drives a sharp spike of heat up through Levi’s balls and brings blood thundering into his ears; his shudder runs through his entire body, his cock jerks in Eren’s mouth — and the sound Eren makes around it is as much snarl as moan.

Eren probably loses some hair to Levi’s fingers as he uses his grip on it to adjust their angle — for Eren’s benefit, he’ll choke less, breathe easier, his jaw will ache less — and he certainly gets his brain jolted in his skull as Levi’s first thrust slams it back against the headboard. But his hands squeeze Levi’s bruised ass, dragging him in, and he’s trying to suck and lick and breathe and make those noises all at the same time and barely managing it because he can’t get his timing right — he’s suffocating and he doesn’t seem to care.

Levi cares. He’s wound up so tight, and Eren’s mouth is so wet and hot and insistent, and there’s something clawed and breathless in his brain begging to cut loose, to nut by any means necessary, to pound into Eren’s mouth until the noises stop… which is a sign he should get away from Eren now.

He pulls back. Eren doesn’t fight as he’s dragged off Levi’s cock, just lets his teeth — his sharp, sharp teeth — graze over its sensitive skin. He flicks out his tongue to capture a bead of pre-come from the tip, and the expression on his face is almost… blissful.

Levi lets go of Eren’s hair. He could stand up, he could go and finish himself off in the bathroom…

He could, perhaps should, do a lot of things. But that’s not how this life works. You make a choice, you get to fucking own it. No blaming other people, no weaseling out, no half-heartedness.

His shoulder and knee ache. His ribs throb. He knows that he didn’t actually tear his stitches yesterday, he’s healing, he checked — and checked again before getting in the shower — but the wound in his side is a dull, constant burn.

Eren looks up at him, wiping his mouth and chin with the back of his hand. His eyes really do look like they’re lit from within, oil lamps turned down so low all their light goes into making their shades’ cracked green glass glow.

Levi made this choice.

No half-measures.

He catches hold of Eren’s hand before it can go back to Levi’s ass. “Hock up some spit,” he commands, and oh, yeah, that expression could get come out of a castrato. Startled, overwhelmed… one hundred percent carnivorous. Eren doesn’t even question him — he knows exactly what Levi wants. Hell, he’s probably jerked off imagining it. Levi bares his teeth; Eren jerks his fingers out of his mouth slicked up and dripping with drool.

“What would you do,” Levi says, “if I told you the spit was for you, not me?”

“Ask you to get off me,” Eren replies, not missing a beat, voice hoarse but steady, “because if that’s what you really wanted you’d be in the way where you are.” He kisses Levi’s balls, trails wet, trembling fingers down into his crack. “But you know I’d do it,” he mumbles — and shoves those fingers into Levi’s insides. Just two, even if it feels like more, but burning hot, pressed in as deep as they’ll go in one merciless, clumsy stab that has Levi biting back a gasp and reaching for the headboard. The wood crunches beneath his fingers, splinters popping out of the cracked varnish. Eren’s lucky it’s not his head.

“Wow.” Eren moves his hand, tries to spread his fingers as Levi clenches helplessly around them. He grinds down and back, twisting his body, forcibly changing the angle. He’s not getting it. The stretch is there, the burn, the fullness and the forced opening up that will never fail to spark off genuine — delicious — alarm in Levi’s hindbrain, but… how the hell is he missing it? “I wasn’t expecting… Are you supposed to be so ti—” Levi’s vaguely aware of Eren breaking off, of his eyes going wide and black, of the headboard cracking from side to side as Levi’s body shudders and his grip tightens. He couldn’t give a shit.

Got it.

“Design flaw,” he slurs, pushing back onto Eren’s fingers, electricity spasming up his spine and jabbing out into his limbs, prickling ungrounded in his toes, his fingertips, his scalp. “The only one.” His tongue feels thick and slow, he needs his breath, however often he’s thought this, this isn’t the fucking time — but Eren’s mouth is stretching into the biggest stupidest grin and he’s actually listening and the words just keep rolling out. “Proof that the Wallists are wrong, there’s no god, the world is all an accident…” Eren always listens, always has time for other people’s bullshit. “…or a fucking joke…” Eren tries crooking his fingers just a little more, presses fierce kisses to Levi’s twitching cock, inhales long and deep as if he’s trying to swallow down even the smell of Levi as he fucks himself open on those fingers.

Levi doesn’t think he’s ever had anything so hot inside him. He’s aware of his instincts flaring, his body desperate to reject them, to get them away from his delicate insides, but the heat’s spreading, pooling in his guts and pelvis, and it doesn’t hurt a bit. Unlike the unforgiving jab and rub of Eren’s fingers, Eren’s knuckles grinding hard against the twitching muscle of his hole. No hesitation… and no gentleness. Levi finds his forehead pressed against the splintered headboard, struggling to get enough air into his lungs. He never had any use for gentle anyway. Let Eren gouge the regret out of him.

And let him get his mouth back where Levi needs it. He gets a handful of Eren’s hair and yanks. Eren gets the message, but — “A joke?” he asks before his wet hot mouth closes around Levi’s cock. He’s still shit at this; Levi still doesn’t care. He can barely think, he can barely breathe, he can barely keep his eyes open to see, but he pulls himself together, just enough.

“…because what fucking sadist would put something like this up my ass…”

He spits the words out, deadly serious. Never punch a gift horse in the fucking mouth, fine, but what practical use does this thing serve? Thank fuck he always forgets how much he needs this until he’s opened up on fingers or cock, sweet, sharp pleasure driven up through him like a blade with every —

“…then make it so hard for me to…”

— he’s so close, so close, his muscles twitching, his skin prickling, his balls hurting, and he’s stretched out like a load-bearing rope refusing to break — every fraying thread snaps and unravels with more force than the one before it, putting more weight and pressure on the survivors, but the rope still fucking holds —

“…put things up my…”

— until it doesn’t.

He comes in a rush of heat and unravelling, sparking nerves, sob smothered ruthlessly in his throat. He can barely feel his fingers, but he’s vaguely aware of the broken headboard shaking under his grip as Eren jerks back, bouncing his head off it before he rallies. Only the last few drops go in his mouth.

What a mess.

 

Levi feels himself clench around Eren’s fingers as he pulls them free. Eren kisses Levi’s cock, his balls, his thighs, licks his fingers and beams up at him with jizz sliding down his face and genuine delight in his eyes. And Levi finds the warm throb of his heart suddenly everywhere in his body, no room for anything but his racing pulse and this sickening feeling surging hot and desperate up through his body until he thinks it’ll choke him. He does choke on the words that gather in his throat.

Don’t die on me. I’ll rip this world into bloody chunks for you, just don’t fucking die —

Beneath his hand, Eren’s hair is damp with sweat, messy and curling.

Everyone dies. Everyone. There’s no escape—

“I love you.”

The words are mumbled against Levi’s inner thigh as if Eren’s telling it a secret, soft and amazed like he can’t believe he’s saying them out loud.

Levi can’t fucking believe it either. He stands up, sways a little as the room spins around him. He’s suddenly aware of his aching body, his healing injuries and the new damage. His ass stings, the heat in his blood is gone — and he feels so tired. Fucked and fucked off.

“Wait.” Eren catches hold of his leg. Levi frees himself, turns his back. His guts feel frozen in his body, so full of ice he might never shit again.

No one could ever accuse Eren of being half-hearted… fuck.

“Remember what I said about bad choices?” Levi says. “The last thing I need is some dumb kid with a crush. If you want to cuddle something, the pillow’s right there.”

He’s about to step down off the bed when his prey instincts flare, fight or flight, and as the blanket is whipped out from beneath his feet he’s already whirling around, already in mid-air, already kicking out —

Eren doesn’t dodge — doesn’t even try to. He takes Levi’s kick to his lower ribs, and Levi feels the sickening sensation of bone giving way under his foot. Not the best way to repay Eren for blowing him so enthusiastically. On the other hand, the best way to repay Eren for getting his fingers clamped around Levi’s ankle, yanking him off balance — sending pain jolting through his knee and ripping through his healing side — would be the other foot to his face, but he ducks that one, of course he fucking does, and Levi finds himself in mid-air with no way to halt his momentum. Eren throws himself on top of Levi before he can right himself; Levi hits the mattress face first and spitting mad.

He’s not out. He’s hurting but he’s stronger than Eren; Eren better hope he can pull off the perfect submission hold here or he’ll pay for this manhandling in lost teeth —

But Eren doesn’t try to wrestle with him. In fact, he slumps down on top of Levi with any number of vulnerable body parts open to Levi’s elbows, hands and feet. It’s completely deliberate, it has to be, as if he’s betting on Levi not actually wanting to damage him further. Which is honestly not the safest gamble right now, because even when he isn’t in pain and pissed, all Levi ever wants after a nut is a wash and his personal space back. He’s done, there’s no need to go again, if he even can go again… the urge to punch Eren right in that thick cock of his just grows stronger as its heavy length nudges up between his balls and his own cock responds with a weak twitch.

“I’m shit at this,” Eren says, and presses a long, hard kiss to the nape of Levi’s neck, “but I can get better.” Another kiss. “I’ll work hard.” A nip. “I’ll practice.” Another, lingering, his breath rough and his teeth so close to breaking the skin Levi feels himself shudder. “Hell, I’ll practice…”

Levi hears Eren’s broken rib creak as he moves, feels the skin over it grow white hot against his back as it heals. “I won’t be brushed off that easily,” Eren says into Levi’s neck, something awkward and embarrassed in his voice — and he should be embarrassed, fucking hell. Eren’s good at hand-to-hand combat, that kick was half-hearted, he should have dodged it in his sleep… except he chose not to, didn’t he? Because he’ll take broken bones as a fair price for staying in Levi’s personal space, getting his hands back on him, getting his dick between his legs and his teeth in his neck. Fuck.

“I should’ve broken your head,” Levi says, the words coming out disgustingly soft.

*

“I’ll suck your cock every day until I’m better at it than anyone you’ve ever had,” Eren declares, and gets a soft amused huff from Levi for his trouble. He presses kisses into the valley of Levi’s spine, dizzy with the smell of him, the sharp salty flavor lingering in his mouth, fueling the urge to just sink his teeth into Levi’s flesh, to mark up the powerful elegant lines of his back with bites hard to enough to bloody and bruise his pale skin, to leave some scars that are all his. “Then I’ll keep right on doing it every day because I can’t ever imagine getting sick of the way you taste…” Why is his face burning? It’s the truth and he’s not ashamed of it.

Dumb kid with a crush. Perhaps he is just that; he doesn’t care. As if a dumb kid with a crush would get the chance to even look at Levi twice, if that was all he was — if that was all Levi thought he was.

Levi twists underneath him, efficiently — and painfully — deploying his elbows to make Eren give him space to roll over. “Not bad,” he says calmly, “but I’m going to give you a warning.” His pale eyes are bright and hard; his fingers clamp down on Eren’s jaw. “Don’t you ever say that shit to me again, understand?” Eren could plead ignorance, ask what ‘that shit’ was… He doesn’t. His face is so hot Levi must be able to feel it. “I don’t care how starry-eyed and sentimental you get with your fingers up my ass. Keep it to yourself.”

Levi has strands of his damp hair sticking to his forehead and cheek — when Eren reaches down to brush it back, his eyes narrow dangerously… and he shivers, just barely but Eren feels it beneath his hand and everywhere their bodies are still pressed together, and wow, way to stoke the fire. It’s like he just swallowed a high-explosive shell.

“I can do that,” he lies, and as Levi lets go of his face to reach down for his cock, he presses fierce sloppy kisses from Levi’s throat to his hairline, clutches at Levi’s hair and jaw, bites at Levi’s chin, his cheekbone, the ridge of his eyebrow. He bucks wildly into Levi’s hands and lets the groans fall from his mouth so enthusiastically he almost misses Levi’s next words.

“It’ll wear off fast enough.” Levi pauses, gets his own cock pressed up against Eren’s inside the circle of his hands. There’s a moment of friction, skin rubbing against tacky skin, then Levi’s thumbs spread Eren’s pre-come over his cock and Eren gets to feel it hardening for him as they bump and slide together. It’s hot, so hot, Levi’s grip is punishingly tight, and Eren’s crazy, he’s going crazy as the tension winds through every inch of him and twists him up inside, and why is Levi still talking? “Don’t make me any wild promises,” he says, and Eren laughs as he comes apart.

Levi works every last drop of come out of him, eyes fixed on his face. It’s suddenly too much, his cock is sore and oversensitive, his balls feel like they’re being turned inside out — and Levi is all tight muscles and jutting cock beneath him. Because of him. Just from jerking him off. He can taste his heartbeat in his mouth and feel it, sharp and exhilarated, in his skull, in his belly, in his cock as he slaps his hand down over Levi’s, entwining their fingers. “Keep going.”

He’s not done yet.

 

***

 

Willem’s done. He doesn’t have to listen to this.

“You promised,” Amos says, “Volundr.” The name is from a different life, given to another man by people long dead — Willem hates it. Amos knows he hates it. “You have to continue your research.”

“I told you, this body doesn’t have the right kind of brain. Next time, I’ll—” Amos’s face is impassive, but reproach flickers in those pale eyes. Willem hates that too, and the way the guilt twists in his stomach. “They’re not going anywhere. And neither are you. Be patient for me.”

Don’t turn away from

 

the chimpanzees. They’re screaming. Screeching, chattering, bounding around in their cages until the floor beneath his feet shakes from it. High above, beyond the wire mesh of the ceiling, the lights flicker on, one by one, slowly, too slowly — because there’s way too little movement from the cages at the other end of the lab and Charles can smell blood and he needs to see —

Bright eyes gleam between the bars. The shadowed shape of it in the gloom is all wrong.

— and he doesn’t want to see as

 

Gunter’s broken body sways in the breeze. Petra’s sightless eyes stare up at the sky, unblinking as the falling leaves settle on her upturned face and catch in her blood. And this is Eren’s doing, his mistake.

He can roar, he can punch, he can give himself over to the howling demon inside his head… but he’ll never make this right

 

sitting on his new throne in the dark. Edmund listens to the crowd outside. They’re separated from him by the parade ground, by gates and wire and guards, too far away for him to pick out individual voices or words, a swell of noise like surf breaking on his favorite beach — but there’s intent there. If he walked out there to face them now, he knows exactly what each of them would ask him.

Why aren’t you doing anything? Why don’t you fix this?

He feels nauseous as

 

the tube moves in his throat and his stomach cramps around cold liquid. He can’t will himself to throw up, would probably choke on it if he tried, so he’ll have to try to fight it. Perhaps if he concentrates on the pain in his chest, or the sounds of the scientists — two of them, a woman and a man — moving around the cell, he can stay conscious while his body deals with the drugs.

He has to stay conscious. There are so many lives in him, if he lets them put him under he thinks he’ll be swallowed up and never find his way out. And that’s what they want — that’s what they need from him.

What everyone needs… him in

 

another cell.

Is there anything he hasn’t told them? Grisha’s wracking his brain, trying to concentrate through the pain, but he can’t think clearly enough to manufacture plausible lies, let alone anything good enough to make them stop. And he’ll do anything to make them stop…

He never thought he’d be this weak—

The bone cracks beneath the shears. One piece of tendon is tenacious, and for a moment he feels his partially avulsed finger dangle from the mutilated remains of his hand. One of his interrogators catches hold of it and tries to rip it free. He thought he was past screaming; his throat burns as he proves himself wrong,

 

his — his titan’s — mouth and stomach are literally on fire as he gulps down the burning flesh, his fingers not much more than stumps of steaming bone as he tears more lumps of it free. Eren’s human stomach spasms in a dim, distant echo of the pain.

What will Historia think of him after this? How will he even look at her?

The compulsion’s like a physical force driving him on, a net tangled around him, he can’t fight it even if he’s trying so. Fucking. Hard.

Is this how it feels to be a regular titan?

Is that what he’s becoming?

His scream is swallowed up by his own flesh, muffled by

 

his face pressed into scratchy wool.

Levi’s coat is beaded with icy rainwater, his fingers are cool against Eren’s neck — and this is just another dream, if Eren closes his eyes here, he’ll wake up back in the cell, or in another life, or worse… but Levi is reassuringly solid and real. His blades clink, the edge of one scabbard digging into Eren’s ribs as Levi shifts position, lifting his legs up onto the bed. The broken mattress springs are prickly sharp against Eren’s thighs and belly…

…and every memory he has is just as sharp and real as this while he’s reliving it.

Dream or real, he’s got no dignity left to damage. He wraps his arms tighter around Levi’s waist as his heavy eyelids fall shut —

 

— and he feels like he’s barely shut his eyes before he’s opening them again. Does that mean this is more of the dream?

His cheek is almost numb, but he can feel the lines molded into it by Levi’s gear harness thigh straps. He’s definitely spent some time with his head on Levi’s leg, but Levi’s wet coat and maneuver gear are gone, the grey daylight is brighter, he can smell pine tea and… feel heat radiating through his hair? Levi has his teacup resting on Eren’s head?

“I’m not a table,” he mumbles into Levi’s thigh.

“More like a limpet,” Levi says. He lifts the cup, letting Eren move. “Any more nightmares?”

“They weren’t nightmares,” Eren says as he sits up, rubbing his eyes so he doesn’t have to watch the expression on Levi’s face inevitably change. “They were memories.” And, he suspects, more than a hundred years’ worth. A lot more. “And thanks,” he adds awkwardly. He feels the mattress shift under him as Levi stands up.

“Yeah, sitting on my ass with your head in my lap was a real hardship. My balls have never been so warm.”

Eren can’t help his grin at that. Whatever he said and did while ‘dreaming,’ Levi doesn’t seem disturbed by it. He looks up at him — and blinks, because the room’s looking a bit different from how he remembers it.

Levi stands among the piles of books and knocks back the last of his tea.

“Confession time,” he says. “I didn’t stay with you all morning.”

“You’re not kidding. Are these all from upstairs?”

“This is just what I could salvage.” Levi’s lips twist. “It’s a wet, filthy, birdshit-crusted hole up there. If Erwin’s already read these old lumps of paper, he’d better not tell me. I’ll feed them to him. Whole.” He crouches to smooth the pages of the books drying around the fireplace with a gentle touch. “You can carry all these in titan form — we just need to work out how to pack them up.” Eren doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t need to. “Tonight,” Levi says. “It’s time we let the others know we’re alive. Vacation’s over, lazy bastard.” Eren manages a half-hearted snort. Levi studies him with narrowed eyes. “No protests?”

That surprises Eren too — he should be horrified at the idea of being around people he can hurt, he is horrified, and yet… “I still believe they’re safer well away from me,” he says quietly, “but… I need to see them. I want to see them.” He meets Levi’s gaze and forces a grin. “And even if the Commander isn’t grateful enough for the books, Armin will bite your hand off for them.” Hell, Eren will himself.

His hand brushes against Levi’s book, left open face down on the bed. It looks like a service-issue journal, cheaply bound with many-times-reclaimed paper so thin one unwary pencil stab can spear it from cover to cover, and the impression doesn’t change when he lifts it up to get a better look at it. Pages of ink swirls and blotches, cramped and messy handwriting —

“‘Chlebek was right’,” he reads. “‘We should follow his example.’”

“And that’s the last entry,” Levi says from his place by the fire.

The first page is just as smudged as the rest, but the date at the top is clear enough. 4.30.847. And other words leap out at Eren. “‘I survived my first expedition,’” he reads, heart suddenly pounding. “This… belonged to one of us? They were Survey Corps?” And if they were… “The 41st Expedition? They made it here?”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Levi says. “It’s possible one of them died here — that’s it. Most of that journal is unreadable. And the rest is boring.” He reaches down behind one of the piles. “This was under the body.”

Eren catches the thing Levi throws him without thinking. Then he feels the texture of it, gets a look at it — and almost drops it.

For a long, horrible moment, he thinks he’s holding a child’s skull, lower jaw missing. But he’s seen enough human bones in his life to know how wrong that is. The skull comes to a point at the back, the bones of its upper jaw stretch out into what’s almost a muzzle, and its orbital ridges are massive… It still looks uncomfortably human. No animal exists as human-looking as that… do they? His head throbs; he tries to relax and let the memories come.

“Remind you of anyone?” Levi says.

“The Beast Titan?” Eren turns the skull over. He shakes his head almost without thinking. “He walks upright. Look how far back the foramen magnum sits. This skull belonged to a knuckle walker,” he says, letting the anatomical knowledge sidle into his conscious brain, “like your average seven meter class.” Like the animals in his dream. He puts the skull down.

Chimpanzee.

Levi lifts his eyebrows. “Is that from Daddy Jaeger?”

“Perhaps,” Eren says, careful to keep his voice steady. “He’s not the only scientist in here.”

“Huh, that explains your tolerance for Hange’s bullshit. You know your eyes barely glaze over, right? It’s unnatural as hell.” Levi’s own eyes glint; Eren’s grin hurts his face. He swallows the lump in his throat.

“So is the way you all abandon me whenever Hange starts talking,” he says. “So much for teamwork.”

Levi shrugs. “Everyone should know their own strengths and limits,” he says solemnly. Eren throws a pillow at him; he doesn’t even have time to be surprised at himself before it’s snatched out of the air and hurtling back at him. Its impact carries him back off the edge of the bed, but he’s laughing as his shoulders hit the floor.

Levi stalks toward the door to the office. He pauses to nudge Eren’s supine body with his foot, and Eren beams up at him helplessly, heat spreading in his belly and chest as Levi’s gaze travels over him, from his unbrushed hair to his sprawled legs, his feet and calves still up on the bed and tangled up in the sheets. He reaches out, feels worn leather under his fingers as he wraps them around Levi’s booted ankle. He’s not going to be able to tug Levi off his feet, he shouldn’t let himself even consider it —

Levi’s cool fingertips brush over Eren’s shin, then his palm cups his knee, and it’s such a casual touch to bring the blood to Eren’s cock, but he’s stiff and heavy in seconds. He shifts position and reaches down to adjust himself in his shorts; he can’t stop his hand lingering, and he looks up at Levi with his face hot and his mouth stretching into an unrepentant grin.

Levi closes his eyes and huffs out an amused breath.

“I was going to do the ‘If you’re ever not in the mood, you can tell me to fuck off’ speech,” he says, crouching down, his hand beginning a smooth, unhurried stroke up Eren’s leg. “About that…” Eren laughs but he’s being given the best view of how snug Levi’s borrowed pants are around his thighs and ass and crotch, and Levi’s touch is maddening, fingers firm and his palm flattened against Eren’s skin so he can feel every scar and callus… Tell him to fuck off? Hell, he can’t even imagine a world where he doesn’t spend his whole life wanting to rip the clothes from his body.

He catches Levi’s hand and holds it still. “You too,” he says fiercely. “You can tell me to fuck off.”

Levi looks at him, eyebrows raised.

“Fine,” he says eventually, and bends down to kiss Eren’s cock.

It’s just the lightest brush of his lips over the cotton-trapped head, a barely noticeable intake of breath and a tightening of his fingers on Eren’s thigh, but being struck by lightning must feel like this. Eren’s breathless, burning, he fumbles for the back of Levi’s neck as Levi straightens his back, lunges up for a kiss —

— and finds his mouth slamming up against Levi’s palm.

“I’ve got something else I need to show you,” Levi says, “so get washed and dressed.” He stands up, graceful and easy like Eren’s grip on the scruff of his neck and all of Eren’s strength trying to pull him back down is just a gentle caress to be shrugged off. And he does just that, starting back toward the door. “Do it in the next five minutes, I’ll suck you off before we go.”

Eren wastes precious seconds staring dumbly at the office door as it swings shuts between them.

That’s on offer?

What is he thinking? Of course it is — Levi would never ask anyone to do something he wouldn’t do himself — just… Levi has such a small mouth…

If he thinks about the logistics of it too long, he’ll explode. And thinking about it is all he’ll be getting to do if he wastes any more time. Eren slops tepid water into the wash basin, tops it up from the kettle, and snatches up the soap. Challenge accepted.

*

The sun’s high in the sky when they make it up onto the wall, the ghostly disc of it showing through the clouds like a candle lit behind a curtain. Eren really did sleep for hours.

And, of course, they didn’t come straight out here when he got dressed.

The clouds are low, draping the world in floating mist and icy drizzle. Eren stretches lazily and lifts his face into the rain — and finds himself remembering the fantasies he had as a kid. All the things he thought he’d do when he got into the Survey Corps… before Bertholdt and Reiner changed everything. Captain Levi on his knees in front of him, effortlessly swallowing every centimeter of Eren’s cock — so deep he stopped breathing, fuck — definitely didn’t count as carving out new territory for humanity. Eren’s not going to try to fool himself; Levi’s done this a lot. But it felt spectacular, amazing, and Eren came watching the pink flush on the back of Levi’s neck, his frantic tugging on his own cock as he drank down Eren’s come… and, fuck, it’s ridiculous but just remembering it makes Eren feel like a hero, a kill count in the hundreds, medals on his chest and his face all over the newspapers. Or how he always imagined that would feel — like he’s winning everything, could achieve anything…

Levi looks his way, quirks an eyebrow. Eren gives him a less-embarrassed-than–it-should-be grin and splashes through the puddles to join him on the edge.

“No prizes for guessing what you were thinking about, right?” Levi says. “I hope you took notes.”

“I did.” There’s sleet in the air, bits of ice on Levi’s hair and coat. The bits that land on his skin melt; if Eren ever needs to conjure a version of Levi into another snowy memory, he’s got a new reference for the temperature of his skin. He reaches out to brush the ice from Levi’s hair. “I’m a slow learner, though, Captain — I need lots of demonstrations.” When Levi turns toward him, he lets himself catch hold of the lapels of Levi’s coat. Levi has to tip his head right back to look up at him as he steps in closer — and having a height advantage on Levi is like being a big dog with his vulnerable belly in range of a small one’s jaws, so why is it so hot to him? “And practice,” he mumbles.

“I’m not getting my dick out in this weather,” Levi says flatly. Eren feels the heat rush into his face. He could protest but, honestly, he would do it right here. “Or with this audience.”

Eren tears his gaze from Levi’s face to look where he’s pointing — down past their feet, past the edge of the wall, past the vast expanse of its surface to its base, where the titans are clustered. There are… a lot of them, pushing and shoving and clambering over each other like maggots in a jar. And every one of them has their eyes fixed skyward — on him. Fuck’s sake.

“Why can’t you leave me alone?” he snaps. “Just go back to where you came from.”

And they do. Or they turn and lumber off south, following the line of the wall. Eren stops watching them to find Levi watching him, something startled and unreadable in his eyes.

“Oh, right.” He tries to sound casual. “You’ve never seen me do that before.”

“I have,” Levi says. “Once. When you turned Rod Reiss away from Orvud.”

“And toward Utopia.” Eren remembers that, at least — yelling at Reiss in increasing desperation, keeping going even when it showed no sign of working, even when one of the cart’s wheels bounced over a rock and it took both Historia and Armin to stop him pitching headfirst over the side, rewarded with that one perfect moment when the power lined up exactly as it should inside him… Just a few hours later he was some form of dead, and he’s frustratingly hazy on how it happened. “I screwed that up, didn’t I?”

“It could have been worse,” Levi says. “Reiss was dealt with, Wall Rose wasn’t damaged — Erwin could spin it as some kind of win.”

“Does Historia hate me?”

“Where did that come from?” Levi detaches himself from Eren’s grip. “No. She would have done it herself if she could. Just… differently. They kept you sedated, right?” he adds. “In the lab. You slept through most of it?”

“Yes?”

Levi nods, tight and quick, and steps back. Eren reaches out for him —

 

— and he’s watching his — no, her fingers splayed against thick glass, the twisting, swirling mass pressed up against the other side of it re-forming into a crude facsimile of her hand. Amazing. The seals on the lab door hiss as they’re released; she swears under her breath as she turns around. Volundr would be perfectly within his rights to ban her from the lab —

Out.

NOW.

 

Eren blinks, the memory snatched firmly away. His stomach twists, his skin feels like it wants to crawl off his body; if he could pop out his brain and hurl it far far away from him he would. He wants to tell himself that the words were part of the memory, but he can’t quite make himself believe it.

She spoke to him.

She spoke to him.

“Eren.” Levi’s voice is low and calm — as Eren makes his eyes focus, he’s reminded of the spoon, his new teammates fanning out around him like they were corralling a dangerous animal and Levi standing with his back to him as if it was nothing. He hasn’t got his back to Eren now. Smoke and steam drift up together from Eren’s hand, flecks of ice disintegrating on his skin and the fabric of Levi’s coat sleeve blackening under his fingers.

He lets go of Levi’s wrist, snatches his hand back, thick horror sliding along his spine and blocking up his throat. “Sorry,” he manages. His hand’s cooled now, but what the hell was that? What if he’d done that while touching bare skin? “I’m sorry.”

Levi pulls out a handkerchief and lifts it to Eren’s nose. “You’re bleeding,” he says quietly. And then: “‘Out’, ‘now’?” Eren cringes, tastes bile in his mouth. “Who were you talking to?”

He could lie, but Levi hasn’t looked at him like he’s a freak even once. His mouth twists. Let’s put that to the test. “Me,” he says flatly. “I thought they were just collections of memories, but…” Levi raises his eyebrows, but there’s not a flicker of fear or disgust in his eyes — and Eren almost wishes there was. Almost. “They’re alive,” he spits out defiantly. “They’re alive.” And he doesn’t know if they’re sleeping, or aware and trapped, and he wants to pull his skin open and let them out but it wouldn’t work anyway. “At least two of them think you’re hot. Flattered?”

“Not especially. They have eyes.” Levi studies him. “Your eyes,” he says slowly. “Huh.”

“Maybe I should just… let one of them take over. Any one of them would know more about these powers than me.”

“That’s true,” Levi says, turning away, and Eren bites back a bitter laugh. What else was he expecting?

“You know,” Levi says to the mist, “I thought you got over this.”

Eren looks up. “What?” If he’s seriously intending to lecture him, he can fuck off —

“You’re still in a rush to give away your responsibilities — and your life,” Levi says, and Eren feels the heat rush to his face. How can Levi throw that at him, when he’s all but agreed that someone else would be more useful than Eren? “It could be that Erwin will need you to make that sacrifice eventually, but now?” Levi doesn’t look his way, but his voice snaps out, commanding and fierce. “Don’t even fucking think about it. Stay you,” he adds, more quietly.

He doesn’t dodge. His back is stiff as a board as Eren flings his arms around him, but he doesn’t pull away. And Eren finds he can’t speak around the fierce heat filling his chest.

It should be comforting — Eren feels something similar around Armin and Mikasa sometimes, it’s not some completely alien emotion — but every way in which it’s familiar makes the ways it’s not seem all the more terrifying.

He never felt like he wanted to swallow them whole, for a start.

Levi shifts against him, patting Eren’s arm awkwardly. His damp hair tickles Eren’s neck as he leans back, looking up at the sky, and he can be as stiff-backed as he likes, Eren will take every moment he’s willing to stay here like this.

He hears distant honks and follows Levi’s gaze up to the layers of clouds. They aren’t one solid mass, here and there gaps have lined up in the lower layers just right to let him feel like he’s standing at the bottom of a canyon, looking up at the ranks of birds as they pass over high above. High above, but still in the clouds…—

“How do they avoid crashing into the mountains?” he wonders. Levi’s smile lasts for less than a heartbeat, and Eren’s position doesn’t give him the best view of it, but it was there, Eren put it there.

He doesn’t know what expression he’s got on his own face, but he suddenly feels the need to hide it in Levi’s neck. After all, he wouldn’t want to get ‘sentimental.’

“Birds always seem to know where they’re going—” Levi tenses up, frozen for a split second like an startled animal. Eren doesn’t get the chance to ask what’s wrong before Levi’s twisting around in his arms, grabbing the back of his belt and lifting him up to pitch them both back off the wall.

Levi’s grapples fire. They’re both airborne. “What the—” Eren’s back hits tiles as Levi drops him — on the Garrison HQ roof, he discovers as he scrambles to stop himself sliding. By the time he’s clambered to his feet, Levi is back with him, clutching the musket. He sets about loading it with quick, precise movements — and Eren can hear it now, the sound that alarmed him.

For a long, hopeful moment, his brain interprets it as hoofbeats in the distance. But it’s too regular, too mechanical… Levi drops into a crouch in the shadow of a chimney and brings the musket to his shoulder, staring intently at the sky as the sound gets louder and louder. And louder.

There’s something of the buzz of a bee to the sound, something of the whirr and clatter of mill machinery in full flow… and one of those belongs in the sky more than the other, it really does. Eren finds himself shrinking back against the chimney. Whatever’s making that sound, it’s dead above them now, still hidden amongst the clouds — and he’s frozen, pressed flat against the brickwork, his heart beating so hard and fast he feels like it might burst out of his chest. His skin’s prickling, hairs standing on end; his mouth wants to stretch into a grin.

Eren’s brain throws up wild, ridiculous images of what could be up there — from a bird with the strangest call ever to a working windmill held up by a swarm of bees — and he can’t even make one non-ridiculous guess, it’s so far outside everything he knows. There’s not one flicker of familiarity from his ‘guests.’ It’s amazing.

The noise fades a little, then builds again. Builds… Retreats. Then it’s gone, and the quiet closes in around him like a blanket dropped around his shoulders. Eren lets himself breathe again, unclenches his fists and shakes some feeling back into his fingers. And doesn’t move away from the chimney. For the first time in a couple of days, he’s painfully away of how empty the town is, how isolated they are here—

Or not.

He has a split second of disbelief, staring down into the parade ground, at the figure crouched amongst the greenery. His eyes could be fooling him, making a human shape from the shadows and twisted branches… there’s no face there, even if he’s convinced that they’re staring up at the sky too…

They stand up, start moving—

“Hey!” Eren almost topples himself off the edge of the roof, he’s so eager to get their attention. “Hey! Wait!”

And they run. Not a single glance back.

Levi shoves the musket into Eren’s hands and goes off the roof like a stooping hawk.

It happens too quick for him to follow — Levi twisting in mid-air, the crack of a pistol firing — and Eren’s still trying to get his brain to take it in as the guy disappears into a bramble-choked alley and Levi, his momentum slowed by having to dodge but still hitting the ground running, ducks in after him.

That guy tried to shoot Levi. He’s hostile. Or he thinks they’re hostile. Why?

Eren clambers down the drainpipe to the kitchen roof, leaps across the gap to one of the barrack blocks, and starts across the rooftops in the direction the stranger went in — cursing his lack of maneuver gear and the complete uselessness of his powers to help.

Whether he’s been here since Wall Maria fell, or he found his way here later, shouldn’t that guy be glad to see other people?

*

The brambles catch in Levi’s hair and clothes. The man he’s chasing is just out of sight, but Levi can hear his labored breaths, his feet splashing through puddles, the snapping and swishing of vegetation as he pushes through it all. Bastard.

Bad enough that he’d been taken by surprise by the pistol — and he really didn’t need to swerve there, he lost time unnecessarily, the chances of a moving shooter hitting a moving target at that distance were very small, since when had he lost his taste for risk? — if he lets some raggedy feral get away from him, he should be fucking ashamed of himself—

Pissed as he is, that thought amuses him. Did Mike and Erwin think like that, back in the day?

He stops.

The buildings and the trees growing up through them, all the bushes and fireweed and the crawling, fruit-laden brambles, they all come together to turn the alley into a tunnel.

Or a pipe.

In the Underground, the gangs made traps for the MPs, drawing them into the heart of the rookeries with rat-runs of snares and deadly tricks. He hears the man up ahead of him slow. Above him, he can see wire glinting in the brambles. Some of the grass — untrampled by the runner, isn’t that odd — is different shades.

Levi draws his blades. He’s not playing this game. This isn’t a tunnel or a pipe. It’s a throat.

 

He usually uses this spinning-top whirl of muscle and gas and blades to take down titans. It has no trouble at all punching a hole through the alley ‘roof,’ and he lands lightly on the tiles and considers his next move. Eren’s coming, he can see him jogging across the rooftops toward him. Somewhere in the maze of streets and buildings beneath him, the stranger is still, carefully not moving, waiting to see what Levi will do. Still, but he can’t stop his breathing. Levi pads across the tiles, listening carefully.

The hair on the back of his neck prickles; he resists the urge to turn and check the sky. Whatever that was — and he’s heard stories, whispered among Garrison sentries who spend too much of their life alone on top of Wall Rose — it’s gone for now. Levi needs to concentrate on the job at hand.

He clearly has the guy’s full attention. He could try talking to him. And if he answers, Levi will be able to get a fix on his position much easier.

His quarry knows that as well. He’ll have to find another way to get him to make some noise.

He stops, listens — then ejects his blunted blades from his gear grips with an overly hard flick of his wrists. They clatter across the roof, painfully loud in the icy air — and the stranger runs.

He darts through the narrow, overgrown streets like a rat running beneath the kitchen cupboards, and Levi keeps pace with him on the roofs, waiting for his chance. Which comes when he sprints across a courtyard. Levi fires his grapples, swoops down —

He can smell gear oil and gunpowder… and he’s flashing back to Stohess, the thunk of Kenny’s boots on the wooden shingles and Nifa’s skull disintegrating as his guns boomed out…

That memory of Kenny possibly saves his life now, has him snapping out a grapple for a brutal change of direction even before he sees the guy crouched behind his gun and the flashes of light at its muzzle. No booms here, just a sharp tat-ta-tat-ta-tat as projectiles pluck at his coat. He hits the ground in a roll, shards of brick exploding from the wall behind him. The courtyard is small, not much room to run or maneuver, but that also means that he’s a matter of seconds away from the gun. He just needs to make an opening—

There’s the crack of a musket, and he’s suddenly free as the gun’s turned on another target. Free to act, but he sees Eren on the roof, tearing the ball out of a paper cartridge with his teeth, and not even the most experienced MP could get that musket reloaded fast enough here… the moment of blank panic lasts less than a second, long enough for Levi’s momentum to bounce him off a wall but probably not long to enough to make a difference as he takes the opening. He doesn’t look as the parapet in front of Eren is shot through with holes, as Eren tries to dodge… The gun swings back toward Levi much too slowly, and he blunts another set of blades cutting the fucking thing apart.

They’re still sharp enough for what he needs to do next.

He hears running footsteps behind him, and this fucker should thank his lucky stars that Levi suddenly needs him alive. He’s sobbing out “whathaveidone ohshitwhathaveidone” like a mantra as Levi slams into him and spins them both around, blades at his throat, to face the new threat.

Levi stares down the barrels of two muskets, raises his eyebrow at an axe and a makeshift spear, then turns his attention to the people behind them. Like the piece of shit in his arms, they’re wearing ragged cloaks and hoods of mixed green and brown, and seeing them all together, it’s pretty obviously intentional — effective — camouflage.

What are you hiding from?

“Maks, are you okay?” one says.

“Yeah,” Levi’s captive manages. “But—”

A piece of fractured brick drops from the parapet. Levi can see the holes in it from right here — and Eren hasn’t raised his head yet. His heart is in his mouth as he shouts. “Eren!”

Eren lifts an arm over the parapet — but not his head or upper body, Levi notes. How much damage did this little fucker manage to do? “I’m okay!”

“OhthanksbetoMotherRose.” ‘Maks’ sags with genuine relief; Levi can probably stop wanting to maim him. If Eren can shout, at least he didn’t get hit in the face or neck. His nape is safe.

Still, Levi won’t be comfortable until he sees him. He considers the men — soldiers? They stand like it. How quickly can he defeat them? Who’s going to be first?

They look at each other. All but one of the weapons clatter to the floor.

The one man left holding a musket swears loudly.

“Sorry, Konrad,” one of the others says — and he actually sounds it, “but that’s Captain Levi. I am not going to point a weapon at Captain Levi.” He pulls off his hood, revealing a mop of black curls and a narrow, intelligent face, and snaps into a very rusty salute. “Walther George, First Brigade, Survey Corps. I’d say we’re glad to see you — but we’re really not.”